SCI FICTION, August 04, 2004

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"The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid" by Walter Jon Williams

Walter Jon Williams's novelette "The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid" is a brisk and humorous jaunt into the world of a South American street musician private espionage agency. All the trappings of a spy-thriller are present: a clandestine meeting, a tricky underwater reclamation mission, and even a bevy of sexy, scantily-clad femmes. Under cover of a secret water ballet rehearsal, our hero, Cari (a.k.a. Ernesto) goes on a scuba expedition to retrieve illegal biotechnology that sank in a storm en route to Taiwan.  Things go awry when a rival street musician group–also spies–appear on the scene and threaten to jack our hero's cargo from beneath him.

While the speculative element in this story is on the muted side, the amusement factor is not.  From the scornful jibes between the competing Andean street musicians–evocative of the feud between the People's Front of Judea and the Judean's People Front in Monty Python's Life of Brian–to the narcissistic water danseurs and cigarette smoking water ballerinas, the grins are non-stop.  Add in a comical nitrogen narcosis episode, and I was giggling for the whole ride.  Even the violent murder halfway through the tale did little to subdue my merriment.

Additionally, Williams is either an accomplished scuba diver, or he's done enough research to talk the talk with aplomb.  Not a diver myself, I do know enough about the sport to appreciate the accuracy of his narration–from the long waits to depressurize, admittedly relatively common knowledge; to realizing that perching one's  mask at the top of the head is incorrect scuba conduct (as it is an international signal of distress), a fact much less generally recognized, especially in Hollywood. Williams's manifest expertise allowed me to totally immerse myself in his underwater adventure without fretting that he might steer me afoul."The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid" isn't a heavy or thought-provoking piece, and the mystery elements are somewhat straightforward, but all in all it is a delightfully tongue-in-cheek romp.