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Review of Web of Angels by

Web of Angels

by John M. Ford

Not bad, John M. Ford. Not bad. That’s about all I’ve got for opening thoughts. I received an eARC of this reprint edition of classic Web of Angels from Tor and NetGalley in exchange for a review.

This edition has a foreword from Cory Doctorow, who delivers an encomium of Ford while waxing poetically about Web of Angels as a kind of evolutionary cousin of what became cyberpunk. It makes a lot of sense. As Doctorow says, a lot in this book is familiar, right down to the naming of Ford’s cyberspace as the Web—however, a lot of it also feels dated, a result of Ford writing just prior to the PC and internet displacing the phone as the primary mode of telecommunication.

Grailer Diomede is nine years old when the book opens, a precocious boy singled out by a fascist interstellar law enforcement agency for death. Rescued in the nick of time, Grailer is raised to embrace his abilities as someone with “Fourth Literacy,” which means he can not only operate and program for the vast, interstellar Web, but he actually has the ability to conceive of it and its myriad connections in an intuitive way.

He’s a l33t hax0rz, as I might have put it back when I started my journey on the web in 2004.

This book is a bildungsroman that follows Grailer as he quickly grows up, falls in love, and starts sticking it to the man. Ford takes us to various exotic locations, and we meet a small but plucky cast of characters who alternately aid or antagonize Grailer while he is posing in one of his many Web-forged identities. The vignettes within this story overlap and spiral towards an inevitable conclusion, echoes of which reside in later science fiction, like The Matrix.

Doctorow mentions that this is one of Ford’s less accessible works, and I believe it. Time slips, unmarked flashbacks, and precious little exposition—especially for a reader unfamiliar with what operating a computer terminal felt like in the seventies. I won’t lie to you: I was really confused about what was going on for a great deal of this book. I still am, kind of, but rather than worry too much about it, I’m going to roll with it.

Here’s what I liked about this book: even without reading that foreword, I would have been able to see the connections between Ford’s writing and the authors who have come since. In this way, Web of Angels is clearly a classic worthy of this reissue, belonging up there among the other greats like Butler, Le Guin, Asimov.

Ford’s prose has a fairytale-like quality that reminds me of Neil Gaiman. He can quickly set a scene even when descriptive language is at a premium. The future of humanity that Ford sketches here is a lush one but also full of people, places, and things that aren’t entirely what they seem.

Ford and his contemporary cyberpunk founder, William Gibson, share in common a view of cyberspace as something that exists independently of the humans who use it. Grailer ponders whether the Web can be intelligent, as in self-aware, for it spans the entirety of human existence. Ideas like the Singularity lurk in the background of this novel, occasionally mentioned or hinted at in that way that happens when we haven’t quite coined all the terms that are now familiar to us.

But actually, the author whose writing this most reminds me of is Dan Simmons. His Hyperion novels feel ripped out of the pages of Web of Angels in the sense that both books posit a future of humanity steeped in literary trappings of our past. A lot of science fiction imagines that our culture will trend further towards secularism, towards a cold, minimalist aesthetic of starship hull blues and greys (or it goes solarpunk and imagines us all in the greens and browns of cholorphyll bioships, lol). Ford and Simmons draw their inspiration from humanity’s literary past in telling of our literary future: from subcultures whose every movements are part of an intricate Dance to doctors who wear capes and receive the title of Lord, these anachronisms, more even than the faster-than-light drives and lifespan-enhancing treatments, mark this society as futuristic and alien.

Web of Angels is not a novel that “holds up” in a modern sense of what most readers want from their novels. The story is not straightforward. The characters are not particularly deep. In many ways, this reads like a novella stretched thinly over the frame of a novel—and I mean that as a compliment. This is a book for the anthropologist of science fiction, for the fan digging into the archives to glimpse their favourite authors’ inspiration. I stipulate to Ford’s brilliance while also admitting that this book, on its own, didn’t do a lot for me. I won’t rush out to read more by Ford, but I am pleased to have read something by him, and perhaps I will explore his oeuvre further now that Tor has rights to republish!


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