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


Empyre by Josh Conviser, Del Rey, 10/07, $13.95, ISBN 978-0-345-48502-1

Josh Conviser's first novel, Echelon, was a story of computer paranoia reminiscent of Colossus by D.F. Jones or The God Machine by Martin Caidin.  Echelon was a computer which monitored human activity secretly but in such detail that it was able to direct the course of human development, even arrange to combine certain preferred biological traits.  But ultimately, some of its own agents discovered the truth and became instrumental in the downfall of the system.  Bad computer gone.  Everyone lives happily ever after, right?  Not so much.

The ensuing power vacuum starts the slide toward apparent chaos, but there's another, unsuspected player in the game.  Secret organizations, exotic locations, a dangerous computer virus, the CIA, gun battles, chases, assassins, conspiracies, secrets revealed, and more.  There were a few times when I was tempted to stop and say, "Wait a minute!", but the author keeps the story moving so fast that it's likely you'll brush right past the occasional rough spot.  If you're a fan of near future action thrillers, this is a writer to add to your watch list.  8/29/07

Till Human Voices Wake Us by Mark Budz, Bantam, 8/07, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-58851-4

Mark Budz's first three novels - all of which are good incidentally - felt very similar to me.  His fourth breaks the mold and is one of the more interesting books about, well, not exactly time travel, I suppose, but about time itself.  There are three major plot lines, each set in a different time.  One is a mortally ill architect living in the US during the 1930s, one a spaceman from a far future when the term "human" no longer strictly applies, and one is a mentally disturbed radio operator from the very near future.  The unifying theme is time, because even though the three protagonists are separated by time, in another sense they are very much united and facing a common problem.

I think this came tantalizingly close to being a breakthrough novel.  The concept was original, the mechanics of the story are excellent, the prose is more than readable, and the characters are interesting.  But I also think it teetered on the brink and didn't quite make it, and I had to think about it for a while to figure out why I had a nagging sense of dissatisfaction even though I was thoroughly caught up when I was reading it.  I think the problem is that - interesting though the characters are - they fell just short of being completely real to me.  The astronaut was just a bit too removed from humanity, the radio operator just slightly off key, and the third man lacked enough detail for me to really identify with his situation.  It's a very good novel, probably the author's best so far, but I very much doubt that it will hold that title for long.  8/28/07

The Web and the Stars by Brian Herbert, Five Star, 12/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-1-59414-217-8

In Timeweb, Brian Herbert introduced us to a galactic civilization that flourishes because of the existence of the Web, which provides short cuts among the stars.  There are signs of deterioration in the Web, which a brilliant scientist is trying to analyze, but everyday affairs are considerably more pressing.  An alliance of human worlds is engaged in a major war with an empire of shapeshifters, who have developed a weapon powerful enough to destroy entire planets.  Unbeknownst to the two warring parties, a coalition of supposed neutrals is actually plotting to destroy them both. 

All of this, naturally, distracts our hero from his initial concern.  Herbert has created an extensive and reasonably complex galactic civilization and the plot itself is pretty good.  There are some minor problems with the book, particularly in the dialogue which plain at best and occasionally awkward, but the sweep of the story should help most readers to overlook the occasional rough spots.  Intriguing enough to keep me watching for the third and final installment.  8/26/07

The Sagittarius Command by R.M. Meluch, DAW, 11/07, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0457-4

Here's the third volume in the chronicles of the USS Merrimack, one of the the proliferating number of military SF series.  The set up is a bit of wishful thinking.  Earth, led by the United States, is at war with a breakaway culture set up along the lines of ancient Rome.  Captain of the Merrimack, a warship obviously, is John Farragut.  Talk about being characterized by your name!  Fortunately for Earth, sort of, is the advent of an alien race with a hive mind, who are so dangerous that the Roman culture surrenders to Farragut and asks for Earth's help in repelling this new enemy.  There are a few other alien races sprinkled about as well, but the main players are obviously the humans. 

In the present volume, the ship and its crew undertake a perilous mission to enter space  controlled by the alien Hive and rescue a famous, brilliant Roman who might have the secret that will turn the tide of war against the aliens.  And if you have read any military SF at all, you can pretty much sketch out most of the plot from there, although the author does have a few surprises lying in wait.  I'm not a big fan of these military adventures with cardboard cutout heroes, but Meluch does them as well as almost anyone in the business. 8/22/07

Undertow by Elizabeth Bear, Bantam, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-58905-4

Elizabeth Bear has worked both sides of the road, SF and fantasy.  I've always though her SF was much the better, but that might just be a reflection of my own preferences.  In any case, this new novel is a middle of the road space opera, with one of her troubled heroes trying to make a new life for himself.  Deschenes is - or perhaps we should say was - a professional assassin but he wants to pursue a different career and has come out to this remote world hoping to make a break with the past.  But the past has a habit of catching up with us, no matter how much effort we put into burying it. 

Part of the problem is his choice of location, a planet virtually run by a family operated company bent on exploiting the planet's resources, including its populace.  And like most families in this sort of situation, they don't exactly set themselves above the law, but effectively they ARE the law.  When the indigenes and some of the human colonists appear to be plotting a revolution, Deschenes is hired to assassinate a key player, but is he willing to continue his old profession or take a chance for a new life? Not as gritty as some of her previous books.  I found it very enjoyable, even a bit old fashioned.  8/21/07

Burdens of Empire by C.J. Ryan, Bantam, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-58903-0

The first three adventures of Gloria Van Deen were all quite pleasant space operas, so it's no surprise that the fourth is as well.  In fact, either the character is growing on me or this is her best adventure yet.  Van Deen, the ex-wife of the ruler of a human dominated interstellar empire, acts as a kind of diplomat slash intelligence operative, and in many ways she reminds me of Poul Anderson's Dominic Flandry with a decidedly feminine twist.  This time she's off to another remote planet where violent unrest has culminating in the kidnapping and the threat that the crisis might escalate.  She goes there to negotiate a compromise, but the situation isn't as simple as she was led to believe.

For one thing the locals harbor mysterious motives and customs and Van Deen risks exacerbating the situation innocently if she makes a false step.  But even more dangerous is the battle between a group of rebellious aliens and a murder squad of hired mercenary types working for a human corporation that is anxious not to allow unrest, or meddling negotiators, interfere with their program of exploitation.  And even if she finds a way to defuse the present situation, it's obvious that the pattern is being repeated throughout the empire.  Just as Flandry tried to put off the Big Dark, so does Van Deen hope in small way to at least delay the chaos that is sure to come sooner or later.  And like Flandry, she recognizes that sometimes diplomacy has to be conducted at gunpoint.  I look forward to her next adventure.  8/19/07

Opening Atlantis by Harry Turtledove, Roc, 12/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-451-46174-2

Okay, I know that Harry Turtledove is the king of alternate history, and I've enjoyed a good number of them, but I'll let you in on a secret.  I think his non-alternate history, or the ones that just barely qualify like this one, are a lot better, more imaginative, with better stories.  His alternate American history stories are fascinating, but more because of the speculation than because they're good stories.  This new one, first in a projected trilogy, takes the best of both possible worlds, no pun intended.

The premise this time is that the world has another continent, Atlantis, which rests between Europe and North America, and rather logically attracts colonists as soon as it is discovered.  There's the usual large cast of characters, but as the European nations race to carve out fresh territory, a larger question arises.  Should this untouched land be spoiled in such avaricious fashion?  Of course, there wasn't much of any concern about preserving the natural world back in the colonial period, but Turtledove manages to interject it into this rather unusual alternate history.  Not his best but certainly among his better.  8/17/07

Allan Quatermain by H. Rider Haggard, 1898

Although this sequel to King Solomon's Mines is generally thought of as an adventure story, I contend that it is also SF because it's a lost race novel, and unless you know of a secret civilization descended from the Phoenicians who have a reasonably technologically oriented nation the size of France hidden in the jungles of Africa, you have to admit that it's certainly fantastic.  Readers should be warned that Haggard was a late Victorian Englishman with all the prejudices of race that you might expect, patronizing, convinced of the superiority of the white man, and the primacy of man over woman.  On the other hand, there are refreshing hints that he may have suspected better.  At one point Quatermain tells us that all civilizations and races pass, that one day even London will be lost in the past.  He also suggests that the diminished role of women is imposed rather than innate.

Anyway, the story is told in two parts.  The first is a trek across Africa and an exciting series of confrontations with a band of Masai warriors.  Then there's a bridge, a terrifying journey along an underground river, after which the second story unfolds.  They have discovered the land of Zu Vendi, about which we learn probably more than we care to know.  Haggard provides very detailed descriptions of the architecture and other aspects of society.  Our heroes run into trouble with the local priesthood (sun worshippers) and get caught up in a power struggle between them and the two queens, sisters, both of whom are beautiful, of course, and one of whom sets her eyes on one of the Europeans.  The second half is actually inferior to the opening, much slower paced, interrupted by brief lectures, and while it may have not have been a hoary old plot in 1898, it's been redone so many times by now that it has the same effect.  When Haggard was at his best, as in the first hundred pages, he has few peers.  8/16/07

Cowboy Angels by Paul J. McAuley, Gollancz, 9/07, £18.99, ISBN 978-0-575-07935-9

The America in this new novel of alternate realities is a relatively selfless place that holds the key to inter-reality travel and uses the ability to help bring down dictatorships and communist states, rebuild worlds where nuclear war destroyed much of civilization, and generally make the metaverse a better place for everyone.  Newly elected President Jimmy Carter is particularly committed to bringing peaceful solutions to problems in the alternate worlds, but naturally there are elements within his administration and elsewhere who prefer to take a more pro-active and frequently more violent role in destiny. 

The protagonist is a newly re-activated agent of this policy who begins to uncover strange correlations that lead him to conclude that there's a very organized conspiracy which plans a very different future for everyone.  This one has a livelier plot than  McAuley's recent novels, and despite the darker aspects it's good, old fashioned fun as well as a serious look at motives and philosophies and how we tend to think about other cultures.  A nice solid title from one of our more reliable writers.  8/14/07

Patrimony by Alan Dean Foster, Del Rey, 10/07, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-345-48504-5

According to the blurbs, this is the next to the last adventure of Pip & Flinx, a pair whose adventures I've been following on and off for more than thirty years.  Like E.C. Tubb's Dumarest of Terra, Philip Lynx has been traveling from world to world in his last several adventures, but instead of looking for a lost Earth he's looking for the secrets of his past, and perhaps an explanation for the changes he's undergoing in the present.  Flinx the dragon is with him as well, and the twosome have overcome a number of adversities, most recently efforts by a villainous organization to capture him and turn his powers to their own uses. 

I'm not going to tell you the secrets revealed here, because that would spoil things.  There's a good deal of interplanetary adventure, at which Foster almost always excels, and a fast moving story that accelerates as Pip approaches his goal.  Things are not as they seem, however, not even old familiar things and people, and as he finally begins to learn the truth, he has to wonder whether or not this is something he really wanted to know.  I can sort of anticipate what's likely to come but even if I'm right, I'm sure the final revelations will be an exciting ride.  8/12/07

Ha'penny by Jo Walton, Tor, 10/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1853-4

Well this is the second sequel I've read in two days that lived up to its predecessor, and both of the predecessors were among my favorite books last year, so I'm a happy camper.  This one is the follow up to Farthing, set in an alternate world where England negotiated "peace with honor" during World War II and is now an uneasy ally of Adolf Hitler, complete with persecution of minorities and repressive, military style government.  Farthing was a complex murder mystery set in that reality.  This one is more actively a suspense novel.  When you have a fascist government, you've just got to expect to have a violent underground movement, and when a bomb goes off in London, it announces the inevitable.

Scotland Yard Inspector Carmichael, whose loyalties are already rather suspect, is assigned the case, which leads him to a far reaching conspiracy encompassing a variety of unlikely bedfellow, everything from the NRA to the House of Lords, the Communist Party to British nationalists.  He also uncovers a daring plot to assassinate certain highly placed government officials and precipitate an international crisis and, hopefully, a rebellion.  With his own sympathies more than slightly confused, Carmichael has to decide where his real duty lies.  And keep himself alive in the process.  First rate - exciting, intriguing, gripping, and a whole dictionary full of superlatives apply here.  8/11/07

V: The Second Generation by Kenneth Johnson, Tor, 10/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-7653-1906-7

I was never a particular fan of the television series, V, and I don't remember the earlier series of tie-in novels as being anything out of the ordinary.  Apparently there is a new mini-series coming that continues that story, created by Kenneth Johnson, who has turned part of that concept into this new novel.  For those unfamiliar with it, the set up is that a reptilian race known as the Visitors have partially occupied the Earth, initially convincing people that they had come for benevolent purposes, although it isn't long before they're exploiting the planet's resources and showing the iron claw inside the velvet glove.  The original series was about the Resistance and their efforts to undermine the Visitors authority, but now twenty years have passed and they haven't made much progress.  When new arrivals from offworld promise to help, it seems like just what they needed, but can they trust the newcomers any more than they should have trusted the Visitors in the first place?  All of this will be pretty familiar to SF regulars, but I imagine those who get their alien thrills from the tube and screen won't be as jaded.  Competently written but for the most part, pretty dull.  8/11/07

The Third Lynx by Timothy Zahn, Tor, 11/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1732-X

As winter approaches, you will at least have one thing to look forward to, the sequel to one of my favorite novels of the last couple of years, Night Train to Rigel.  The set up is a little difficult to describe simply, but even if you haven't read Night Train - and shame on you if you haven't - Zahn gets you caught up pretty quickly.  The Spiders administer the trains that run between the stars.  Yes, there's a rational explanation for this, and it makes for a nice setting.  They work for a mysterious alien race that uses the Spiders and the trains from preventing any of the various empires from exporting warfare and subduing the galaxy.  Unfortunately, there's another player in the game, the Modhri, a group mind based in coral which can insert polyps into any of the intelligent races, turning those infected into unknowing servants whose minds can be manipulated or, if necessary, completely controlled.  These are known as Walkers.

Our hero is Frank Compton, who foiled the Modhri last time, and who is now traveling about with Bayta, a human woman telepathically linked to the Spiders.  Their plans are interrupted by a murder, an obnoxious human intelligent agent, some stolen artwork, a horde of Walkers, and the complete passivity of the Spiders when faced with violence.  There's a mystery to be solved, adventures to be survived, and a sinister plot to be foiled before all is said and done, and I more than slightly regretted it when all was said and done because I was enjoying the book so much that I didn't want it to end.  Zahn makes all this look easy, of  course, but what we have here is a topnotch adventure story wrapped around a mystery in an exotic setting with an interesting cast of characters and a nasty villain.  What more could you ask for?  One of the most pleasant reading experiences of the year so far.  8/10/07

Death Star by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry, Del Rey, 10/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-345-47738-5

I have never completely understood why it is that the universe created in the Star Wars movies is so much more interesting, particularly in book form, than the one created by Star Trek.  I'd be tempted to say that the writers doing the former are better than the latter, but we've had Trek novels from Greg Bear, Joe Haldeman, Vonda McIntyre, Robert Sheckley, Barbara Hambly, Pamela Sargent, and Mel Gilden, just to name a few, so it can hardly be that.  I think basically it's because there is more room to be inventive and original in a galaxy that is in turmoil than there is in the set piece Trek novels, which overwhelmingly follow a pretty simple formula.  On the other hand, the premise for this book seems at first glance to constrain the writers pretty tightly, since it's essentially a history of the Death Star, and we all know how that came out.

The bulk of the book takes place during its conception and construction of course, since it didn;'t have long to live once Luke and Han and Princess Leia set their sights on it.  The authors introduce a bunch of new characters, and make use of old ones, including Darth Vader and Moff Tarkin, and naturally all our favorites return for the final battle.  There are spies for the Alliance, among other things, to keep the plot moving even before the space battles begin.  I half expected this to be somewhat dull, filling in the gaps but not doing much to enhance the overall Star Wars story, but it's surprisingly fresh and interesting.  Fans of the series will no doubt love it, but mainstream readers shouldn't turn up their noses.  It's actually pretty darn good.  8/10/07

Deadfall by Robert Liparulo, Nelson, 11/07, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7852-6179-7

This is one of those novels that I hate reviewing because I should have liked it a lot more than I did, and I'm not sure exactly why that didn't happen.  Sometimes it's the mood I'm in when I'm reading it, sometimes it's not.  I am really fond of near future or present day thrillers in which there is just a hint of SF, and there is in this one, which is why I've included it here, although I suspect that it will be marketed as a suspense novel.  The setting is a remote town in Canada and the woods nearby.  The protagonists are some of the residents of that town, but more specifically a group of four businessmen who are in the area for some recreational hunting.  The antagonists are there for some recreational hunting as well, but they want human prey in this modern update of "The Most Dangerous Game".   The intruders have an edge, a satellite based weapon which they can direct toward a specific target, like a human being, obliterating it instantaneously.  Hardly seems fair, but then most hunting isn't designed to be fair.

Anyway, the players are moved into place and the game begins, and at times the story is very suspenseful.  But at other times, I found my attention wandering.  I think part of it was because I never found the villains particularly convincing.  They're nasty, all right, but cartoonish nasty, and not very convincing.  I don't want to sound too negative because some of the writing is very fine and the concept is good, but I just don't think the execution was consistently on the mark.  You might not want to take my word for it on this one, because it's certainly designed to be a tense and exciting thriller.  8/8/07

Category 7 by Bill Evans and Marianna Jameson, Forge, 2007, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1735-3 

I was expecting this to be a disaster novel but even though thereís a disaster in it, thatís not what itís about.  Carter Thompson is a billionaire who has secretly been working on a weather control project.  Heís also violently opposed to nuclear power plants.  When he tries to pressure the rather unpleasantly vile President of the US, he fails and that and other events push him toward using his power to create a super hurricane.  The violence of the ensuing storm is aggravated by the fact that a secret, government sponsored weather control team has been interfering with normal weather for some time.  The result is a devastating hurricane beyond anything previously experienced, which permanently alters the Eastern seacoast.  Evans is a meteorologist, so one assumes that the science is viable. 

But the story really isnít about the storm, which we donít see at close hand until three quarters of the way through the book, and then only in brief snatches.  The story is in fact a fairly routine thriller with Thompson descending into madness and murder, the President dithering, and various other characters caught between the two, trying to figure out what is going on.  As a thriller, itís pretty good; as a disaster novel, itís much less interesting.  8/6/07

Starstrike: Task Force Mars by Kevin Dockery and Douglas Niles, Del Rey, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-345-49041-4

A generation from now, we have scientific stations on Mars, one of which begins broadcasting distress calls, then drops out of communication.  It's time to send in the marines, or in this case a squad of Navy SEALs whose new mandate includes outer space.  They get into trouble promptly, are captured by alien intruders, escape, steal a starship, overcome unbelievable odds, and wreak havoc among the bad guys.  This is comic book action from start to finish, with no real pretensions to being realistic.  That's actually kind of a breath of fresh air compared to some ponderous military SF that tries very hard to be plausible.  And there's lots of room for sequels.  "There's a damned big universe out there."    I suspect that, as with most of these series, the stories will eventually become repetitive but if you're looking for something lightweight, violent, and fast moving, this is what you're looking for.  8/1/07

The Trouble with Humans by Christopher Anvil, Baen, 2007, $15, ISBN 978-1-4165-2142-6

It's really nice to see publishers like Baen bringing back into print short stories by a number of writers who really didn't have a strong career outside the magazines.  It's particularly refreshing because single author collections have been so scarce among the major publishers.  One of my favorite short story writers during the 1960s was Christopher Anvil, who mixed puzzles and adventure with humor and whose stories, though rarely the kind that stuck in my memory, were invariably enjoyable.  This new collection is drawn from the 1960s and 1950s and is unified by theme rather than characters.  In each of these, humans prove to be a cantankerous, contrary lot, defying the ability by aliens to invade, conquer, exploit, fool, spy on, or otherwise take advantage of us.  This was clearly a more optimistic age in science fiction than the mood today, reflecting the world around us.  The stories are quite consistent in quality, but "We from Arcturus", "Behind the Sandrat Hoax", and "The Law Breakers" are my favorites.  The stories are dated more by mood than by content, and they make a nice change from stories about global warming, malevolent governments, and other preoccupations of our time.  7/30/07

The Sunrise Lands by S.M. Stirling, Roc, 9/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-451-46170-4

I suppose you could make a good argument that this is fantasy rather than science fiction, but it feels like SF and its focus is an interesting SF concept.  The setting is a not too distant future America, but a radically altered one.  Essentially all technology developed within the past two centuries has ceased to exist - electricity, internal combustion, gunpowder, etc.  This was the result of a mysterious "change", never really explained, which could have been magic for all we know.  The end result is the same, a world plunged back into medieval conditions, and in some cases worse. The change is connected to Nantucket Island, apparently linking this to Stirling's earlier trilogy about that island traveling back through time to change history.

A young man in a tribe living in what used to be Oregon is disturbed by the arrival of a stranger, a traveler from the east who announces that he has come in search of a particular person or object which he knows only by its formal name.  That name refers to Rudi Mackenzie, son of the local high priestess, about whom their have been puzzling prophecies.  From there the novel turns into a combination of a quest story and a grand tour, as a small party travels through very strange lands to fulfill his destiny.  I wasn't expecting to enjoy this as much as its two predecessors because there looked to be considerably more mysticism, which I find distracting in what is otherwise an after-the-disaster novel.  Stirling didn't disappoint me, however, and sucked me into his imagined world before I could slip away into another book, then wouldn't let me go until I'd finished.  Stirling strikes me as one of the most improved writers during the course of his career to date, which suggests very promising things for the future.  7/24/07

The Judas Strain by James Rollins, Morrow, 2007, $25.95, ISBN 978-0--76389-3

James Rollins also writes fantasy under the names James Clemens, both of which are pseudonyms of Jim Czajkowski.  Although I've never thought his fantasy was anything out of the ordinary, I actively enjoyed his early thrillers under the Rollins name, in part because he resurrected the lost world adventure, a form of which I am inordinately fond and which has, thanks to the shrinking world, become much more difficult to do.  After a few of those, he began chronicling the exploits of the SIGMA Force, a cookie cutter secret organization within the US government that deals with scientific problems and out of the ordinary situations.  The first of these were okay as well, although I thought the last, The Black Order, lagged a little in verisimilitude.

This is another in that series, and it's filled with the usual battles, chases, escapes, and puzzles.  There are two separate threads that eventually come together.  On a remote island, efforts are underway to evacuate the population because of a new disease which actually turns benign organisms into malignant, flesh eating types that rot the body from within.  This relief effort involves a couple SIGMA people because of its unique threat to the biosphere.  The other thread concerns an agent of the mysterious Guild, the arch-enemies of SIGMA, whose attempt to defect to the other side results in wholesale carnage and lots of chases.  The Guild obviously knows something about the plague and wishes to turn it to their own advantage. 

I had no quarrel with the main plot, unlikely as it may be, because there was lots of action and, after all, this is meant to be a kind of compromise between James Bond and comic books.  But I was troubled this time by a couple of things, one minor, one not.  The minor problem was the copy editing, which really needed another pass.  There were lots of obvious word substitutions that didn't get fixed, like "this" for "that", "delusion" for "illusion", and "acceptable" for "unacceptable".  That's annoying but not fatal.  What really bothered me was that the plot is too obviously contrived this time.  I just could not believe that the Guild could seize control of an entire relief operation, including Australian coast guard ships, without someone getting out an email or a cell phone call or a radio message.  And for that matter, what about the CNN crew that would undoubtedly have been covering the mission?  Secondly, the operative accompanying the renegade Guild member is on the run because there's a mole inside SIGMA.  That's fine, but why in the world would the head of SIGMA then tell the authorities to publicly broadcast the operative's picture and say he was wanted for questioning?  Plotwise, it keeps him on the run, but it just makes no sense in the real world.  They know he's one of the good guys and that he's trying to get the agent secured.  Why make it more difficult for him?  It was still fun to read, but it should have been a lot better.  7/22/07

Land of the Headless by Adam Roberts, Gollancz, 2007, £10.99, ISBN 978-0-575-07799-7

Adam Roberts has turned out a string of rather impressive books in the UK, but as far as I know, he has yet to find a publisher on this side of the Atlantic.  His latest reminds me at times of A.A. Attanasio crossed with Keith Laumer.  The story opens on a planet dominated by religious fundamentalists.  Our protagonist is convicted of committing adultery, for which the penalty is to be beheaded.  But losing your head doesn't mean quite the same thing as it used to.  His head is attached to an artificial body and life support unit and he is released.  Burning the letter "A" into adulterers' foreheads seems tame compared to this, and he has the same problem as in The Scarlet Letter.  His offense is obvious and he is shunned by the citizenry.

This forces him to join the military, the traditional place for misfits and oddballs.  That experience, however, provides him with some useful tools for righting old wrongs.  This sardonic adventure story is obviously satirical, although that's apparently a bad word to apply to SF nowadays.  People seem to shy away from satire, perhaps believing the world is bad enough without anyone pointing the problems out any further.  In any case, Roberts pokes fun at fundamentalists and other conventional behavior in this one, and the story flows smoothly from beginning to end.  I'm not sure that I'd say this is his best novel, but it's the one I most enjoyed.  7/21/07

Sandworms of Dune (audiobook) by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, read by Scott Brick, Audio Renaissance, 2007, $59.95, ISBN 978-1-4272-0112-6

The continuing story of the Dune universe, this time involving the re-creation of several characters from the original series, brought back into existence in order to help with a fight against the malevolent machine intelligences.  I just read and reviewed this novel a few weeks ago, so I only listened to a sampling of the recording.  Brick does a fine job and if it wasn't so familiar I would probably have continued listening until it was over.  This unabridged edition comes on fifteen CDs and runs almost twenty hours.  This wasn't a bad extension of the series, although I thought reviving old characters was a bit much.  It's still a pretty good book for commuting with.  7/21/07

ĎVaders by R. Patrick Gates, Leisure, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7860-1825-3 

Gates is the author of a handful of horror novels, most of which Iíve liked.  This new one is labeled as horror as well, but it involves alien invaders from space, which makes it subject to a new set of rules.  If youíre going to use a scientific basis for your horrors, then you really need to get the science right.  The opening pages set off alarm bells for me.  First of all, a swarm of objects entering our solar system would not pass across each and every planet in succession because some of them would be on the other side of the sun.  They would cross their orbits, but not the planets themselves.  Then we have this alien lifeform which arrives on Earth, infiltrating human bodies and changing them into monstrous creatures, which is a bit of a jump because it happens almost instantaneously, but Iíll make allowances for that.  What I canít swallow, however, is that they could violate the laws of conservation of mass and energy.  A human body cannot swell to twenty feet tall with bulging muscles without adding some mass from somewhere.  And thatís what Gates wants us to believe. 

The early chapters are mostly descriptions of people transforming and eating their friends and family members.  There is no attempt to develop suspense or mystery, and some of the incidents verge on parody.  One scene of implausible carnage follows another as we learn that the transformed victims are now working in consort. Iím a big fan of alien invasion stories, particularly the ones with creepy monsters, but I had to force my way through this longish novel Ė and frankly I skimmed some of the repetitive slaughter sequences in order to reach the end.  Thereís a climax, sort of, but no real payoff.  One of the more disappointing novels Iíve read of late. 7/20/07

When All Seems Lost by William C. Dietz, Ace, 10/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01524-5

Like contemporary high fantasy, most military SF seems to follow a handful of preset patterns.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Classic detective stories almost always follow a formula as well.  The reader is expecting a certain kind of story, and that's what the author provides.  The best writers working a formula, however, manage to find ways to keep the concept fresh, even when the outcome of the plot is almost a foregone conclusion.  One of the few writers whom I've found consistently does this with military SF is William C. Dietz, most particularly in his series about the Legion of the Damned.

This new one, the seventh installment, is a case in point.  An interstellar war is underway and much of the background is familiar.  In an unexpected attack, the alien enemy have captured a number of human prisoners, including the president of the Confederacy.  Fortunately, they don't realize the advantage they have because his fellow prisoners have joined a conspiracy to conceal his identity.  Unfortunately, that means that he's sent off to a hostile world to work as a slave laborer.  Obviously the stage is set for a daring rescue mission deep into enemy space, a ploy complicated by a love affair gone awry and other complications.  Pleasant, straightforward adventure in space with military undertones.  Dietz's characters are better drawn than in most similar books, but the focus is still on what they do rather than who they are.  7/20/07

Pyramid Power by Eric Flint and Dave Freer, Baen, 8/07, $24, ISBN 978-1-4165-2130-3

The alien Krin sent an enigmatic pyramid to Earth which immediately begins displacing human construction.  It also acted as a gateway to an artificial variation of the ancient Mediterranean, complete with characters designed to function as the gods and other similar beings.  The sequel continues this vein of rationalized fantasy, because the pyramid may have had a setback in the previous volume, but that doesn't mean it's defeated.  One of the explorers was left behind and that means that a second mission must be organized to retrieve him.  But naturally things aren't quite that easy.  This time the pyramid transports them to another artificial universe, this one patterned after Norse mythology.  And naturally that means that Ragnarok can't be far off.

Comparisons with the Harold Shea novels by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt are inevitable.  This series is considerably more violent and fast paced and less reflective, and the humor isn't nearly as clever.  On the other hand, the authors provide a rousing adventure story with a few nice twists, like having Loki and Thor effectively on the same side.  An excellent choice for a hot summer day.  7/17/07

Dog Said Bow-Wow, The by Michael Swanwick, Tachyon, 2007, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-892391-52-0

Many of Michael Swanwick's short stories feel to me almost like fairy tales.  The first two in this new collection are perfect examples.  In "Hello, Said the Stick", the stick is a highly sophisticated device which seduces soldiers into picking it up, then sickens them with radiation poisoning, but only to the point where they will be tying up resources.  The moral - there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, or maybe, look before you leap.  The Hugo winning title story, which follows directly, even has talking animals, an uplifted dog who joins a human in an elaborate con job that has unexpected consequences.  Civilization collapsed because people built a network of computers so efficient that it tapped into another reality, releasing demons who could only be contained by shutting down all mechanical devices.  An ancient modem nearly causes a disaster.

"Slow Life", another Hugo winner, is about a woman facing death on Titan who discovers a unique form of life.  "Triceratops Summer", although not one of my favorites of Swanwick's stories, does present some intriguing images.  "Tin Marsh" makes use of a variation of the Three Laws stories by Isaac Asimov, in this case three embedded rules in a chip that theoretically makes it impossible for prospectors on an airless world to go mad and kill one another.  When one man's chip malfunctions, his partner has to run for her life.  The next two stories, a fantasy and an original story set in a primitive version of America, are both good, but they suffer a bit from the distinguished company they're keeping, because the surrounding stories are extraordinarily good.

"Legions of Time" (how many times can you find a single author collection with three Hugo winners included), a wonderfully convoluted story of a war through time.  The uplifted dog and his human partner run another con in Paris this time in "The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport", and have further adventures in the very nice "Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play".  Another short fantasy follows, then "The Last Geek", my least favorite in the collection.  "A Great Day for Brontosaurs" proves that even the Adam and Eve story isn't completely devoid of new material.  "A Dirty Little War" is indescribable, as is "A Small Room in Koboldtown".  The collection winds up with "Urdumheim", which mirrors the fairy tale quality of the opening stories.  A very strong collection, certainly one of the best by a single writer I've read in the past couple of years or more, and possibly the best single title Tachyon has ever published.  7/17/07

Bunker 10 by J.A. Henderson, Harcourt, 10/07, $17, ISBN 978-0-15-206240-8

Here's an odd little young adult novel that seems like it should have been frantically paced but which actually moves forward quite deliberately.  The setting is a secret government installation supposedly experimenting with virtual reality simulations, although they have a secret agenda that I won't describe here.  Living in the facility are seven teenagers who are about to have a major impact on the adults around them.  The story is an odd mix of hard science fiction and casual adventure, with a fairly convoluted mystery.  Not much depth in the characters, but the story moves quickly.  When I reached the end, I felt as though I'd missed something, that a chapter or two might have been missing.  Not great, but ok.  7/16/07

They Came from Below by Blake Nelson, Tor, 2007, $17.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1423-9

When I saw the title of this one, I was hoping for another invasion from the sea novel like Murray Leinster's Creatures of the Abyss, John Wyndham's Out of the Deeps, or Frank Schatzing's The Swarm.  Alas, this is a different kettle of fish entirely, a young adult novel constructed as an attack on our continuing pollution of the oceans.  The protagonists are two teenaged girls on Cape Cod who meet two boys apparently their own age.  Appearances are deceiving, however, because the twosome are actually alien creatures from the ocean floor who have taken on human form in order to visit the surface world and make a last ditch effort to keep the oceans from being fatally polluted.

Adventures follow, generally lightweight, and with some equally light humor.  The tone gets increasingly serious toward the end, which isn't all neatly tied up.  The prose is quite good and I'd like to hope that books like this will actually stimulate teenagers to think about the threat to the ecosystem and do something about it.  For older readers, however, it's likely to seem simple minded and just short of being preachy.  7/16/07

The Genesis Code by Christopher Forrest, Forge, 8/07, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-765-31603-5

Although I'm very fond of contemporary thrillers with SF overtones, I've never been particularly enamored with medical thrillers, with a few exceptions.  This debut novel is a little of both, featuring a scientist who discovers a code embedded in human DNA that seems to suggest that our evolution was not entirely natural.  The significance of his discovery is underline, to the reader at least, when he is murdered shortly after announcing what he has found.  That leaves it up to his two associates to pursue the matter and uncover a world wide conspiracy that has lasted through countless generations.

What follows is pretty obviously a conscious effort to capture the kind of puzzle filled chase of The Da Vinci Code with a somewhat more rationalized explanation.  There are several exotic settings, although some of our visits our so brief that it's hard to get much sense of place.  The underlying flaw in the novel is that an organization which is so organized and efficient for so long would not be so inefficient about removing the threat posed by the two investigators, particularly in view of their quick action against the scientist.  It's a fun ride so long as you don't look too closely at how the plot advances.  And the secret?  You'll have to read it to find out. 7/14/07

Axis by Robert Charles Wilson, Tor, 9/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-0939-4

With his very impressive novel Spin, Robert Charles Wilson introduced us to the universe of the Hypotheticals, enigmatic intelligences that might be machines, or might be the intelligence directing machines.  The Hypotheticals moved the Earth forward millions of years in time, so that we actually have a younger civilization than that which exists on human colonized Mars.  They also provide portals by which sailing ships might move from our planet to another world, Equatoria.  Further enriching this already strange background is the existence of the Fourths, humans whose lives have been extended dramatically as a result of using Martian biotechnology, which is theoretically outlawed by the United Nations dominated government.

This strange future is revealed to us through several viewpoint characters, the most significant of whom are Turk Findley, owner of a failing business in Equatoria, possibly a one time arsonist, and generally a man not too certain about his own future, and Lise Adams, a young woman whose father disappeared after becoming a Fourth, who is obsessed with tracking him down.  Her trail leads her to Turk and in pursuit of a mysterious woman who is also the target of a search by government authorities who believe her to be involved in an attempt to create a biological entity which can communicate directly with the Hypotheticals.  And the chase is on.

Wilson has always peopled his books with genuine characters, and this one is no exception.  No one is perfect, neither perfectly good nor perfectly bad, and the questions of ethics raised are ones without clear answers.  The setting is so unique and intriguing that in the hands of a lesser writer, that would be what the story was all about, but Wilson never lets us forget that we should be concerned about the people, not the landscape that contains them.  Another in a long string of first rate novels.  7/13/07

Reap the Wild Wind by Julie E. Czerneda, DAW, 9/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0456-7

With this novel, Julie E. Czerneda launches a new series that is related to her earlier Trade Pact novels, is in fact set long before the events depicted in those novels.  The earlier series involved the Clan, an alien race that fled their home world and created a new civilization.  This sequence is set back when they lived on a single planet, sharing it with two other races.  The territories assigned to each are closely delineated and trespassing is forbidden except under very specific circumstances.  The Clan itself is subdivided into smaller groups, with similar prohibitions against intermixing.  The Clan are the least technologically advanced of the three races on their world, and therefore at a decided and potentially permanent disadvantage.

Although this is on the surface a coming of age novel with a hint of a quest thrown in, what it really deals with is the conflict between change and conservation, the choices that must be made to sacrifice traditions in order to reap the benefits of progress, and the danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  When the planet Cersi receives visitors from the stars, the catalyst is provided for dramatic, radical change.  Can this force be channeled constructively, or must it be resisted at all costs?  As always, Czerneda examines serious questions within the context of an exciting adventure story.  Her fans won't be disappointed and new readers might well be tempted to look up her earlier books.  7/13/07

Halting State by Charles Stross, Ace, 10/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01498-9

Although there are some very good novels and stories dealing with virtual reality, I am usually uneasy with stories that rely on it, probably for much the same reason that I usually don't care for dream sequences.  When anything is possible, it makes the story too unpredictable, too uncontrolled, too likely to move off in directions that the reader couldn't possibly anticipate.  It feels almost like cheating.  The key word here is "usually", of course, and there are several examples of virtual reality stories that I have loved over the years, starting with The Joy Makers by James Gunn way back in the 1960s. 

So I'm happy to say that this new novel by Charles Stross is probably the most enjoyable treatment that I've read since Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson.  The virtual reality world in this case is a large fantasy landscape (think Warcraft) which includes virtual banks.  When someone robs one of these virtual banks, it's of no consequence, right?  Well, wrong, as a matter of fact.  If someone - a considerable number of someones in this case - believes that something is valuable, then almost by definition it is valuable and what might in one case be an example of clever game play is in this case a major crime. But how do you investigate a crime that was committed (at least by proxy) by a band of orcs and a dragon?  This one's a lot of fun, and is one of the few blends of SF and fantasy themes I've encountered that actually works.  Haven't seen the cover art for this one but I expect it to be amusing.  7/12/07

Shift by Chris Dolley, Baen, 2007, $24, ISBN 978-1-4165-2140-2

I think I somehow missed reading Dolley's first novel, Resonance, when it appeared a couple of years ago.  It's an oversight that I plan to correct in the near future because his second is a very accomplished, intricate, and entertaining novel.  A means has been discovered whereby it is possible to travel through extra-dimensional space.  This accomplishment has an interesting side effect, and the set up here is sufficiently complex that I may not do it justice in just a few sentences.  The man who pioneered travel in this way is John Bruce, who is currently running for President of the United States, taking advantage of his popularity, obviously.  Elsewhere, there is a serial killer named Peter Pendennis, who is clearly insane.  Or is he?  The doctors who study him after his capture diagnose multiple personalities, and one of those fragmented egos claims to be John Bruce.  If that's the case, is it delusion, duplication, or has the real John Bruce been replaced?

And that's not all.  One of the people who examines Pendennis finds himself the prime suspect in a new series of mutilation killings that seem to occur only in places where he has visited.  Is he responsible, or is he just on the list of prospective victims?  There's lots of neat stuff in this, and the plot is clever and full of surprises.  I know that some readers tend to dismiss Baen Books because of it's preponderance of military and libertarian oriented SF, but that's not the case with this one.  It's first class writing from someone whose name will, I predict, be much better known before long.  7/10/07

Shadow Puppets by Orson Scott Card, Audi0book from Audio Renaissance, 2007, $39.95, ISBN 978-1-59397-482-4

This is the audiobook of Card's 2002 novel, a direct sequel to Shadow of the Hegemon I believe.  The war with the aliens is over and there's a power struggle going on back on Earth.  The Chinese are trying to expand their influence, and even more unsettling is the discovery that one of the empowered teenagers - Achilles - is actually psychotic and possibly acting under the influences of the enemies of Peter Wiggins, who has become tacitly the top official on Earth.   Lots of other subplots add to the turmoil and the lessons about politics and such are pretty well embedded in the story and non-intrusive.  I didn't listen to this whole thing - nine CDs running eleven hours - because it wasn't that long ago that I read the book, which wasn't so great that I wanted to hear the story again, though it is ably presented by a team of four readers.  I thought the original Ender novel was cute, but I never was able to believe in the society that followed, the career of Peter Wiggins, and the sequels - while well written - have always struck me as implausible.  If that doesn't bother you, here's your chance to listen to the story again while driving back and forth to work.  7/10/07

Robot Titans of Gotham by Norvell Page, Baen, 2007, $15, ISBN 978-1-4165-2127-3

Although I have to be in the right mood, I can still enjoy the old pulp hero novels, crudely written, wildly implausible, and generally written to an obvious formula.  Operator 5, Secret Agent X, the Shadow - all of them are characters that remain vivid to me, in a cardboard kind of way.  One of the best of these is the Spider, a 1930s heroic crimefighter akin to Batman, several of whose adventures have been reprinted at one time or another over the years.  This is a collection of two of those novels, plus a third pulp adventure from another magazine, the Octopus, about which I know virtually nothing.

The first of the two Spider stories is Satan's Murder Machines, which obviously inspired the overall title for the collection.  The Spider, who is assisted by a small group of people who are aware of his secret identity, operates mostly outside the law and is considered to be a criminal by elements in the police force.  Nevertheless, he's the one who saves the day when the city is infested with an army of robots, directed by a criminal mastermind.  The second adventure, Death Reign of the Vampire King, has been reprinted before.  There's another criminal mastermind, this one known as the Bat Man, who uses legions of vampire bats to instill fear in his enemies.  Needless to say, the Spider triumphs in both cases.

The third novel is a bit of an oddity, and frankly I found the first few chapters more than slightly confusing.  The Octopus is the villain, a kind of mutant (?) or perhaps a forerunner of the Antichrist, who has purple eyes and leaves his victims with sucker marks on their skin.  The action is comic book style and the plot eventually smoothes out a bit.  It doesn't seem like an idea that could sustain a long series of sequels, and I suspect the title was short lived.  You'll have to leave your literary sensibilities aside to enjoy these, but they're fun if you can get into them.  7/9/07

1945 by Robert Conroy, Ballantine, 2007, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-345-49479-5

This is the second book I've read recently whose premise was that Japan did not surrender after seeing what atomic weapons could do to them.  Conroy has taken pains to hew close to the historical record, and his point of variation shows just how close we came to a much bloodier confrontation, an invasion of the Japanese mainland.  He contends that it was the decision of one influential man to stay neutral in the struggle between Emperor Hirohito and the peace group on the one hand, and the military and fanatics on the other.  In this scenario, the latter win, Hirohito is held prisoner, and Douglas MacArthur masterminds the invasion force until his death in a kamikaze attack.  He is replaced by Omar Bradley, but only after the military is too committed to change course significantly.

As with most such novels, we see the story from various points of view - a Japanese American spy in Japan, the officer in charge of Hirohito, an escaped POW, President Truman, and members of the invasion force.  Some of what follows relies on rather extreme coincidences - like the single US spy on Honshu inadvertently becoming the chess opponent of the imprisoned Hirohito.  Most of it is considerably more plausible, including the military and political problems, on both sides, and the way one affects the other.  I've only read one of the other two alternate histories by Conroy, but I'll be looking for the one I missed.  7/5/07

Black Man by Richard Morgan, Gollancz, 2007, £14.99, ISBN 978-0-575-07513-9

It's no secret that I am extremely fond of SF/detective story crossovers.  Many of them are less than satisfying, either as SF, as a mystery, or in some cases on both scores.  Richard Morgan is probably the best we have at consistently wedding the two, and Black Man is, if not his best book yet, still an engrossing and rewarding reading experience.  The setting is a century or so from now and, unlike most current SF, Morgan's view is even upbeat.  Most of the major conflicts have worked themselves out, the world is generally a safer and quieter place to live.  It is not, however, Utopian by any stretch, particularly to those who are genetic deviants, artificially generated mutants who are not only unpopular with "normal" human beings but who don't even share the same civil freedoms.  One of those is Carl Marsalis, bred to be a supersoldier, now despised even by other genetic sports because he earns a living hunting down renegades. 

Sevgi Ertekin is a police officer who is troubled by an elusive serial killer who may well have genetic enhancements of his own.  She recruits Marsalis, drafts him in essence, into the manhunt, and their subsequent investigations turn up even more revelations.   This is a more thoughtful, quieter novel than Morgan's Altered Carbon, with considerably less violence and more concentration on the slow unraveling of the truth.  It's obviously a commentary on prejudice and the ethical ramifications of genetic engineering, but Morgan avoids lecturing the reader, pointing the way to conclusions without stating them explicitly.  This went surprisingly quickly for such a long book, and readers on this side of the ocean should start watching for announcements of a US edition.  7/2/07

Selling Out by Justina Robson, Gollancz, 2007, £10.99, ISBN 978-0-575-07865-0

The sequel to Keeping It Real further blurs the borders between SF and Fantasy.  In fact, blurs is not the word for it, and though I'm reviewing this in the SF section, it really isn't despite the rationalization of how the magic worlds came to exist. The detonation of the quantum bomb changed reality and created a set of linked worlds, in some of which magic and legendary creatures are real. Our protagonist, Lila, was assigned to discover, in part to discover how it is that one of the elves has managed to incorporate elements of the magical nature of other worlds than his own.   In the first book we explored part of this new mini-universe, but now we get introduced to the world of demons and learn more about the differences among the planes of reality.

The first book, despite the magic, cast everything in scientific terms.  The author obviously considers that less necessary this time.  Lila, who is essentially a cyborg, is also host to the spirit of a dead sorcerer, so she has an identity crisis of epic proportions.  Her turbulent love affair with an elven rock star doesn't help much either.  There's considerable action, though not as much as in volume one, and more explication of the environment.  It was fun, but major suspensions of disbelief are required if you want to consider this SF.  The unique setting helped hold my interest, but as usual I have a problem when the two genres are so freely mixed. 7/1/07

Helix by Eric Brown, Solaris, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-472-1

I'm not sure just when I realized that I was actively looking forward to the next novel by Eric Brown.  It isn't that any one of his novels jumped out at me so much as the fact that after nearly a dozen of them I realized that I had enjoyed each and every one.  This one mixes hard SF with some good old fashioned space adventure.  A colony ship full of passengers in suspended animation suffers severe damage and is forced to abandon its original target and make an emergency stop, on a gigantic oversized artifact, a series of planets arranged like a necklace around their star, that will necessarily be compared to Larry Niven's Ringworld.

It would be simple, and boring, if they had just found a way to repair the ship and leave, but instead the minority of crew who are awake must make sense of their new environment, filled with enigmatic aliens, some of whom prove less than hospitable when these strange new arrivals try to cross their world, searching for a suitable place to establish the colonists.  My only complaint with this one is that the scale of things proves to be unnecessary since most of the story involves the interaction between humans and only one of the alien civilizations.  The portions of the story told from the point of view of the alien protagonist are actually my favorite parts, and that story could have been told on a much smaller scale.  That cavil aside, this is a well crafted adventure story, not Brown's best, but certainly not likely to disappoint his fans.  6/30/07

Reap the Whirlwind by David Mack, Pocket, 6/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4165-3414-3

I don't know why it is that the Star Trek universe seems much more circumscribed and ingrown than the Star Wars universe.  There have certainly been many more novels set in the former than the latter, but that disparity has grown increasingly irrelevant as the parade of titles continues.  I think in large part it is because most of Trek novels I've read, be they original, Next Generation, Voyager, or whatever, tend to be written to an obvious formula.  A spaceship visits another planet or point in space, encounters a problem, solves it and moves on.  Not a bad formula, mind you, but it does make it difficult to keep the separate adventures apart.

Periodically, the publishers have inaugurated new subsets, sometimes not even involving any of the characters from the television series, and some of these have suggested there may be life there yet.  That's almost the case with the Star Trek: Vanguard series, of which this is the third title, the second by David Mack.  The Vanguard is another Federation starship, in this installment contending for control of ancient alien technology on a remote planet, secrets which have also attracted the attention of the Klingons and the Tholians, both powerful empires.  What none of the parties realize is that there is another player in the game, a player thought long gone from the galactic stage, but all too present and about to be accounted for.  Readable space opera with a couple of interesting twists, but change a few names and details and this could have been Kirk or Picard or Janeway.   6/29/07

Killing the Rabbit by Alison Goodman, Bantam Spectra, 8/07, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-59011-1

Other than a young adult novel a couple of years back, I don't think I've ever previously read anything by Goodman, an Australian writer who makes her adult debut with this interesting scientific thriller.  The chief protagonist is a film maker who has recently received a substantial grant to make a documentary, but who seems to be on a self destructive slide, losing the money foolishly, getting paired with a cameraman who is, if anything, further along the descent into failure than she is.  And on top of that, the subjects of her film project are mysteriously disappearing, and in that lies the main plot.  Each of them has a unique mutation that allows them to reabsorb fetuses, sort of an internal abortion system.

The motive for the abductions and disappearances is logical but I'm not sure I entirely buy it, but the story is so well written that I'm not going to reveal that here.  I suspect this could have been a much more interesting story if the ramifications had been explored in more detail, but Goodman chose to write a mystery thriller instead.  It's pretty good as it is, but I can't help thinking about lost opportunities.  Goodman is another writer I'll be watching closely from now on.  6/27/07

Sacrifice by Karen Traviss, Del Rey, 2007, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-345-47740-8

The Star Wars novels have constructed a fairly detailed picture of life after the fall of the Empire, which is the time period into which this new novel falls.  The Republic has more or less been restored, but some of the former members have opted to secede, following the lead of Corellia, because of the growing autocratic leanings of the new government.  Han Solo and Leia have been implicated in an assassination plot and have become particular targets of the repressive forces, among whom are numbered one of their own children. Jacen, we know from other books in the series, is susceptible to seduction by the dark side of the force.  Jacen has become an influential and charismatic figure, and the personal power of his grandfather (Darth Vader, remember?) may have been passed on.

Jacen is a fairly complex character, although he becomes progressively less sympathetic during the course of the novel.  The angst gets a bit thick at times, but not enough to overwhelm the story line.  The only real problem I had with this one is that the plot seems almost inevitable; we're not really surprised by anything that happens.  Luke Skywalker and his wife appear as well but this one is more about Jacen's slide toward evil than anything else. Holds little of interest except to fans of the series.  6/24/07

Duty Calls by Sandy Mitchell, Black Library, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-465-3

 The message in this new Warhammer novel is "Look before you leap".  The planet of Periremunda has problems; its populace is revolting, as in trying to overthrow the government.  The government calls on the empire to support it and the response is to send in a force of crack troops, the Valhallas, with a charismatic leader, to put down the rebellion.  They expect to find nothing more threatening than a poorly organized, desperate, under equipped resistance movement, but they aren't on the planet long before the nature of the opposition makes them question their preconceptions.

The truth involves an alien race with a shared consciousness and a plot that has more far reaching implications than a single planet.  This one's above average for the Warhammer series, a mix of old style alien invasion and military SF.  The narration is occasionally interrupted with footnotes that really don't contribute anything to the story and should have been dispensed with.  Other than that, it's competently told and even exciting at times.  6/23/07

The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, 2007, £17.99, ISBN 978-0-575-07716-4

Reynolds returns to the universe of Revelation Space of his new novel, which is actually closer associated with Chasm City.  I have been a little concerned that Reynolds might stifle his career by confining himself to much to a single future universe, but there's no evidence of that in this one, his most suspenseful work to date.  The Glitter Band is a system of over 10,000 orbiting habitats located near the planet Yellowstone, each inhabited by a distinct culture, although every citizen among them has an equal vote conveyed through abstraction, a kind of artificially generated, limited telepathy or group consciousness.  On the rare occasion when the worlds of the Glitter Band have to act as a whole, that authority is exercises through Panoply, an organization that incorporates elements of traditional government, the police, and even the military. 

The chief protagonist is Tom Dreyfuss, a prefect of Panoply, who is investigating the destruction of a habitat, apparently the result of an intact by a ship of the Conjoiners, an offshoot of humanity who have become a kind of super cyborg, blurring the distinction between life and machine.  The Conjoiners are much larger factors in the earlier books, which in some cases take place later chronologically.  His early investigation suggests that the Conjoiners were framed.  We are then introduced to two separate menaces.  One is the Clockmaker, a mysterious artificial intelligence which is believed to have been destroyed but which left behind enigmatic artifacts that suggest its influence continues.  The second is the mysterious entity behind the murders, and in due course, an assault on the entire Glitter Band.  Dreyfuss is further hampered by his own incomplete memories of an earlier disaster, the existence of a traitor within Panoply, and a super-secret subset of the Prefects who are hiding their true purpose. 

I can't say too much about the second half of the book without giving away some of the mysteries that get revealed, but I will say that once things start rolling in earnest, you're not going to want to put the book down even for a few seconds.  Inventive, suspenseful, well constructed, and skillfully written, it's already on my short list for Best Novel of 2007.  6/19/07

Queen of Candesce by Karl Schroeder, Tor, 8/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1544-1

The first portion of this story, Sun of Suns, introduced the world of Virga, a vast balloon in effect inside of which various nations battle one another.  There was a pretty good plot as well, involving a quest for vengeance, secretive plots within plots, and so forth, but the real star of the novel was the brilliantly imagined and quite fascinating world, a creation to rank with Ringworld by Larry Niven, Raft by Stephen Baxter, and The Inverted World by Christopher Priest.  The second volume continues that story and resolves things, obviously, but not all of them, and it looks very much like there's going to be at least one more book in this series..

Sun of Suns ended with a cliffhanger, one of the protagonists apparently plunging to her death.  Now we discover that she has survived, only to find herself visiting nations far beyond the knowledge of her own people, with strange customs and ways, but still subject to the wiles and wherefores of an intelligent, scheming woman. But there is more at stake her than her comfort or even her life, because she holds a threat to the entire world of Virga in her grasp.  Before she's done, she'll overthrow a government, ruin a nation, cause war and insanity, but all in a greater cause.  As strong a character as she is, it's still the setting that upstages all of the characters and even much of the plot in this one.  Some very clever stuff wrapped in very good writing.  6/15/07

Seetee Sun by John Glasby, Gryphon Books, 2007, $16, ISBN 1-58250-084-3

The Crimson Peril by John Glasby, Gryphon Books, 2007, $16, ISBN 1-58250-085-1

Gryphon Books has for some time been publishing the Golden Amazon series by John Russell Fearn, more than two dozen short novels originally published in the 1950s and most never previously published in book form.  For those unfamiliar with Fearn, he was an immensely prolific writer whose prose style was less than scintillating but who had an undeniable gift for storytelling that often rose above the bad writing.  A little way, at least.  These two books are #28 and #29 in the series, both new works written by John Glasby in somewhat the style of Fearn, although there are fewer rough spots.

That said, they are pure space opera, implausible, melodramatic, scientifically suspect, and bear more resemblance to comic books than contemporary SF.  The Amazon is a kind of space traveling superhero whose friends are known as the Cosmic Crusaders.  In the first, the band of adventurers travels farther from home than ever before when a black hole transports them to another galaxy.  They explore some of the local planets and discover that warfare and armaments races are just as common there as in our own neck of the universe.  After various adventures, including a rescue operation, they triumph, only to face a new mystery in The Crimson Peril, a star that acts like no other known to humanity.  That leads to an exchange of hydrogen bombs with alien warships and a visit to a planet full of creatures with poisonous fangs. These are not literary treasures, obviously, but rousing adventure stories with no ambition to be anything but what they are.  Read at that level, they're a lot of fun, and reminders for us old fogies of days when SF was a simpler place.  6/13/07

Dune by Frank Herbert, audiobook by Audio Renaissance, 2007, $59.95, ISBN 978-1-4272-0143-0 

The first Ė and best Ė novel in a series that has inspired three motion pictures and countless fans over the years, since its first publication in 1965.  A plot summary seems superfluous here, but on the off chance you havenít read it, the setting is a distant future interstellar empire.  Duke Leto in his family are maneuvered into taking over management of Dune, or Arrakis, a planet mined for a drug which makes it possible for pilots to negotiate interstellar space, and inhabited by the fiercely independent Freemen and the indigenous, oversized sandworms.  Treachery and betrayal ruin Leto and his son, Paul, is cast adrift among the Freemen, where he rides to a leadership position thanks to his engineered destiny as Muadídib, a religious figure.  The corrupt galactic empire was an old standby of SF even in the 1960s, but Herbert made it grittier and more complex, and added some ecological awareness that helped make it resonate with a wider readership. 

The primary readers are Scott Brick, Simon Vance, Orlagh Cassidy, and Euan Morton.  Iím usually less pleased with audiobooks that attempt to turn their subject matter into a performance rather than a reading, but in this case the multiple readers worked all right.  The book comes on eighteen CDs, is unabridged, and runs about twenty-two hours.  This is the first title Iíve seen from this particular company, but I wouldnít be surprised if the remaining Dune novels donít follow. 6/13/07

Hurricane Moon by Alexis Glynn Latner, Pyr, 7/07, $15, ISBN 978-1-59102-545-0

I've been reading short stories by Latner for about ten years now, almost all of them in Analog, and have found her to be a reliable source of interesting and accessible stories of hard science fiction.  At long last we have a chance to read her at novel length, and it was worth the wait, although I hope we don't have to wait as long for her next.  It's an old fashioned space adventure, but with more contemporary sensibilities and healthy doses of intelligent and not too abstruse science.  Sometime in the future, the social and political situation on Earth has deteriorated and a private organization decides to send a colonization ship - with its passengers in suspended animation - to settle on a new world.  Unfortunately, it takes longer than expected for the ship's artificial intelligence to find a planet that satisfies its parameters.

The result of the delay is a deterioration in the physical makeup of the proposed colonists, one which affects fertility and general health.  The protagonist is the chief physician aboard the ship, who finds herself faced with a potentially fatal problem.  Fortunately, there is a brilliant biologist among the passengers who might be able to compensate for the problem if not reverse it, but his motives are questionable and there is some question as to whether or not he'll do what he's told. 

There's a secondary problem that lingers in the readers' mind, though perhaps not those of the characters.  At least not until later.  They have landed on one planet, called Green, in a double planet system.  The other, Blue, is a stormy wasteland that seems inhospitable.  But as the troubled colonists attempt to solve the problems they brought with them, they also face another perplexing mystery, because something on Blue is not quite right, not quite natural, and there's the possibility that they may face an even greater threat.  Extremely well written, tightly plotted, full of that old fashioned sense of wonder about the universe.  I hope to see much more from this author in the future.  6/11/07

Postsingular by Rudy Rucker, Tor, 10/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1741-4

Saying that the new Rudy Rucker is in many ways indescribable is probably redundant, since nearly all of his books stretch the boundaries of our imagination and twist our perceptions of the genre as well as the world.  His newest is no exception. It's about nanotechnology, sort of.  It's about telepathy, sort of.  It's about quantum physics, sort of.  It's about an invasion of Earth, sort of.  Some time in the very near future, the world is transformed by the advent of self-aware nanotechnology, which spreads through the world, altering humanity and the very laws of the physical universe.  People can read each other's minds, among other things, and travel from one perceived reality to another.  The problem with that is that travel works both ways, and inhabitants of those other realities are free to come to Earth as well.

The trouble really starts (or maybe I should say really begins to accelerate) with the arrival of oversized aliens from one of those realities, whose announced intention is to help humanity recover its collective composure and bring order to the reigning chaos.  But benevolent aliens are almost always suspect in SF, and that's the case here as well.  Are they really trying to help restore something like the status quo ante, or are they just trying to boss us around for reasons of their own?  "Physics below the Planck length is a scale-inverted image of the physics above the Planck length."  "Unfurl the eighth dimension!"  Wacky humor mixes with serious science in a world where your building materials actively cooperate in construction projects.  Come along for the ride but hold onto your hat...unless yours is willing to hold on for itself.  6/10/07

The War in the Air by H.G. Wells, Penguin, 2007, $15, ISBN 0-141-44130-5

I re-read this along with a bunch of other stuff by Wells a few years ago.  It's not one of his major works, obviously, but is part of an interesting literary tradition that flourished mostly in England in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the Future War novel.  Germany builds an air armada with which to invade North America, but despite wreaking havoc in all the major cities, they are unable to press their advantage and the result is a devastating war of attrition.  Wells predicts with some accuracy the inadequacy of air power as a sole means of military attack despite its effectiveness in destroying static objectives.  The war spreads to engulf the entire world and almost brings civilization to an end.  We see most of this through the eyes of a typical Wellsian hero, an Englishman marooned in America and desperate to get home.  If you've never read it, here's your chance.  6/9/07

MacArthur's War by Douglas Niles & Michael Dobson, Del Rey, 2007, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1287-7

The co-authors of this alternate history of the War in the Pacific have previously penned two novels of an alternate war in the European theater, both of which were quite good.  This one is somewhat in the style of Harry Turtledove's uchronian novels, but with a rather smaller and more workable cast of characters, a bit more plot than the obvious, and a more concerted effort to develop some of the characters.  They've done a very good job of portraying Douglas MacArthur in all his egomaniacal glory, and the rivalry between the Army and Navy during the early stages of the war reflects the historical record.  Their point of divergence is the Battle of Midway, which ends with the destruction of most of the US forces involved rather than vice versa, although the considerable damage they inflicted in the process temporarily halts Japanese expansion toward North America.  Then the atomic bomb project fails to produce and the question becomes whether to attack Japan to liberate the Philippines, or attack the Philippines, to secure it as a base for an attack on Japan.

The actual invasion of Japan - despite the large lettering on the cover - doesn't take place until relatively late in the book.  Before that, we concentrate in large part on the rivalry between MacArthur and Admiral King of the Navy.  All of the speculation that follows is entirely plausible and convincing in context, although I am sadly doubtful that Harry Truman actually could have defeated MacArthur in a general election, given his popularity at the end of the war.  Despite his questionable personal idiosyncrasies, MacArthur's brilliance as a strategist is reflected in this fictional version of his life.  This one should appeal to fans of alternate history, World War II buffs, and anyone looking for a thought provoking and well written story.  6/8/07

Recovery Man by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Roc, 9/07, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-46167-4

Here we have the sixth novel of the Retrieval Artists, a kind of private detective service in space.  Miles Flint is back, this time to discover an old secret in the organization's files that could have far reaching political and legal ramifications if it is made public.  This story is intertwined with a mystery.  Why was Rhonda Shindo abducted from Callisto and where is she now?  And why does the missing woman's employer want to get legal custody of her now temporarily abandoned child?  It should be obvious to most readers that the corporation is involved in something shady, but it's less obvious just what those dealings are and how they're related to the woman's abduction.

Although the protagonist is closer to a private detective than a police officer, this novel - and most of those that preceded it in the series - feel more like police procedurals, with a strong emphasis on uncovering evidence and evaluating it, less on skulking through dark alleys (or spaceship corridors) and physical violence.  Rusch made use of a brisk, rapid paced style throughout this one, short paragraphs, crisp dialogue, and the result in a quicker engagement of the reader with the story, and considerable momentum almost from the outset.  I think I enjoyed this one more than the others primarily because there seemed to be a tighter focus and - having read it in a single marathon sitting - there were obviously fewer opportunities (almost none in fact) for my attention to wander.   6/9/07

Vorpal Blade by John Ringo & Travis S. Taylor, Baen, 9/07, $25, ISBN 978-1-4165-2129-7

John Ringo recruits the help of Travis Taylor for this sequel to his earlier Into the Looking Glass.  In that story, an explosion destroyed a large chunk of Florida and opened a gateway to alternate worlds.  In that other reality, a monstrous alien race proved to be a deadly enemy. It doesn't take long before the entire human race is in peril, but our heroes rise to the occasion and save the day. Two major characters from that novel, a scientist and a military man, are back for this further adventure, this time with a ship of their own and a crew of marines to help them explore other worlds. 

Vorpal Blade is an amalgam of old style extra-planetary adventure with military SF, and with just a touch of hard science here and there.  You read this sort of thing for the story, not for the quality of the prose, although Ringo and company have proved to be better than some working this particular vein.  On the other hand, the dialogue is rather corny throughout, cute at times but more often distracting.  It veers a bit too far toward the military and away from the mystery of space exploration for my taste, but it does make me nostalgic for old style space opera where planets held unexpected mysteries and the universe was full of wonders.  6/7/07

Futures from Nature edited by Henry Gee, Tor, 11/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1805-3

The Best of Jim Baen's Universe edited by Eric Flint, Baen, 6/07, $25, ISBN 978-1-4165-2126-5

I suspect that the short short is a form that doesn't lend itself to any form of fiction except speculative, because that's the only genre in which the idea can be more important than characters, plot, or any other story element.  There are exceptions, of course, but I can't imagine a mystery collection of 100 very short tales finding a major publisher very easily.  The one I am aware of was particularly unmemorable.  This is a selection of one hundred of these, all drawn from the magazine Nature.  The contributors include a handful of unknowns, but also stories by Robert Silverberg, Dan Simmons, Stephen Baxter, Gregory Benford, Vonda McIntyre, Arthur C. Clarke, Bruce Sterling, Charles Stross, Nancy Kress, and others, a virtual who's who of modern SF.  None of these are classic stories, of course, but they're more than just lengthy jokes or vignettes, and several of them are even thought provoking.     

The second title here is a collection of stories culled from Baen Books' online publications, most of which have never previously appeared in book form.  They're split about half and half between SF and Fantasy, and there are a few brief articles appended dealing with the late Jim Baen, founder of the line.  I had only read about one third of the contents before, and quite a few of the stories are excellent.  Some of the best are by S. Andrew Swann, Jo Walton, Gene Wolfe, and Gregory Benford in SF, Elizabeth Bear and Esther Friesner in fantasy.  This is a larger than average collection and unlike most reprint anthologies, it's likely that most readers will have seen few if any before, even if they're voracious readers.  I'm not convinced that online fiction has a strong future, but this particular source is probably the strongest current argument in its favor.  6/1/07

The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fourth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois, St Martins, 7/07, $35, ISBN 978-0-312-36334-5

When I realized that this makes the 24th year that this annual has appeared, it made me feel considerably older, because I remember when the first appeared and in my memory it was relatively "recently".  As usual, it contains over six hundred pages of fiction and essays, including the lengthy Honorable Mentions listing.  There's even more diversity than usual in the sources for these stories, the prozines, original anthologies, small press, on-line publishers, and originals in single author short story collections.  About one third of the stories were new to me.

There's also a nice mix of established and new writers represented.  The former includes Michael Swanwick, Alastair Reynolds, Robert Charles Wilson, and John Barnes.  Among the latter are Cory Doctorow, Greg Van Eekhout, and Jack Skillingstead.  I was particularly impressed with the stories by Ian McDonald, Robert Charles Wilson, Mary Rosenblum, and Gregory Benford.  It goes without saying that there are no bad stories, and there is a slight tilt toward the literary, although rarely at the expense of good storytelling.  Dozois' lengthy summation of the year is almost worth the cost of the book alone, and the Honorable Mentions provide a good overview of what's being published in short form.   And I do appreciate having a story mentioned again this year, but I wish they'd spell my name correctly. 6/1/07