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

LAST UPDATE 11/26/20

Reclaimers of the Ice by Stanton Coblentz, Armchair, 2020 (originally published in 1930) 

More of an adventure story than SF. A visionary decides to convert the Arctic to a useful environment, but his project is nearly wiped out by the harsh conditions there. Badly written – particularly the often painful dialogue. This felt a lot like a Jules Verne pastiche. The characters are wooden and the descriptive passages less than scintillating. I have yet to find an actually readable Coblentz novel - although this comes close, which raises the question of why he sold so many of them. 11/26/20

The Sensitives by Louis Charbonneau, Bantam, 1968   

This one is a somewhat disjointed story about the search for six people with psi powers – Charbonneau does not seem to have clearly understood the different types – by an American secret agent who is telepathic himself. The Chinese have been trying to gather them up to create a psychic superweapon more deadly than nuclear bombs. The premise is unconvincing. The protagonist is unpleasant. The plot details are uninteresting. I didn’t like this fifty years ago and I still don’t. 11/25/20

The Golden City by Ralph Milne Farley, Steeger, 2019 (originally published in 1933)

A sailor falls overboard while viewing what he thinks is a mirage of a fabulous city. It’s not, and he swims ashore where he has the usual round of adventures involving a sinister villain, an evil monster, a beautiful young woman, and makes friends before helping in a tremendous battle. Despite being set on Earth, this feels a lot like his Radio stories set on the planet Venus, and it is an obvious imitation of the plotting and writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Amusing but trivial. 11/23/20

Down to Earth by Louis Charbonneau, Bantam, 1967  

Aka Antic Earth. There’s the germ of a good idea in this dreadful novel. An emergency station in space has a small human complement – one family – and holographic images create the semblance of a community around them. A vicious criminal lands and blends with the images to create havoc. Everything else in the book is awful. Charbonneau sets the story on an unnamed planet in the solar system, which happens to have some sort of ambulatory plant life no one has ever seen before. The space station monitors space visually. They have no radar or other detection equipment. The failure of three different systems in a single day does not particularly alarm them even though their survival depends upon them. Although it is a repair station, only the husband has any training at all. The wife just keeps house and the two kids serve no purpose at all. Bad conception, poor science, boring writing. 11/21/20

Murder Ship by G.H. Teed, Stillwoods, 2018 (originally published in 1935) 

Teed is best known as the author of literally hundreds of Sexton Blake adventures. This isn’t one of them. It’s certainly adventurous though. The protagonist survives two separate assassination attempts aboard an ocean liner before page ten. His job is to help protect the creation of a floating airfield in the middle of the Atlantic which possesses equipment which can actually control the roughness of the surrounding sea. There are two sets of bad guys aboard, both of whom know that the secret plans are aboard. The security precautions are obviously not very good. The hero eventually pretends to have defected in order to recover the stolen plans and foil the various bad guys. Okay but not very believable. 11/19/20

Psychedelic-40 by Louis Charbonneau, Bantam. 1965  

Also published as The Specials, set in a future when a new drug makes some people telepathic. The familiar plot plays out as an agent working for the telepaths discovers that his superiors are corrupt and playing deadly power games. He eventually finds that he has a good deal of sympathy for the rebels and is caught between two forces, neither of which trust him. The story plods along rather slowly and the characters lack any depth. Paranoia is a major plot element in almost all of the author's SF. 11/17/20

The Scarlet Saint by Manly Banister, Armchair, 2020 (originally published in 1956 )

Aka Conquest of Earth. In the far future, the universe is ruled by super powers of the Trisz, whose nature is unknown. The Institute of Manhood harbors the Scarlet Saint, a human with powers of his own. Horribly silly and rife with chauvinism and racism, this is a Star Wars style adventure with none of the positives. The plot is artlessly contrived, the action scenes verge on the comical, and the characters are beyond flatness. The story is interrupted at times by pseudo-logical lectures. The evil Trisz is eventually overthrown, to no one’s surprise. 11/16/20

Treasure of the Golden God by A. Hyatt Verrill, Armchair, 2018 (originally published in 1933)

This opens as a standard jungle adventure novel, with two men seeking a village rumored to have an enormous stock of gold. They eventually find El Dorado, but only after pissing off some of the local tribes and having to run for their lives. They run into a stranded female aviator and rescue her before finding the idol that guards the treasure house. The fantastic elements are barely present other than the existence of a lost tribe, who for a change do not have super cience. It's a fair adventure story in a lost tradition. 11/15/20

The Guns of Pluto by Allen Steele, Amazing, 2020   

Captain Future and his friends have been drawn into a trap by a mysterious space pirate, who is rather transparently the Magician of Mars, Ul Quorn, who appeared in the original series. The pirates have seized control of the prison on Pluto and our heroes are determined to drive them away. This ends with a cliffhanger – this is apparently the second of a four part mini-series – with hero and villain both thrown into unprecedented danger. Fun. Will be watching for the next installment.  11/13/20

The Sentinel Stars by Louis Charbonneau, Bantam, 1963  

This was Chabonneau’s second attempt to rewrite Orwell. The world is united under the usual repressive government. The hero pursues an illicit love affair and is immediately caught. His punishment includes getting sent to a camp for retirees – supposedly a great place – where he discovers that murder is common and tolerated. The point seems to be that too much freedom is just as bad as not having enough. The title has nothing whatsoever to do with the story, which has no reference to the stars and no sentinels. 11/12/20

Entropy Refraction by Mark Laporta, Chicadee Prince, 2020, $14.99, ISBN 978-1-7329149-6-7

Second in a series about an evolving interstellar conflict, following Probability Shadow. The main focus is an interstellar quest by a group of characters from the first book to track down an alien race that has made itself scarce. They encounter a variety of aliens including some that have psi powers. There is another alien race that poses a threat to all of the human worlds, which include some that suffer under a kind of theocratic dictatorship. Not all of the potential villains are aliens. This is a sense of wonder story and although the author has taken pains to give his characters some depth, most readers are going to be far more interested in the imaginative plot elements, the aliens, and the mystery involving the reticent race. This strikes me as a good book for a hot summer day, but you might enjoy it just as much during the winter. 11/9/20

The Case of the Manufactured Girl by Simon Hawke, 2020 

Although this appears to be self published, it is definitely not amateurish. Hawke has produced a number of good books over the years. This, which appears to be the first in a projected series, is one of those crossovers between SF and the detective story, a pairing I almost always enjoy. The mystery starts when the detective hires a new employee, ostensibly a woman although she is actually an artificial intelligence in human form. Almost immediately we learn that someone has taken out a contract on the AI, and it’s not long before the detective himself is also in the crosshairs. The plot resolves itself in a logical if mildly predictable fashion, but the story is fun, the puzzle entertaining, and the writing is smooth and pleasant. I’m surprised this didn’t find a home at a more traditional publisher. 11/8/20

The Battery of Hate by John W. Campbell, Armchair, 2019 (originally published in 1933) 

A novelette about a man who discovers a new, inexpensive energy source. Naturally that puts him on the run from people who want to steal the invention for their own benefit, and from others who are willing to kill him to prevent the discovery from devastating their own businesses. He manages to stay alive. Pedestrian. 11/7/20

The Best of James Van Pelt, Fairwood Press, 2020, $40, ISBN 978-1-933846-95-8 

I have thoroughly enjoyed the several collections of short stories by this author previously published by Fairwood Press. Now we have a seven hundred page cross compilation of his “best” stories, although that seems premature for a writer who is still steadily producing new fiction. There are more than sixty stories here so you’re definitely getting your money’s worth if you haven’t acquired his earlier collections. The breadth of the author’s interests, plots, and styles are all obvious in such a large selection of his work, which pretty much covers his entire writing career – to date. Hopefully volume two will be coming along in another few years. 11/4/20

Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire by Dan Hanks, Solaris,  2020 

A rollicking female protagonist battles monsters, Nazis, and a sneaky government agency in a race to find a hidden trove of ancient knowledge. The chase involves visiting several locations around the world. It is not entirely clear whether this is meant to be SF or fantasy as it contains elements of both. It’s not designed to be taken too seriously though, so you can read it either way.  On the plus side, this is fast paced, smoothly written, inventive, and exciting – rather like a Marvel superhero movie. On the minus side, the characters are relatively flat and uninteresting as people. So your reaction is likely to depend upon what you are looking for. 11/3/20

Captain Future in Love by Allen Steele, Amazing, 2019 

This is a novella that extends the story in Avengers of the Moon. Even as a teenager, I found the Captain Future stories unreadable, but they’re much more entertaining in Steele’s rendition. This one involves the appearance of a space pirate who heads a revolution group. He is assisted by a young woman who plans to lead Captain Future into a trap, taking advantage of the fact that years earlier he had been infatuated with her during a visit to Venus. That early romance is a lengthy flashback. Cliffhanger alert. 11/2/20

The Man from Saturn by Harriet Frank, Jr., Armchair, 2020 (originally published in 1953) 

Although the author declared her intentions of pursuing a career in writing, this appears to have been her only sale. The story is painfully silly and scientifically inept. A lab technician falls in love with a green man who somehow materializes in the laboratory where she works. He’s from Saturn and is only inches high at first, although he soon becomes her size. He also speaks English. She helps him with his mission on Earth and they fall in love and eventually are married. I am not surprised that she never appeared again. 11/2/20

No Place on Earth by Louis Charbonneau, Crest, 1958  

Charbonneau’s first SF novel was clearly influenced by George Orwell. A captured rebel against a repressive regime experiences flashbacks under interrogation, which are not badly done. The underground is secretly building a spaceship with which to leave Earth, but we know that the government controls the solar system so it is not clear even at the end when he escapes where they plan to go to create a free society. There also appear to be very few of them, which makes it hard to believe they could have constructed a spaceship in secret. He got better with later books, although never really established himself in the genre. 10/30/20

Living Forever & Other Terrible Ideas by Emily C. Skaftun, Fairwood, 2020, $16.99, ISBN 978-1-933846-98-9

This is one of the most varied single author collections I've seen recently, with SF, fantasy, and even a touch of the supernatural, although the delivery is generally light hearted and sometimes outright funny. Although these appeared in a variety of publications including electronic ones, I had never read any of the stories before with one exception. This doesn't mean they're not very good, because many of them are, but perhaps is a commentary of the expansion of short fiction markets in recent years. Favorites include "Melt With You," "Diary of a Pod Person," and "A Matter of Scale." I'm quite sure the author will become much better known if she continues to produce stories of this quality level. 10/28/20

To the Center of the Earth by Greig Beck, Severed, 2020 

This is an attempt to redo the Jules Verne classic with more sophisticated science. The interior world is inhabited by a variety of invented creatures rather than dinosaurs, some of which seem very unlikely. The ploy of having the only previous witness driven insane by her experiences has been done to death and I rarely find it plausible. This is the kind of story I usually get immersed in pretty quickly, but it actually took a few tries to get through the novel. I didn’t care for the characters, their early adventures aren’t very interesting, and by the time the story hit its stride, I was already thinking about what I was going to read next. 10/27/20

Genesys X by B.J. Graf, Fairwood, 2020, $17.99, ISBN 978-1-933846-99-6

Police procedurals in dystopian future megacities have become almost a subgenre. This one is apparently the first in a projected city in which a newly promoted police detective gets involved with various separate, though converging, criminal and societal problems. For one thing, there is a new kind of Alzheimer syndrome and this one affects children. For another, there are new designer drugs which make the current ones look benign, and naturally there is conflict about who will profit by the illicit trade. The protagonist discovers that there might be a tenuous but real link between the latest drug and researches studying the new mental disease and he works his way through the usual problems to prove his case. This was quite well done and the main character is engaging, although the world he lives in is pretty depressing. 10/26/20

The Sleep Eaters by John Lymington, Corgi, 1961 

An unusual alien invasion story marred by really wonky science and occasional lapses into egregiously bad writing. The premise is that aliens are watching Earth and invading our dreams, taking small fears and hatreds, amplifying them, and sending them back. Over time this has raised racial tensions to a point where a war seems inevitable, one that will engulf the entire world and perhaps destroy the human race. Which is what the aliens want because they covet the Earth. The science is laughable – spaceships are projected by radio waves – and there are long sections where nothing much happens. This is actually a sequel to Night of the Big Heat, which was filmed as Island of the Burning Doomed. 10/23/20

Frozen Hell by John W. Campbell Jr., Wildside, 2019

This is the previously unpublished, longer version of "Who Goes There?", the additional material largely consisting of preparations for the trip to the buried spaceship. I had forgotten that in the story the alien was telepathic, and I agree with the movie versions which leave this element out. I am once again impressed at how loyal the Carpenter version was to the original story. 10/20/20

Biddy and the Silver Man by Harlan Ellison, Armchair, 2020 (originally published in 1957)

One of the author’s early, unsophisticated but mildly entertaining stories - a novelette rather than a novel. A young girl whose leg was stunted by polio finds an alien outpost in a remote hilly region. The apparently human occupant is clearly from an interstellar civilization which is planning to prevent a major world war, which is imminent. It does so in The Day the Earth Stood Still fashion and the girl’s malformed leg is made whole.  10/19/20

Avengers of the Moon by Allen Steele, Tor, 2017 

Steele has here produced an impressive homage to the Captain Future novels of Edmond Hamilton, producing a detailed origin story explaining how he came to have a hidden base on the moon where he lived with a self aware robot, an android, and a human scientist whose brain resides in a kind of drone. They meet his ongoing rival in the original books, the Magician of Mars, and avenge the murder of the protagonist’s parents. Steele improves the science and plausibility, but this is still just a fun story that echoes a simpler time in the genre which is for the most part gone forever. 10/17/20

Believing by Zenna Henderson, NESFA Press, 2020, $32, ISBN 978-1-61037-338-8 

This is a collection of all of the non-People stories by Henderson, including some previously unpublished work. The People stories are in a companion volume, Ingathering. A large number of stories involve children or their teachers. As the title suggests, the theme of several is that believing something can make it real. I connected her so closely to the People stories that I had forgotten how much excellent fiction she had written outside that series. Most of her stories deal with young children and/or their teachers, and some of them are fantasy. Henderson rarely visited other planets or alien civilizations. This contains both of her previously published short story collections, plus some odds and ends and unpublished work.  There are only a couple I didn't like, and several of them are very good indeed. This is a really nice volume, as is its companion book. 10/15/20

The Eskimo Invasion by Hayden Howard, Ballantine, 1967 

This rather subtle alien invasion story was originally published as a series of short stories. A scientist who sneaks into a preserve inhabited by eskimos discovers that they are breeding at an inhuman rate. They have a legend of a sky god and it is clear that they are not human. They give birth regularly every month, and only need to be inseminated once. The scientist concludes that they will drive the entire world to starvation, but no one listens to him. He is a prisoner first in Canada, for trying to sterilize the Esks, then in the US when the CIA wants to use him against China, and then in China. Ultimately, the alien intelligence that seeded the Esks returns and harvests them. 10/14/20

In the Black by Patrick S. Tomlinson, Tor, 2020, $19.99, ISBN 978-1-250-30275-5

Although this is technically military SF, it is more about diplomacy than combat, which makes a nice change. There is a neutral zone between human controlled space and alien territory, and it is clear that the aliens have more advanced technology. They are not aggressive, however, and there is a chance that the two races could become allies rather than enemies. There is some sophistication to the plot, which deals with complicated issues - including some inherent flaws in human society. I'd say that the one weak point in the book is that the dialogue does not always feel authentic. This is the first in a series and even though the surprise development of the end was very predictable, I won't reveal it here. 10/11/20

Possess & Conquer by Wenzell Brown, Warner, 1975 

A group of astronauts on the moon see a flash and then begin acting with unnatural hostility. Back on Earth, one of them commits a violent murder, although he is not positively identified. A series of violent events follows, but there is no protagonist and the book feels like a series of disconnected incidents. The astronauts are possessed by disembodied aliens who have unique powers of persuasion and the ability to make duplicates of themselves and impersonate influential humans. Eventually the one uninfected astronaut reappears and manages to convince the government of the truth. Not very good. Brown wrote mostly mysteries. 10/8/20 

Corpus Earthling by Louis Charbonneau, Zenith, 1960 

The protagonist thinks he is going crazy because he hears voices that claim to be Martian invaders occupying human bodies, but he decides it is real when attempts are made on his life. He has to figure out who among his acquaintances is actually a hostile being from another planet, and then convince someone that he is telling the truth before they arrange a full-scale invasion of Earth. He eventually develops powers of his own and kills the two invaders – but Charbonneau forgot to deal with the fact that a second, unwarned expedition is about to depart for Mars. This became an episode of The Outer Limits. 10/7/20

Pursuit by Lester Del Rey, Armchair, 2020 (originally published in 1952) 

A standard though well told novelette about a man with amnesia in a near future world who knows that he is being pursued by members of a secret organization, but does not know who they are or why they are interested in him. Naturally the future of the entire planet is at stake. This was fun though rather dated. 10/7/20

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini, Tor, 2020, $29.99, ISBN 978-1-250-76284-9

The first SF novel by a fantasy writer whose work did not impress me shows some improvement here, although at nearly nine hundred pages, this is far too long for its story. The protagonist encounters an alien parasite whose existence involves Earth in an interstellar war with mysterious aliens. Humanity is definitely outclassed as the war develops. This reminded me vaguely of Star Wars. The feel of the story is much more that of a movie than of a novel. The characters are not noticeably well drawn, although not entirely flat, and the adventures are exciting if somewhat predictable. Some scenes are far too long and provide a great deal of unnecessary detail, which is particularly obvious in the action sequences, which should be snappier to keep the reader involved. I actually broke off twice to read something else before finally finishing. This probably sounds worse than I intended, because it is not a bad novel. But it is a ponderous one.  It appears to be the first in a series.

Shadows in Death by J.D. Robb, St Martins, 2020 

The latest in this long running quasi-SF detective series has quite a bit of gadgetry in it, but other than being told that it is forty years in the future, we would likely not fail to recognize the New York City where Eve Dallas is a homicide detective. This time it’s personal. A contract killer who grew up with her husband Roarke has decided that it is time to pay back for old resentments. They methodically track him down and eventually capture him, but he actually seems relatively incompetent, makes a lot of obvious mistakes, and his apprehension is rather anticlimactic. Not one of the stronger books in the series but still very readable. 10/1/20

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