Map of Power, Tess Williams

Map of Power, Tess Williams (1996)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

In the frozen wastes of Antarctica, Cheela and her tribe believe that they are the last people left on Earth. Their elders tell of the time long ago when the planet was poisoned and everything died. The tribal ancestors set out for the one place they felt would be safe from the spreading pollution. Now they live from hand to mouth, dependent for everything on penguin, fish and seal. But, clustered protectively in their summer camp in the shadow of the Dark Times building with the great towers, they are a community, they are alive.

Far out in an orbit almost as high as the Moon is the skywheel. No shuttle has come from Earth in centuries. As far as the crew know, there is no one left alive to send it. But there might be, and whilst there is hope, they cling to their duty. It is a military-scientific establishment, originally charged with finding cures for the viral plagues that ravaged a planet shorn of bio-diversity. There is little point in that work now, but the material they had to work with: DNA samples of every species they could salvage; that is worth preserving. It is monotonous work, and the uniform, grey, metallic environment of the two-kilometre-across wheel, adrift in the vast vacuum of space, is perfectly in tune with that work. Is it any wonder that some of the crew are starting to go a little loopy?

Amidst the half-drowned ruins of Perth, Western Australia, a small kingdom is growing. Morgan Welwyn is not exactly part of it. He is a sorcerer, an heretic, a dabbler in the black arts of the Dark Times. As such, he is invaluable to Piper, the ruler of this land. His discoveries could prove useful in the inevitable war with Isiah Barron’s people from the eastern lands. Weaponry will be the key. The skywheel, according to the plans Morgan found in the observatory, has lasers and a rail gun. And somewhere in the former Chilean-owned portion of Antartica is an experimental fast breeder reactor with a plentiful supply of plutonium.

High amongst the stars, Kass experiments with strange, green liquids that combine with and enhance the human nervous system. Research into mind-enhancement is illegal, but as deputy-commander of the station she is able to get away with it. Being the commander’s lover also helps keep her out of the clutches of Kagan, the station psychiatrist. For Kass is quite mad, and afflicted with terrible dreams in which all of mankind marches, hungry and barefoot, through a wasted land; a refugee column with nowhere to go. Those dreams, Kass might know if she were not mad, are shared by many of the crew, and even by Cheela far away on the ice. Madwomen, of course, have difficulty with reasoning. In any case, there is another question that Kass might ponder. She has visions and hears voices; Piper wants the station’s weapons and the plutonium; Commander Hovar, desperate to keep his fragile link with Earth, has agreed to help: which one of them is most crazy?

Like I said, powerful stuff. Tess Williams is another of the writers from She’s Fantastical to graduate into writing novels, and the talent she demonstrates should take her far. It isn’t perfect: her action scenes don’t seem nearly as well crafted as her character studies. But for a first book it is very good indeed.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.