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

LAST UPDATE 3/31/19

The Skynappers by John Brunner, Ace, 1960  

The Movement is a group of rebels who oppose a galactic government that uses deceit to fool the populace into believing it is a democracy. In fact, the vast majority of people are content and the rebels are well meaning idiots. They kidnap two barbarians, one a soldier from Earth, to help them pose questions to a supercomputer left over from a previous and presumably long dead civilization. That doesn’t work out very well and a sudden nova cuts plans short. There are nice touches here but the internal contradictions of the political situation – Brunner states openly that the “best” government is a benevolent dictatorship – undercuts the story. 3/31/19

Dark Rising by Greig Beck, St Martins, 2010  

I never really got into this story of an experiment under the desert of Iran that goes awry, creating a miniature black hole and threatening the destruction of the world. It’s a little too much of a men’s adventure story and too little actual suspenseful thriller. There’s also a menacing monster that I found disappointing. The pacing is pretty good and there are some nice plot elements, but as a whole the narration felt awkward and none of the characters ever acquired any dimension. 3/29/19

Encounter by J. Hunter Holly, Monarch, 1960 

An alien physically indistinguishable from humans but with extraordinary mental powers crashes in a remote wooded area and is nursed back to health by a married couple, whom he promptly kills when they are no longer useful. Flash forward a bit and he has become a respected member of society, though largely because he can mentally influence others. Two men finally realize what he really is and there is a lengthy, and somewhat contrived, series of attempts to kill him before they realize that the presence of cats cancels out his mental powers somehow. A bit clumsy, but it was a first novel. 3/26/19

Big Damn Hero by James Lovegrove, Titan, 2018   

A Firefly novel. I’m rather surprised that a tie-in series has started so long after the show was cancelled. In any case, this is an excellent evocation of the series. Mal has been abducted by parties unknown, the authorities are hot on the trail of the brother and sister hidden on Mal’s ship, and the crew has to take off without their captain with a cargo of very dangerous explosives. There are several separate villains to be dealt with and it’s all handled in a refreshingly brisk and businesslike fashion. Very enjoyable. The book credits Nancy Holder for the basic story so I presume she wrote the proposal but did not contribute to the novel for whatever reason. 3/25/19

Phalanxes of Atlans by F. Van Wyck Mason, Armchair, 2018 (magazine appearance 1931)

Mason would later go on to become a successful writer of thrillers and historical novels, but this early lost race adventure is barely readable and horribly formulaic. After a plane crash in the Arctic, two men find themselves among the Atlanteans, who have super science despite not having discovered iron making, and who use tame dinosaurs to resist a rival nation of cannibals. War, intrigue, rogue priests, and the usual nonsense follow in short order. Mason wa much better writer than this would indicate. 3/24/19

The Atlantic Abomination by John Brunner, Ace, 1960 

An alien being with the ability to control thousands of human minds at once has awakened in its undersea vault after a hundred thousand years. After some mild underwater adventure, it seizes control of a cruise ship to bring itself ashore in Florida and seize control of Jacksonville. The US government responds with robot devices and missiles but the creature is intelligent and counters their attacks, although it eventually decides to build a spaceship and leave Earth to find reinforcements. The ending is rather abrupt and really doesn’t resolve the conflict, but it’s not a bad story and it was obvious that Brunner’s narrative technique was improving. 3/22/19

Immortal by Nick M. Lloyd, Sampson, 2019, $9.99, ISBN 978-0993077975  

An alien race signals Earth and insists that a wave of deadly radiation is en route to Earth. Humanity’s only hope is to build a gigantic shield to protect the planet before it arrives. But the aliens offer no proof of their story. But the aliens, who have factions of their own, are playing a hidden hand and neither faction is tremendously concerned with the fate of Earth. It was perhaps obvious a bit too soon that the aliens were not quite as disinterested as they claimed, but the story moves quickly from one crisis to the next. The story could have used a bit more physical description – I often had no idea what a scene looked like – and some of the characters seemed interchangeable to me, but there’s a nice problem to be solved and plenty of tension. 3/21

Aeota by Paul Di Fillipo, PS, 2019, £18, ISBN 978-1-786364-16-6

Surrealist noir SF is probably the closest one can come to describing this novella succinctly. The protagonist is a world weary private eye who is called in when it appears that the daughter of a friend has been kidnapped. But why do the kidnappers refer to her as "Aeota" when that is not her name? The word appears to be an acronym for a company whose business is obscure. A man named Holtzclaw has also disappeared and he had recently been invited to visit the company, although no reason is known. Our protagonist has a not entirely satisfactory interview during which he is told that the company believes that reality is malleable. What follows is a wild ride through a world where the rules, if any, are not obvious and where the other characters and events are unpredictable and sometimes positive zany. A Di Filippo story is always fun, even when you're not quite sure what you just read. 3/20/19

Echo in the Skull by John Brunner, Ace, 1959 

This is, alas, a not very plausible novella about aliens who proliferate by spreading their spawn to other planets where they possess the bodies of the local inhabitants. In this case, it’s Earth and a young woman is experiencing shared memories of creatures from other planets who have been subjected to this kind of colonization. The visions are not well rationalized and the alien mastermind is peculiarly inept. Brunner later expanded this into a longer novel. 3/19/19

Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds, Orbit, 2019, $15.99, ISBN 978-0-316-55570-8

Sequel to Revenger. In the very distant future, the solar system consists of millions of artificial worlds, each independent. Two sisters who crossed paths with and killed a notorious space pirate now control her ship. Unfortunately, they are having difficulty convincing people that they are not cut from the same cloth. They also know that the former commander had a secret store of currency, possibly of fabulous size, and that one of her deserters might know how to find it. There are some interesting twists and turns in this gloriously wild space adventure and it is clear that their adventures are not over yet. 3/18/19

The Drums of Tapajos by S.P. Meek, Armchair, 2018 (originally published in 1930) 

Lost world novels were very popular at one time and Brazil was a common setting. In this one, four adventurers decide to penetrate a part of the jungle forbidden to outsiders and discover an ancient civilization with super technology, dinosaurs, beautiful women, and a revolution brewing. All of this was pretty standard fare for the form, but Meek was an accomplished writer – mostly books about animals – and the prose is quite readable. The characters are very interchangeable, however, and there is the usual boring discourse on the manners and customs of the hidden world. There is a sequel, Troyana, which I should probably read some day. 3/16/19

Big Red by Damien Larkin, Dancing Lemur, 2019, $18.95, ISBN 978-1939844606

I am not a big fan of military SF. I've read a lot of it and the plots are rarely all that interesting. Some don't even feel like a real military organization. This one does have the right feel, although much of it is set on the planet Mars. The protagonist is a soldier who has phantom memories that might be real, but his recollection of his tour of duty on Mars is not clear. Mars is being exploited by a typical greedy corporation with contempt for the rule of law or common decency and the Martian natives are understandably hostile to being exploited and invaded. A lot of this is old fashioned SF, which is not a bad thing. It was enjoyable enough to read, but probably not something I'll remember next year. 3/14/19

The 100th Millennium by John Brunner, Ace, 1959 

This early Brunner novel is atypical of his work, written almost like a fairy tale although set in a very distant future Earth. The protagonist discovers that a rogue star will destroy the Earth in three centuries but no one else in his city seems to care except for one woman. The two set out to find others and realize that the world has largely become depopulated and decadent. They find a solution of sorts, but not the one they were looking for. Very minor. Expanded from "Earth Is But a Star" and later expanded again as Catch a Falling Star. 3/12/19

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant, Orbit, 2017 

Although I generally liked this rather gory novel of untraditional mermaids, I had trouble with it early on. The premise is that carnivorous mermaids attacked a research ship and now a second is trying to find out what happened. They run into the same trouble, of course. I think the author made a strategic error in describing the creatures almost immediately, before the second ship is even underway, which robbed the opening chapters of most of their potential suspense. There were also some little things that felt off to me. For example, if a ship disappears at sea with all aboard, how could families sue the owners of the ship without having any idea what happened? Trivial, but offputting. Some of the characters felt rather flat as well. The story line, however, is fast paced once it gets going, and fans of visceral horror are likely to be more than pleased by what follows. 3/11/19

Threshold of Eternity by John Brunner, Ace, 1959   

A very imaginative but poorly constructed novel of travel in time and space. An alien race is invading the solar system three thousand years from now, but a discorporate being is disturbed by the battles and this results in temporal surges which move people from one time to another. Two people from 1957 are brought to the future and get entangled with a captive alien, super barbarians in the wrong time period, a man who claims he can see into the future, and an interstellar war. There are some silly side plots and a lot of doubletalk to keep the plot going without making sense of individual events. Not one of his best. 3/10/19

Undaunted by Kat Falls, Scholastic, 2019, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-545-37102-5

Tin by Padraig Kenny, Scholastic, 2019, $16.99, ISBN 978-133-8-27755-5

A couple of rather pleasant YA SF stories here. Kat Falls has entertained me in the past so I was not surprised to find this post-plague novel - sequel to Inhuman -quite gripping. The protagonist ventures into the forbidden and supposedly uninhabited zone east of the Mississippi where she discovers that people still survive and many of them have not been infected by the disease. Those who were not so lucky have often mutated, however, and have become little more than dangerous animals. Her latest mission has a personal element, and also leads her to a confrontation about how the infected people should be dealt with - and how much of a potential danger they represent for the rest of the country. Very enjoyable. The second title is by an author new to me and it's aimed at a somewhat younger audience. It is in a way a kind of mechanical Wizard of Oz, though the quest is quite different. A young boy lives happily with his friends, all of whom are mechanical, until they are tragically separated. The subsequent quest for reunion is designed to examine what it means to be human, what constitutes a soul, and to what lengths are we bound to one another. Pretty ambitious themes for a children's book, but well handled. Both of these are better than some adult novels I've read recently. 3/9/19

Land Under England by Joseph O’Neill, New English Library, 1978 (originally published in 1935)

Unlike most lost world novels, this one is more of a utopian/dystopian novel than an adventure story, with a strong theme of the search for understanding of a parent. The protagonist follows his long missing father into an underground civilization descended from the Romans which has mastered the art of brainwashing and forced conformity. There are also giant spiders and other creatures, some of which might be dinosaurs. Our hero gets a tour of the lost civilization, rejects its values, finds his father who is redeemed by the contact, and then escapes to the surface world. Well written, though occasionally ponderous. 3/7/19

The Silver God of the Orang Hutan by David Douglas, Armchair, 2018 (originally published in 1922) 

An expedition into Malaysia runs into a slew of animal menaces including orangutans, crocodiles, rogue elephants, killer dogs, aggressive deer, fire ants, and a shark, not to mention pirates, pygmies, and bandits. They are looking for tin – although it is hardly mentioned after the opening chapter – and find gold, rescue prisoners, settle a civil war, and then settle an intertribal war. The prose is crude and the adventures are so numerous that they are handled in a very cursory fashion. The characters have no depth at all, and some of the animals they encounter are not even found in Malaysia. 3/6/19

Forever Young by Stefan Petrucha, Titan, 2018 

This is a two part Spider-Man novel based on a story arc from the comic books. There are rumors of a fabulous artifact with unusual properties and both Kingpin and the Maggia are after it. Naturally that means that Spidey has to intervene, although in the first half of the story no one succeeds. The story then jumps forward several years. Aunt May is dying and Peter is distracted when he discovers that the head of the Maggia, supposedly dead, is very much alive and once again on the trail of the artifact. So he has to tighten his belt and go into action again. Pretty well written although I wasn’t overly fond of the original story. 3/5/19

The Ultimate Spider-Man edited by Stan Lee, Boulevard, 1996  w420 

A slew of short stories about the webspinner by Christopher Golden, Peter David, Lawrence Watt-Evans, and others.  Most of them pretty typical of the comic book, a couple of them rather boring and with none that really stand out. There’s a longish retelling of his origin. Each of the stories is accompanied by black and white artwork, some of which is neat. Generally, however, I don’t think comic superheroes really work in short stories. 3/5/19

Midnight Justice by Martin Delrio, Pocket, 1996 

This is a novella aimed at young adults, but it feels quite childish. Spider-Man is in trouble because he is credited with dealing with criminals infesting the subway system, but actually it was Venom who was responsible. Venom is pissed that he didn’t get credit, so he decides to take it out on the good guy. Reads like a comic book script, which is I suppose what was intended. 3/5/19

 The Brink by John Brunner, Gollancz, 1959  

Brunner was actively opposed to nuclear weapons and this early novel, never reprinted in the US, is a rather ghastly polemic on the subject. A crashed Soviet missile nearly sets off World War III, but an American colonel aborts the automatic retaliatory strike and prevents a world war. The military imposes censorship on US newspapers – which could not happen – and one reporter who knows the truth is finally arrested when he tries to make it public. No newspaper will print it, which is pretty unrealistic in itself. The book is riddled with errors, some of them apparently because of Brunner’s unfamiliarity with US laws and social customs. It is also a prolonged lecture and quite boring. 3/3/19

Creation Machine by Andrew Bannister, Tor, 2019, $16.99, ISBN 978-1-250-17913-5 

This is a first novel as well as the first in a trilogy. Generally speaking it falls somewhere between Alastair Reynolds and Iain Banks, though perhaps not quite as polished as either. The early chapters are are not as tightly written as the later ones. The central plot involves the search across a far future interstellar society for what might be a surviving bit of technology from the distant past when entire star clusters were built artificially. The protagonist and most of the other characters are likeable and well developed although some of the villains struck me as a bit over the top. It’s a pretty good space opera with a complex setting and history and a genuinely dangerous technology. Will be looking forward to the sequels. 3/1/19

Connections in Death by J.D. Robb, St Martins, 2019  

The latest in this nominally SF police procedural series is very much on formula, but the formula is a good one and I read it in one sitting even though it was well past my bedtime. A young man who has cleaned up his act and left the gangs is murdered, a clumsy attempt to make it look as though he overdosed on drugs. Eve Dallas gets caught in the struggle between two gangs, as well as internal divisions inside one of them, as well as taking down a crooked, disbarred lawyer. About thirty people are arrested by the end of the book, many of them murderers, and the scale of the operation is unprecedented in the series. Robb is Nora Roberts. 2/28/19

Treasure Vault of Atlantis by Olof W. Anderson, Kessinger, 2010 (originally published in 1926) 

This is a kind of lost race novel but it is mixed with occultism and so tediously badly written that it is not even of historical value. The protagonist has dreams of ancient Atlantis – he is the reincarnation of one of their kings – and remembers that they left a cache of supertechnology in South America, along with a few guardians kept in suspended animation. He and a friend find the vault, waken the sleepers, communicate with the dead, and launch a campaign to reform the human race. Painful to read. 2/27/19

The World Swappers by John Brunner, Ace, 1959  

This very early novel by Brunner is quite readable although the logic could use some tweaking. Basically it’s about humans on the verge of meeting an alien race in space. Fortunately the two species like different kinds of planets, although that doesn’t mean things go completely smoothly. Brunner did not think through his matter transmission/matter duplication system – which enables dead people to return to life in new bodies. He has them complete with memories of events that occurred after they were last transmitted, which makes no sense in context. It also means that shipment of cargo by spaceship is doubly dumb. First of all, it could be transmitted. Second, if you can duplicate anything – he never explains where the mass comes from – then you can make as much as you want and don’t need to import anything except prototypes. 2/25/19

The World of the Giant Ants by A. Hyatt Verrill, Armchair, 2018 (originally published in 1928) 

Explorers find an isolated valley in South America where insects grow to giant sizes. The protagonists make friends with a race of black ants while warding off oversized caterpillars, spiders, butterflies, etc. and eventually formulate explosives to help win their war against the red ants, who are cruel and raid the black ants for slaves. The author provides excruciating detail about the various insects and this rather long novel, never previously published in book form, has very little plot despite its length. Verrill was, however, capable of much better prose than most of his contemporaries in the SF magazines of the 1920s so this is readable, though sometimes tiresome. 2/24/10

Renegades by Kelly Gay, Gallery, 2019, $16, ISBN 978-1-5011-9279-1

A Halo novel, with my usual disclaimer that I have never played the game. I rather like this series, however, and enjoyed the previous entry by this author as well. The protagonist is the operator of an interstellar salvage operation that is trying to make a profit in the aftermath of a vast interstellar war that ended without a clear victory on either side. The possibility that they may have stumbled upon some technology that would make a significant difference if hostilities resume puts them in the sights of agents of both sides, neither of whom cares if the civilians are killed in the process. This is the kind of casual but well told space opera that drew me to science fiction back in my teens and it is always a pleasure to find that people are still writing it, even if it consists of tie-ins to other media. Enjoyable enough that I read it in a single sitting. 2/20/19

Blood and Burning by Algis Budrys, Berkley, 1978 

Several of the stories in this collection are not SF, although one was published in Fantastic. It’s simply about a man lost at sea. “The Ridge Around the World” is an odd story about an immortal farmer. “The Girl in the Bottle” is set amidst a future war but is really just a story about a man breaking under pressure. “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” and “All for Love” are two best stories. “Master of the Hounds,” not SF, was filmed as To Kill a Clown. Two of the stories are vaguely related to the novel Michaelmas. The stories and themes are quite disparate and it feels more like an anthology than a single author collection. 2/19/19

Goblin Moon by Kurt Busiek and Nathan Archer, Boulevard, 1999  

A nicely done Marvel tie-in adventure. A gang of thieves has been enjoying unprecedented success and the outrage is such that the owner of the city newspaper is given a position in the city government to deal with the threat. But Spider-Man knows that the man is actually the Green Goblin, a supervillain in his own right. Can he find a way to expose the man without risking a revelation of his own secret identity? A rather deeper and more thoughtful story than is usually the case in these tie-ins, and with some actual effort to make the characters feel like they might be real people. Nathan Archer is Lawrence Watt-Evans.  2/16/19

Goblin’s Revenge by Dean Wesley Smith, Boulevard, 1996 

The second pretty good Marvel tie-in I have read in a row, and they both involve Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. This one poses three problems for Spider-Man. The first is that the insane super villain Carnage is loose again and looking for fresh victims. Then there’s the Green Goblin, whom he had presumed to be dead, somehow back in action and madder than ever. As if these two weren’t enough trouble, someone has stolen a serum which causes people exposed to it to become maniacal killers, and no one knows who is responsible or what they intend to do with it. Rousing action as Spider-Man finds that he has more to deal with than he can cope with. 2/16/19

The Temple of Fire by Fred Ashley, Armchair, 2018 (originally published in 1905)   

This lost world novel was intended for teenage boys and has all the characteristics of such novels at the time, including anecdotal plots, the teenager as hero, and lots of silly dialogue which supposedly appealed to the target audience. The story involves a visit to a vast areas of seaweed in the South Pacific that conceals a group of inhabited islands divided into two warring nations. There are oversized frog and octopuses, mysterious creatures like a cross between kangaroos and seals, a war between the two nations, captures, escapes, treasure troves, and lots of everythin else except decent prose. 2/14/19

Budrys’ Inferno by Algis Budrys, Berkley, 1963 

Some of the author’s best stories are included here. “Silent Brother” involves an alien symbiote that heals all physical defects, but it’s marred by an unsatisfactory ending. “Lower Than Angels” involves an explorer trying to convince an alien race that he is not a god. “Skirmisher” is a vignette about a time traveling murderer. Humans evolve into a new kind of life in “The Peasant Girl.” “And Then She Found Him” speculates about a new kind of mutant, who cannot be noticed by normal people.  “Contact Between Equals” is a not entirely logical story about an alien held captive by an ambitious human. “Between the Dark and the Daylight” is a depressing story about a crashed colony ship that bioengineers its children so that they can live on their new home, and the children eventually attack their alien parents. “The Man Who Tasted Ashes” is the story of an assassin who double crosses his alien employers, but the plot is not through very well and is unconvincing. All in all, pretty good stories although not necessarily his best.  2/13/19

The Unexpected Dimension by Algis Budrys, Ballantine, 1960 

Budrys’ first collection contains some very good stories. “First to Serve” is about a self aware robot developed by the military “The End of Summer” considers some of the problems of immortality. “The Executioner” is an excellent story of revelation in a theocratic future society. “The Burning World” is a very effective indictment of the internal contradictions of libertarianism – Budrys did not sell this one to Astounding, for obvious reasons. An artificial world is a template to create life in “Go and Behold Them” and “Never Meet Again” is about a man who seeks to visit a parallel world where his wife did not die in Nazi custody, only to find her alive but now a loyal communist. “The Distant Sound of Engines” is about a dying time traveler who tries to pass on advanced technology to a man who thinks he is crazy. Although some of these are not as polished as his later work, they tend to be more imaginative and original. 2/11/19

The King of the Dead by Frank Aubrey, Armchair, 2018 (originally published in 1907) 

Horrible prose further mars this rather silly lost world novel. The heroine is carried off by the villains who have a ray that can turn the dead into zombies. Some of it involves genuinely supernatural themes and I considered putting it in that category, but there is a sort of rationalization of most of it. A lot of early lost world novels were awkwardly written but this one uses such convoluted and long winded language that it actually made me angry at times. After the usual battle between the secular ruler of the lost world and his high priest, and later his high priestess, a demon and an angel are summoned, an army of zombies is destroyed, and our hero turns out to be the long last nephew of the ruler. Not even of historical interest. The author wrote under several other names as well, most notably Fenton Ash. 2/7/19

Last of Her Name by Jessica Khoury, Scholastic, 2019, $17.99, ISBN 978-1-338-25446-9

I regret to say that I did not particularly enjoy this interstellar adventure story. Part of this was my own quirk - I rarely enjoy present tense narration, particularly in an adventure story. That said, this is about the overthrow of an interstellar monarchy by something called the Union, which is actually even less enlightened than was the privileged aristocracy. Supposedly the royal family was wiped out, but one young woman discovers that she is the lost princess and is in line for the throne, which obviously puts her in great danger. This fascination with "benevolent" monarchies and aristocracies is not uncommon in the genre and I cannot fathom why. 2/6/19

Beyond the Great South Wall by Frank Savile, 1901    

This is a lost race novel set in Antarctica. An expedition is search for refugees from the Mayan civilization who fled there with their treasure to escape the Spanish. The explorers are marooned by an eruption and a tidal wave that strands them on the ice. They find the Mayans, all of whom are now dead, as well as their treasure. But they also run into a dinosaur that lives there, although it’s not clear what the creature eats and Savile thought that brontosaurus was both carnivorous and aquatic, neither of which is true. The prose style is rather pompous. 2/2/19

Thyra: A Romance of the Polar Pit by Robert Ames Bennet, 1901 

This is a typical but very badly written lost world adventure in which a group of explorers use a balloon to find a lost world at the North Pole. There are apeman, sabre tooth tigers, dinosaurs, and something the author calls werewolves living in a giant pit – which does NOT lead to the center of the Earth fortunately – as well as a civilization that appears to be descended from Icelandic settlers. The prose is awful, the characters flat and silly, and the adventures are pretty boring. It might sound like an Edgar Rice Burroughs style adventure but it is not nearly as entertaining. 1/30/18

Virus by Alexander Irvine, Del Rey, 2010  

A civil war within Hydra has consequences for Ironman as spies from one side infiltrate Stark Industries to steal a secret that allows them to remotely control his suit. An army of clones deployed in combination with a rash of computer viruses culminate in an attack that could destroy SHIELD and kill Ironman, and all with his own technology. One of the better Marvel related novels with a plot that rises above its subject matter. 1/30/29

Venom’s Wrath by Keith R.A. DeCandido and Jose R. Nieto, Boulevard, 1998 

Terrorists capture the ex-wife of the man who has become Venom and that was probably the stupidest thing they could have done. As Venom – an alien hybrid – tears the city apart in an attempt to rescue her, Spiderman finds himself having to intercede to protect the innocent and perhaps also the guilty from the manic anti-hero. Lots of action and a good portrayal of Spidey, but I’ve never been a Venom fan and this didn’t change my mind. 1/29/19

Hard Landing by Algis Budrys, 1993  

Budrys’ last novel was well written but very minor. A group of alien astronauts who are virtually indistinguishable from humans separates and tries to integrate into human society. One of them reveals himself to the government. One is accidentally killed. Eventually the remaining two essentially kill each other over a misunderstanding. There does not seem to be an actual central plot and the author varies from epistolary to omniscient styles. Rather disappointing. 1/28/19

Bacillus edited by Chad Arment, Coachwhip, 2011 

A collection of old and often classic stories involving diseases and germs, including a complete novel. A couple of entries are obvious, “Masque of the Red Death” by Poe and “The Stolen Bacillus” by Wells. A few of the stories are not fantastic, usually involving murder by infection. The most interesting short is "The Beautiful Bacillus" by Patrick Dutton from1931. A scientist finds a new bacteria and determines that size is a variable that can be changed. The bacteria form into a small plant which he believes as sentient. At the same time, he begins to shrink and eventually turns into millions of little versions of himself, in which form he infects his assistant. Also included is the obscure 1918 novel The Blue Germ by Martin Swayne, which is a typical examination of immortality, in this case because of a supergerm that kills the germ that causes aging. Humans become listless, refuse to take chances, and stop having children. There is a very ambiguous ending in which this might have been reversed. The three Jack London stories are all minor, the Algernon Blackwood is much too wordy, and the Bob Olsen is just awful.1/26/19

Michaelmas by Algis Budrys, Questar, 1977 

This was arguably the author’s best novel. Michaelmas is a journalist who, assisted by an artificial intelligence, is secretly ruling the world, undercutting corrupt politicians and manipulating things to reduce the tensions in the world. But suddenly the AI detects a counter force, another entity trying to counter his moves. All of this revolves around the supposed miraculous recovery of an astronaut who impossibly survived the destruction of his shuttle. Marvelous prose and a very subtle story line. I still marginally prefer Rogue Moon, but this is a very close second. 1/24/19

Occam’s Razor by David Duncan, Ballantine, 1957    

This was the author’s final foray into SF and it repeats some themes from Dark Dominion. At a secret missile base on an island, plans are being made to launch the first moon mission. One day there are several strange phenomena which somehow create a gateway between universes, allowing two people to lose themselves in our world. Security teams go after them and several guards are killed through misunderstanding. The outside world discovers the existence of the moon project, which triggers a world war, but the same method that brought the visitors also screws up electronics all around the world so most of the weapons don’t work. Bad science in this one, and naïve politics as well. The pursuit of the fugitives is well done, however, and the mystery that introduces all of this is intriguing, although the author disappointments by never explaining what happened. 1/23/19

Beyond Eden by David Duncan, Ballantine, 1955

A major project to purify sea water and irrigate parts of the western US runs into trouble. Even though nothing can be detected in the water, it stimulates the growth of plants and has unusual and sometimes fatal effects on humans who drink it. The project is also imperiled by a malevolent but powerful politician with a personal grudge. The explanation is that they have tapped into a kind of living water, the substance which gave rise to all life on Earth. A solution – no pun intended – has to be found before the project is shut down, or even worse, before the living water is set loose to change the world. There is not much overt action in the novel but it was quite suspenseful and the villain reminds me of someone who is currently in the news every day. 1/21/19

The Way to the Stars by Una McCormack, Gallery, 2019, $16, ISBN 978-1-9821-0475-7

Tie-in to  the Star Trek Discovery television series. This one focuses on Sylvia Tilly, who played a crucial role toward the end of the first season. This is mostly about her background, her efforts to compete with her famous parents, her early struggles and self doubts when she joined Starfleet, and some minor adventures early in her career. It is in some ways a much quieter novel than most Trek tie-ins, but that actually makes it more interesting than most of them. I had a mixed reaction to the show's first season, but she was one of the more interesting characters and it's nice to see her have her own book. 1/20/19

The Venom Factor by Diane Duane, Boulevard, 1994

Spiderman has a problem. Two of them actually. First of all, Hobgoblin is stealing the parts to make a nuclear bomb. Second, Venom – who hates Spidey – appears to be killing innocent people. As it happens, Venom is being impersonated by an escaped alien creature who looks like him – rather an odd coincidence, so the two long time foes are forced to join forces to thwart both the alien and the supervillain. A bit high on the side of coincidence, but otherwise an entertaining Marvel adventure. 1/19/19

Dark Dominion by David Duncan, Ballantine, 1954

A secret project to launch the first space station – for military purposes – inadvertently makes an unusual discovery. Alas, the story and the politics are horribly dated, which probably explains why this has never been reprinted. Duncan, who wrote mostly screenplays, was an excellent novelist and this was much better than I remembered despite its anachronisms.  The ending is a bit weak – we don’t really learn what is going to happen with the now launched station, which is actually a self contained ship and which has an entirely new kind of propelling force.1/16/19

The Mean City by James Bradwell, World, 1969  

This was the final novel set in the world of Land of the Giants. The displaced humans have more routine adventures on a planet where they are tiny compared to the local human inhabitants and they continue to escape capture. This one differs only in that their latest attempt to return to their own world appears to have succeeded at the end, although we are never absolutely sure that they are really back. Very, very minor. 1/16/19

The Amsirs and the Iron Thorn by Algis Budrys, Gold Medal, 1967  

I was not impressed by this odd little novel when it first came out and I don’t think much better of it now. A small human colony on an inhospitable world is locked in warfare with the Amsirs, who also appear to be interlopers. He manages to access the control room of a spaceship where the computers quickly educate him about his situation and the history of humanity. He returns to Earth and the story sort of wanders away. None of the characters are even remotely interesting, the environment on Mars is only sketchily described, and the motives behind the whole experiment are never adequately explained. 1/15/18

Irontown Blues by John Varley, Ace, 2018 

Varley returns to the Eight Worlds for this blend of noir and SF. Aliens have taken over Earth and exterminated most of humanity. The protagonist is a private investigator in the surviving lunar colony, whose partner is a genetically enhanced bloodhound. The dog narrates a big chunk of the story. His latest case involves a woman who was deliberately infected with an engineered form of leprosy and she wants to find the man responsible. But small as it is, the human population is sufficiently large that this is not easy. And our hero is going to discover much more than he bargained for along the way. This was deceptively easy to read and sometimes feels like a light mystery adventure, but Varley is often up to more than is apparent. 1/13/19

The Man Who Stole Tomorrow by David Michelinie, Pocket, 1979 

The Avengers lineup for this adventure includes the Beast. Captain America is in danger from the distant future when Kang the Conqueror comes up with his latest plan for universal domination. Our heroes have to leave their own time in order to confront and defeat the villain, which they manage in due course after some lackluster adventures. The author did a couple of other Marvel tie-ins but doesn’t appear to have written anything original. This wasn’t awful, but this entire series from Pocket seemed to emphasize the less literary aspects of comic book adventures, which may be why it ended fairly quickly. 1/12/10

And Call My Killer Modok by William Rotsler, Pocket, 1979 

An early Iron Man adventure. The evil organization AIM has forced Tony Stark to build a power suit superior to his own and he ultimately has to battle his own creation. And then he tracks down and punishes those responsible for the situation. Very lightweight reading with a couple of cameo appearances. It doesn’t feel much like the Iron Man from the movies although it is loyal to the comics of the time. Superhero stories are rather limited in that we know they will triumph in the end. 1/12/19

The Secret of the Earth by Charles Willing Beale, Armchair, 2018 (originally published in 1897) 

Lost world novels have been around since Jonathan Swift and a great many of them are pretty awful. This is close to pretty awful. The writing is awkward, particularly the dialogue, and the author has no sense of pacing. Worse, his plot contradicts itself and frequently depends upon people acting totally inappropriately for the situation, simply to keep the reader guessing about what is going on. This one involves two brothers, one of whom has invented an antigravity airship, and their flight to the North Pole where they find an entrance to the hollow Earth that turns out to be the birthplace of humanity. They fly all the way through and crash in the South Pacific. Almost no tension at all and on balance quite dull.  1/11/19

Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys, Gold Medal, 1960 

One of the classic SF novels, although most of it is not SF at all. An artifact has been found on the moon which kills people if they don’t adhere to a system of unknown and arbitrary rules. A matter duplicator is used to send a man into the structure to die multiple times, in each case solving a bit more of the puzzle. Although this is clearly SF, the story really isn’t about the artifact but about the four main characters, their interactions and internal conflicts, and how these are resolved. It is beautifully written, a fascinating set of character studies, and it touches on themes of destiny, fear of death, free will, identity, and other matters. This is about my sixth time reading it and it probably won’t be my last. 1/9/19

Vector Borne by Michael McBride, Factor V, 2011 

Another thriller about a sudden human mutation, in this case set off by exposure to unknown life forms disturbed by undersea tectonics. A research vessel is swamped in a tsunami and the rescue ship finds the crew trapped inside, but all disemboweled. A few survivors reached a nearby island but so did the altered human responsible for the mutilations. This was quite good although a little over the top in terms of violence. If primitives were able to stop these mutants with knives and spears, how come the special forces people can’t do it with high tech weaponry?  And the existence of a second creature – though I expected it – does not seem plausible under the described conditions. 1/7/19

The Falling Torch by Algis Budrys, Pyramid, 1959 

Although this story is about a man who returns to Earth to try to organize a rebellion against an invasion force, there is very little about the rebellion, which does not even start until the final few pages. It is mostly about the protagonist’s realization that people spend a lot of time fooling themselves as well as others, that politics are more important than patriotism in the long run, and that sometimes the ideal person to lead an effort is not the kind of person one would imagine in that role. I suspect much of this was related to the author’s personal connections – his father was a member of the Lithuanian government in exile following the Soviet occupation. Good reading, but more intellectual than adventurous. 1/6/19

Stalker from the Stars by Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, and Joseph Silva, Pocket, 1978  

Despite the multiple credit line for this book, I suspect the first two only contributed the concept for the Hulk’s origin and that Silva (Ron Goulart) actually wrote the novel. It covers Bruce Banner’s irradiation and subsequent escape from government custody, this time to rescue Rick Jones – notably missing from the movies – who has ventured into a small town where an alien that looks like a giant octopus is using mind control to turn the residents into puppets. The Hulk doesn’t like that much and smashes the creature. Tolerable. 1/1/19

Cry of the Beast by Richard S. Meyers, Pocket, 1979 

This is a rather dull Hulk novel in which a foreign dictator orders the kidnapping of a prominent scientist who happens to be a friend of Bruce Banner. Banner goes to the rescue, but of course it is his incarnation as the Hulk that does the rescuing. There is lots of bashing but not much in the way of characterization and the plot is bare bones and of no particular interest. 1/1/19

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