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

LAST UPDATE 12/20/11   

Under the Influence by Geoffrey Kerr, Berkley, 1953 

I read the paperback reprint of this novel fifty years ago and still remembered much of the plot. Kerr was an actor and screenwriter who only produced this one novel, but it’s a lost classic. The protagonist is Harry Browne, a London bank clerk who can read minds, but only when he’s drunk. He considers it an affliction, and it complicates his romantic life as well as attracting the unwanted attention of a theatrical agent with dollar signs in his eyes. As you might guess, he reads the thoughts of an undiscovered murderer, and therein lies the bulk of the plot. The police, of course, refuse to believe him. Inevitably the killer decides to eliminate the only witness, but only after a wonderful string of comedic scenes.  Kerr’s prose is witty, erudite, and consistently funny.  It’s a crime this isn’t in print, and it would also make a great movie. 12/20/11

Solaris Rising edited by Ian Whates, Solaris, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-907992-09-4

The Solaris original anthology series continues with a new editor.  Nineteen original stories by some of the best writers on either side of the Atlantis, including in this volume Paul Di Filippo, Alastair Reynolds, Ian Watson, Ian McDonald, and Tricia Sullivan, among others.  I generally prefer non-theme anthologies, and there aren't a lot of them nowadays, and this series has been consistently good, providing a mix of settings, times, plots, styles, and themes so that I never get tempted to set the book down between stories and try something else for a break. There are several very good stories in this one, including those by Watson, Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Paul Di Filippo, and Pat Cadigan. The stories all have an actual plot, which isn't a foregone conclusion nowadays, and while some appealed to my taste more than others there weren't any that left me scratching my head wondering why they'd been included.  I look forward to the next volume in the series. 12/20/11

The River and the Dream by Raymond F. Jones, Laser, 1977

Another short, minor novel in the Laser line.  This one involves a visionary member of a primitive tribe living on the ice covered top half of an alien world who decides to set aside tradition and go looking for a better place to live. Routine and uninteresting adventures that feel more like high fantasy than science fiction despite the rationalized setting. This was Jones’ last solo novel and he didn’t finish his career on a high note.  The book includes the comment that he wrote no SF during the 1960s because the quality of the field was deteriorating so badly.  The 1960s saw Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, J.G. Ballard, and many other major SF talents emerge so either the publisher was lying or Jones was daydreaming. It’s more likely that he was just unable to sell. 12/16/11

First Day on Earth by Cecil Castellucci, Scholastic, 2011, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-545-06082-0

I regret to say that there is almost nothing I liked about this book. The protagonist is a young boy who disappeared for several days, during which time he believes he was abducted by aliens, although no one else agrees with him until he eventually meets a kindred soul.  He also thinks the aliens are coming back for him and he's looking forward to it. Most of the novel consists of him musing about the consequences and after a while I got pretty sick of him and his self absorption. It's also written in present tense, definitely a turnoff for me, and in very short sentences and paragraphs so that it looks like a list of statements rather than a story. In fact, it feels like a list of statements rather than a novel. At least it was short. 12/14/11

Tau Ceti by Kevin J. Anderson & Steven Savile, Phoenix Pick, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-61242-047-9

First in the Stellar Guild series, which really isn't a series. Editor Mike Resnick has picked a number of established writers, each of whom will write a longish story for this series, which will be published by an associated story by a newer writer chosen by each individual author. The two stories here involve a generation ship about to reach its destination, but they will face more problems than just those inherent in the act. Earth has become a dictatorship during the interim and has the means to pursue and perhaps even conquer its wayward children. The transition between the two stories is almost imperceptible and they both have much the same feel and delivery, which is presumably what was intended. The resolution is a bit too good to be true but not fatally so.  Entertaining traditional space adventure. 12/12/11

Theme Planet by Andy Remic, Solaris, 2011, $8.99, ISBN 978-1-907992-11-7

First in a new series.  The setting is a planet that is one large amusement park, although many of the amusements are dangerous if not deadly, even under the best of circumstances.  And the best of circumstances are not going to prevail for our heroes. One of these is an offworld policeman on vacation with his family, who disappear shortly after arriving, leading him to discover the existence of a previously unsuspected conspiracy. The second is a professional, and not quite human, assassin who arrives on what should have been a routine mission, but which becomes much more significant as her story intersects the other. This is, as you can imagine, a wild and woolly adventure story with the added interest of the unusual setting. I enjoyed this a good deal more than Remic's previous novels, which have been mostly military oriented. 12/11/11

Renegades of Time by Raymond F. Jones, Laser, 1975

This is a horribly bad novel from late in the author’s career. It throws superscientific terms and extra galactic civilizations around with reckless abandon in a failed attempt to generate a sense of wonder. Characters have knowledge they couldn’t possess, things happen coincidentally to ease the plot along, and the motivations are murky at best.  Jones either doesn’t understand how police investigations work, among other things, or doesn’t care. The protagonist runs into a time agent from an alien – although perfectly human – civilization from another galaxy and gets caught up trying to rescue a beautiful but mysterious girl, while saving her civilization from the ravages of another time traveling race from yet another galaxy.  A waste of paper. 12/10/11

The King of Eolim by Raymond F. Jones, Laser, 1976 

Another quickie novel for this short lived imprint. Genetic engineering has made everything wonderful, but Freeman is a Retard – actually a prodigy, which should have been evident to the other characters but mysteriously is not.  As such, he should have been euthanized but his father would not allow it, even though that meant his career advances are constrained. There’s no explanation for that either. The family emigrates to a planet less inclined toward eugenics, but an accident in space leaves them on an unknown world. As it happens, Freeman has an almost magical ability to find the solution to problems – including looking at alien herbs and knowing their medicinal qualities – so we know things are going to work out all right.  Which removes any trace of tension from this rather boring story. 12/10/11

The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge, Tor, 2011, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-312-87562-6

I saved this one for when I really wanted to read a good book. It's the sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, which was also a really good book. The Blight has spread through the galaxy, affecting everything it touches and precipitating an unprecedented disaster. The children of a group of scientists are put into suspended animation and sent into space, where they eventually gain at least temporary shelter on an alien world where a lone human revives them and helps guide them into a peaceful relationship with the indigenous intelligence. Naturally once the children start to get older and more assertive, they chafe under the administration of their benefactor. We then see the evolving culture among the children, among the alien Tine, and the interface between them, all under the shadow of the Blight, which might yet reach their precarious safe haven.  I can't think of another author who writes this particular variety of SF novel as well as Vinge. The aliens are alien, but still believable, and the humans are very human indeed.  One of the major novels of 2011. 12/8/11

Circle Tide by Rebecca Rowe, Edge, 2011, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-894063-59-3

There's a good deal of complexity and some of it quite original in this novel of a future Earth in the midst of ecological disaster. In fact it's a kind of mix of disaster novel and cyberpunk. In fact the main plot reminded me of William Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic."  In Rowe's future, people store their memories online, artificial intelligences exist, and a militant order of monks pursues its murderous course. One of the two protagonists is a spoiled rich kid who agrees to deliver a datadisk and finds this simple task much more complicated, and dangerous, than he expected. The second protagonist is a woman trying to steal that same data as part of a plan to reverse some of the damage to the environment, but in due course the two finds themselves on the same side, with a touch of romance to secure their bonding. A  light but pleasant read. 12/5/11

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea by Raymond F. Jones, Whitman, 1965  

A young adult tie-in to the movie and television series. The Seaview and its crew investigate when a series of underwater disasters seems to stretch the laws of chance. At one site, a mysterious baby is the only survivor, even though there were no women at the disaster prior to the earthquake that destroyed the habitat.  This contradicts the author’s earlier assertion that the men and their families all lived there, a bit of sloppiness that someone should have caught. Anyway, there are reports of a mysterious submarine and other common elements among the disasters and our heroes set off in pursuit. It turns out the ancient Minoans live in undersea caves and resent surface dwellers incursion into the oceans. They also have a technology in many ways advanced over the surface world.  Old plot, not very plausible, but competently delivered. 12/5/11

The Gildar Rift by Sarah Cawkwell, Black Library, 2011, $12.99, ISBN 978-1-84970-108-2

Hammer & Anvil by James Swallow, Black Library, 2011, $8.99, ISBN 978-1-84970-066-5

Two installments in the Warhammer series, military SF with fantasy overtones - some of the aliens are demons. This is Cawkwell's first novel in the series and she makes use of the standard plot with minor variations. There's been a schism among the human forces and one of the rebels against the empire has just launched a successful incursion into one of the empire's systems. A counterstrike is planned and the battle is underway. I was pleasantly surprised by this one which didn't explore any new territory but which is nicely written and actually provides some depth to the characters.  Swallow on the other hand has written several novels set in other people's creations, including the Warhammer universe. But his latest is a bit innovative because it features a corps of female soldiers, very unusual for this series. They are loyal to the emperor and determined to avenge the destruction of a highly regarded outpost, which means the plot is very similar to that of Cawkwell, although the execution is quite different. This one is also well written and has much more suspense and mystery than most of the other Warhammer novels.  Both of these should have general appeal and you don't have to be familiar with the game to follow what's going on. 12/4/11

The Non-Statistical Man by Raymond F. Jones, Belmont, 1964   

This collection consists of the title novella plus three minor stories involving time magnets on the moon and other improbabilities. The novella has an interesting premise but Jones wastes it. A scientist discovers a way to enhance human intuition, but he is discovered by a statistician who finds anomalies in insurance payments. It turns out that we are only non-intuitive because of a fear chemical in our bodies which has to be neutralized, which is just bad science, but the author also assumes that intuition would allow us to glance at a stranger and know that he is about to engage in a shady business deal, or will develop cancer in a few months, etc.  This is all supposed to lead to a Utopian world where we destroy our television sets and live in harmony, and that’s bad logic.  It goes on far too long with pointless arguments about society.  I wasn’t impressed by this when I read it as a teenager and I’m less impressed now. 12/1/11

Syn by Raymond F. Jones, Belmont, 1969

A pretty bad novel from Jones, apparently original in this appearance although it reads like something from the 1940s.  After a world war, as many as half of the population of the world consists of Syns, synthetic humans secretly created by a computer.  Humans naturally hate them and begin a process of extermination but our hero, recently returned from an interstellar colony, doesn’t see any reason why the two types – virtually indistinguishable – cannot live together. The fact that the girl he loves turns out to be a fugitive Syn probably influenced his decision, but he blithely starts killing people in the name of justice and working secretly to find a way to negotiate peace between the two species.  All of this is completely implausible and badly written. 12/1/11

Count to a Trillion by John C. Wright, Tor, 12/11, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2927-1  

I had just been wondering what happened to this author the day before a copy of this new book arrived in the mail. Someone must have been reading my mind.  Wright wrote a very interesting and innovative bit of space opera to introduce himself to his readers and now he returns to that form with the first of a new series. Civilization on Earth has had its up and downs and a young man whose career choice is slightly shady decides to seek his fortune on another planet. That precipitates him into a far future where humanity has changed almost beyond recognition.  Bits of this were fascinating, but I’m not a big fan of the superman story, and I also thought the story spent too much time touring places and not making any of them particularly vivid.  Good enough to read the follow up, but I won’t be counting the days until it arrives, even if it is less than a trillion. 11/29/11 

Planesrunner by Ian McDonald, Pyr, 12/11, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-541-5  

This is the first in a series and, although not packaged that way, it’s really a young adult novel.  Everett Singh sees his father kidnapped, even though the authorities insist he’s imagining things. His father was a quantum physicist in a secret project to contact parallel universes and he discovered a mathematical key to exploring them. Thugs from some of these other worlds have reached Earth although it’s not clear who they’re in league with, although they suspect – rightly – that Everett has the key.  The story is old fashioned fun although I did find some of it implausible.  Everett downloads the key from a server, for example, and then concludes he has the only copy.  What about the original still resident on the server? And he solves the mystery of the key in a matter of hours, despite never having seen it before. And if the bad guys and the government are in cahoots, why act clandestinely against Everett on some occasions and openly on others? And what possible combination of choices could end up with the Great Britain, recognizable, but located at the mouth of the Mediterranean? 11/28/11

The Year When Stardust Fell by Raymond F. Jones, Winston, 1958  

I loved this young adult SF disaster novel when I was 14 and I anticipated being disappointed by it the second time through fifty years later.  Earth enters the tail of a comet, as a consequence of which all mechanical devices on Earth began to fail. There are no real surprises – civilization falls apart, people begin hoarding food, violence erupts, apocalyptic cults emerge. Actually Jones does a fair job of presenting the ethical problems of letting some people starve rather than having everyone die out in a famine, though he never really resolves the issue. Not as great as I thought it was when I was a kid but still pretty good. 11/27/11

Aurora in Four Voices by Catherine Asaro, IsFic, 2011, $30, ISBN 978-097591569-1

Catherine Asaro is known primarily for her novels about the Skolian Empire, but she has also managed to work in a few good shorter pieces during her career, six of which are collected here, all but one of which I'd previously read. Although her plots involved fugitive murderers, testing of technological breakthroughs, criminal empires, and other disparate subjects, they all deal primarily with interpersonal relationships, and in at least one case a traditional romance. Although the science is rigorous - except when it intentionally is not - none of the stories really feels like hard SF because of the strong characters and emotional situations. There's a good variety here, and good quality as well, as has been the case with previous books from this imprint.  This probably won't show up in your local bookstore - if you have such a thing any more - but it's available from Amazon and elsewhere on line.  11/26/11

Hearts of Smoke and Steam by Andrew P. Mayer, Pyr, 2011, $16, ISBN 978-1-61614-533-0

Second in the Society of Steam series, perhaps my favorite of recent steampunk adventures. In The Falling Machine, a feisty woman investigator and her robot friend foiled, for the moment, a devious plot in an alternate Victorian New York where it is possible to create a kind of superpower through the use of steam. The robot was quasi-destroyed in that conflict but the protagonist is determined to rebuild him. The chief villain, on the other hand, wants the robot's remains as part of his still active plot against the world. New characters are introduced and we see more of one of the better realized imaginary alternate pasts, along with some nicely drawn characters and a fully engaging plot. We need more books like this 11/25/11

Saints Astray by Jacqueline Carey, Grand Central, 2011, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-446-57142-5

Sequel to Santa Olivia. A military reservation is essentially a prison for its residents, some of whom have been the subject of genetic experiments. The protagonist is the daughter of a man who escaped and she has inherited his slightly more than human powers, although she doesn't dare return to the area lest she be captured and imprisoned. Then one member of the community is set to testify publicly, but disappears before he can do so. So naturally she feels obligated to step into the breach.  Although the backdrop for this is rather depressing, the story itself is intricate and engaging and in fact I enjoyed this better than its predecessor. With so many good SF writers migrating to fantasy, it's nice to see someone reversing the trend. 11/22/11

The Secret People aka The Deviates by Raymond F. Jones, Beacon, 1956  

When Beacon books started published the Galaxy novel line, they added sexy covers because they were a softcore porn house. Their version of this okay but undistinguished dystopia even has a new and suggestive title but the deviates in the book are actually mutants.  Following a nuclear war, most of the population has suffered exposure to radiation and cannot produce normal children. A worldwide program of inspection is imposed and only those judged “pure” can reproduce; in fact they are compelled to reproduce.  Even so, the population is dropping rapidly.  Our hero is the head of the genetic approval authority but he’s a benevolent mutant, an immortal telepath who has secretly fathered thousands of children by proxy and established a secret community in the Canadian wilderness.  But the government doesn’t believe in beneficial mutations and the mutant children  have their own agenda independent of the man who thinks he is leading them.  A bit clunky at times but one of Jones’ better efforts. 11/21/11

The Outcast Dead by Graham McNeill, Black Library, 2011, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-84970-087-0

Nocturne by Nick Kyme, Black Library, 2011, $8.99, ISBN 978-1-84970-089-4

Two Warhammer military oriented space operas. Although each is set in a different subset of the Warhammer universe, these two are somewhat similar in tone and execution, although the McNeill is the more interesting of the two. Kyme's novel ends the Tome of Fire trilogy, which feels as much like heroic fantasy as SF. War has come to the planet Nocturne in the form of an invasion and the defenders are cheered by a prophecy that a leader will arise to save the day. The chosen one's fate is, however, linked to that of a prisoner aboard the invasion fleet.  Lots of action in various settings with minimal attention to the characters.  Okay, but I was in the mood for something with a bit more meat on the bones. McNeill came closer with his latest contribution to the Horus Heresy, a kind of galactic civil war that splinters a theocratic empire. There's another key figure, this time a man who learns a secret that could change the course of the conflict, but for a change in this series the action actually moves to Earth where he joins a group of oddball characters for a series of adventures. No surprises in this one either but I thought the plot moved more quickly and in more interesting directions.  11/19/11

All Men of Genius by Lev Ac Rosen, Tor, 2011, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2794-9

Steampunk continues to be popular, and this debut novel is a good example of why.  It's an alternate Victorian England where science seems to be the focus of civilization.  The protagonist is a young woman who impersonates her brother in order to attend a very prestigious college whose patron is a wealthy duke.  Things don't go well for very long.  The Duke's daughter has a crush on him/her which is awkward and unwelcome, and she herself has a crush on the Duke's son, which is perhaps welcome but certainly even more awkward.  There'd be an interesting story there alone, although a familiar one, but the author has some melodrama to add to the mix including blackmail and other nefarious goings on. This one is very well written and the imagined world has considerable appeal, as do most of the characters. Obviously we have here an author to keep an eye on.  11/18/11

11/22/63 by Stephen King, Scribner, 2011, $35, ISBN 978-1-4516-2728-2 

The big new Stephen King novel is science fiction, or at least fantasy, rather than horror and involves a man who travels into the past on a mission to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In the process, he reverses two minor tragedies, falls in love, is nearly killed by a maniacal ex-husband, and explores the background of Lee Harvey Oswald in considerable detail.  Although there are a few slow moments, for the most part this is fast moving and engrossing. King’s take on time travel is new and clever and makes his premise very different than other stories dealing with similar subject matter.  There are a couple of sequences that didn’t work for me – the telephone call to the sister of one of the people he saves rang completely false – and he’s a bit inconsistent on the butterfly effect.  Since time resists pressures to change, very small alterations should not have widespread effects.  I think my biggest reservation is that while our hero agonizes about whether or not Oswald is the real shooter – he doesn’t want to kill an innocent man – he never even considers the possibility that saving Kennedy might make things WORSE instead of better. And the end wimps out a bit because it does make things worse, but not through any realistic chain of events but because his tampering has put a strain on the fabric of time that leads to increasingly devastating earthquakes.  Certainly enjoyable but not in King's first rank. 11/17/11

The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow by Cory Doctorow, PM, 2011, $12, ISBN 978-1-60486-404-5

This slim little book contains a long story in the cyberpunk tradition, plus a transcript of his speech at a convention and an interview.  The story involves a typical geek who finds his fascination with virtual reality tempered a bit when he discovers that real time girls have something even better to offer.  Smoothly written and wryly amusing, I actually liked this better than most of the other short fiction I've read by Doctorow.  The speech and interview, while mildly interesting, did not seem particularly convincing, but your mileage may vary.  I had never heard of this publisher before and they seem to have done quite a few potentially interesting books.  1/15/11

Sensation by Nick Mamatas, PM, 2011, $14.95, ISBN 978-60486-354-3

I mostly connect Nick Mamatas with the horror genre, and I suppose there are mildly horrific overtones to some of this novel, although it is closer to a blend of classic SF and Unknown style fantasy, with a modern twist.  A woman makes a rather dramatic break with her past - deserting her husband and committing assault - and then promptly disappears into the interstices of reality. She discovers that "we are property", the battleground between two alien species who try to turn our history in different directions. As she continues to operate in both realities, her activities begin to have a ripple effect on those around her. She also has to deal with the fact that her body is being colonized.  Interesting story although the language sometimes lost me and forced me to backtrack to find out what the sentence actually meant.  11/15/11

Slabscape: Reset by S. Spencer Baker, Blip, 2010, £8.99, ISBN 978-0-956-73870-7

Despite the awful title, this was surprisingly good. The protagonist is a very rich man who wants to take part in the first interstellar journey, but he's not young enough and unlikely to live until the ship is built. As an alternative, he downloads his personality and has his body put into suspended animation. But things don't go quite as planned. Humans encounter an alien race, but they're not friendly, and search for another that might be more amenable to selling them advanced technology. But there's something else waiting in space for our intrepid explorers - something that will boggle their minds. Although this isn't meant to be taken entirely seriously, it has its serious moments and is embellished with an inventive imagination and a sense of wonder about the universe.  I don't know how available this might be in the US but it's worth hunting around for it. First in a series.11/12/11

Planet of Light by Raymond F. Jones, Winston, 1953  

The sequel to Son of the Stars reunites the feisty human teenager with Clonar, another teen but one from a distant star system. It’s far inferior, starting with the premise that a couple of teenagers would be approved as the first ambassadors to a galactic civilization. Having arrived, they discover that factions want either to exclude them or even eliminate humanity altogether. In due course, our hero proves the value of the human race, but only after getting into so much trouble that it looks like all is lost.  There’s actually not much going on in this one, the alien planet is flat and lifeless, and there’s absolutely no sense of wonder about the universe. Probably Jones’ worst novel. 11/8/11

Son of the Stars by Raymond F. Jones, Winston, 1952  

The Winston juveniles were fairly highly regarded at the time and included books by Lester Del Rey, Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, and Arthur C. Clarke, but there were also some clunkers.  This is one of the latter.  Clonar is the only survivor of a crashed flying saucer on Earth, befriended by a teenaged boy who wants to help him thwart the military authorities that have seized the ship. The interpersonal reactions are awkward and implausible and the haphazard way that the ship is treated by the military is laughable. Clonar, also a youth, can pass for human other than having six fingers and he learns English within a day.  Jones also forgets about his scale. Although the saucer is only 200 feet in diameter, the interior contains a maze of roomy corridors and compartments including “endless storerooms” and a wide variety of laboratories suggesting a much larger structure.  And even in the 1950s, the army did not have police powers within the US, or to order news outlets not to release stories.  Predictable, melodramatic ending with the aliens threatening to destroy the Earth. 11/2/11

Necropolis by Michael Dempsey, Night Shade, 2011, $14.99, ISBN 978-1-59780-315-1

This novel is hard to categorize. It's kind of a futuristic steampunk, but that doesn't really do justice to it. The protagonist is a police detective who is restored to life several decades after his murder to find that time and history are both unraveling. Those restored from the dead - in a scientifically questionable but largely irrelevant process - are living backwards, growing younger, and the world is changing along with them. Clocks run backwards and events that never happened in the original past now do take place. Now he sets out to investigate his own murder, aided by an assistant who is actually just a hologram, and hindered by a world that changes fundamentally almost as quickly as he can begin to understand it.  I'm not sure the logical always works but I really didn't care and just let myself be carried along by the story line.  One of the better debut novels I've encountered. 10/31/11

What Judgments Come by Dayton Ward & Kevin Dilmore, Pocket, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4516-0863-2

Another Star Trek novel, this one not involving the characters from any of the television series, but a standalone sequence called Vanguard. The term refers to a great project to discover the secrets of a supposedly alien race with advanced technology. Unfortunately, they are not as extinct as they were thought to be and when they return to active participation in the galaxy, they're none too pleased that people have been poking their noses into the wrong business. Efforts are made to avoid a major war but the peace mission itself is flawed.  This appears to bring this subset of the Trek universe saga to an end, although never say never. Reasonably well done though perhaps a trifle too predictable. 10/27/11

Man of Two Worlds by Raymond F. Jones, Pyramid, 1963 

This was the first paperback edition of the 1951 hardcover (it was serialized in 1944) published as Renaisssance. It is arguably the author’s most important novel though not necessarily his best.  It’s actually rather clumsily written with implausible and not well thought out plot situations, bad science, and awkward shortcuts, like having the protagonist become fluent in a foreign language in a single day through a casual series of conversations. The story has been used more than once in SF, most notably in Arthur C. Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night. Kronweld in a closed society where science is stressed but only within certain areas.  The inhabitants don’t know how life is created, for example. New citizens arrive almost fully grown but with no memories of their past. Kronweld is surrounded by nearly uninhabitable wasteland and the mysterious Edge, the end of reality apparently although it’s never explained. Our hero  rebels against the system, discovers Kronweld is a parallel world exploited by the tyrannical government on Earth, and is eventually instrumental in overthrowing the bad guys, despite an almost incredible string of mistakes and bad decisions. It’s readable, but just barely, and goes on far too long. 10/26/11

Science Fiction Trails 7 edited by David Riley, 2011, $7.75

An annual magazine that mixes two genres, science fiction and westerns.  I was taught to read using paperback westerns and I still have fond memories of Max Brand, Luke Short, William MacLeod Raine, Ernest Haycox, and others from the days before I discovered science fiction, and I still occasionally read or re-read one of them. Most of the contributors to this issue are unfamiliar names and the stories range from good to okay, with David Lee Summers and Sam Kepfield providing my favorites this time.  The editor insists on historical accuracy and most of these have the feel of the Old West, if not the plots one usually connects with that setting.  This is largely unexplored territory for fiction, however, and maybe the recent Cowboys and Aliens will spark some interest.  10/22/11

Thawed Out & Fed Up by Ryan Brown, Gallery, 2011, $15, ISBN 978-1-4391-7156-1

Science fiction meets the Old West, sort of.  Our hero is a fugitive who may or may not have committed a murder - he has memory problems - when he finds himself in an isolated community that emulates the Old West and is dominated by a gang of rustlers.  So who do you call upon in such a situation?  Why John Wayne, of course.  It seems that Wayne didn't die; he was just put in suspended animation, and now he has been revived.  Aged and not at his best, he still dominates the scene and teaches our hero how to face up to his responsibilities.  Completely implausible of course but a good deal of fun without becoming merely farce.  Read this one in a single sitting.  10/19/11

Technicolor Ultra Mall by Ryan Oakley, Edge, 2011, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-894063-54-8

There were times when this one reminded me of Mallworld by Somtow Sucharitkul from way back when, crossed with a bit of Max Headroom. The setting is indeed a giant mall which has become a city unto itself, in fact almost a civilization unto itself. Against this backdrop we have several individual stories that aren't entirely unrelated but the plot is almost incidental.  The book is about the mall and the way people interact in an enclosed environment. The language is fresh, inventive, and fast moving. One of the blurbs compares Oakley to Philip K. Dick but I would have said K.W. Jeter. There are hints of bizarre humor, and it's obviously in part a satire, but it's also deadly serious. This is one of those books that are worth some extra effort to track them down. 10/19/11

A Choice of Catastrophes by Michael Schuster and Steve Mollman, Pocket, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4516-0716-1

To Brave the Storm by Michael A. Martin, Pocket, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4516-0715-4

Time for another dip into the Star Trek universe.  The first of these novels is a standalone set in a future version of the original series with Sulu as Captain of the Enterprise. Otherwise it follows a familiar formula.  An approach to a mysterious planet results in problems with crew members and equipment and the enigma must be solved if they are to leave. McCoy is the focus of this one because he develops telepathic powers and has a vision of the disaster that faces them.  It's a comfortable but not outstanding Trek adventure, but then again, they're not supposed to vary too far from the formula.  The second continues a short sequence within the Enterprise series, and I still have never seen a single episode so I have no idea how faithful it is. Even the Vulcans have withdrawn from the growing tension between humans and Romulans and it appears that an interstellar war is unavoidable. Earth is menaced, the situation is desperate, and one man must act to save the world.  So what's new?  Readable but nothing special. 10/18/11

This Island Earth by Raymond F. Jones, Shasta, 1952 

The classic novel upon which the movie of the same name was based. An engineer becomes enticed by a catalogue of electronic parts of which he has never heard and uses it to assemble an interocitor, a communications device which is actually a test of his abilities. He is then recruited by a secretive organization in the American Southwest which is actually run by visitors from another planet.  He suspects something right from the start and eventually discovers that there is a vast galactic war underway and that the Earth is simply a minor supply depot.  There’s some really dumb social commentary – Jones thinks work stoppages are inevitable results of unavoidable job dissatisfaction – but the story moves along very quickly.  It was originally three separate stories, in fact, cobbled together into the novel.  The particular strike here contradicts Jones’ thesis because the union is clearly correct in its complaint, which our hero doesn’t seem to comprehend. At the end, a lone human convinces the entire alien council to change its battle tactics, thus averting disaster – although we never do find out what happens next.  A lot less action than in the movie version. 10/14/11

The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod, Pyr, 2011, $16, ISBN 978-1-61614-525-5

For a while I thought this wasn't really going to be SF at all but just a slightly futuristic political thriller. The protagonist is interested in both virtual reality development and the history of a remote part of pre-Soviet Russia.  Her interests coincide and that gets her into hot water, virtual and otherwise, as she uncovers secrets that some people want suppressed. Then she discovers something about the past that really makes this SF - and no, I'm not going to tell you what it is but it's not among the usual suspects - and the story takes an unexpected turn. Most of the conflict and action in this are more intellectual than physical but it's still an exciting journey. 10/12/11

The Essential Silver Surfer Volume 2, Marvel, 2007 

The Silver Surfer was my favorite Marvel character despite his exaggerated character and overblown dialogue. He was the servant of Galactus, who often threatened to destroy the Earth, but his servant always managed to find a way to divert him. For his pains he is bound to Earth for awhile. After a bittersweet return to his home planet and a battle with Mephisto, the Surfer has to deal with a number of other worldly menaces like Galactus, the Celestials, the Skrulls, and so forth.  I preferred his adventures on Earth but these later ones are pretty good as well. 10/10/11

The Toymaker by Raymond F. Zones, Fantasy Press, 1951 

This is a collection of six stories including “The Children’s Hour”, which is about mutants and the future of the human race.  They are all rather crudely written and the science is frequently shaky but they illustrate the kind of story that was popular in SF during the 1940s. The title story is about scientists creating toys that somehow cause a shared delusion among the children of a planet which forces the adults to reconsider an aggressive war. “The Model Shop” is one of those stories where superscientific devices from the future are accidentally sent to the present.  Interplanetary mechanical insects menace the world in “The Deadly Host”. “Utility” is actually the best written, a story about interplanetary traders and the problems they encounter. “Forecast” is a disappointing piece about weather control.  Jones remains a minor figure in SF and there’s nothing here that would suggest he deserves otherwise. 10/9/11

The Immorality Engine by George Mann, Tor, 2011, $24.99. ISBN 978-0-7653-2775-8

Steampunk seems to be growing in popularity again, and with novels like the Newbury and Hobbes series by George Mann, there's good reason for the surge. Their third adventure is complicated by the personal problems of the two protagonists, but that doesn't slow down the plot at all. A mysterious murder and a dead man who might not be dead after all.  While Newbury struggles with his addiction and seeks to solve what might be a copycat crime, or something far stranger, unseen forces move behind the scenes and even Queen Victoria may be party to a sinister plot.  Although complete in itself, the book sets the stage for a further confrontation.  Great fun from beginning to end, if a little darker than its predecessors.  Mann is developing into a significant new voice in the field. 10/6/11

Ganymede by Cherie Priest, Tor, 2011, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2946-2

Cherie Priest, who has become one of my favorite authors, returns for her third visit to her zombie infested steampunk world where the Civil War is still going on after twenty years and Texas is an ally but not part of the Confederacy. The two main characters are a bordello manager who is secretly an agent for the Union in Texas occupied New Orleans and a non-aligned reformed air pirate who wants to settle down. She recruits him to pilot a prototype submarine out of New Orleans to the Union navy, which is the central plot, but there's lots more including revelations that the zombie plague - previously confined to Seattle after the release of a strange subterranean gas - has spread to other parts of the continent.  Perhaps not quite as engaging as its two predecessors but still a major novel for the year. 9/28/11

The Essential Thor Volume 3, Marvel, 2006 

Thor battles villains on Earth as well as in Asgard, gets deprived of his powers by the angry Odin again, fails to consummate his tepid romance, and spouts intentionally corny dialogue throughout. The villains who span multiple issues include a war with the rock trolls and an assault by the Enchanters, both fairly good stories, although I preferred his encounter with the alien super-Skrull. Loki, whom I find tiresome, has a long campaign making use of the Wrecker and the Destroyer, neither of them first rate villains. I was tempted to list this as fantasy but since Marvel has given a quasi-rational explanation of Asgard and the Norse gods - the rock trolls are aliens for example - I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and list this here. 9/28/11

The Essential Spider-Woman Volume 2, Marvel, 2007 

Not one of my favorite Marvel superheroes, and not a very successful story line despite attempts to beef things up with the Hulk, Spider-Man, and other guest heroes.  The villains are okay – The Enforcer, the Hornet, the Werewolf, Gypsy Moth, etc., but she seems to dispatch them all with relative ease and the subplot when her friend is held hostage is so silly it was embarrassing.  There are aliens as well as Morgan Le Fay and a man who can force others to hallucinate, but most are overcome by deus ex machina solutions.  The Flying Tiger is the most disappointing villain and the Viper is the best.  Some of the individual episodes are well written, but overall this was near the bottom of the barrel for Marvel. 9/25/11

The Recollection by Gareth L. Powell, Solaris, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-907519-98-7

Ever since I read Galactic Derelict by Andre Norton in high school, I've been fond of those stories where the protagonist is whisked through a variety of alien worlds.  This first novel is partly in that tradition. The first man to encounter it disappears, pursued in due course by his brother and his wife, who aren't all that fond of each other. They visit various worlds before encountering a woman from the future and an alien menace that could seal the fate of entire planets. Although I enjoyed this I think it was perhaps a bit too ambitious a plot for such a comparatively short novel and at times I felt rushed through scenes and situations. The dialogue could also be a bit livelier but that's not a fatal flaw in an adventure story.  9/24/11

The Essential Godzilla, Marvel, 2006 

I was curious to see how they integrated the Japanese monster into the Marvel universe, but Nick Fury is after him in the very first issue. Where’s the Hulk when you need him? Hercules and the X-Men show up instead, but without much effect, and then another giant monster, Batragon, changes the ground rules. Turns out there’s a villain named Dr. Demonicus creating giant monsters, though not giant enough to beat Godzilla. This is all supposed to be good fun and we’re supposed to sympathize with Godzilla, but nowhere does it mention that the destruction of several major cities would have led to tens of thousands of deaths.  There’s a giant robot, a giant caveman, giant aliens…you get the idea. And then Godzilla gets shrunk so that a regular rat looks like a giant. Finally the Fantastic Four and the Avengers take a hand.  This was an interesting experiment, but not a successful one. 9/24/11

The Alien by Raymond F. Jones, Belmont, 1963 (originally published in 1951) 

Scientists are probing the asteroid belt for artifacts from the planet that exploded and created the asteroids when they encounter an impressive artifact that seems to have been designed to attract attention and be reactivated.   As with his other work, Jones worries about “the ever present curse of enforced leisure in a world that has reduced the human workload. It has created a kind of mass insanity on Earth from which only scientists and engineers are immune.  They find a brain in suspended animation along with instructions to revive the last survivor of the extinct race, and when they start the process back on Earth a religious cult forms. The science is pretty poor – Jones doesn’t seem to know what a galaxy is - and the conclusion that the alien must be evil because only an evil entity would attempt to survive the destruction of his civilization is patently absurd.  For some reason, even though Earth ships can travel 100,000 lightyears in less than a week, they have never left the solar system before! When the alien is acclaimed as the new ruler of Earth, a small group of scientists goes looking for an ancient weapon with which to defeat him. And even at that distance, they can see what is happening on Earth through their telescopes! When they encounter primitive aliens, one of their number is able to understand their speech immediately because there are sounds and meanings consistent in all language! Despite the crudeness of the writing, this was surprisingly entertaining, primarily because of its evocation of a sense of wonder about the universe.  Minor, but interestingly minor. 9/23/11

Coalition’s End by Karen Traviss, Gallery, 2011, $26.99, ISBN 978-1-4391-8395-3 

Another novel in the Gears of War series of computer game tie-ins. Humans are engaged in a war against alien locusts on a colony world. Although the locusts have been largely defeated, most of the human population died as well and the survivors are struggling to form alliances and rebuild a civilization. But the locusts were just the beginning.  Behind them comes a new alien lifeform even more deadly and more able to adapt to whatever tactics the survivors adopt to defeat them. A kind of cross between military SF and the apocalypse novel. Enjoyable but lightweight. 9/19/11

The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch, Scholastic, 9/11, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-545-29014-2   

Another post-apocalyptic novel for young adults, this one following both war and plague. The teenage protagonist and his family are essentially nomads who salvage materials from the wreckage and sell them in order to support themselves. Their travels bring them to a small, slightly odd community where a crisis quickly evolves. There’s a secret hovering over the settlement, and those unaware of its nature could find themselves in grave danger.  No big surprises in this one, but nice clean prose and a fast moving story line. 9/18/11

The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski, Tor, 9/11, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2956-1   

This is a byline I see all too infrequently, as I’ve enjoyed every book she’s written.  And this one is about an orbiting habitat, which is a setting I find particularly appealing. The novel is basically a coming of age story in which a teenage girl from a prominent family arrives in orbit to attend college there.  The Earth, suffering from environmental problems as well as an intrusion by an alien lifeform, is not particularly hospitable.  There are some of the usual devices of a story of this type, her adjustment to school as well as the habitat itself, her encounters with other characters, and a few surprises to keep the concept fresh along with well above average writing.. Predictably our young protagonist has immediate personal concerns that sometimes conflict with the expectations of others and eventually there’s a major crisis in which she shines.  The plot summary might make this sound pretty pedestrian but this is one of those basic stories that never seem to get old, particularly in the hands of a writer as skillful as this one.  9/17/11

Cast No Shadow by James Swallow, Pocket, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4516-0717-8 

Every once in a while I slip into the Star Trek universe, which is dominated by formula stories but occasionally suggests something new.  This is about halfway in between.  The Klingons have become reconciled with the Federation, thanks in part to the latter’s assistance after a disaster in the Klingon’s home system.  The new accord seems to be going well but there is a minority of the Klingons who want to return to the old ways and renew the conflict. So terrorism is generally ascribed to these malcontents, but as usual not everything is as it appears and the conspirators may include some surprising individuals.  Well written (but I could do without the unpronounceable words). 9/13/11

The Cybernetic Brains by Raymond F. Jones, Paperback Library, 1962  

This was the first book publication of the author’s 1950 magazine novel – novels were shorter in those days – and I think it was his first book length work. It’s pretty clumsy by contemporary standards, with questionable science, a society presented so simplistically that it’s implausible, and cardboard characters, but it’s a good example of its time.  Computers grew bigger and bigger – thanks to vacuum tubes – until they were unmanageable, but someone discovered a way to use supposedly dead human brains in their place. Unfortunately, those brains are still alive and the millions of victims – many of whom were murdered for their brains – are all in torment. Then one of them is put in charge of a biochemical facility and he creates lifeforms through which he can examine and interact with the outside world, and he wants to bring things to a halt.  Jones rails against the Welfare State in this one and suggests that a descent into chaos, barbarism, and wide scale death is preferable to a world where people have lots of leisure time. I beg to differ. 9/11/11

Panverse 3 edited by Dario Ciriello, Panverse, 2011, $15.95, ISBN 978-0-9837313-1-3

Right up front I'll tell you that one of the five novelettes in this collection is by me, so obviously everyone should run out and buy a dozen copies. That said, I'm in pretty good company.  The best in the collection is by Ken Liu, a thoughtful extrapolation of a kind of time travel and its potential use to reveal past atrocities, and the political and psychological repercussions. The author's position seems pretty clear but he doesn't use paper tigers in opposition and some of the arguments against its use are pretty compelling as well.  It alone is worth the cover price. The remaining three are clustered close behind. I was most partial to Tochi Onyebuchi's contribution because it feeds my fondness for blending SF and detective story themes. It's considerably more complex than that and at times wanders a bit from the focal plot but not so badly that it spoiled my appreciation. Gavin Salisbury postulates a society mixing static communities with transient merchant societies. When treachery causes one member of the latter to go adrift in the former, various revelations are unwrapped for the reader.  I found the protagonist a bit too wishy washy for my taste but the society was fascinating. Jason Stoddard has a kind of space opera alternate history.  When Martian colonists indulge in nuclear warfare, Earth unites against them, stops all space travel and trade, forms a worldwide government, and uses drugs to suppress aggressive impulses. A Martian steals a ship and travels to Earth to plead for help and gets caught up in a political crisis. This one has its moments, but I don't understand why it was set in an alternate timeline, and I didn't find the situation on Earth entirely plausible. 9/9/11

Clark Gifford’s Body by Kenneth Fearing, Random House, 1942 

Kenneth Fearing is remembered, if at all, for a couple of decent mystery novels. This was the closest he came to SF, the story of an insurrection in a mythical country obviously meant to be the US. There’s a world war and for some reason this has led to an appointed government. Gifford is the leader of the rebellion, although his program is even less logical and organized than that of those he opposes. In fact the entire novel, a series of eye witness reports, is so loosely constructed and unfocused that it isn’t clear what Fearing is warning us about, or recommending, or satirizing. The rebellion fails within 24 hours, and it was implausible to begin with. Excerpts from years later suggest things got much worse, but whether because of or in spite of the rebellion is not clear.  A curiosity only. 9/8/11

Imperial Glory by Richard Williams, Black Library, 2011, $8.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-889-7 

Military SF in the Warhammer universe. A military unit which has seen far too much action is promised the right to colonize a planet and retire if they can overcome the enemy currently occupying it. Characterization is minimal but not badly done given that this is essentially one long battle sequence broken up by scenes almost as tense as the action. The author’s first novel for this series was reasonably good.  This one is considerably better.  No familiarity with the Warhammer game system is required. 9/6/11

Working Stiff by Rachel Caine, Roc, 2011, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-46413-2 

I love this title, considering that it’s the first in a series about a corporation which uses a new drug to revive its dead employees as zombies and keep them working even after death. The protagonist is a – live – employee at a mortuary who discovers what’s going on and teams up with her romantic interest, a kind of secret agent, to expose the racket.  But naturally those responsible have a vested interest in the status quo, and they’re perfectly willing to make our two heroes into uncomplaining members of their compliant work force.  I think this may be my favorite book by Caine and I’m looking forward to more. This is labeled fantasy and involves zombies but it’s actually SF. 9/6/11