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


Alien Island by T.L. Sherred, Ballantine, 1970 

Benevolent alien visitors intent only upon buying luxury items come to Earth and establish one human as their agent. They have large stocks of pressure metals with which they buy various items from all over the world, but their presence and existing tensions cause a race war and finally a nuclear cataclysm. The story is told from the point of view of an American special agent who works for the aliens in order to spy on them, although she later switches her loyalties.  Slow moving, frequently implausible, and with a peremptory ending that neither matches what went before or makes any logical sense. Disappointing, to say the least. 6/30/19

First Person Peculiar by T.L. Sherred, Ballantine, 1972 

The blurb for this collection insists that it contains the “best” but not the complete works by Sherred. Well, it contains every bit of fiction that he had published at that point. One short story and a novel appeared the same year. The stories appeared between 1947 and 1954. “E for Effort” is about the discovery of a remote viewer – you can look at any place at any time in the past and record it. The inventors plan to use it to make war impossible, and instead cause one. “Cue for Quiet” concerns a man who can stop motors with his mind, but the story quickly devolves into nonsense. “Eye for Iniquity” also involves mental powers, in this case the ability to create duplicates of money out of thin air. It is more fantasy than SF. Another man uses ultrasonics to cure the common cold in “Cure, Guaranteed,” but the medical profession objects. All four are readable, but they don’t date well and a couple have plots that the author never thought through completely. 6/27/19

Apocalypse America by Michael McCarty & Mark McLaughlin, 2019 

The authors of this apocalyptic novel have obviously gone stark raving bonkers. In the aftermath of the collapse of civilization there are giant mutated animals, witches who exist exclusively in the internet, self-aware robots, uplifted animals, and a host of other odd creatures including some which appear to be literally demonic. The protagonist teams up with some of these to take down some of the rest and save the country, and presumably the world, from complete disaster. But the opposition is aware of their efforts and naturally attempts to stop them. Clearly not to be taken seriously despite some otherwise very intense situations, the story moves forward steadily through a series of almost anecdotes to reach its conclusion. Not your thing if you’re looking for something serious and meaningful – although there is some satire here as well – but great fun if you just want a scary roller coaster ride. 6/25/19

Octavia Gone by Jack McDevitt, Saga, 2019

If I've counted correctly, this is the eighth Alex Benedict novel, a series I have enjoyed thoroughly over the years. This installment is fairly long and, I'm afraid, a bit slow moving. The basic premise is that a scientific station studying a black hole has disappeared and no one knows why. Benedict and his assistant, Chase Kolpath, eventually discover the truth while also dealing with the return of Alex's uncle, Gabe, who was trapped in a time warp and emerges only days older than when he disappeared even though years have passed. The investigation is logical and fairly entertaining, but there are too many sidetrips, howevr brief, and I found my interesting wandering on more than one occasion. 6/23/19

A Chain Across the Dawn by Drew Williamson, Tor, 2019, $18.99, ISBN 978-1-250-18616-4

The sequel to The Stars Now Unclaimed, which I did not care for, is happily considerably better written although I still find the universe in which it is set rather cartoonish. The Pulse was an interstellar phenomenon that badly damaged the galactic civilization, while creating a handful of superhumans. Rival groups seek to recruit the latter, some for benevolent reasons but mostly as powerful pawns. An agent the Justified, which appears to have good intentions, is accompanied by two of these gifted children and searching for yet another when they encounter another super powered being. The ensuing conflict calls into question the role of the Justified and changes the rules of the game significantly. There is more effort to develop the characters this time, which was a decided plus. 6/19/19

The Stars Now Unclaimed by Drew Williams, Tor, 2018 

Okay, this is petty, but within the first three pages I was irritated. When you find unusual conditions and alter your behavior to account for them, you are “adjusting”, not “readjusting.” I bought this because the publisher sent me a review copy of the sequel.  There is some awkward grammar, minor internal contradictions, and occasionally corny dialogue in addition to a parade of clichés. The Pulse has negated technology on many human occupied planets. The Pax are an evil organization borrowed from Star Wars who want to rule the galaxy. The protagonist is a feisty but flatly drawn female heroine who rescues psi talented children before the Pax can enslave them. She has a sentient starship. They run around the galaxy a lot with minor battles building to a very big one. If you enjoy Star Wars tie-in novels, you might like this, and there are sections that are reasonably well done – the author is a good storyteller, but this was too much like a comic book for me. And the stars are not unclaimed in the book either. 6/12/19

The Spacejacks by Robert Wells, Berkley, 1975 

This is actually the sequel to Right-Handed Wilderness, but there are major inconsistencies. In the earlier story, for example, humans have traveled to the stars. In this one, set several years later, we have yet to leave the solar system. The longevity system and associated euthanasia of the first book have been completely dropped. The title refers to those people who salvage damaged or abandoned spaceships, of which there are apparently a rather large number. A new company has formed and it possesses a technology that is essentially a star drive and which will drive the other companies out of business. Our protagonist and her grandfather engage in some illegal industrial espionage which leads to murder before the upstarts are revealed to be in league with an alien intelligence. The first two thirds are pretty good. The rest of it is dreadful.  6/8/19

Right-Handed Wilderness by Robert Wells, Ballantine, 1973  

Someone has smuggled a highly adaptive and dangerous alien organism to Earth inside the body of a spaceship stewardess. Unfortunately, a crash forces them to alter plans and the authorities learn about its presence. A worldwide search is initiated, but it appears that two different groups tried to abduct her, and it is possible that neither of them succeeded. If so, where did she go. A few awkward scenes here, and some unexplained plot elements that really needed to be explained, but overall this was a quite good and reasonably successful thriller. 6/6/19

Pawn by Timothy Zahn, Tor, 2017 

First in the Sibyl’s War series. Three people are abducted from Earth by aliens and find themselves part of the maintenance crew ok a gigantic alien spaceship of unknown origin. For some reason maintenance can only be done by human beings – a rather obvious bit of foreshadowing -but it is not clear who they are working for. There seem to be conflicting powers aboard the ship, which has been heavily damaged in terms of its computer control functions. Entertaining adventure but the characters, even the protagonist, do not seem profoundly affected by their situation. The sequel is on my to be read pile. 6/5/19

Donor by Charles Wilson, St Martins, 1999   

There’s some pretty dubious science in this medical thriller. Someone has secretly been replacing supposedly dead hospital patients with realistic dummies so that they can be used in experiments on nerve regeneration and even the transplanting of heads from one body to another. A doctor and a lawyer begin to suspect what is going on, but they only survive because the villain screws up at the end and is killed as a result of his convoluted plan to make himself look innocent. Not awful, but I winced at a lot of the details. 6/3/19

The Dreaming Earth by John Brunner, Pyramid,  1963 

This was not one of my favorite Brunners and time has not helped it. In an overpopulated future, a mysterious new drug appears to male hardened addicts literally disappear. The protagonist is a narcotics agent who refuses to believe it until he witnesses a vanishing himself. It’s all a plan by the United Nations to relieve the population pressure by colonizing other realities. I didn’t believe it for a second. Essentially it is a kind of wish fulfillment fantasy that never bothers to confront the ethical questions it raises. 6/2/19

Candle in the Sun by Robert Wells, Berkley, 1971   

This second novel was vastly disappointing. Earth has been evacuated because of massive flooding, but the protagonist was left behind. At first he is imprisoned by dolphins in an undersea lab, but then he becomes the prisoner of the Arkadians, a group whose evacuation ship malfunctioned. The latter have a number of grotesque mutations which they use as slave labor. Through it all, he searches for a woman whose radio message he received, but what remains of her has been integrated into the body of a robot.  Surrealistic at times, incoherent at times, exotically picturesque at times, but ultimately pretty bad. 5/31/19

Deep Sleep by Charles Wilson, St Martins, 2001  

This is a pretty marginal thriller and for some reason the author’s final book, although I see nothing indicating that he died. A murder takes place on the ground of a sleep disorder clinic run by a woman who is involved with voodoo. The killer goes on a strange rampage in the woods, but he is not responsible for the next two murders. It turns out that the clinic is actually promoting lucid dreaming for sexual purposes, and uses the dream state to implant compulsions in the minds of their patients. Rather confused and not remotely suspenseful. 5/301/9

The Magnificent Nine by James Lovegrove, Titan, 2019, $24.95, ISBN 978-1785658297

A Firefly novel. As you might expect from the title, this time the crew goes to the assistance of a small town on a backwater planet. They are under threat from a gang of extortionists known as the Scourers. The situation is complicated by Jayne's connection to one of the local people, a one-time lover, and the discovery that he is a father. As with his previous novel based on the television show, Lovegrove does an excellent job of evoking the original, so much so that I was tempted to pull out the dvd set and watch it again. No real surprises but great fun. 5/28/19

The Parasaurians by Robert Wells, Berkley, 1969 

This novel anticipated some of the premise of Jurassic Park and Westworld. A company buys a South American island and stocks it with dinosaurs – very realistic and dangerous robots – so that an elite group can hunt them to relieve their boredom in a somewhat utopian future. But something is very wrong within the current hunting party and even the robots seem to be acting out of character. If this novel had been published more recently, it would probably have been as a mainstream thriller and the author’s relatively brief career might have been very different. It is suspenseful, well written, and evocative.  5/26/19

Game Plan by Charles Wilson, St Martins, 2000 

Five military prisoners are subjected to intelligence enhancing surgery, but they escape and ten years later are using microchips to virtually enslave prominent people as part of their plan for world domination. A doctor and an FBI agent get involved and eventually explore the abandoned facility, find microchips, escape murder attempts, and survive to foil the bad guys, though only because one of them turns on the others. The author does not know the difference between information and intelligence. Putting an encyclopedia in someone’s head will not make them smarter. And microchips cannot make you stronger without adding muscle mass. 5/25/19

The Rites of Ohe by John Brunner, Ace, 1963 

Although Brunner includes some overly long lectures in this one, it’s still a pretty good story. The disappearance of a prominent researcher is linked to a humanoid race who only achieved space travel via human ships because they had no heavy elements on their planet. They appear to be friendly, but their own brand of research is having adverse effects on humanity. A human immortal suspects something is wrong and unlocks the secrets of their culture. This is one of the early novellas that Brunner never expanded, which is a shame because I think there's more story here to be uncovered. 5/24/19

Castaways’ World by John Brunner, Ace, 1963 

This was the second Zarathrustra Refugee Planet story. Unlike the others, it shows us what happened to the actual refugees rather than their descendants. Two groups land on a rather inhospitable planet. One dithers a bit but makes progress while the other becomes a ruthless dictatorship. They are close enough together that conflict is inevitable. The second colony is dominated by a thug and his minions and a virtual war breaks out between the two. The first half of this is pretty good but the bad guys are such caricatures that I had trouble remaining interested as the problems worked their way to the inevitable conclusion. This was later expanded as Polymath. 5/22/19

A State of Denmark by Derek Raymond, Serpent’s Tail, 2007 (originally published in 1970 as by Robin Cook  

The byline was changed for this reprint, probably to avoid confusion with the Robin Cook who writes medical thrillers. The story is an alternate history in which the United Kingdom becomes a fascist state during the 1960s and expels all nonwhites. The protagonist is a dissident in exile in Italy who is startled when the government sends someone to try to enlist his help. Or is that what they’re really after. Depressing in the tone of 1984, and a bit slow, but otherwise well done. This was apparently the author's only venture into SF. 5/21/19

The Captain's Oath by Christopher L. Bennett, Gallery, 2019, $16, ISBN 978-1-9821-1329-2

A Star Trek novel, chronicling some of the adventures of Kirk before he took command of the Enterprise. Although billed as a novel this is actually a collection of shorter, linked adventures in which Kirk deals with his own uncertainties as well as the dangers of the universe. He encounters unknown civilizations and outwits the Klingons and helps human colonists all while trying to find the right balance between following regulations and doing the right thing. His doubts are handled well, if somewhat superficially, and there is more work at developing his character than is true of most of the other tied-in novels in this long running series. Bennett has consistently been one of the better writers working this particular vein and this one should not disappoint fans. 5/20/19

Embryo by Charles Wilson, St Martins, 1999  

A supermodel who cannot have children normally hires a detective to investigate rumors of an ex-utero process used in rural Mexico decades earlier. Unfortunately a group of villains are killing anyone who asks questions about the operation. It turns out that children born this way do not have souls, and somehow this is connected to the fact that the male sperm was all donated by a man with a history of insanity in his family. None of this makes a lot of sense, unfortunately, and all five of the villains end up dead. But then there is a hint that a baby born in the usual way has no soul either, which left me scratching my metaphorical head. 5/19/19

The Psionic Menace by John Brunner (as Keith Woodcott), Ace. 1963 

Serialized as Crack of Doom. This is not one of Brunner’s successes. A telepathic warning of the end of the universe is disturbing what potentially could be an interesting interstellar society, but Brunner gets caught up in a routine and uninteresting spy story and apparently had no clear idea how to resolve the various problems because the story ends with nothing really resolved, the hero committing murder, and the fate of other characters left unexplained. Quite possibly his weakest effort.  5/17/19

The Astounding Adventures of Dr. Bird by S.P. Meek, Resurrected, 2010 

This is a series of related stories originally published during the 1930s. Dr. Bird is a scientist who solves various scientific problems, often involving crime, disasters, or efforts to seize world power. The science behind the problems is frequently bogus, sometimes known to be so even when the stories were written. They are nevertheless generally amusing, a type of story that is no longer being written. Meek later became a prolific writer of children’s books, particularly stories involving animals, and wrote a couple of lost world novels before abandoning the genre. 5/16/19

The Astronauts Must Not Land by John Brunner, Ace, 1963  

There’s an intriguing puzzle in this one but I don’t think the payoff measured up. The first starship returns to orbit Earth. The crew all have the same personalities, but their bodies are now vaguely insectoid. Their original bodies appear to be wandering around on Earth, which is somewhat disrupted by the appearances of monstrous images in the sky. It turns out we’re in a pocket universe cut off from the greater reality whose inhabitants are investigating us. Humans did something awful in prehistory and trapped themselves. Good story but the ending is rather weak. 5/15/19

Permafrost by Alistair Reynolds, Tor, 2019, $14.99, ISBN 978-1-250-30356-1

This is a time travel novella set after a disaster wipes out insects and plantlife and leaves the human survivors facing starvation. The premise is that personalities can be implanted in people from the past who were inside MRI machines and that a team of four is to secure some self propagating experimental seeds and put them in a place where they can be salvaged in the future. The hitches come when the protagonist finds that her host's personality can communicate with her, and when they realize that entities from even further in the future are trying to stop them. Good, though I had some reservations. Why not redevelop the seeds given the thirty year interval?  There's also a problem with the nature of the future interference that I won't reveal because it's rather a spoiler. 5/14/19

Extinct by Charles Wilson, St Martins, 1997 

This was by far this author’s best novel, the story of a surviving megalodon that hunts along rivers on the Gulf Coast. Sharks apparently do sometimes venture into fresh water. The protagonists are a marine biologist and the fishing boat charter captain whom he falls in love with. The attacks occur on screen for the most part, but the author does not dwell on the details so the tone is not as hectic as it might have been, although a sequence in which the shark chases a speedboat is fairly intense. The cover announces that it was being produced as a television movie, but that never happened. It could have been pretty good. 5/13/19

Troyana by S.P. Meek, Fiction House, 2017 (originally published in 1932) 

The sequel to The Drums of Tapajos is markedly inferior, in part because all of the mystery of the first book is absent. A second expedition is allowed into the prohibited part of the Amazon where a civilization technologically superior to our own is troubled by struggles between its aristocracy and the working classes. There is also a beautiful woman to be rescued from a villain, but even the characters act as though they were just going through the motions. 5/11/19

The Space-Time Juggler by John Brunner, Ace, 1963   

A decaying interstellar empire that feels more like a fantasy world than outer space has a problem when two sisters compete to be regent after the death of the king. A mysterious figure – Kelab the Conjurer – intercedes at crucial moments to ensure the best outcome. This is a slight reworking of a 1953 shorter version so it is not typical of what Brunner was writing at this point in his career. It is not a significant piece, but it has a couple of nicely handled scenes. 5/11/19

The Super Barbarians by John Brunner, Ace, 1962 

Humans have been conquered by the Vorra, a barbaric race that somehow mastered space travel. An Earthman employed by one of their leading houses/clans begins to feel urges to undermine their culture after finding out that an isolated human community on the Vorrish homeworld is actively trying to destabilize the conquerors. He has actually been conditioned not to remember his mission, which information eventually re-emerges. His subsequent actions lead to a civil war that destroys the Vorrish empire and leads to the freedom of humanity and their acquisition of interstellar flight. Slight but very enjoyable. 5/10/19

Fertile Ground by Charles Wilson, St Martins, 1996  

This author’s second effort to incorporate SF elements into a thriller are much better than the first. An expedition to the Amazon brings back a new virus that causes people to become homicidally insane at night. No, this is not a zombie story and is actually rather low key despite the horrid events, most of which take place off stage. There is a complicated flaw of logic about half way through – the protagonist reacts to a situation before he is actually aware of it – but otherwise this was entertaining, though hardly memorable. The closing chapters could use some work, however. It’s not that easy to fly a small plane to Brazil. 5/9/19

Direct Descendant by Charles Wilson, St Martins, 1995 

Wilson switched from conventional suspense to SF with this horribly constructed thriller. The plot involves stealing sperm from an ancient corpse and breeding ancient human children who are feral. The science is unbelievably bad. The author apparently thinks that mutation and evolution are mutually exclusive. His geneticist villain knows nothing about evolution – actually doesn’t believe in it – and thinks prostitution is genetically determined. The feral children are born with conscious recall of ancient memories, including an entire language, and somehow also including knowledge about how to drive a modern automobile. They have extraordinary healing powers and were born after only six weeks, walking within minutes, and talking the following day. They go on a rampage. The police procedures are similarly inept. A trained police officer tracks through the blood at a crime scene, not even in her jurisdiction, and the local police think that’s perfectly all right. The twins turn out to be aliens who somehow are reincarnated and whose only vulnerable spot is in their thighs. Wilson improved considerably over the cyese of his next couple of books. 5/6/19

Times Without Number by John Brunner, Ace, 1968 

This is a fix up of three related stories set in a world where the Spanish Armada triumphed and the British Isles are now the center of government for the Spanish Empire. They have developed time travel, although it is strictly regulated. Unknown to all but a few, this has led to the discovery of alternate worlds. The protagonist thwarts an illegal effort to steal artifacts from the past in the first, has to alter his own timeline to prevent a tragedy in the second, and finally there is a change war which the Spanish Empire loses and our hero finds himself in our version of reality. Quite good, though at times a bit too talky. 5/4/19

The Moon Men by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ace, 1925 

This consists of two novelettes, the title story plus “The Red Hawk.” In the first, Earth has been conquered by a human race from the Moon, who are lazy and unable to sustain their technology once their Earthborn leader is killed. A family struggles against persecution, high taxes, confiscation of young women, and other repressions, ending with a failed attempt to rebel. The final story is set three centuries later when barbaric humans successfully attack the now vulnerable moon men.  There is a steady decline in quality and I suspect the last story was written to end a series that Burroughs no longer was interested in pursuing. 5/3/19

King Kong vs Tarzan by Will Murray, Altus, 2016

This longish novel recapitulates the end of the classic movie. En route back to the US, the ship carrying Kong has to stop in Africa for provisions and Kong gets loose and goes on a rampage. Tarzan, who doesn't appear until the second half of the book, manages to drive him back to the coast with a combination of poison tipped arrows and a herd of elephants. The story is mostly about Kong, however, and feels more like the movie than it does like a Burroughs novel. 4/30/19

Science Fiction Trails #14 edited by David B. Riley, 2019, $6.95

The latest issue of this irregular magazine of science fiction stories related in some fashion to the Old West contains a half dozen stories in that vein. I was devouring western novels before I discovered science fiction, so I almost always find this mix entertaining and this issue is no exception. None of the stories are going to be on the Hugo ballot and the authors' names are not familiar ones, but there is a lot of good natured and sometimes cleverly conceived fun here, as with the earlier issues. And the price is right. 4/30/19

Secret Agent of Terra by John Brunner, Ace, 1962 

This was the first of the Zarathrustra Refugee Planet series and one of the best of the author’s early novels. A lost colony has been rediscovered and monitored by the Galactic Corps, but their agent on that world is murdered by offworlders who want to exploit the locals to harvest valuable radioactives. To do so, they participate in an annual ceremonial hunt and establish one of their number as ruler of the city of Carrig. An inexperienced agent is to investigate, but her transport is shot down and she nearly dies in the wilderness. She eventually does come up with a viable plan, although the Corps has also sent a strike team to deal with the issue. Very enjoyable, and later expanded as Avengers of Carrig. 4/29/19

The Time Twisters by J. Hunter Holly, Avon, 1964 

Mysterious lights in the sky, dead spots in the grass, missing children, giant robots, time travel, hairy aliens, etc. all combine into a salad of nonsense in this one. The aliens have arrived two centuries from now and demand two million children as tribute, so the people from that time are kidnapping them from the past rather than give up their own children. Silliness about time travel – six months in the past equals six months in the future – combine with confused motives, contradictory actions, and several unanswered questions. Hard to believe this one even got published by a major house. 4/27/19

The Mind Traders by J. Hunter Holly, MacFadden, 1967 

This was probably the author’s best novel. She actually took some time to consider the structure of the alien society involved. Earth has been trading with the Lirans, a human looking alien race which determines social status by the number of minds one can control telepathically. When people begin disappearing from Earth, a detective is sent to Lira to discover what is going on and, after the usual peregrinations, he discovers a plot to use human slaves as soldiers to overthrow the government of that planet. Frequently awkwardly written, but much better plotted than most of the author’s other work. 4/27/19

The Death Dolls of Lyra by J. Hunter Holly, Manor, 1977 

First, a bit about packaging. The cover shouts at us “NOW IN PAPERBACK!” Since it is a paperback original this is rather hyperbolic and misleading. In smaller print in an unattributed quote, it says that the story is “reminiscent of Ray Bradbury.” It’s about as far from Ray Bradbury as you can get in theme, structure, and prose, and I suspect the quote is invented. Third, the cover art is of a kind of robot. The story is about an alien plague. The plague starts when two children find a metal ball containing what they think are dolls. They are actually very small aliens with a fungus infection that threatens to cover the planet. The subsequent story is truly awful. 4/27/19

The Moon Maid by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ace, 1923  

The first of two books in a series vaguely related to the Mars novels. An attempt to travel to Mars is sabotaged and the crew find themselves inside the hollow Moon, where two intelligent races – one human and one quadruped – battle each other. There is the mandatory beautiful princess and one of the humans is the mandatory lecherous human. Lots of captures, escapes, perilous journeys, betrayals, savage beasts, and the like. There is also a brief but racist glorification of Anglo-Saxons and the charge that educating the lower classes will lead to a destabilization of the government.  I had never noticed before that the gorgeous Krenkel cover on this edition is completely wrong. He depicts the savage nomads as having four legs and two arms where they actually only had four limbs and could stand upright or down on all fours.  4/2/19

Keeper by J. Hunter Holly, Laser, 1976 

In a repressive, overpopulated future, all emotions are conditioned out of human beings. But the protagonist begins to feel sympathy for a young boy and that eventually leads to an unsuccessful attempt to recondition him. The novel is quite boring. Half of its content consists of arguments about his reconditioning. The other characters, all of whom are supposedly emotionless, express fear, anger, affection, jealousy, etc. throughout, as if Holly had no idea what a lack of emotion would actually look like. There is a sequel. 4/24/19

Shepherd by J. Hunter Holly, Laser, 1977 

The sequel to Keeper shares all of its problems. The protagonist and his adopted son are on the run from the evil government that conditions people not to have emotions – even though they clearly do – and they eventually find a community of dissidents who shelter them until a worldwide revolution whose possibility seems remote based on what we have been told topples the villains. Holly never seems to have spent the time to examine the ramifications of her premises. 4/24/19

Father of Lies by John Brunner, Belmont, 1968 

This is an amusing but minor novella, one of the few times Brunner incorporated fantasy into his work although there is a kind of rationalization in this one. A small area of England has remained in the past and is home to a dragon and an ogre. A group of college students discover its existence and have some adventures while discovering its nature and rules. 4/22/19

The Ladder in the Sky by John Brunner (as Keith Woodcott), Ace, 1962 

One of Brunner’s lesser works. A young man from a slum on a remote planet is forcibly pledged to serve an extra-dimensional creature analogous to a demon who gives him some unusual abilities in the process. Not much really happens, however, and the text is irritatingly padded with repetitious conversations and pointless ruminations about his situation. This was the least interesting of Brunner’s early Ace double entries and it appeared just as he was beginning to show considerable ability in some of his other books. 4/20/19

The Gray Aliens by J. Hunter Holly, Mayflower, 1963 

Mysterious shadows with no physical bodies begin to dissolve human beings in large numbers. Despite the title, they are not aliens at all but a different form of life that has long concealed itself. They are trying to achieve some kind of telepathic unity and want to wipe out humans, whose closed minds hinder them. But the hero discovers that he is telepathic. Unable to convince the shadows to stop, he then proves that ghosts are real and that they are a third form of “life” which the shadows must take into account, and this somehow smooths everything over. Truly awful. 4/20/19

The Dark Enemy by J. Hunter Holly, Avalon, 1965  

Another pretty bad novel from this author, this one involving the search for a telepath. The scientist involved and his fiancé are plagued by swarms of insects, poltergeists, and threatening telephone calls. The source is rather transparently the next door neighbor. The premise is based on a misunderstanding of newspaper procedures and police authority, and the two supposedly sympathetic male characters are both such assholes that I was on the side of the paranoid man with psi powers – he can also levitate, teleport, command insects and rats, move things with his mind, and read thoughts. This one never had a paperback and with good reason. 4/19/19

Empyre by Will Murray, Boulevard, 2000 

SHIELD battles HYDRA in this Nick Fury novel. For some reason, there has been a high incidence of airplane crashes, one of which also put an end to Fury himself. He suspects that HYDRA is behind the sabotage, and Fury is almost always right. But not this time. There is actually another evil genius at work, one who plans to take control of multiple aircraft, fill them with explosives, and use them as missiles against unprotected cities. To avert the threat, he must forge a temporary alliance with HYDRA. Lots of action, but I found the villains disappointingly mundane. 4/16/19

Operation A.I.M. by Greg Cox, Boulevard, 1996  

Ironman has long battled A.I.M. and their mentally enhanced creation, MODOK, but that battle takes an unexpected turn when the latter decides to dispense with his masters, massacres the staff of an undersea lab, and escapes to initiate his own plan of world domination. This time Ironman cannot fight the battle alone, so he recruits Captain America, Blank Panther, and War Machine help to prevent MODOK from threatening the entire world. Predictable, of course, but nicely done. 4/16/19

The Running Man by J. Hunter Holly, Monarch, 1963  

Slightly better than the first few novels by Holly but still difficult to accept the plot, which involves yet another alien invasion. This time they are using a fake world peace organization to gain power over the world, using a slave race that looks sufficiently humanoid to pass. The slaves use machines to brainwash people. The hero is recruited by them, although he is faking, but the faking doesn’t last long and given the background, there is no reason why they would not have brainwashed him anyway. Readable, but just barely. 4/15/19

Tiamat’s Wrath by James S.A. Corey, Orbit, 2019,  $30, ISBN 978-0-314-33287-3 

I had thought that this was to be the final book in the Expanse, but it clearly is not. The Laconians have used alien technology to establish a dictatorship over the entire human race, and their leader is incorporating alien matter into his body in order to become immortal. But he is also determined to face down whatever mysterious alien menace killed off the race that developed the technology and some of the methods he is using are unwisely provocative. Meanwhile, our cast of heroes is scattered across the galaxy and facing individual problems of their own. I was a bit disappointed by the previous book, but this one is back up to speed. We have to say farewell to some of the recurring characters, and good riddance to at least one of them. But there are lots of unanswered questions at the end, as well as new story lines, and I imagine there are at least a couple more books in the pipeline. The series has been great fun right from the outset and I’ll be looking forward to them. 4/14/19

The Flying Eyes by J. Hunter Holly, Monarch, 1962 

Giant disembodies eyes begin to hover over a small town, hypnotizing residents and leading them off to a mysterious hole in the earth. The eyes can reconstitute themselves even if blown apart.     When I read this at 15, I found it mildly entertaining. Rereading it now, I am stunned by how implausible it is. An alien invasion is to be handled by the National Guard and not the Army? No one bothers to evacuate the town? Individual drivers in isolated cars can be captured but not the people rioting? Despite the rioting, there is a wide variety of food available in the stores? Two random men are admitted to the meetings of the military commanders despite having no special talents? Holly routinely failed to consider the consequences of her own plots. The aliens are finally destroyed by running an anti-gravity device in reverse, which crushes them with heavy gravity. 4/13/19

Meeting at Infinity by John Brunner, Ace, 1961

This was the first of Brunner’s novels to suggest that he would become a major talent. It’s set within a mesh of alternate worlds, one of which believes it has a monopoly on travel between realities. But a village of primitive people on one of those worlds is in fact the outpost of a secretive, advanced civilization which is determined to rule what we would now call a multiverse. Several well drawn characters engage in a power struggle that is convincingly done and presents a complex situation in fairly straightforward and understandable terms. The ending is a bit weak and inconclusive, but it’s still an excellent adventure. 4/12/19

The Dark Planet by J. Hunter Holly, MacFadden, 1962  

I’m sorry to say that this is an awful book. Earth has been conquered by an alien race that used germ warfare to kill half the population. But subject races are allowed to appeal to an interstellar organization for relief. The hero manages to free Earth by pretending that his people have invisible rockets orbiting all of the inhabited planets in the galaxy containing the same virus. There is so much scientific nonsense in this story that I was shaking my head, and the plot and interpersonal events are appalling naïve and illogical.  4/9/19

I Speak for Earth by John Brunner (as by Keith Woodcott), Ace, 1961  

This is a pretty dull short novel about the arrival of aliens on Earth. They tell humanity to choose one individual who must spend thirty days on their headquarters world, after which it will be determined whether humans should be welcomed or quarantined. The authorities decide to transfer five personalities into the body of the protagonist so that he will have access to their knowledge and abilities. But the test seems to be rigged against them and the aliens were lying about what was actually going on. 4/9/19

Sanctuary in the Sky by John Brunner, Ace, 1960  

Waystation is an artificial world that serves as neutral territory between two rival interstellar empires. A strange visitor arrives who seems to have intimate knowledge of the station and whose purpose attracts the interest of all the parties involved. This was quite good, the best of Brunner’s early novels, even though the ending leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Brunner seems to have forgotten that he described it as having almost a million inhabitants since he later has it completely evacuated in less than two hours. 4/7/19

The Armor Trap by Greg Cox, Boulevard, 1995 

Tony Stark has been kidnapped and is being forced to build a new armored suit for the bad guys. In his absence, War Machine takes up the slack, but is unable to figure out who took Stark or where he is being held. Stark eventually tricks his captors and escapes, but only after solving some intricate puzzle/problems. One of the better of this round of Marvel tie-in novels, though it does not closely resemble the versions of the characters we have seen in the recent movies. . 4/6/19

Available Space by Dayton Ward, Gallery, 2019, $16, ISBN 978-1-9821-1327-8

A Star Trek Next Generation novel. This takes place after the nefarious Section 31, a rogue unit within Starfleet, has been exposed and supposedly scattered. The arrests are widespread and it is not always clear who was directly involved and who was unwittingly implicated. Among the latter is Captain Picard himself. Picard and crew are currently in a relatively unexplored part of the galaxy when they encounter an alien artifact, a derelict spaceship that was part of an effort by an alien race to find a new home. As Picard and a rather troubled crew try to deal with that aspect of the situation, their lives are made more complicated by the arrival of a band of unruly and undisciplined salvagers who want to claim the derelict for themselves, regardless of the consequences to others. Although the series characters are present and pivotal, much of the story deals with the various new characters created for the novel. For me at least, this made it more interesting.  4/5/19

The Green Planet by J. Hunter Holly, Monarch, 1961   

A repressive interstellar government – we actually never see any sign of its oppression – dumps a handful of dissidents on a supposedly garden planet. But the latest group finds that their predecessors have died mysteriously. This was a very clumsily constructed story whose opening chapters are so filled with silly flaws and contradictions that it never really has a chance to engage its readers. They eventually find intelligent aliens who just happen to have learned to speak English. More tension ensues as the aliens, who claim to have no prior experience of violence, brandish weapons and conduct a small scale war before the human interlopers are able to coerce/negotiate a mutually agreeable solution. Terrible book. 4/5/19

Slavers of Space by John Brunner, Ace, 1960 

A bored dilettante on a far future Earth finds a dead body, after which he is mysteriously challenged to a duel. This leads him to investigate the dead man’s past – he was highly praised by several planetary governments – and also to his involvement in efforts to come to the aid of androids, who are held as slaves on Earth and elsewhere. They are actually all humans who are conditioned and dyed blue to make them seem artificial.  The story moves well but there are so many contrived situations and logical inconsistencies that it is impossible to take it seriously. 4/4/19

Inland Deep by Richard Tooker, Armchair, 2018 (originally published in 1936)

This is a fairly short lost world novel expanded from an earlier story. Three people explore a giant cave system and find a race of frog people living beneath the surface of the world. They formerly had a higher civilization but a natural disaster had catastrophic consequences and they are now barbaric. There are also dinosaurs. The threesome wanders around for a while before finding a  way back to the surface, but nothing is really resolved and it is on the whole neither particularly good nor particularly bad. 4/3/19

Luna: Moon Rising by Ian McDonald, Tor, 2019, $29.99, ISBN 968-0-7653-9147-6

Concluding volume in a trilogy set in a moon colony a hundred years from now. Only a writer of McDonald's caliber would have kept me reading a present tense narrated story that stretched over three books. The moon is dominated by five major families, and the interplay among them is rightly described in the blurbs as similar to that in the Game of Thrones series. There are virtually no rules and most of the characters are ruthless and pragmatic. As the conflict finally appears to be headed toward its conclusion, the conflict takes a not entirely unsuspected twist. One family emerges as dominant, but that only makes the rivalries and treacheries more concentrated as sibling battles sibling for influence about the future of the colony. I'm a sucker for lunar settings even in mediocre novels, and these are far from mediocre. Not for the faint hearted, however, because McDonald's take on the kind of humans who emerge at the top of the pecking order is neither reassuring nor unrealistic. 4/1/19