to SF Reviews

of SF Reviews

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

LAST UPDATE 9/30/23  

Unidentified by Michael McBride, Preternatural, 2022

This is a novel about cattle mutilations. A group of people who were traumatized by mysterious deaths and disappearances as youths return to confront their past. Something is alive under the ground, and it is dangerous and rather creepy. This had a lot less detail than the author's other suspense/SF novels and I found it less convincing and considerably less involving. There is never really a good explanation for what is going on and the characters are never developed particularly well. Perhaps this was a novel idea that went sour and got cut short. 9/30/23

The Merchantsí War by Frederik Pohl, Del Rey, 1984 

The sequel to The Space Merchants is similarly a satire, and similarly involves a corrupt protagonist who eventually is moved to switch sides. In this case, he discovers that agents from the Venus colony and some dissidents on Earth are planning to use a political campaign to seize power over the advertising agencies. His conversion comes very late in the story and is not very convincing. The best part of the book for me was in the little details Ė the guy who compulsively collected faux collectible items, for example. Satire had pretty much gone out of style by the 1980s, and feels more anachronistic now that real life has become far more of a caricature than even SF writers imagined it could be. 9/28/23

Starburst by Frederik Pohl, Del Rey, 1982 

I found the premise for this novel completely unbelievable. Eight people are tricked into taking the first interstellar voyage to a planet that actually does not exist. It is an experiment designed to see how their minds can develop new abilities when they have nothing to do but think about scientific problems. They become geniuses but then rebel against the project purpose when they discover they are effectively under sentence of death. Nope. Sorry.  I donít believe any of this is possible, particularly in such a short time frame. They discover they have been tricked and use their super intelligence to almost destroy the Earth. They create a planet to replace the fictional one and begin bringing colonists to live there. This is probably Pohlís weakest Ė and dullest Ė solo novel. 9/24/23

Regime Change by Thomas Easton & Frank Wu, 2023, $13.99

This near future psychic espionage thriller is available from Amazon in solid and electronic formats. The story involves a group of four people, two of them quite elderly, who have psi talents and who once worked for the CIA but are now retired. They have to come out of retirement when the Russians decide to set off a new hidden warfare using their own gifted agents. Although telepathy is the main focus, there are clairvoyant and telekinetic elements as well. The new head of the CIA is pragmatic and determined to counter this new threat, even if it means making somewhat unfair demands on those who have already served. Most of the story is a series of thrusts and counterthrusts, but there is a rousing, violent climax when everything comes to a head - although I notice the authors are careful to set the stage for a possible sequel without leaving one convinced that the present story is incomplete. Psi powers have pretty much gone out of style in the genre, but maybe it's time for them to come back. 9/19/23

Payback in Death by J.D. Robb, St Martins, 2023 

Eve Dallas is back in a detective story that is only nominally SF. A retired Internal Affairs officer is murdered in his apartment, and the death is rigged rather ineptly to look like suicide. The obvious place to look is people whose misdeeds were uncovered in the past, but there does not seem to be any connection to any of them. But appearances are misleading. Dallas, and the reader, will suspect the actual killers very early, but the motive is concealed until the story is almost over. The chief villain confesses at the end in a not very convincing scene but otherwise the book is up to her usual quality. 9/18/23

Ruination by Michael McBride, Preternatural, 2023

The second half of this zombie apocalypse variation. It's the usual scenario. The government collapses, shambling killers everywhere, a small number of people immune to the plague gathering together and attempting to survive. The story veers toward the supernatural at this point because it involves an evil force that is drawing humanity toward its ultimate challenge. To avoid spoilers, I'll be vague about its exact nature. The story does not break any new ground, but McBride is very skilled at weaving several individual storylines/protagonists into an organized and usually very suspenseful narrative. And there does seem to be an ongoing market for this particular type of story. 9/17/23

The Day of the Doctor by Stephen Moffatt, Target, 2018 

Novelization of the authorís screenplay for the television series. Three different Doctors are about to converge. The tenth Doctor is in Elizabethan England battling the alien Zygons, who plan to take over the Earth. His successor is investigating an anomaly in time that causes a bridge from one era to another. And a mysterious new doctor Ė not one in the regular sequence Ė is involved in an intergalactic war between the Time Lords and the Daleks Ė both sides of which are arguably villainous. This was one of the better installments in the revival of the show. 9/15/23

Syzygy by Frederik Pohl, Del Rey, 1982 

This is just barely SF, mostly because an artificially produced signal is received in the final chapter. The novel itself is about several people who get involved with the speculation that an alignment of the planets will disrupt the son and have catastrophic effects on Earth, particularly Los Angeles. There is a real estate speculator who plays up the threat, a mobster who does not like seeing his equity drop, a couple of politicians who use it to advance their careers, a Russian cosmonaut, and three scientists who are affected directly because of the nature of their work and the creation of a Senate advisory committee. Itís actually pretty good even though very little happens. It is mostly about their interactions, interspersed with science nuggets and some mild melodrama. 9/14/23

The Cool War by Frederik Pohl, Del Rey, 1980

This is a fixup of three novelettes and some additional material. Itís a semi-serious satire set in a near future where open warfare is virtually impossible, so countries use sabotage and propaganda to weaken each other. The protagonist is drafted into the US intelligence service known as the Team and is sent on various missions, usually unaware of what he is actually supposed to be doing. He eventually meets an underground rebel who convinces him to switch sides. The story is not nearly as series as the summary might indicate. It is filled with absurd situations and dark humor, although the humor doesnít always work. This kind of satire has diminished in popularity, probably because reality has become so surreal that it no longer feels pointed in its criticisms. It also goes on for far too long and contains several unnecessary scenes and some repetition. 9/6/23

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederik Pohl, Del Rey, 1980 

Sequel to Gateway. An alien artifact that turns comets into food is located beyond Pluto and a family of four contract to take the seven year round trip and try to move it closer to Earth. The artifact not only does not want to move, but it is linked to a much bigger alien station which still has non-human inhabitants, although they are not the Heechee but a less intelligent and now degenerate race. Various subplots intertwine involving periodic waves of madness on Earth, family tensions, a teenage boy who has been living alone on the main station for ten years, and the political and financial maneuvering of various persons on Earth. At the end we finally learn what the Heechee were doing and where they are now. Not quite as good as the first book, but thoroughly rewarding. 9/2/23

Contagion by Michael McBride, Preternatural, 2022

This was originally announced as the first in a trilogy but apparently ends with the second book. It is a variant of the zombie apocalypse story with a lot of enticing new tweaks and twists. An expedition unearths a cave in Alaska which suggests cannibalism and some kind of mental disease which affects a member of the staff. This coincides with a number of peculiar events around the world, which precede the arrival of the long dormant plague to more populated parts of the world. McBride does this sort of thing very well indeed, with lots of viewpoint characters to let us see the problems unfold from various vantage points. It is essentially just what it seems, but the details and the technique are distinctly McBride's and raise his work above a mob of superficially similar novels. 8/27/23

The Tyrant Skies by David Annandale, Aconyte, 2023

This is an unusual Marvel tie-in novel that is essentially a battle between two of the franchise's more popular villains. Dr. Doom still rules Latveria, but he is concerned about the recent activities of the Red Skull, an old enemy who has assembled a substantial force backed by considerable wealth. The Red Skull has created a kind of floating island nation which has been recognized internationally, and he plans to attack Latveria, Doom's stronghold, which apparently he had done before - this is the third book in a loose series by this author. There are lots of battle scenes and some reasonably good mundane espionage sequences. It was hard to think of Doom as the hero. 8/23/23

Wastelanders: Star-Lord, Aconyte, 2023

This is a kind of Marvel universe mash-up. Star-Lord and Rocket return to Earth as they pass through middleage. During the interim, Dr. Doom has somehow gained the upper hand and controls the Earth, much of which has been converted into a wasteland. Then they discover that their former comrades have been captured and are compelled to search for the Black Vortex, regardless of the consequences. This leads to a competing quest. Kraven the Hunter also shows up. Although I enjoyed crossovers when I was reading the comics, I actually preferred that the characters remain largely in their own part of the Marvel canon. This is well written but I never really felt as though I was reading something authentically in the same tradition. 8/21/23

Jem by Frederik Pohl, Bantam, 1979 

This is a rather unpleasant novel about human exploitation of an alien planet where three sentient species have lived in balance with one another. The humans kill specimens despite knowing that they are intelligent, and the whole plan is to exploit the planet for human use. Back on Earth, international tensions are trending toward a devastating war so the establishment of colonies seems desirable. But the aliens learn to adapt to the invaders and strike back. Almost all of the characters are assholes so itís hard not to sympathize with the aliens even if it wasnít their world to start with. Well written, but I canít say I enjoyed it. 8/20/23

Gateway by Frederik Pohl, Del Rey, 1977

The first and best in the Heechee series. Gateway is a hollowed out asteroid containing ships built by a vanished alien race. The ships can travel to distant star systems, and humans can use them, but there is no way to understand the controls or predict destinations, and a large percentage of those who try disappear or are killed. The protagonist is one such explorer, but a rather cowardly one who is beset with a heavy load of psychological problems. Much of the novel deals with the mechanics of Gateway, the problems of sharply confined crews on long journeys, and the protagonist's sessions with a computerized psychiatrist after he has returned, rich, to Earth. One of Pohl's best. 8/14/23

Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Hunt Collins, Pyramid, 1956 

Aka Malice in Wonderland. Collins is better known as Evan Hunter, serious novelist, and Ed McBain, author of the 87th Precinct novels. This early quasi-dystopian novel is set in a future world where two factions contend for powers. The Rees prefer realism in their life, which means few luxuries, no alcohol or drugs, etc., although in reality they indulge in all of that. The Vikes are vicarious and drink, drug, and have sex constantly and openly. The pressure grows as new factors complicate matters and eventually the entire dual system collapses. I couldnít remember anything from having previously read the novel, not surprising because it is boring and uneventful. 8/9/23

Mars Plus by Frederik Pohl & Thomas T. Thomas, Baen, 1994

This sequel to Pohl's Man Plus is largely, I suspect, written by Thomas. Mars now has scattered colonies, plus a few dozen cyborgs who are adapted to the hostile environment. A geologist arrives who is secretly attempting to secure some land that may have access to underground water. The cyborgs are annoyed that they are no longer receiving benefits from the colonists. A group of artificial intelligences has secretly taken control of their computer networks and the results are sometimes strange. This is slow moving and includes lectures on adaptation problems, technical problems, the way a colonial society might evolve, and other matters peripheral to the plot. I was mostly bored. 8/3/23

After the Tide by Jessie Kwak, Fairwood, 2023, $9.00, ISBN 978-1-958880-11-1

This is a very atmospheric novelette published as a chapbook, so nicely done that I found the presence tense narration only mildly offputting, On a distant world, the sea is about to recede from the land to an unprecedented extent, revealing the secrets the water has hidden for centuries. Since it is a brief event, never to be repeated in anyone's lifetime, it becomes a special occasion for people in various ways. There is also a contest and one of the contestants is about to discover that there is an alien intelligence that has been dormant and is now awake. This is quite good, and from an author I'd never previously read. 7/31/23

The Blue, Beautiful World by Karen Lord, Del Rey, 2023, $28, ISBN 978-0-593-59843-6

This is a kind of first contact novel, although not what you might normally expect from that term. It also deals with climate change - the face of the planet is being transformed by the forces we are already seeing. There are civilizations existing outside the solar system and they are on the verge of making contact in earnest - although I actually wondered a bit why they'd bother given our self destructive tendencies. The author is rather more hopeful than I am, although she also recognizes that we are consumed by our own contradictions and usually end up being our worst enemy. A handful of prominent people want to prepare us the world for contact, and they have found an entertainer who has some unusual mental abilities that might prove to be crucial. But just as humanity has conflicting desires, so do the individuals, and the outcome is very much in doubt. I was thoroughly entertained and even a bit uplifted, unusual for an old crotchety person like me. The author has several previous novels which I will have to track down. 7/31/23

Man Plus by Frederik Pohl, Bantam, 1976 

I vaguely recall not liking this when I originally read it, but itís actually pretty good. In a future in which the Earth appears to be on the brink of war, a secret project is initiated to transform a man into a cyborg who can live on Mars without lots of supporting equipment. Most of the novel is about the project Ė they are only on Mars for the final fifty pages - and the effects of the process on one man and then, when he dies, a second. The transformation is bizarre Ė with bat wings to collect solar power, artificial eyes, a tough synthetic skin, and various implants. There is another secret power behind the whole project which is not revealed until the closing chapter and which feels vaguely like as cheat There was a sequel, co-authored with Thomas T. Thomas. 7/27/23

Monster by Peter Crowcroft, Carousel, 1980

This is the novelization of a really bad monster movie, Monstroid.  A nasty company pollutes a lake in South America, creating a gigantic monster that goes around chomping on people and knocking things down until it is finally destroyed. Or is it? The story ends with the lake still waiting and planning to strike back. Both movie and book ludicrously claim this was based on real events. Given how bad the source material was, it is not surprise that the book was a complete waste of time, filled with bogus local dialogue and bland action sequences. 7/22/23

The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee, Orion, 1986 

Although this is a beautifully written futuristic romance novel, its presence struck me as just too silly. The protagonist is a rather feckless young woman who falls in love with a humanoid robot named Silver. Family and friends are scandalized, but because of the way he is constructed, he is a more faithful and effective lover than a human might be. There is an uproar that eventually results in the company recalling him as defective and melting him down for scrap. The heartbroken young woman attends a sťance and is able to communicate with Silver in the afterlife, which proves that he has a human soul.  There is a sequel which I have never read.  7/20/23

Beyond Zoaster by Dennis Talbot Hughes as Neil Charles, Curtis, 1953 

A wide ranging and ambitious space adventure that fails in almost every way. Earth has been conquered by the alien Ginyas, who dominate the galaxy. A few humans escape to a remote world where they decide to breed super soldiers with which to retake Earth. The problem is that the planet they chose has secret inhabitants who have greater powers than either, and they decide to interfere in the course of events and turn them in a different direction. Mercifully short. 7/20/23

A World of Diffference by Robert Conquest, Ballantine, 1964

I read this sixty years ago, so I didn't remember a thing about it. The theme is serious and interesting - just how far should society rely on psychological techniques to encourage acceptable social behavior. The setting follows a third world war. The remnants of the communist empire now exist as bandits lurking in the asteroid belts. Their existence justifies the government conducting secret research and while it appears that direct manipulations of personalities are rare and limited to violent criminals, there is always the threat that its use could be expanded. A small group of people with differing views of the dangers are eventually involved in a possible solution, migration to other star systems. Potentially quite good, but in practice, far too talky and drawn out, and the actual issues are not illustrated particularly well. 7/17/23

Alphanauts by J. Brian Clarke, Edge, 2006

Like his first book, Clarke's second and final title is actually a series of related short stories. In this case they involve early human efforts to explore nearby star systems. Predictably the encounter enigmatic aliens, which causes conflict before an understanding is achieved. Then the free colonists are menaced by an influx of settlers from Earth who want to set up a fascist dictatorship. The stories tend to repeat points, the planet never seems like a real place, and the aliens are rather uninteresting. 7/15/23

The Age of the Pussyfoot by Frederik Pohl, Ballantine, 1969 

The protagonist is wakened from suspended animation five centuries from now and has to adjust to a society that is highly technologically, uninhibited, and has a radically different economic system. His adventures include encounters with a hostile alien race, a society of Luddites, personal bankruptcy, and a determined assassin. Most of his problems result from his failure to ask questions, take advice, and learn from his own mistakes, and in fact this is so overdone that he never feels like a real person. He ends up sort of saving the world. Not one of the authorís better novels. 7/14/23

Pre-Gargantua by Dennis Talbot Hughes as Neil Charles, Curtis, 1953   

This rather dull adventure is set on the planet Kliron, a bleak place which hosts a small way station but no real colony. The arrival of a mysterious spaceship precipitates an alarm. Soon the lifeless planet has produced flowering plants which turn out to be inimical to human life. The slight tension the plot manages is dissipated when we finally discover the ship belongs to a race that intends to conquer the Earth using vegetable soldiers. This was almost tolerable. 7/14/23

A Plague of Pythons by Frederik Pohl, Ballantine, 1965 

Pohl later revised this as Demons of the Mind.  Religious fervor has transformed the world, not for the better, after a rash of what are considered to be demonic possessions. They are actually, of course, the use of mind control by humans using a revolutionary new technological device. Our hero survives a variety of dangers before being taken to the headquarters of the group, known as execs. There, after more adventures, he acquires one of the headsets and uses it to kill off the others and free humanity. Sort of. The story ends with him realizing that he will never relinquish the power. 7/9/23

Research Opta by Dennis Talbot Hughes - writing as Neil Charles, Curtis, 1963

A Frankenstein variant with science so bad it is often funny. A scientist discovers away to create miscroscopic life forms - through manipulation of DNA - and creates an intelligent race of creatures. He suspects that something is wrong and recruits another expert. Together they discover that the newly created race is superintelligent and has an inherently evil nature. It is quite possible that they will find a way to conquer the greater universe of humans if they are not stopped. And of course they are. Unreadable. 7/4/23

Planet Tha by Brian Holloway - writing as Neil Charles, Curtis, 1953

A pulpish British SF novel published under a house pseudonym. This one is barely readable. Due to a poorly described and implausible technical problem, a spaceship launches to the unknown planet Tha without its full complement of specialists and, worst of all, there is a woman on board! Tha is inhabited by intelligent beings with a kind of group consciousness, but due to an imminent catastrophe, the aliens are planning to abandon their planet and invade a new one. The freshly arrived humans are able to find a peaceful solution to their problems. Blah. 7/3/23

Sabella by Tanith Lee, DAW, 1980 

A science fiction vampire novel. Sabella lives on a colony world where she drinks blood, blisters in the sunlight, and lives alone. Her victims do not rise, she is not undead, and she has no fear of religious objects. Her late aunt, however, died convinced that she was an evil being and set in motion a series of events designed to destroy her. She is also troubled by the brother of a man she inadvertently killed, escapes him for a while, and eventually discovers the truth about herself and her vampirism, which is completely rationalized.. One of her better novels. 7/1/23

MORE REVIEWS