Last Update 5/29/07
Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports by James Patterson, Little, Brown, 2007, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-316-15560-1
It is a sad situation when young adult science fiction has deteriorated so much that this is a successful series. Patterson, who is presumably much better writing contemporary thrillers, has taken one very implausible premise and developed it into, so far, three books. The young protagonists are mutants, the results of mixing human and bird DNA, so they develop wings and can fly. The fact that this is physically impossible is glossed over. Anyway, their existence was discovered back in the first book and they have been pursued by another group of mutants, crossbred with wolves.
The action gets ratcheted up in this one as the six teenagers become aware of a plot to make use of this radical form of genetic engineering to create world domination. Yes, it's the super race plot in another form. Patterson generates lots of action by splitting the pack of heroes up so that each has his or her own story line, although they all converge as the book progresses. I don't have a problem with simplifying the technical content for younger readers, but I do have a problem when an author doesn't take rudimentary steps to make sure his science is at least plausible. 5/29/07
Fleet of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner, Tor, 9/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1825-1
Larry Niven's stories of Known Space will always stand out for me as one of best future histories I've ever read. They mixed hard science and fine storytelling and made use of a background so interesting that it sometimes distracted from the main plot. They're my favorite kind of space opera among my favorite fiction (particularly the short stories). Niven's newest book is a return to that universe, to chronicle events that took place around the time the Puppeteers decided to evacuate the galaxy. A lone human ship encounters a planet that has been turned into a slow but steady spaceship, and finds more than they bargained for, although we aren't told until much later what it was they actually stumbled into. Centuries later, a more organized expedition is preparing to contact the Gw'oth, intelligent creatures that resemble starfish, who apparently developed a technology from simple fire to atomic fusion within a couple of generations. A formidable adversary if it comes to that.
An expedition begins to watch them secretly because the Fleet of Worlds (entire planets fleeing the wave of radioactivity sweeping through the galaxy) will pass relatively close to the Gw'oth. Most of the party believe the aliens are brilliant but primitive, but one of their number has a different theory, that they use a kind of group consciousness and have worked out the implications of technology in advance, which might put them technically far ahead rather than behind. We see much of this through the eyes of a human who was raised under Puppeteer tutelage, which has purposes hidden from her. The disappearance of virtually the entire Puppeteer species has also caused considerable consternation and disruption within the human dominated worlds. The book has much of the feel of the older stories, and Nessus is a delightful if enigmatic character. It was good to have this gap in the history of Known Space filled but while the novel is quite good, it didn't deliver the impact I remembered from earlier installments like A Gift from Earth and Ringworld. Possibly this is another example of the fact that you can't go home again, and I'd certainly put this on my list of recommended books for the year. The authors, the world, and this reader have all changed considerably in the interval and the old, innocent sense of wonder has apparently become harder to arouse. 5/28/07
Radio Freefall by Matthew Jarpe, Tor, 8/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7654-1784-1
The blurbs accompanying this first novel spend a lot of time comparing the author to Robert A. Heinlein and the novel itself to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, my favorite of his works. I didn't think either characterization was particularly relevant, although that should not be construed to mean I didn't like the book. It shares some of Heinlein's themes, but only peripherally and certainly not those with which he is most closely associated. The setting is a future in which the world is evolving toward a world government, or at least the closest thing to one we're likely to see. Three men are going to have a powerful influence on the shape that future takes, and they are motivated by three different and powerful reasons - ambition, revenge, and love of art.
The prime motivator for union - and in fact domination - is a brilliant but warped high tech businessman who has quietly launched a plan designed to make him the most powerful man on Earth. His most overt opposition is a former employee, who knows some of the details of the conspiracy and wants to derail it. He is hindered to some extent, however, because he's effectively playing the monomaniac's game, and the odds are not in his favor. The real opposition comes from Aqualung, leader of an immensely popular rock group, who really doesn't have a political agenda at all. But everything is politics. When the colonies off Earth rebel against what they see as a potential system-wide dictatorship, but despite the relatively passive power of the infrastructure, Aqualung has a much more active power. His music, and the equipment with which he and his band mates produce it, can literally influence human emotions. There's considerably more, but I won't spoil things by revealing too much. The novel is an odd mix of hard science and cyberpunk, space opera and dystopia, melodramatic with a touch of humor. It's the kind of seductive mix that has the potential to spread outside the field like the early works of William Gibson. It's also the kind of novel that will be hard to imitate; like Chester Anderson's The Butterfly Kid, it's likely to have a very devoted group of fans. How large that group will be remains to be seen. 5/24/07
Ivory by Mike Resnick, Pyr, 8/07, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-59102-546-7
Just a mention here of this reprint rather than a review. I read this when it first appeared almost twenty years ago. It was my favorite of Resnick's cycle of novels each of which was loosely based on the history of one Africa or on African customs, courtesy of his research and several safaris. This one involves a search for a pair of ivory tusks which have been lost for thousands of years, a journey that takes him to several worlds. A panoramic space opera with a touch of mystery and one of Resnick's best novels, out of print for far too long. 5/19/07
Legend by David Lynn Golemon, Thomas Dunne, 2007, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-312-35263-9
This is the sequel to the author's previous Event, which introduced the Event Group to us, a kind of super X-Files, an organization secretly created by the US government and equipped with nifty technological toys, with their mission being to investigate those things which usually show up in the tabloids rather than the legitimate papers - flying saucers, supernatural events, and so forth. I found their first adventure reasonably entertaining without being anything special, particularly because its antecedents were pretty obvious, even though I'm a big fan of writers working somewhat similar veins like James Rollins, Douglas Preston, and Lincoln Child.
This time they're off to South America to investigate a legend that may have a strong basis in reality, and which might still be hidden somewhere in the jungle. They have a series of adventures, some of them violent, before reaching their goal and discovering the truth. The secret in this case is rather reminiscent of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, a humanoid creature apparently immune to the effects of radiation which can live on land or in the water with equal facility. The "monster" turns out to be a branch of early humankind which developed a tolerance for radioactivity and which chose through some mechanism to become amphibians. I'm not sure that the biology would pass muster here but that's really not what the book is about. It's an adventure story, with moderately well developed tension, considerably more interesting than its predecessor. There are a few rough spots in the prose but nothing serious. I don't think this one is likely to make it to the bestseller lists but the improvement from the first novel is considerably and shows a trend in the right direction. 5/18/07
Plague Year by Jeff Carlson, Ace, 7/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01514-6
Jeff Carlson’s debut novel bears some resemblance to Greg Bear’s Blood Music. Someone has released a swarm of nanomachines which recreate themselves from the substance of carbon based lifeforms, that is, every animal on Earth including humans. The spread is rapid and unstoppable and the only survivors are those who manage to reach high altitudes where the nanomachines no longer function. The story opens at one small mountain outpost where a handful of people survive by making dangerous, short trips down into the infected areas, and by killing and eating one another. Although initially isolated, they eventually make contact with others and discover that an orbiting installation might be the last remaining hope of finding a cure for what is effectively a plague.
Things are not entirely as they seem, and most of the conflict is between humans rather than against the mindless microscopic menace. Carlson does a fine job of plotting and telling his story. My major problem with the novel was a strategic one. Since we know from the outset that his two primary characters are murderers and cannibals, it’s rather difficult to invest any emotional capital in their troubles and successes, even when they acknowledge themselves that they’ve become a kind of monster. There’s considerable talent at work here, and I wouldn’t shy away from his next book, but my inability to sympathize with his characters got in the way with this one. 5/14/07
Valentine's Resolve by E.E. Knight, Roc, 7/07, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-451-46146-9
The sixth installment in the Vampire Earth series sets off in a slightly different direction. Readers of the earlier volumes will already know that Earth has been invaded and partially conquered by a race of alien vampires who use other alien lifeforms as their soldiers and weapons of subjugation. David Valentine was a leader of the main resistance force in North America, although he has become rather distanced from that group thanks to events in earlier volumes. Humanity isn't fighting alone. The Lightbearers have been helping to stem the tide of the invasion, but when David is lured back into a not altogether easy new relationship with his former allies, he discovers that the Lightbearers may be on the verge of defeat, or at least preparing to withdraw from the battle. Or has the human race been misinterpreting the true nature of what's been happening right from the start?
Knight mixes bits of military SF, survivalist fiction, the alien invasion story, and other elements including more than a mild dose of horror, although the atmosphere has turned more and more toward adventure with a hint of mystery during the latter volumes in the series. Old fashioned alien invasion stories are pretty much extinct, and the Vampire Earth series is hardly old fashioned, but it's the closest thing we're likely to see for the time being. I have a bit of trouble identifying with Valentine, which makes it difficult to feel the emotional content of the story at times, but I'm entertained following his adventures, and it's nice to have some evil vampires, even if they do come from another planet.5/13/07
Lasgun Wedding by Will McDermott, Black Flame, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-462-2
The multi-author Necromunda series is apparently based on a role playing game which I've never seen and know little about except through the series of tie-in novels, which indicate that it's a cyberpunkish future in which lawlessness is the norm, humanity has spread to the stars, cities are gigantic, and the distinctions between nations and races have been replaced with new divisions. There's also an effective caste system based on hereditary wealth. Within the broad setting, Will McDermott has been chronicling the adventures of Kal Jerico, who was a professional bounty hunter in his previous adventures, but who takes a dramatic step upward in this one. The local ruler is dead and someone needs to assume command. Against his judgment and virtually at gunpoint, Jerico agrees to accept the position, but he knows as quickly as does the perceptive reader that this isn't going to be a honeymoon. No sooner is his position confirmed than the plotting and pressuring begin because while no one may particularly want the throne, everyone apparently wants to control it. Fast paced action but not much to think about. It still beats the latest adventure of Captain Kirk. 5/11/07
Chanur's Endgame by C.J. Cherryh, DAW, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0444-4
I didn't re-read this, which includes the fourth and fifth novels in the Chanur series, Chanur's Homecoming and Chanur's Legacy, but I wanted to mention it here because this joint volume is one of the best buys you'll get for your money. The series is still my favorite of Cherryh's work, and I miss the universe she created for it. These were originally published in 1987 and 1992 respectively. In the first, the feline aliens find themselves caught between two rival forces, their homeworld in jeopardy, and in the second a young and newly appointed spaceship captain gets caught up in intrigue and adventure. Some of the best space opera I've ever read. The first three volumes were previously collected as The Chanur Saga, and that's an even better buy. 5/9/07
Ragamuffin by Tobias S. Buckell, Tor, 6/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-765-31507-6
Tobias Buckell follows up his impressive debut novel with this exciting and inventive space adventure. The set up is rather complicated and I’m going to over simplify a bit, but humanity has more or less been conquered by aliens. Those planets not directly controlled are interdicted by cutting off access to the wormholes that provide travel between star systems. Some human commerce is tolerated but certain kinds of technology are restricted, and many humans are subjected to devices which can tamper with their memories and personalities in order to ensure their docility. The ragamuffins are a kind of informal military force from the isolated worlds, considered pirates by the alien overlords.
Enter Nashara, an ex-ragamuffin, sort of, who has been augmented to make her into a super soldier capable of surviving exposure to vacuum, of undermining the computer systems of the alien empire, and of defeating even other enhanced soldiers in physical combat. She completes a mission on one world – assassinating a highly placed alien – only to be betrayed by her employers, who hoped she would become a martyr figure and were somewhat nonplused when she survived. She escapes her supposed benefactors, but with both sides looking for her, options are limited and eventually she takes refuge aboard a ragamuffin ship.
And that's just the first quarter of this exciting space opera, but I'm not going to tell you about what happens after that because the story is too rich and interesting to spoil, and even if I wanted to, it's so complex that it would be difficult to do it justice. It's space opera, of course, but a heavily textured one. Buckell is quickly proving himself a writer to shelve right there with C.J. Cherryh, Alastair Reynolds, Dan Simmons, and those few other writers who have managed to adopt the advantages of mainstream literature without giving up the skilled storytelling and sense of wonder of old style SF. 5/5/07
Chapter War by Ben Counter, Black Library,2007, 7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-458-5
One of the subsidiary stories in the futuristic half of the Warhammer universe involves various units of space marines, trained to fight the forces allied with evil, but like Marvel superheroes, apparently just as interested in killing each other. The Soul Drinkers are one of these units, their history chronicled by author Counter in his own little corner of that universe. The Soul Drinkers became virtual outlaws because they were mutating far beyond the limits intended and are perceived as being a danger to their masters. In this installment, they have found a way of preventing the mutation from going any further, but with an apparent solution at hand, they discover they have a new problem. Some of their number are reluctant to return to the status quo ante, in fact, they'd just as soon attack their former masters. Battles and arguments both ensue, with lots of rather corny speeches, jungle battles, imperial disdain, personal combat, and so forth. The previous books in this subordinate series were competent military SF, as is this, but I don't remember the dialogue being this stilted or the characters being quite so cardboard. The whole story feels rushed and incomplete. 5/4/07
Human Is? by Philip K. Dick, Gollancz, 2007, £7.99, ISBN 978-0-575-08034-8
Although there are still a handful of uncollected Philip K. Dick stories out there, you won't find any of them in this newest cross collection, which does include several stories that have found their way to Hollywood - "Imposter", "Second Variety", "Paycheck", and "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale". They're all good ones, as are several of the others including "The Variable Man", "The Days of Perky Pat", and "The Preserving Machine". This title accompanies reprints of several of Dick's novels, all in reasonably uniform editions. I can't imagine why you'd need an excuse to re-read his work, but if you do, this is as good as any. The selection covers his early and middle careers - from the early 1950s to the early 1970s. Just reading the table of contents reminded me of how distinctive and original his work was.5/3/07
The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman, Ace, 8/07, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01499-2
Marvelous invention stories have always been among my favorites. You know the type. Someone makes a radical breakthrough and the author explores the consequences. Bob Shaw's slowglass, which allows light to pass through so slowly that you can look into it and see the past, or H.G. Wells' The Food of the Gods. Joe Haldeman's newest is about a marvelous invention, and it's also an offbeat time travel story. Matthew is a brilliant but unfocused laboratory assistant who assembles a calibrator that travels in time, though only forward. Each use is a longer jump, which obviously limits its usefulness. Matthew has just lost his girl and his job, so he decides to connect the machine to an antique gas-fueled automobile and jump into the future a few weeks, but when he reappears in the middle of a busy street, he discovers that he is wanted for murder. Someone mysteriously posts bail and he takes advantage of that to jump even further forward in time.
Almost twenty years forward, he discovers that the truth has come out, his reappearance calculated, and he has been awarded a position on the MIT faculty. Of course, the world has changed radically during the interval and everything he thought he knew about physics is pretty much outdated. No one, however, has been able to duplicate his time machine. His situation begins to grow complicated again so he steals the time machine and uses it again, propelling himself almost two centuries forward. By this point the novel had begun to remind me of Lawrence Manning's The Man Who Awoke, but with a sense of humor. Matthew picks up a companion or two and visits a succession of increasingly bizarre futures. One of the classic SF themes given new life. I'm not sure if it's possible to feel nostalgic about something new, but if so, this is the book that will do it. 5/2/07
The Sons of Heaven by Kage Baker, Tor, 7/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1746-9
Kage Baker has been chronicling the history of the Company since In the Garden of Iden in 1998, but with this new title the sequence has apparently come to a conclusion. The Company is a mysterious organization that reminds me in some ways of Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity or the Snakes and Spiders of Fritz Leiber's Changewar stories. Baker's creation is a good deal more complex, however, ranging through time and space, exploring the consequences of immortality, cyborgs, virtual immortality, and other more or less familiar devices of the genre. The Company itself has a secretive past, and it is not clear at times who is in charge or why. Now it all comes to a head.
The enemies of the Company are preparing to seize control and some of those who might have defended the organization are hampered for various reasons. There are so many separate story threads interwoven here that any attempt to summarize the plot - plots really - in a few words is doomed to be inadequate or even misleading. There is dissension among the ranks - real and perceived - a powerful artificial intelligence which may have its own plans, a great secret revealed at last, shifting loyalties and surprising disloyalties. It took me a while to get invested in this series, but at some point I got sucked in and it was quite pleasant to finally have the secrets revealed, the conspiracies exposed, and the conflicts resolved. It will be interesting to see what shape Baker's writing takes from this point forward. 4/26/07
The Aftermath by Ben Bova, Tor, 8/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-0414-8
Even though I obviously have no more experience of the other planets of this solar system than I do of those surrounding another star, I've always preferred a solar rather than interstellar setting for adventures in outer space. Mars is my favorite of the available choices, but the asteroid belt is a close second, and I've loved stories set there since Isaac Asimov's Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids and Alan E. Nourse's Scavengers in Space. Ben Bova's recent loosely related sequence of novels about exploration of the solar system is among my favorite hard SF, and of them my favorite subsequence is the Asteroid Wars, of which this is volume 4. The original three novels dealt with the battle for commercial and political control of the asteroids, chiefly through the rivalry of two influential and determined men, and seen through the eyes of several characters. That conflict eventually resulted in what was essentially open warfare which spread to the other colonies as well, a conflict resolved in the previous book in the series.
The present volume is - as you might guess from the title - set following the theoretical cessation of overt hostilities. Theory and practice aren't always the same. One of the protagonists is forced to flee when the habitat occupied by his family is attacked, escaping his pursuers only by taking refuge with a woman who seeks to manipulate him for purposes of her own. Humphries, the villain of earlier novels, is under the influence of an alien artifact and is determined to kill everyone who knows of its existence and its properties. But Humphries doesn't have as much control over events as he believes and will eventually be forced into a confrontation not of his making. Other characters include an artist and a cyborg, both of whom have been exposed to the artifact and both of whom will play major rules in the future of human civilization. The upbeat ending felt a trifle contrived but not enough to spoil the story for me. 4/26/07
Deep Inside by Polly Frost, Tor, 6/07, $12.95, ISBN 978-0-765-31587-9
This is reviewed in this category because there are a few SF or related stories, but most are mundane erotic stories – a phrase I never expected to use. A common problem with fiction published first as erotica and second as fiction is that it frequently gives short shrift to the fiction part and is instead a series of descriptive scenes involving sex, kinky or otherwise. Paradoxically, others which actually have a strong plot don’t work as well as erotica, often because the overt sex slows the action or functions as more of an abstraction than a plot element. And then, of course, there are those stories where the sexual component isn’t erotic as much as it is sniggering lewdness, the author self consciously proving that he or she can use dirty words and imagery and get away with it.
Fortunately, Polly Frost avoids these pitfalls most of the time, although the opening story, “The Threshold”, does have a teenaged protagonist whose obsession with losing her virginity comes across as awkward and artificial. “The Orifice”, which follows, is much more successful, following the affair of two people whose sexual encounters involve exotic piercings, and some of the bizarre imagery at the piercing parlor is particularly effective. There’s some wry humor in “The Dominatrix Has a Career Crisis” and a comparatively strong story in “The Pleasure Invaders”, whose protagonist is a police officer addicted to an alien sexual drug. Another drug, Viagra, morphs into a new addictive substance that causes sexual rampages in “Viagra Babies”, which also has a distinct twist of science fiction.
“Imagine It” didn’t work for me. An author of a book on sexual techniques has an epiphany. Nor did “Playing Karen Devere”, in which a female serial killer’s life story is to be told on film. “Test Drive” could almost be an old time SF satire, set a few years from now when technological toys abound and sexual experimentation has become the fashion of the moment. At times it reminded me of the Woody Allen film, Sleeper. “Visions of Ecstasy” didn’t interest me either, a story about sexual asphyxiation. The book ends with the title story, the strongest in the book, a fantasy of sorts about voodoo fetishists with sexual powers that actually work. Genre fans aren’t going to find enough genre content to interest them, but may find the juxtaposition of frank eroticism and familiar themes intriguing. Erotica fans should be happy because the stories are strong and the genre content isn’t significant enough to require familiarity with SF or fantasy. 4/25/07
Future Weapons of War edited by Joe Haldeman and Martin H. Greenberg, Baen, 2007, $24, ISBN 978-1-4165-2112-9
Although you might think from the title that this is a collection of military SF stories, that’s not the case, although there are military situations in some of its contents. Rather this is a selection of stories about the darker side of technological development, a message conveyed bluntly by the opening story by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, which suggests that the kind of suicide bombings we have seen in recent years will soon give way to something worse, an echo of what really happened in Vietnam and could happen again in a more sophisticated fashion in the future. Geoffrey Landis has a more hopeful vision, the use of a non-lethal weapon that actually saves lives. Paul J. McAuley illustrates that absolute power corrupts when a refugee boy on a relatively primitive world acquires a handgun that is equipped with artificial intelligence, a device by means of which he acquires great power, but loses something of himself in the process.
Dena Bain Taylor and Mark L. Van Name provide two more overtly military stories, the first involving a radical new technology during a conflict on Mars, sometimes verging on technobabble, the second partnering a human with a sentient war machine. Both are readable but unexceptional. Similarly James Cobb describes an incident between a high tech terrorist attack via missiles and a mostly automated and even higher tech defensive system, but the story is all about the attack itself and things like characters or background are vestigial appendages. Michael Burstein also writes about a sentient personal weapon, this time with more benevolent consequences.
L.E. Modesitt Jr. has a longish, reasonably interesting story that resorts to technobabble again, and my attention lapsed more than once. William H. Keith has the most interesting story in the book, a history of the distant future in the mode of Olaf Stapledon, with clashing galaxies, group minds, artificial intelligences, and other speculations. Brendan Dubois follows with a fascinating little piece about the last days of the President of the United States. Michael Williamson's story is okay, with less political content than most of his work, and Brian Stableford finishes up with another good story, a very different take on biological weaponry. All in all a readable, fairly diverse collection with one outstanding story, "The Weapon", by William H. Keith. 4/24/07
Alien Crimes edited by Mike Resnick, Science Fiction Book Club, 2007, $14.99, ISBN 978-1-58288-223-9
One of the pitfalls for authors to avoid in crossover stories blending SF and mystery is that you can't cheat. If you're going to introduce a technology, or psi talent, or other device not available to mainstream mystery writers, you usually have to lay out the rules early so that the reader knows what to expect and has at least a chance to figure out the permutations possible from that premise. At the same time, it's preferable that the fantastic element be important to the plot, the resolution, or if possible both. Mike Resnick has collected here six original novellas that straddle that borderland and the results are in fact quite good.
Pat Cadigan, whose name shows up much too infrequently, opens with "Nothing Personal", the story of an aging police detective who has begun to experience formless anxieties that seem to have no obvious cause. The situation comes to a head when she and her new partner get involved in the mysterious but apparently natural death of a young girl, almost a mirror image of another case from weeks earlier. I had guessed some of what was going on but not so much that I didn't enjoy the windup. Resnick follows with a story of his own, "A Locked-Planet Mystery", wherein a private detective investigates the murder of an alien magnate in a closed chamber on a chlorine planet. He was accompanied at the time by one human and several other aliens, all his subordinates. The story is worked out in the classic format, a series of interviews, the search for contradictions, motives, and opportunities. I guessed right on this one though.
Harry Turtledove's "Hoxbomb" is set on a world jointly colonized by humans and a semi-compatible alien race (whose draft animals have names which are "Pontiac" and "Ford" spelled backwards, and the aliens are "Terrans" similarly reversed). Shortly after her husband completes a trading deal with a pair of the aliens, a woman gives birth to a bizarrely disfigured baby, victim of a hoxbomb, a biological weapon perfected by the aliens, whose culture is based on biology rather than technology. During the course of the investigation, detectives from the two races discover that they aren't as unlike as they had thought. Kristine Kathryn Rusch follows with "The End of the World", a quite moving story about alien castaways and their painful assimilation into human society.
Gregory Benford has the best story in the collection. In "Dark Heaven", amphibian aliens have established an outpost on Earth, protected by the government. A detective investigating a corpse found in the ocean and displaying unusual wounds finds a connection between the dead man and a mysterious sea voyage which involved one of the aliens. When a second corpse turns up with the same mutilations, pressure increases to find a solution. Last but not least is "Womb of Every World" by Walter Jon Williams, which is cast in the form of a typical fantasy quest adventure complete with a swordsman and a troll, but it's transplanted to another planet, there's technology instead of magic, and the villain is straight out of SF. One excellent and five very good stories here, definitely worth the entrance fee. 4/24/07
Sandworms of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, Tor, 8/07, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1293-8
There is always a risk when an author continues a series started by someone else, particularly a series held in such high regard as the Dune series by Frank Herbert. Herbert's son Brian and Kevin J. Anderson have been doing just that for several volumes, of which this is the latest and - chronologically at least - the last, since it ties up the loose ends and brings the future of the planet Arrakis and most of the characters to what appears to be a conclusion. Unlike some of their earlier efforts, this one is based on an outline created by Frank Herbert prior to his death, so presumably reflects his own decisions about the outcome of the epic story he'd begun. Obviously since this is the windup (although there are obviously lots of gaps that the authors could go back and fill in with additional titles), it takes place after Chapterhouse: Dune, which stopped rather than ended with various characters fleeing from a superior force, and is also a continuation of the story begun in Hunters of Dune.
If you've read Hunters, you know that by use of advanced scientific techniques that verge on the mystical, several of the characters from the original series have been effectively recreated, including Paul Atreides, aka Mu'ad-Dib, his mother, Lady Jessica, and his advisor and companion, Duncan Idaho. More re-embodiments are planned as their flight continues. The Big Bad in this one is the machine intelligences which have reached a level of development whereby the existence of humanity in all its diverse forms is in serious danger. Open warfare continues, with battle fleets maneuvering for position, the reflexes and wits of humanity against the cunning and programming of the thinking machines. A plague threatens to weaken human resolve and there is still dissension among the various human factions. But the machines have a surprise in store for them. We also discover the fate of the planet Arrakis, the secrets of the Bene Gesserit, and have a variety of loose ends tied up for us. But was it any good? Well, I thought it was closer to Frank Herbert's original concept than some of the other books in this new series, perhaps because it was more focused on issues and events from those books, and I also enjoyed the story reasonably well for its own sake. That said, like the previous collaborations this is clearly in a different voice. There is less depth despite the intricacy of the plot, and at times it felt like an embellished outline rather than a finished work, which I suppose in one sense is exactly what it is and what it is intended to be. It's a panoramic adventure and you'll probably like it, but you won't confuse i with the originals. 4/23/07
Wired by Liz Maverick, Shomi, 7/07, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-505-52724-0
I have read three previous novels by this romance writer, two supernatural and one SF, and I liked all three. I glanced at this when it first arrived and assumed it was a romantic cyberpunk story, which was an interesting juxtaposition, so I moved it toward the top of the stack. But when I read it, I found it was something else entirely. The protagonist is Roxanne Zaborovsky, a typical romance heroine, a young woman caught between two mysterious and apparently dangerous men, Mason and Leonardo. Each of them asserts that she is in danger, and that their rival is associated with that danger, but initially they aren't willing to be more explicit. Roxanne is also troubled by gaps in her own memory and other minor oddities in her life, but it is not until later in the novel that she discovers that these two issues are related and in what way.
The nature of that explanation is subtle, complicated, and I'm not going to try to summarize it here in any detail. It involves the nature of reality and our perceptions of it, and the interconnections among people, but there's a whole lot more as well. One could call this fantasy as well as science fiction because it doesn't really explain the mechanism of what's happening and that, for me at least, was a problem for me was a bit of a stumbling block. I wasn't always certain that I understood the rules. So on balance, I didn't like this as much as I did her previous work. On the other hand, this is one of the most original and interesting romance novels I've ever read, and if the author sometimes exceeded her grasp, that's okay too because the more we stretch, the more we achieve. I may not have thought this was entirely satisfying, but I was entertained and intrigued enough that I will certainly read her next - and move it to the top part of the pile when it shows up. 4/23/07
Hell Hath No Fury by David Weber and Linda Evans, Baen, 2007, $26, ISBN 978-1-4165-2101-3
The sequel to last year's Hell's Gate picks up where the other left off, with a war in progress between two worlds, Arcana and Sharona, one powered by magic, the other by science. The opening volume tried to get too much information about the two worlds into play and introduced too many characters, but the sequel seems to have gotten much of this under control - although there are still far too many characters to provide any kind of smooth narration. The cause of the war is still uncertain, but there's no question that both sides have thrown themselves into it, employing magic, psionics, technology, and brute force against each other. The battle will not take place in their own universes as much as it will in a variety of other planets in the Multiverse. The motive power prolonging the war is genuine anger among the population of both realities rather than manipulation by their governments, which makes a peaceful settlement even less likely.
Given the scale of events, it's no surprise that this is a longish novel and that the action jumps around quite a bit. I suppose you could just as easily call this fantasy as science fiction, the kind of crossover novel that Lawrence Watt-Evans, Piers Anthony, and Andre Norton have done in the past. But where they used that device to concentrate on how characters and events were affected by the contrast on a broader scale, Weber and Evans have concentrated primarily on military implications, somewhat similar to the Darkness novels by Harry Turtledove. The expansive coverage in this one tends to make the narrative a bit choppy at times, but the sequel seems like a much more integrated novel than its predecessor.
This hefty hardcover comes with a CD that contains more than a dozen complete novels, plus artwork and maps that are associated with them. If you don't mind reading fiction off a computer screen, they texts are presented here in various formats and in a very attractively designed framing system. If you don't already have copies, the CD is probably worth the price of the hardcover just for its contents. 4/20/07
To Outlive Eternity and Other Stories by Poul Anderson, Baen, 2007, $14, ISBN 978-1-4165-2113-6
Poul Anderson is one of a handful of SF writers whom I enjoyed even more when I re-read them as an adult than when I first encountered them in high school and college. Although every writer occasionally misses fire, Anderson had a remarkably high success rate and he was one of the best at making hard SF accessible to those of us who never took a science course after high school. This new retrospective collection brings together some of the very best of his fiction, including the complete novel After Doomsday, which was the first magazine serial I ever read, under its original title, The Day After Doomsday. This story of the survivors of a murdered Earth trying to figure out who was responsible is still one of my favorites.
The six accompanying stories are just as good, five novellas including the Hugo Award winning "No Truce with Kings", set after a future apocalypse. The title story is one of the best fictional treatments of the relative nature of time at speeds in excess of light. All of these were originally published during the 1950s and 1960s and they reflect a time when storytelling and the "Idea" were considered more important than prose and character, so it's particularly impressive that Anderson didn't neglect the literary side of his fiction while writing stories that fit right in to contemporary tastes. "Un-Man" and "The Big Rain" in particular are just as effective today as they were when they first appeared, and it's great to have them back in print for a new generation of readers. 4/19/07
Innocent in Death by J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts), Putnam, 2007, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-399-15401-0
I think this is the 25th novel in this series, which mixes SF and mystery, though it’s mostly the latter. The setting is New York City in 2060, but other than some window dressing and occasional side references, it’s pretty much the contemporary world. A few of the earlier volumes have had more overt speculative content, but most are ordinary mysteries. The detective is Eve Dallas, a woman with a troubled past, currently married to Roarke, a very wealthy man who also has a difficult past, when he was an influential member of the criminal class. Supporting characters include friends, Eve’s partner Peabody, and a cartoonish but amusing butler. Eve is overbearing, self effacing, crude and rude, but she gets the job done. The novels are written to a formula, usually with two tumultuous sex scenes between Roarke and Dallas, one of them usually linked to a quarrel resulting from artificial plot devices sometimes reminiscent of Marvel Comics. All that said, I’ve enjoyed all two dozen that I’d read before and fully expected to enjoy this one.
I wasn’t disappointed. The story starts with the murder, by poison, of an apparently innocuous young school teacher whom everyone liked. His marriage was happy and there was no friction at work. There seems to be no motive for his death, and no reason why anyone would benefit more than marginally, but the poison was not placed in his thermos by accident. The problem facing Dallas is that all of the potential suspects appear to be innocent, likeable people with no reason to wish the dead man harm. Like its predecessors, this is a coolly plotted police procedural and in due course a suspect emerges, even though Dallas still has reservations about his guilt, at least of this particular crime. And when the suspect is himself murdered, an entirely new range of possibilities opens.
This is one of the best in the series, with a really chilling villain. It is also one with very little SF content. There are a couple of references to droids and the year is stated as 2060, but that’s just about it. Frankly, I’ve never understood why Roberts chose the futuristic setting for the series in the first place. Whatever category you want to put it in, you should find it a very intense and compelling story and you’re not going to want to stop reading until you know the answers. 4/17/07
The Involuntary Human by David Gerrold, NESFA, 2007, $27, ISBN 1-886778-68-X
NESFA Press has another interesting as well as entertaining volume with this wide ranging collection of the work of David Gerrold, this one prepared in conjunction with Gerrold's Guest of Honor appearance at Boskone. Gerrold has not been one of the more prolific writers in the field, but I became a fan back when he was first publishing novels like Space Skimmer, When Harlie Was One, and Yesterday's Children and I still give priority to his new books when they show up in the mail. There's considerable variety here, including an excerpt from one of the War Against the Chtorr novels already published, and a piece of one yet to come. There's also the complete script for a Star Trek episode, "Blood and Fire", never produced, and which was also the basis of Gerrold's third Star Wolf novel, Blood and Fire. For the most part, the short stories have not appeared in earlier collections and there is some new material as well, including the introduction by Spider Robinson, a short humorous piece by Gerrold, several collections of reasonably pithy quotes, and some fiction. The reprints include some humorous articles about King Kong, the complete novel Chess with a Dragon from 1987 - in which we learn once again that it is sometimes smart to look a gift horse in the mouth, and some good stories including "Digging in Gehenna", "Dancer in the Dark", and "Riding Janis". Some of these originally appeared in obscure places so this is the first time they'll be readily available to many readers. The selections here are suggestive of the author's range, which encompasses humor, thoughtfulness, and adventure in settings as diverse as space opera, the contemporary world, and pretty grim future Earths. It's a good introduction to one of the most reliable and entertaining writers in the field. 4/16/07
Things to Come by H.G, Wells, annotated by Leon Stover, McFarland, 2007, $60, ISBN 978-0-7864-3038-3
H.G. Wells wrote this screen treatment late in his career, 1935, and the movie was released a year later. The premise is that a new world war breaks out in 1940, lasting so many decades that the world is plunged back into near anarchy until, exhausted, a new order emerges which slowly rebuilds a more rational civilization and uses scientific knowledge to expand into space. Although the film did not do well when it first appeared, it has since become something of a minor classic. This is not a smoothly written novel but a screen story and as such it glosses over or summarizes event, nor does it spend much time on characterization. Leon Stover has extensively annotated it, and has placed it in context, drawn attention to points that might otherwise have been overlooked, and provides other information which might not be available to the average reader, or viewer. Although not written specificially for academics, this edition is intended for libraries rather than consumers, and is part of the ongoing annotated H.G.Wells series from this publisher.
There are over a hundred black and white illustrations, mostly stills from the film, which I haven't seen in many years. Included is a lengthy, negative review of the film, Metropolis, which Wells found objectionable for philosophical reasons. The short story, "The Land Ironclads", which predicted the emergence of the tank as a major instrument of war, and another story, "The Queer Story of Brownlow's Newspaper", are also included because of their prophetic nature. 4/15/07
A Thousand Deaths by George Alec Effinger, Golden Gryphon, 5/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-1-930846-47
The third collection of Effinger's short stories from Golden Gryphon is actually dominated by a novel, The Wolves of Memory, originally published in 1981. A plot summary is going to make it sound like a routine dystopian adventure story, which it sort of is but sort of isn't as well. TECT is a supercomputer that pretty much runs everything and the protagonist, Sandor Courane, pretty much doesn't run anything. He fails at a series of jobs and is exiled to a planet reserved for misfits, where he discovers that the entire population has been given a kind of lingering death sentence. Sounds routine, but Effinger rarely was and this darkly funny and sometimes convoluted novels was one of his best. Courane was a recurring character in Effinger's short fiction as well, although he was killed a few times and wasn't always living in exactly the same world. In his introduction, Mike Resnick points out that Courane was partly autobiographical, one of only three recurring characters in Effinger's fiction.
The other stories all feature Courane, although not all of his adventures are collected here. Most are SF but a couple are fantasy. Of the seven shorts, I'd read all but one before. They vary considerably in tone and setting as well as subject matter. "In the Wings" and "The Thing from the Slush" are the two I enjoyed the most, but I've rarely been disappointed by an Effinger story and none of them are included here. Effinger's health problems and other interruptions are probably the only reason that he never became a much bigger name in the field than he did during his lifetime and, the Budayeen novels notwithstanding, I suspect he will be remembered more for his short fiction than his book length work. It's good to see another volume of them appear. There's also a very thoughtful afterword by Andrew Fox. 4/14/07
Kop by Warren Hammond, Tor, 7/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-765-31272-3
The setting for this very entertaining first novel is the colony planet Lagarto, which is suffering from a protracted inflation because its main source of outworld income was undercut by another source which stole their market and left the world doomed to become a backwater planet with little hope for its inhabitants. The protagonist is Juno, a low level police official on Lagarto who has been forced by circumstances and his own weakness to compromise his principles and become a paid lackey of influential criminal elements. Juno justifies his actions because virtually everyone is corrupt, including the local mayor, and he does draw some tenuous lines about what he will and will not do. Nevertheless, his equivocations have made him unhappy with himself and his life and puts unusual and painful stresses on his family life.
Unfortunately, shortly after Juno reluctantly accepts a new partner, a former friend of his becomes involved in a conspiracy that is more sinister than even he can accept, and before long he's also in trouble up to his neck, learns of an assassination plot, is threatened with arrest and imprisonment, and finds layers of treachery and deceit he never suspected. This is a gritty, serious minded thriller whose only real drawback is that it's sometimes difficult to sympathize with the protagonist, even though circumstances often dictate what might otherwise be considered serious wrongdoing. A sequel is forthcoming. 4/14/07
The Alton Gift by Deborah Ross & Marion Zimmer Bradley, DAW, 6/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0019-4
I thought that once Deborah Ross completed the Darkover Clingfire trilogy, based on notes and conversations with Marion Zimmer Bradley before her death, that the saga of Darkover had at last come to an end. Obviously I'm wrong because this new one, part of the Children of Kings sequence, is a direct sequel to Traitor's Sun and continues to fill in the gaps. It's also based on notes left by Bradley, but I hope this isn't going to turn her into the next V.C. Andrews, with a continuing parade of books increasingly removed from the original. It's difficult to determine the original author's contribution even in most cases where an incomplete manuscript is left. In this case, there's no way of knowing how closely the finished manuscript approximates what Bradley might have written herself and though I know that in cases like this the Big Name Author's name is routinely included as co-author, I think that in many cases this deflects the credit (or blame) from the person who actually did most of the work.
That said, this is a perfectly readable and entertaining Darkover novel, although it tends toward the fantasy end of the spectrum. Bradley herself veered in this direction from time to time, perhaps taking the best of both possible worlds. The time is shortly after the Terrans have, for the time being at least, effectively broken off contact with Darkover, leaving a society that is still bound by tradition but inevitably affected by exposure to offworlders. Regis Hastur is dead and Lew Alton is preoccupied with his personal as well as political problems, and as if things weren't complicated enough, his daughter Marguerida's psychic sense has cast her in the role of a futuristic Cassandra, predicting crisis and disaster. A dark presence is using the telepathic web on the planet as a tool toward world dominance, and Marguerida will have to use the shadow matrix herself to avert catastrophe. And while the official contact with the Terrans has been interrupted, there is an unofficial presence, an offworlder who will eventually play a pivotal part in the resolution. There's a good bit of adventure, lots of political intriguing, various mystical activities, and more than a mild touch of romance. It was nice to revisit an old, familiar setting, and Ross certainly writes well enough to continue the series indefinitely, but I have to wonder if she'd be better off creatively - if not financially - working in a world of her own.
The Hidden Worlds by Kristin Landon, Ace, 6/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01511-5
First novelist Kristin Landon takes a slightly different approach to an older SF theme with this one. Earth has been destroyed by some artificial intelligences that reminded me a bit of Fred Saberhagen’s Berserkers. Fortunately, some humans had already reached the stars by that point so the race isn’t wiped out, although the survivors live in constant fear that the Cold Minds will find them and finish the job. The protagonist is Linnea Kiaho, daughter of a family that is just managing to support themselves. In order to help with the finances, Linnea decided to become a kind of indentured servant on another world. Her patron soon considers her more than a simple servant, but their lives are about to become more stressed than ever, because there is evidence that the machine intelligences have gotten wind of where the humans are hiding and may be on their way to finish the job. And the patron, Iain, is involved in some complex politics of his own. The blend of SF and mild romance is reasonably good but the angst between the two principle characters was distracting at times. 4/10/07
The Heart of Valor by Tanya Huff, DAW, 6/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0435-2
One of the refreshing things about Tanya Huff’s Confederation series, of which this is the third, is that even though they’re essentially military SF, they vary quite a bit from the usual pattern and are interesting as novels as well as military adventures. For one thing, her main protagonist, Torin Kerr, is a sergeant, not an officer, and though she engages in the usual flaunting of regulations and orders when necessary to succeed, she nevertheless believes in the values of the military and is not the openly insubordinate type we’re using to seeing in this situation. Huff is cognizant of the fact that, appearances to the contrary, much of the smooth functioning of a military unit is managed by the non-commissioned officers, sometimes despite the intervention of the officers themselves.
Her latest assignment should have been uneventful, even boring. She’s sent to a planet where marines are trained in simulations, temporarily assigned to help an officer who recently survived the near total destruction of his body. Everything seems to be going fine at first, but then the simulations get a little bit too realistic, and its up to Torin to keep a small disaster from turning into a much larger one. Who’s behind the change, and why? A nice mystery wrapped up in an adventure story. 4/9/07
The Gangster Conspiracy by Steve Perry and Dal Perry, Roc, 7/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-46162-9
The late Chris Bunch had written the first three novels of Star Risk, Inc., a kind of combination security service and mercenary force working in a future interstellar civilization. The series was on the fringe of military SF and among the best light space operas of the past few years. Steve Perry, who has written a good many excellent space adventures of his own, collaborates with Dal Perry to pen the fourth in the series, which is very definitely up to the standards of its predecessors. Reversals in the previous volume have been reversed yet again, but the company’s financial situation is not enviable when Revered Josiah Williams shows up with a job offer. It seems that he represents an alliance of labor unions in a remote star system who are having trouble negotiating better terms with their employers. Williams wants Star Risk to effectively blockade the system to prevent the exportation of trade goods, which sounds like a comparatively easy assignment, but you know as well as I that things aren’t going to be quite as simple as that. There’s a criminal conspiracy and a web of secrets to be sorted through. Space opera the way it’s supposed to be written. 4/9/07
Thirteen by Richard K. Morgan, Del Rey, 7/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-345-48525-0
It hasn’t taken long for Richard Morgan to establish himself with his particular brand of novel, mildly dystopian novels that use some elements of cyberpunk without becoming completely wrapped up in that single aspect of his future societies. His characters tend to be dark as well, not villains but not traditional heroes either. A case in point is this new title set in a future where humanity has expanded into the solar system, but without solving the many problems of Earth. Carl Marsalis is a byproduct of one of those problems. The government attempted to create a more efficient soldier through physical enhancement and training, but the program failed and the subjects were let loose in the world despite the occasional psychological problem. Marsalis supported himself for a while as a professional assassin but of late has decided to find a new kind of life. Alas, his past isn’t through with him yet.
Another of the enhanced subjects, called Thirteens, has apparently gone completely rogue. When Marsalis is arrested, he is offered a deal. His part of the bargain will be to track down the other man. Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Well, think again because there are plots within plots, confused motives and shaky alliances, and secrets to be revealed. There’s a considerable amount of violence along the way, and some thoughtful examination of moral issues like euthanasia, human experimentation, and the limits of patriotism. Morgan’s future Earth is filled with contradictions, unresolved problems, conflicting interests, compromised morals, and corrupt authorities, and the fact that it feels so real is at times a bit depressing. It’s only a matter of time until one of Morgan’s novels hits the right chord and grabs an award or two, and this might be the one. 4/8/07
All Possible Worlds, Spring 2007, $5.95
This is the debut issue of a new small press SF and Fantasy magazine, with nice cover art though the interior work is rather more varied in quality. As you might expect, a market paying such low rates is going to feature primarily lesser known authors, and that's the case here. The first story, by Justin Stanchfield, nicely evokes its setting, an ice moon where the operator of heavy equipment at a mining project has to choose between seeing the woman he loves just before she leaves to return to Earth and rescuing a stranded party of travelers. Pretty good up until the end, which is rather weak and marred by some corny dialogue. A minor vignette by Daniel Ausema follows, and then a much longer story set in a primitive society by John N. Baker. Not badly written but not the kind of thing I generally enjoy. John Rosenman's "High Concept" is the best story in the issue. A frustrated man creates an imaginary older brother who becomes less than imaginary in short order. Kurt Kirchmeier has a clever piece about a school for young gods and a class in...er, um..creationism I'd guess you'd call it. "Iron Man" by Greg Jenkins is another minor vignette. Gene Stewart's longer story is okay but a little bit disorganized. Edward Muller's space adventure, "Prizes", was entertaining but I couldn't get into Bruce Golden's "The Apocryphist". Michael Pignatella closes the issue with another okay story. The stories by Rosenman and Kirchmeier are the best in the issue. Subscriptions are $20 for four issues from Zeta Centauri Inc, 3156 Portman Road, Columbus, OH 43232, or thru their website, www.zetacentauri.com/magazine.htm. 4/7/07
Death Sentence by Roger MacBride Allen, Bantam, 6/07, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-58727-2
Allen's previous novel, The Cause of Death, introduced the Bureau of Special Investigations, a kind of interstellar human FBI in a distant future in which humans find themselves the newcomers in the interstellar neighborhood. That one was a convoluted murder mystery; this one has some of the same elements, but is very different in execution. One of their agents disappeared after being dispatched to the Metranans, one of the older races who believe they have achieved the pinnacle of technology and biological research and who have one of the most static civilizations in the galaxy. The agent is eventually found on his drifting spaceship, having died of old age despite his relative youth. He was carrying a message and a deciphering key, and the key is missing, probably concealed somewhere aboard although the best efforts of the BSI (and whoever murdered him) were unable to locate it.
Jamie Mendez and Hannah Wolfson are sent to find out what happened during his visit, ostensibly to solve the mystery of their co-worker's death, but also to find the key if possible. It would be to the advantage of the human race to prove itself reliable. They arrive to find near chaos following the leak of information that someone had discovered a way to dramatically extend the Metranans' life span, but that the knowledge had been lost or suppressed. Also present are representatives of another, even more hidebound race who conceal their true nature inside nearly impenetrable environmental suits. The two investigators discover plots within plots before unraveling the truth.
I've also enjoyed Allen's novels. He has a clear, expository style that seems almost relaxed even when the action is hot and heavy. I'm also a fan of crossovers between mystery and science fiction. Although I liked this new one reasonably well, I was uncharacteristically impatient with it. Virtually nothing happens during the first two hundred pages except conversations among the two agents and a brief glimpse at the alien culture. I didn't actually skip ahead, but at times I was tempted, and the second half picks up the pace nicely all the way to the finish. There's at least one further installment in this series on the way. It will jump to the top of the stack when it arrives. 4/5/07
Skunk: A Love Story by Justin Courter, Omnidawn, 2007, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-890650-20-9
There was a time when satires were an honored part of SF. Alas, for some reason whimsical commentaries on contemporary problems seem to have gone out of fashion, probably because the real problems have become so prominent that readers prefer not to think about them when they turn to entertainment. So the few satires that do continue to appear are mostly from small presses like this one, an imprint I'd never heard of before this intriguing novel arrived in the mail except for a single anthology (which included a small portion of this novel in fact). It's a first novel, although the author has sold some short fiction, and it's very similar to the satires that Shepherd Mead, Benjamin Appel, Harold Livingston, and others wrote in years gone by.
Damien is an ordinary person, a valued office worker and a good neighbor, but he has this little problem. At first it was just a predilection toward odd odors, but now it's an outright obsession, an addiction to the smell of skunks, and his neighbors and co-workers aren't at all happy with the situation. Eventually his penchant for raising skunks complicates his life even more, and then he meets Pearl, a fish fetishist who is also a brilliant scientist who has found a cure for global warming. Sort of. Her solution is a new form of life that grows like a coat of vegetation over the surface of the ocean, producing lots of nice carbon dioxide, but with obvious undesirable side effects. Their budding romance is interrupted by crisis, however, when the animal control officer impounds Damien's pet skunks as a community nuisance. Unable to rescue them before they are put to death, he quits his job and sells his house, intending to move somewhere more amenable to his desired lifestyle. And his new life must include Pearl as well as the skunks. Definitely not for every taste, but obviously quite out of the ordinary.
Ravenor Rogue by Dan Abnett, Black Library, 2007, $19.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-460-8
The Flight of the Eisenstein by James Swallow, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-84416-459-2
I generally prefer the sword and sorcery side of the Warhammer universe rather than the military SF like these two titles. Partly that's because most of them are closer to the Robert E. Howard tradition than the Tolkien or wargaming traditions, and partly because much of their military SF includes or at least implies the existence of magical or supernatural entities, and that jars with the interplanetary setting for me. The best of the SF end of their spectrum avoids or minimizes the latter and a few mainstream SF writers like Ian Watson and Brian Stableford have written pretty good entries in the series. The track record for authors whose work is pretty much confined to this single publisher is less impressive, but there are exceptions. The foremost of these is Dan Abnett, who writes the best of their space adventures including this, the latest in his subset about Ravenor, an official inquisitor whose job is to seek out evil doers both external and internal. Ravenor's latest adventure takes him somewhat out of his ordinary frame, which is constricted because he is confined to a kind of glorified wheelchair and environmental suit due to hostile action years before. That makes it a little difficult for him to disobey instructions and embark on a personal campaign to hunt down those responsible for the murder of some of his peers, but that's exactly what he and a few companions do in this new adventure. There were a few places where I thought the dialogue was uncharacteristically clunky, but it's not a major problem. One caveat, however; the story is not complete and continues in Brothers of the Snake, not yet published.
James Swallow has not confined himself to the Warhammer universe and has written novels in the Judge Dredd and other sequences, although all published by Black Library under that imprint or its Black Flame persona. This is also part of a subset, the Horus Heresy, penned by multiple authors, involving the traitorous actions of a portion of the human empire and its conversion to evil. This is the story of a ship that is rushing to carry news of the betrayal back to the authorities when it is damaged and stranded in hyperspace, and hyperspace is the land of the evil creatures that plague the universe. I managed to work around my prejudice against this mixing of genres by interpreting the latter as just super-aliens, and found the book reasonably enjoyable though a bit slow at times. Another caveat here, because you won't be able to find out the end results of the conflict until the rest of the series is published, but at least this installment is fairly complete in itself. I know that game and other media tie-in novels generally get snubbed by most mainstream SF readers, but if you're looking for light space adventures that aren't full of meaningful commentary on the human condition or veiled references to contemporary politics, these might be just what you're looking for.
Starfist: Firestorm by David Sherman & Dan Cragg, Del Rey, 6/07, $21.95, ISBN 978-0-345-46056-1
Volume 12 in the popular Starfist military SF series. The expansion of the human race through the galaxy has not been without its problems. Rebellions, indigenous alien races with barbaric societies, and star traveling races with higher technology. Now the biggest threat of all looms ever closer as the alien Skinks advance their campaign to exterminate humanity. As divided among ourselves as we always are, some parties choose to take advantage of the concentration of forces along the perimeter of human space to foment rebellions and takeovers within human civilization, even if that weakens our overall defensive posture. This is the story of one lone outpost that finds itself surrounded, outnumbered, outgunned, but not out thought or out fought by their enemies.
There's not a great deal to say about the plot, which is essentially a series of intense battles between the marines and their enemies. We all know they're going to win in the end, but it's still interesting to see how they essentially outsmart the opposition. Sherman & Cragg are noted for their very realistic ground combat sequences and this one is no exception. It would be nice to see them expand on the basic formula a little, but they've been so successful with it that one can't blame them for hewing pretty close to the standard line. And I don't know of anyone alive doing better military SF.
Man vs Machine edited by Martin H. Greenberg & John Helfers, DAW, 7/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0436-9
It is only appropriate that an anthology whose theme is the conflict between man and technology should open with a Berserker story by Fred Saberhagen, and this one does, a collaboration with Jane Lindskold. Alas, this isn't one of the better ones, full of action but with a flat, unsatisfying ending with the tragic hero indulging in self sacrifice. Brendan Dubois follows with a more interesting variation of the post-apocalypse war, this one set after the kind of apocalyptic events of D.F. Jones' Colossus or Philip K. Dick's Vulcan's Hammer. The computer systems designed to protect us became self aware and turned into a danger rather than a benefit, and the population rose and destroyed everything with microchips, effectively destroying contemporary civilization and leaving North America a balkanized remnant of its former self. Loren Coleman adds a readable but unremarkable story of a technology laden military operation.
Rick Hautala's "The Hum" is the first really outstanding story in the collection. People begin to hear an almost subliminal hum that becomes more annoying and pervasive with the passage of time, and no one can determine the cause. There have been news stories in recent months about communities plagued by very similar phenomena. Hopefully Hautala's apocalyptic explanation isn't the correct one. Bill Fawcett then returns to the military theme and Ed Gorman adds the much more interesting "Moral Imperative", involving adultery and religious passion in a high tech future world. William Keith returns to the military theme, the best of that subset in the book, a war to end wars in the very distant future, a struggle between group responsibility and individuality, between freedom and paternalism, between inorganic and organic life.
Artificial intelligence is also central to "Chasing Humanity" by Brad Beaulieu, a name new to me, but the story is one of the better in the collection. L.E. Modessit Jr.'s "The Difference", the best piece of short fiction I've seen from this author, similarly explores the effect of artificial intelligence on society, in this case when the computers running major installations begin to waken to self awareness and decide to do something more interesting than just run a factory. Stephen Leigh and Richard Dansky provide creditable but fairly predictable stories, after which comes Simon Brown's very entertaining "Reiteration", wherein humans and aliens mix sailing vessels with advanced technology as they battle on an alien sea. Jean Rabe's story of a man who spends much of his life hating a locomotive provides a nice change of pace, and a refreshing change of perspective. Similarly the protagonist of Russell Davis' "Engines of Desire & Despair" concludes that machines are by their very nature evil. S. Andrew Swann concludes with another strong story, "The Historian's Apprentice", in which it is the machine that makes the moral decision that may be too selfless for man to choose for himself. All in all, a solid if unremarkable collection, with the best stories by Swann, Hautala, Beaulieu, and Modessit, and not a single clunker.
Secret Weapon by Jude Watson, Scholastic, 2007, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-439-68140-7
A few years back, I read a fairly large selection of Star Wars novels for younger readers, quite a few of them by Jude Watson, but somehow I missed the fact that they were still coming out. Watson has a separate series, of which this is the seventh book, most of which apparently feature Ferus Olin, a surviving Jedi we didn't know about who has been searching for more of his kind, encouraging the rebels, but who is often forced to serve the Emperor or Darth Vader for one reason or another. This time, however, he is working for the rebellion, because Vader and company have a new secret weapon, and Olin intends to steal the secret for the good guys. Watson's books are always well written, if a bit light, but since the movies themselves were meant to appeal to the young, these don't feel out of place at all even if they aren't written with the level of sophistication of those designed for the adult market. I haven't read any of the earlier novels in this series, and I probably won't go out of my way to look for them, but if I happen upon them, I would probably find a way to work them into my reading list.
Shelter by Susan Palwick, Tor, 6/07, $15.95, ISBN 978-0-312-86602-0
Most science fiction novels that hope to tackle serious issues - bioethics, global warming, cloning, cultural clashes, or whatever - deal at least primarily with one topic and use other issues, if at all, simply as part of the background or to provide a subplot. Susan Palwick's latest is much more ambitious than that, addressing a wide variety of topics at the same time. My previous experience with the author's work, particularly the marvelous and touching Flying in Place, tipped me off in advance that I was going to be introduced to a cast of vividly conceived characters, and I wasn't disappointed. If anything there was too many of them, and I wanted to know more about each of their lives. The characters include a sort of artificial intelligence - a dead man translated into electronic life, a homeless man whose memories have been erased because he tried to help a child, a woman who disappeared for five years, and another who finds herself sucked into this woman's orbit. There's also a sentient house, a much more benevolent one than in Dean R. Koontz's Demon Seed. And part of the story evolves because the house offers shelter to a homeless man, which it should not have been able to do.
This is, I suppose, a mild dystopia, but it's more about the terrible things we sometimes do to ourselves and others rather than what is imposed on us by a cold and distant government. And it has an upbeat ending, although not because the rebels assassinate an evil dictator and bring about democratic reforms but because the characters discover some of the flaws in their own personalities, the reasons why they have been less than kind to one another, and move past that to a different kind of relationship. Proof, if we needed it, that a novel can be an intense, gripping experience even if it isn't filled with derring do, scientific marvels, and a cast of larger than life characters. This one's likely to be an award contender next year, although the low key cover seems aimed at a non-genre audience.
Dangerous Games edited by Jack Dann & Gardner Dozois, Ace, 4/07, $7.99, ISBN 0-441-01490-3
The latest reprint theme anthology from these two veteran editors has a surprisingly large number of entries which I hadn't run into before, even more surprising because they're uniformly good stories. The theme is games which endanger people's lives, so it's only appropriate that the lead story be Robert Sheckley's classic "The Prize of Peril", still as effective today as it was back in the 1950s. With the exception of Kate Wilhelm's contribution from the 1970s, all of the remaining stories have been published during the past decade, in as varied places as Interzone, Salon, and Analog. It would be difficult to pick out the best stories here, but William Browning Spencer's "Halfway House at the Heart of Darkness" is another favorite of mine and Alastair Reynolds' "Stroboscopic", Allen Steele's "Her Own Private Sitcom", and Jonathan Lethem's "How We Got in Town and Out Again" are all excellent. The best of the stories new to me was "Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland" by Gwyneth Jones. The selection is excellent not only because of the quality but because the stories are quite varied despite the common theme, thereby escaping monotony, a frequent malady of the theme anthology.
Red Handed by Gena Showalter, MTV Books, 6/07, $9.95, ISBN 978-1-4165-3224-8
Blacklisted by Gena Showalter, MTV Books, 7/07, $9.95, ISBN 978-1-4165-3225-5
The last successful teenaged science fiction series was, I believe, the Roswell series by Melinda Metz. These are the first two volumes in a new series by paranomal romance writer Gena Showalter, and I doubt that they'll make it as the next such hit. For one thing, her world is very different from the one we live on, and not very attractive. Aliens live on Earth, all sorts of aliens, some with rather unlikely physiologies, others so close that they can pass for human. In fact, the authorities have a serious problem discovering the aliens who hide among the general population. There is also a special branch of the government, Alien Investigation and Removal, which responds to any violent crime by an alien with overwhelming and lethal force, directed toward any human accomplices as well, and they act outside the law and are apparently not accountable for what they do. The entire premise for the series is suspect, and the sexual content is intense enough that we won't see this one turned into a prime time television show. There's also a structural problem. The recurring characters are minor and, based on the first two in this series, each book will focus on a new protagonist, which won't do much for continuity of interest.
What are they actually about? Well, the first one deals with a teenage girl who is semi-addicted to a drug used to track aliens. She and her mother don't get along until she is recruited by the agency, trained to be a killer, and then demonstrates that she can be responsible. Oh, and she goes to bed with her instructor after lusting after him a lot. The second one, slightly better, a coming of age story with another teenage girl, this one inadvertently putting an undercover operation in jeopardy before her help is enlisted to ensure its success. Completely implausible scientifically and logically, these will drive science fiction readers crazy. If the MTV crowd is less demanding, they may find these moderately entertaining.
Brasyl by Ian McDonald, Pyr, 5/07, $25, ISBN 978-1-59102-543-6
Ian McDonald's latest is a panoramic view of Brazil, or a kind of Brazil. We see the country through three separate story lines. The earliest is 1732. A monk has been sent from Europe to deal with a problem that is exacerbating tensions between religious orders as well as with the mundane authorities. A priest in a remote part of the Amazon has undertaken a dangerous and possibly heretical course. The monk's mission is to recall or neutralize him, reminiscent of the central plot in Apocalypse Now. The mission is complicated by rumors that a band of angels has appeared, slaughtering the unworthy and carrying off others.
The second plot is set in the present. An ambitious young woman makes a living developing reality shows, but rivalries within her organization as well as a changing political climate are causing her considerable frustration. Adding to her woes is a series of incidents where an apparent doppelganger acts in her name, endangering her own plans. The third sequence is set thirty years in the future. A small time thief gets involved with a woman who specializes in quantum physics involving multiple universes. When she is killed, she is replaced - not by a ghost but by a version of herself from an alternate reality.
The real focus of the novel is the setting, which McDonald illustrates in three different eras, pulling them all together through the device of quantum physics and the malleability of reality. His prose is, as always, a joy to read. This is a major novel from a major talent.
Cold Skin by Albert Sanchez Pinol, Canongate, 2007, $13, ISBN 978-1-84195-883-5
Sometimes the most unprepossessing book can be a real find. That's the case with this title, originally published in Spanish in 2002, translated by Cheryl Leah Morgan. The novel is something of a re-imaging of Karel Capek's classic The War With the Newts, played out on a smaller, more intense stage. The nameless narrator has agreed to operate a weather station on a remote island in the Antarctic, living by himself for a full year. He explains that he hopes to catch up on his reading, although there are vague suggestions that he may have other motives which he has not admitted even to himself. When the ship arrives to drop him off and pick up his predecessor, there is no sign of the other man. In fact, the only other inhabitant of the island is found in a nearly comatose state, living in the lighthouse. Gruner appears almost certainly insane, refuses to say what happened to the other man, and is even suspected of having murdered him.
The narrator decides to stay against the advice of the captain. That first evening, his house is assaulted by a horde of bipedal amphibians who are very much like the salamanders in Capek's novel. He manages to fight them off, but when they leave at daybreak, he is exhausted, injured, and nearly prostrate with terror. When he seeks refuge in the lighthouse, Gruner refuses to let him in, even threatens to shoot him. Dismayed, the protagonist returns to the cottage, finds two rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition among his supplies, and decides to fortify his own lodgings, hopeless as that might be. He feels such hostility toward Gruner that he is tempted to shoot him and, later, attempts a physical assault that reveals an odd fact. Gruner has been keeping one of the female creatures as a servant, even dressing her in human clothing. The narrator takes the servant prisoner, which drives Gruner into a frenzy, although it is only later that we learn that she is also his sexual partner.
Spoilers follow. Gruner is forced to allow the narrator into the lighthouse, which he has transformed into a fortress, and the two of them become more amicable as they fend off increasing numerous and desperate attacks by the creatures. The level of violence escalates rapidly, from shotgun to modern rifles to deadly explosives on one side, from random assaults to constant major offensives on the other. Much of what follows is nightmarish, but the narrator begins to undergo a slow epiphany, realizing that the creatures share many attributes with humanity, that they are just seeking to defend the one piece of land that belongs to them, that they are capable of entering negotiations and abiding by agreements. He even imitates Gruner by having sexual relations with the female, and later adopts one of their orphaned children. Unfortunately, Gruner cannot see them as anything but a threat and that is ultimately his undoing. The narrator reaches an accord which Gruner violates, resulting in his own death, and the hostilities resume just as his own relief arrives. If there was any doubt in the reader's mind that this was designed to illustrate the endless cycle of war, the author dispels that by revealing that Gruner is NOT the lighthouse keeper. He's the missing weather station operator. And the relief crew mistakenly believes that the narrator is Gruner. The new replacement is attacked the first night of his stay and the contretemps with the narrator starts a recapitulation of his own confrontation with Gruner. If the man really was Gruner.
The pointless waste of it all is pretty evident. One might wonder why the weather station on an uninhabited island would contain so much weaponry, but I think that's deliberate, reflecting the propensity of governments to stockpile armaments for which there is no obvious purpose. This can be taken as SF, as satire, or even as horror, but it should definitely be on your reading list.
Shadow Worlds by Darrell Bain & Barbara M. Hodges, Twilight Time, 2005, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-933353-79-1
Alien Infection by Darrell Bain, Twilight Time, 2005, $16.95, ISBN 1-933353-72-4
I don't know much about this publisher but they appear to be a small press, mostly print on demand, and none of their writers are anyone I've heard of previously except for Darrell Bain, who has had a few previous small press titles . They recently sent me a selection of their past books, and I managed to fit a couple of them into my reading schedule. Both are relatively short and attractively packaged. The first one has an intriguing setup. Exact duplicates of people begin appearing out of nowhere, plopping down beside their originals, but unlike the Body Snatchers, these creations are all dead. But where are they coming from, and why? Some of the speculation comes straight out of the old pulps and isn't very plausible, and that a scientist could come up with the right theory - supercomputers in an alternate universe - seems a bit of a stretch. It's the kind of invasion story that John Russell Fearn and Robert L. Fanthorpe based their careers on, but considerably better written.
The second title borrows its plot from "B" SF movies. A medical worker is accidentally infected by blood from an emergency room patient, who is taken away by armed government officials in a very secretive manner. He subsequently falls ill, but recovers feeling better than ever before, and passes on the infection to a friend. Old physical defects are repaired and sex is greater than ever, but he has essentially become a fugitive. Eventually they are enlightened by an alien who tells them they are carrying an alien symbiont which, unfortunately, will kill most humans who are infected. The story lost me a little at this point because of some shaky science; the alien is indistinguishable from humans, and tells them that there are hominids on every Earthlike planet her people have visited. A protracted chase sequence follows with the government finally helping the aliens to leave Earth.
Both books are competently written, probably not well enough to please one of the major publishers but better than much of the small press stuff I see. The collaboration has a more original plot, but the second title is slightly better constructed. Neither book is good enough for me to run out and buy other titles by either author, but both are good enough that I'd probably read more by them if it came my way. Available through Amazon and the Twilight Tales website.
Next by Michael Crichton, Harper, 2006, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-06-087298-4
Despite his occasionally hokey science, I’ve always enjoyed Michael Crichton’s thrillers. He is a consummate story teller with a superb sense of pacing and tension. Most of the time. I was very disappointed by his last book, State of Fear, not so much because of the message it was designed to convey – Crichton believes that much of what we have been told about global warming is fantasy – but because he spent so much time lecturing the reader that the story just never came together. So I had put off reading this new one because I knew it was about genetic manipulation and feared that it would be very much the same.
The good news is that it is better than the last, at least for the first two thirds. Crichton does raise a good many ethical questions, but he doesn’t attempt to answer them all and he leaves the clear impression that this is such new territory that we need to tread carefully so that the benefits of this new knowledge can be realized without too many of the less savory side effects. His opinions are expressed more forcefully in an afterward, but teven there he often suggests that we need to know more before making decisions. The novel tackles everything from gene therapy to attempts to increase the intelligence of animals through transgenic mutation to societal engineering to the ethics of experimentation on human and/or animal subjects. Some of the characters are appealing and some are not, but even the latter occasionally give voice to rational, even compelling arguments from their point of view. It appears that Crichton wants to make us think this time, but isn’t so determined to shape our conclusions.
The first bit of bad news is that the novel tries to cover so many things that it is very unfocused. There is a huge collection of characters and situations, and we jump from one to the other so frequently that the first half of the novel has a lot of false momentum that falters because none of the individual story lines seem to be moving toward a resolution. There are the makings of at least two or three good novels in here, but none of them ever coalesce sufficiently. The shotgun approach raises lots of interesting questions, but the diffusion robs them of any immediacy.
Worse, for me at least, are those places where Crichton makes leaps of extrapolation before he has properly properly prepared the groundwork. For example, it’s quite a jump from proving a company’s legal right to market a line of disease resistant cells harvested from an individuals while he was under medical treatment, to assuming the legal authority to kidnap his grandchildren and perform surgical procedures on them because they are committing a felony - theft - by having inherited the same genetic material. To say nothing of the fact that no corporation would ever openly declare that they had such a right and risk the public outcry that would certainly ensue. The fact that there is a subsequent legal opinion overruling their conclusion doesn't make up for the fact that their initial acceptance of the fact, and the advice of their attorney that they can legally kidnap children to harvest their DNA, is simply implausible.
Nor did I believe for a second that a man could successfully enroll a transgenic ape in school as a human being – without a birth certificate or physical – by claiming that it was a human child with a birth defect and a genetic defect that resulted in excessive hairiness. These two incidents alone were so unrealistic that I was no longer able to emotionally invest myself in the story from that point onward. It’s a shame, because Crichton raises legitimate issues, and because he still writes crackling prose when he’s concentrating on that instead of his message, but this is another one of those books were the well intentioned message swamped the storytelling.
The Last Colony by John Scalzi, Tor, 5/07, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-765-31697-4
This is the third in the series that started with Old Man's War. John Perry has fulfilled his military obligations and settled with his family on a colony world, but having once had a taste of the wider universe, he finds his new environment pale and tame. It appears that the planet Roanoke has been settled for the usual good reasons, but if the name of the planet didn't warn you that something sinister is underway, events soon will. Humans are playing a delicate diplomatic and military balancing game with an alien empire that wants to see an end to human expansion. Although ostensibly supporting Roanoke's colonists, the authorities actually have decided that it will play a very different part in the game, and I don't want to tell you too much here and spoil the surprise, although you should be able to guess at least most of what's going on well in advance. Petty and his wife object to being pawns, no matter what the ultimate objective might be, and they eventually take a hand that will alter the rules of the game. A blend of military SF with the planetary adventure story. Scalzi has been compared to the early Robert Heinlein and the comparison is a valid one, and I don't imagine it will be long before he moves his first Hugo Award to his mantelpiece.
One Jump Ahead by Mark L. Van Name, Baen, 6/07, $24, ISBN 978-1-4165-2085-6
Jon Moore is a kind of low key James Bond, an interplanetary adventurer who makes use of nanotechnology and an artificial intelligence named Lobo to accomplish his missions. The conflicts around him are less military than commercial, although sometimes it's very difficult to tell the difference, and dead is dead regardless of the attitude of the killer. His latest job is to rescue a kidnapped girl, but some very odd developments arise in the aftermath, making him wonder just what it is that he has gotten involved with this time. The hi-jinx escalate from there, with intervals of banter between Moore and Lobo that would have been more interesting if Lobo had been individualized a bit more. There's plenty of action though as they thread their way through traps, treachery, and the terrors of corporate finagling. There have been short stories featuring this duo as well, and I would not be at all surprised to see more novels. Nothing deep or relevant here, just good old fashioned murder and mayhem.
Deadstock by Jeffrey Thomas, Solaris, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 1-84416-447-0
The first science fiction novel in the new Solaris line is one of Thomas' visits to Punktown, an urban setting on a distant world where humans and aliens interact, with more than a touch of cyberpunk but somewhat wider horizons. A darker and more complex version of the Mos Eisley spaceport of Star Wars. Jeremy Stake is a somewhat seedy private detective who is hired by a prominent and rich local man to find a rare living artifact, a doll that belongs to his teenaged daughters and which is mysteriously missing, presumably stolen.
Stake has an unusual talent, although some times it's as much a curse as an asset. He's a chameleon, a shapechanger whose appearance can be altered very quickly to resemble others. But Stake is not the only one who isn't what he appears to be. His new employer hasn't told him the whole truth, and the living doll he's pursuing is more than just a very sophisticated plaything. Lots of revelations, twists, and turns will follow. Although there's a pretty good mystery here, the real charm of the book - if that's the right term for a novel about a generally repulsive society - is the evocation of a corrupt, many layered, city where high tech and low morals co-exist, where gangs prowl the lower levels in an entirely different environment from that of the wealthy who live, literally, above them. Stake is a brooding figure whose personality fits perfectly, and I was reminded at times of the promising early works of Piers Anthony (pre-Xanth) like Chthon. Thomas seems to have grown more confident of his material with each book, and this is far and away the best he has done, clear evidence that he is evolving into one of the more exciting talents in the field.
Phytosphere by Scott Mackay, Roc, 6/07, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-46158-2
The alien Tarsalans have no true concept of personal property, so when their negotiations to settle on Earth prove unfruitful, they act precipitously, creating a barrier around the entire planet that cuts off sunlight and communication with the colonies sprinkled through the solar system. As the ecological situation begins to degrade, teams of scientists desperately try to find a way to pierce the shield. The sections dealing with the interactions between humans and Tarsalans are the high spots in the book, but they're not as engaging as the similar interactions in his earlier Tides. The plot is otherwise a semi-interesting scientific puzzle with a few brief action sequences. I wasn't really attracted to any of the characters either, which made the story seem rather flat.
Water Rites by Mary Rosenblum, Fairwood Press, 2/07, $17.99, ISBN 0-9789078-1-7
Mary Rosenblum's first novel, The Drylands, appeared way back in 1993, developing a theme and setting she had used in earlier short stories. It is the Pacific Northwest of the future after global warming has altered the ecology of the world dramatically. Water is so scarce in North America that it is the most valuable commodity, administered by the Army Corps of Engineers, conducted through massive pipelines. While the populace alternates between apathy and rioting, it seems that the situation is getting worse rather than better. Life in the barren areas is also having an effect on human heredity. This new volume includes that novel, plus three short stories using the same setting. There are two other Drylands stories, not included in this volume. In the novel, a military officer tries to intercede between the army and a group of farmers who have become increasingly desperate. An undercurrent through all is the fear felt by those with subtle mutations caused by the drought conditions - a presumption that takes something of a leap of faith - but it provides another degree of depth to the conflict. Her most recent novels are more polished, but this one remains entertaining as well as thought provoking.
Slan Hunter by A.E. van Vogt and Kevin J. Anderson, Tor, 7/07, $24.95
It has been around forty years since I first read Slan, A.E. van Vogt’s first full length novel. The popularity of Slan among fans in the 1940s is not surprising. Slans are mutants with superior physical and mental skills, including telepathy, believed by humans to be the product of some exotic artificial manipulation of the DNA of infants. They are believed to have been designed by a scientist named S. Lann six centuries before the events of the novel, and they are named after their supposed creator, but it is never clear how the world comes to believe that he could propagate millions of them among the population, or how the knowledge that they were being born as a natural form of evolution could not have emerged during the centuries of their existence. Although they were briefly in the ascendant in human society, there was a war and they are now in hiding, hated, feared, and persecuted because they were different. Since many SF fans also felt persecuted and despised for their bookish ways, identification was inevitable and the phrase “fans are slans” became part of the fannish vocabulary. Groups of fans lived together in “slan shacks”.
Rereading the novel now, I was struck almost immediately by its lack of imagination. Although we are told that centuries have passed and that Earth is now ruled from the city of Centropolis by a nearly absolute dictator, there is little to technologically distinguish it from the present. People drive around in cars, carry handguns and anti-aircraft batteries, and apparently live very much like we do. True, a secret organization has space travel, but their secret is closely held, and the highly advanced airships don’t travel much faster than present day aircraft. There is a brief attempt to explain all of this late in the sequel, presumably by Anderson, but not convincingly. It doesn't matter in any case.
The original story is told from the point of view of two young slans. Jommy Cross narrowly escapes capture when his mother is killed and lives with a grasping, repulsive old woman for several years, waiting for the day when a post hypnotic compulsion will lead him to his father’s discovery. During that period he discovers the existence of the tendrilless slans, slans who lack the tendrils in their hair that makes telepathy possible. For some reason, this group is as hostile to true slans as are the humans. The second viewpoint character is Kathleen Layton, a slan held prisoner by the dictator, Kier Gray, apparently because her ability to eavesdrop on the thoughts of his enemies proves useful.
Layton later becomes the target of a lustful councilor, Jem Lorry, who purportedly wants to discover if slans and humans are interfertile, although we learn in the sequel that he is himself a tendrilless slan and that his excuse must therefore be no more than that. She attempts to avoid his attentions by lying to a council meeting in the most awkwardly written sequence in the book, wherein they set out their rather unbelievable plans to eradicate the slans before realizing that they are revealing their intentions to a telepath. We also get confirmation that Kier Gray, the supposedly anti-slan world dictator, has some secret sympathy for the girl, if not for slans on the whole. The sequel opens with the revelation that he is himself a slan, and that he has been arrested by his security chief, John Petty, who plans to rule the Earth himself.
Reading the early chapters, presumably by van Vogt, I was struck by how little the author's style had changed even after a gap of fifty years. There is the same lack of sophistication in the characterization, the same awkward phrasing and casual attitude toward science, the same naiveté about the way politics unfolds and human interactions intermesh. The second half of the novel has smoother prose, but Anderson wisely doesn't try to radically alter the style and does in fact capture a great deal of the spirit of van Vogt.
The story itself is almost secondary. This is an exercise in nostalgia rather than a fresh new novel. The tendrilless slans have a secret base on Mars from which they launch thousands of ships to attack the Earth, which they do primarily by dropping bombs. Jem Lorry is revealed to be one of their agents, a megalomaniac who tries to become dictator of both races. Jommy and Kathleen rescue Kier Gray and are chased about the countryside as it appears that the human race is headed for extinction or slavery. And where are the true slans?
Slan was not van Vogt's best novel, but it is certainly his most famous. It is fitting that the sequel he began should also be his last published. Readers unfamiliar with the field are probably going to be puzzled when they read this, because it's so unlike what currently appears in the field but long time fans are going to find in it a ticket back to their own past.
Echoes of an Alien Sky by James P. Hogan, Baen, 2007, $24, ISBN 978-1-4165-2108-2
James Hogan's latest is rather less ambitious in scope than most of his earlier work, even though it involves the extinction of human life on Earth. Venus is a thriving human community which has sent extensive research teams to the now dead third planet in an effort to figure out just what it was that led the human race to extinction. We see most of the action through the eyes of a spaceman and a scientist, but there's not a whole lot of action to see. Much of the novel consists of ruminations about international politics, the short sighted polices of the 20th Century and onward, followed by the discovery that tailored viruses were created which targeted specific ethnic or racial types. Unfortunately, these viruses mutated and it seemed inevitable that everyone would eventually become vulnerable.
Unfortunately for the novel, there really isn't much in the way of surprises for the reader. The secret of what happened to the human race is pretty obvious, and the side plots involving Venusian politics adds no real suspense to the slow unraveling of various puzzles in the ruins of Earth. This hovers somewhere between hard science fiction and a cautionary novel, but it doesn't really settle in any one place.
Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, Pantheon, 6/07, $22.95, ISBN 978-0-375-42486-1
The interest in superheroes in the movie industry has been substantial in recent years, and the headline news of the death of Captain America in Marvel comics recently reflects how much the formerly despised "comic books" have become a part of our culture. There have been many superhero novels, most of them tie-ins to films or graphic material, most of them not particularly elevating. There have been a few exceptions. The Wild Cards series edited by George R.R. Martin is the most exceptional, a series of mosaic novels in which mutated humans become a part of ordinary life. There have been occasional other novels of merit as well, but few of them as interesting as this debut novel from a writer who also designs interactive games.
Grossman creates a cast of original super-powered characters in this, including the cyborglike Fatale, the martial artist Blackwolf, the villainous Doctor Impossible. Their powers come from a variety of sources, ancient gods, accidents, mutation, curses, alien technology, radiation, or just plain magic. Heroes and villains interact but this isn't about physical battles as much as it is about the characters, and it is actually remarkably non-violent. It's also an alternate history because the superheroes have been around for quite a while - a long while if you include time traveling events. It's surprisingly effective, particularly in bringing such unlikely characters to life. I hardly even noticed that it was written in the present tense, which normally drives me to distraction. An excellent testimony to the fact that in the hands of a talented writer, even the most unpromising premise can be turned into something marvelous.
1634: The Baltic War by Eric Flint and David Weber, Baen, 5/07, $26, ISBN 1-4165-2102-X
I think this is the tenth book in this series, if you count the anthologies, although it's more of a shared world than a series at this point. This particular title advances the main story line which, if you haven't read the others, involves a town from contemporary America sent back through time to the 17th Century. There they try to influence human civilization to adopt more democratic and libertarian policies despite the inertia of ages of political repression. In those earlier books, particularly 1633 (also by Flint and Weber), the influence of the Americans has had some effect, but it has also led to the formation of two alliances in Europe. Opposed to the new progressive movement are the government of England, Spain, France, and other countries who view this reformist program as a direct threat to their status quo.
The authors introduce a number of military anachronisms including the use of ironclads in the Baltic Sea, which makes for some impressive cover art, but most of the story is spent following the adventures of several Americans scattered through Europe on various missions designed to advance their agenda and interfere with the plans of their opponents. The novel is big enough to cover all of their individual stories adequately and I was particularly fond of the naval sequences, having recently read two books about the early ironclads in the American Civil War. Flint and Weber have consistently proven to be best of Baen's team of writers, and this is certainly their most effective collaboration.
Eldar Prophecy by C.S. Goto, Black Library, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 1-84416-451-9
My biggest problem with Warhammer novels set in the distant future is that I find the juxtaposition of starships and space marines with demons and magic so jarring that I'm often unable to get involved with the story. A secondary problem is one common to all military SF, that a large proportion of it is repetitious and trite. There are just so many times I can read about a young cadet saving the day, a rugged commander beating the odds in a complicated space battle, a crew of misfits turned into heroes, or a mutinous crew subdued and taught the error of their ways. There are exceptions, of course, and writers like David Feintuch, Mike Resnick, and Elizabeth Moon have proven that there are new things to be revealed in old situations.
So when I read the blurbs on this new novel, I was a bit hopeful. I've read a couple of Goto's earlier novels, and they weren't bad, and this one looked to be quite different, in cultural background if not in the basics of the plot. A young warrior labors under a prophecy about his future as he seeks to restore the prominence of his family in a galaxy torn by warfare. Unfortunately, the result was a novel that read like the latest installment in the Battletech universe, and despite some more than adequate prose, I still had to struggle to reach the end.
The Long Twilight and Other Stories by Keith Laumer, Baen, 2007, $14, ISBN 1-4165-2109-7
The late Keith Laumer was one of the masters of the light, mysterious adventure, and it has been very good news that Baen has been bringing so much of his work back into print. This particular title includes two of his better novels and four short stories, one of which has not to my knowledge been previously collected. The Long Twilight (1969) is a kind of precursor to the Highlander movies, without the magic. Two larger than life immortal characters have been locked in battle since prehistoric times and, in the near future, their conflict is about to reach its climax in a quest to control an experimental nuclear facility that could pose a threat to the entire earth. Slightly dated, but Laumer's transparent and deceptively light narrative style will sweep you past any little anachronisms you might encounter. The second novel is Night of Delusions (1972) is even better, the story of a man hired by mysterious elements within the government and provided with technology that seems to have come from an advanced civilization. Add dream therapy and aliens and you have a frantic but controlled romp.
Elk's Run by Joshua Hale Fialkov, Noel Tuazon, and Scott A. Keating, Villard, 2007, $19.95, ISBN 978-0-345-49511-2
There was a time when graphic novels meant lots of sex and violence, but it's come to mean comic books with visions of grandeur in recent years. This is one of them, a complete series of eight installments originally published as separate comics, now together in full color for the first time. The premise is that a small community decides to effectively secede from the outside world and create a circumscribed environment of their own. Although the older members of the community are united in their attitude, the younger generation has ideas of their own. This is marginal SF at best, although it feels decidedly fantastic at times. The story lines are good and the dialogue crisp, but the artistic style - blurred edges, indistinct features, vague suggestions of backgrounds - might fit the material but it doesn't do anything for me visually.
Saturn Returns by Sean Williams, Ace, 5/07, $7.99, ISBN 0-441-01493-3
When I first started reading science fiction, I was particularly fond of the grand tour novel, stories where the protagonist travels through a series of strange worlds. Andre Norton's Galactic Derelict, Gordon R. Dickson's Mission to Universe, Murray Leinster's Colonial Survey all caught my imagination. Necessarily the visits were brief, tantalizing, leaving ample room for my imagination to fill in the gaps. Nowadays authors are expected to fill in a lot more of the detail, and while that makes their imaginary worlds more believable, it is less likely to stimulate my sense of wonder. Sean Williams threads a path between the two extremes in his latest, the story of a man who is reassembled after his death, and who sets out on a voyage of discovery to learn the truth about his past, and what led to his violent, though temporary, demise. This appears to be the first in a promising new series from one of the few writers still producing consistently excellent space opera
The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod, Tor, 6/07, $$24.95, ISBN 0-765-31332-4
Ken MacLeod takes a look at what might be our personal future, a time just a few years from now after the war in the Mideast has expanded and led to devastation and disorder, and to the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists. In an England where the limits of freedom are already being constrained, someone sets off a nuclear device in Scotland, accompanied by various other acts of violence. There are obvious answers, but they're not necessarily the right answers. One group insists that a secretive US organization was behind the bombing, as a pretext for intervening in the British Isles. Just who is a real civilian and who is actually working for British Intelligence? Can you be a loyal Briton while simultaneously spying for the French? Are the news stories carried on the television mostly true, or mostly propaganda? Is the next world war inevitable or is it just a scare tactic employed by governments hungry for more power over their respective populations? For answers to all of these questions - maybe even the right answers - you'll have to read MacLeod's newest, a fast moving, extremely readable, though often depressing story of our world as it might be.
Absalom's Mother by Louise Marley, Fairwood Press, 4/07, $16.99, ISBN 0-9789078-3-3
Although I've read several novels by Louise Marley and remember them fondly, I don't think I had ever consciously noted any of her short fiction, if I've read it at all prior to this book. There are ten stories here, spanning a wide variety of settings and themes. The book opens with the title story, a moody piece about the conflict between the rights of the individual and the dictates of society. The next is a lighter, and better story about the integration of female players into professional baseball. The next two are relatively minor, although I liked the western motif in one of them, sharing the author's fond recollections of the work of Zane Grey. "Jamie Says" is a thoughtful look at questions of gender that doesn't descend into pedantry and is my favorite in the collection. The balance of the book includes a light fantasy, a musical prodigy, a religious novice with an unusual affliction, and a fictional meeting between two musical legends. All of Marley's stories are centered on the characters rather than physical events, but not at the expense of storytelling. If she was more prolific at this length, she would almost certainly be numbered among the most promising short story writers working in the field.
Harm by Brian W. Aldiss, Del Rey, 6/07, $21.95, ISBN 0-345-49671-X
One of the handful of SF novels that formed my lifelong affinity for science fiction was Non-Stop by Brian W. Aldiss (then known in the US as Starship), and even though it has been several year since I last re-read it, I still remember Roy Complain's amazement when he discovers the truth about his world. This new novel illustrates some truths about our world, and although I can't say that there is anything in it that I find surprising or implausible, it is frequently just as emotionally powerful. Paul Ali is by birth a Muslim though he has rejected that heritage and thinks of himself as an Englishman. When he writes a novel that has a comical remark about assassinating the Prime Minister, he finds himself arrested and imprisoned as a terrorist. There he is subjected to a series of beatings and tortures by the Hostile Activities Research Ministry, a kind of Kafkaesque organization of American and English inquisitors and special agents. Paul's only escape is into a world of imagination, the fictional colony world Stygia where the mechanics of colonization have left everyone with certain physical and mental impairments and where his alter ego is involved in an attempt to assassinate the planetary dictator. Evens in the imaginary world often parallel those in the real world.
This was a painful book to read, in part because it cuts a bit close to the bone, since to some degree we know that our governments are involved in just exactly the kind of atrocities that Aldiss describes. There is also a sense of inevitability about the story, and the feeling that we've read all this before. There are echoes of George Orwell, with touches of the darkest sort of humor. It may have been a tactical error to have Paul bewildered and passive right from the outset, because there were times when I felt impatient with him, even while I detested the two chief inquisitors. This is a novel which I suspect will be more highly regarded when there is some distance between it and the current political climate. At the moment, it may be too painful for many readers.
Jack Knife by Virginia Baker, Jove, 2007,
$7.99, ISBN 0-515-14252-5
Spoiler alert. I actually picked this up thinking it was a mystery about Jack the Ripper, which it is, but since there’s time travel involved, it’s SF as well, a kind of reversal of Karl Alexander’s Time After Time. In the year 2007, a secret government project is poised to explore the past when one of the administrators, Jonathan Avery, makes an unauthorized jump back in time, determined to change the past in some unspecified manner after assuming a new identity as Sir Jay Osborne. A young woman, Sara Grant, makes an equally unauthorized jump to stop him, and then a military officer, David Elliot, makes an authorized one to recover them both. They all land up in 1880s London, just in time to get involved with the Ripper murders, but Avery arrives three years before the others, buys up literally every newspaper in the city, and begins his elaborate plan to alter history. The other two become reluctant allies arrayed against him, with the ambiguous help of Jonas Robb, a gentleman who has stooped below his station to become a police inspector.
This is a first novel, so I was prepared to make allowances, but unfortunately there are so many things wrong with the plot and the author’s narrative strategy that it is difficult not to sound cruel, even though there are times when the story moves quite well, and Baker does a pretty good job of evoking Victorian Whitechapel. But the plot suffers from so many small flaws that they become a major problem.
First of all, let’s look at Baker’s view of time travel. Although Avery begins making changes in 1884, they don’t arrive until 1888. Their strategy is to stop him and somehow reverse his changes. They never seem to consider returning to the present, recalibrating the machine, and going back to prevent him from causing them in the first place. Secondly, although the past has been changed, those changes are not yet reflected in the present, because it takes “time” for them to somehow filter up the timeline. I know this is a logical inconsistency found in many other time travel stories, and I might have ignored it for the sake of the story, but the rest of the time theory is so hokey that the cumulative effect was to unsuspend my disbelief. As if that wasn’t bad enough, although Sara is determined to reverse Avery’s tampering with time, she admits later that the official first mission was supposed to change the timestream so that people in the future could tell that it worked. Not only does that invalidate her objection to Avery’s agenda, but it also makes no logical sense. If time is changed, the future is changed, so no one in 2007 would know that they are now living in an altered stream of history.
Presumably Avery arrived with a bundle of money, since he was able to purchase an entire industry. Within three years he is the most powerful man in London, has been knighted and is an advisor to Queen Victoria, and has built an informal militia in Whitechapel. We’re never told just how he accomplished all of this in such a short period of time, but the breadth of his influence is so pervasive that I became skeptical quite early. For that matter, how did his two pursuers arrive within seconds of each other, but both of them three years after Avery, even though the time device had the same settings? Grant’s PDA operates for months without recharging thanks to its “nuclear” power source, and where in 2007 would she find one like that which also has seemingly infinite capacity and the ability to project holographic images of its content? One secret technology – time travel – I can accept in the contemporary world. Add in miniaturized nuclear power, revolutionary storage capacity, and holographic projection and you’ve just sprained my ability to suspend disbelief fatally. And later we discover that Avery has an instant counterfeiting machine as well, and has flooded the economy with bogus money, though no one seems to have noticed.
There are other little gaffes and coincidences, like Elliot just happening to get a job in the same house where his great-grandfather was working, just happening to be opening an account in a bank when Avery visits. Robb is present at one of the Ripper crime scenes when Grant shows up. He notices her looking at the faces of the crowd and knows she is looking for someone who doesn’t look surprised or horrified. How does he know that unless he’s telepathic? Grant herself must have some sort of psychic power because when she finds one victim’s body, after it has been moved, she can tell from the eyes that the woman was gazing at a fixed point slightly above her, proving that her killer was a tall man. Neat trick that. Indeed, all the characters seem to have mystical powers. Although we are told that Avery could not possibly remember the name of Jack the Ripper since he doesn’t remember his own name, a logic I cannot follow, he would nevertheless have an “instinct” about the victims.
As I mentioned, Baker does a good job with the historical detail, including the Ripper killings, but why does someone warn Grant about Jack by name after Mary Nichols is killed but before Annie Chapman? It may be that Avery has jumped the gun on history and provided the name early, but the mechanism is never explained, and since the other Ripper details take place with such accuracy, this one instance jars. It also strikes me as implausible that with Whitechapel so altered due to Avery’s manipulation, that the killings would still take place exactly as they did in the original time line.
Now let’s turn to the narrative style. In the first twenty or so pages, Baker introduces seven viewpoint characters, with scenes taking place in four different years, and the story jumps from one to the other constantly, sometimes three times on a single page. Although this technique can sometimes be very effective, it is very jarring if it occurs before the reader has had time to become familiar with the different personalities. I had to constantly pause to remember which character was which, particularly because one of them operates under two different names. And then there’s figure of speech overload. The fecundity of similes and metaphors is so overwhelming that it becomes funny. On page 43, for example, there are four of each, like two teams of horses straining at the reins. This tendency does ebb in the second half of the book, but it is very intrusive during the early chapters.
I also had a less easily articulated problem. Conflict is necessary to advance a story, obviously, but there seemed to be too much of it this time. The characters are almost always angry, and there’s a good deal of violence that happens so close together that I became rather jaded. There’s a street riot, the Ripper killings, an assault by four toughs, the constant arguing between the two time travelers, and between them and Robb, between Avery and his assistants, even among a group of prostitutes. It’s very difficult to sustain a single mood for over three hundred pages without becoming stale.
Back to the plot. David burglarized Avery’s office and steals his futuristic gadgets, as a consequence of which they conclude that their enemy has suffered some form of amnesia. They consider exposing him to something familiar in order to stimulate his memory, but are somehow convinced that such a shock might drive him insane. This peculiar and unlikely conclusion becomes, unfortunately, a significant plot element affecting their future actions. They also conclude that Avery is using the Ripper killings to foment unrest against the government, and suspect that he is himself the Ripper. Sara and David twice burglarize Avery’s safe, which he apparently never locks even though it is filled with money.
The point of their mission gets even murkier as their very presence causes constant alterations in history. David saves the life of a child who should have died, and Sara’s romantic entanglement with Robb and her efforts to help him solve the Ripper murders have similar consequences, although neither of them appears to realize this until too late. Time is against them, because Sir Jay, who appeared out of nowhere three years earlier and has no family, is being talked about as the next Prime Minister, though how as man without a party could defeat Salisbury and Gladstone for that post is a mystery to me. Sara finds a photograph of Osborne with four of the actual historical characters who were at one time suspects, although two of them were subsequently proven to have been incarcerated during some or all of the critical period. Her conclusion is that the Ripper was actually several people working cooperatively.
The climax is equally frustrating. Queen Victoria intercedes on behalf of Osborne even when it is clear that his actions could bring down the government and lead to revolution. Neither she nor the author explains why she should make such an extraordinary decision, nor is it likely that her ministers would have acquiesced in their own destruction. By the 1880s, Victoria had already been reduced to essentially a figurehead, at least in part because of her own withdrawal from society after the death of Prince Albert. Osborne is partly foiled, so he frames David for the Ripper killings, despite the evidence Sara had previously made available to Robb implicating the actual people responsible.
The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction edited by George Mann, Solaris, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 1-84416-448-0
Solaris is a new imprint of BL Publishing, best known for the Warhammer game tie-in novels and other media related work. This is their new, mainstream SF and fantasy line, and this is to be a regular anthology along the lines of Orbit and Universe. The initial volume opens with a long story by Jeffrey Thomas, set in his Punktown series, about a war veteran with a unique problem. The protagonist of “In His Sights” is a modified shapechanger, that is, his face alters to assume the characteristics of anyone who looks at for more than a few seconds, although one assumes he had more control of it during his stint as a spy. The story really isn’t clear on this point. He returns to civilian life with a problem, however. His face is stuck in a semblance of the enemy race and he fears for his life if he appears in public. But his greater fear is internal because he has lost himself psychologically as well as physically. During the war, he became romantically involved with one of the enemy, and killed another whose face haunts his memory, and which has partially replaced his own. Emotionally charged, and with a nicely symmetrical ending that satisfies even if you see it coming.
“Bioship” by Neal Asher has some remarkably vivid imagery, but I never quite was able to identify with the plight of the non-human protagonist stalked by a sadistic captain aboard a living sea vessel. Jay Lake and Greg Van Eekhout teamed up for “C-Rock City”, a story set in a city comprising three linked asteroids, ruled by a petty tyrant who used slave labor to build his little empire, and expelled them all through the airlocks when they were finished. The first half of the story is very evocative, bringing a fairly complex environment to life, establishing the character of the protagonist, who is on a secretive quest to find his mother, one of the slaves who worked here. The transition from tourist to quasi-rebel is a bit too abrupt, and we never really learn how some of the slaves have managed to survive hidden from the authorities, which weakens the latter half of the story somewhat. I had the sense that there was more story to tell and that its absence was a critical if not mortal blow.
James Lovegrove is one of several British SF writers whose work has not yet found a home in the US, for reasons which escape and occasionally dismay me. Nevertheless, here’s a chance to sample his work, and it’s one of the best short pieces I’ve read in a long time, a genuinely funny satire in which an experimental virus transmitted by word of mouth (yes, that’s what I said) makes it impossible for those infected to swear. The results threaten to paralyze England and, presumably, the rest of the world in due course, so the authorities decide to deliberately release a counter virus, which only makes things worse. This one is worth the price of the book all by itself.
Almost as amusing is Paul Di Filippo’s “Personal Jesus”, wherein quantum physicists inadvertently create an access to the substrate of the universe, allowing each person to own a godPod that allows personal communication with an omniscient if rather inscrutable God. The interaction becomes almost constant, raising questions of free will, until an apocalyptic event reveals an unsuspected aspect of the divine. Peter Hamilton’s “If At First…” proves that even old, familiar plot devices can be interesting if presented in a slightly different fashion. It’s a time travel story in which a man is able to convey his adult knowledge to his childish self, repeating the process so that each iteration increases his power and knowledge. The narrator stumbles upon the truth but is destroyed by his ineptitude. Adam Roberts presents an unusual colony world in “A Distillation of Grace”, settled by a religious group which reduces its numbers by half during each generation, distilling their genetic pool down toward the final descendent, the Ultimate, whom they believe will transform the universe.
In Stephen Baxter’s “Last Contact”, an astronomical event spells the end of the world, an event we see through the eyes of a handful of people. Although at times poignant, the characters are all a bit too passive to be entirely credible. Ian Watson creates another of his very strange alien race in “Cages”, in which Earth is invaded, sort of, by millions of hoops, through which alien bees visit. At the same time, every human on Earth above a certain height is inflicted with an alien artifact grafted onto his or her body, their purposes unclear, and in one sense these are the cages of the title, although it also refers to the traps we make of our own lives. Mike Resnick and David Gerrold lighten the tone considerably with “Jellyfish”, which spoofs elements of A.E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, James Blish, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Robert Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, Frank Herbert, Kurt Vonnegut, and others, including themselves, in this tale of a drug addicted SF writer whose latest novel about a race that lives in a non-existent universe threatens to make them existent. It’s a variant of the character coming to life story.
Mary Turzillo’s contribution is set on Mars and follows the adventures of a family who are temporarily displaced from their home due to the machinations of a fanatic. The set up isn’t bad but the payoff is mildly disappointing. It reads like an excerpt from a longer work. It’s always a treat to see something new from Brian Aldiss, but all we have this time is a very short parable about human destructiveness and cruelty. The next two stories, by Keith Brooke, Simon Ings, and Tony Ballantyne, lose some of their effect because they mirror themselves or other stories earlier in the collection in one way or another. “The Accord” by Brooke involves the creation of a world supermind and its interaction in the world by means of organic extensions. I think the reason I had difficulty with this story is that I never really understood the setting and the subsequent plot seemed distant. “The Wedding Party” by Simon Ings had a different problem. In order to immerse oneself in a story, there needs to be a reasonably familiar focus. Usually this is the protagonist, but sometimes it’s the setting, or some element of the plot. I couldn’t find a focus here. The action skips about too much for me to identify with the characters, or even get to know them, and the setting varies almost as quickly.
Tony Ballantyne and Eric Brown provide stronger entries to end the volume. Ballantyne’s “Third Person” presents a fascinating glimpse of a new kind of war, one which I would like to have seen explored at greater length. Brown’s “The Farewell Party” is another story of the benevolent invasion of Earth, or is it benevolent? In this case, the ambiguous ending works well, even though we never really learn the motivation of the alien Kethani. All in all, this is a well balanced, high quality collection with no bad stories and a nice mix of serious and humorous, far future and near future, quiet and disquieting stories. A promising debut to what will hopefully be a long running series.
The Silver Ship and the Sea by Brenda Cooper, Tor, 3/07, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-31597-1
Brenda Cooper’s first solo novel (she previously collaborated with Larry Niven on Building Harlequin’s Moons) involves a set of six genetically enhanced children who find themselves stranded on a hostile colony world. Not only is the local ecology dangerous, but the human inhabitants distrust them because of the alterations in their physiology, forcing them to live as outcasts. But they are far from helpless and will surprise their unwilling hosts more than once before they’re done. Good plot and some nice touches with a few slow spots. It reminded me of the intricate personal interactions in Pamela Sargent’s Cloned Lives and, more recently, Burning the Ice by Laura J. Mixon. Characterizations were particularly well done. The intolerance of the colonists is realistically, if rather depressingly, convincing.
Spindrift by Allen Steele, Ace, 4/07, $24.95, ISBN 0-441-01471-2
Allen Steele’s newest novel is set in the Coyote universe, although it is only peripherally concerned with that rebellious and now independent colony world. Strange signals from an alien race originating on a mysterious object in a distant stellar system stimulates the creation of a sophisticated scientific expedition. The ship is launched and subsequently disappears for decades, causing consternation if not outright alarm. Eventually the ship reappears, but with only a portion of the original team aboard, and the survivors, if that’s what they are, do not appear to have aged a day during the interim. Their story of what they encountered when they reached their destination is likely to alter humanity’s future forever, though at times it appears that the other characters don’t always recognize this fact. Steele’s consistently strong narrative abilities combine with an interesting mystery, a provocative revelation, and a cast of interesting characters. This one should tune up your sense of wonder.
Antagonist by Gordon R. Dickson and David W. Wixon, Tor, 3/07, $27.95, ISBN 0-312-85388-4
This is the novel Dickson was working on at the time of his death, posthumously completed from his notes by his associate, David Wixon. It continues the story of Bleys and the Others, an offshoot of humanity whose mutant strain leads to a predictably dichotomy. Should their abilities be used for the benefit of humanity as a whole or should they consider themselves a separate and potentially superior species? Interstellar political intrigue with touches of high adventure, but a bit talky for my taste. Dickson managed to examine some very thought provoking issues in the guise of straight forward SF adventures, and those who dismiss the Dorsai novels as lightweight military SF are missing the best part of the novels, as are those who read it specifically because they enjoy military SF.
The Sam Gunn Omnibus by Ben Bova, Tor, 2/07, $29.95, ISBN 0-765-31617-X
Ben Bova’s entertaining hero Sam Gunn has been around for a long time, witness this new collection of approximately fifty adventures, everything from humor to hard science to social commentary to high adventure. Most of these were originally published during the 1980s and 1990s, and I read them then and haven’t re-read them this time. I remember being entertained at the time, but there were only a couple about which I could recall more than the title. Three are original to this volume, and they’re up to snuff, but Bova is much more effective when he has the space of an entire novel in which to work. You probably won’t like all the stories, some of which tend to advocate to the detriment of the plot, but the majority of them are trenchant, fast paced, and rewarding.
Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer, Tor, 4/07, $24.95, ISBN 0-765-31108-9
One of Robert Sawyer’s strongest points as a writer is that his characters are always real people, not stereotyped square jawed heroes although they may be heroic, not dyed in the wool villains, though they may commit villainous acts. This new novel poses an interesting pair of interconnected problems. An alien race has initiated communication with Earth, their first message deciphered and answered many years ago, primarily because of the insight of scientist Sarah Halifax. Due to the immense distances involved, she has become quite elderly by the time a reply finally arrives, a reply that is addressed specifically to her, but enciphered so tightly that government scientists are unable to unravel it. A wealthy philanthropist offers to pay for an experimental medical treatment which could restore her to the vigor of their youth. She agrees, but only if the treatment is extended to her husband as well. In due course, both of them undergo the process, but while it works in his case, it is a complete failure in hers. As the two struggle to deal with their new personal circumstances, they also fall under the shadow of the greater mystery of the alien race and its cryptic, and world shaking message. Thoughtful, low key, and convincing. Sawyer has repeatedly shown that he can portray very dramatic situations in an effective but unmelodramatic fashion.
Vampire Outlaw of the Milky Way by Weston Ochse, Bad Moon Books, 2007, no price or ISBN listed
This is to be the first in a series of projected limited edition novellas under this imprint, with a deluxe edition that includes an “epic poem” which I have not seen. Ochse’s tale is an offbeat SF adventure rather than horror, a touch of Leigh Brackett with a hint of satire. A young autistic boy from our world has begun to retreat further into himself, much to the alarm of his parents who believed that he was improving. The boy has somehow become linked to the vampire outlaw of the title, a two fisted, adventurer who, despite being the vampire of the title, is the hero rather than the villain on a planet of aliens. The latter adventures are amusingly over the top, with coincidences, deus ex machine, and other hoary old plot devices galore, although I found the jumping back and forth to the much more serious frame story jarring at times. Certainly worth reading if you can afford whatever price they put on this one.
Talebones #34, Winter 2006, $7.00
The steady decline of the SF prozine has been reflected in the semi-pro publishing area as well, but Talebones has managed to stay afloat so far, largely because of the quality of its contents. Like The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, the contents range from SF to fantasy to horror, and the diversity of its contents appeals should appeal to a wider array of readers than if it was more narrowly focused. The present issue opens, for example, with a kind of modern folk tale, “His Master’s Voice” by Mark Rigney, a variation of the deal-with-the-devil story in which folk song collector Alan Lomax has a series of odd encounters with the Prince of Lies. Carrie Vaughn follows with “Crows”, a very moving story about a man guarding the body of a fallen knight on an abandoned battlefield. I was less happy with Alan DeNiro’s “Gepetto Kiln”, set aboard a starship in one of those very remote futures where the human race is almost unrecognizable. While this kind of setting can be used very effective at novel length – as evidenced by Dan Simmons, Alastair Reynolds, Peter Hamilton, and others – I find it less satisfactory when that much strangeness is packed into ten pages. It tends to distract me from the plot and the characters, and sometimes results in prose that seems little removed from technobabble like “inverse cognitive overlays” and “shephardic torii”, that are never adequately explained. The starship is self aware and when it encounters an unusual planet, a separate artificial intelligence is manifested.
Marie Brennan contributes a brief tale of an encounter with fairies, followed by Cat Rambo’s “Memories of Moments, Bright as Falling Stars”, one of the better cyberpunkish stories I’ve read recently. Two young people, essentially runaways, attempt to qualify for an actual job using stolen memory implants and other means to increase their chances. Jason Stoddard’s “Fermi Packet”, which mixes virtual reality with first contact, is also quite good. “Eaglebane” by Ryan Myers is a so-so story about gremlins, and E. Catherine Tobler’s “And Her Hand, the Stars” is a brief, but touching inside into the consequences of violence. The illustrations throughout are first rate, the layout is attractive, and in general this is a nicely packaged, well balanced issue.
The Outback Stars by Sandra McDonald, Tor, 4/07, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-31643-9
A first novel, and probably intended to kick off a series of quasi-military space adventures. The protagonist is a female military officer whose temporary stay on a minor planet is so boring that she accepts a job as captain of a ship full of misfits. Where have I heard this one before? Before long they are off into space, with her trying to subdue the crew into something approximating functionality while exploring the mysteries of an alien technology and solving a mystery. The captain also finds time to work a little romance into her life. Competently done and sometimes quite exciting, with some promising qualities that might flourish if we were shown a bit more of the human side of the protagonist.
Unity by Steven Harper, Tor, 4/07, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-31606-4
Well, I still haven’t watched the latest incarnation of Battlestar Galactica, even though I own copies of the first two seasons. I’ve started to get a feel for it by reading the tie-in novels, of which this is the fourth. Steven Harper, who also writes as Steven Piziks, has provided a very suspenseful installment in the saga. A space capsule is found floating in space and is taken aboard. Inside is a single human survivor and a Cylon. The human seems to have suffered no ill effects and is allowed to mingle with the crew, which turns out to have been a tragic mistake. A strange plague that affects the human mind begins to spread through the crew, reducing those stricken to babbling and confusion. The survivor is in fact the unwitting agent of a Cylon plot to spread an experimental nerve disease among their enemies. Since I haven’t seen the program, this felt much less like a tie-in novel than many I’ve read. I really need to find the time to watch the DVDs.
Russian Amerika by Stoney Compton, Baen, 4/07, $24, ISBN 1-4165-2116-X
I put off reading this one for a while because it looked to be just another combination of military SF with libertarian propaganda, but it turned out to be rather different and actually a very nice alternate history. In Compton’s debut novel, Alaska still belongs to Russia and the rest of North America has been balkanized, with the European powers still wielding considerable influence, the United States and the Confederacy at odds, and Texas independent. Much of the story is told from the point of view of a Russian American who finds himself caught up in momentous events beyond his control. The theme clearly includes stress on the value of freedom and individualism, but Compton avoids hammering the reader over the head with political theories and just tells a good adventure story.
Yellow Eyes by John Ringo & Tom Kratman, Baen, 4/07, $26, ISBN 1-4165-2103-8
Military SF fans take note, there’s a new novel in the Posleen War saga. This one takes place both on Earth and elsewhere, the former sections primarily concerned with the latest attempt by the Posleen to expand their power base, in this case by capturing the Panama Canal. The forces defending America recognize that without the canal, they will be cut off from resources that they need to continue the fight, so despite the reduced state of the surviving military, they launch an expedition to defend Panama. I don’t entirely buy the strategy of the invasion and conquest, which seemed to me transparently artificial, but if you don’t worry too much about the logistics and logic, the story itself is fast paced and exciting enough for military SF fans. Those wanting realistic characters and a less simplistic world view should look elsewhere.
Bright of the Sky by Kay Kenyon, Pyr, 4/07, $25, ISBN 1-59102-541-2
There are parts of this very ambitious novel – particularly the evocation of an alternate human culture – which I liked very much, but there were other parts I found so confusing that it serious detracted from my ability to immerse myself in the story. The basic plot is that a former space pilot becomes convinced that his family has been kidnapped into a kind of alternate universe and sets out to rescue them, losing his memory and overcoming other difficulties in the process. There’s a quite clever bit of invention in this, a universe that exists as a kind of tunnel through our own, but there are so many strange events and concepts that it started to leave me metaphorically breathless. I had trouble getting my bearings within the story so that I could understand what was happening to the protagonist, and what I was supposed to be understanding about it all. Kenyon has written some very entertaining novels in the past, but I didn’t think this one measured up to the earlier ones. First in a series.
We the Underpeople by Cordwainer Smith, Baen, 2006, $15, ISBN 1-4165-2095-5
Some of the choices in Baen’s omnibus reprint program have puzzled me because of the sometimes deserved obscurity of the stories in question, but there’s no doubt that his one deserves re-issue. It contains the complete Instrumentality stories and novels by Cordwainer Smith, his unique, poetic view at a distant future with uplifted animals and galactic civilizations. There are so many classic shorts in here that there’s no point in attempting to list them. Despite producing a relatively small body of work, Smith remains one of the most respected writers in the genre. A very nice item with a low cover price.
Hydrogen Steel by K.A. Bedford, Edge, 2006, $19.95, ISBN 1-894063-20-1
Australian writer Bedford’s third novel is a detective story set in a distant future. The protagonist is a retired detective named McGee who takes on one more case, when an android is unjustly accused of murder. The android knows something about McGee which makes it impossible for her to decline to help. She in turn lists the age of a dashing interstellar spy, but their investigation threatens to reveal her secret as well as the truth about the murder. Complexity ensues, with plots and counterplots, including impersonation by androids and a variety of murder attempts. A bit wild and woolly at times, but exciting throughout. Bedford, an Australian, promises to be one of the more interesting new writers in the field.
Mad Professor by Rudy Rucker, Thunder’s Mouth, 2007, $15.95, ISBN 1-56025-974-4
These thirteen stories are previously uncollected and include collaborations with Paul Di Filippo, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Terry Bisson, and Rudy Rucker Jr. As you might expect from Rucker, many of them involve mathematical speculation and play games with the physical laws of the universe. The tone is generally humorous, but a sophisticated form of humor rather than outright farce. My favorites at the moment are “Chu and the Ants”, “Panpsychism Proved”, and “Elves of the Subdimensions”, but ask me tomorrow and I might choose others. There’s also a romp in which President Bush’s daughters are involved in an alien invasion. None of these should be taken entirely seriously, even when they’re being serious. Intelligent fun.
The Secret City by Carol Emshwiller, Tachyon, 2007, $14.95, ISBN 1-892391-44-9
Carol Emshwiller’s infrequent short stories are almost always a treat, but I believe this is the first of her novels to fall within the SF field. The plot is a variant of the aliens-among-us theme, but not in its most comon form. Her aliens are few in number and they are stranded on Earth through a mishap, not by intention, their hopes of rescue fading quickly. Eventually pressure to assimilate into the predominant human culture erodes their hope of deliverance and their unity as a culture, hidden as it is in a remote mountain retreat, but just when it seems that their choices are evaporating, a rescue party arrives. Unfortunately, that only raises larger questions of unity and self fulfillment. The story is an obvious commentary on the assimilation of immigrants and cultures in general into more dominant societies, the conflicting senses of loss and fulfillment. A relatively short, understated, and very effective novel.
The Danger Dance by Caro Soles, Haworth Positronic Press, 2007, $16.95, ISBNA 1-56023-621-3
Members of a dance company take passage on a military starship, which causes predictable tensions. The situation is exacerbated by espionage, the narrow minded attitudes of some of the characters, and the mysterious and dangerous situations into which the characters find themselves injected. There’s an exciting story with no major flaws. The author doesn’t cheat with the solution, and the prose is agreeable if not scintillating.
Tesseracts 10 edited by Robert Charles Wilson and Edo van Belkom, Edge, 2006, $20.95, ISBN 1-894063-36-8
Another volume in this venerable collection of speculative fiction by Canadian writers, including this time stories by Scott Mackay, Lisa Smedman, Allen Moore, and a lot of names that will probably be unfamiliar to most readers, some of whom no doubt will become more familiar as time goes by. The editors contribute commentaries on fiction in general and Canadian speculative fiction in particular, plus short biographies of the contributors. Mackay has two stories, both quite good, and there are other fine pieces by Smedman, Stephanie Bedwell-Grimes, Moore, and Greg Bechtel, among others. The stories vary from SF to fantasy, from serious to humorous, and from theme to theme. Two are translated from French originals. Not every story will appeal to every taste, but the general quality level is quite high.
Overclocked by Cory Doctorow, Thunder’s Mouth, 2007, $15.95, ISBN 1-56025-981-7
There are very few writers who have been able to establish an enviable reputation with just a handful of works, but Cory Doctorow is already regarded as one of the standard bearers of modern SF, and with good reason. This collection includes six stories and novelettes, almost all centered about the internet or some aspect of information technology, including the Hugo nominated “I, Robot”, which looks at Asimov’s positronic robots from a new perspective, and the equally highly regarded “Anda’s Game”. The other four, particularly “After the Siege” and “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth”, are of nearly equal merit, the latter portraying a post collapse future, sort of, where technogeeks save the day. Doctorow’s fiction compares to cyberpunk, but he has his own distinct take on a possible cybernetic, computerized future world, and a wry sense of humor that avoids the bleak visions often associated with the form. One of the best single author collections I’ve read this year.
Breakaway by Joel Shepherd, Pyr, 4/07, $15, ISBN 1-59102-540-5
The second adventure of Cassandra Kresnov, android, takes place on the planet Callay, where she has found a place for herself after defending the current government from its enemies. Although the planetary ruler values her advice, there are some who distrust her, at least in part because of what she is. The planetary population is also divided on a major political issue, is considering withdrawing from an interstellar confederation, and the uncertainty is intensified by terrorist attacks, political intrigues, and espionage. That also provides cover for Cassandra’s enemies, who look upon her as a dangerous outsider. A well constructed planetary adventure story with plausible political maneuvering. This was previously published in Australia in 2003.
The Cloud by Ray Hammond, Pan, 20076, $8.99, ISBN 0-330-44187-6
This is the first I’ve read by this British author, who apparently has had two previous SF novels. The story starts with a first contact with an alien race, reception of a radio signal from another world that clearly has an intelligent sender. The jubilation of the SETI scientists is dimmed somewhat by the subsequent appearance of a mysterious cloud in space, which turns out to be an artifact en route to Earth, its mission being the destruction of the human race. The plot is fine, if rather familiar and a bit overly melodramatic at times. Some of the zigs and zags alone the way are imaginative and interesting. There are times, however, when I found the narrative itself awkwardly phrased enough to be distracting.
Plague of Memory by S.L. Viehl, Roc, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 0-451-46123-0
The seventh Stardoc novel has Dr. Torin suffering from near total amnesia, following a near fatal accident she survived in the previous novel in the series, Rebel Ice. She has constructed an entirely new personality for herself, and even though she has been reunited with her husband at last, she is reluctant to resume, even by recollection, her past life. Her convalescence is not going to be uneventful either, a development which will come as no surprise to the reader. A race of intelligent reptiles has been negotiating peaceful relations, but a condition of their continued cooperation is that Torin come to their world and develop a cure for a virulent plague of violence that has swept across the planet. Her only hope of saving the day is to stir up old memories and try to find knowledge she once possessed, but by doing so she also encounters recollections that she had been perfectly happy to lose. Another exciting adventure in this well regarded series, although I thought the plot this time was a bit contrived. Too many coincidences.
Missing in Action by Peter David, Pocket, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 0-7434-2959-1
I still enjoy an occasional Star Trek novel, even though most of them repeat overly familiar formulas. Peter David is almost always good for a new twist. This is one of his stories of the Excalibur, a Starfleet vessel with an original crew, and with a few name changes this could be a non Star Trek space opera. This time they find themselves involuntarily transported to another universe, caught between two starfaring races neither of which seems inclined to help them get home. Their story is interspersed with a crisis back in their own reality, with Starfleet hoping to contain what could be a bloody rebellion. Fans of this subset series may be surprised at some of the course changes this time, including the loss of one of the recurring characters.
Death World by Steve Lyons, Black Library, 2006, $7.99, ISBN 1-84416-398-9
Outlander by Matt Keefe, Black Library, 2006, $7.99, ISBN 1-84416-411-X
Another couple of shared universe novels here. The first, which by its title alone pays homage to Harry Harrison’s classic Deathworld, involves a military expedition to a remote planet to root out an invading army of orcs. Upon arriving, they discover that the planet itself is hostile enough to pose a threat to both forces. Pretty well done military SF adventure. The second title is part of the Necromunda series, a vaguely cyberpunkish future in which a forger finds himself in the middle of a gang war. I had trouble finding anyone to identify with in this one, but that’s common to quite a few cyberpunkish novels. Given that caveat, it was a reasonably convincing story though at times I had the sense that there were scenes missing.
Fearless by Jack Campbell, Ace, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 0-441-01476-7
Volume 2 of the Lost Fleet series, by John G. Hemry writing as Jack Campbell, has the fleet still retreating in the face of overwhelming force. The brilliant but caustic commanding officer suspects that a straightforward withdrawal will lead them into an ambush and decides to take some unusual evasive maneuvers, including moving toward rather than away from the enemy strongholds. This action doesn’t endear him to the less stout hearted members of his command, and some of them decide to replace their leader, by force. Straightforward, solidly written military space opera. Geary is a bit larger than life to be completely credible, but it’s all good fun and Campbell/Hemry has actually given some thought to the problems of combat in space. My only complaint would be that the story concentrates so much on Geary, the commander, that there isn’t room to develop any of the other characters, and therefore I cared considerably less what happened to any of them.
Parallel Seduction by Deidre Knight, Signet Eclipse, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-22096-X
I gather this is the third in a series of parallel universe SF romances, the first two of which I have never seen. An FBI Agent from our world gets involved with the uneasy cooperation of a time traveler and a man who is only partly human. The former wishes to uncover a traitorous plot while the other is simply interested in protecting the human race from alien enemies. Their efforts become entangled, and the female agent provides another source of conflict. The setting was a bit vague, I thought, and some of the powers of the shapechangers are so extreme that I wasn’t really sure whether to call this SF or fantasy.
Sons of Fenris by Lee Lightner, Black Library, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 1-84416-388-1
Another first novel, this one set in the futuristic version of the Warhammer universe. A crack unit of space marines is sent to the planet Hyades in response to rumors that the powers of Chaos are acting suspiciously thereabouts. They discover that another unit has also answered that call, a group with whom they have had unpleasant encounters in the past. The old animosity rises again and they begin fighting each other instead of the common enemy. The novel points out some of the absurdities of warfare, but the story is pretty dull and I disliked virtually every character in the book, at least in part because they have all been thoroughly conditioned to function as war machines rather than as human beings. I suspect that the author spent so much time trying to make this one strongly linked to the game system that he forgot to expend some effort making it a good story in the first place.
The Gospel According to Science Fiction by Gabriel McKee, Westminster John Knox Press, 2007, $14.95, ISBN 0-664-22901-8
This is the latest of several books to illustrate theological issues by reference to SF or fantasy movies and books, but at least the author this time seems to be reasonably widely read in the field. Unfortunately, he also ascribes a purpose to SF, a mission to help us deal with the changes that confront us, which certainly could be one purpose, but only one of many. His themes include self knowledge, faith, the future of the church, and various other religious subjects, and the prose is very readable and rarely preachy. He misses a few stories I would have considered significant, like “For I Am a Jealous People” by Lester Del Rey, but for the most part he seems to have covered the obvious items, and several of the not so obvious. Of all the books I’ve read on the subject, this was easily the most intelligent and articulate, as well as the most thorough.
Exodus by Steve White and Shirley Meier, Baen, 1/07, $26, ISBN 1-4165-2098-8
This collaborative novel is set in a familiar future interstellar civilization. Humans and several other races had in the past allied themselves and defeated a belligerent and genocidal species, but the war is over, the soldiers are old or dead, and the survivors are weary of war. That makes them unprepared for a fresh danger, an immense fleet of ships carrying a migrating race that believes not only that other intelligent species are beneath their consideration, but that they themselves are inspired by a divine power that makes them fanatical in battle, fearless and determined. There is the outline of a good story here but I was just so overwhelmed by the number of characters introduced in a relatively short book that I never had a chance to hitch my wagon to any of their stars and I reached the end feeling sort of “so what?”.
Dragon and Judge by Timothy Zahn, Tor, 6/07, $17.95, ISBN 0-765-31418-5
Adult fantasy may be displacing adult SF in the bookstores, but young adult fantasy was already more popular than its equivalent in the SF field, and the disparity has become enormous in recent years. Tor books has been dabbling with it off and on for some time, and among the best of their dabbling is this series by Timothy Zahn, unabashed space operas with a young hero, wandering through space with a spaceship equipped with artificial intelligence and an alien symbiont who can become a kind of tattoo on human skin. The individual books are semi-complete in themselves, but there is an underlying plot involving attempted genocide, and efforts to frame our hero for crimes he didn’t commit. In his fifth outing, he’s still trying to evade his enemies and find out who was responsible for the massacre of his symbiont’s people, but he has fresh problems this time. First, his female friend and her symbiont have been kidnapped, apparently by the same mysterious entity responsible for the massacre, and Jack himself has been abducted by yet another alien race, who require his services as a magistrate. Zahn manages the delicate balancing job of writing a book with appeal to its target audience without writing down or driving away more mature readers. This is an exciting space adventure for audiences of all ages.
Tsunami by L. Timmel Duchamp, Aqueduct Press, 2007, $19, ISBN 1-933500-09-3
The third in the projected five volume Marq’ssan series is set during the period when the Balkanized North America is once again starting to draw together after a global war led to the collapse of much of the existing civilization. The old US government is attempting to reassert its authority, but discovering that not everyone is welcoming them with open arms. This lengthy, thoughtful, and intelligent novel examines the social, political, and personal consequences, seen chiefly through the eyes of three women – a lawyer, a businesswoman, and a political activist – all of whose ambitions become intertwined. The series is an ambitious project that is probably just a shade too intellectual for the mainstream commercial SF market, but which should appeal to readers who like something a little more thoughtful than the latest military SF or post-apocalyptic dystopia.
Star Trek: Errand of Fury: Demands of Honor by Kevin Ryan, Pocket, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 0-7434-8054-6
Although Star Trek is now off the air again, the novels keep coming, somewhere around five hundred now, I believe. This is part of a subset that falls within the original show, with James Kirk and company taking their ship out for a confrontation with a bellicose Klingon vessel. This has all been done so many times before that the setup has déjà vu piled on déjà vu, but the author in this case freshens the concept a little by concentrating on non-series characters, crew members aboard both ships. The three main focuses are a pregnant officer under Kirk’s command, a man with a battle scarred psyche, and a Klingon underling who is caught between his duty to his captain and pressures by political forces from within the Klingon empire. The result is a reasonably entertaining space adventure, but I fear that they’ve mined the Star Trek universe a bit too often, and unless the editors find a way to open up a fresh vein, the series will likely wither.
The Gladiator by Harry Turtledove, Tor, 6/07, $22.95, ISBN 0-765-31486-X
Although this, the fourth in the Crosstime Traffic series, is not labeled as young adult fiction, it certainly fits into that category along with Timothy Zahn’s Dragon series, also from Tor, and it’s the closest we have to the old Winston juveniles. Writing young adult SF without condescending is an art that writers like Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein, Alan E. Nourse, and others mastered in the past, but it’s a form that has become almost an afterthought to both SF and young adult fiction, which is a shame in both cases.
Turtledove’s series reminds me of Andre Norton’s Crossroads in Time and its sequels, as well as a number of adult series with similar settings. There is an organization which explores alternate worlds, usually in secret, trading merchandise and, in some cases, ideas as well. In this case, the world is one where the Soviet Union won the Cold War and now dominates the world. We view all this through the eyes of two teenagers in Italy, who resent the state with the usual adolescent rebelliousness, but who become even more intimately involved when a local game shop is closed down and its operators forced to flee. The games seemed innocent enough, but the authorities rightly concluded that they were designed to promote some of the ideas of capitalism. Our two protagonists befriend one of the refugee clerks, Edouardo, and conceal him from the authorities, and eventually he reveals that he is not from their world at all but actually an interloper from another reality. If he is to return to his home, he must reach one of the secret gateways without being apprehended. Nothing earthshaking here, but I found this more enjoyable than many of Turtledove’s more ambitious works. It’s just a simple story, told well, and with an interesting setting and cast of characters.
Outrageous Fortune by Tim Scott, Bantam, 6/07, $12, ISBN 0-553-38440-6
There was a time when satire was very popular in SF. Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth wrote several, and mainstream authors like Bernard Wolfe, Shepherd Mead, Benjamin Appel, Michael Frayn, and others borrowed devices of the genre in order to poke fun in similar fashion. Most of these were deliberately written in an exaggerated manner, with bits of humor that almost hurt because they underscored things that we didn’t always want to think about. Satire has largely gone now, perhaps because the pain has gotten greater, but there are still occasional stirrings. This first novel is one such. Jonny X67 comes home one day to discover that he has been robbed. His entire house is gone, and he has only a mocking note in its place. That propels him into a journey of discovery, during which he discovers that he has also been deprived of himself, his true nature, and the truth about what is going on around him. Oddly enough, although I’d been lamenting the lack of satire only a short time before reading this, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I should. The prose is fine, the humor authentic, the satire barbed, but I kept putting the book down and finding excuses not to finish. Maybe it’s because the real world has lately become almost as absurd as the one Scott portrays.
Divergence by Tony Ballantyne, Bantam, 5/07, $6.99, ISBN 0-553-58930-6
The third novel by British writer Tony Ballantyne is far and away his most consistently entertaining. It is the far future, more than two centuries from now. Although humanity has expanded into outer space, in some ways civilization has become more circumscribed than ever, in large part because supreme control has been surrendered to an artificial intelligence known as the Watcher, a kind of omniscient version of Jack Williamson's humanoids. The Watcher has a plan for the human race which it believes to be in our best interests, but naturally the value system of a machine is likely to vary considerably from that of us organic machines. Enter Judy, who thinks she's just an ordinary citizen, but who discovers that she is actually a kind of artificial being herself, created by a mysterious organization on Earth for purposes of which she herself is unaware. And beneath the veneer of a fast paced adventure/mystery, there is also the serious question of just what do we mean when we refer to "life".