The Secret Service came into being one night in 1976 while I was playing a game. I would take a list of words encountered in my reading, and which I had looked up in the OED, and write a story using them. On this particular occasion, the story seemed to promise to go on, though for how long I certainly had no inkling. My experience of writing it was certainly a long act of following out the premises laid down in the opening, and it led me into such fascinating areas as the history of porcelain, the botany of roses, and scenic design in the nineteenth century theater.
I have since learned that this game is practiced, under the name logorallye, by the OuLiPo, as a kind of warm-up exercise at its summer workshops.
The publisher wrote:
The Secret Service is a novel of rare range and power. Its overarching plot framework provides a great architecture for Walker’s beautifully made language. Many genres and styles—naturalism, allegory, surreal catalogs, philosophical and metaphysical fables, dreams—are woven into an epic story of intrigue and political maneuvering.
In a Europe that resembles…that of the nineteenth century, the English Secret Service has gotten wind of a plot against the young, newly married king and queen. The details of this plot must be uncovered. The suspected architects of it—an Italian baron, a French cardinal, a German nobleman—are men of finely honed connoisseurships. Each is obsessed with a particular pursuit—one with roses and their infinite variety; another with fine glass and porcelain; another with classical sculpture. The Secret Service has discovered a method of physical transformation that enables their agents to masquerade as objects; in this case, as the precious objects of the foreigners’ obsessions. (Walker’s explication of the fabular physics of this transformation is one of the wonders of the book.)
The events that this transformation set in motion blossom into the most amazing ramifications, creating a fiction second to none for richness of invention, vision, and chimerical psychology. Here is a novel that does not recapitulate banality; Walker honors possibility, and the great range that language, dream, emotion, and intellect together can produce. The Secret Service is a new voice’s finest creation.
. . . . . . . . . .
This is a curiously fanciful spy novel, apparently set in the 18th century, the time period in which the museum as an institution originated. The central device is that members of a secret service are able to transmute themselves into physical objects – elegant pieces of porcelain, fine glass, and sculpture. These pieces are given as gifts to foreign dignitaries and are able to observe and communicate back. The writing is exquisite, especially how it gives one the sense of actually being an object.
Founder of the Museum of Jurassic Technology
from “On The Bookshelves Of The Digerati” in Wired
…to become an object may… be a positive aspiration. Beyond ownership, there is the lure of a more complete and intimate possession of an object. This is possession in the same sense that an alien spirit enters a human being, only reversed: a human spirit entering an alien entity. Wendy Walker gives us a rare example of this in her novel The Secret Service. The secret service in question engages in espionage for the king of England in an imaginary version of early-nineteenth-century Europe. The service’s agents have at their disposal an extraordinary scientific discovery that allows them to transform human beings into objects. In describing this experience, Walker does not simply superimpose a human point of view onto an object…Rather, in her novel, the humans take on the perceptual modes of the objects that embody them.
—Peter Schwenger, The Tears of Things:
Melancholy and Physical Objects
Walker digresses divinely. We view the world as a goblet, as a rose, as a statue, as a dreamer, as a madman; we speculate on the nature of reality, and what Form and Substance mean to one another; we wander in jungles and dangle off glaciers, sit exiled in towers and drift through Paris; and all these seemingly-fractured episodes gradually intertwine and become an unshakable lattice of inextricably linked tales. The action of the plot whirls to a frenzy and then spins slowly to a poised halt; Walker stops before answering all our questions, but she has answered them obliquely, answers about as good as we usually get in life, and we cannot feel cheated.
In The Secret Service, the aim of possession is to take the place of the thing possessed, and self-possession is therefore a hall of mirrors…Heroes, villains, and victims all seek transformation into the simple and inanimate, and, reluctantly, with the toll paid, seek to return again. The price is their humanity, as the extravagantly artificial characters grow colder and more damaged…The book is a series of variations on the old dream of irresponsibility, of striking out for the interior: an interior simultaneously frontier and self and womb. (read entire review)
—Ray Davis, The New York Review of Science Fiction