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

LAST UPDATE 4/29/10  

People Minus X by Raymond Z. Gallun, Ace, 1958 

I didn’t discover science fiction until 1960, so I picked this Ace Double up secondhand sometime after that.  Gallun was never a major player in the SF field, and I only vaguely remember his work.  This one opens with the destruction of the moon as an accident after a scientific experiment goes awry.  Humans are otherwise virtually immortal and have spread through the solar system although they have not yet reached the stars.  The writing here is pretty crude.  The dialogue reads like a succession of speeches, action is compressed into a few days that would actually have taken weeks or months, and the science is occasionally hokey.  Almost everyone who died in the disaster is brought back to life in a normal or android body, either through recordings of their personalities or reconstructed from the memories of others, but since memories are imperfect, a lot of the latter are different from their originals. Predictably tension between humans and androids increases as the years pass, leading to violence, murder, and the threat of outright war.  This doesn't age well at all and only the first few chapters are actually interesting.  4/29/10

Touched by an Alien by Gini Koch, DAW, 4/10, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0600-4  

This new byline graces an interesting and perhaps inevitable hybrid.  The story is basically a familiar urban fantasy with a feisty young woman who discovers that the world is not what she thought it was.  The trick is that this isn’t fantasy, it’s science fiction.  The secretive creatures living among us are actually aliens, not supernatural monsters. Not that the science is very rigorous.  I raised an eyebrow when one of the supposed humans transforms into a winged monster, and wasn’t able to take much of what followed seriously, although it is meant to be read with a half grin anyway.  Anyway, she deals with an alien manifestation and is approached by a handsome agent of a secretive group that deals with this sort of thing all the time.  Men in Black meets Laurell Hamilton.  Light fun. 4/14/10

The Short Victorious War by David Weber, Brilliance Audio, read by Allyson Johnson, 2010, $29.99, ISBN 978-1-4233-9523-2

The third Honor Harrington novel involves the outbreak of war between Mantichore and its arch-enemies, the People's Republic of Haven.  Harrington is stationed at an outpost that becomes crucial and understaffed at a critical moment, proves her mettle once again, outwits enemies both declared and undeclared, and fights a major space battle.  As with its predecessors, the story is gripping and fast moving and the characters are generally better drawn than in most military SF.  The silly, implausible politics are largely absent this time around, although there are still plenty of instances of weapons porn and technobabble.  Would the bridge officers actually refer to contact in seconds to TWO decimal places?  The information would be totally useless since we cannot even sense the passage of one hundredth of a second - let alone speak, hear, and comprehend the information.  I had a minor quibble about Honor's personality.  We know from previous books that she hates and has nightmares about one of her enemies because of an attempted rape, but this time we have the incident described in detail and it barely qualifies as much more than a case of a peeping Tom. And at the time, she beat him senseless without his having struck her.  I know that even attempted rape is traumatic, but given her strength of character, years of terrible nightmares seems disproportionate and implausible.  The book could also have used some editing.  One side does not have "less ships" than the other, it has "fewer ships."  And in an Inigo Montoya moment, the author refers to a ship's armament as "literally inconceivable", suggesting he doesn't know the meaning of either of those two words.  Quibbles aside, I thought this was the most enjoyable of the first three.  4/11/10

Instinct by Jeremy Robinson, Thomas Dunne, 2010, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-312-54029-6

This - sequel to Pulse - is one of those thrillers you need to read with a towel in your lap to soak up all the testosterone dripping off the pages. As with Clive Cussler and other adventure writers, it makes up science to suit the story rather than logic.  A genetic disease which kills its victims within a few days of infection does not seem to be likely to survive long in evolutionary terms.  Anyway, the disease - which causes adult males to fall dead - strikes the President, who is revived but who for some reason is not contagious even though it's a contagious disease.  Confusing, but irrelevant, since the action moves to Vietnam where, in a remote region, a team of jocks - not all of them male - are sent to find the source of the disease.  They are opposed by a tribe of prehumans (?) who are arboreal and vicious as well as a small to mid-sized army of Vietnamese soldiers under the command of an obsessed officer.  There's so much shooting and running that there's little room for story or plot development. And I burst out laughing when the author reveals that the primitive - all female - are looking for healthy males to abduct and rape.  I found Pulse enjoyable but slight.  This time it wasn't even enjoyable.  4/7/10

WWW:Watch by Robert J. Sawyer, Ace, 2010, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01818-5  

The story begun in WWW:Wake continues. In that one, we discovered that the world wide web of the near future has become self aware after having been “perceived” by a blind woman fitted with a new form of technology that allows her to “see” digital information. Although its existence is not widely known, it is also detected by a secret government agency dedicated to protecting the US from any perceived threats through the internet.  This is particularly topical given the sudden hysteria in Washington about potential hacker assaults on government institutions which, as usual, is blown completely out of proportion and threatens another layer of restraints on civil liberties. The ensuing conflict is predictable enough.  Our heroine wants to protect the emergent entity while the government heavies want to expunge it from the internet.  Sawyer manages to make all of this interesting and entertaining, but the assumptions behind the action are often depressing. But then again, a lot of contemporary news stories are pretty depressing as well. 4/6/10

Blackout by Connie Willis, Ballantine Spectra, 2010, $26, ISBN 978-0-553-80319-8  

Connie Willis returns to the time traveling world of To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997).  Researchers are being sent to various critical events in various time periods, confident that nothing they do can possibly affect the flow of time.  But something has changed in the structure of time itself and it appears that they may actually be altering reality.  The SF part of the story provides some interesting speculation in itself, but the real charm is in the author’s evocation of World War Two England, as seen from the perspective of people huddling in the bomb shelters or fighting the battles or ministering to the wounded rather than from that of the politicians and generals.  I’m not qualified to judge the historical content – which I’ve seen questioned in some reviews - but the story itself is compelling and exciting.  Willis has a gift for showing how ordinary people cope with adversity. 4/3/10

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, read by Peter Ganim, Brilliance audio, 2009, $29.99, ISBN 978-1-4233-9498-3

This is one of my favorite Big Dumb Object novels, although it is not clear that Rama is dumb at all.  A century or two from now humanity has colonized much of the solar system.  When a new comet is detected, no one is particularly excited until it is revealed that the object is artificial.  Only one spaceship is close enough to make a rendezvous and visit it for a few weeks before it passes through the system, if that's what it's going to do.  The crew lands, effects an entry, and explores a vast, contained habitat that at first seems lifeless but which is eventually populated by hordes of biological robots or biots who pursue various enigmatic purposes almost completely ignoring the human interlopers.  There's a wisp of conflict involving a plan by Mercury to destroy Rama because it could be a potential menace, but the story is really about the exploration and, as Robert Sawyer says in the introduction, it is mostly about suggesting the wonders of the universe that might lie out there waiting for us.  This was the last of Clarke's novels that I actively liked and it holds up quite well today.  4/2/10

Directive 51 by John Barnes, Ace, 2010, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01822-2  

It seems like ages since I last read a John Barnes novel so I was psyched for this one.  He picks a future closer in time than usual this time, dealing instead with terrorism, although not exactly the kind we’re familiar with.  This is closer to anarchism, a group of disparate groups who are united only in their opposition to big everything – government, business, etc. – and want to bring the whole thing crashing down to be replaced by a system presumably simpler and more responsive to human needs.  Now that I think about it, not so unfamiliar after all.  Or so the theory goes.  But the government is aware of them and there is a secret Presidential order which could be triggered as a response. And that means trampling down quite a few civil liberties in the process.  Intriguing, but I had considerable difficulty finding any characters with whom I could sympathize very much since both sides are clearly evil. I'm also rather tired of political polemics no matter which way they lean, particularly since they are all necessarily over simplified and often use straw men to advance their arguments. First in a series. 4/1/10

The Crucible of Empire by Eric Flint & K.D. Wentworth, Baen, 2010, $25, ISBN 978-1-4391-3338-5

Sequel to The Course of Empire from 2003.  In that title, Earth had been conquered by an alien race which installed a military government, but relations between the two races changed when a third species showed up to threaten them both.  Now working toward an alliance rather than a dependency, humans and their overlords alike are taken aback by the discovery of a fourth and apparently even more malevolent race at war with their former enemy.  The explanation is a little more complicated than that, but I’ll let you read it yourself to figure out the details. A joint expedition is sent to discover just what’s going on, but who can trust who and how far?  Although this is, I suppose, technically military SF, it’s also a first contact story, sort of, and a voyage of discovery story and a few other things as well.  Nicely done space opera with less of an agenda than most similar novels from Baen. 3/30/10

Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann, Pyr, 4/10, $16, ISBN 978-1-61614-194-3

Here’s an unusual book, which had much of the feel of a Batman adventure.  The setting is 1927 Manhattan, but not our Manhattan.  Cars are steam powered but telephones are holographic.  The city is in the grip of a criminal overlord known as the Roman, whose origins and identity are shrouded in mystery and who seems immune to the efforts of the police to control him.  Enter the Ghost, a masked vigilante who thwarts his henchmen repeatedly before teaming up with a bitter police officer to confront the villain in his lair and discover that the world is even stranger than they thought.  This is deliberately written in a pulp style so don’t expect deep characterization, and the Ghost’s real identity is obvious from the outset.  There’s a beautiful girl in jeopardy, some nasty villains, and assorted other characters, along with a great deal of visceral violence.  I have a problem with vigilante stories most of the time, but this was clearly a comic book world and it turned out to be quite a lot of fun. 3/26/10

The Inheritors by William Golding, Pocket, 1962 

Last year I re-read Lord of the Flies and I’ve been trying to make time to go back through Golding’s other novels.  This was his third, and the only other one to be marginally SF.  The first half is particularly good, an evocation of a Neanderthal culture – a small tribe of gentle, straightforward creatures who communicate using something akin to telepathy.  Then they run into the early homo sapiens, a species which uses cruelty, deceit, and other devices to take advantage of their trusting rivals for domination of the Earth.  It’s no contest, of course, and reflects Golding’s ongoing reservations about the human race.  My reaction now is the same as when I first read it forty years ago – it’s about fifty percent longer than it should have been.  But the early chapters are exceptional. 3/20/10

Stealth by Karen Miller, Del Rey, 2010, $15, ISBN 978-0-345-50902-4  

I hadn’t read a Star Wars novel in a long time and this one turned up, an adventure set during the Clone Wars and involving young Annakin Skywalker, before he is turned to the Dark Side, and a young Obi-Wan Kenobi.  The separatist movement is growing in strength and war is spreading through the galaxy. The two are sent undercover to a remote planet where they discover that a scientist is developing a powerful new weapon, under duress, which could accelerate the collapse of the Republic. The undercover ploy doesn’t work very well either and the twosome have all they can do to stay alive, let alone do something about the dangerous research and the imprisoned scientist.  Okay space adventure and it’s nice to see Annakin as the good guy, but nothing out of the ordinary. 3/14/10

Pirate of the Pacific by Kenneth Robeson, 1933

This Doc Savage adventure is not SF but since most of them probably are, I’m going to lump them all in the same place. Doc and his friends return from the North Pole just in time to be bombed by Asian thugs who want to prevent him from coming to the assistance of an old friend. Although they survive, they soon discover that they are being spied upon by persons unknown.  The friend has been abducted and Doc is captured early on, although obviously he escapes. A goodly number of evil henchmen get killed during the first several chapters. Doc is free, but his own crew become captives, so he has to rescue them from the villainous Mongols.  They are part of a plot by a Chinese pirate lord to infiltrate and take over the government of his native land.  Most of the novel involves Doc’s efforts to rescue his cohorts.  Fair to middling but rather repetitive until the action packed ending. 3/13/10

Able One by Ben Bova, Tor, 2010, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2386-6  

Ben Bova takes on a timely topic for his latest, a techno-thriller, most of which hold no interest for me.  What is North Korea could and did produce a number of nuclear weapons with the missiles necessary to deliver them to targets in the West?  The action opens when the North Koreans launch one missile into space and detonate it in orbit, destroying or disabling most of the world’s satellite system. An experimental aircraft is launched on a desperate mission to destroy the remaining missiles before they can be launched, possibly setting off a wider nuclear confrontation, but the technology is untried and – inevitably if not too plausibly – there’s a saboteur on board who plans to make sure that the mission is a failure.  Bova ratchets the suspense up on this one, which blends hard science fiction with technothriller.  Less imaginative in panoramic terms than most of his other books, but no less engrossing. 3/12/10

Gardens of the Sun by Paul J. McAuley, Pyr, 3/10, $16, ISBN 978-1-61614-196-7  

Paul J. McAuley provides a follow up to The Quiet War.  The war between repressive Earth and the more liberal colonies among the outer planets of the solar system has ended with the conquest of the latter. Now the triumphant forces are crushing the last resistance and spreading their repression to the formerly free colonies.  There are signs that the regime is doomed, however.  Internal squabbles threaten to destabilize the government and in the furthest reaches of the system, a handful of refugees struggle to survive and avoid detection. Even more dangerous to the status quo is the spread of liberal ideas back to Earth.  We see all of this through the eyes of several different characters including those involved with a desperate, potentially cataclysmic final confrontation with the victors.  I find that McAuley’s subject matter in the past has sometimes left me uninterested, but this is lively and engrossing and I liked it even better than its prequel. 3/9/10

Not Less Than Gods by Kage Baker, Tor, 3/10, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-1891-6  

Steampunk seems to be coming back into fashion, both in SF and fantasy.  Since I’m fond of Victorian settings, that’s a welcome development for me. This is part of a secondary series associated with the author’s Company novels, going back to flesh in the stories of some familiar characters. Edward Fairfax is the hero this time, a more than ordinary human who sometimes vaguely resembles a comic book superhero. He works as a spy but he’s never quite certain of the nature, identity, or purposes of those who direct his activities.  Given my predisposition, it’s probably not a surprise that I liked this one even better than most of the original series.  Filled with fascinating characters, offbeat situations, and just plain good writing.  Right at this moment, I think this is probably her best novel to date – although that might change tomorrow.  Note: I wrote the preceding before I learned of the author’s terminal illness.  Her death is a tragic loss to the field as well as her friends and family. 3/7/10

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, read by Jonathan Davis, Brilliance Audio, 2009, $39.99, ISBN 978-1-4418-0614-7

This 1949 classic novel was probably the first world disaster novel I ever read, the story of the very small number of survivors after a new plague devastates civilization in a matter of weeks.  Isherwood Williams becomes de facto leader of a small community in California who live mostly by scavenging on the ruins.  The first third is very impressive, as Ish travels around exploring the aftermath.  After that, he settles down into a small community with a group of average people, quite realistic, but they are all so passive that at times I found myself impatient for them to get going. There’s almost no conflict until a drifter shows up late in the book, and he’s disposed of off stage.  Ish frequently is as well, but he’s equally passive and does nothing except feel sorry for himself and, frankly, by the end of the novel I disliked him fairly intensely.  He’s a hypocrite as well as a self centered egomaniac.  On the other hand, Stewart seems to have gotten the general drift of thing quite accurate.  I’m not sure canned goods would survive edibly for more than twenty years, some of his child psychology is questionable, and after battling wisteria fruitlessly for years, I don’t believe it would become extinct (along with corn and wheat) simply because humans effectively disappeared. Stewart probably invented the disaster novel and this dates quite well. Readers should be warned that this is not a happy book and you won't walk away from it feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. 3/5/10

Up Jim River by Michael Flynn, Tor, 3/10, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2284-5  

This is a kind of sequel to The January Dancer, which I really liked, although the tone is in many ways quite different.  A secret agent has vanished on a mysterious mission about which she told her superiors little.  There is evidence, however, suggesting that she was on the trail of some secret which could alter the balance of power between two vast interstellar empires.  Her daughter decides to go looking for her and enlists the aid of the Scarred Man, an ex-spy for the enemy who has been implanted with six additional personalities, making rather a crowd inside his head.  With limited assistance from the authorities, they set out to discover the truth, and stumble onto a lot more than they had expected.  Not quite up to Flynn’s last, but still a thoroughly engrossing adventure from a writer who deserves considerable attention. 3/4/10

The Secret of Excalibur by Andy McDermott, Headline, 2008, £6.99, ISBN 978-0-7553-4550-2  

The third adventure of Eddie Chase and Nina Wilde.  Excalibur is supposed to make its owner impregnable and an historian believes it is the key to a previously unknown form of power.  He contacts Wilde and asks for her help in locating the artifact, but gets killed quickly after telling her that a devious Russian and his allies are also trying to find the sword. The plot recapitulates the formula of the first two – exotic settings around the world, a race against time to find a magical artifact while avoiding the deadly minions of another group.  This time it’s the US and possibly the Russian government who want the sword, which can tap into earth energy, whatever that is.  There are wild chases, battles, escapes, and so forth.  There’s more action than substance and I still find the two protagonists irritating but I can’t say I was ever bored. 3/2/10

Cosmopath by Eric Brown, Solaris, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-833-0 9 

I hadn’t consciously noticed it but Eric Brown has become one of those comparative handful of writers whose new books I look forward to actively.  He blends superior storytelling skills with a sense of wonder that never seems to lose its edge.  Bengal Station is the uniting element in some of his recent novels, including this one, and telepathy is a major element, a plot device that has been noticeably absent from most contemporary SF. The protagonist is a telepath who hires himself out for various assignments, but his latest is a stretch even for him.  A very powerful man wants him to read the mind of a dead space explorer who may have found out more about an alien civilization that was good for him, and ignorance of which might be very bad for the human race. Obviously I can’t tell you what the secret is.  Brown strikes me as a worthy successor to Poul Anderson and John Brunner, with many of the strongest assets of each. 2/28/10

Deep Navigation by Alastair Reynolds, NESFA, 2010, $26, ISBN 978-1-886778-90-0

Alastair Reynolds is probably my favorite SF writer to emerge during the 1990s, with a string of fascinating novels and a handful of excellent shorter pieces.  He’s the guest of honor at Boskone this year so, naturally, there’s a new Boskone book by him.  It includes a number of short stories that I had never seen before, including his first professional sale, and several others published originally in Great Britain or with limited availability.  Several are excellent and all of them are good, particularly “The Fixation”, “Fury”, and “Viper.”  Reynolds generally writes on the border between hard SF and space opera, but he shows considerable diversity here.  There’s also an introduction by Stephen Baxter.  One of the best of the Boskone books, and one of the better recent single author short story collections. 2/27/10

A Thousand Sons by Graham McNeill, Black Library, 2010, $8.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-809-5

Soul Hunter by Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Black Library, 2010, $8.99, ISBN 978-1-84416811-8  

Fans of military SF should not ignore the Warhammer novels, at least the half of them that are set in the future and involve space marines and such.  The background is a little out of the ordinary, but the plots are standard military adventures with occasional twitches if not twists.  These two, from different strands of the Warhammer thread, are a case in point.  McNeill has been doing these for a good long time and he’s one of the better authors working this vein.  His latest is set within the Horus Heresy subset, in which the theocratically dominated human worlds are engaged in a bloody interstellar civil war. The title refers to an elite group so fierce and controversial that they are feared even by their allies. A touch of prescience and more than a touch of treachery move this plot along as the soldiers find themselves tested on more than just physical grounds.  Readers might find a bit of this confusing if they aren’t familiar with more of the history of this particular shared universe, but not fatally so and McNeill tells a good story.  The second title is by an author new to me and to the series.  There are certain elements in common although this is a story about the Night Lords, a legion guilty of heresy which has become something between a rebellion and a criminal organization. It’s a lot more viscerally violent and more comic book in its plot development.  There are some good touches here and there but nothing interesting enough to underscore.  Okay but unmemorable. 2/25/10

The Tomb of Hercules by Andy McDermott, Bantam, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-553-59294-8  

The sequel to The Hunt for Atlantis gets off to a violent start with a raid by a criminal organization on a government installation.  Then we revisit our two protagonists from the first book.  I’m going to contradict myself a bit here.  The characters were comic book quality in the first, but there’s a definite effort to flesh them in early in the sequel.  Alas, they both come across as egotistic, short sighted, unkind, and puerile, which didn’t do much to enlist me to their cause.  So in this case, deeper characterization was a negative.  Anyway, they are looking for the tomb of Hercules, as you might guess from the title, and so is this international group of financiers and mercenaries. The male half also has to rescue his earlier lover from a domineering but rich thug. Soon they’re both on the run, one in New York, one in Shanghai.  They get back together, now with the guy’s ex-wife in tow, and all three are on the run again before long.  This is, as you might have guessed, almost entirely one long chase/battle scene with bits of plot strung in between great gobs of action.  There’s some gore – exploding heads and the like – but most of what goes on is comic book style.  My only real complaint about this is that it reads like a rewrite of the first – with the same battle against an evil cabal, the same globetrotting, even the same discovery that the beautiful female ally is actually working for the other side. I know these things are formulaic but that’s hewing a bit too close to the line.  2/20/10

Coyote Destiny by Allen Steele, Ace, 2010, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01821-5  

This is going to be the last novel in the main Coyote series, which in part roughly parallels the story of the founding of the United States and beyond, transplanted to a colony world – at least for the time being.  After contacting aliens a book or so back, Coyote finds itself cut off from the home world and facing an uncertain future alone. When a ship from Earth finally arrives, it carries disturbing news.  There is a terrorist on Coyote who is probably planning a new and devastating attack on the colonial authorities. The story splits then between a party who travel back to Earth seeking intelligence and another on Coyote who are determined to track down the desperado before he can strike.  Both groups run into surprises, dangers, and puzzles. Steele is constitutionally incapable of writing a bad story so it’s no surprise that this is a good one and he ties up this popular series with an exciting, suspenseful, and satisfying conclusion. I look forward to seeing where his productive imagination will next take his readers. 2/16/10

Robots and Magic by Lester Del Rey, NESFA, 2010, $29, ISBN 978-1-886778-88-7 

The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold, NESFA, 2010, $26, ISBN 978-1-886778-85-6  

NESFA’s classic reprint program continues with this, the second volume of the selected short stories of Lester Del Rey.  Del Rey’s short fiction was generally much better than his novels, which were often pedestrian – and sometimes ghost written.  There are several classics in this very large collection of thirty-four stories, including “Helen O’Loy” and “The Coppersmith”.  There are a few fantasies – the genres weren’t quite as clearly separated when he was writing – and I sometimes think he would have been better if he had concentrated on that form.  His prose isn’t always the smoothest, but he could tell a good story.  There’s an introduction by Terry Brooks.  Handsomely produced and well worth the cover price.  NESFA also continued its hardcover reprints of Lois McMaster Bujold’s early Vorkosigian novels.  This one, from 1990, has Miles sent off on what should have been a routine and boring mission which gets progressively more complex. Introduction by Jo Walton and notes by Suford Lewis.  Bujold appears to have turned to fantasy exclusively in recent years and while her fantasy is rewarding, I miss the feel of her earlier work. 2/14/10

Altar of Eden by James Rollins, Morrow, 2010, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-06-123142-1 

The first few James Rollins novels really hooked me, in large part because they revived the lost world theme, which has always been one of my favorites.  His last several have been exciting but less interesting, a series about an ongoing battle between two secretive organizations – one good and one bad – with lots of gunfights, captures and escapes, and implausible adventures.  His latest is a partial return to his original form, not a lost world exactly though it bears some similarities.  A cargo ship is found wrecked and abandoned, carrying several animals who appear to be genetic throwbacks, although they are remarkably intelligent as well.  Most of the first half of the novel involves the search for a sabretooth leopard who escaped the wreck, and frankly this is the best part of the book.  After that, it’s a mercenary style rescue mission to liberate the female scientist who has been kidnapped to a Caribbean island where the experiments – which include human subjects – have had unintended and potentially disastrous consequences.  There’s a big battle scene with lots of explosions and deaths, competently done but lacking the suspense of the first half.  Still much better than the Sigma Force novels. 2/11/10

The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons, audiobook read by Victor Bevine, Brilliance, 2009, $49.99, ISBN 978-1-4233-8145-7

It had been so long since I'd read this, the second part of Hyperion, that I'd forgotten most of it.  Unlike the first volume, which is primarily the individual stories of the travelers visiting the planet Hyperion, this is a single narrative, although it follows a large number of characters.  The Web has given much of humanity a period of peace and comfort and stagnation, thanks to the "gifts" of the AIs of the Technocore, whose advice we have learned to suspect since discovering that there are factions among them with different ideas about what to do with humanity.  The Ousters are physically diverse humans who live in artificial habitats traveling among the stars, and they have attacked Hyperion, a world technically not part of the Web.  It also appears that other clusters of Ousters are preparing to invade other worlds and a major military confrontation is launched.  But nothing everything is as it seems, and the Shrike - a powerful robotic creature which travels through time - is threatening to enter the Web and travel to other worlds.  I was fascinated by this when I first read it, and much of that same sense of wonder returned while listening to this over the course of the past three weeks.  If you haven't read it in one form or another, you've missed some of the best SF has to offer.  The reader does as very good job in this one, incidentally. 2/10/10

Warriors edited by George R.R.Martin and Gardner Dozois, Tor, 3/10, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2048-3 

Here’s a big new anthology of original stories that mixes SF and fantasy and everything else, the uniting theme being that each is about some sort of warrior.  I used it as bedtime reading for a couple of weeks although, unlike many theme anthologies, the stories are so widely varied that you can read it straight through with no fear of repetitiveness. It opens with a fine historical adventure by Cecelia Holland, followed by an effective and moving story of war in the future by Joe Haldeman. Then Robin Hobb casts us back through time to the age of the Carthaginian wars and Lawrence Block spins a fascinating tale of sexual attraction, sexual abuse, and a murderous quest for redemption. Tad Williams abandons his usual fantasy for a science fiction story about a religiously motivated assassin. Joe R. Lansdale has a great story – not surprising – about Black cavalrymen battling Indians shortly after the Civil War.  Peter S. Beagle’s quite strange story is followed by a novella by Diana Gabaldon, set during the siege of Quebec, which is also quite good.  Naomi Novik adds a good SF story, a kind of other worlds adventure, and Stephen Saylor provides another story of Carthage, also quite good.  James Rollins contributes a brutal story about dog fighting and David Weber a longish one involving an alien attack on Earth, more focused and concise than some of his recent novels.  Carrie Vaughn’s story of women in the air service during World War II is very good, as is S.M. Stirling’s adventure in a very much altered version of our world. Howard Waldrop provides a smartly done change of pace and editor Dozois provides one of his rare but always welcome shorts.  David Morrell and Robert Silverberg both have very good stories exploring different aspects of very different wars. David Ball, the only new name for me in the collection, has an interesting historical piece.  Editor Martin finishes the collection with a short fantasy novel that proves that it's still possible to do something fresh and interesting with familiar themes and settings.  This collection is proof, if we needed it, that the writing is more important than the genre. 1/30/10

Black Tide by James Swallow, Black Library, 2010, $8.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-805-7

Rynn’s World by Steve Parker, Black Library, 2010, $11.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-803-3

I’m not sure if this is a reflection of the decline of the dollar – Black Library is in Great Britain – but the price on the first of these, a regular sized paperback, is ominous, as is the oversized and even more pricey second title.  Both are set in the Warhammer universe, the futuristic branch, and both are pretty much military SF.  Swallow pursues his own mini-series within that context, the Blood Angels, a division of marines who in this case are pursuing a traitor to his hiding place on a particularly unpleasant world.  Lots of action along the usual lines with a couple of minor twists to keep you guessing.  Parker’s novel, first in another sub-series, is more ambitious but less polished.  An attack by alien orcs takes the defenders of one planet by surprise and most of the local garrison is destroyed before the fighting is underway.  The survivors have to fight a nerve wracking series of battles as the invaders attempt to consolidate their control.  This one comes with inset, full color battle maps so you can follow the action.  Lots of excitement but not as smoothly written as the first title.  1/27/10

State of Decay by James Knapp, Roc, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-46310-4  

This is a first novel, I believe, that makes use of a concept William Tenn and George R.R. Martin, among others, have suggested in the past, the revival of the dead through technological means to provide a work force for the living.  Knapp’s quasi-zombies are called Revivors and are used, legally and illegally, to perform work that ordinary people shun, and to serve as soldiers – obviously – when they’re needed. The protagonist is an FBI agent who finds the Revivors revolting and who is determined to prevent his body from ever becoming one of them, but his perspective will change when he is assigned to investigate a criminal organization which is employing Revivors as prostitutes. The investigation turns up even more disturbing information that suggests society as a whole might be in jeopardy.  Standard but well handled melodrama follows. I suppose this is technically a zombie novel, but it’s SF rather than supernatural horror, and a very auspicious debut. 1/26/10

Virus by Alex Irvine, Del Rey, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-345-50684-9  

This is an Iron Man novel and I might not have read it if it hadn’t been by Alex Irvine. Madame Hydra is back with another plan to seize control of the organization and eliminate its greatest enemy, Tony Stark. She has a variety of weapons this time, including a mob of clones programmed to kill and various technological innovations including destructive computer viruses.  The novel treats Stark as much more of an introvert than I recall from the comics, and it’s certainly a contrast to Robert Downey’s portrayal in the movies. The story follows directly from the previous tie in by Robert Greenberger, Femmes Fatales, but I found this one much tighter and direct in its plot development.  The characters have more depth as well. Just the thing to get you in the mood for the new movie. 1/24/10

Captain Flandry, Defender of the Terran Empire by Poul Anderson, Baen, 2010, $13, ISBN 978-1-4391-3333-0

The Complete Hammer’s Slammers Volume Two by David Drake, Baen, 2010, $12, ISBN 978-1-4391-3334-7 2947-8 

With the prices of paperbacks sneaking upward once again, it’s worth mentioning these two new omnibus editions.  You won’t get much better deals than these and it’s great to see Baen continue to reissue older SF in relatively inexpensive editions.  The first of these is a Flandry collection, of course, with The Day of Their Return and A Message in Secret (aka Mayday Orbit) as the two novels with a handful of shorter adventures. Both novels are superior adventure tales and editor Hank Davis has also included a chronology compiled by Sandra Miesel.  Great stuff here. David Drake is one of the best at military SF, particularly ground based, and the Hammer’s Slammers series is the only serious rival to Jerry Pournelle’s Falkenberg series.  There are four novels and one shorter piece here, the novels being At Any Price, Counting the Cost, Rolling Hot, and The Warrior. A very reasonable price given that if they were reprinted separately, they’d be $8 each. Volume One is slightly better on average, but not by much, so if you like either one, you should like the other as well. 1/24/10

Impact by Douglas Preston, Forge, 2010, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-1768-1

Douglas Preston's latest thriller isn't labeled as SF, but don't be fooled - this is mainstream SF.  A meteor of some sort hits a small deserted island off the coast of Maine.  In Cambodia, an apparent meteor crater is the source of radioactive jewels.  A Mars mapping establishment run by the government is the scene of some very intense internal politics, a stolen hard drive with anomalous readings, and murder. All of these separate strands are woven together as we figure out that something very strange and possibly dangerous is happening to the Earth, and someone wants to suppress knowledge about the source of that danger.  The professional killer is perhaps a little too efficient in tracking his quarries to be entirely plausible, but you probably won't realize that until you're not quite so caught up in the action.  Once past the first few chapters, I had a hard time putting this one down.  This is easily the best book Preston has written on his own, and rivals many of those written with his long time collaborator, Lincoln Child. 1/17/10

Sons of Dorn by Chris Roberson, Black Library, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-789-0

Dark Creed by Anthony Reynolds, Black Library, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-787-6  

Although I prefer SF to Fantasy, I somewhat paradoxically prefer the Warhammer fantasy novels to their space operas, mostly because the majority of the latter tend to be okay but uninspired military extravaganzas.  There are exceptions however and one of these is Chris Roberson, although I prefer his other novels.  This is his second excursion, not quite as good as his earlier book.  Three young recruits get their first real test when they land on a remote world occupied by traitorous human soldiers.  Reynolds’ novel uses the same overall setting but on a larger scale, continuing his story of a vast crusade across the stars, this time weakened by forces from both within and without.  This was okay but there’s much more emphasis on the physical action and despite some effort in that direction, the characters never take on any life of their own. 1/16/10

Darkship Thieves by Sarah A. Hoyt, Baen, 2010, $16, ISBN 978-1-4391-3317-0  

I believe this is Sarah Hoyt’s first excursion into science fiction, an adventurous space opera featuring an appealing female protagonist who finds herself in heaps of trouble when a routine space voyage takes a decidedly unroutine turn.  There are double agents among the ship’s staff and she is soon drifting in space in a lifeboat, only to find herself involved in a mysterious conflict in space.  There’s plenty of adventure but the focus is pretty much on the evolution of the protagonist, who starts as a rather spoiled debutante and discovers much about herself as she discovers much more about what’s happening around her.  And some things turn out to be not at all what they seem.  A welcome, lively adventure that doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence and tweaks the imagination. 1/14/10

Starbound by Joe Haldeman, Ace, 2010, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01817-8  

The sequel to Marsbound takes things up shortly after the first book ended.  The Martians, we know, are not native to that planet but were genetically engineered and placed there by the Others, a race so advanced that our science is ridiculously primitive in comparison.  But the Others tried to wipe out the human race and there are fears that they may try again, so a ship is sent to their world to negotiate peace.  Although the mission is largely successful, Earth has secretly built a gigantic war fleet in space and that precipitates a new and more frightening crisis, with consequences that will affect the entire human race.  I’ve never found a Joe Haldeman novel I didn’t like, and this didn’t break the streak, but readers should be warned that they may not enjoy the spirit of the observations the author makes about humanity and the destiny he foresees for our species in the closing chapters.  But then if every book had a completely happy ending, there wouldn’t be any surprises. 1/13/10

The Sorceress of Karres by Eric Flint and Dave Freer, Baen, 2010, $24, ISBN 978-1-4391-3307-1  

James H. Schmitz’s The Witches of Karres was almost certainly his best novel, and it was nice to see it back in print from Baen a few years ago.  There was a tag team sequel that I thought fell short of its inspiration.  This is a further continuation of the story, with the psi powered young ladies – most of Schmitz’s female characters had psi powers of some sort – sent on a mission into a mysterious part of space.  Naturally their presence is discovered almost immediately and they’re in trouble, along with their long suffering Captain Pausert.  This time we have time travel thrown into the mix.  Still not as good as the original, or at least my memory thereof which might have become inflated with distance, but I found this to be quite enjoyable and almost certainly better than its immediate predecessor.  If nothing else, it evokes the kind of mystery of the universe that brought me to SF in the first place. Keep an eye out for it. 1/12/10

Polar Treasure by Kenneth Robeson, 1933 

I was amused by the opening line of this Doc Savage adventure.  “Something terrible impended.”  That’s about the briefest summary of pulp writing I’ve ever encountered. There follows some of the creakiest gangster dialogue of all time as the story gets rolling.  Doc rescues a blind violinst from thugs and learns that an ocean liner was lost in the polar ice years earlier under mysterious circumstances. Doc, who has composed music which the violinist considers masterful, also believes that he can provide the musician with perfect vision thanks to his pioneering surgical techniques.  Doc, you see, is an expert in almost every field of human endeavor.  I’m surprised he didn’t write his own adventures. He can also “throw his voice” betraying author Lester Dent’s ignorance of ventriloquism. We also learn that when Doc captures villains, he takes them to a special treatment facility where their memories are erased so that they can become model citizens.  Apparently it never occurs to him, or the authorities, that this is essentially capital punishment without trial for crimes that are in some cases petty larceny or assault. Anyway, Doc is taken prisoner, the blind man is taken prisoner, Doc escapes, the blind man is mysteriously released, then just as mysteriously assaults one of Doc’s friends and disappears.  Not surprisingly we learn that there was a treasure aboard the missing ship and the whole plot involves an effort to locate the wreck. Doc gets captured again, and escapes again.  A submarine is hired but there’s trouble with the crew and fist fights proliferate.  Our heroes get marooned on an ice cap, but obviously they find a way to get off.  There’s battle between rival gangs, an impersonation revealed, an angry polar bear, angry Esquimaux, a blizzard, and other dangers to be overcome.  This is, despite the bad dialogue, one of the better of the early adventures. 1/11/10

The Extra by Michael Shea, Tor, 2/10, $22.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2435-1  

Satire has not been a major element in SF these past several years, but you can still poke fun at institutions and society in general if you attach it to a good story.  Michael Shea takes his shots at the entertainment industry, at the callousness of our contemporary society, and at personal ambition in this new novel set in the near future when Los Angeles has become a gigantic slum and the movie industry has undergone a transformation.  The latest gimmick is to create animatronic monsters that are genuinely deadly, have most of the actors sign contracts absolving the producers from responsibility if they’re killed, and more or less mixing the two and filming the results.  Conditions in the city are so bad that there is no shortage of volunteers, even though large numbers of them are going to end up dead.  Barbed jibes mix with high adventure as the latest extravaganza churns its way through mechanical monsters and bloodied bodies.  Great fun and some telling blows against our current mindset, although I wonder sometimes if anyone is listening any more. 1/9/10

Veracity by Laura Bynum, Pocket, 2010, $25, ISBN 978-1-4391-2334-8  

Dystopian novels seem to be more popular in mainstream fiction than in SF these days.  I’m not entirely sure why.  I don’t think SF readers are noticeably more optimistic than the general public, maybe less so.  For whatever reason, this new one – set after a terrorist attack causes an apocalyptic crash of civilization – has all the nasty elements of traditional dystopias, including gender discrimination, secret police, use of drugs to control the population, censorship, Big Brother surveillance, and the death penalty for comparatively minor infractions. Naturally there is a resistance movement, and a recent new recruit is the female protagonist of this story.  The blurbs compare it to Margaret Atwood, but there’s considerably better storytelling in this one.  Unfortunately, the author chose to use present tense narration, which I always find offputting and artificial since it adds nothing to the story and constantly draws attention to itself.  If you can get over that hurdle, you’ll find it worthwhile, and even with my prejudice I was able to read to the end. 1/8/10

Hastur Lord by Deborah J. Ross & Marion Zimmer Bradley, DAW, 2010, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0622-6  

This novel appears to be the completed manuscript of the last novel Bradley was working upon at the time of her death, although I have no idea how much of it she had actually written.  It’s another Darkover novel, obviously, set on a planet where some of the inhabitants have psi powers that often feel like magic.  Regis Hastur is heir apparent to the ruling position on Darkover but he is reluctant to assume the throne, preferring to live a more normal life. The presence of Terran interests on the planet has destabilized the government, killing off many of the people who would actually lead the planet and leaving a power vacuum.  When Regis learns that he has a half brother, he seeks him out, determined to relinquish the throne to someone who actually wants it.  Unfortunately, the brother seems to want it a bit too much.  The novel captures the flavor of the series quite well and this is the most readable of the posthumous collaborations that I’ve encountered. 1/7/10

The Hunt for Atlantis by Andy McDermott, Headline, 2008, £6.99, ISBN 978-0-7553-3912-9  

Comic book style action in the tradition of Indiana Jones, to which this first novel owes much.  Nina Wilde is an archaeologist with a wildly implausible theory about the existence of Atlantis, an obsession she inherited from her parents.  Unbeknownst to her, they were murdered by agents of a sinister organization that doesn’t want Atlantis to be found by anyone connected to Kristian Frost, a billionaire who bankrolls her project when her university – rightly – refuses to do so.  The plausibility of the set up is shaky at best, but once it’s out of the way, we have a less unpleasant wild ride to adventure, although none of the characters are going to make any real impression on the reader. Wilde’s bodyguard is Eddie Chase and the two of them have had five adventures published in England; Bantam has released the first two in the US.  Wilde believes that Atlantis was in the Gulf of Cadiz, but her first step is to visit Iran to track down an artifact apparently of Atlantean origin, where she is promptly taken captive by renegade Iranian soldiers.  Then they have to find a lost city in South America that may provide directions to the lost continent, where they are promptly taken captive by a lost tribe, but they escape, and are promptly taken captive by the secret society. There’s also some nonsense about genetic markers indicating that some people today are descendants of the Atlanteans, but you’ll want to ignore all of that.  Next they’re under the ocean in submersibles near Spain when, guess what, they’re captured by the bad guys again, who want to destroy Atlantis to preserve world peace for reasons we don’t know until the end. Penultimately they end up in Tibet, Nina still a captive, until rescued and the bad guys are thwarted at last in a Scandinavian secret lab.  The motive of the bad guys – both sets - is such complete nonsense that if it had come up earlier, I probably would not have finished the novel. The surprise reversal near the end is no surprise at all.  Disengage most of your brain power and this could be fun. 1/4/10

Red Inferno: 1945 by Robert Conroy, Ballantine, 2/10, $15, ISBN 978-0-345-50606-1  

The latest alternate World War II novel from Robert Conroy is both good and disappointing.  The premise this time is that at the conclusion of what we know as the war in Europe – with the collapse of Nazi Germany – is only a prelude to an invasion of Soviet Russia to remove the communists from power.  As with Conroy’s earlier novels, it’s a thoughtful consideration of the possible military moves that might have resulted.  The political situation on both sides is also explored in some detail, and is actually the best part of the novel.  Unfortunately, what would really have been interesting is a look at what the world might be like if the invasion had succeeded in its main objective and the Soviet Union ceased to exist.  That would make a potentially interesting novel in itself.  The simple military complications, though entertainingly told, are only the beginning of the story.   Conroy is sometimes reminiscent of Turtledove, but his characters are more interesting. 1/2/10

Kindred in Death by J.D. Robb, Putnam, 2009, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-399-15595-6  

Eve Dallas returns for yet another case, this time when a fellow officer’s teenage daughter is found raped and brutally murdered in their home.  Through painstaking police work, they find a connection to a case in the distant past, but not in time to save the second of several prospective victims.  The villain this time – as well as the power behind him – are really nasty characters whose ultimate downfall whets the reader’s appetite very early.  Although this is set in 2060 and has some SF window dressing, it could just as easily have been set in the present and is more a police procedural than anything else, but it’s a gripping story no matter where you decide to shelve it.  I am impressed with how consistently entertaining this series has been even though it is written to a fairly obvious formula. 1/1/10

 

 

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