to SF Reviews

of SF Reviews

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


The Mask of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Pyramid, 1962 (originally published in 1932)   

Shan Greville, who took over as narrator in the previous Fu Manchu novel, is back for this one, which opens with the mysterious murder of an archaeologist in Persia. He’s part of a group which has dug up tablets by a legendary Muslim prophet and that has coincided with the rise of a new wave of cult activity connected to the legend, which naturally provides a tool for Fu Manchu. This was structured much more like a novel with a single plot and it was a definite step up for the series. Fu Manchu’s daughter is back along with her father, who has found a drug that restores some of his youth.  Our heroes continue to have a tendency to fall into traps and be captured, but they always seem to find a way to defeat him at the end. This one also includes an exciting confrontation at the Great Pyramid and virtually the entire story takes place in Egypt and Persia. The story ends in a sort of draw – Fu Manchu acquires the relics he’s after but apparently too late to further his plans for a new religious movement. This edition, incidentally, incorrectly states that it is the fourth in the series, where it is actually the fifth. 3/31/14

Lexicon by Max Barry, Penguin, 2014, $16, ISBN 978-0-14-312542-6

The first novel I've read by this author has an unusual premise. The government has discovered that certain people can be trained to use language in such a way that they can directly influence the behavior of others on a scale and to a degree the rest of us never suspect. But are the trainees constrained to be loyal to their masters? Not so much. Although this has a genuinely SF basis, it has the texture of a contemporary thriller, and actually a pretty good one. The sophistication of the idea - as opposed to some arcane computer code or new secret weapon - is refreshing and the author doesn't spend his time rhapsodizing about the items in each character's armory. The prose is fresh and fast moving, appropriate to the subject matter, and there are occasional bits of humor to break up the tension. I don't think Barry's previous novels fall into the genre, but I'd certainly pick them up if I saw them.

The Ghosts of Watt O'Hugh by Steven S. Drachman, Chickadee Prince, 2011, $12.99, ISBN 978-0-9913274-0-9

Watt O'Hugh Underground by Steven S. Drachman, Chickadee Prince, 2014, $12.99, ISBN 978-0-9913274-1-6

These are the first two books in a projected trilogy, the first one reprinted to coincide with release of the second. I'm calling this series SF because of time travel and some other things, but it's also a fantasy and at times arguably horror. The setting is - at least part of the time - the Old West, but one where magic and technology all impinge. In the opening book, we have time travel, a kind of murder mystery, a love affair, a wrongly imprisoned man, various trips through time, magic, dragons, ghosts, Oriental potentates and ancient mysteries, cameos by various historical figures, and a gunfight or two. It's kind of a kitchen sink plot and those usually don't work except in broad farce. This novel has some genuine humor but it's really not farcical, though sometimes whimsical. By the end of the second novel, we have a revenge plot, a Chinese version of Hell, a quest, more historical personages, and some derring do. The tone of the second is somewhat more sober than the first, but not by much. These are both intriguing and entertaining novels so long as you don't take things too seriously, and the author has been at some pains to keep them historically accurate, at least as much as his plot allows. Not the kind of thing you find too often, and that in itself can be a virtue. 3/29/14

Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories by Adam-Troy Castro, Prime, 2014, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-60701-408-9 

The only thing you know to expect with one of this author’s stories is that you don’t know what to expect. This collection of eight stories demonstrates that well, with everything from theater of the absurd to deadly serious. A woman has to cope with the return of her husband’s hands from war, hands which are still alive and which can communicate through some kind of computer. A hedonistic society gets a dose of reality every few days. There’s some space opera and some artificial intelligence and sibling rivalry and lots of other things. “Of a Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs” is probably the best story in the collection, but they’re so varied that comparisons are meaningless. Worth tracking down. 3/27/14

The Time Traveler's Almanac edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer, Tor, 2014, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-7424-0

The editors have put together here over 900 pages of time travel stories and occasional novel excerpts. There are classics like "Vintage Season" by C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner and "Yesterday Was Monday" by Theodore Sturgeon, obscure classics like Edgar Paige Mitchell's "The Clock That Ran Backwards," generally believed to be the first time travel story, and newer tales destined to become classics by writers like Gene Wolfe, and some more obscure stories. It was mostly the latter category that I read as I made my way through this, and with only one or two exceptions I found them all enjoyable. The only notable omission is that there aren't any changewar stories by Fritz Leiber and I would have expected to see "All You Zombies" by Robert A. Heinlein, but otherwise this covers pretty much every major type and practitioner of the time travel story. More content for your buck than you'll find almost anywhere else, and it's good content as well. 3/26/14

Not in Solitude by Kenneth F. Gantz, Berkley, 1959   

The only novel by this author opens with a large expedition – over one hundred men – penned up in their spaceship on Mars. Periodic radiation spikes have made it dangerous to go outside for long and there is a controversy about whether or not to try to find four scientists who have not reported back after setting out into a field of cactuslike trees that cover much of the landscape. Three men finally are allowed to make a final search before liftoff. They find one dead and three comatose men and bring them back, only to find that for some mysterious reason the ship’s engines will not operate.  The lichen eventually gets a foothold aboard ship amidst rumors of a saboteur and the reality of several murders. The prose is a bit clunky at times and there’s not a whole lot of characterization but the plot is quite good.  I suspect this is the uncredited inspiration for the Darren McGavin movie Mission Mars. 3/25/14

Daughter of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Pyramid, 1964 (originally published in 1930) 

Doctor Petrie is summoned when a prominent man appears to have died, amid suspicions that he may have fallen into a mysterious coma instead. Ten years have passed since Fu Manchu supposedly died and Petrie is now married to the woman who formerly served the oriental mastermind. As Petrie is about to revive the comatose man, his body is temporarily stolen, though recovered, and his abductor is identified as the daughter of Fu Manchu, still believed to be dead after his ship sank at the end of the third book. After a long chase across the desert, the narrator gets separated from Nayland Smith and Petrie and becomes a prisoner of Fah Lo Suee, the daughter, who can occasionally read minds. Smith has discovered that someone has called together representatives of all the oriental assassins’ guilds to reform the Si-Fan, a worldwide conspiracy of criminals. The narrator is rescued and discovers that he has been unconscious for a month and smuggled into England. Nayland Smith is still missing, however. He shows up, goes through some convoluted disguises and activities that are actually quite unnecessary, though dramatic, and we learn that Fu Manchu himself is alive and in London. Ultimately it is revealed that the daughter and father are at odds, and Fu Manchu actually assists Nayland Smith in some ways. Although this is less episodic than the earlier books, it resembles them fairly closely otherwise, though I didn’t think it was one of the better installments in the series. 3/24/14

When the Kissing Had to Stop by Constantine Fitzgibbon, Bantam, 1960   

Although well written, this near future political novel slips into political mania a bit too much. British opposition to nuclear weapons gets a boost when the Soviet Union falsely claims to be disarming. Radicals are swept into power, all American military is summarily expelled, and even conventional defenses are largely dismantled. Eventually this leads to the Soviet occupation of the British Isles. All of this would be chilling and suspenseful if the author had tried for a little more realism and hadn’t let his prejudices hang out. The anti-war movement is linked to an increase of vice and crime and the new government uses fascist tactics to create a police state with no public outcry. This is all pretty much nonsense and it dilutes the impact of the plot. Dated by events and by the author’s own shortsightedness. 3/22/14

Concealed in Death by J.D. Robb, Putnam, 2014, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-399-16443-0   

Nora Roberts strikes again with this new Eve Dallas mystery. Although ostensibly SF, this one is pure police procedural and other than a few fleeting references, it might be set in contemporary New York. When an abandoned building enters the early stages of renovation, a false wall is discovered behind which are the remains of two young girls. Within hours, ten more bodies have been located. The building was used as a shelter around the time of their death, and suspicion naturally extends to the brother and sister who are now running a more successful but otherwise similar operation elsewhere. This is very much in the style of the earlier books in the series, although with less banter than usual, so if you liked them you’ll like this one as well. The solution to the mystery is obvious fairly early, although not the details, but as usual it’s the trip and not the destination that matters. 3/20/14

Shipstar by Gregory Benford & Larry Niven, Tor, 2014, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-32870-0

Sequel to Bowl of Heaven, which took us to an enormous bowl shaped artifact which is home to varied intelligent races, a construct so large that it contains its own sun. The first novel provided us with lots of explanation about the object and how it works, but it turns out that the situation is a good deal more complicated than we were led to believe and that some of that explication consisted of red herrings. Reminiscent only in the broadest sense of the Ringworld novels, the artifact has more surface area than a million earths and is home to a variety of races. The structure is en route to a distant star system toward which the human colonists who are our protagonists were also traveling before the encounter, which is obviously more than a coincidence. Various characters have different adventures and see things from different perspectives, so we learn more about their new environment this time around, although the wary reader will now be warned that the authors may be misleading us once again in preparation for the third - I believe final - installment in the series. Filled with sense of wonder style situations, exotic settings, and good old fashioned story telling. 3/18/14

The Detainee by Peter Liney, Jo Fletcher Books, 2014, $26.99, ISBN 978-1623651084   

I have ambivalent feelings about this dystopian novel set on an island off the coast of North America. It’s a kind of post collapse world caught up in a virtual war between generations, or classes, or both. Elderly and non-productive people are exiled to the island – effectively an enormous garbage dump – where they have to scrape together a living as best they can. Violent crime is discouraged by satellites that zap offenders, but when it’s foggy, gangs come over from the mainland to kill and maim. The protagonist is a former criminal whose luck has turned bad. By chance he discovers a system of tunnels beneath the island which offer some hope of an escape, but is the rest of the world that much better? I like dystopias and there was a lot of this that I liked, but the protagonist never really came alive for me and I had nagging questions about how this situation arose that kept rearing their heads at awkward times. An interesting but not entirely satisfying debut novel. 3/17/14

Earth Star by Janet Edwards, Pyr, 2014, $17.99, ISBN 978-1-61614-897-3

Sequel to Earth Girl. I suspected this would turn into a series and I was right. The protagonist is a young girl who is effectively confined to life on Earth despite a diaspora to the stars because she is literally allergic to other planets. Earth, however, has seen better days and many of the former great cities are now just ruins. Her physical problems would normally relegate her to the role of an embarrassment and second class citizenry, but she performed heroically in the first book and has been recognized for her accomplishments. The prejudice against her limitations has not, however, gone away. But when humans and an alien race make contact, she might be the only one who can make that meeting a success. This is much more complex and inventive than the first book - probably a sign of growing confidence on the part of the writer - and what sounds like a simple, straightforward plot is in fact much more nuanced than it appears. At time I even forgot that this was intended for young adults. There's a little bit of contrivance to make a teenager this influential, but that's usually the case with YA novels.  Quite good. 3/16/14

The Day New York Went Dry by Charles Einstein, Gold Medal, 1964 

This author’s only venture into SF may prove to be prophetic. The premise is that the population growth in New York City will eventually outstrip the water supply and that one dry year could cause a catastrophe. The background is established gradually and logically, covering several years and showing incremental increases in demand and a growing but concealed alarm on the part of people who know what’s going on. The crisis only takes place in the second half of the novel. There are some political shenanigans, a massive advertising campaign to reduce consumption, and a plot to coerce large numbers of slum dwellers to emigrate to Africa. A little outdated in details but overall this holds up surprisingly well. 3/15/14

Xom-B by Jeremy Robinson, Thomas Dunne, 2014, $25.99, ISBN 978-1250031718

Elements of the zombie apocalypse mix with a future dystopia in this fast paced thriller. Society in the future was divided into masters and slaves until the masters were overthrown, although not eradicated. Although a sort of utopia has evolved, there are still elements of the older order and they introduce a contagion that turns people into homicidal maniacs, part of their devious plot to restore their old power. The protagonist is intent on finding a cure, but naturally that leads him to identify the ones responsible, and that's a secret that they cannot allow to become public. The two separate story strains work together better than I expected and readers are very unlikely to be bored. A blend of SF and horror wrapped around a mystery. 3/13/14

Conquest by John Connolly & Jennifer Ridyard, Atria, 2014, $26, ISBN 978-1-4767-5712-4   

First in a series about a future Earth occupied by alien forces. The alien Illyri are essentially human with a few cosmetic differences, both physically and mentally. They dominate ruthlessly and there are signs that their imperialistic tendencies have altered their own society, and not for the better. The authors haven’t made much effort to get their science straight – the possibility that humans and aliens could interbreed is so statistically unlikely that it’s virtually nonsense. Humans, predictably, have spawned scores of resistance groups most of which operate independently. Syl is a teenaged Illyrian girl who is the chief viewpoint character, and she’s just another typical teenager with no discernible alien traits at all. There are signs of an emerging civil war between the diplomatic and military factions among the aliens. But the Illyri are about to discover that they aren’t in control of the situation after all, that another race is secretly manipulating them. Enjoyable without being overly impressive; I had guessed what was going on long before I was supposed to. 3/12/14

The Day the World Ended by Sax Rohmer, Ace, originally published in 1929 

Although the Ace edition claims that this is not a part of a series, they are wrong; it’s a Gaston Max novel. Max is a French detective similar to Sherlock Holmes. Max and a two other investigators are tracking a mysterious organization believed responsible for the suppression of all radio emissions in New England for several days and the destruction by lightning of virtually an entire village in Europe. They track them to a remote castle in a region where vampire attacks and reports of giant bats have become common and spot seven foot tall armored figures moving on the walls of the castle. All three men have been warned off as well by mysterious, bodiless voices. The explanation involves a doomsday cult using advanced technology and it doesn’t make a great deal of sense. One of the author's weakest efforts. 3/11/14

Operation Shield by Joel Shepherd, Pyr, 2014, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-896-8

This is a new adventure of android Cassandra Kresnov, her fifth outing. Continuing the story begun in the previous volume, Cassandra has learned that the technology which created her has been perverted by some of the survivors of a prolonged interstellar war, and that war weariness has made it unlikely that the saner heads will prevail if it means taking up arms once again. In fact, some influential people are prepared to abandon their hard won freedom to avoid any further conflict. The straightforward story of her efforts to almost singlehandedly foil the menace is balanced with what is essentially her adoption of three children and the emotional turmoil caused by realizing that she has feelings for them that were not designed into her nature. This subplot does give the protagonist some depth but it occasionally jars against the action oriented plot that is the heart of the novel. 3/7/14

Trillionist by Sagan Jeffries, Edge, 2014, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-894063-98-2   

This first novel makes use of a gimmick which I don’t care for, although it’s not very important in this particular case. There are symbols in the book which can be scanned and apparently draw from the internet additional material about the story or the science mentioned within it. The story itself often feels more like fantasy than SF. It’s a portrait of a boy genius whose discoveries put millions of people in danger at one point or another, and it is in part an examination of the ethical consequences of that situation. There are some interesting bits here and there, but overall I was disappointed. The story never really takes wing and the prose is occasionally awkward.  Not particularly promising, or memorable. 3/2/14

The Judge of Ages by John C. Wright, Tor, 2014, $26.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2929-5

Third in the far future series that started with Count to a Trillion. An alien race has launched a fleet of ships millennia earlier which are finally within a few centuries of reaching Earth. Upon arrival, they intend to determine whether or not humanity is worth enslaving. Through suspended animation and other means, humanity has become effectively immortal and some of the recurring characters from the first two books are planning to deal with the imminent alien arrival in different ways. One wishes to transform the human race into something worthy of incorporation into the aliens' plans, and he has been experimenting with genetics and other methods throughout centuries. The other wants to outwit or outfight the slavers and pursue human destiny without interference. They are supported by a variety of other characters. This is all somewhat convoluted and you really need to read the first two books to understand what's going on, even though there is a lengthy chronology and list of characters provided. Wright's inventiveness is his strongest point and there are occasional lapses into talkiness, but none of them are fatally extended. I believe there are three more volumes planned in this series. 3/1/14

The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1912 

Professor Challenger claims to know the location of a plateau in South America where prehistoric animals still exist. His peers ridicule him an expedition is formed to investigate his claims which includes a famous explorer and a newspaper reporter who is supposed to provide an unprejudiced report. They don’t actually reach the top of the plateau where the lost world is found until halfway through the book, but the story of their journey through the jungle is nevertheless fascinating. Through the treachery of one of their hirelings, the four men are marooned on top of the plateau, where they are nearly killed by a swarm of pterodactyls early in their stay. After various adventures they discover the plateau is divided between a tribe of ape men and a tribe of humans, and they intercede for the humans to wipe out their enemies, before finally escaping to the world below. Very enjoyable. 2/28/14

Where the Rock Splits by Sky by Philip Webb, Chicken House, 2014, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-545-55701-6

Smasher by Scott Bly, Blue Sky Press, 2014, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-545-14119-5

There was a time when young adult science fiction was a thriving market where genre professionals like Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Andre Norton were not to proud to write and where the science was meant to be instructive as well as entertaining. That has largely gone away and in fact fantasy and horror have dominated this area for more than a decade. There have always been a few SF novels - mostly minor - but there seems to have been a recent uptick, and the quality has improved as well. The first and more interesting of these is set in a future after aliens have destroyed and altered some of the laws of physics on part of the Earth. The science is pretty much magic but the protagonist's journey through a very different version of North America is interesting and has some nice atmospheric touches. The second is rather more simplified. An evil genius in the future plans to release a new development that could have deadly consequences. To prevent this, a boy from the past with psychic powers - which also resemble magic - is brought forward through time to save the day. This one's okay but adults may find the characters too simplistic. I prefer my science a bit more rigorous than can be found in either of these two, but where Webb is clearly playing with the way things really work, Bly seems to just be dismissing them. 2/25/14

Mortal Dictata by Karen Traviss, Tor, 2014, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2395-8

Karen Traviss wrote a very nice series of space operas before she started working in a variety of tie-in universes, including this new Halo novel, related to the computer game. The vast interstellar war is over but that doesn't mean that it's a time of peace particularly. The colony worlds have a variety of demands, some justified and some not, some practical and some not. There were also injustices committed during the war that affected particular individuals, some of whom want revenge, or amends, or some other form of gratification now that the war is over. There are some secrets that could cause a great deal of damage if they are revealed, no matter how noble the purpose, and some people who are prepared to suppress their release, no matter how ignoble their methods. Readable adventure with a tinge of mystery, but I've never really warmed to the Halo universe. 2/21/14

Great North Road by Peter F. Hamilton, Del Rey, 2013, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-345-52667-0

There are some books by this author that I've really liked and there are others than I didn't care for at all. This fortunately falls into the former category since it consumed two full days of reading time. Teleportation portals have led to the colonization of other worlds including one which is dominated by a family of clones. When one of those clones is found murdered, the crime is reminiscent of an earlier one and suggests that the solution to the previous murder was not the right one. A plot line following the pattern of a police procedural then alternates with others including the search for what might be a mysterious humanoid alien whose existence was not suspected by the human population. I have found some of Hamilton's books to be rather bloated, and at one thousand pages or thereabouts this might have been another. Surprisingly there are very few slow spots and the plots zip right along. This might be his best book to date. 2/20/14

Space Relations by Donald Barr, Crest, 1973 

I recall enjoying this when it first appeared forty years ago, although Barr’s second and last novel wasn’t as good. John Craig is a highly placed official in an alliance of humans worlds which is trying to oppose the malevolent alien Plith. In order to do so, he wants to incorporate the planet Kossar, but Kossar is a slave society and that is forbidden by the covenant binding the alliance. He has a particular interest in Kossar because at one time he was a slave there, captured by raiders who seized the starship upon which he was traveling. His arrival ends the prelude and we are launched into the substance of the book, a recounting of his capture and enslavement and subsequent escape. Working as a slave in the mines, he takes advantage of an unexpected flood to ingratiate himself with his owner, helping her put down a rebellion by some of her military staff.  Although his owner invites him into her bed on a regular basis, there is no question that she is cruel and ruthless and Craig still watches for an opportunity to escape, which he eventually achieves. Now as ambassador, his very presence begins to undermine the stability of Kossar. Barr wrote a second novel several years later, but that was his last appearance. It’s a shame because he might have become one of the better writers of other world adventures. 2/17/14

Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon, Titan, 2014, $7.99, ISBN 978-1781162682 

This is a tie-in to the Alien movie series, set just after the first movie and somewhat contradicting the second. Ripley has been revived by the crew of a damaged mining ship in a deteriorating orbit around a barren planet. One of their landing ships has crashed into them and is carrying at least four aliens. Since they cannot stay where they are, they need to gain control of the landing ship, and that means killing the aliens aboard, then descending to the planet to retrieve equipment from the alien infested mines. This captured the intensity and tone of the movies better than most other Alien tie-in novels that I’ve read and is genuinely suspenseful.  There is, however, an annoying problem with this book. Almost any word that starts with “FI” or “FL” is portioned so that it looks like: “fin al fl ower.”  2/16/14

The Janus Affair by Pip Ballantine & Tee Morris, Harper, 2012, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-204978-0

Second in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurences series. Once again British citizens - chiefly suffragettes - are mysteriously disappearing and once again our two protagonists from the secretive investigatory organization must find out why and how. They're off and running, drawing once again upon a storehouse of anachronistic devices to help them battle the villains.  The pacing this time is much better than in the first and the two protagonists are rounding out their characters nicely. I saw a review that described this as The Avengers (Peel and Steed not Iron Man and the Hulk) set in a steampunk Edwardian setting and there's a good deal of truth to that. This one took up most of my day and I don't consider it a day wasted.  Book three is due out this year. 2/14/14

Phoenix Rising by Pip Ballantine & Tee Morris, Harper, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-204976-6

First in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series, set in a steampunk Edwardian England. Two agents of an ultra secret society investigate a series of mutilation killings which appear almost to be the work of vampires. They discover another secretive group, the Phoenix Society, whose goal is to restore the British Empire's glory and dominate the world. To do this they are using some new scientific developments which, alas, I cannot mention without giving away too much of the plot. It goes without saying that the protagonists are going to win out in the end, but the fun in this kind of book is the journey and not the destination. I did think it was a trifle too long; there were a few spots where I was impatient for the plot to move along a little faster. It wasn't a fatal flaw though, and I've already started the second in the series. 2/13/14

Reboots: Diabolical Streak by Mercedes Lackey & Cody Martin, Arc Manor, 2014, ISBN 978-1-61242-138-4 

This novella is the sequel to an earlier title which I have not seen. It makes use of a device I tend to think of in terms of C.S. Friedman, who mixed vampires and space travel years earlier. The device is similar here. A variety of paranormal creatures exist on Earth and their unique abilities make them ideal space explorers. How do aliens respond to werewolves? You’ll have to read it to find out. It’s an okay story but there’s not much beyond the initial interesting juxtaposition and since I’m rarely comfortable with something that mixes these two particular genres this way, I probably liked it less than most others readers. 2/12/14

Conditioned for Space by Alan Ash, Ward Lock, 1956    

The protagonist of this pretty bad SF novel was frozen for a century. When he wakens in 2055, his body has been surgically augmented to make him a superhuman and he has been assigned a mate so that he can produce super children. Except that they didn’t change his DNA, so this is pretty stupid. So is the claim that by filling his body cavities with amniotic fluid, he does’t need oxygen to breathe since that’s how babies do it! Anyway, there was an atomic war but England survived because it projected radioactive rays that destroyed incoming bombs. Now, however, someone in outer space is dropping radioactive dust into the atmosphere and the world is in peril. Since normal humans cannot survive long in space, our hero is supposed to be the first who can take the battle to the unknown enemy. The radioactive dust is being dropped from hundreds of flying saucers of unknown origin. Eventually our hero crashes on a planet astronomers somehow missed. It’s the usual – a dying world whose humanoid inhabitants want to migrate to Earth. He outwits them. Utterly awful. 2/11/14

The Troop by Nick Cutter, Gallery, 2014, $26, ISBN 978-1-4767-1771-5   

A scoutmaster and five Boy Scouts decide to camp on an uninhabited island off the coast of Canada where they encounter an emaciated man who eats everything in sight, and who destroys their radio – the only means they have of communicating with the mainland. He dies shortly afterward but a kind of tapeworm emerges from his body and since the scoutmaster is already infected, the five boys must put aside their differences if they are to survive. All the elements were here for a creepy, suspenseful story, but for me it just didn’t work. I think the biggest problem is that the kids didn’t feel like kids to me, and even their interaction with the adult seemed stilted and artificial. There are also some implausibilities. I can’t imagine why the scoutmaster would not have carried a cell phone for emergencies and the justification given – that he didn’t like being disturbed – is not adequate to overcome the inevitable objections of parents unable to reach their kids. His decision to operate on the dying man makes no sense either. A wasting disease could not be corrected by surgery, the doctor has no idea what’s wrong anyway or what he could do about it, and using a fourteen year old as his nurse struck me as absurd. I think it was also a mistake to reveal that the hungry man has escaped from a government experiment almost immediately, which eliminates that source of suspense as well. There are moments later on when  the story gripped me for a while, but never enough to pull me into the narrative enough to suspend my disbelief. 2/9/14

The Martian by Andy Weir, Crown, 2014, $24, ISBN 978-0-8041-3902-1

Many years ago I read a book called First on Mars by Rex Gordon. It was about a disabled spaceship on Mars and the efforts by the sole survivor to stay alive. I loved the book and read it at least three times during my teens. This new novel uses the same basic premise, but obviously it has been updated to reflect our current understanding of conditions on that planet and the technology that would be used to get people there. The protagonist is separated from the rest of the expedition, which believes him to be dead, and is forced to find a way to survive in the most hostile wilderness imaginable. While Gordon required a race of intelligent Martians to rescue his hero, Weir manages to find a plausible way for him to help himself. I read this through in a single sitting because it recaptured so much of that early sense of wonder about the universe that attracted me to SF in the first place. An excellent first novel. 2/4/14

Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest, Tor, 2013, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3407-7

Although I'm rather overdosed with steampunk, that didn't mean that I wasn't looking forward to the latest in the Clockwork Century series, or that I didn't like it as much as its predecessors. The inventor of a marvelous device that is a kind of primitive computer has stumbled onto a frightening discovery, one that involves the fate of the entire world. When an attempt is made to kill him and destroy his invention, he turns to ex-President Abraham Lincoln for help and receives the loan of some skilled security people. But even they may not be able to save him. I won't spoil things by mentioning what's going on but you might be able to guess some of it if you've read the previous books in the series. This one shows no decline in quality and it's another of those novels I read in essentially a single sitting. If you haven't discovered Priest before this, you're in for a treat. 2/2/14

Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh, Crown, 2014, $24, ISBN 978-0-385-34899-7

A bunch of SF themes are pulled together in this one, starting with a nuclear explosion in New York City which, obviously, changes the world rather dramatically. In the aftermath, the rich have become even more of a separate class, most of them indulging in virtual reality to escape the harsh realities. The protagonist is an ex-trash collector who reinvented himself after the explosion and who is now a sophisticated hitman, although his latest job is going to tax his intelligence, his ingenuity, and perhaps cost him his life.  The basic story is interesting and there's some quirky humor and ordinarily I'd probably have liked it a lot better than I actually did. This is, I believe, a first novel, and despite that the author decided to use present tense narration, which is tricky even for experienced writers. Although I admit to a prejudice against it, I have found examples where that form works reasonably well. Stories with strong elements of suspense and action are not in my experience suited for it. In this case, I was so aware of the authorial presence that the characters remained just that and I never really got involved with the story. 1/30/14

The Hand of Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer, 1917   

The third Fu Manchu novel continues the episodic style but with a stronger back story that makes it feel more like a novel. We learned in the previous book that Fu Manchu reports back to a council of his superiors and at the end of that novel he is shot in the head, presumably fatally. He’s back this time but partially paralyzed until he coerces a British surgeon into removing the bullet from his brain. Petrie and Smith seem to fall into his clutches a great deal and the former’s love affair hasn’t improved since the first book. This one ends with Fu Manchu apparently dead in a shipwreck, so even though Rohmer intended this to be the end of the series – and he wouldn’t return to it until fourteen years later. 1/29/14

Island of Fear by William Sambrot, Permabooks, 1963   

Most of the stories in this collection were originally published during the 1950s and in the Saturday Evening Post, and some of them don’t age well. “Space Secret”, for example, has an unmanned probe discovering a massive alien installation on the dark side of the moon. The somewhat similar “Control Somnambule” has a moon flight briefly interrupted when aliens capture the ship and study the pilot. A Russian flight to Mars discovers that the children of Hamlin crashed there after an alien pied piper lured them into his ship in “A Distant Shrine.” The title story is quite good. A man investigates an enclosed area on a remote Greek island and discovers that it is the home of the Gorgons. In “Creature of the Snows” a journalist has a chance to prove the existence of yetis and decides not to. “Nine Days to Die”, which describes the death of a man accidentally exposed to nuclear waste, is not SF. Yetis return in “The Secret of the Terrible Titans,” this time to play college football. “Invasion” is a very minor story about an air crew during a Soviet invasion of West Germany. “Report to the People” is a positively awful story about Martians secretly controlling the world. A solar flare interrupts communications and almost sets off a nuclear war in the very minor “Deadly Decision.” “The Man Who Knew” is about clairvoyant dreaming. “Cathartic”, the only story to appear in a dedicated SF magazine, is a vignette about a space parasite that absorbs silica and destroys a planet. In “The Second Experiment” the first traveler to Venus discovers that it is a new Eden and that God is correcting his earlier mistake – us. Trivial. The final story, “A Son of Eve”, is not SF. A native of Eniwetok stays behind and receives fatal radiation exposure during nuclear testing. Only the title story is really memorable. 1/27/14

The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer, 1916  

The second Fu Manchu novel follows the same pattern as the first, a series of individual episodes strung together without any underlying narrative except the battle between the evil genius and Denis Nayland Smith. It even opens with the same basic situation – Smith showing up unexpectedly at Petrie’s office to solicit his assistance in saving a prospective victim. The slave girl who fell for Petrie in the first book is back in Fu Manchu’s clutches, apparently having been deprived of her memory of everything that happened during their previous adventures. So we also have a repeat of her apparently falling in love again. The misogyny is more obvious than in the first book as well. Fu Manchu strikes at his enemies with snakes concealed in walking sticks and cats with poisoned claws. There is also an apelike creature that has arms more than four feet long so that it can strangle people without entering a room. Many of the encounters are resolved by luck rather than skill and there are too many coincidences to even list. 1/25/14

Summer Falls and Other Stories edited anonymously, BBC, 2013, $12.99, ISBN 978-1-849-90723-1

Three novelettes related to the Doctor Who universe make up this book, of which at least two appear to have been previously published separately. Two of them are by Justin Richards, one under the name Melody Malone, and I think the third is by James Goss as Amelia Williams. Each of the three involves an encounter with a perfectly ordinary object - a painting, an acting stint, and a snowman - each of which turns out to have a dangerous adventure attached. The weeping angels appear in the middle story, which is also the best of the three. Fairly standard Doctor Who fare without the Doctor, but both writers have been doing this long enough to do it pretty well. 1/23/14

The Insidious Doctor Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer, 1913 (originally published as The Mystery of Fu-Manchu

This was the first of more than a dozen Fu Manchu novels, of which the first three were more or less fixups of shorter pieces. After a considerable gap of time, Rohmer resumed the series and the books from that point on are more properly novels. Fu Manchu was an Oriental mastermind who controls the Si-Fan, an international criminal organization intent upon world dominance. He is opposed by Denis Nayland Smith, an agent of the British government, and Dr. Petrie, an apparent nod to Holmes and Watson with Fu Manchu as Moriarty. Petrie is the chronicler of the adventures, a writer in his spare time. The Fu Manchu series reflects the Yellow Menace fear of that time and Smith asserts that he is fighting for the preservation of the white race rather than just for democracy or freedom. In the opening sequence, Smith fails to prevent the murder of a British politician and becomes the target for assassins who use a poisonous insect, choosing their victims by sending them a perfumed letter whose scent attracts the killer. After that, they look into the mutilation deaths of two policemen who might have been on Fu Manchu’s trail, and the seductive slave of the evil mastermind appears to have fallen in love with Petrie. They find Fu Manchu’s current lair but he escapes. They thwart his next plot by locating an underground hiding place on an estate, but then a prominent travel writer accidentally escapes a murder attempt by means of an unknown gas pumped into a sarcophagus. Smith and Petrie are briefly captured, helped to escape by the mysterious woman, and then thwart a thuggee attack on yet another prospective victim. There are several more episodic adventures, some of which Fu Manchu wins, involving captures and escapes, giant mutant fungi, and a drug that creates a simulation of death. Ultimately Fu Manchu escapes and returns to China. There are some problems with the book. Smith and Petrie win through more often because of the perfidy of Fu Manchu's female slave than through their own wits or brawn. Their is also some blatant racism. Despite that, the book is exciting, inventive, and highly atmospheric. 1/17/14

Limit by Frank Schatzing, Jo Fletcher Books, 2013. $29.94, ISBN 978-1623650445 

I read this German author’s previous SF novel, The Swarm, and thought it should have won a Hugo. This new one is even longer, more than 1200 pages, and I’m inclined to say the same thing again. It reminded me of Neal Stephenson in many ways although it has its own distinct flavor. The first hundred pages or so introduce a lot of characters – a group of very rich people arriving at a plush hotel at the base of a space elevator, a cable that boosts cargo and passengers to a space station in geosynchronous orbit. There is considerable technical explanation here, well done though perhaps a bit familiar to seasoned SF readers. Either the author or more likely the translators make one small but irritating error, using the word “interstellar” when they mean “interplanetary”, but overall it seems technically accurate. This story alternates with that about a young Chinese dissident who had disappeared. A transplanted Englishman is asked by her father to locate her, but there’s someone else on her trail as well, a man who is concerned that she may have used her hacking skills to acquire some unspecified but highly sensitive information. The plot begins to accelerate with two revelations. One of the parties searching for the missing hacker is willing to kill people who get in his way, and one of the guests on the moon is actually a secret agent who retrieves a mysterious piece of technology from a crashed rocket near the lunar hotel. There's a nicely portrayed and relentless villain, several very exciting chase sequences, and a plot that is both complex and easy to follow. It took three days to read it but it was well worth the investment of time. 1/4/14

Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald, Pyr, 2014, $17.99, ISBN 978-1-61614-865-2

The third in the Everness series takes our heroes into an alternate version of the solar system, which I suppose technically makes this a parallel world rather than an alternate history. A gigantic structure has been built that extends from mercury to Jupiter. They also encounter a rival civilization evolved from dinosaurs whose technology makes them more or less equals but they are also divided into rival nations. The visitors from our reality find themselves pawns between the two powers as well as emissaries from a very different civilization. This series is apparently intended for young adults so it lacks the complexity of the author’s better novels, but like its predecessors this is a finely constructed adventure story infused with that old fashioned sense of wonder. 1/1/14