to SF Reviews

of SF Reviews

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

LAST UPDATE 9/19/18

Silent Storm by Troy Denning, Gallery, 2018, $19.99, ISBN 978-1-5011-3838-6

A new Halo tie in novel. Humans and aliens are at war and for the moment at least the aliens appear to be winning handily. They have superior numbers - it's an alliance of several races - and superior technology, but it also a theocratic dictatorship. This story takes place early in the war, when a special force of soldiers with enhanced powers is being formed to try to change the course of the battle. It is also hoped that unorthodox tactics will cause the enemy to hesitate and try to figure out the proper way to proceed. And of course not all humans are in favor of the war, particularly on some planets which see the hostilities as a chance to declare their independence from the growing human empire. Rather short sighted, I thought, given the probability that the aliens would impose an even more restrictive control. Decent military SF. 9/19/18

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells, Tor, 2018, $17.99, ISBN 978-1-250-18692-8 

Second in the Murderbot series of novellas. Now more or less free, Murderbot decides to investigate a past incident in which her programming reportedly failed, resulting in dozens of human casualties. To get to that planet undetected, Murderbot takes a job as security consultant to three researchers whose work was stolen. They are not aware that their new companion is not a human being. Neither are the bad guys, who soon find themselves outmatched.  The plot is rather similar to the first in the series, but it’s still quite good. 9/18/18

The Monster from Earth’s End by Murray Leinster, Gold Medal, 1959 

Cheaply filmed as The Navy vs the Night Monsters, this is actually a pretty good suspense thriller. A plane crashes on a small island while transporting specimens from a hot spring area in Antarctica. This blocks the runway and leaves nineteen people with limited outside contact, which becomes even worse when they accidentally destroy their radio and their generators. Something is prowling in the woods around the base. People and dogs disappear mysteriously. Something was on the plane that no one knew about, and now it’s loose and it’s hungry. In some ways this is Leinster’s best novel, tightly plotted, suspenseful, and logically developed. It would have been even better if it had avoided the “man driven insane by what he sees” gimmick, which is used twice. 9/17/18

Cetus Insolitus edited by Chad Arment, Coachwhip, 2008 

This is a collection of stories of cryptozoology, imaginary animals, the first in a series of anthologies on that subject from this publisher. The initial volume involves sea creatures, mostly sea serpents. The stories are drawn from the period 1848-1928. They include well known writers like William Hope Hodgson - who has half a dozen stories here - and H.G. Wells, but also a great many I had never heard of. Some are humorous, some are horror. They range from short tall tales to novelette length adventures. There is a Fletcher Pratt collaboration I had never heard of.  A few of the sea serpent stories get repetitious but not horribly so. Almost four hundred pages and if you're not familiar with Hodgson, you're going to find a lot of new material to read here. 9/16/18

This World Is Taboo by Murray Leinster, Ace, 1961

This Med Service novella also appeared as Pariah Planet. Calhoun finds a planet that is effectively quarantined by another world that needlessly fears contagion from an old plague. It looks like the more advanced world is going to drop bombs on the other, even though the prospective victims are dying off because of famine, but he contrives a way to resolve their differences. The story is completely implausible. Why would a planet with food surpluses put them into orbit for safekeeping? And enmities that have lasted for generations do not suddenly vanish as easily as this. Although the Med Service stories are among Leinster’s best remembered work, they are generally inferior in quality to much of his other fiction. 9/14/18

Terrors of Arelli by Aladra Septama, Armchair, 2018 (originally published in 1939) 

The cover from the paperback of Dwellers in the Mirage by A. Merritt adorns the first book appearance of this very minor novella. The exploration of the moon leads to the discovery of caverns and life forms hidden below the surface, including a human civilization and some bug eyed monsters with big tentacles. There is a reason no one ever hears anything about this writer, actually Judson Reeves, who produced six very forgettable stories before disappearing. This is a good example of why science fiction was so despised at the time.  9/13/18

Four from Planet 5 by Murray Leinster, Gold Medal, 1959 

The staff of a small meteor tracking station in Antarctica is startled when an unknown object crashes nearby. They find the remains of an advanced spaceship of some sort, crewed by four teenagers who do not speak English. This causes an international crisis, but only our hero has figured out that they come from the past, possibly a civilization on the now destroyed fifth planet. Although the first half of the novel is pretty good, the implausibilities become more prominent after that. Security for the children is unbelievably lax. They take far too long to learn English. Scientists figure out how to duplicate their discoveries simply by thinking about the principles. Since they are completely human, it is obvious that they come from Earth, not another world. Originally published as Long Ago, Far Away. The plot makes the paperback title meaningless. 9/8/18

All Systems Red by Martha Wells, Tor, 2017, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-9753-9 

The protagonist of this short novel is a nameless construct, a cross between an android and a robot – think Terminator. These constructs are owned by companies which control them through mandatory software downloads but our protagonist, who thinks of itself as Murderbot, has found a way to disable them and maintain a disguised free will. Its current job is to protect a survey team on an unsettled planet but it is put to the test when a rival team embarks on a murderous campaign to eliminate its competition. An interesting character, a tense situation, lots of overt action, and plain good writing all come together in this one. There are sequels coming and I look forward to them. This just won a Hugo and it is well deserved. 9/5/18

The Mutant Weapon by Murray Leinster, Ace, 1959   

Leinster’s only long running series was the Med Ship sequence, featuring Doctor Calhoun and his alien companion Murgatroyd. This was their first appearance, a novella in which their ship is attacked when they make what should have been a routine visit to a new colony world. He eventually uncovers a plot to depopulate a world by means of a plague so that another planet can occupy it with inoculated colonists.  A nice adventure story but the story doesn’t make a lot of sense. How could the new colonists participate in interstellar trade? Newcomers would have to be inoculated and travelers would be carriers. 9/4/18

Last Call from Sector 9G by Leigh Brackett, Armchair, 2018 (magazine appearance 1955)

Alas this novella  is not a lost gem but a rather pedestrian story of a down and out secret agent who is given one more chance to perform an interplanetary mission. Except that it turns out he is supposed to fail and by doing so provoke an interplanetary war that will obfuscate an illegal operation run by his boss. Unfortunately he is more competent than expected and when the daughter of the boss gets involved, it throw the entire plan into disarray. The whole thing is rather dull and Brackett's usual wonderful prose is nowhere to be seen. 9/2/18

The Pirates of Zan by Murray Leinster, Ace,1959 

Also published as The Pirates of Ersatz. A young man from a planet of pirates gets into hot water when he invents a new device that may emit death rays as a byproduct. A brilliant inventor is forced to take refuge from his enemies on a feudal planet, but that only enmeshes him in a different web of intrigue and danger. So he takes measures into his own hands, becomes an unconventional space pirate, befriends a large group of people who have been defrauded when they bought equipment with which to settle a new planet, and becomes involved with two different women. This is an amusing other words adventure whose plot depends on a lot of coincidences and luck and is not intended to be taken entirely seriously. 8/31/18

Zion's Fiction edited by Shelton Teitlebaum and Emanuel Lottem, Mandel Villar, 2018, $24.95, ISBN 978-1942134527

Since this is a collection of Israeli SF stories, it's likely that Lavie Tidhar is the only name that will be familiar to most readers in the US. The stories, not all of which were originally written in English, date from the 1980s through the present. There is also an essay recounting the history of Israeli SF and an introduction by Robert Silverberg. Predictably, several of the stories reflect uncertainty about the future and a lack of confidence in the stability of the present. Otherwise, they vary as much as in any unthemed anthology. Some of the stories deal with specifically Jewish issues, but they are the minority. I was mildly surprised that so few venture very far into the future. "The Perfect Girl" by Guy Hasson was probably the most interesting in the book. This is a good chance to look at SF as a genre from a different point of view, as well as to enjoy some stories that are not available elsewhere. 8/30/18

The Transposed Man by Dwight V. Swain, Armchair, 2018 (originally published in 1953) 

Swain wrote a good number of novellas, of which this is probably the best, although that is not saying much. The Mechanists are a society of scientists who wish to seize control of the world and rule it scientifically. The protagonist is their top agent, who can move from body to body in pursuit of his goals. Oddly, little use has been made of this technology, which certainly would have solved all of their problems. The legal government is developing mind reading, but the Mechanists have also figured out how to make duplicates of people with altered minds loyal to them. It takes the hero a long time to figure out he is working for the wrong side. 8/27/18

Planet of Doomed Men by Robert Moore Williams, Armchair, 2018 (originally published 1942)

Williams wrote several readable if not superlative short novels during his career, but this early effort is not one of them. Someone is almost magically kidnapping terminally ill people from Earth. The protagonist is one of them and he finds himself in a distant future in which the last human being, mutated and dying, is using an army of androids to fend off the attacks of the now intelligent and malevolent future monkeys. It never seems to have occurred to Williams that the monkeys were quite probably the good guys in this scenario. In any case, they help him to defeat the monkey men and set out to repopulate the Earth. Unmemorable and mildly offensive. 8/24/18

The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal, Tor, 2018, $15.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-9894-9

Sequel to The Calculating Stars. This is an alternate history where the space program was underway by the 1950s and by 1961 a mission to Mars was being planned. Despite major societal and political objections, women have been introduced to the program and it turns out they have the best minds for the calculations necessary during space travel - computers are as yet unreliable. So when the crew is being picked, the powers that be don't want to include any women, but have to face the fact that this makes any such mission much more dangerous and likely to fail. The novel presents a very new and interesting viewpoint about not just space travel but the advancement of human knowledge and experience in general, and  the way stereotyped expectations can be positively disastrous. The plot is very low key despite a few tense moments and is more about the interactions of the characters than about the things they are experiencing and the physical challenges which they have to deal with. 8/23/18

War With the Gizmos by Murray Leinster, Gold Medal, 1958

The Gizmos are invisible creatures that cover the faces of their prey and suffocate them. At first they only attack animals in the wild, but then they begin claiming human victims, and no one even suspects that anything odd is happening until the protagonist manages to survive one of their attacks. The balance of the book is mostly about him and his two companions as they find ways to fight back against the gaseous creatures. They give out a rotten smell when they die and when this first appeared, fans referred to it as War With the Farts. If Leinster were alive today, I suspect he would be a well known thriller writer. The end is rather perfunctory but the story is excellent. 8/22/18

City on the Moon by Murray Leinster, Ace, 1957  

The third and final Joe Kenmore novel is set in a permanent base on the moon. Saboteurs have forced the crash landing of a rocket from Earth as well as the complete evacuation of the main lunar colony. There is also a group of scientists who believe they have a doomsday reaction that could destroy the universe. Kenmore leads the effort to find and stop the saboteurs after rescuing the stranded travelers and surviving with a crippled moon vehicle. And the scientists turn out to be wrong. A Red Scare novel with one good sequence but otherwise more boring than not. 8/20/18

The End of All Our Exploring by F. Brett Cox, Fairwood, 2018, $17.99, ISBN 978-1-933846-71-2

This is a good sized collection - twenty-seven stories including a few vignettes- and while I'm listing it in science fiction it includes fantasy, supernatural, and even a few mainstream tales. I had only read a handful of these previously so the book was essentially completely new to me. The range of subject matter is impressive in itself - the far future, the historical past, the world of art, the world of science, lightly humorous and deadly serious. A couple of them are rather slight but the majority have considerable meat on their bones. I particularly liked "What They Did to My Father," "Where We Would End a War," and "Serpent and the Hatchet Gang." There is a sense of wonder in most of them, though not the Gosh Wow version that I found in SF when I first discovered the genre. Some of them have very nicely developed characters who sometimes seem more important than the plot. Definitely worth the time to track down a copy. 8/14/18

The Planet Explorer by Murray Leinster, Avon, 1957 

This is a fixup of four shorter stories, one of which won the Hugo. They all feature Bordman, an agent of the Colonial Survey, which evaluates safety problems for human colony worlds. He solves problems when a star starts a temporary but potentially deadly slow period of radiation, saves a colony whose ability to land ships from offworld is destroyed by a sand storm, prevents an over irrigated island from essentially slipping off its moorings and sinking, and teams up with an illegal colonist and his team of bears to rescue the survivors of another colony that was overwhelmed by local carnivores. Good collection, though not really a novel. The hardcover edition of this one was published as Colonial Survey. 8/13/18

The Sacerdotal Owl by Michael Bishop, Kudzu Planet, 2018, $15.99, ISBN 978-1-933846-72-9

This collection is composed of a novel and three novelettes drawn from various points in the author's career. The novel is And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees, in which the survivors of a destroyed Earth find fresh problems on a new world. Their rigidly hierarchical social system is less flexible than it should be. The title story is a quiet but effective sort of horror tale set in the midst of a Central American civil war. "To the Land of Snow" is a fascinating generational starship story in which the would-be colonists are Buddhists. The final story involves a non-human messiah and other religious elements and was considered rather controversial when it was first published. I believe all four stories have been somewhat revised for this edition. They are typical of Bishop's career in that they are so dissimilar. Bishop never fell into a niche and is always unpredictable, but never disappointing. 8/10/18

Chercher La Femme by L. Timmel Duchamp, Aqueduct, 2018, $19, ISBN 978-1-51976-147-6

One of my favorite devices for SF stories is the alien race whose society presents a puzzle to humans. In this case, an expedition of men arrives on a planet whose inhabitants all appear to be women, and unusually beautiful ones as well. But this is not a variation of some 1950s cheaply made SF exploitation film. There is some subtle and intelligent examination of gender roles as well as a touch of philosophy about the limits on human ability to comprehend the universe, but none of that detracts from what is also a nicely constructed puzzle story. This was a surprisingly fast read. 8/9/18

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, Brilliance Audio 

I hadn’t read this since before the first movie, so it was interesting to see the changes listening to the audio version. John Hammond is a total jerk and not at all lovable. Ed Regis and the lawyer were combined in the movie into a single character. Grant loved children rather than felt awkward with them. Malcolm is even more arrogant and ignorant of science than he is in the movie – mouthing Crichton’s uninformed misconceptions. The book never deals with the fact that we know some of the dinosaurs have reached the mainland, although we never find out how they did it, or how they overcame their lycene dependency. Lex is more obnoxious.  Hammond and Malcolm die, but Gennaro lives. There is a bad logical flaw. The raptors have never been allowed into the park because they are too dangerous, but they are found to be breeding in the park. There had to have been some originals. Where did they come from? The book’s ending – exploring an underground nest – was wisely left out of the movie. 8/7/18

The Other Side of Here by Murray Leinster, Ace, 1955   

American cities are suddenly struck by some force that incapacitates the entire population. Our hero discovers that it is a directed electrical phenomenon and find a way to shield himself against it, but he is soon pilloried in the news as a plague carrier. He and a sketchily described female companion discover that invaders from another reality are looting the cities. Repeated attempts to publicize the truth fail, so they finally have to take direct action, killing some of the invaders, sabotaging their equipment, and provoking a rebellion within their numbers. Although a bit clunky – the story originally appeared in 1936 as The Incredible Invasion – it ages pretty well. 8/3/18

Nebula Awards Showcase 2018 edited by Jane Yolen, Pyr, 2018, $18, ISBN 078-1-63388-504-2

The latest in this venerable series The short stories are from  a new generation of writers and are much more diverse than in the past. Contributors include Alyssa Wong, Sarah Pinsker, and David D. Levine. There are novel excerpts and articles along with the stories. Not every story was to my taste but most of them were, a reaction I imagine will be mirrored by most other readers. Present tense narration appears to be growing in popularity, and there are several examples here. I still find this intrusive and offputting but others will disagree. It is interesting to look back at stories included in earlier volumes in this series and note how the emphasis has changed. 9/2/18

The Invaders by Murray Leinster, Armchair, 2017 (originally published in 1953)

A novella in which the hero discovers that aliens are secretly living among us and are wearing people suits so that they will not be detected. Much alarm ensues when he convinces the government that he is telling the truth. The aliens have always acted benevolently, however, so it is no real surprise when they admit that they were studying us in order to prepare for open contact. Some of the plot twists are highly improbable. 8/1/18

The Anomaly by Michael Rutger, Grand Central, 2018, $26, ISBN 978-1-5387-6185-4

This first novel is a very engaging SF thriller in which an internet based film crew that specializes in the weird explores a hidden cave in the Grand Canyon. What they find inside is more than just remnants of an ancient civilization but something that could cost them all their lives and change the world forever. I can't say much about the plot without giving away too much. The characters are relatively vivid and the dialogue is generally witty and amusing. Some of the thrills are quite well done. I was mildly disappointed at the final explanation, but not enough to spoil the book and others might find it more plausible. The author gets added to my "watch for" list. Recommended. 7/30/18

Monsters and Such by Murray Leinster, Avon, 1959 

“Proxima Centauri” is a first contact story, with humans encountering an inimical race that views animal flesh as akin to gold. “De Profundis” is less substantial. A sea serpent rescues a bathyscape.  “The Lonely Planet” is one of my favorites. A single being covers an entire planet and communicates with humans telepathically. But then it is perceived as a potential threat, and so it becomes..” “If You Was a Moklin” is another of my favorites, a planet whose humanoid inhabitants can control their own evolution and decide to become human. “The Trans-Human” is about a child raised by aliens to believe he is one of them. “Nobody Saw the Ship” is about an alien that secretly visits Earth for nefarious reasons which fail because of insects. “The Castaway” is an excellent story about a fugitive alien on Earth, although its conclusions – that even a friendly alien must be killed to prevent contact with a higher civilization – is rather depressing. 7/26/18

Twists in Time by Murray Leinster, Avon, 1960 

This is a collection of stories with time travel as a plot element. “Dead City” is an excellent story about the discovery of traces of a lost, nonhuman civilization in the Yucatan. “The End” involves the literal end of the universe and a possible way to survive it. A man and a woman, separated by death, are reunited when their worlds overlap in “The Other Now.” “Dear Charles” is a humorous story about time travel paradoxes. “Sam, This Is You” is about a telephone lineman who gets a call from himself, and it’s pretty funny. “Rogue Star” is the weakest in the collection. A stolen spaceship goes back through time and introduces agriculture to primitive humans. 7/25/18

The Aliens by Murray Leinster, Berkley, 1960 

“Skit-Tree Planet” is an improbable but fun story about the last member of an alien race that uses forcefields rather than solid matter. “The Fugitive from Space” is an exciting adventure in which a malevolent shape changing alien criminal takes two humans hostage. “Anthropological Note” is a better than average story about efforts to study an alien civilization, in this case primitives on Venus. The title story is another first contact problem. A human and potentially hostile alien vessel collide and are welded together. Only cooperation can save their lives. "Thing from the Sky" is a quiet story about a secret alien who hopes to change Earth's ecology but fails. This was a very good collection and was the first book by Leinster that I ever read back when it appeared in 1960. 7/24/18

Predatory Instinct by Michael McBride, Factory V, 2012 

A previously unknown branch of hominids is found in Siberia. A Russian ship is found adrift off the coast of Washington. Its crew are all dead, but whatever attacked them has gone ashore. A police officer is faced with a serious of brutal killings starting at the water front, but she initially has no idea what she is facing. This is a pretty good thriller, but it was a lot like the previous two books I’d read by this author and I was hoping for something a little different. I have another of his novels waiting to be read. 7/19/18

Get Off My World! by Murray Leinster, Belmont, 1966  w038 

Three long stories. “Planet of Sand” has an interesting premise – a barren planet with a large structure still powered by unknown forces. The execution isn’t great. Too many coincidences, convenient compatibilities between alien and human technology, and too many unanswered questions. If the planet is known to have a breathable atmosphere, why didn’t anyone notice a structure that covers thousands of square miles on an otherwise featureless surface? "Second Landing" is a nicely told tale of adventure on a planet supposedly uninhabited but actually still clandestinely watched by an old enemy. The premise has some serious flaws, unfortunately. "White Spot" is about a crashlanding on a planet where a gigantic living creature tries to kill the four human intruders.  7/18/18

The Forgotten Planet by Murray Leinster, Ace, 1954

Leinster compiled this novel from two stories he had written during the 1920s with another from 1953. The seeding of a lifeless planet is interrupted before mammals can be introduced, so the local sea and insect life grow to disproportionate sizes within giant forests of fungi and other vegetation. A crashed lifeship introduces a handful of humans who lose all traces of civilization over the course of many generations of isolation.  Burl is a primitive who begins to have revolutionary thoughts, like using weapons and hunting, which will transform his tribe dramatically. This is a fixup of three short stories but the transitions are virtually seamless and while I doubt that insects this big are physiologically possible, it still makes a good story. 7/13/18

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, Tor, 2018, $18.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-7838-5

This appears to be the first half of an alternate history duology. The change point is the 1950s when a giant meteorite destroys much of the east coast of the US. The environmental impact is so great that it seems likely that the human race will not survive the aftermath, at least not on Earth. So the survivors launch a desperate attempt to colonize space so that at least a few will be able to preserve the species. But that's not really what the story is about. The protagonist is a brilliant woman involved with the attempt to reach the moon, but she begins to wonder why there are no women among the prospective astronauts, and sets out to be the first. The story, of course, will not be fully resolved until the second book - The Fated Sky - appears a month from now. There's never any real doubt that the protagonist will succeed, but the story is pleasant and some of the background details are particularly interesting. 7/7/18

Operation Outer Space by Murray Leinster, Signet, 1957

A new discovery suggests that faster than light travel is possible. An advertising man quits his job to raise money for a new company that will send the first ship to the stars. It does so surprisingly quickly, with all of the major characters aboard, including a psychopath. Despite the melodramatic situation, the story is quite low key. There is an active volcano on the first planet they visit, but no one is injured despite a short period as castaways for the protagonist and his romantic interest. She is surprisingly positively portrayed for the time – she is intelligent, manages things behind the scenes, and even defeats the psychopath when he tries to take over. 7/6/18

Drop by  Drop by Morgan Llywelyn, Tor, 2018, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-88667

This is the first SF novel by a writer who has previously specialized in fantasy and historical fiction. It's a disaster story, but not a big flashy one. Civilization crumbles this time because all plastics suddenly begin to deteriorate, which essentially bring virtually all technology to a stand still. There is no real explanation for the change but it's unnecessary. Our focus is almost completely limited to events in a small American town, which allows the author to keep the plot tightly focused, although this also means that the really major consequences are only revealed at second hand, if at all. The muted approach to disaster provides an interesting variation, but questions kept occurring to me that no one was ever going to answer. Readable and witha few very nice scenes, but not memorable. 7/5/18

Space Tug by Murray Leinster, Pocket, 1953   

The sequel to Space Platform is more of the same, but in space. Unknown enemies are firing missiles at the US space station, and an insane station commander does not help the situation. Most of the story involves efforts to defend the station, but the last few chapters involve a off course moonship and our hero’s brilliant plan to save the day. Quite dated and not as good as its predecessor, which - like this one - feels like a young adult novel even though it has no teenage characters. I was pleasantly surprised that the only female character is competent and actually solves some of the problems that arise, which was unusual in 1950s SF. 7/3/18

Keepers by Brenda Cooper, Pyr, 2018, $18, ISBN 978-1-63388-421-2

Brenda Cooper's latest reflects her strong interest in environmental concerns and her passion for the subject is obvious. Future Earth consists of large environmentally conscious cities separated by wide expanses of undeveloped land. It is in many respects a Utopian setting. But as usual, there is a flaw in the ointment. There is a subset of humanity which longs for the days of rapaciousness and exploitation, and is determined to force the world to change to suit them. The story is told from the points of view of two sisters, one of whom lives in a city, the other tends to prefer a natural setting. But both are opposed to the Returners. The contrasts between the lives of the two sisters is particularly important to the telling of the story. I don't want to give away the ending, but I do expect a return to this world in the author's next book. 7/1/18

MORE REVIEWS