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


Meglos by Terrance Dicks, Target, 1983 

There’s a power struggle over the source of all commercial power on a remote planet and the Doctor lands right in the middle of it. An intelligent plant – Meglos – has trapped the Tardis in a time loop. Meglos then impersonates the Doctor for a while and does some bad stuff, so when the real Doctor shows up he is promptly arrested. The trick by which the Doctor escapes the time loop is nonsense and all of the characters act with such a great deal of silliness that the story holds no true conflict and very little interest. 3/29/16

Casey Agonistes and Other Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories by Richard McKenna, Ace, 1978   

Five stories by one of the most talented writers of the 1950s and 1960s, although he was never prolific and died young. One of these, “The Secret Place,” won a Nebula. Three of them contend that reality is mutable, that we see the world we expect to see. “Mine Own Ways” is a powerful story of anthropologists among primitive alien hominids. “Hunter, Come Home” suggests that humanity is its own worst enemy. The title story is about an imaginary creature conjured by a group of dying men who becomes real, after a fashion. “Fiddler’s Green” is about another group of dying men, who in this case escape into an alternate reality. One of the best single author collections  by a writer who is, alas, largely forgotten in the field today. 3/27/16

Signal by Patrick Lee, Minotaur, 2015, $25.99, ISBN 978-1-250-03078-8  

The sequel to Runner has an interesting if not completely plausible premise. Scientists stumble on a device that can record radio transmissions from several hours in the future. Our hero is on the run from an organization that has found ways to exploit this capability and plan to use it to change the power structure in the world. The author has given some thought to how such a discovery might be exploited, but I was never really convinced that it was plausible and thought of various other wrinkles that he overlooked or ignored. Lee is superb at chase stories though, which is  mostly what this is. 3/23/16

The Leisure Hive by David Fisher, Target, 1982   

The Doctor and Romana travel to a planet famous for its vacations, but they find another tense situation. The inhabitants have become involved in a war with another race and one of their number plans to break the power balance by using technology to recreate himself in large numbers, providing an army sufficient to win the war. The Doctor knows that peace is imminent so he undercuts the plan by creating an army of himself and by sabotaging the equipment. This was one of the better scripted Doctor Who adventures during the Tom Baker era. 3/20/16

Live by the Code by Christopher L. Bennett, Pocket, 2016, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4767-7913-3  

Star Trek Enterprise was my least favorite entry in the various iterations of the tv series, but the tie in novels have been more interesting. Politics lead to strange bedfellows in this story set before the Federation had its more familiar form. Starfleet is unofficially battling an odd alliance that includes a Klingon faction that hopes to overthrow their own government. When some of Starfleet’s officers are taken prisoner, a single ship is dispatched to try to free them, by one means or another. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Klingon Empire suspects humans of being behind their own dissidents.  The story is solid but sometimes a bit confusing, in large part because there are so many characters to keep straight. 3/17/16

If These Be Gods by Algis Budrys, Armchair, 2014, bound with Address Centauri by F.L. Wallace (magazine appearance 1957) 

This novelette is pretty good up until the point where it runs to SF. A small group of passengers are on a flight to the West Coast when a flying saucer inadvertently hits them. All but one are rescued by the Venusians, who are human, and they are told that they will be taken to Venus for the remainder of their lives. Two of them escape by stealing one of the saucers, which they can somehow operate. Not much of an ending and not particularly imaginative. Budrys was just making time with this one because he had already begun to write much better stories. 3/15/16

The Blood Red City by Justin Richards, Thomas Dunne, 2016, $26.99, ISBN 978-1-250-05921-5 (originally published in 2014) u277 

Sequel to The Suicide Exhibition. Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote a now rather obscure SF novel about the Vril, an alien race living beneath the Earth’s surface. Justin Richards has re-imagined that theme for the Never War series. The Vril have been in a kind of suspended animation which is coming to an end in the midst of World War II.  The Nazis hope to make use of them for their own purposes while the Western powers are more concerned at heading off the conquest of the world. This volume chronicles the adventures of individuals on missions to gain intelligence or to undercut the Nazi plotters. The story is lively and inventive, one of those adventures which really isn’t entirely plausible, but where it doesn’t matter because the storytelling is entertaining enough that we don’t notice. A nice blend of old fashioned and new fangled writing in the same work.  Looking forward to the next in the series. 3/14/16

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold, Baen, 2016, $27, ISBN 978-1-4767-8122-8 

Although this novel is set in the universe of Miles Vorkosigan, he is a minor character in the story. His mother, Cordelia, is recovering from the death of her husband and plans to raise daughters by fertilizing eggs with her late husband’s sperm. She also suggests that a mutual friend, Admiral Jole, raise a son of his own, using the same biological material. This leads to lengthy conversations and much soul searching, but not much of any actual plot. There are side stories about an ambitious ambassador and the difficulty of finding reliable contractors for the construction of a new military base, but there are all sideshows. Fans of the series might be startled by the different tone of the book, but the last few have been more novels of manners than adventure stories, so they shouldn’t be too surprised. I found it a bit slow but readable. 3/12/16

The Six by Mark Alpert, Sourcebooks, 2015, $16.99, ISBN 978-1-49261529-3 

This YA virtual reality adventure novel revives a plot I thought had pretty much gone the way of the dodo. The protagonist is a teenager with a fatal disease who is confined to a wheelchair except when he explores virtual reality worlds. His father has invented a method of recording his personality digitally so that he will be able to survive – although it’s just a copy of him and not really the same person – after his body fails. Unfortunately his father also invented an artificial intelligence which has gone rogue and plans to destroy the world. This seems to be a universal property of AI programs in fiction. So our hero and a few friends have to suit up, virtually, and engage in a duel to the death. Some nice scenes here and there, with the caveat that this is told in present tense, but overall it is a bit too familiar. 3/11/16

New Blood by Matt Forbeck, Gallery, 2016, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-5011-2808-0

I have never played the Halo game in any of its iterations so I have no idea how loyal in tone or subject matter the various tie-in novels have been to their source. This particular novel is set following the Covenant War, which apparently involved an alien attack on Earth. The protagonist is one of an elite group who distinguished themselves during that conflict and just as he is about to consider retirement, he is approached with the idea of creating a new version of that group in anticipation of new troubles, both internal and external. Obviously he decides to take the job, or there wouldn’t be much of a story. Although competently written, this reads too much like a number of other military SF novels I’ve read and I had a sense of déjà vu through most of the story. 3/5/16

Life Everlasting by David H. Keller, Hyperion, 1974 

This collection consists of the title novel plus several unrelated short stories, and it includes most of the best work by this writer. The novel is relentlessly naïve. A scientist develops a serum that cures all human illnesses, even physical disfigurement. It also “cures” bad thoughts so that everyone becomes a civic minded Christian. There is not much plot and only passing references to the effects this would have on the structure of society, but it’s amusing.  “The Boneless Horror” is the story of a battle between ancient kingdoms possessing super-science and it is reminiscent of Clark Ashton Smith. “Unto Us a Child Is Born” is a standard dystopia. “No More Tomorrows” is about the perception of time. “The Thing in the Cellar” is one of Keller’s best – a boy is terrified that there is something evil in the cellar, and he’s right. “The Dead Woman” is about a man who is convinced his wife is a zombie. “Heredity” is a bad story about retrograde evolution. “The Face in the Mirror” deals tritely with split personality. There’s a dangerous experiment in “The Cerebral Library” and a suicide in the non-fantastic “A Piece of Linoleum.” “The Thirty and One” is a tale of barbarian warriors. Overall, an uninteresting collection of minor stories. 3/4/16

Unity by John Leahy, Necro, 2016, $13.95, ISBN 978-1939065889  

This is a novel of obsession. The protagonist grows to maturity with an emotionally flat personality and two obsessions. First is a fascination with viruses that leads him to become a leader in that field with employment by the government. The second is a need for the company of beautiful women which reaches its culmination when he falls in love – or more properly in lust – with an actress. His determination to possess her leads to a plan to unleash Armageddon and in short order most of the world has become depopulated. His plan seems to be working perfectly. The only thing he didn’t anticipate was that the object of his desire might have plans – and an obsession – of her own. Nice apocalyptic fiction with a strong core plot. 2/28/16

The Great Flying Saucer Invasion by Geoff St. Reynard, Armchair, 2014, bound with The Big Time by Fritz Leiber. Magazine appearance in 1954 as Don’t Panic

Earth is invaded and essentially conquered by an alien race that wants to transport the planet to their own system where they have already gathered many others. A handful of people kidnap a couple of the aliens, discover the truth, and as it happens one of their number is secretly an alien from a different race that opposes the invaders. He tells them how to rig one of their saucers so that it will cause a chain reaction and destroy their entire fleet of 20,000 vessels. This seems like a pretty blatant design flaw to me. Silly but not badly written otherwise. 2/13/16

Chaos Theory by Graham Masterton, Severn House, 2007 

This is only marginally SF, a secret history story. A stunt man recovers an amulet and his awareness of its existence makes him and everyone near him the targets of an enormous international conspiracy designed to keep the world from ever experiencing peace. The society has existed since antiquity and includes people from a wide variety of countries. They are responsible for the assassinations of William McKinley and John F. Kennedy among many others. Our heroes survive a number of attempts on their lives - or at least some of them do - and the survivors eventually hit upon a plan to keep themselves safe, although the secret society is only mildly inconvenienced in the process. Starts off well but slow midway through and the ending is a complete letdown. 2/12/16

Brotherhood in Death by J.D. Robb, Berkley, 2016, $28, ISBN 978-0-399-17089-8 

A prominent man is found tortured to death in his home after he was reported to have been abducted. Eve Dallas is on the case, which becomes more complex when a second man is found murdered in the same fashion. She immediately suspects that the two men were involved in a rape because of the sexual nature of the torture, and it isn’t long before she has identified three of the suspects, although she has no proof. And then all three of them disappear, along with a third man from the same circle of friends. This police procedural has only the window dressing of SF – robot servants, some advanced computer stuff, and the date 2060. It is also the 40th book in this popular series. Although formulaic and to some extent predictable, it was still a gripping and entertaining story. 2/11/16

Death Plays a Game by David V. Reed, Armchair, 2015 (magazine version 1941) 

This was not one of the author’s better efforts. The protagonist is a gambler who is being pursued by the authorities as he travels from one planet to another. The first half is a pretty standard space adventure, but then a mysterious alien race shows up as well as some odd artifacts. It turns out that the aliens like to gamble as well, but the stakes are considerably higher and involve a much higher level of technology. Okay story, but a rather pedestrian delivery. 2/7/16

System Wipe by Oli Smith, Puffin, 2011, $9.99, ISBN 9781-405-92250-0

This is a Doctor Who novel for younger readers so it's really only a novelette. The Doctor is trapped in a virtual reality world whose inhabitants face being wiped out thanks to a malevolent virus that has been introduced into the system. Naturally he saves the day, following some low key adventures. It's an okay story for the target group, but adult readers are likely to find it lacking substance. 2/4/16

The Latter Fire by James Swallow, Pocket, 2016, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4767-8315-4

At some point in the past, the Enterprise ran into a disabled alien ship in space and helped with repairs. The aliens were unknown to the Federation and now it's time to contact them formally with a mission to their home world. Everything looks fine initially, but then it appears that they have had a major jump start to their technological base and it may be that someone aboard ship has violated the Prime Directive. Okay, I hate the Prime Directive. I think it is silly, badly managed, unworkable, and at times downright evil. I find it particularly nonsensical when we're talking about a spacegoing culture. Every culture would have different technologies and it would be impossible to prevent cross fertilization. But for the sake of this story, I tried to suppress my revulsion for the whole concept. There's also a mysterious alien creature thrown into the mix. The story was entertaining enough to keep me reading and everything gets tied up at the end. Swallow is one of the better writers working in the Warhammer tie-in universe as well. 2/3/16

The Martian Anthology edited by David B. Riley, SF Trails, 2016, $11.97, ISBN 978-1523211906

Mars has always been my favorite fictional planet, everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.G. Wells to Kim Stanley Robinson and Greg Bear. This is a collection of short stories set on that world or thereabouts ranging from realistic to pastiches of various classic SF stories. The contributors include Cary Osborne and David Lee Summers, but most of the rest of the names were new to me. Most of the stories are entertaining though only a few of them managed to capture the magic of Mars that I remembered. Maybe I'm getting old. It's a good buy for the price. 2/1/16

The Country Beyond the Curve by Walt Sheldon, Armchair, 2015 (magazine version 1950)

One of the few non-specialists of the future submits to an experiment and finds himself in an alternate reality where humans have divided into three distinct types. He has various improbable adventures before upsetting the order of things and then finding his way back to his own reality. Although this is minor and often rather silly, Sheldon’s prose is a lot better than that of most of his contemporaries. He was much better writing mysteries though and ghosted at least one for Ellery Queen. 1/31/16

The Cosmic Looters by Edmond Hamilton, Armchair, 2014, bound with Wandl the Invader by Ray Cummings.  Magazine appearance 1958. 

Although this was from late in Hamilton’s career, it reads more like his stuff from the 1930s. An alien woman abducts a human man after he tells her he cannot plausibly warn the world of an imminent attack from space without concrete proof. They travel to another star system where he gets firsthand knowledge of a rapacious alien force that loots entire planets. Implausible, hastily written, and without the imaginative twists that make some of Hamilton’s work rise above its subject matter. 1/30/16

The Orion Plan by Mark Alpert, Thomas Dunne, 2016, $25.99, ISBN 978-1-250-06541-4 

It’s hard to write an alien invasion story that isn’t just a rehash of old material, but Mark Alpert does a good job with this story of a strange object that crashes in a park in New York City and promptly tunnels into the ground, taps into the electrical system, and plants portions of itself in passersby. The invader calls itself the Emissary, an artificial intelligence which tries to establish direct communications with the bodies it infects, but only one of them - a broken down alcoholic who used to be a doctor - is supposedly suitable. It is not clear if its intentions are malevolent or not. There are a couple of rough spots early on. The doctor turned homeless drunk is still smart enough to remember his medical training but somehow implausibly believes that he will be rewarded with thousands of dollars for reporting the location of the crash. There is also a bullying scene when he is in jail which is about as stereotyped as a scene could possibly be. The plot breaks down a bit later on as the inevitable obsessed general concocts a rather implausible story to justify destroying buildings in Manhattan, while apparently the news media is all on vacation. I don't entirely buy the solution to the problem that ends the story, which I won't reveal here, but it was still good enough to keep me reading intently until the end. And I'm looking for earlier Alpert books I have missed.1/28/16

The Last Two Alive! by Alfred Coppel, Armchair, 2015 (magazine version 1950)

Alfred Coppel wrote a lot of good fiction but most of it was outside the SF genre. Some of it that was within the genre was decidedly inferior although he did some entertaining novels under his own name and as Robert Cham Gilman. This is a case in point. An interstellar dictatorship is challenged by a military leader who is even worse. A small group of rebels tries to avert an interplanetary war involving biological weapons, but they fail and eventually everyone dies except for the two protagonists. In case you didn’t figure it out already, their names are Aram and Deve. 1/25/16

The Horns of Nimon by Terrance Dicks, Target, 1980 

This was a fairly good Doctor Who serial in which the Doctor and Romana crash into a spaceship full of slaves. The slaves are to be sacrificed to Nimon, an alien who looks a lot like a minotaur, and Romana is among them while the Doctor is stranded in a malfunctioning Tardis. Nimon isn’t very competent and doesn’t control his minions very well, and the Doctor is witty and acerbic. Nimon has a hidden plot, of course, and the bad guys are about to be foiled by even badder ones until the Doctor intervenes and everything works out. 1/23/16

Transgalactic by James Gunn, Tor, 3/16, $26.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-8092-0 

Sequel to Transcendental, which is also quite good. Two of the protagonists from that novel have gone through the alien transcendental machine, which is actually a matter transmitter which reassembles its users without certain imperfections. These leaves them with some previously unsuspected more than ordinary human powers. But they have been separated along the way and they have to find each other if they are going to set about saving the galaxy from itself. And they still have enemies from their earlier lives to contend with. They tidy up some of the problems, but there’s a clear indication of a sequel. Gunn’s story blends questions about what it is to be human with good old fashioned sense of wonder sequences, all delivered in a nice, clear prose style. This was a fun read. 1/21/16

Arkwright by Allen Steele, Tor, 3/16, $26.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-8215-3 

Nathan Arkwright is a fictional science fiction writer who became quite rich and whose dream of space travel dominated his life. Partially estranged from his family, he leaves his fortune to a foundation which encourages technologies that might contribute to interstellar colonization. Generations pass in which some of his descendants take part in the quest, which eventually results in the launching of a sublight ship containing embryos that will be nurtured and raised by an artificial intelligence once they reach a habitable world. The story ends, of course, with an episode on the colony planet. As always Steele presents credible science and well drawn characters to support his story line, and it would not surprise me if one day this was indeed the only realistic way to reach the stars. My only cavil was that I was never really convinced that the AI could raise, feed, and educate the first generation, which is never really described in enough detail. There’s a touch of melodrama – late in the century an asteroid threatens to collide with Earth – but for the most part this is a realistic novel that addresses difficulties that writers often tend to ignore. 1/20/16

The Whisper of Death by Harl Vincent, Armchair, 2015 (magazine version 1933) 1803 

Although the rationale for this story is hokey, it has a surprisingly sophisticated theme for its period. A secretive group with communist leanings has developed a ray that will dissolve gold. They intend to bankrupt all of the remaining capitalist states by depriving them of the basis of their economies. The title refers to the side effect that all sounds are suppressed in the area where the ray is operating. The good guys figure out who is responsible, foil them, and use the ray to recreate the missing gold. 1/18/16

The Time-Raider by Edmond Hamilton, Armchair, 2015 (magazine version 1927)

Although this is very old fashioned, Hamilton always told exciting stories and this is something of a break from the space adventures he was known for at the time. A scientist is kidnapped by a time traveling entity and two of his friends develop their own time machine in order to rescue him. This brings them to a dangerous future world that has borrowed various aspects of the historical past as a pattern for their own society. But not very accurately. If you don’t mind the bad science, this is readable. 1/16/16

Dawn of the Demigods by Raymond Z. Gallun, Armchair, 2015 (magazine version 1954)

The discovery of some near microscopic tools in space leads to the development of what we would now call nanobots, into which explorers can project their own consciousness. They travel into space and find an entire race of tiny androids, but they underestimate the danger since the androids can get inside a human brain and manipulate the behavior of their host. Sounds pretty melodramatic but Gallun had a very dry style that reduces this almost to the level of a discussion rather than a story. Shaky science doesn’t help. It’s only a novelette but it still seemed to go on for far too long. 1/14/16

A Pocket Full of Lies by Kirsten Beyer, Pocket, 2016, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4767-9084-8

A Star Trek Voyager novel. I disliked this iteration of Star Trek on television, but the tie in novels have been considerably better. Following first contact with a new alien species, who have engaged in a kind of cataloguing of the galaxy and its peoples, Admiral Janeway is introduced to them, eliciting an exaggerated and puzzling response. It seems that an exact duplicate of her has been seen helping one of two warring planets and her doppelganger's presence has proven to be just enough to tip the balance. The solution to this puzzle involves manipulation of time lines and other variables and I thought it was just a bit too contrived to be convincing. Beyer writes well, however, and some of her Trek novels have been quite memorable. This one falls just a bit short. 1/13/16

Sons of the Deluge by Nelson S. Bond, Armchair, 2015 (magazine version 1940)  

This short novel has one of those overdone plots that no one writes any more. Two adventurers run into a man in Mexico who claims that he has awakened from suspended animation and that he lived in the time of Atlantis. He has now built a time machine with which he plans to go back and raise the alarm so that the doomed island can be abandoned, and circumstances force the adventurers to accompany him. There they annoy a priest, get caught in a war, and overcome various obstacles before failing, inevitably, to convince anyone that the end is near. Bond was a good enough writer to keep this interesting but it’s too familiar and too predictable. 1/11/16

Alcatraz of the Starways by Albert de Pina and Henry Hasse, Armchair, 2015 (magazine version 1943)  

This mildly confusing space opera involves efforts by colonists on Mars and Venus to free themselves of the repressive rule of Earth. The protagonist is a special agent caught in the middle of the conflict, with doubts about where his own loyalties should lie. This somehow leads him to the planet Vulcan, which is a prison world, where he and an exiled princess have to figure out just who is behind a conspiracy to stifle trade among the worlds. Tedious and badly plotted. 1/8/16

The Nightmare of Eden by Terrance Dicks, Target, 1980 

Two spaceships come out of hyperspace in the same spot and merge into one overlapping mass. The Doctor and Romana show up just as the confusion is starting to get sorted out. But was it an accident after all? A scientist aboard one of the ships has been capturing parts of ecosystems in a kind of pocket universe in order to study them at leisure and another man is addicted to a dangerous drug. It appears that some of the captive lifeforms are escaping through the miniaturization equipment and emerging full sized. And they are not friendly. The usual hokey science but this is one of the best of the Doctor Who serials. 1/6/16

Power Metal by S.J. Byrne, Armchair, 2015 (magazine version 1953)

I regret to say that Byrne probably produced more boring SF than almost any of his contemporaries. Some of his plots actually even sound interesting but his execution was invariably lacking life, interest, novelty, and entertainment value. This one is about a colony world that is tired of being exploited by the authorities back on Earth. One of its citizens knows that there is talk of rebelling but he is cool to the idea until an acquaintance talks him into joining the underground. But it turns out the friend is duplicitous – not really a surprise – and is more interested in gaining political power than in helping his fellow citizens find a better life. This was marginally better than most of Byrne’s other novels, but it still seemed to go on for far too long. 1/4/16

The Love Machine by Jim Brown, Armchair, 2015 (magazine version 1954) 

This is barely a novella and it has a mildly interesting premise, but it still goes on too long. Sometime in the future the world is locked into what appears to be an endless war. A scientist working on curing people who are shell shocked so that they can be sent into battle builds a machine that emits waves of a different and unexpected sort. They cause everyone affected to be permanently overcome by affection for his fellow beings. The military tries to suppress the discovery but naturally they fail and everyone in the world becomes happy and loving. 1/2/16

Armageddon by Rog Philips, Armchair, 2015 (magazine version 1948) 

This is something of a kitchen sink novel originally published as by Craig Browning. A group of scientists conducting unauthorized research build a spaceship and leave the Earth. They promptly get involved in an existential battle between two galactic empires and improbably they have a major effect on the course of that conflict.  Despite the ambitious plot, this was rather slow and uninvolving. 1/1/16