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


Special Deliverance by Clifford D. Simak, Del Rey, 1982 

Several humans and one robot are whisked away from different realities and brought together to solve a mystery in yet another.  I liked this somewhat better than his other late novels, perhaps because the characters were a bit better done and there was a greater sense of wonder. It all turns out to be an enigmatic test course to see if selected people are worthy of being recruited into an organization that oversees relations among the various realities. Simak's short stories are an order of magnitude better than his later novels. 6/18/21

The Prayer Machine by Christopher Hodder-Williams, St Martins, 1976 

This is such a horrible novel that I can’t think of anything nice to say about it. Schizophrenics actually have access to alternate dimensions. The protagonist uses an experimental drug to visit a dystopian future and then carry a warning back to the present. The science is complete hogwash throughout. The author’s paranoia about genetic engineering, computers, psychologists, government, organized religion, and several other subjects is rampant and hysterical.  I am surprised this managed to find publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. 6/15/21

Highway of Eternity by Clifford D. Simak. Del Rey, 1986  

Despite a more promising opening than most of Simak’s later books, this quickly devolves into a series of philosophical rants. Aliens are transforming humans from a future utopia into discorporate but immortal creatures. A few dissidents flee into various periods of the past. It is not clear why the aliens are pursuing them. Two detectives from our time get caught up and have some low key adventures, but basically this is a just an extended essay whose plot raises lots of questions that never get answered. 6/14/21

City by Clifford D. Simak, Ace, 1952   

Although this is often referred to as a novel, it is not. It is a series of related short stories strung together into an extended narrative about human destiny and beyond. “City” is more of a philosophical exercise than a story, and Simak clearly did not understand human nature very well because he contends that people would rather live on forty acres of open land with no close neighbors than live in cities. “Desertion” is the best known, although it suffers from implausibility. Humans can transform their bodies into alien creatures and do so in order to explore Jupiter, finding it so welcoming that in another story virtually the entire race emigrates there. Despite some glaring errors of logic and science – surgical operations on dogs breed true in the next generation – there is a kind of grandeur about the book that is missing from most similar efforts. 6/11/21

Randolph Runner by David Dvorkin, DLD, 2020 

The title refers to a robot created with the ideal traditional British servant in mind. He is owned by, and butlers for, a British general who is behind the efforts to overthrow an American government, which is a monarchy. There are various wars underway, a couple of femme fatales, and the last of the Trump family is still maneuvering behind the scenes. Not serious at all, although there are genuine concerns mixed in with the laughs, and ideal for a lazy summer afternoon’s reading. 6/7/21

Project Pope by Clifford D. Simak, 1981 

Three humans have very different experiences on a planet where a group of robots is trying to build a robot pope to lead a new religion. But there are factions among the robots. And mysterious aliens are visiting the planet. And there’s a bodiless creature speaking to selected individuals telepathically. And the elusive natives of the planet are shapeshifters. And one of the pilgrims is able to heal people with a touch. As had become his habit by now, Simak just threw a bunch of odd concepts together with no clear progress to the plot, which staggers to an end without any real climax. 6/5/21

The Visitors by Clifford D. Simak, Del Rey, 1980  

A large, featureless black box lands in Minnesota and begins chewing up trees. Scientists discover a large swarm of them orbiting the Earth. They are not, however, spaceships but actually a very peculiar lifeform that lives on cellulose. The world’s governments are in a tizzy even though the aliens show no hostile inclinations. Somewhat better than the other novels from late in his career, but there are still times when his characters seem to act unnaturally, and with no explanation. There are also several coincidences to smooth the way for the plot.  This was serialized in a shorter form.  6/1/21

Panic O’Clock by Christopher Hodder- Williams, New English Library, 1973  

This was a definite uptick in the author’s work, a tense disaster novel. It is in fact a zombie apocalypse without zombies. The protagonist discovers that a contagious form of panic is spreading rapidly through the British countryside so he decides to evacuate his family to a more rural area. Fortunately he is aware that a particularly tranquilizer is effective and has secured a large supply of it. A fairly routine but well written disaster novel follows, with a few little quirks to make it not entirely formulaic. It's not particularly melodramatic despite essentially being a novel of zombie apocalypse. 5/31/21

Mastodonia by Clifford D. Simak, Del Rey, 1978 

Aka Catface. An alien stranded on earth for 50,000 years can create time tunnels. He does this for the protagonist’s dog so that it can hunt dinosaurs, then eventually provides time tunnels for humans as well. The humans decide to create a remote time colony in the past which they plan to call Mastodonia. All of this is accepted by the named characters, as well as the world at large, with unconvincing equanimity. The one reasonably adventurous sequence among dinosaurs is a familiar cliché. The set-up with the alien is wildly implausible and unconvincing even in the context of the story. It’s like a collection of Simak tropes all thrown together randomly.5/26/21

98-4 by Christopher Hodder-Williams, Coronet, 1969  

Another anti-technological diatribe. This time the protagonist is investigating a quasi-governmental research facility.  He discovers that the scientists there are harvesting brains from human beings and using them as the control units for missiles and submarines. But something goes wrong. Something always goes wrong. Nor does the author ever provide a reason why using a disembodied human brain is an improvement. 5/23/21

A Heritage of Stars by Clifford D. Simak, Berkley, 1977 

Another disappointing novel from Simak. Hundreds of years after civilization has collapsed, a man goes in search of a possible place that held a bridge to the stars. He gathers companions including an avowed witch and the last robot on Earth, and encounters sentient trees, flying cylinders, living robot brain cases, nomads, and alien observers who are spherical. At one point they don’t know where to go next and find a roadmap that has miraculously survived for centuries and it shows them their destination. Rambling, disjointed, and silly, not to mention the lectures about the evils of technology. 5/21/21

The Essential Fantastic Four Volume 7, Marvel, 2008

An extensive series of adventures in which Medusa is the fourth member - although the Human Torch is not around much of the time. Inevitably there are two separate adventures involving their arch nemesis, Doctor Doom. Other villains encountered, and vanquished, include Annihilus, the Miracle Man, Ultron, Trapster, Sandman, Darkoth, and Ternak. The Thing has an amusing visit back through time to the 1920s. They also encounter the sometimes heroic, sometimes villainous Silver Surfer, Hulk, Quickilver, the Inhumans, and Sub-Mariner. A pretty good period in their history here. 5/21/21

Off on a Comet by Jules Verne, 1877

 A comet strikes a glancing blow on Earth and tears off a chunk with a few dozen people aboard who don’t realize initially what has happened. The change in gravity should have tipped them off. They eventually figure it out and explore their environment. There are also differences among the characters that threaten their safety. Fortunately the comet is to pass close to Earth again and they are able to construct a balloon and travel back to Earth. Scientifically nonsense but a fair story. Also known as Hector Servadac. 5/19/21

Fistful of Digits by Christopher Hodder-Williams, Coronet, 1968 

The author continues his staccato writing style in this very disappointing novel. None of the dialogue actually flows the way a real conversation might, and at times it is impossible to follow the chain of logic. One of two partners in an electronics business is opposed to selling out to an enigmatic businessman who has some connection with the British government. The author does not understand how computers work so the menace is less than convincing. The prose also consists mostly of contentious conversations. The climax ends with a standoff which is never resolved, and which is meant to suggest that computerization could literally lead to the extermination of humanity. A very irritating novel. 5/15/21

Shakespeare’s Planet by Clifford D. Simak, Berkley, 1976

This is certainly the worst of the author’s latest novels. The lone survivor of a spaceship crew finds himself on an earthlike planet with an intelligent alien who is also not native to that world and an odd robot. Later a human woman shows up, as well as a kind of monster. The alien, Carnivore, tells them that it used to have a human for company, a man named Shakespeare, but that he ate him at the human’s request. They have some experiences – they don’t rise to the level of adventures – before the story comes to an abrupt and inconclusive ending. I suspect Simak started this without a clearcut destination and never found one while writing it so just stopped. 5/11/21

The Egg-Shaped Thing by Christopher Hodder-Williams, Putnam, 1967 

This frequently incomprehensible  novel may well explain why none of the author’s subsequent novels found a publisher in the US. The plot involves some scientists who secretly develop a machine that can alter the laws of probability. Somehow this leads to a time warp and the disappearances of people and animals – none of this is ever explained. The conversations are infuriating. Characters experience leaps of logic and intuition that are impossible to follow. Frequently an exchange fails to make sense. The climax comes when the protagonist concludes that the device could explode and destroy the universe, but instead a generates a time warp that appears to restart the story. At least I think that was what happened. We never really know for certain. 5/9/21

The Main Experiment by Christopher Hodder-Williams, Ballantine, 1964 

The protagonist is pressured into monitoring the activities of his boss, director of an experimental research facility that has built the largest magnet in the world. A nearby farmer develops minor radiation burns which have no logical explanation. This was probably the author’s best novel. The mystery unravels slowly and comprehensively and the weird events are nicely done. There are a couple of minor points that are never really made clear, but they don’t affect the central plot. The characters are reasonably well drawn. This could actually have been a bit longer in order to explore more of the implications. 5/7/21

Our Children’s Children by Clifford D. Simak, Berkley, 1974 

There’s an absurd premise to this disappointing novel. Five centuries from now hostile aliens are on the verge of wiping out humanity, so time tunnels are built so that two billion people can return to our time and build new tunnels to go much further back. But at least one of the aliens gets through as well, and it can breed at a prodigious rate. Politics and greed complicate matters – and we never do find out how the newcomers could possibly be fed, before the aliens mutate, learn to travel though time organically, and go back to hunt dinosaurs. Since forward time travel is impossible, this solves the problem. Pretty awful. 5/3/21

The Molecule Men by Fred & Geoffrey Hoyle, Harper, 1971 

Two novellas. The first is about a shape changing alien invader who runs rings around the British government. The completely unsatisfactory ending concludes that there is nothing to be done and that the alien is here to stay. The second is “The Monster of Loch Ness,” which is also about an alien invader. The Loch Ness monster is a robot it uses to spy on the surface world. When the government drops depth charges into the loch, the alien uses fireballs and tidal waves to drive back the enemy. It is ultimately defeated, but by natural conditions rather than human efforts. 5/2/21

Worlds of Light & Darkness edited by Angela Yuriko Smith & Scott Noel, Uproar, 2021 

This is a selection of stories from two highly regarded small press magazines, Space & Time and Dreamforge. There are twenty stories collected here, a good mix of lesser known but promising authors and more familiar names. There are quite good stories from Jane Lindskold, Jonathan Maberry, Gordon Linzner, and Scott Edelman, plus variously competent tales by the rest of the contributors. The themes are quite varied and include fantasy and even horror, everything from zombies to time travel. There are no bad stories although your taste may vary. There’s plenty of room here for differing expectations given the thematic variety. I haven’t seen issues of either publication in recent years, and if these are representative then I’ve been missing some excellent fiction. 4/29/21

Element 79 by Fred Hoyle, Signet, 1967 

This is a collection of completely forgettable short stories – none of which appear to have been previously published. There are several that are not even fantastic, some are fantasies, and the rest are mediocre SF. Themes involve deal with the devil, the Greek gods returning to the world, bizarre accidents, dream worlds, the first landing on Venus, and a benevolent conquest by Mars. I doubt this would have been published if he had not been a famous person. 4/27/21

Chain Reaction by Christopher Hodder-Williams, Corgi, 1959

A marginal SF novel in which an accident at a nuclear plant leaks radioactive water that is not noticed until two years later when it results in dangerous sugar, which is dispensed throughout the world in a variety of food products. Much of the book consists of technical discussions of how radiation works and a prolonged investigation to figure out if it is the food or the packaging that carries the danger. There are some minor side plots involving two different romantic triangles, but neither is particularly important to the plot. This was the author’s first venture into SF. 4/26/21

Mutation by Michael McBride, Pinnacle, 2020

Third in the Area 51 series. A truly scary alien has gotten loose in Antarctica and is on its way to some unknown destination elsewhere on Earth. Crack military teams are unable to kill it because, among other things, it can suborn animals and people and turn them into its mindless allies. It also has a once human companion whose nature is puzzling and troublesome. There are lots of bits about archaeology, mythology, astronomy, and other subjects, all drawn together to explain what is happening. Tense and compulsive reading as always but there were a few too many characters this time and I occasionally had trouble keeping them separate in my mind. 4/22/21

Cemetery World by Clifford D. Simak, Berkley, 1972

An artist visits Earth, which was turned into a gigantic cemetery after a war virtually destroyed the planet ten thousand years earlier. He discovers that the company running the planet is concealing a lot of things about the operation, and the humans who have survived there for millennia. The first half is okay despite the presence of ghosts, but it goes downhill rapidly after that, with immortality, mutants, time travel, aliens, a variety of robots, grave robbers, and other complications all thrown together rather haphazardly. The story peters out with no climax and with questions unanswered. 4/20/21

Comet Halley by Fred Hoyle, St Martins, 1985   

In some ways a rewrite of The Black Cloud, this very long novel is a tedious description of university politics, government obfuscation, murder, and the receipt of intelligent signals which originate inside Halley’s Comet. There’s no real world disaster, just endless posturing and arguing. The alien is much smarter than humans and forces us to create a more rational civilization. This was one of Hoyle’s recurring sentiments. I suspect it also reflected his disgruntlement with the scientific academic communities with which he had to deal during his career. It was his final novel. 4/20/21

The Pirate Planet by James Goss, BBC, 2017  

The novelization of the Douglas Adams story for Doctor Who. This was part of the six part quest for the Key of Time and is one of the best episodes in the show’s long history. They find themselves on a planet that repeatedly exhausts its resources, but then somehow finds a fresh source for a new golden age. But is there something sinister behind the periodic renaissance? Of course there is. Theirs is a parasite world preying on others. Fun. Made me want to watch the tv show again. 4/19/21

A Choice of Gods by Clifford D. Simak, Berkley, 1972  

I really disliked this preachy and often obscure novel. Almost the entire human race vanishes overnight and are transported to different planets around the universe. Everyone is now virtually immortal and telepathic as well as now being able to teleport. There are signs of an alien intelligence elsewhere in the galaxy, but it seems to be emotionless and unwelcoming. After thousands of years, many of the involuntary emigrants are talking about returning to Earth and our heroes are concerned that they bring back the profit motive and other unsavory human conceits. Too much of the story is never explained, and the author slyly lectures us about the virtues of simplicity and cooperation. Actively annoying. Leaves lots of unanswered questions. 4/18/21

Krikkit Men by James Goss, BBC, 2018

There is no explanation but this appears to be based on an idea that Douglas Adams was developing for a Doctor Who adventure during the Key of Time sequence. The Doctor and Romana find themselves at a far future cricket match when a team of odd looking men appear whose bats are actually energy weapons. They want the Key of Time for nefarious purposes. The tone of this is madcap and reminiscent of Adams, though perhap not quite as witty, One of the more amusing of the prose adventures of the Doctor. 4/17/21

The Westminster Disaster by Fred & Geoffrey Hoyle, Penguin, 1978 

Father and son Hoyle try their hands at a near future political thriller. A business deal is likely to present South Africa – still under apartheid – with nuclear weapons. The Russians are determined that this not happen and are secretly behind a move at the UN to sanction the country. So the Soviets smuggle the parts of a nuclear device into London and threaten to set it off. The government buckles and complies but the spies set it off anyway.  This was probably their best written novel, although there are too many viewpoint characters. 4/15/21

The Incandescent Ones by Fred & Geoffrey Hoyle, Signet, 1977 

Another nonsensical novel which even has questionable astronomy, despite that being Hoyle’s field. Aliens have imposed peace on Earth by providing unlimited power, but they control it and can turn it off at will. The protagonist is a college student who accepts a mission to smuggle a super battery out of the Soviet Union. The battery would make humans energy independent. There is no explanation of why the aliens would have brought two of them to Earth in the first place. And why would they smuggle it out by means of a week long skiing excursion from Armenia to Turkey? Our hero discovers that he is one of the aliens and not an Earthman at all. The reader is unlikely to care about any of this. 4/12/21

Destiny Doll by Clifford D. Simak, Berkley, 1971 

A really inane novel that feels like an insult rather than an entertainment. Four people land on an unknown planet for a series of very silly and generally dull adventures. There are sentient hobbyhorses - who all speak the same language as the space travelers, trees that shoot their seeds, bugs that encase visiting spaceships in impenetrable coatings, gnomes, doorways to other worlds, an abandoned city, and lots more. I interrupted this three times to read something else, and it’s not that long a novel. The ending suggests that it is making a profound point but if so, it’s completely opaque. 4/11/21

One Love Chigusa by Soji Shimada, Red Circle, 2020 

I have enjoyed two nice detective stories by this author, so I decided to try this SF novella. The premise is that the protagonist is so badly injured in an accident that he is virtually a cyborg by the time he has been reassembled. He has some difficulties adjusting to the world afterward because he has lost some memories and his senses do not work exactly as they did before. He falls in love with an unusual woman, and the big reveal is that she is actually a robot. An interesting story that has a distinctly non-EuroAmerican feel to it. 4/11/21

Into Deepest Space by Fred & Geoffrey Hoyle, 1974   

An incredibly lethargic sequel to Rockets in Ursa Major. The alien menace tries to attack Earth again, and naturally it fails a second time. Our hero and some of the good aliens embark on a space voyage during which they have some incredibly boring adventures and learn some not particularly interesting things about the hostile aliens. This reads like a space adventure written by someone who had never actually read a space adventure, which might well be the case. 4/6/21

Out of Their Minds by Clifford D. Simak, Berkley, 1970 

This is one of my least favorite Simak novels. The protagonist discovers that all the creatures of our imagination exist after reading a document that theorizes about this, and they decide to kill him by sending werewolves, sea serpents, and other creatures to kill him. He eventually meets the Devil, who seems to be on his side. The story wanders aimlessly with a long episode in a fantasy world with castles and the ending is wishy washy. Blending SF and fantasy does not often work and this was not one of the occasional exceptions. Unfortunately most of the author’s subsequent work was only slightly better. 4/4/21

The Inferno by Fred & Geoffrey Hoyle, Penguin, 1973  

In many ways this is a redo of The Black Cloud. A physicist discovers that a supernova is going to inundate the Earth with radiation. There are only days remaining, so preparations are minimal. Weather is disrupted, the oceans freeze, and most of the human race is killed. We are saved when some unidentified alien intelligence intervenes to reverse the new ice age and restore livable conditions. And the story ends there. The first half is almost entirely filler with a couple of subplots that never get resolved. Not remotely interesting. 4/3/21

Seven Steps to the Sun by Fred & Geoffrey Hoyle, Crest, 1970

Mike Jerome is struck by a taxi and wakes up in an ambulance, ten years later. He has apparently been missing during the interim. He spends the rest of the book going through several more time jumps into an increasingly repressive future. Along the way he somehow stumbles upon a mystery about the death of a friend. The details are completely bogus. He never has trouble with passports or other documents and his bank account is always readily available to him. This sort of gets cleared up when we discover it is all a dream, but by that point I had dismissed the novel as nonsense and a waste of time. 4/1/21