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From Monday, 12 January 2015 through Sunday, 18 January 2015, I read Mike Resnick's Widowmakers (Science Fiction Book Club omnibus edition of The Widowmaker, The Widowmaker Reborn, and The Widowmaker Unleashed, published by arrangement with Bantam Spectra [a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.], November 1998; ISBN: 1-56865-950-4; 597 pps.).

cover to Widowmakers by Mike Resnick

Widowmakers is the Science Fiction Book Club omnibus edition (complete with a poster of the cover art by Donato as an insert) of the first three books in Mike Resnick's Widowmaker series: The Widowmaker (1996), The Widowmaker Reborn (1997), and The Widowmaker Unleashed. (A fourth book, A Gathering of Widowmakers, was subsequently published in 2005.)

Set three millennia in the future, when humans (often, but not always, referred to as "Man") have scattered far and wide across the galaxy and Earth is but a vaguely and inaccurately remembered historical anecdote, Widowmakers is the story of Jefferson Nighthawk, byname "Widowmaker," an enormously skilled combatant and tactician who has served as a lawman and a bounty hunter in dozens, if not hundreds, of settlements on various Frontier worlds.

In The Widowmaker, Nighthawk is a 62-year-old man with an incurable disease called eplasia that rots one's skin from the inside out; one's bones protrude from visibly putrefied flesh, rather in the manner of a pre-Comics Code Authority illustration one might find in EC Comics, with modern coloring techniques. He has placed himself in cryogenic suspension on the governing world of the human-ruled Oligarchy (the Frontier worlds, for various and sundry reasons, reject the Oligarchy, and lie outside the bounds of its authority and control), Deluros VIII, in the hopes of one day being revived and cured of his disease; unfortunately, over a century's time, the ill-advised economic policies of the Oligarchy have sent inflation spiraling out of control, which in turn threatens the principal of Nighthawk's fortune, which is under management by a prominent law firm that he hired before going into Cold Sleep. His attorneys have him briefly revived so that cell samples may be taken from him, for the purpose of creating a clone of him (despite the fact that cloning is a prohibited activity in the Oligarchy, the technology has been continually tweaked by various parties due to the potential financial rewards): even after being out of action for a little over a century, Nighthawk's legend is still so well remembered that there is at least one wealthy party that wishes to hire a cloned version of him as a troubleshooter, no pun intended. Cloning technology has advanced to the point that a 23-year-old model of Nighthawk can be produced, albeit without the original's memories, in a matter of weeks; such are Nighthawk's gifts that he can be trained by a near equal in the various arts of combat within another few weeks, and off he goes.

The Widowmaker Reborn takes place a couple years after The Widowmaker; yet another clone of Nighthawk is created, this time aged to 38 years, as the first clone proved to be a little too young, dumb, and full of come; technology has advanced to the point that the original's memories can be copied wholesale into the second clone, which means that the wait time between this clone's awakening and sallying forth on yet another money-making endeavor is reduced to the time needed for him to warm up to peak condition: no training required.

Finally, in The Widowmaker Unleashed, a cure is found for eplasia, and, after the original Jefferson Nighthawk is revived, cured, and restored to his original sixtysomething appearance, he sets forth as a free man; unfortunately, while the enemies that he accrued during his existence have long since passed on, his two clones have managed to acquire a multitude of enemies of their own, enemies that the original has never seen and has no knowledge of....

Widowmakers is a throwback to the days of a pulp, sci-fi adventure (although there's far more talk than there is action), and shouldn't be regarded as anything more than a decent time-killer. There are hints of deeper meanings here, particularly in the final book, with its nods towards the making of a legend in the manner of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (indeed, passing reference is made, on p. 485 [Chapter 12 of The Widowmaker Unleashed], to two other legendary Resnick characters: Santiago [from Santiago: A Myth of the Far Future, 1986, and The Return of Santiago, 2003] and Conrad Bland [from Walpurgis III, 1982]) and its musings on how difficult it is for someone who has embraced "the Way of the Gun" to finally lay down his weapons; those who have previously read and enjoyed Resnick will likely be frustrated that these hints are not further developed (indeed, even his early paperback original novel Redbeard [1969] managed to be a more profound commentary on action adventure tropes in fantasy and science fiction than Widowmakers does). The questions raised by cloning -- how much debt to the original does a clone reasonably owe? what constitutes a separate identity for a clone, in both the existential and (perhaps more importantly) the legal sense? -- seem rather perfunctorily resolved in the interest of narrative momentum, which is all well and good; nonetheless, one may have a feeling of having been cheated by a deus ex machina at the end of The Widowmaker Unleashed, with its unwelcome whiff of science working as magic. (At minimum, Resnick is guilty of not playing fair, insofar that he didn't adequately lay the groundwork for his ending.)

Of the original trilogy, The Widowmaker is the worst (2.5 out of 5 stars); The Widowmaker Reborn and The Widowmaker Unleashed are both 3 out of 5 stars. That said, Widowmakers as a whole is the least that I've yet read of Resnick; I might pick up a secondhand copy of A Gathering of Widowmakers, but I feel no compelling need to do so.


*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.



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