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LAST UPDATE 3/28/08

NeuroGenesis by Helen Collins, SpeculativeFictionReview, 2008, $15.95, ISBN 0-9785232-4-5 -1195 

This book is apparently only available from the online publishing site, www.speculativefictionreview.com, and is probably print on demand, although it is handsomely packaged.  The setting is a distant future with an interstellar civilization that is experimenting with new forms of faster than light travel.  The protagonist is part of a crew testing one ship whose crew discovers that their drive has been sabotaged, apparently in order to ensure that one of their passengers, a political figure, is prevented from reaching her destination.  The change in their physical situation leads to a reappraisal of their relative social positions, which are further strained when they manage to reach an unknown planet inhabited by intelligent non-humans with still another form of civilization.  And then the situation starts to get complicated.  I liked this all right and some of the speculations about different societal forms was interesting, but there story was a bit too cerebral for an adventure, and I had some trouble empathizing with the main characters.  3/29/08

The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by Ellen Datlow, Del Rey, 4/09, $16, ISBN 978-0-345-49632-4  

This new and thankfully non-themed anthology mixes both genres, which were pretty much the same genre when I first started reading them, at least as far as publishers were concerned.  The collection opens with a strong alternate history story by Jason Stoddard, followed by a snappy contemporary fantasy about a volcano fan by Lucy Sussex and an almost indescribable story by Christoher Rowe about a kind of rural America that never quite existed.  Elizabeth Bear has a touching story about Sonny Liston that Iím not sure qualifies as fantasy. Nathan Ballingrud, a new name to me, has a very nice story about a dysfunctional family, a dead monster, and our perceptions of beauty and ugliness.  Carol Emshwiller plays with points of view, her protagonist being cast as a pet when she arrives on a deserted island.  Maureen McHugh follows the adventures of a young Chinese girl who discovers that her new job is essentially an old fashioned trap in which she is in constant debt to her employer and thus unable to leave.  Richard Bowes has an okay story followed by Margo Lanagan with a clever twist on a fairy tale.   

Lavie Tidhar, another new name, provides a low key alternate history story, quite effective, and Barry Malzberg adds a wryly humorous piece about a man who builds a golem in the shape of a talking goat.  Laird Barron has what I think may be his best story to date, the story of a woman recovering from a tragedy and perhaps haunted by the ghosts of those she lost.  Anna Tambourís story was okay, but Jeffrey Ford followed with a marvelous piece about microscopic human societies.  This was my favorite in the collection.  There are two strong pieces to wind things up, the story of an unhappy young man who finds something very unusual beneath a bridge by Pat Cadigan, and a rousing story by Paul J. McAuley and Kim Newman, the longest entry in the book.  Most of these were very strong stories, about half of which were arguably SF, the other half fantasy.  All of them tend toward the literary side but without sacrificing storytelling.  A solid anthology noteworthy primarily for the Malzberg, Ford, and Cadigan stories. 3/27/08

Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert, audiobook, Audo Renaissance, $34.95 

I recently listened to the audiobook of the original Dune and now this, the first sequel.  My recollection from back when these were first appearing is that I enjoyed the first two and got lost somewhere in the third, Children of Dune, and never found my way back in any of the sequels, the last two of which I never even read.  I played this audiobook last year and must have been in a charitable mood because I thought it held up well. Listening to it again now, I found a lot of clunkiness that I donít recall ever noticing before.  In Dune, for example, there are several instances when Paul Atreides or one of the other characters draws a fairly obvious conclusion and the other characters all tell us how brilliant and insightful he or she was.  This is a common problem when describing people with more than human powers. There are also a few cases where Lady Jessicaís bene gesserit training allows him to read the motives of others from subtle clues, but in others she seems completely at a loss, because it is necessary for the plot for her to be fooled.   

Although Dune was a bit talky, the story moves well.  Dune Messiah is incredibly slow and large chunks of it are either quotes from books about the life and sayings of Muadídib or Paul wandering around feeling sorry for himself.  The basic plot is about a conspiracy to destroy him now that the jihad has conquered the universe, but the plot (theirs and Herbertís) moves jerkily and sometimes inexplicably forward.  Paul also seems complicit in his own destruction, and the excuse that he has seen this in the future thanks to his prescience just doesnít cut it.  The fatalism is both unappealing as a philosophy and clumsy as the underpinning of the supposed great conflict of the novel.   The characters spend a lot of time saying things that are meant to sound profound but which in fact contain very little meaning at all. The pivotal plot point for the climax, the birth of two children instead of one, makes no sense.  There was nothing to trigger this break in the flow of history and render Muad'dib's visions false. I think my initial favorable impression of the first three Dune books was because they were something new.  Today, Dune Messiah seems overblown and poorly constructed.  3/25/08

Incandescence by Greg Egan, Gollancz, 5/08, £18.99, ISBN 9780-575-08163-5 - 1153

 The very distant future space opera seems to be primarily the playground of British writers these days, with excellent work coming from Iain Banks, Alastair Reynolds, Peter Hamilton, and now Greg Egan.  In Eganís future, there are only two major civilizations in the galaxy, the Amalgam and the Aloof.  The Aloof, as you might expect from their name, on introspective and do not allow outsiders to enter their territory.  The exception is that digitized travelers may pass through from one region of space to another.  Our primary protagonist is tantalized by stories that one such traveler was arrested in mid-journey and allowed to see a mysterious artifact, and he decides to investigate.  His story is intertwined with that of two citizens of the Splinter, a unique world that I wonít even attempt to describe here.  They too are curious, but the object of their investigation is the world in which the live, and which we readers know has to be connected in some way to the artifact suggested in the other story line.  The two stories converge after the working out of a clever and original scientific mystery, and the evocation of a couple of very unusual and fascinating cultures.  Itís been too long since the last Egan novel.  Hopefully the next gap wonít be nearly as great. 3/22/08

Legion by Dan Abnett, Black Library, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-536-0 -1189

Wolfís Honour by Lee Lightner, Black Library, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-389-2 -1186

It felt like a good day for space opera.  It was raining heavily and I didn't have the energy to read anything more demanding.  Both of these are set in the Warhammer universe, derivative of the game system, and both are essentially military SF as well.  I hadn't cared for the previous novel by Lightner, but decided to give him a second chance.  This one is slightly better but still not my cup of tea.  In order to break a longstanding stalemate, Ragnar Blackmane conceives a plan to crush his enemies by making a sudden, unexpected strike on the planet they use as their headquarters.  As you might expect, the novel consists almost entirely of battle sequences and the characters are little more than names.  The Warhammer universe is designed to be action and adventure rather than meaningful literature, but without at least some effort to make us understand and maybe even like the characters, the action becomes meaningless and there is no tension at all.

Dan Abnett understands the difference, and I've enjoyed almost all of his Warhammer related fiction.  The human empire is moving inevitably toward war and there are already signs that some elements are no longer loyal to the Emperor.  One particular elite military unit travels to a remote world to help suppress what appears to be just another dissident group, but it soon becomes apparent that the rebels are allied with mysterious, alien forces whose motives and ambitions are not confined to a single world.  Even more ominous are signs that the elite soldiers may themselves have a hidden agenda.  The characters aren't vivid but they're differentiated and believable, and there is a genuinely interesting plot underneath the military facade which generates interest in its own right and contributes to the build up of suspense as we rush toward the climactic revelations.  One of Abnett's better efforts.  3/21/08

Saga by Conor Kostick, Viking, 5/08, $18.99, ISBN 978-0-670-06280-5 - 1108 

The sequel to Epic continues this young adult adventure in virtual reality.  Ghost and her friends are teenagers who have immersed themselves completely in the artificial world of an elaborate role playing game, but the rules that have always governed that artificial reality seem to be changing.  People are appearing and disappearing mysteriously and others seem to have abilities not allowed by the rules.  It appears that someone is trying to convert large numbers of people into addicted players, and the teens decide to thwart the plot.  The story is pretty good and only occasionally reads like a young adult novel.  Some of the odd events possible given the set up are amusing, although at the same time, it makes the plot too unpredictable at times.  And I think that even in the young adult market, the video game/virtual reality theme has been overdone. 3/19/08

Cosmos Incorporated by Maurice G. Dantec, Del Rey, 5/08, $15, ISBN 978-0-345-49993-6  

Dantec is a French writer whose work is just beginning to appear in English.  This is a dystopian thriller set in a future in which plagues, warfare, and other pressures have depopulated much of the planet, although that doesnít prevent others from moving to orbiting habitats.  The protagonist is a man whose memories have been erased as part of an effort to slip him past the security precautions of a very sophisticated computer system which keeps track of virtually every aspect of human existence.  He isnít completely without memories, however, and he knows that his mission is to travel to one of those habitats and kill a man, even if he doesnít know the reason.  As he proceeds, flashes of memories begin to recur to him, but even more importantly he realizes that he himself is changing.  Under the surface story, which is a gripping thriller with flashes of infodump that reminded me of John Brunnerís Stand on Zanbibar, there is a more serious story about human freedom and individuality.  One caution, however.  The novel is written in present tense, a format that some readers find distracting. 3/18/08

Null-A Continuum by John C. Wright, Tor, 5/08, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1629-5 -  

I have fond memories of the Null-A novels by A.E. van Vogt, although I havenít put them to the test by re-reading them since I first did so way back in the 1960s.  John C. Wright, who has proven his ability to write innovative SF and fantasy already, switches styles to create this more sophisticated sequel.  Gilbert Gosseyn is a man with extraordinary mental powers that allow him to travel through both space and time.  Wright does manage to recapture much of the feel of the old pulp, SF adventures with heavy doses of scientific doubletalk, rapid action, frequent plot shifts, and melodramatic names, but he also writes a much smoother prose and I never once thought of this as a "lost" van Vogt novel despite the subject matter.  Thereís also an elaborate plot on a mind bogglingly large scale and a satisfying resolution.  Itís nice to see some renewed interest in the kind of SF that was once so popular.  3/17/08

The Stars Down Under by Sandra McDonald, Tor, 2008, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1644-8  

The sequel to The Outback Stars fixes my problem with the first novel, providing a much more in depth look into the characters of its two major protagonists, Myell and Scott, two members of a future interstellar military force, although this is more of an interesting space opera than military SF.  Earth has become nearly uninhabitable through pollution and other problems and colonies are being established on other worlds, although travel by spaceship is costly, time consuming, and cannot hope to move more than a tiny fraction of the people who want to leave.  One possible solution is an alien transportation system, left behind by a now missing race, which could make instantaneous matter transmission possible.  The big problem is getting it to work.  Although our heroes are involved in solving the puzzle, the big attraction for me was the characters themselves, who are fleshed out dramatically this time around, and who incorporate both admirable traits and flaws.  Hopefully this is a sign of even better things to come with the next in the series. 3/16/08

The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction Volume Two edited by George Mann, Solaris, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-542-1  

The second volume in this new series of non-themed original anthologies is just as strong as the first.  It opens with one of Paul Di Filippoís experiments with reality, a world in which entire neighborhoods can be redesigned overnight.  Kay Kenyon and Chris Roberson follow with two entertaining space operas, the latter related to his recent novel, The Dragonís Nine Sons, set in an alternate world in which Mexico and China are the two major world powers.  Robert Reed provides a change of pace with a mildly bizarre story about artificially constructed entities.   Neal Asherís account of a man dueling with rats that are intelligent and which use machines is amusing and Brenda Cooper provides a moving story about two sisters separated by enormous distances, both physical and metaphysical, but also united.  Peter Watts adds a somewhat depressing look at the possible future restriction of freedom of thought.

Eric Brown has a longish story about a young man living in a theocratic society who discovers he is not the person he believed himself to be.  There's a cute vignette by Mary Robinette Kowal, followed by a highly implausible story about a giant war machine used to protect a small colony by Dominic Green.  Karl Schroeder contributes a moving and effective story about the need to preserve knowledge in the face of ignorance and blind faith.  There's an amusing piece about mining a rare ore, sort of, by David Louis Edelman, and Neal Asher returns with another story about intelligent rats, not quite as good as the first one but still cute.  Michael Moorcock adds a novelette in the Jerry Cornelius series, apparently pieced together from separate very short pieces published in various other places.  It's the usual Cornelius madness, with the greater madness of our world underlying it all.  The collection closes with a story by Dan Abnett, an account of our first encounter with aliens, but with a clever new take.  Roberson, Reed, Schroeder, and Abnett have the top contributions in this well balanced selection. 3/13/08

Flight Explorer Volume I edited by Kazu Kibuishi, Villard, 2008, $10, ISBN 978-0-345-50313-8

Rather than a graphic novel, this is a graphic anthology of mostly SF short pieces aimed at younger readers, although most of them are just as nifty for adults.  They're by a variety of artists and writers including the editor, Phil Craven, Matthew Armstrong, Kean Soo, and several others, and all are in full color.  Although there is some variety in artistic styles, they are generally of rich, clearly distinguished colors, strong lines, and few details.  The stories deal with intelligent mushrooms, ancient Egypt, an alien's first experience with snow, amorphous shapes who want to fit in, a space traveling mouse, robots, and other subjects.  This is the first of at least four volumes, handsomely produced and with a good selection of stories.  3/13/08

Space Vulture by Gary K. Wolf & Archbishop John J. Myers, Tor, 2008, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1852-7 

Two childhood friends who were fond of the now largely forgotten Space Hawk stories by Anthony Gilmore have written an amusing homage to the form of extreme space opera that used to be connected primarily with the magazine Planet Stories.  Gil Terry is a small time interstellar crook who has had one eye and one arm replaced by insectoid forms as punishment for welching on a debt.  He is captured by lawman Victor Corsaire, but then they are both taken prisoner by Space Vulture, an egomaniacal space pirate who doesnít play fair at all.  From there they go on a series of really, really unlikely adventures that reminded me of the good (and the bad) sides of classic space opera.  Despite the nonsense, thereís a more serious sensibility suggested by the story, and despite the outrageously strange and implausible events that take place, the prose is obviously on a considerably more sophisticated level than were the originals.  Readers who were never exposed to the classic space operas will probably be very confused, but for those of us with long memories, this is a pleasant romp. 3/10/08

Transhuman edited by Mark L. Van Name and T.K.F. Weisskopf, Baen, 2008, $22, ISBN 978-1-4165-5523-0 - 1063 

The possible future of humanity in different forms is explored in this all original anthology.  It opens with a well written story by David Levine in which artificial intelligences absorb all of humanity into a single mass mind.  While I enjoyed the story, I found the premise too implausible to take seriously.  Similarly, editor Van Nameís story was okay if you can accept the possibility that human personalities could be downloaded into human bodies.  This seems to be a strong them because Paul Chafe follows immediately with a reversal, a human personality digitalized and uploaded into a security monitoring computer, a possibility I found considerably more plausible.  The story is pretty good as well, although the set-up takes too long.  Wen Spencer adds a story about virtual reality that isnít bad, but John Lambsheadís story was sort of military SF but never really sucked me in.  It, like Daniel Hoytís that follows, was too much into jargon.  Esther Friesner also explores virtual reality, but her story is considerably more Ė dare I say it? Ė human than the others and probably the best entry in the book, with Wil McCarthyís story of some very intriguing research as a close second.  Sarah Hoyt suggests that humans might, with augmentation, function in a sense like gods.  Dave Freer and James P. Hogan wind things up with creditable stories.  None of the stories are bad, but there is a sameness about most of them that inflicts many theme anthologies.  Iím also rather surprised at the narrow variety of futures suggested in those selected, but perhaps the editors were only looking for stories in which the next step is machine dependent.. 3/9/08

Blue War by Jeffrey Thomas, Solaris, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-532-2  

Jeremy Stake, the shapeshifting private investigator from Deadstock, returns for his second adventure in Thomasí new Punktown novel.  Punktown is a decadent city on a remote colony world, where aliens and inter-dimensional travel are both matter of fact occurrences.  Humans and aliens have recently concluded a war, and Stake is a mildly embittered veteran of that conflict.  He is also not entirely happy with his ability to mimic the features of others, a talent that sometimes expresses itself without conscious volition.  Talk about having an identity crisis.  His latest case is to investigate the circumstances surrounding some organic remains, a mystery that involves cloning and a really bizarre form of mimicry, even stranger than Stakeís  Thereís a conspiracy, of course, and a plot to precipitate a new war, and our lone investigator is the only person standing in the way.  Thomas writes a kind of other worldly adventure that is unique to him.  There are hints of fantasy and horror in his treatment, even though the treatment is entirely SF.  Some purists might find his imagination a bit too way out for them, but fans of innovative SF Ė and those of us who still enjoy the tough PI story no matter what the format Ė are in for another unpredictable treat. 3/8/08

The Martian Generalís Daughter by Theodore Judson, Pyr, 4/08, $15, ISBN 978-1-59102-643-3  

Judsonís second novel has an ambitious theme but is itself quite short.  The setting is some time in the future when civilization on Earth has decayed into something strongly resembling that of the ancient world.  General Peter Black is an officer in the army of a country very much like Imperial Rome and history is repeating itself in more than one way.  A succession of progressively less able rulers has led to a new emperor who is sadistic and clearly insane, but who is maintained in power as a compromise among various political factions.  The general would prefer to remain above politics, but naturally that isnít possible.  The relationship between him and his illegitimate daughter, who serves as narrator, is particularly well developed.  Iím not sure I completely understand how this society could have evolved out of our own, but accepting that as a given itís a remarkable and fast moving novel with some really excellent characterization. 3/7/08

Galaxy Blues by Allen Steele, Ace, 4/08, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01564-1  

Allen Steele returns to the world of Coyote, briefly at least, for the fifth novel in that loose series.  This time the protagonist is Jules Truffaut, a stowaway from Earth whose string of bad luck assumes almost epic proportions.  Although Coyote is normally understanding about people fleeing the repressive conditions on the home world, Jules gets involved with a stolen lifeboat and other difficulties and ends up in jail and with no hope of early release.  Then he has a surprise visit from a wealthy entrepreneur who is interested in promoting wider trading arrangements with an alien race and he recruits Jules as a pilot to take a mission there.  As an alternative to jail, this seems like a long delayed bit of good luck, but Jules manages to get into more trouble despite his best intentions and in order to get back in the good graces of all parties concerned, he agrees to perform another, more dangerous task in space.  As far as I know Steele has never told a bad story and this was is an engaging as any of his previous ones.  I found the early chapters a little slower than usual, but once Jules gets underway, his story is an exciting one.  3/5/08

Rolling Thunder by John Varley, Ace, 2008, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01563-4 

Several of John Varleyís recent novels have been reminiscent of the early Robert A. Heinlein and this latest emphasizes that trait by having as its protagonist a young Martian colonist named Podkayne, a reference to Podkayne of Mars.  This Poddy is a member of the Martian military but sheís also a talented musician and she gets involved in a cultural mission to the colonists on Europa.  Most of the story consists of the steps involved in her getting there, which reminded me strongly of several Heinlein juveniles structurally as well as in terms of plot.  Anyway, she gets there along with several others, but there is another and more sinister plot development unfolding behind the scenes.  Fortunately, this Poddy like her namesake is a headstrong young woman who isnít about to be pushed aside.  Not technically a young adult novel, although in some ways it has the same feel.  Varley has his story under such complete control that it goes by surprisingly quickly, and I found myself surprised that it was over when I reached the final chapter.  One of the most pleasant of recent SF novels Iíve read. 3/3/08

The Dragon's Nine Sons by Chris Roberson, Solaris, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-524-7

The setting for this new space opera slash military SF is an unusual one.  It's an alternate universe in which the two major world powers are China and an empire based in Mexico, the two of which are now engaged in a major war in the solar system, particularly around the planet Mars, which the Chinese call Fire Star.  A Chinese captain who refused to risk his ship in a pointless battle, another soldier who asked too many questions about military decisions, and a crew of similarly disgraced men are chosen for a suicide mission to redeem their honor.  They are to take a captured ship, loading with explosives, to the Mexican base in the asteroid belt and destroy it.  Although they might well have succeeded, there's a new wrinkle when they arrive and discover that the base holds a significant number of Chinese prisoners who would be killed in the explosion.  There's also a touch of dystopia here, since both empires seem rather repressive, and our heroes aren't necessarily very heroic.  It took a few chapters before I felt at ease in the story, but once I was there you couldn't have pried me out before the ending.  Roberson seems to get better with each new book. 3/2/08

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, 4/08, £18.99, ISBN 978-0-575-07717-1

Alastair Reynolds has for some time been my favorite author of far future space operas, ever since his first novel appeared in fact.  This new one reminded me more than slightly of Iain Banks' Culture Universe novels.  Campion and Purslane are two of the one thousand clones of Abigail Gentian, set loose in the universe hundreds of thousands of years ago, given lives that seem unlimited, even more so because of time dilation associated with interstellar travel.  The Gentian line, which consists of both males and females, generally travels alone, reuniting periodically to exchange information and experiences.  Campion and Purslane are exceptions, however, because they are in love and of late have been traveling together, although in separate ships.  Their troubles begin when they have trouble with one of the ships, get involved with a crooked ship dealer, and end up with a sentient mechanical aboard their ship.  Shortly thereafter they discover that the current reunion was a trap and that less than a hundred of their kind have survived.  The survivors assemble to figure out what happened, who was responsible, and what should be done about it.

Although I enjoyed this one a great deal, I didn't think it was entirely up to the author's usual standards.  Part of the problem, I suspect, is that so many of the characters are in control of forces that seem almost magical that it began to feel more like a fantasy than hard science fiction.  There also seemed to be less distinction among the characters than usual.  Campion and Purslane are clones, so I expect some similarity is to be expected, but after tens of thousands of years, one would expect their personalities would have diverged more than is apparent here. None of this should be construed as meaning you shouldn't read the book.  It's a wonderful romp through a fascinating future, filled with the usual idiosyncratic social structures and races found in Reynolds' work.  The story is unrelentingly entertaining and will stretch your imagination to its limits. If you enjoy recent Vernor Vinge or Peter Hamilton or Iain Banks, this is just what you're looking for. 2/28/08

Jumper soundtrack, composed by John Powell, Lakeshore, 2008

Well, I thought this movie was dreadful despite the promising source material, but that doesn't mean the soundtrack can't be nice.  This one opens with "My Day So Far", which is really good but much too short.  I was just starting to get into the rhythm of it.  The same is true, though to a lesser extent, of the next two tracks, both of which I liked but neither of which is very long, and the same situation holds true throughout most of the rest of the CD.  "Bridges, Rules, Banking" is a case in particular point since I really liked both it and "Surf's Up", both of which should have been at least twice as long.  There are a few tracks which are so tied to the action that they don't really stand up on their own as distinct music, but most of the pieces on this are very nice. "Coliseum Fight" and "Roland at the Lair" are among the best, and I liked the recurring theme.  It's one of several cases I know of where the music was better than the movie, but in this case, that's probably not saying much, so I'll say that this is one of the few soundtracks I'm likely to keep in my pile of CDs to listen to periodically.  2/24/08

Phantoms by Dean R. Koontz, Brilliance Audiobooks, 2008, read by Buck Schirner, $40.95, ISBN 978-1-4233-3926-7

Commuting back and forth to Boskone gave me a chance to finish listening to this.  I read the original novel when it first came out and it blew me away at the time.  It is still my favorite of his novels, though others are better written. His books were all being marketed as horror at the time, but they were almost always SF.  In this one, aA doctor and her teenaged sister return to the remote town where the former lives to find everybody dead or missing.  They call for help, which comes in the form of a sheriff and several deputies, but something in town is playing with them, picking them off one by one.   Turns out there's a shapeshifting creature from ancient times that has surfaced and absorbed most of the townspeople.

What I noticed this time around was a few awkward contrivances in the set up.  Why would the police come without radios or even walkie talkies until the military arrives, making them dependent on the phone system they know is unreliable?  Why does the sheriff, and the governor, agree to avoid calling in the civil authorities and appeal to a CBW military unit instead?  Why do they persist in treating it as a potential disease when they find dismembered bodies and realize that something is physically attacking them?  Why would they continue their search, in the darkness, after losing one of their number, without first getting the two survivors to safety?  In fact, they seem to forget the existence of their patrol cars entirely.  All of these cavils aside, it's one of his most suspenseful novels and still one of my favorites.  2/21/08

Scourge the Heretic by Sandy Mitchell, Black Library, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-512-4

This one is from the futuristic branch of the Warhammer universe, predominantly military SF set far in the future when humanity is fighting enemy forces who are inspired by demonic presences, a blend that I often find unsatisfying although in most cases the supernatural element is only suggested, if that.  Not that the "good" guys are much better than the alien enemy.  The human empire is a religious theocracy that hunts down heretics and kills them.  The story in this case involves a mission to suppress what appears to be an interstellar slavery ring, but the conspiracy turns out to be far worse than that.  Mitchell, who is actually Alex Stewart, is one of the better writers working this particular vein, and here he weaves a more than usually complex story of intrigues within intrigues, hidden motives, and sinister influences.  The monolithic human society is not quite as unified as it first appears.  One caveat.  If you haven't read other Warhammer space novels, you might find it difficult to grasp just who is who and what is what.  2/20/08

Blasphemy by Douglas Preston, Forge, 2008, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1105-4

Preston is half of my favorite collaborative team, usually partnered with Lincoln Child, although both men write individually as well.  This particular novel is going to be difficult to review without giving away some of the revelations, so I'm going to have to talk around a few things.  Pardon the apparent vagueness.  The first half of the novel is excellent.  A revolutionary new supercollider has been built but for some reason the team operating it has been unable to get it running properly and is not communicating the problems to the bigwigs in Washington.  One of them sends in our hero, ostensibly to help with community relations, but actually to find out what is really going on.  Shortly after his arrival, there is a mysterious death, after which he learns that the team has been trying to deal with what they originally think is the work of hackers.  When they activate the machine, they get messages from some entity claiming to be God.  There are 12 scientists on the team.  Significant!  The second half of the novel works out those implications, with the added complication of a pair of Christian evangelists who incite a riot.  There's a big climax with surprise revelations that weren't entirely surprising.  The second half is also quite exciting, but I had problems with the plausibility.  For one thing, a forty billion dollar project would have a staff of more than 12 people.  While it may be physically isolated for a variety of reasons, it would certainly have more security than a single man with a sidearm.  Nor do I believe that the government would have waited for weeks before sending in a flood, not just one, investigator.  The author also has an inflated idea of the power of even the fringe of Christian fundamentalists.  A single email from an unknown pastor claiming that he'd spoke to the Antichrist would not be reproduced on more than 50,000 websites in less than two hours, particularly when it was sent spontaneously and unannounced.  Nor am I willing to accept that it would result in an army of two thousand armed Christian activists appearing at a remote location in the middle of the night ready and willing to fight soldiers, burn people at the stake, and engage in multiple firefights.  My third objection is the readiness of the scientists to accept conversion to a new religion based on two cryptic conversations and with no physical confirmation of what was actually happening.  I enjoyed it a great deal, but I was shaking my head some of the time.  2/18/08

Triage by Jack Ketchum, Richard Laymon, & Edward Lee, Leisure, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5823-2

I'm going to list this one here even though it appears to have been marketed as horror.  The collection - which I believe first appeared as a limited edition from another publisher several years ago - consists of two novelettes, both of which are violent but non-fantastic, and a short novel by Edward Lee that is science fiction.  All three starts with differing accounts of an almost identical incident and branch off from there.  The Laymon is not one of his better efforts. A mass murdered wreaks havoc in an office building, largely because everyone they encounter is an idiot who avoids calling the police, with some way over the top sex and violence.  Ketchum has the other shorter piece, an indescribable story about a very unappealing character.  Lee's novel is set a couple of centuries from now.  The human race is a religious dictatorship and an interstellar ship becomes the center of intrigue and double crosses after observers discover the coordinates of the actual, physical Heaven.  2/18/08

Inside Straight edited by George R.R. Martin, Tor, 2008, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1781-0

I was a big fan of the Wild Cards series, so I was delighted to hear that there were going to be three new volumes, of which this is the first, although I was also a bit worried that the new array of writers would not be able to capture the spirit of the originals.  For the most part, this one does exactly that, I am happy to say.  If you're not familiar with the series - and you don't need to be to read this one - the premise is that in the 1940s an alien virus infected the Earth, resulting in death and massive mutations.  Some of those mutations amount to superpowers and those with this talent are known as Aces.  The deformed and essentially powerless mutations are Jokers.  Although this is in a sense an anthology with contributions by Carrie Vaughn, Melinda Snodgrass, Daniel Abraham, Michael Cassutt, and others, their contributions are all interwoven into what Martin calls a mosaic novel.  There is a strong focus in this one as well.  More than two dozen potential Aces have been recruited into four teams to compete in a reality television show, demonstrating powers like the ability to dig holes mentally, to break one's body up into a gigantic swarm of wasps, to turn any thrown object into an explosive missile, to build instantaneous steel frameworks mentally, cast illusions, and so forth.  There is also a back story about anti-Ace sentiment in some parts of the world. A professional assassin and other supporting characters are also involved.  In fact, that is the only criticism I have of the book.  There are just too many characters to deal with even in a 300 page novel and I was still confusing some of them toward the end of the book.  Otherwise a fine job, however, and I can't wait for the next.  2/15/08

The Dreaming Void by Peter Hamilton, Del Rey, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-345-49653-9

The only writer I can think of who writes these great big sprawling space operas better than Peter Hamilton, at least consistently, is Alastair Reynolds.  He has repeatedly created fascinating interstellar cultures and alien races, and wrapped them around good stories.  His newest is another very large book, over six hundred pages, set 1500 or so years in the future.  It involves some familiar situations - an ancient alien race which is either extinct or has moved on to some other part of the universe.  There's also a vast anomaly in space - the void of the title - to which they may be connected and which has sudden begun to expand, threatening to engulf a major, populated world.  Hamilton weaves together a bunch of different SF concepts - genetic engineering, telepathy, thought projection, space travel, missing aliens - and wraps them around the search for answers to questions about the void, what it is, what it is becoming, and what if anything is directing its actions.  There are too many plot complications, side issues, and background details to give you more than a suggestion of the plot, and I can't even begin to describe the richness of the detail.  For such a long novel, it has a comparatively small cast of characters. The fact that the void is the source of the mysterious dreams some people are experiencing is pretty obvious - see the title - but it would have been difficult to disguise that fact no matter what the author did.  I'm not sure that this is Hamilton's best book, but it is certainly one of his better ones.  An intelligent space opera that doesn't forget how to tell a good story.  2/12/08

Birmingham 35 Miles by James Brazier, Bantam, 2008, $12, ISBN 978-0-553-38502-1

I suspect that the author of this first novel is not conversant with SF tropes, because although this is certainly a novel of science fiction, specifically ecological disaster, it approaches the whole thing from a very different viewpoint.  Sometimes this is not beneficial because the author either repeats hackneyed themes, or gets the science wrong, or just doesn't have a clear idea how to handle a global disaster realistically.  On the other hand, sometimes it helps to not be familiar with SF because there is a tendency to fall into the patterns of writers who have already written similar works.  This one is about the aftermath of a weakening of the ozone layer that leaves much of the Earth, including the southern half of North America, parched and almost impossible to farm.  The chief protagonist is one of many who have become so attached to the land around them that they cannot relocate even when it is obvious that they are unlikely to raise even a subsistence level crop and that they would be better off moving elsewhere while they can.  One of the things I really liked about the novel is the way the author shows us a world suddenly grown much larger.  The 35 miles from his home to Birmingham - now an armed camp restricted to the privileged few - is not quite an epic journey but certainly a major outing.  Let's hope the author plows his own ground in SF in the future because he's a genuine asset to the genre.  2/12/08

Tim: Defender of the Earth by Sam Enthoven, RazorBill, 3/08, $19.99, ISBN 978-1-595141-84-2

Eric Garcia's Rex series, in which dinosaurs live secretly among us wearing people suits, was a pretty broad spoof.  This amusing new novel isn't quite as broad, but it's just as much a spoof.  The British government  has been developing a new secret weapon, a Godzilla style dinosaur named Tim.  When they decide that they aren't getting their money's worth, they decide to terminate the project but Tim - that's Tyrannosaurus: Improved Model - decides that it's time for him to escape before the government decides to hide their mistake - presumably in a very large hole.  Two teenagers befriend him and help him prove his value when a mad scientist - naturally there's a mad scientist - uses nanotechnology to create a horde of miniature robots with which to conquer - or maybe destroy - the world.  But how can a giant dinosaur battle creatures too small to be seen?  You'll have to read it to find out.  Some of the humor is kind of obvious, but there are some clever bits, and how often do you get to read a giant monster story - even if the monster is the good guy?  2/11/08

Spider Star by Mike Brotherton, Tor, 3/08, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1125-2

Mike Brotherton's debut novel a while back struck me as okay but it didn't make a very big impression on me.  His second is a very different story and makes me wonder if I might have been in the wrong mood when I read the first one.  The initial set up is not that original - human colonists on a distant planet have found a cache of alien technology left behind by a race now presumed extinct, or at least long since having vacated the area.   The problem is that alien technology is alien and they don't really understand the dangers until they activate a particular bit of equipment that could and will destroy the entire star system.  And even worse, there doesn't appear to be an off switch.  There is evidence suggesting that information might be found at a very distant location in space, if it still exist after many tens of thousands of years. So naturally an expedition has to be launched to try to save the colony.  This one is filled with the sense of wonder that used to make me read compulsively every free minute I could manage, a return to the far flung imagination of Edmond Hamilton and the early Andre Norton, but with better characterization.  Unless this is a fluke, Brotherton is going to be a much more familiar name soon than it is now.  2/2/08

The Margarets by Sheri S. Tepper, Gollancz, 2008, £12.99, ISBN 978-0-575-08046-1

It has been quite a while since the last Tepper novel I read, and this one is appearing initially in the UK.  This may be in part because there has been an increasingly bitter strain in her recent novels, as though the author is no longer optimistic about the future of the human race.  The set up in this one follows the same pattern.  A project to terraform the planet Mars has recently failed and back on Earth, slavery is now an accepted practice thanks to the collapse of the global economy.  Although there is a variety of alien races in the galaxy, they pretty much avoid the Earth because we've made such a mess of things compared to more intelligent and sensible species.  They have almost decided to exterminate humanity and are in fact purchasing humans as property.  This doesn't quite jibe with their elevated moral pretenses, but that's another issue.  The protagonist is Margaret Bain, who spent a lonely childhood on Mars before the collapse and has now returned to Earth.  During that childhood she developed a number of alternate versions of herself as a kind of imaginary friend.  In some never completely explained fashion, the process of creating alternate Margarets has become physical, and the dispersed parts of Margaret in all her potentialities is key to securing a better future for the human race.  Tepper always writes well and this one's no exception, and there's even a ray of hope to lighten the darkness of her vision.  I'm always a little uneasy when a science fiction novel incorporates what amounts to a kind of magic, but it didn't bother me as much in this one as usual.  1/31/08

In the Courts of the Crimson Kings by S.M. Stirling, Tor, 3/08, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1489-5

I miss the days when it was possible to believe that Mars and Venus just might be habitable, if not inhabited.  Mostly I miss the fact that there aren't likely to be many people writing the kinds of stories that Leigh Brackett used to place there, or even Edgar Rice Burroughs and his imitators.  A while back, A. Bertram Chandler found a way around it in The Alternate Martians, suggesting that in a parallel universe it might be possible for Mars to really have a dying civilization.  Now S.M. Stirling uses a variation of that device for similar purposes.  Introduced in The Sky People, this series is set in an alternate version of our universe where aliens altered the environment of both those planets so that they had a breathable atmosphere and, of course, a native race, taken from human breeding stock.  When the space race starts on Earth, much earlier than in our reality, the first probes reveal the startling news that we have alien neighbors, and the aliens are us, sort of.  Except that on Mars, civilization has fallen and there are more ruins than anything else.  They are of particular interest to our protagonist, an archaeologist who achieves the very rare privilege of traveling to the red planet to study them.  The Martians seem perfectly willing to cooperate with his mission, but if there wasn't something subtle and mysterious going on behind the scenes, we wouldn't have much of a story.  Stirling unravels an interesting mystery, creates an unusual human culture, and tells a story of suspense and adventure that mixes much of the feel with older SF with the greater depth and relevance common to the new.  I've found his previous books to be uneven - some excellent, some merely competent - but this is easily my favorite series, if only because it lets me, briefly, indulge my wish to indulge in nostalgia.  1/30/08

Wastelands edited by John Joseph Adams, Night Shade, 2008, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-59780-105-8

Other than best of the year compilations and shared worlds, virtually every new anthology in the field has been all original, and most of them themed and of little distinction.  This one has a theme - stories of the apocalypse - but it's reprints and quite a good selection.  There were even a few of them I hadn't read before.  Most are comparatively recent, as in 1985 or later, and they include some really good stories, though none that cry out classic!  Among the better ones are those by Stephen King, Jonathan Lethem, M. Rickert, Jack McDevitt, Gene Wolfe, and Nancy Kress, but there really aren't any bad stories at all.  It's a pretty depressing theme, although not all the stories are downers by any means.  There's a list of post-apocalyptic novels at the end that picks up most of the really good ones, but I'm not sure The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner or Gather, Darkness by Fritz Leiber should be on the list, for thematic reasons, not quality ones.  1/22/08

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, 1895 

I needed to re-read this for a project Iím working on, which is probably by fifth or sixth time through.  I still remember the very first time I encountered it, a thin little Berkley paperback, and how completely wrapped up in it I was for the next hour or so.  The unnamed time travelerís visit with the Eloi and Morlocks was, of course, his commentary on the growing disparity between workers and the privileged class, a criticism no less valid today than it was in 1895.  I recently learned that a portion of the original serial was left out of the book version, and I tracked that down and found it to be brief, interesting, but a trivial addition.  I believe it has been added back into some recent reprints as well.  I also found out that one addition had a new chapter added in which the time traveler visits a future in which time travel is illegal, clearly not by Wells. 1/21/08

Grimspace by Ann Aguirre, Ace, 2/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01599-3

Old fashioned space opera seems to be making something of a comeback recently, which I consider a good thing.  As much as I enjoy tales of psi powers, alternate universes, marvelous inventions, and dystopian futures, it is the exploration of outer space that really appeals to my sense of wonder.  The premise of this debut novel is that only a very small subset of humanity is genetically equipped to take ships through "grimspace," including our protagonist who is in rather bad odor with the company because her previous command crashed and she was the only survivor, a disaster all memory of which is missing from her mind.  Suspicious, that.  Imprisoned, she is visited by a man who claims to represent a movement to free humanity of domination by the Corp, the organization that controls everyone capable of making the interstellar jumps.  A pretty good adventure follows.  That's the good stuff.  Now the killer, for me anyway.  The story is written in first person present tense, an artificiality which almost totally ruined it for me.  It made me conscious of the author on every single page and I was never able to lose myself in the story or identify with the characters.  1/17/08

Jemma7729 by Phoebe Wray, Edge, 2/08, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-894063-40-1

There have been so many stories about brutally patriarchal societies and women who rebel against them that I deliberately put off reading this because I knew that on at least one level it was going to be an unpleasant experience.  The title character is considered a troublemaker by the government, which has deprived women of all their civil rights. She escapes imprisonment, leaves the domed city, and becomes essentially a terrorist dedicated to destroying the status quo.  There are two ways to effectively write a dystopian satire.  One way is to exaggerate things so grotesquely that we know it isn't meant to be realistic, as in The Funhouse by Benjamin Appel or The Big Ball of Wax by Shepherd Mead.  The other is to create a realistic explanation of how things could come to pass, a cautionary novel, as in It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis or Messiah by Gore Vidal.  The author here presents a dramatically different near future world with no real explanation of how we got there from here, and as a consequence it doesn't have the impact that might otherwise have been the case. Despite her rebellious status, I never got much of an impression of Jemma7729 as a person. There are parts of this that are well written but it often feels more like a wish fulfillment fantasy than a serious novel.  1/17/08

Victory Conditions by Elizabeth Moon, Del Rey, 2/08, $26, ISBN 978-0-345-49161-9

Elizabeth Moon has progressed rapidly and steadily upward in my estimation, starting with okay but undistinguished fantasy and military SF and progressing to superior space opera and more serious novels in the past few years.  This is one of her space operas, the final installment in the saga of Ky Vatta, head of a family owned interstellar mercantile company who has battled space pirates, rivals, and other enemies in her efforts to discover the truth about the murder of her parents and to keep the business alive and well.  Although she didn't succeed in her original intentions to join the military, her sharp wits and good sense saw her through her previous adventures.  This time she's playing for all the marbles and the battles come thick and fast, physical and otherwise.  Reminiscent at times of C.J. Cherryh but with a stronger military element - particularly this time around, this series has been consistently good and doesn't let up a bit.  I'm looking forward to seeing what the author tackles next now that this story line has been tried up neatly.  1/15/08

Desert Raiders by Lucien Soulban, Black Library, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-492-9

This new Warhammer military SF adventure owes quite a bit to Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers.  A military unit answers a distress call and travels to a desert world and discovers a race of monstrous creatures armed with claws and fangs and very hard to kill.  And there are lots of them.  It started out to be a pretty good adventure, but deteriorated quickly.  There were two major problems.  First, even though it's a relatively short book, there are way too many characters.  There are over forty named characters, and there's an appendix to help us keep them straight.  That means one new character is introduced on average every five and a half pages.  Of course, most of them are cannon fodder to be killed off by the monstrous tyranids, but since we never have a chance to know them, we don't regret their passing.  It's hard enough just to remember who is dead and who isn't.  The second problem is closely associated with the first.  Since we have a lot of people to kill, most of the book is spent conducting the battles, and while that has always been the dominant theme in the Warhammer universe, there is usually a reasonable amount of story to go along with it.  This one ends up being mostly a succession of shrieking beasts, sizzling laser guns, and shouted orders.  1/15/08

Final Inquiries by Roger MacBride Allen, Bantam, 3/08, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-58728-9

Agents Mendez and Wolfson are back for their third investigation, this time mysteriously swept off to one of the worlds inhabited by an Elder Race, spiderlike aliens so advanced that they only occasionally deign to treat with humans.  They arrive to find the human embassy locked down and, to their dismay, a highly placed official of an organization that touts human supremacy is the first person they meet.  About one hundred pages pass before we even find out why they have been summoned, which makes it enough of a mystery that I should perhaps end this paragraph with a minor but definite SPOILER WARNING!

So what is it that has brought two humans to a place where no one really wants them?  It's actually a bit of an anti-mid-climax.  A Kendari, a centaurlike race comparable to humans technologically, has been found murdered in a building used by Kendari and Human security personnel for joint operations.  The dead alien was also the planned bride of Brox, the Kendari who accompanies our heroes to the site, and who has appeared in one of the earlier novels in the series.  What follows is an extraterrestrial police procedural mixed with alien political intrigue. They solve the crime, of course, but they also uncover a sinister operation and overt an interstellar war. Although I have a mild prejudice against series novels, I hope this is not in fact their "final inquiry".  Allen is one of the best at blending mystery and SF tropes, and always tells a good story.  1/12/08

Marseguro by Edward Willett, DAW, 2/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0464-2

I'm going to say up front that I didn't like the title of this at all.  It's not descriptive or informative and I didn't even care for the sound of the artificial world.  Trivial, but annoying.  Now that my quibble is out of the way, let's look at the plot.  The planet Marseguro was colonized by humans who wanted a freedom not possible on theocratically ruled Earth, a government that forbids all versions of genetic engineering.  This is particularly troublesome because the majority of people on the colony world have been altered so that they can live in the planet's very large oceans, and call themselves Selkies.  The Selkies live cooperatively with a population of unaltered humans until one of them, a lab worker, becomes angry over personal issues and activates an emergency beacon which broadcasts their location to Earth.  Needless to say, it's not long before their warships are en route to, presumably, exterminate the abominations whose existence has been revealed.  Not surprisingly to us, but definitely to them, the planet is not as vulnerable as it appears.  Although this was well enough written, I found myself uncomfortable with elements of the story.  The fanaticism of the theocrats seemed a bit forced, even though current events should have convinced me that their excesses are entirely plausible.  I think my problem is that Earth becomes a generic symbol for repression and something of a caricature, making the actual threat seem less plausible.  The ending is emotionally satisfying, though perhaps a bit of a stretch in plausibility, and while the story is complete in itself, it leaves a hang line that could easily lead to a sequel.  1/11/08

Starship: Mercenary by Mike Resnick, Pyr, 2007, $25, ISBN 978-1-59102-599-3

Wilson Cole and his crew are back for their third outing.  In the first, we learned that he and his human/alien mixed crew were on the run from Republic because they found the military there to be corrupt and inhuman.  In volume two, they spent a short career as a pirate ship.  Now they've decided to become mercenaries.  The story is very episodic, chronicling their adventures as they perform a rescue mission, foil an extortion plot, and evacuate hospital, among other things.  In each case, Cole is able to prevail through his wits as much as his gunnery, but of course the author has set the situation up that way.  Although in a sense this is somewhat contrived, it isn't obvious and Resnick has come up with some clever ploys for outsmarting the bad guys.  The characters are flimsier than in his more serious novels, but the storytelling is as good as ever and we genuinely regret it when he and his former ally, the Valkyrie, find themselves on opposite sides.  The ability to write good space opera is increasingly a misplaced, if not entirely lost art, but Resnick knows how to draw on a hidden lode of it. Lightweight but genuine fun. 1/10/08

Streams of Babel by Carol Plum-Ucci, Harcourt, 5/08, $17, ISBN 978-0-15-216556-7

Finishing up another batch of young adult fiction, I found this surprisingly sophisticated story of terrorists who use public utilities to spread a lethal substance.  The water in one community is being systematically and clandestinely poisoned, the test case for an even more wide ranging conspiracy.  Their plot is uncovered by a teenaged Pakistani who works for an American intelligence agency who stumbles upon messages that give him a good idea what's going on, but not the details that would make it possible for him to raise an effective alarm.  I had read one previous novel by this author that was okay but not very memorable.  This one would be a potentially popular thriller if it had been written for a mature audience, and is surprisingly good for one intended for teens.  Her prose is clean and interesting and she doesn't write down to her audience at all.  Definitely worth a look if you're a thriller/marginal SF reader.  1/7/08

Master of Deception by Jude Watson, Scholastic, 2008, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-439-68142-1

For Star Wars fans who just can't get enough, this is the latest in a young adult series known  as Last of the Jedi.  The recurring hero is Jedi Ferus Olin, who has been coerced into working for the Emperor even though his sympathies lie elsewhere.  In this installment, he is sent on a mission to Alderaan to uncover a Jedi secret.  His mission is further complicated by differences between the Emperor and Darth Vader about what should be done with the knowledge, once obtained.  Can Ferus chart a third course?  This is kid stuff, of course, but one should remember that kids were always the target audience for the movies and therefore it's not surprising that there's as much wonder about the universe in this as in the adult tie in novels.  Non-series fans won't like it, but they're not supposed to.  1/1/08

 

2007 REVIEWS