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 11/15/18

The Exile of the Skies by Richard Vaughan, Armchair, 2018 (originally published in 1934) 

Other than one short story, this is the only SF to appear under this name. I doubt anyone was clamoring for more. The protagonist inadvertently causes a disaster on Earth, so he runs off to outer space and interacts with various aliens and societies until he finds a way to redeem himself, which he eventually does. The prose is frequently awkward, the characters flat, the story anecdotal and poorly paced. The aliens are mostly caricatures and the humans only slightly better defined. The cover art is from an old Donald Wollheim anthology. 11/15/18

 Abduction by Steve Frazee, Armchair, 2018 

I’m not sure when or where this originally appeared but it may be “Flying Saucers Do Exist” from 1957. It is not, as I suspected, a shorter version of The Sky Block. It’s only a novelette and it’s a pretty laid back and uneventful story about a man who claims to have been abducted by aliens in a flying saucer, and his story turns out to be true. Completely forgettable. 11/15/18

Pressure by Brian Keene, Thomas Dunne, 2016

The ocean floor near Mauritius begins to collapse, potentially endangering the entire island. Those investigating are plagued by constant equipment malfunctions which exceed probability. An experienced diver nearly dies under odd circumstances, and she tells people privately that she saw something inexplicable and that there was some sort of physical effect on her exposed skin. The first half  of the novel is quite good, but about midway it turns into our heroes vs the evil corporation, which has been done to death. The monsters take a back seat to the human villains and the story lost much of its appeal to me. 11/14/18

Time Tunnel by Murray Leinster, Pyramid, 1964  

This is not related to the television show of the same name, for which Leinster would later write two tie-in novels. This one involves a scientist who figures out how to open a tunnel through time back to 1804 France. Unfortunately, it appears that someone else has made use of it and is changing history. But with the world on the brink of a nuclear war, maybe changing history is not such a bad idea. The novel uses the wave theory of time change – people suddenly find that their memories are different rather than just not having the displaced ones at all. There are some minor adventures in the past but most of the novel consists of the various characters trying to decide how to deal with things. Quite minor. 11/13/18

Thunderbird by Jack McDevitt, Ace, 2015

I haven’t read Ancient Shores in many years so I don’t know if this is a sequel or just very similar. A stargate is discovered on Sioux reservation territory and, rather incredibly, the Sioux have been granted control of it despite complaints from the United Nations as well as factions in the US. It only leads to three very different locations, but it is possible that these in turn lead to others and the slow motion but often interesting exploration gets underway. The pace was too slow for me to really enjoy this one as much as I usually do with this author. 11/11/18

The Other Side of Nowhere by Murray Leinster, Berkley, 1964 

The protagonist signs on as first mate of a cargo ship but quickly discovers that something is wrong. The crew all signed on together. The steward has bugged the captain’s quarters, and the captain knows about it but has said nothing. The captain is also inordinately angry at the inclusion of some last minute passengers. Clearly the captain has some secret plan, but so does the crew and our hero finds himself caught between the two, and responsible for the protection of the passengers as well. The serial version of this pretty good space opera was titled Spaceman. 11/10/18

Invasion of the Plant Men by Berkeley Livingston, Armchair, 2018 (originally published in 1943) 

Livingston wrote quite a bit of SF during the 1940s, but none of it memorable. This one is no exception. The protagonist is aware of odd events happening in a remote area and is puzzled by a strange man who seems to exert unusual influence over a scientist. He turns out to be the leader of an invasion force of plant men who grow their soldiers in the ground. The story takes forever to really get started and then sputters and dies in silliness and bad writing. 11/9/18

Anthropologica Incognita edited by Chad Arment, Coachwhip, 2009 

This is a collection of early stories about alternate humans, although for the most part they are missing links, gorillas, or other apes who have developed in secret. One of the stories openly praises slavery and the plantation system in the American south. There are very few well known authors this time, but the stories are generally entertaining if repetitive. There is one about diminutive humans who are part snake that provided a nice change of pace The best stories – E.F. Benson, H.P. Lovecraft, and Gouverneur Morris – come near the end. 11/7/18

Probability Shadow by Mark Laporta, Chickadee Prince, 2018, $12.99, ISBN 978-0-9997569-2-8

First in a space opera trilogy. The prize is a planet with enormous mineral resources. The contestants are humans and aliens, including a race generally believed to be "evil," the latter of which erupts into a devastating invasion force. The good guys have to unite disparate races and political interests, androids, mutants, and other parties into a coherent force to oppose them. The only solution is to somehow imprison the bad aliens in a kind of pocket universe from which they cannot escape. Lots of adventure, a few very good scenes, and generally a likeable plot. I thought the author tried to shoehorn a few too many things into a relatively short book, which makes the writing feel hasty at times. 11/6/18

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor, Saga, 2014 

An alien vessel crashes in the ocean near Lagos, Nigeria. Three humans are transformed and fated to play a key role in the events that follow. The aliens are shapeshifters with powers so strange that I am tempted to call this fantasy instead of SF – and there is one scene in story which definitely does involve magic. Will outside powers destroy the aliens? Can they even if they want to? And the consequent unrest ravages one of the largest cities in the world. There was a lot of interesting stuff in the novel, but at times I couldn’t figure out what was going on, and I couldn’t always understand the motivations of the characters. 11/4/18

The Duplicators by Murray Leinster, Ace, 1964 

This is a rather silly story about two men who arrive on the only planet that has matter duplicators, which are unknown elsewhere. The human colonists have lost all technology because they don’t need it, and they assign all business transactions to the piglike natives, the uffts, who resent the human domination. The humans have an elaborate system of etiquette which almost gets the newcomers hanged. Slight at best. Magazine title was Lord of the Uffts. 11/3/18

The Lost Level by Brian Keene, Apex, 2015 

This is part of a projected series of adventure stories in a kind of rationalized multiverse where all possibilities and all worlds can be reached. The protagonist somehow finds himself on the Lost Level, which is the only one with no exit. There he finds reptile men, a beautiful captive woman, dinosaurs, and bits of pieces from numerous realities. It’s an unabashed pulp style adventure and it reminded me a lot of Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars with a dash of Pellucidar. Kind of fun but it didn’t make me rush right over to the computer to order a copy of the sequel. 11/3/18

What Might Have Been by Ernest Bramah, John Murray, 1907

This was, I believe, Bramah’s only attempt at futuristic fiction except for a brief sequel. It was a wise decision. This is a broad and ponderous satire set in an alternate history in which Napoleon won at Waterloo and England adopted a socialist government. Naturally the government grabs all the available money and the masses are worse off than ever, but a public relations campaign and control of the media mask all of the shortcomings. This was almost unreadable. I broke off to read something else four times before I made it to the end.  11/1/18

Arboris Mysterius edited by Chad Arment, Coachwhip, 2015   

Third volume of stories of malevolent plants. Although generally well enough written, there are just too many stories about vampire orchids and overgrown Venus Flytraps and they become monotonous after a while. Howard Wandrei, Seabury Quinn, Harl Vincent, A. Hyatt Verrill, and quite a few unknown writers are included here but there are no really well known tales. I think this particular vein has been pretty much exhausted, at least among public domain stories. 11/1/18

Talents, Inc. by Murray Leinster, Avon, 1962 

This is a fairly minor Leinster space adventure that has much of the feel of the Med Ship series. An aggressive interstellar empire is about to annex a peaceful world when a man shows up from Talents, Incorporated, a company he founded to make use of people with unusual talents, like precognition and contagious dreaming. His people turn the tide of battle in increments and the story eventually ends with the collapse of the evil empire. The odds are so stacked in favor of the protagonists that there is not much tension and some of the tricks seemed fairly obvious to me, but it’s an okay casual read. 10/28/18

Flora Curiosa edited by Chad Arment, Coachwhip, 2013   

More stories of plants that never were, this time including a number of well known authors including H.G. Wells, Ambrose Bierce, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Orchids with killer scents, man-eating plants, vampire trees, and other vegetable horrors rear their heads. There are two novellas by Blackwood. “The Willows” is a classic but “The Man the Trees Loved” is tedious and over wrought.  I was surprised not to see Philip Fisher’s “Fungus Isle” in any of the three anthologies in this series. 10/26/18

Newshound 2103 A.D. by Milton Lesser, Armchair, 2018 (originally published in 1955) 

Lesser had an interesting idea but did little with it in this novella. In the future, using predictive tools, newspapers predict rather than report the news, and when their predictions seem to be going awry, they use various real world methods to make them come true. The story concentrates on the rivalry between two major newspapers and the morality of causing a war just to avoid losing circulation, but everything is so simple minded and unrealistic that the story feels more like a proposal than a finished product. 10/25/18

Operation Terror by Murray Leinster, Berkley, 1962

There are reports of an alien landing in a remote lake and the local population is in a panic. The protagonist, a cartographer, gets into all sorts of difficulties when he attempts to rescue a woman he believes was inadvertently left behind in the danger zone. They have various adventures, begin to suspect that humans are cooperating with aliens, invent two different counter weapons using ordinary household items, and finally discover that the whole thing was a hoax to get other countries to adopt defensive measures. This last bit is so absurdly implausible and unnecessary that it ruins what might otherwise have been a decent novel. 10/24/18

Forsaken by Michael McBride, Pinnacle, 2018 

Sequel to Subhuman, which was my least favorite of McBride’s books until this one, which I liked even less. There’s just too much kitchen sink stuff, ancient ruins, civilization in Antarctica, instant mutation of adult humans, an alien visitor with superhuman powers, a crack team of soldiers, mysterious deaths, crop circles, etc. And too many viewpoint characters. I have thorough enjoyed several of the author’s novels, but these two just try to do too much at once. And this is obviously not the final book in the series. There is certainly plenty of violent action, some of it quite well done and suspenseful. 10/22/18

Zero A.D. by Robert Wade, Armchair, 2018 (originally published in 1948) 

A scientist claims that Earth is only a few years old, that everyone’s memory is false and that history is just make believe because it is all part of an experiment conducted by a superior intelligence. Of course he has no evidence, no reason to have come up with the theory, and it proves to be true. We only discover that after a newspaper reporter loses his job and starts an informal investigation that turns up the highly improbable truth in a highly improbable fashion. The novel originally appeared as by Lee Francis. Wade was also half of Whit Masterson and wrote alone as Wade Miller. 10/21/18

Civil War by Stuart Moore, Titan, 2018 

This is a novelization of the graphic novel and it involves a much larger number of the Marvel universe characters than were in the movie. It is also much darker in tone. Ironman/Stark wants to register all metahumans, expose their secret identities, and regulate how they act. Captain America/Rogers is vehemently opposed. All of the other characters take sides, sometimes changing, except that Dr. Strange and the X-Men stay neutral, the Hulk is somewhere lost in space, and both Thor and Nick Fury are dead. The story is pretty well done until the end, which is not Moore’s fault, but which concludes with the fascists winning, Rogers imprisoned, Sue Richard unaccountably going back to her husband, and Tony Stark the unspoken world dictator with control of Shield, the Avengers, and fifty other superhuman groups. I found the set up horribly contrived and making Stark a raving fascist didn’t help. I found the end appalling. 10/20/18

Botanica Delira edited by Chad Arment, Coachwhip, 2010  

A collection of stories about cryptobotany, i.e. plants that never existed. There is a lot of repetition in this one. Almost half the protagonists are hunting orchids when they have strange encounters. And there are a lot of stories about carnivorous plants that grow large enough to eat people. A couple of them are quite good: “Lamparagua” by Mary Crommelin and the anonymously written spoof, “A Flesh Eating Plant.” One of the stories involves Sherlock Holmes and another Dr. Fu Manchu. There is also a story by Louisa May Alcott. Good, but not as even as the editor’s cryptozoological anthologies. 10/18/18

Creatures of the Abyss by Murray Leinster, Berkley, 1961

An electronics whiz is enticed aboard a yacht that is investigating the appearance of strange fish and other anomalies in the vicinity of the Luzon Deep. Readers will be way ahead of the characters in guessing that aliens are visiting the ocean depths for some reason and their presence is causing the unusual phenomena. Although the plot sounds like a B SF horror film, the story is actually very restrained and low key. There is a structural problem in that everyone is keeping secrets even when there is no point to it, primarily to deprive the reader of information. One of my favorite Leinster novels. 10/15/18

Creature Features edited by Chad Arment, Coachwhip, 2018 

This is the most recent in a series of anthologies about cryptids, animals that don’t really exist, or at least not any more. Since the stories are all public domain, recent ones like yetis, Chupacabra, and even the Loch Ness Monster are missing. This time we have a few different invisible creatures, another that lives high in the air, sea creatures, swamp critters, and one from another dimension. Nelson Bond, Edmond Hamilton, and Robert Moore Williams are among the contributors. The Williams story is one of his best and the Bond is "The Monster from Nowhere," his most famous. 10/14/18

Who Is the Black Panther? by Jesse J. Holland, Titan, 2018

This is an absolutely awful tie-in to the Black Panther movie. The prose is okay but not great. The plot is insultingly bad. The premise is that the US government wants to subjugate Wakanda, so they hire Klaw, who recruits a neighboring nation’s army, buttressed by Batroc, the Black Knight, and the Rhinoceros to conduct an invasion and change of regime. The US general behind this is cartoonish even in the age of Trump. That would be bad enough, but the Black Panther suddenly decrees that his traditional bodyguard will suddenly be changed into an espionage organization despite tradition, their objection, and their almost complete lack of training in that area. The invasion proves to him that he should reverse his decision. Boring, irritating, silly, and drawn out. 10/12/18

Mayhem in Manhattan by Len Wein and Marv Wolfman, Pocket, 1978

The first ever Spider-Man novel is pretty minor. A mysterious villain is forcing the heads of all the oil companies into a single entity under his control. Spidey, who has unjustly been accused of murdering a man who tried to resist the arch-villain, has to figure out what is going on and foil the plan. It is supposed to be a mystery who is behind everything until very late in the book, but it is obvious in the opening chapter that the chief bad guy is Dr. Octopus. Not much appeal for minimally sophisticated readers. 10/12/18

Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Dan Abnett, Titan, 2018 

The Avengers have a lot on their hands in this original adventure. Hydra has a new plague, AIM launches a new campaign using nanotechnology, Dormammu invades and transforms Siberia, the High Evolutionary is at large, and Ultron is on the verge of becoming a superintelligence so powerful that it will command the universe. Thor, Hulk, Ironman, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Captain America have their work cut out for them as all communications around the world are blocked, making it impossible to coordinate. This was a surprisingly engaging adventure for a tie-in novel and perhaps more so because I had distinct images and voices for most of the characters. The hardcover edition of this novel was in 2015. 10/11/18

The Avengers Battle the Earth-Wrecker by Otto Binder, Bantam, 1967

The writing in this very early Avengers novel was not as good as in the comic books and the story is ridiculous. The Avengers consists of Captain America, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, Iron Man, Goliath and the Wasp, and Hawkeye. They are opposed by Karzz, a shapechanging alien from the far future whose plan of conquest was foiled by humans five thousand years from now. So he has come back through time to destroy the Earth using four methods – a comet drawn by a magnet, melting the ice caps, setting off massive volcanic eruptions, and creating superhurricanes. The Avengers naturally object but Karzz has a rather ineffective force field and is not too bright. They eventually cause time to run backward so that all of the damage is undone. Terrible book. 10/11/18

Beyond the Walls of Space by S.M. Tenneshaw, Armchair, 2018 

This is a house pseudonym and the author in this case has never been identified. I wouldn’t admit to having written it. A large collection of bad clichés thrown together. There is a hidden planet whose population menaces Earth. A domineering woman from another race. Mysterious eents in space. Battles. Silly arguments and sillier plot developments. Encompasses all of the bad things that mainstream readers thought about SF at the time. I'm not surprised no one admits to having written it. 10/10/18

Zoologica Fantastica edited by Chad Arment, Coachwhip, 2013 

Another collection of stories about animals that never existed, quite a variety of them this time including white gorillas, deadly butterflies, prehistorical survivals, invisible cave monsters, creatures living in the upper atmosphere, and so on. The authors are mostly minor or even virtually unknown but most of the stories are quite readable. All but one were published before 1940. For some reason the last four in the book are of much lower quality than the rest, all routine and sometimes inept pulp adventures. Since all of the stories are in the public domain, the editor had a limited pool from which to choose.10/9/18

The Wailing Asteroid by Murray Leinster, Avon, 1960

A strange signal from the asteroid belt stimulates memories buried in a man's mind and he develops a new space drive so that he can investigate. He finds an abandoned fortress in space with weapons he does not know how to use, and the instruments suggest that a hostile alien fleet is en route to the solar system to destroy humanity completely. This is rather old fashioned and relies on coincidences and short cuts, but the scenes where they explore the empty battle station gave me the same feeling of wonder that I felt when I first read this almost half a century ago. It was filmed - rather horribly - as The Terrornauts with a screenplay by John Brunner. 10/7/18

Exit Strategy by Martha Wells, Tor, 2018, $17.99, ISBN 978-1-250-19185-4 

The fourth and I think last of the Murderbot stories. Murderbot discovers that his human friend and benefactor has been taken hostage by the evil corporation it has been fighting throughout the series, so this adventure takes place in and around its corporate headquarters. Although all four novellas have very similar plots, the protagonist makes all the difference. Having hacked its own code to prevent being controlled, it now passes for human, mostly, and it’s favorite pastime is watching the equivalent of television programs. The first in the series won a Hugo last year and I would not be surprised to see a repeat. 10/5/18

Bestiarium Cryptozoologicum edited by Chad Arment, Coachwhip     

The fourth in a series of anthologies about creatures that never were. There is more variety in this one than in the other volumes. Mammoths, giant bears, giant pumas, sewer monsters, humanoids, oversized snakes, etc. The authors include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, William Fryer Harvey, H.G. Wells, and Jack London, although there are also good stories by people I’d never previous heard of, particularly Alexander Ricketts. The settings are well scattered across the world and the prose styles are quite varied as well. I was familiar with several this time, but still fewer than half of the entries. Lots of fun. 10/3/18

Design for Doomsday by Bryce Walton, Armchair, 2018 (magazine publication in 1947)  

I vaguely recall having enjoyed some of this author’s short stories, but this novella is definitely not one of them. The Martians have a dictatorship which has imposed a repressive regime on Earth and elsewhere. Our two fisted hero has to escape incarceration and overthrow the evil overlords, which he accomplished without much difficulty. The writing is choppy and sometimes silly. It feels more like a 1950s comic book story. The cover art is from Bow Down to Nul by Brian W. Aldiss 10/2/18