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


The Essential Defenders Vol 6 by Marvel, 2011

A collection of comics from the early 1980s. The sequence begins with the supposed deaths of Valkyrie and Nighthawk, but death isn't always final in the Marvel universe. There is a bewildering number of heroes and villains - the latter mostly minor ones - in this period. Gargoyle, Hellcat, the Enchantress, Over-Mind, Null, Miracle Man, the Squadron Supreme, Nebulon, the Devil-Slayer, even some elves. Virtually every hero who was an Avenger was at one time a Defender and they all show up from time to time in this sequence. There's a Dr. Seuss episode that's kind of cute. Hellcat and Gargoyle explore family history. There was too much magic in these stories for me, and I was generally uninterested. 3/2/21

Time Is the Simplest Thing by Clifford D. Simak, Crest, 1961 

This did not hold up as well as I had hoped. The premise is that humans cannot physically survive in space but they can telepathically visit other planets and even communicate with aliens. Unfortunately, the bulk of the human populace has fallen into superstition, particularly about telepaths, and the world is a dangerous place for anyone known to have this talent. The protagonist merges minds with an alien which changes him dramatically and makes him a fugitive. He eventually averts a pogrom against the psi powered people and finds a way to physically leave the Earth. Very talky at times and the plot wanders considerably. His alien powers come and go rather conveniently. Serialized as The Fisherman. 2/28/21

Ossian’s Ride by Fred Hoyle, Berkley, 1959

A college student is recruited to infiltrate a secret area in Ireland which seems to be developing new technologies at an unbelievable pace. In the style of John Buchan, he wanders around the countryside, avoiding arrest but not making much headway for a very long time. Most of the story consists of his various adventures and there really isn’t much SF involved other than the fact that we know they have revolutionary technology. Ultimately we discover they are allied with refugees from a superior alien race whose homeworld has been destroyed, but this is only in the closing chapter. 2/26/21

The Trouble with Tycho by Clifford D. Simak, Ace, 1961  

A prospector on the moon decides to track down a missing lunar expedition in Tycho Crater. No one who has ever entered the crater has returned, but the area surrounding it is also the only place where a valuable lichen grows. There are also energy creatures that befriend prospectors, but the there is no indication that scientists are much interested in them. He meets a girl who is breaking the law because she thinks that a lost expedition can be found inside Tycho and she wants the salvage money. Pretty simple storyline. It feels a lot like a young adult novel. 2/24/21

The Steam House by Jules Verne, 1880 

This is a longish two part novel, often published in two separate volumes as Demon of Cawnpore and Tigers and Traitors. Most of the plot involves politics in British colonial India, both within the occupying forces and between them and local rebel groups. The SF element is that a group of tourists are planning a grand tour by means of a mechanical, steam powered elephant which pulls a train of carriages. The passengers get caught up in the main story line and have various light adventures. A bit too long for my taste. 2/22/21

Ring Around the Sun by Clifford D. Simak, Ace, 1952  

Someone is introducing wonderful inventions into the world, throwing the global economy into chaos. The protagonist is a reclusive novelist who suddenly finds his life upended by a series of bizarre events. He eventually discovers that he is a mutant, a member of a new race of humans who are quietly taking over the world. This is a kitchen sink novel and it does not hold up. Among the elements in the plot – which sometimes feels juryrigged – we have aliens, telepathy, immortality, parallel worlds, time travel, androids, robots, mutants, marvelous inventions, a worldwide conspiracy – two of them in fact, clairvoyance, and teleportation.  2/21/21

Time and Again by Clifford D. Simak, Ace, 1951 

Also known as Time Quarry and First He Died, this was the first interesting Simak novel. A man returns from a mission to an inaccessible star system and he is no longer human. Visitors from the future either want to protect him or kill him before he can write an influential book. There are factions within factions. Humanity is portrayed in rather negative terms, having subjugated every other race they have encountered. There are thousand year old robots, teleportation, android slaves, a galactic empire, and time travel in a rather kitchen sink story, but Simak manages to pull it all together. 2/16/21

The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle, Signet, 1957

An enormous cloud from space is going to engulf the sun and the Earth and human life might not survive the event. Hoyle's first novel describes this in documentary style, as astronomers slowly realize what is about to happen, governments badly fumble the preparations, and various surprises - the cloud contains an intelligence - change the rules from time to time. Hoyle illustrates the phenomenon with diagrams and charts as well as lectures. This is more of an intellectual puzzle than a traditional disaster story, but it is still fascinating. 2/15/21

Empire by Clifford D. Simak, Galaxy Novels, 1951  

A minor early novel in which an energy company has become the de facto ruler of the solar system. A team of scientists develop an alternative power source, and naturally the company has no intention of giving up its power voluntarily. A duel of discoveries follows as both sides invent things willy nilly including remote viewing, holographic projection, a new space drive, remote telekinesis, and even time travel. Blatantly implausible and not very entertaining. 2/14/21

The Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D. Simak, Paperback Library, 1964 (originally published in 1939)  

Simak’s first novel was nothing like his later work. It was an imitation of Doc Smith. Aliens from the edge of the universe contact humans because we are the only hope of averting the destruction of the entire universe. And there’s an alien race who wants it all to end. Clumsy and unrealistic, it reads like a young adult novel, and not a good one. The science isn’t very good either, but that was never the author’s strong point. Mostly of historic interest because it doesn't age well. 2/10/21

Robots of Saturn by Joseph Greene, Golden, 1962

A plan to use robots that are sort of telepathically controlled by humans in order to mine the rings of Saturn goes awry when someone seems to be undermining the project. The solution is that some other robots, who are self aware, have decided that this is still an unnecessary risk of human life and they want to prevent it. The plot is nonsense, although the science is a little better than in the earlier books. It’s not surprising that this series ended with the next volume.  2/4/21

Lost City of Uranus by Joseph Greene, Golden, 1962   

Last in the Dig Allen series, and not ending on a high note. A spaceship just happens to notice a bottle floating in space out around the orbit of Uranus. It contains a note from a man about to crash on that planet, indicating that he has seen a large, hidden city. The treasure hunt is on with some incompetent crooks trying to loot the city – which turns out to have intelligent inhabitants. Our heroes are almost as incompetent and the science is just plain silly. 2/4/21

Prehistoric Anthology edited by SJ Larsson, Severed Press, 2019 

This is a collection about dinosaurs, mostly having survived or been revived in modern times. As you might expect, several of them are rehashes of themes from the Jurassic Park movies. About half the stories are barely readable. The best entries are by Tim Waggonner and William Meikle. This publisher specializes in books about oversized monsters, so there is obviously an established audience for this sort of thing, but for general readers, it gets very repetitious. 2/3/21

Slugs by Shaun Hutson, Leisure, 1982   

A new breed of oversized, carnivorous slugs begins to appear in England. The protagonist figures out what is going on but the authorities are incredibly reluctant to take him seriously, even after mutilated corpses begin to turn up. Finally he and two other men descend into the sewers to destroy the nest and wipe them out. They think they succeed, but there is a brief epilogue that suggests otherwise and Hutson later wrote a sequel, Breeding Ground, so obviously they failed. Not bad, and rather restrained for Hutson. 2/1/21

The Swarm by Arthur Herzog, Signet, 1974 

This is a pretty good nature gone mad story, somewhat in the mode of Michael Crichton. A mutation in African bees, which are spreading into North America, makes them more aggressive and larger and their venom more potent. Individual attacks give way to assaults on entire communities. The economy gradually falters as it becomes dangerous to be outside. Anti-bee kits are required but some people refuse to carry them using the same arguments that I’ve heard from anti-maskers in real life. Efforts to poison them or render them sterile all fail. Herzog spends a lot of time on the science and biology. The ending is a bit weak, but it’s a good thriller. 1/30/21

Trappers of Venus by Joseph Greene, Golden, 1961 

Dig Allen and friends get caught up in a battle to determine whether or not the otterlike creatures on Venus are intelligent, or whether they are just animals that can be hunted for their pelts. There’s more bogus science here – things which could be easily determined and corrected. Why deliberately misinform younger readers? The bad guys get defeated, the somewhat bad guy reforms, the good guys triumph, and the Venusians become owners of their planet. 1/29/21

Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell, Tor, 2021, $24.99, ISBN 978-1-250-75883-5 

I had a mixed reaction to this romantic space opera. There were parts of it I liked quite a bit, but other parts I just tolerated. The romance – it’s between two men whose union is meant to cement an interplanetary agreement – was only intermittently interesting. The murder mystery, though muted, was reasonably well constructed. Some elements in the encompassing culture were fascinating, but others seemed to be dropped in superficially.  The prose is fine and since this is apparently a first novel – though previously published in an earlier version online – some rough spots are to be expected. 1/27/21

The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey, Tor, 2021, $24, ISBN 978-1-250-17466-6 

This is a great novel that ought to be an award contender. I don’t want to say very much about the plot because the series of subtle twists and turns – and some not so subtle – is delightful and I don’t want to spoil it. The basic set up is that a brilliant scientist who specializes in cloning – in a future when even cloned humans are just property – discovers that her husband has made a more biddable duplicate of herself and concealed her in a separate household. And then things get really interesting really fast. The prose is impeccable and kept me reading straight through to the end. The characters are quite vivid, even the ones who are dead by the time the story begins. I’d read and enjoyed a couple of earlier novellas by Gailey, but this caused me to order all of her other books as well. 1/26/21

Bloodworm by John Halkin, Critic’s Choice, 1988 

The author of a trilogy, Slither, Slime, and Squelch, provides another nature gone novel, this time blending blood sucking worms with deadly beetles. Although this follows the usual formula, the writing is better than average, the characters have some depth and act logically, and some of the scenes are actually suspenseful rather than just violent and bloody. The worms turn out to be the beetles’ larvae, but they can join together into colony creatures the size of snakes. London has to be destroyed to destroy them all and at the end, we’re not even sure that this was a successful tactic. 1/23/21

The Evidence by Christopher Priest, Gollancz, 2020

We return to the Dream Archipelago in this very strange SF/Mystery hybrid. The protagonist is a thriller writer who attends a conference on a remote island in the archipelago where "mutability" is an enigmatic fact of life. Time can be affected, and even the physical dimensions of objects. There are elaborate and incomprehensible rules about what to do and what not to do. During his visit, he learns of an unsolved murder case and, out of curiosity, decides to look into the matter when he returns to his home island. But how can you get at the facts when the facts themselves are subject to change? This is arguably fantasy, I suppose, but with whatever label you prefer, it is a fascinating and intriguing - if sometimes intentionally frustrating - novel. 1/22/21

Journey to Jupiter by Joseph Greene, Golden, 1961 

An atmosphere generating machine makes it possible to colonize Ganymede, but someone wants the colony to fail. Sabotage happens with frightening frequency – and usually quite implausibly. Dig Allen and his friends are sent to the colony to find out what is going on, and almost die when the gang responsible makes its final move. Lots of scientific errors in this one. Among other things, the planets do not extend out from the sun in a straight line. 1/21/21

The Spiders by Richard Lewis, Signet, 1978

A retired man kills a strange spider on a rural farm in England and thousands of its fellows emerge from the ground that night and begin killing humans. This was one of the many nature gone mad novels that proliferated about this time. Lewis wrote a couple more of them, none of which were remotely memorable. The attacks escalate in scale and the protagonist fears that the spiders will breed in such great numbers that they will become unstoppable. The government considers using nuclear weapons – how would that work if the country is already largely overrun? It’s all the result of a secret government project gone wrong, of course. Pretty bad. 1/20/21

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, 1871 

This was the first book I ever read by Verne and I still think it’s his best. The protagonist and friends are rescued at sea by a revolutionary submarine commanded by Captain Nemo, whose tragic past has caused him to wage war on warships of all nations. Much of the novel is a travelogue of the ocean and while occasionally slow moving, it fascinated me as a teenager and still entertains me as a crotchety old man. Although I have several versions from different publishers, nostalgia led me to read the Windermere hardcover, the same one I first read when I was fourteen. 1/16/20

Killer Flies by Mark Kendall, Signet, 1983 

This is a horribly written and abysmally formulaic nature gone mad story, this time involving swarms of flesh eating flies that begin to kill people and animals while the authorities try to hush everything up. Kendall never wrote another novel insofar as I can tell and might have been a pseudonym. The governor is a complete imbecile and Kendall – supposedly South African – seems not to have understood how American politics and police procedures work. This was painful to read. 1/14/21

Captives in Space by Joseph Greene, Golden Books, 1960

The second in the Dig Allen series. Our three teen heroes are traveling around in their own spaceship when they find another in obvious distress. It appears deserted but later they discover there ae two six inch tall aliens aboard. Several of them have been kidnapped from their world by smugglers. After a few routine adventures, we learn that the little people are from Mercury – no one noticed that it was inhabited before this? – and our three teen heroes manage to interrupt a gang of interplanetary slavers. A decidedly inferior book with sloppy science and none of the sense of discovery found in the first in the series. 1/10/21

The Forgotten Star by Joseph Greene, Golden Books, 1959 

First in the Dig Allen series of YA space adventures, from the creator of Tom Corbett. Teenaged Allen and two male friends take off clandestinely from the moon to search for Allen’s father, who disappeared in space. They find a lost civilization inside an asteroid and rescue the adult. Although clearly meant for younger readers, parts of the story are quite entertaining, although once they reach the asteroid it is a pretty dull lost world adventure. There are some of the usual implausible situations designed to explain how teenagers can be running around in spaceship unsupervised. This is one of the series I missed as a kid, so the whole series is new to me. 1/6/21

Venus Liberated by Harl Vincent, Armchair, 2020 (originally published in 1929)

Vincent was not a stylist and his stories always felt like comic books. This is a fairly long, never before reprinted novel about a man who starts to receive psychic messages from someone on Venus. This eventually leads to a spaceflight to that planet where our heroes get involved in various conflicts among the Venusians – who are human – and find a beautiful aristocratic woman for some platonic romantic interest. I was particularly surprised at how lacking in imagination this story is. It felt as though I had already read it – several times. 1/1/31