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Books for Review should be sent to: Don D'Ammassa, 323 Dodge Street, East Providence, RI 02914

LAST UPDATE 4/30/09

Terra Insegura by Edward Willett, DAW, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0553-3   

Willett introduced the water world of Maseguro in a book of that name.  Maseguro managed to stay outside the control of the theocracy that rules Earth until a traitor among them turns a personal disappointment into a vendetta and alerts the authorities, triggering an invasion.  Since the locals have no military to speak of, they are forced to resort to biological warfare to defeat the occupying force.  Now they’re free again, at least for the moment, but the tailored plague is aboard a starship headed back to Earth and unless it can be overtaken the vast majority of humankind might be on the endangered species list.  This one is a pretty good space adventure although I didn’t warm much to even the sympathetic characters, possibly because they all seemed too tense too much of the time. 4/30/09

The Dark Planet by Patrick Carman, Little, Brown, 2009, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-316-16674-4  

Almost all young adult fantastic literature nowadays involves vampires or magic rather than spaceships and aliens.  I’m not sure now that I would still enjoy the Winston juveniles and similar books as much as I did then; I’ve re-read a few with mixed results.  I do wonder why it is that the current generation of young readers is less interested in science, and I’m not sure which is cause and which is effect.  In any case, this is the third volume of a trilogy that is one exception to the rule, set aboard an artificial world which, way back in volume one, had different cultures physically isolated from one another.  Unfortunately, this giant orbiting habitat wasn’t as stable as expected and the barriers are down, mutants have emerged, and the entire structure may be doomed.  The day is saved by teenagers, of course.  Nostalgia probably contributed to my enjoyment of this one, but I’ve liked the whole series pretty well.  It’s much better than the same author’s previous fantasy sequence. 4/27/09

Genesis by Bernard Beckett, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009, $20, ISBN 978-0-547-22549-4

This very short book by a New Zealand writer is SF although probably not meant as such, and it’s more of an essay than a novel.  A worldwide plague ravaged the world some time in the past and New Zealand survived as a nation because it quarantined itself from the outside world.  The story is set years later and is in the form of an interview between the protagonist and a board of examiners, one in particular, in which they reflect upon and discuss the nature of that course of survival in a series of dialogues.  Not much else happens. There’s a mildly surprising revelation about their history but mostly it’s an examination of what it means to be human and part of a community.  Interesting but not exciting. 4/23/09

Hunt at the Well of Eternity by Gabriel Hunt, Leisure, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-6246-8 

Gabriel Hunt is a house pseudonym for this new series of fast paced adventure stories, what we used to call “men’s adventure”, although I was reminded constantly of Doc Savage.  Hunt is also the protagonist in this, which was actually written by James Reasoner, who has done Civil War era adventure stories in the past.  This is set in the present when Hunt and his brother Michael are approached by a mysterious woman with a century old whiskey bottle who is promptly kidnapped by armed thugs, setting off a chase and search that never stops for breath.  Hunt survives an armed assault at a social gathering, an attempt to push his car off a bridge, a battle aboard an airboat in Florida with bad guys in another boat and on jet skis, and a murder attempt at an historical battlefield – and all of this in less than fifty pages.  Early clues point to a recalcitrant Confederate general who led his men into Mexico to avoid surrender.  I guessed almost immediately that the search was for the Fountain of Youth – in Guatemala rather than Florida – after the clue in the title.  Non-stop, implausible, but amusing adventure.  This one’s SF  but the others may not be. 4/23/09

Centuries Ago and Very Fast by Rebecca Ore, Aqueduct, 2009, $16, ISBN 978-1-933500-25-6 

I was struggling to think of something to which I could compare this slim but well written collection of very odd, related stories, and the closest I could come was R.A. Lafferty, although only if he was collaborating with Harlan Ellison.  The common character is an immortal who was born in prehistory and is still around in the modern world.  He has a series of encounters with typical and atypical characters, including rebellious college students, a drag queen, and others.  The tone of the stories is a balancing act between the serious and the comic.  One of the most difficult books to describe I’ve read recently, this should appeal to fans of literary SF, satire, and nifty prose, and it is almost certainly not going to be what you’re expecting. 4/22/09

The Roar by Emma Clayton, Chicken House, 4/09, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-439-92593-8

This young adult novel is also a first novel and one of the few overtly SF rather than fantasy or horror novels I’ve seen in that genre in a while.  The human population has retreated into walled cities because of the supposed hostility of Earth’s ecosphere to humanity.  A young girl, Ellie, is kidnapped to an orbiting space station by a group who know that this is all a sham, that the outer world is safe, and she is determined to escape and tell people the truth.  She is also linked psychically to her twin brother, still inside the walls.  Fast paced action, reasonably well done, though the walled or domed city hoax is an old one in SF.  I was also puzzled as to why the twins only feel each other’s emotions when it is convenient to the plot for them to do so and not otherwise.  4/19/09

Split by Graeme de Timms, Digit, 1963

I make a point of occasionally re-reading books I first encountered from my early years of SF life, sometimes with pleasant and sometimes with disappointing results.  I couldn't remember this one at all, and I quickly realized why.  It's one of the most boring after the nuclear war novels I've ever read, and the prose is clunky as well.  The protagonist is a disillusioned citizen of Imarika, one of two nations which arose after the apocalypse, only to have a couple of "world wars" of their own, although it's not clear how much of the world it involved since the theocracy still asserts that the radioactive wastelands are inhabited by goblins.  Nor have they progressed far enough to build an internal combustion engine.  He gets involved with a badly injured woman who worked for the Imarikon government and who is now being hunted by the secret police, and the two are chased around for a while, finally escaping predictably enough into the wastelands, but now both governments are looking for them.  Mutants attack them and they find a hidden city.  For some reason the publisher calls this a "novel of interplanetary politics" which it is obviously not.  Some books deserve the limbo into which they fall.  4/18/09 

Hellforged by Ben Counter, Black Library, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-690-9  

The universe as depicted in the futuristic Warhammer novels is not one I’d care to live in.  The war against demons and aliens has resulted in a repressive, theocratic human society seemingly devoted to constant warfare.  On the other hand, this makes it a perfect set up for military SF, and most of the novels published in this setting have been exactly that.  This is one of a subset of military SF that sort of contradicts its own premise, but usefully, that is, the protagonists are tired of warfare and try to get away from it – in this case by deserting – but paradoxically can only find peace by making use of their martial skills.  This allows the author to have his cake and eat it too, so to speak.  Anyway, a contingent of space marines is on the run from its own superior authority, they find a possible refuge but have to accomplish various tasks before it becomes suitable.  A little above average for its type. 4/16/09

End of the Century by Chris Roberson, Pyr, 2009, $15, ISBN 978-1-59102-697-6 

Although this novel has an ambitious goal, it falls a bit short.  The first half consists of three separate stories – each in a separate era of Earth’s history.  The Victorian one, involving a murder investigation, is particularly effective.  There are indications of magical events in all three, although ultimately this will all be rationalized making this SF instead of fantasy.  There is obviously a motive force interfering in all three stories, which turns out to be an intelligent computer from the distant future, and the three separate plots are drawn together as the timelines begin to converge in the second half.  Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where the author no doubt understands how everything fits together, but it is far from clear to the reader, who may well get lost in the shuffle.  Roberson is one of those “writers to watch” because he has been improving so rapidly, but this one is ultimately an interesting but for me at least a not entirely successful experiment. 4/14/09

The Game of Stars and Comets by Andre Norton, Baen, 2009, $14, ISBN 978-1-4165-9155-9

The latest omnibus volume from Baen contains four short “novels”, two of which aren’t novels at all although they were published as half of Ace Doubles.  The two best are The Sioux Spaceman and Voorloper, the others Eye of the Monster and The X Factor.  I never cared for this last one, but the other three are all very enjoyable.  The Sioux Spaceman in particular is from Norton’s most entertaining SF period.  All involve adventures on other planets, usually involving an outsider who arrives, discovers a problem or an alien threat, and proves instrumental to solving it.  Voorloper is the best of her later SF, about the time she switched to fantasy.  This kind of planetary adventure just isn’t being written any more, which is really a shame.   Kudos to Baen for bringing more of early Norton back into print. 4/11/09

Www. Wake by Robert J. Sawyer, Ace, 4/09, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01679-2  

Robert Sawyer’s newest novel, serialized in Analog last year, involves a woman whose blindness has not prevented her from becoming a proficient web surfer.  When an experimental procedure provides her with artificial vision, the change alters that way in which her mind perceives things on the internet and she begins to realize that there is another intelligence there, a non-human one with motivations she doesn’t understand.  The virtual reality world is frequently very interesting and I thought Caitlin Decter was one of the author’s more fully realized characters.  I can’t tell you what she really finds without spoiling the surprises, but I think he’ll fool you occasionally.  A solid novel with an interesting premise that I enjoyed without ever really catching fire. 4/9/09

Other Earths edited by Nick Gevers and Jay Lake, DAW, 4/09, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0546-5 

This is a collection of alternate history stories which opens with a very powerful contribution by Robert Charles Wilson suggesting that the alternative to the Civil War in America might have been even worse.  Jeff VanderMeer takes a look at an alternate world where the religious right has much more influence than they do in our reality. Stephen Baxter invokes a world in which the Incas are by far the most advanced people on the Earth, although I was skeptical that the disparity in sciences could be quite so dramatic.   Theodore Goss and Liz Williams both have stories of a different Europe where magical elements actually exist, both well written but not my cup of tea.   Gene Wolfe has a story about the rescue of Churchill from German occupied England.  Greg Van Eekhout tells a story about an America where religion is even more of a business than it is in our world.  Alastair Reynolds posits an unending World War I, with composer Vaughn Williams driving an ambulance, Paul Park relates a very unusual family history, and Benjamin Rosenbaum looks at the very structure of alternate histories. Dominating the book, however, is the short novel by Lucius Shepard.  A dissolute author discovers a used copy of a novel written by his alternate self and decides to investigate the other version’s life, specifically a boat trip in Southeast Asia.  He discovers that the borders between realities are fluid and constantly shifting, but he also learns more than he bargained for about his own life. I can’t help noting that most of the stories in this collection, though of high quality, are very downbeat.  I wonder if the implication is that the authors mostly believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds, because everything else is even worse.  4/4/09

Wolverine: Prodigal Son by Antony Johnston, art by Wilson Tortosa, Del Rey, 2009, $12.99, ISBN 978-0-345-50516-3

This is the first in a projected series of black and white graphic novels following the life of the very young Wolverine, later of X-Men fame.  He's a teenager with no memory of his past, stuck in a tough school in the Canadian wilderness, and he doesn't play well with others.  Marvel fans should be warned this is an adaptation for Manga fans, and it doesn't necessarily conform to his history in the Marvel universe. He defeats bullying classmates and then more malevolent adult villains who want to destroy the whole school, but there are no superheroes or supervillains in this one.  The artwork is more reminiscent of Manga than Marvel, not surprisingly, and it's mostly done well, although I thought several panels were entirely too busy.  The project seems a bit odd to me.  Marvel fans probably won't like the changes.  Logan does make a plausible tormented hero type, I suppose.  Time will tell.  4/4/09

 

The Essential Avengers Volume 5, Marvel, 2006 

I was never a big fan of the X-Men, was bored by the Defenders, but the Fantastic Four and the Avengers were almost always excellent.  This is the fifth compilation of the latter’s adventures, starting just after an epic battle with aliens.  It also includes their 100th issue with an all star cast brought in to help with an invasion of Olympus to rescue Hercules from Ares.  Other villains of note include the Grim Reaper, the Sentinels, Space Phantom, the Beast Brood, and Magneto, who also returns for another all star battle when he captures the X-Men thanks to his new power to control people’s minds.  Hawkeye gets miffed and leaves, the Black Knight is turned to stone, the Swordsman reforms and joins, the Vision falls in love with the Scarlet Witch, Captain America gains super strength, and the various members spend a lot of time fighting among themselves and with other superheroes including Dardevil.  The big climax involves their manipulation by Loki and Dormammu, who pit the Avengers against the Defenders, the latter aided by Sub-Mariner, the Hulk, the Silver Surfer, and Doctor Strange, with cameos by Spiderman, the Watcher, Nick Fury, the Man-Thing, and others, including Dracula.  Lots of fun in this one and only a couple of lame issues. 4/2/09

Prophets by S. Andrew Swann, DAW, 3/09, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0541-0  

I have found S. Andrew Swann to be one of the most consistently reliable writers over the years, both in fantasy and science fiction.  This new novel begins a series set in a far future interstellar civilization, the kind of space opera which has recently enjoyed a healthy resurgence in the field.  Swann’s future is set after a break up of the original human empire into various factions, two of which appear to be dancing around the possibility of open conflict.  The discovery of some lost colony worlds suggests a new issue to argue over but there are other problems here as well.  The ship that located them has not reported back, and an investigator sent by the now powerful Church has similarly disappeared.  So another priest is sent to follow up on the original, but what he is about to discover is far more significant than a few wayward colonists.   Nice build up and I’ll be waiting impatiently for the next. 3/30/09

Dawn of War II by Chris Roberson, Black Library, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-686-2

Gunheads by Steve Parker, Black Library, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-698-5 

These two Warhammer novels have quite similar plots.  In the first, a contingent of marines are sent to an arid, remote world where they have had great success recruiting skilled and tough new soldiers – think Dune – only to find that the planet has been overrun by hostile aliens, which changes their mission rather drastically.  As they struggle to survive against overwhelming forces, they discover an even more disturbing secret.  Veteran writer Roberson provides us with a good adventure although the deliberately stiff dialogue grated on me after a while.  I’ve only read one previous book by Parker, another Warhammer novel, and I thought it was pretty minor.  This one has pretty much the same plot, a combat team sent to a hostile world to battle alien enemies that outnumber them, but there’s a slight twist to this one.  Their job is to find the tank used by a legendary commander because it could change the balance of power in another battle, if it even exists.  The potential of this new element is largely unrealized, however.  A standard novel in the series, with nothing to make it stand out, but good enough at what it tries to accomplish. 3/21/09

Coyote Horizon by Allen Steele, Ace, 3/09, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01682-2  

Another installment in the history of Coyote, a human colony world which provides a refuge of sorts for those who want to be free of the repressive government back on Earth.  In previous volumes we’ve seen them thwart attempts by Earth to exert control, and we’ve also had tentative contact with an enigmatic alien race, which now has an embassy of sorts on Coyote.  That’s the source of the central conflict this time around as an unlikely colonist is about to find himself thrust into an important, perhaps decisive role in the evolution of relations between the two species.  Steele has made this series the focus of most of his recent work.  Although I’ve had varying reactions to the previous books, this one is for me at least the best of the lot, with better characterization and a more interesting story wrapped around an understated mystery.  I’d be very surprised if this is our last visit to this particular planet. 3/20/09

Promises in Death by J.D. Robb, Putnam, 2009, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-399-15548-2 

The latest Eve Dallas futuristic police procedural conforms very much to the pattern of its more than two dozen predecessors.  Fortunately, it’s a good pattern and as always Robb (Nora Roberts) pulled me into the story within the first few pages and didn’t relinquish her grip until the end.  In the first chapter, a police officer is lured to her death in the stairwell of her apartment building, but the killer paralyzed her, then revived her for a few minutes before killing her, which puzzles Dallas and her sidekick, Delia Peabody.  In addition to the fact that she was a fellow police officer, the victim was also dating the Medical Examiner, a personal friend, which makes solving it even more urgent.  The investigation goes through various twists and turns before being connected to an old enemy, now in prison off planet but still capable of stirring the pot.  I have found this series to be consistently gripping and well conceived – although the SF part is pretty hokey, and I read this one pretty much in a single sitting.  Travel to the off planet prison takes 16 hours?  Even if it was an asteroid and not in another star system, that’s pretty remarkable.  3/19/09

The Third Claw of God by Adam-Troy Castro, Eos, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-144373-2

Eos doesn’t send me review copies and they get poor distribution in the local Borders, so not only did I not know that this book existed, I’d never even heard of the first in the series published in 2008, which I’ll have to track down.  Andrea Cort works, theoretically, for the diplomats, but that’s a cover for her real role as an investigator.  In this particular case she has traveled to a planet dominated by a family that bases its fortune on arms dealing and which exists as an independent political entity. When a murder is committed by means of an ancient weapon, it is clearly an assassination whose significance is greater than just the death of a single individual.  Cort has to clear things up, despite the chillingly unfriendly atmosphere around her, and keep herself alive long enough to bring the killer to justice.  I’m particularly fond of blends of SF and the detective story, particularly when they’re as well done as this one.  Castro is finally showing the promise at novel length that his short fiction has been suggesting for years. 3/17/09

One Second After by William R. Forstchen, Forge, 3/09, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1758-2  

This cautionary novel is patterned after the classic nuclear war novels that flourished during the 1950s, most specifically Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank.  It’s not a nuclear war that causes the collapse of civilization this time but an electromagnetic pulse weapon that knocks out electricity, computers, and electronics throughout most of North America.  The protagonist is John Matherson who struggles to keep his two daughters and others alive as the basic pattern of civilization collapses almost within hours.  Supplies become scarce, which is particularly troublesome because one of his daughters is diabetic and needs a regular supply of insulin.  The lack of law and order is less than reassuring as well.  The author means this as a warning of what might happen because although there may be no real defense, there are ways that things could be arranged to minimize the effects.  I don’t see much likelihood that the public will be stirred to action, unfortunately.  Well written but depressing at times.  The human race doesn’t get much praise in this one. 3/16/09

Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg, Orb, 2009, $15.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-2230-2 

When I read this first time back in 1972, I thought it was one of the most thoughtful and impressive SF novels I’d ever read.  I’ve re-read it two or three times since then and have had no reason to revise my opinion, and the appearance of a new edition is a welcome one.  One aspect of SF is its concentration on important people or people who find themselves thrust into important situations.  They avert an interstellar war, discover a new scientific principle, overthrow a repressive world government, thwart alien invaders, travel back through time and save the normal course of history, etc.  There’s nothing wrong with this, but at times I wonder what the future would be like for ordinary people under basically ordinary circumstances.  That’s an area of speculation that has been largely overlooked.  This is one of the few exceptions.  The protagonist is a telepath who has long considered his powers more curse than blessing, but when he realizes that they are fading, he experiences a deep sense of loss.  It is probably the most realistic portrayal of a telepath than anything that had ever been written before, or since, and is still my favorite book on the subject.  If the phrase “classic SF” has any meaning at all, this is one of them. 3/16/09

The Temporal Void by Peter F. Hamilton, Del Rey, 3/09, $28, ISBN 978-0-345-49654-6  

Another two day read here.  Big, inventive space operas continue to be popular and Peter Hamilton has given us several of the more interesting ones these past few years.  His latest is the sequel to The Dreaming Void and continues the Commonwealth saga.  There’s an anomaly, a self contained universe within the universe, where humans develop unusual psychic powers and interact with an alien race that has powers far beyond our understanding.  The dreams of one of the people within that microuniverse were communicated to millions of others and had a dramatic impact on human destiny, but now that same mechanism seems to be operating in a different fashion, and the contained universe is growing rapidly.  A brief plot summary cannot even begin to describe the complex series of interlocking stories that follow.  Decades ago, the description of a galactic society in the novels of Edward E. Smith was mind boggling in itself.  Now we have a much more complex and much better realized universe that is far stranger, and far more exciting to read about.  It’s nice to see space opera re-emerging, even if it isn’t exactly what we originally meant by the term. 3/14/09

The Essential Moon Knight Volume 1, Marvel, 2006

Moon Knight is another superhero who debuted after I stopped reading comics.  He has a nifty costume, but that's about it.  He's wishy washy and the villains he battles are so mediocre that I lost interest in this a couple of times and had to keep returning to it in brief chunks.  He starts out as a sort of bad guy, sees the error of his ways, and turns good, complete with secret identity.  He had brief encounters with Spider-Man and the Hulk, but most of the time he's battling no-name thugs or a contagious madness disease.  His enemies in this volume include Bushman, Cyclone, Crossfire, Hatchet-Man (who turns out to be his brother), and the Midnight Man, none of whom are particularly interesting.  Somehow he managed to get his own magazine, so someone must have liked him.  3/13/09.

In the Courts of the Sun by Brian D’Amato, Dutton, 2009, $29.95, ISBN 978-0-525-95051-6

This very large novel – definitely a two day read - mixes science fiction and fantasy, setting it on a framework of Mayan legends.  Jed DeLanda is a modern day Mayan who is able to improve his chances of guessing the future by indulging in an elaborate Mayan game which perhaps taps into the unconscious powers of his mind, or maybe it’s magic.  Anyway, it appears that the Mayan prediction of the end of the world in 2012 may have some basis in fact. Jed gets involved with this when two people recruit his help in deciphering a newly discovered bit of Mayan lore.  They want him to try a kind of mental time travel/possession that will allow him to return to the 7th Century and occupy the body of an ancestor so that he can learn the original, complete version of the ritual game involved and thereby solve the problem.  Unfortunately, his time trip doesn't go exactly as planned.  This is a big novel filled with a great deal of detail about Mayan culture, and explication of how the game works.  Some of this detail may be distracting if you're not interested in the subject matter - and I actually took a day off after reading the first half, then came back to it. It's also reportedly the first in a three part saga, so there's a long way to go.  Intriguing, intelligent, and thoughtful, although I'm afraid I find the whole idea that human destiny is somehow preordained to be a bit hard to swallow. 3/8/09

Storm from the Shadows by David Weber, Baen, 3/09, $27, ISBN 978-1-4165-9147-4  

Although ordinarily I grow impatient with writers who stick with one series and rarely try anything new, David Weber is one of those exceptions that prove the rule.  I have consistently liked the Honor Harrington books better than most of his other novels, and better than most other military SF.  I had also thought that her career was over with the last book, so it was a real treat to find out that that’s not the case, although she’s not the sole focus of attention in this big, new military adventure.  The protagonist was captured and subsequently released by the enemy, but the terms of her release require that she not fight against her captors.  Instead, she is transferred to a remote area of space away from the main battle lines, where she finds herself caught up in just as dangerous a battle with an interplanetary criminal organization.  There’s a little bit of bloat in this 700 page novel, but not as much as in other recent Weber novels, certainly not enough to lose the attention of his readers.  It also reads surprisingly quickly for such a long and densely packed novel.  So let’s hope that Honor’s career has more chapters to come, even if she does spend much of it sitting on the sidelines. 3/6/09

The Essential Spider-Woman Volume 1, Marvel, 2005, $16.99, ISBN 0-7851-1793-8 

Here’s a superhero who didn’t even exist when I was reading comics, having been created in the late 1970s apparently to protect the name from competitors.  She’s pretty minor, and it’s not clear that she has any real spider powers at all, since she flies, is superstrong, and projects paralyzing venom but does nothing webby.  Her minor status is reflected in the fact that she’s a spear carrier in several of these stories, until she got her own magazine, playing second fiddle to Ghost Rider and the Thing.  She eventually gets partnered after a fashion with Magnus, an ageless magician who was once a minion of Morgan Le Fay.  There’s a lot of magical and supernatural stuff in this series as a matter of fact.  Her most interesting opponent in Brother Grimm, who turns out to be the Brothers Grimm.  She was created, sort of, by the High Evolutionary, and is occasionally brainwashed into becoming a agent of Hydra, a world wide conspiracy.  She is occasionally allied with the son of Fu Manchu and the Shroud and has a brief encounter with Spider-Man, whom she’s never heard of!  Other villains she confronts are mostly minor including the Hangman, the Needle, Gypsy Moth, the Killer Clown, and some ordinary crooks.  A very weak effort. 3/6/09

Matter by Iain M. Banks, Orbit, 2008, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-316-00537-1 

Orbit doesn’t send me review copies and I rarely see their titles in stores, so it took me a while to even realize that this new Culture Universe novel had appeared in the US.  The story is set primarily within a feudal style culture on an artificial world where alien races try to influence politics and a usurper has seized the throne.  One prince is unaware of the treachery, a second is in hiding, and their sister – now an agent for the Culture – is returning unaware that anything sinister is afoot. Like most of Banks’ novels, this one is filled with exotic alien races, panoramic vistas, quirky characters, elements of intrigue and adventure, all presented in a manner superior to the great majority of his peers.  The Culture is an enigmatic, contradictory, and fascinating creation.  The story presents genuine ethical questions without lecturing and the characters are sufficiently complex to make their uncertainties and convictions meaningful.  This is quite long – definitely at least a two day read – but in some ways not long enough, because I wanted to know more.  The ending was not at all what I expected and you might be surprised to discover who lives and who dies.  It also contains more fascinating alien cultures and exotic settings than most SF authors manage in an entire career.  If 2008 had not been the year when Anathem appeared, this would have been my choice for the Hugo.  2/28/09

Buyout by Alexander C. Irvine, Del Rey, 3/09, $14, ISBN 978-0-345-49433-7 

Alexander Irvine poses an interesting question in this near future novel in which the prison systems of the country have become even more overcrowded than ever thanks to the proliferation of life sentences.  Someone comes up with an interesting alternative.  Those so confined have the option of volunteering to be executed, in return for which they can designate a beneficiary of a large cash payment reflecting the savings to society.  A prominent businessman who gets involved with this program in California soon discovers that he can no longer view this objectively and complications ensue.  Although I don’t think this particular scenario is a particularly plausible one, the novel does pose a number of troubling questions about the future of the criminal justice system in this country.  Despite the near future focus, this is not an unambitious novel and it’s a thought provoking one as well. 2/26/09

The Best of Gene Wolfe by Gene Wolfe, Tor, 3/09, $29.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-2135-0  

I suspect that this was a very difficult collection to put together, not because there weren’t enough stories but because there were too many.  Gene Wolfe’s short fiction has been so uniformly excellent through the years that very few stories really stand out because when placed in the context of the field as a whole, nearly all of them stand out.  All of my particular favorites are here: “The Fifth Head of Cerberus,” “The Eyeflash Miracles,” “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories,” and “Seven American Nights.”  In fact, my only complaint is that there wasn’t a single story in the collection that I hadn’t already read.  In fact, only one of them had not previously been collected.  Even so, this is a major event from a major writer, nearly five hundred pages of top notch fiction including some of the best work of the last two decades.  If anyone thinks the short story is a dying form, this book should go a long way toward proving them wrong.  This is certainly one of the best single author collections of all time. 2/26/09

The Essential Rampaging Hulk, Marvel, 2008, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-7851-2699-7

I was never fond of the Hulk when I was reading Marvel in the 1970s and I stopped before this rebooting of the series started a few years later, so I’d never read them before.  I had hoped that they would prove to be an improvement but instead I found them absolutely dreadful – the stories are badly written and even the art is generally below their previous standards. Most of the first half of the book is one big story arc pitting the Hulk against the Krylorians, shapechanging aliens who plan to conquer the Earth.  The aliens are laughable as enemies and the Hulk’s female alien friend is just boring.  The stories about them are dull.  Then, half way through, they reboot the series again for several isolated adventures, and the alien and Rick Jones just disappear without explanation.  The mystic realm installment is particularly bad, and the contrivance by which the Hulk battles Submariner is nearly as bad. There are occasional appearances by Thor, Ant Man, Iron Man, and others, but they don’t improve things much.  The last few stories have the Hulk battling child abusers, terrorists, and drug dealers – perhaps more socially relevant, but it’s like using a hammer to swat flies.  Almost unrelentingly dreadful. 2/25/09

For my reviews of the following books, see the May 2009 issue of Analog.

The Last Theorem by Arthur C. Clarke & Frederik Pohl

Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams

The January Dancer by Michael Flynn

When Duty Calls by William C. Dietz

Quofum by Alan Dean Foster

The Quiet War by Paul J. McAuley

The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction Three edited by George Mann, Solaris, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-599-5 

The third in this new series of non-themed original anthologies opens with a story by Jack Skillingstead which I thought was okay but less than impressive as the first in a collection. Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter follow with stronger entries, both of which explore one aspect of the nature of reality.  John Meaney’s story is quite striking but I’d have to say it didn’t connect with me.  Paul Di Filippo has one of his best, life among robots after they’ve wiped out humans.  The stories by Warren Hammond and Ian Whates, both pretty good, have some common elements – electronic defensive systems – which cause an accidental homicide in the first and troublesome robots in the second. Scott Edelman and Paul Cornell have solid stories about very unusual futures.  Adam Roberts has another story that didn’t resonate with me, but Jennifer Pelland follows with a strong tale of human genetic manipulation, love, and sex.  Daniel Abraham hasn’t been around long enough to produce a lot of short stories, but every one that I’ve read by him has been excellent and his entry here is no exception, the best in the collection and the hardest to describe, so I won’t try.  It’s about the human perception of beauty, sort of.   Ian Watson has a cute story of a man trapped in a giant parking lot, and Ken MacLeod considers the Ipod of the future.  There’s also a moving story by Tim Akers.  This one had some ups and downs for me, with a few exceptional stories, most notably the one by Daniel Abraham.  Another above average anthology in a welcome series. 2/24/09

The Essential Iron Man Volume 2, Marvel, 2004

Iron Man was one of my favorites back when I devoured Marvel superhero comics.  This collection starts while he was still sharing a magazine with Captain America through the first few issues of his own title.  As usual, there are various story arcs.  Stark/Iron Man refuses to allow Pepper Potts to fall in love with him, the government wants to know the secrets of Iron Man's armor (which fits in a small valise!), and his friend Happy Hogan is occasionally transformed into the rather boring Freak.  He battles a number of first rate supervillains including the Mandarin, the Grey Gargoyle, Titanium Man, the Black Knight, the Demolisher, the Unicorn, Mole Man, and the Melter.  There's an interesting sequence when he is kidnapped to the future by resistance fighters who want to prevent him from building a computer that takes over the world.  Where have I heard that one before?  The science is not just hokey, it's often outright dumb, but the action sequences are better than with most of the other Marvel superheroes, and Stark was always one of the few who had some genuine character.  2/22/09

The Unincorporated Man by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin, Tor, 3/09, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1899-2  

This collaboration between two brothers is their first novel, a rather longish story although it doesn’t feel overdone except in a very few spots.  The set up is one of the classic SF situations – a man wakens from suspended animation in a post-apocalyptic future in which civilization has altered the basis of society dramatically and spread throughout the solar system.  Every person is essentially a corporation whose stock is possessed by others.  Through hard work, one can purchase those shares and, eventually, gain full ownership of oneself.  In the interim, people are virtually indentured servants although they have some rights.  If they want to work and earn enough to be free, they have to work for whoever owns their output.  Our hero, having been born before the system was started, exists outside the system, hence the title. There are elements of social satire, the cautionary novel, dystopian futures, and high adventure all mixed up in this one, but the result is a cohesive, gripping, and potentially controversial story of the future that reminded me at times of the more balanced work of Robert A. Heinlein, with a touch of Philip K. Dick.  I foresee very good things in the future from this pair. 2/21/09

Anathem by Neal Stephenson, Morrow, 2008, $29.95, ISBN 978-0-06-147409-5, audiobook MacMillan, $69.96, ISBN 978-1-4272-0590-2

I decided to listen to the audio version of this rather than read the novel in part because I anticipated that it would be one of the major books of the year and I wanted to savor it.  I've listened to two of his previous novels in this fashion and enjoyed both immensely, which is not true of every book I've liked in print. I will be very surprised if this doesn’t sweep the Hugo and Nebula awards handily.  It’s a very big novel, more than 900 pages, very rich, evoking an alien culture in more detail than Frank Herbert managed in the entire Dune series.  Initially we see life at a kind of combined monastery and convent where the “religion” is actually more of a devotion to science and cloistered study. Every ten years the doors are opened so that the residents can mix with the outside world – which is roughly analogous to our own – but otherwise there is no routine contact between them and the “extramuros” world.  Then a series of events including the expulsion of a popular teacher suggests that something is happening in the skies of the planet which those in power do not wish the public at large to become aware of.  Erasmas and several others are sent out of their cloistered retreat on an exciting and perilous journey across the planet as part of an effort to deal with the traumatic events facing the world. Eventually we learn that alien visitors, who come to be known as the Geometers, are split into factions and fighting among themselves.  But despite - or perhaps because of - their tensions, the entire world may be in great danger.. 

This should almost win the Hugo and Nebula by acclaim.  It is certainly the best SF novel I’ve read in many years.  And it’s very much SF beyond just the story itself.  A great deal of the text consists of conversations - what the characters often refer to as dialogues - that examine the nature of knowledge, how we acquire and maintain it, the techniques of thinking that go into exploring new possibilities, as well as into the nature of the universe, consciousness, and associated issues.  Several of the illustrative examples are remarkably intelligent and effective.  I’ve heard people claim that the world of Dune is one of the most fully realized in the genre, but even though we see Stephenson's planet from a relatively narrow, even parochial perspective, it felt much more realistic and is certainly more fully described and plausible.  I really regretted it when I reached the end. 2/18/09

Odd Girl Out by Timothy Zahn, Tor, 2008, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1733-9

This is a very belated review because I hadn't been able to find a copy of this book until I went to Boskone.  It's the third in the series that began with Night Train to Rigel and continued in The Third Lynx.  The various planets of a society consisting of 12 different alien species (including us) is linked by tubes and railcars built in the distant past and managed by the Spiders, artificially evolved creatures.  The chief conflict comes from the Modhri, a group mind that can plant colonies in any of the other species which can subtly influence their hosts' actions, or take them over completely.  The protagonists are Frank Compton and Bayta, the latter a not entirely human female.  They have become major opponents of the Modhri in a secret war to counter its influence among the various races.  This one opens with a mysterious woman asking Compton for help.  He demurs and she is subsequently killed in a fashion that indicates involvement by the Modhri.  So he and Bayta are off to locate a young girl supposedly trapped on another planet, while their enemy acts very uncharacteristically, insisting that this time they may end up on the same side against the unexplained Abomination.  What follows is fast paced, marvelously entertaining adventure of a kind that has largely disappeared from contemporary SF, much to my regret.  It's smoothly written and the characters - while fairly shallowly drawn - are sufficiently real to involve us in their plight.  I hope the next won't be as difficult to find.  2/17/09

Daemon World by Graham McNeill, Black Library, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-704-3  

This is the first Warhammer book I’ve read in a while, and it’s one of those that I usually don’t care for, a blend of military SF and demons.  The planet Torvendis has been the scene of so much battle and so many invasions that a notable portion of its topsoil consists of the bodies of the fallen.  There is some stability there at first under a female ruler, but the arrival of a mysterious offworlder proves to be the catalyst for further turmoil as a rebellion breaks out against the status quo.  McNeill is one of the better writers in this shared universe, but he was unable to overcome my prejudices against mixing the two genres.  There were parts of the story I liked, but others grated on me.  2/8/09

1942 by Robert Conroy, Ballantine, 2/09, $15, ISBN 978-0-345-50607-8

 I kept thinking of Harry Turtledove’s Days of Infamy while I was reading this new alternate history story by Conroy, his fourth such novel.  Following the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, Admiral Yamamoto orders a full scale invasion which overwhelms the island defenses. Given the unusual good luck that spared the US aircraft carriers destruction during the initial raid - they were at sea - this isn't entirely implausible.  Not all of the American soldiers are captured in the assault, and we see most of the subsequent action through the eyes of some of those who conduct a guerilla war against the occupying force.  Exciting and plausible military action ensues leading up to the counterattack and defeat of the Japanese.  No surprises, of course, but very enjoyable and with a cast of interesting characters to give depth to what is otherwise a straightforward military adventure story. This is the author's fourth alternate history, one other of which was set during World War II.  The most interesting of these was 1901, which was much more speculative than this relatively tame excursion into possibilities. 2/7/09

Rx for Chaos by Christopher Anvil, Baen, 2009, $12, ISBN 978-1-4165-9143-6 

I've been going back and forth between two very different short story collections the last few days - the other by Michael Shea.  The difference between the two authors is dramatic, but I've been pleased to find that I enjoy both, possibly with different parts of my brain. Although there are a few stories left, I think this volume will be the end of Baen’s program of bringing Christopher Anvil back into print.   Although only a handful of Anvil’s stories stuck out over the years, he was one of the most consistently entertaining contributors to Campbell’s Analog/Astounding and other magazines for several decades.  He wrote a lot of problem stories, often with humorous twists, and often had trick endings.  Most of the stories this time involve some technological development and examine its consequences, sometimes with very funny results.  Underneath the light hand and simple plots of several of these stories are rather serious questions about how we incorporate change into our society, and whether we are too quick to embrace it without thinking things through.  This is a hefty volume and well worth the admission fee.  2/3/09

Cyberadad Days by Ian McDonald, Pyr, 2/09, $15.98, ISBN 978-1-59102-699-0 

I became a loyal fan of Ian McDonald way back when King of Morning, Queen of Day appeared back in 1991.  Since then he has been able to surprise me with every new book, and though I’ve obviously liked some better than others, I’ve never felt cheated.  One of his very best novels is River of Gods from 2004, which portrayed a near future India that had become one of the pre-eminent national powers even though it was still in many ways a hodgepodge of interacting cultures, a kind of Asian version of the melting pot, or maybe a salad rather than an amalgamation. And the situation is inherently unstable. This is a collection of short stories that make use of that same background, and if anything I think I like this format even better.  Natural resources are scarce and technology is advancing so rapidly that no one is really in control of it any longer.  The stories examine religious and philosophical as well as social questions, and familiar elements in society become unfamiliar when placed in a new context. “Sanjeev and Robotwallah” and “Vishnu at the Cat Service” are my favorites, but all of the stories are of very high quality. 2/2/09

Cosmocopia by Paul Di Filippo, Payseur & Schmidt, 2009, $65, ISBN 1-2345678-9-0

 The latest inspired weirdness from Paul Di Filippo comes packaged with a jigsaw puzzle of art by Jim Woodring.  It’s a short novel that follows the misadventures of Frank Lazorg, an aging artist who has lost both his health and his lover.  The latter fact inspires him to a fit of murderous rage, after which an experimental paint proves to be a portal to another universe.  There Lazorg regains his health and vigor, but finds himself the only human in a very alien world.  There’s a good deal of humor here and at times I was reminded of William Tenn’s classic “The Flat Eyed Monster”, but with an entirely different tone and very difference consequences.  This is a limited edition so it’s likely to be a rarity unless it gets reprinted at some point, presumably without the puzzle.  Decidedly out of the ordinary, but then again, given the author what else would you expect? Incidentally, I suspect the stated ISBN number is a hoax on this one, so be warned. 2/1/09

Duplicate Effort by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Roc, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-46260-2 

The latest in the Retrieval Artist series of space adventures.  This time we have agent Miles Flint trying to uncover the truth behind the surface dealings of an interplanetary law firm whom he believes is involved in decidedly shady activities.  The other arm of the plot this time is his daughter, who has gone missing on the moon after deciding that she wants to track down her clones.  The two separate story lines are drawn together because this makes the daughter vulnerable to agents of the law firm, who would be happy to have some leverage against Flint.  Well thought out suspense and adventure in a consistently rewarding series. 1/31/09 

The Books of the Wars by Mark Geston, Baen, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4165-9152-8 

Baen Books continues its laudable program of bringing forgotten SF back into print.  Mark Geston is one of those writers who made a strong impression when he first appeared, but who wrote only a few books before dropping out of the SF scene.  Two of the three novels here impressed me greatly when I first read them.  Lords of the Starship concerns the plots and counterplots behind the construction of an enormous starship in a post-apocalyptic future Earth.  Out of the Mouth of the Dragon was the even better sequel, in which the various factions on Earth meet for the final conflict.  I don’t remember The Siege of Wonder as being in the same series, but it’s one of those stories in which magic returns to the world and battles technology for supremacy.  It’s not nearly as good as the first two.  Although the threat of nuclear war isn’t as acute as it once was, these stories haven’t lost their punch. 1/31/09

Voices from Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas, Dark Regions, 2008, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-888993-63-9 

I have been increasingly impressed with the short fiction (as well as the novels) of Jeffrey Thomas over the last few years.  He has an unusual perspective that makes most of his stories feel just slightly off center, which means that I’m constantly surprised by the directions they take.  This latest collection is a return to Punktown, a colony on a distant world where humans, aliens, and other beings interact in often bizarre and unpredictable ways.  They are technically SF but several of them are also horror stories.  The setting is unlike any other space colony you’ve ever read about and I guarantee you will not be bored here.  There are ten stories here, plus the script for a graphic novel.  My favorites were “Monsters,” “The Color Shrain,” and “Behind the Masque” but they’re all quite good and definitely out of the ordinary.  Expand your horizons with this one, best read in the dark. 1/27/09

Walls of the Universe by Paul Melko, Tor, 2/09, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1997-5 1881 

Parallel universe novels and alternate history novels overlap, but they aren’t exactly the same thing.  The former usually suggest that travel from one reality to another is possible while in the latter, that is usually not the case.  Naturally, there are some that fall into either category.  Paul Melko’s new novel is more the former.  The protagonist is approached by another version of himself who possesses a device that makes it possible to move from one reality to the next.  This provides the opportunity to acquire knowledge from one world and market it in another, potentially a very profitable business.  Our hero gets stuck while visiting an alternate reality when the device malfunctions, and while trying to figure out how to repair it, he causes ripples in that reality that attract the attention of other trans-world travelers, including some who aren’t very friendly.  Old fashioned fun stories never really go out of style and this is proof. A nice blend of comedy and adventure. 1/22/09

When Diplomacy Fails edited by Eric Flint and Mike Resnick, ISFiC Press, 2009, $30, ISBN 9780975915660 

Military SF seems to be firmly established as a major subgenre now, but most of it appears at book length rather than as short stories.  Most but not all.  The editors here have gathered together some fine short examples, most of them previously published in anthologies.  There are some familiar names here – John Ringo, David Drake, Daviud Weber, Harry Turtledove – but some unfamiliar ones as well including Tanya Huff and Gene Wolfe.  A couple of the stories seemed to me rather pedestrian, but a couple others were exceptionally good – e.g. Gene Wolfe, Mike Resnick, and Stephen Leigh.  Military oriented stories that should, in general, appeal to even those readers who don’t particularly care for the form. 1/20/09

Steal Across the Sky by Nancy Kress, Tor, 2/09, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1986-9

Although Nancy Kress has never been one of the more prolific writers in the field, she has accumulated quite a list of first class novels, none of which have ever disappointed me.  This new one didn’t break the string.  It’s a first contact story, but an unusual one.  Aliens establish a base on the moon and begin advertising on Earth, asserting that in the distant past they were responsible for an unspecified but significant injustice to the human race, for which they wish to atone.  They offer to enlist a number of humans whom they will transport to inhabited worlds around the galaxy as part of that expiation.  There is some obvious skepticism, but a few people are curious enough to volunteer, and we follow the adventures of a few of those individuals in their visits to two distant worlds.  There they learn about the aliens, about themselves, and eventually about a secret their own government is concealing from them, none of which I’m going to tell you, obviously.  Recommended. 1/16/09

Critical Mass by Whitley Strieber, Forge, 2/09, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-2253-1 1880 

Over the course of his career, Whitley Strieber has moved back and forth from novels of the supernatural to cautionary, sometimes even apocalyptic, tales of science fiction.  I’ve liked the former in general much better than the latter, and this falls into the second category, although it’s one of his better novels.  What would happen if terrorists should actually come into possession of nuclear weapons and smuggle some of them into major cities around the world and inside the United States?  What might be the consequences if they were able to detonate one of them inside Washington and wipe out most of our national leaders?  This marginal thriller involves the efforts by an expert on nuclear weapons and a few others to stop the plot before millions of people perish.  The terrorists are Islamic fundamentalists, of course, but Strieber is very careful to draw a distinction between fanatics and the majority, a sometimes difficult path to follow.  Very suspenseful and appealing to those who enjoy Tom Clancy and similar writers. 1/14/09

Across the Sky by Mark Rich, Fairwood Press, 1/09, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-9820730-1-8 

Mark Rich is another of those writers whose name I recognized but whose work I’ve read over such an extended period of time that I had no strong image of him as a writer.  This collection helped to bring those wandering memories together.  There are almost twenty stories here, most of which I’d read previously and several of which I remembered when I read them again.  There is a strong component of harder science fiction than with many of his contemporaries, and aliens, other worlds, space travel, and other familiar devices are common here.  There’s even a touch of humor.  Among my favorites were “The Apples of Venus,” “Staying the Course,” “The Smoking Gun,” and the title story.  Rich is a writer in the more traditional vein of SF, with strong story telling talents and a pervading sense of the wonder of the universe. 1/8/09

          David Falkayn: Star Trader by Poul Anderson, Baen, 2009, $22, ISBN 978-1-4165-5520-9

Although I was a big fan of Poul Anderson's fiction when I first read it, I was even more impressed a few years back when I re-read most of it, discovering that he was a much more sophisticated writer than I remembered, enjoyable even when I disagreed with some of his social commentary.  Among my favorites of his work are the tales of David Falkayn and Nicholas Van Rijn, both set in the series involving the Polesotechnic League.  Each had his own series of stories and/or novels.  Falkayn was often accompanied by Adzel, his rather large alien co-worker.  This largish collection includes two complete novels - The Trouble Twisters and Satan's World - both rather short by contemporary standards but both excellent examples of intelligent space opera.  There are also five very good short stories plus a chronology compiled by Sandra Miesel.  There are very few writers today who create this kind of space based adventure story, and fewer still who do it as well as in this collection.  1/5/09

Regenesis by C.J. Cherryh, DAW, 1/09, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0530-4  

I am a big fan of the Merchanter universe, although I did not care for Cyteen as much as apparently did most SF fans, to which this is the direct sequel.  I was also put off a bit by the opening which starts with a detailed and mildly bewildering history of the Merchanter universe, which is perhaps necessary, but then moves to a detailed history of Ariane Emory’s life (or lives since she is cloned) which is not quite as bewildering but which rapidly becomes boring.  Show don’t tell, as they say.  The story does eventually get going, but I found my attention wandering several times.  Some of the conversations go on far too long and become repetitive, the political background doesn’t always contribute to the plot and sometimes obfuscates things, and the pace in general is very slow.  Downbelow Station is one of my favorite Cherryh’s, and I’ve enjoyed most of her novels, but occasionally she slips into this voice where I feel as though I’m being lectured rather than enlightened or entertained. 1/2/09

 Starship: Rebel by Mike Resnick, Pyr, 2008, $25, ISBN 978-1-59102-695-2

This is the fourth in my favorite quasi-military space opera series.  Wilson Cole and his crew have deserted the vast space navy of a rather oppressive human interstellar empire to make a living among the fringe worlds where theoretically the navy has no authority, although they are not above destroying entire planetary populations if the whim takes them.  When an old friend is brutally murdered by one of these roving warships, Cole gets his revenge and becomes an even more wanted criminal.  As tensions mount, he forms uneasy alliances and finds himself leading a small fleet, woefully outnumbered by the powers arrayed against him, but determined to see justice done, at least in some small way.  Fast paced, exciting, ingenious, and always fun.  This one is a little darker than the earlier titles in the series, but no less satisfying.  And yet another is obviously on the way.  1/1/09

 

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