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

LAST UPDATE 12/30/08 

We Think Therefore We Are edited by Peter Crowther, DAW, 1/09, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0533-5

Iím not sure I agree with the blurb on this that claims it is only a matter of time until we create a true artificial intelligence, but that probably depends on how we define it.  It is true however that authors can play with that concept even if scientists still fall short of achieving it. Editor Crowther has gathered here fifteen original short stories that approach the subject from wildly differing viewpoints.  The AIs here take different forms Ė robots, computers, automated installations in orbit and on the Earth, and the tone ranges from speculative to adventure to humor.  The setting also ranges from the near future to the unimaginably remote.  The stories I liked best were those by Brian Stableford, James Lovegrove, Paul Di Filippo, Ian Watson, and Chris Roberson.  There were, however, no stories that I didnít like.  The year is likely to be a good one if this anthology is indicative of whatís to come. 12/30/08 

Mind Over Ship by David Marusek, Tor, 1/09, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1749-0  

I very much enjoyed this authorís debut novel, Counting Heads, and itís been a long wait for his second, which is set in that same world.  There are elements of dystopian satire in this tale of scheming corporations and the collapse of what should have been one of humanityís greatest moments, the colonization of other planets.  Unfortunately, the corporations who own the large starships required for such settlements have decided that it would be more immediately profitable to park them in orbit and turn them into condominiums, effectively bringing expansion to a halt.  This frustrates the many people who wish to leave the Earth, including some clones who hope to find a better future where their kind isnít viewed with suspicion.  Thereís also a disembodied head that still functions as CEO and the maneuvering that goes on behind her backÖer, that is, behind the back of her head.  Some dark humor mixed with some very trenchant comments about human pragmatism and shortsightedness. 12/30/08 

Blonde Roots by Bernardine Evaristo, Riverhead, 1/09, $24.95, ISBN 978-1-59448-863-4  

Alternate history fans will note that Steven Barnes has already explored the territory in this novel by non-genre writer Evaristo.  Through a combination of circumstances, Africans became the dominant culture in the world, colonizing the Americas and conquering Europe.  The chief protagonist is Doris, daughter of farmers in the British Isles, who is captured and forced into slavery, in which position she spends much of her life in Africa as a chiefís personal servant, eventually moving to Asia.  Itís actually a very good novel and a nice addition to uchronian literature, but some of the blurbs attest to the ignorance of the reviewers Ė who seem to think this is a marvelous new idea no one ever thought of before Ė rather than to the quality of the work.  One minor caveat.  Some of the dialogue is written in an awkward dialect that is supposed to add atmosphere and verisimilitude, I suppose, but I simply find it awkward.  No one ever believes that they are speaking in a dialect, after all, and none of the characters in this would be speaking recognizable English in the first place, so the dialect comes across as an irritating authorial intrusion. 12/30/08

Aspho Fields by Karen Traviss, Del Rey, 2008, $13, ISBN 978-0-345-49943-1

Karen Traviss has very quickly become one of the more prolific novelists in the SF field, with a series of space operas, stand alone novels, and additions to the Star Wars epic.  This is another tie-in novel, associated with the video game Gears of War, although frankly military SF is military SF and the game connection really isnít that much of a factor.  This one also reminded me slightly of P.C. Wrenís classic story of the French Foreign Legion, Beau Geste.  Three friends grew up together and joined the military together, but the war in space has separated them for much of their early careers.  Now two of them must deal not only with the ordinary hazards of battle but with the revelation of a deeply held secret about the third.  The emphasis on the characters rather than the battles is a welcome element in this one, but the story remains somewhat superficial.  Traviss, like most writers who dabble in tie-ins, is much better when sheís working in a universe she has designed to her own specifications. 12/30/08

Daemon by Daniel Suarez, Dutton, 1/09, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-525-95111-7

I've already received three novels by new authors who are being touted as the next Michael Crichton.  This one is the first that I found comparable.  The premise is that a brilliant but insane computer game designer with more money than Donald Trump creates a daemon in the internet which becomes active when he dies.  The daemon is distributed among numerous machines and recruits help through an online, multi-player role playing game.  The first half of the novel is very exciting with booby trapped houses, automated homicidal hummers, and other deathtraps from the gaming world translated into the real one.  About half way through the book, the story slows down for a while to set up the second level of the plot.  The daemon has been designed to seize control of thousands of corporations, recruit an army of assassins, and oppose what the dead genius saw as a sinister cabal of businessmen and politicians who secretly control the world.  When D.F. Jones wrote Colossus many years ago (perhaps better known under its film title The Forbin Project), he made this plausible by suggesting that a supercomputer could become effectively self aware.  Unfortunately, I didn't find the construct in this one anywhere near as plausible.  For one thing, one man and small group of men could not have created a series of programs which could have anticipated how to respond to so many different and individual situations.  This is particularly true because the daemon is flawless in its response to every attack or countermeasure.  The degree of adaptability necessary requires an active intelligence and is far beyond the capacity of a few thousand scripts.  For another, I couldn't accept that nothing ever went wrong.  The daemon always wins, his people are always loyal, and the CIA, NSA, FBI, and other agencies are hopelessly inept.  The story also ends with a quasi-cliffhanger, with a sequel planned.  This was previously self published, which tells you something about the state of the publishing business because, despite my cavils above, this is a first class thriller equal to or better than anything produced by Clancy, Coontz, or Cussler. 12/16/08

The Suicide Collectors by David Oppegaard, St Martins, 2008, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-312-38110-3

I had a bad feeling about this one when I read the monumentally stupid blurb that claims this will remind you of Philip K. Dick or P.D. James.  Even if those two writers were remotely similar, this would remind you of neither.  It's set in the near future where a plague of despair has spread through the world, resulting in the suicide of most of the population.  A recently widowed man sets off for Seattle where there are rumors that someone is working on solving the problem, picking up companions and meeting other survivors along the way.  Also present are the Collectors, mysterious people who know instantly when someone has died and who come to claim the body for reasons of their own.  It's not really a bad novel, but it's very slow after the opening sequence until almost the end. An interesting but not exciting debut. 12/14/08

The Clone Elite by Steven L. Kent, Ace, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01608-2

The fourth volume in the chronicle of Wayson Harris has the uppity android drafted back into the military.  If you havenít read the earlier books in the series, Harris has become a free clone in an interplanetary culture in which a somewhat repressive human government rules a variety of colony worlds.  Unfortunately, a new alien menace has arisen, an invasion fleet that is conquering one planet after another and heading straight for Earth.  So Harris is back in the space marines for another campaign.  Although this is competent and sometimes even exciting military SF, Iíd hoped that the series was moving in a new direction after Harris became a civilian.  Alas, itís back to fighting the alien scourge and dealing with hostile, uncaring, and incompetent officers.    Maybe next time we'll see more of the universe behind the action.12/13/08

Kiss of the Gods by C.J. Ryan, Stellar Phoenix, 2008, $15.99, ISBN 978-1-4392-1181-6  

Bantam was publishing the Gloria Van Deen interstellar series until this, the fifth volume.  Itís space opera with interstellar politics at center stage.  In this latest, the battle for control of the empire is underway, and there are at least three different players in the game.  Gloria must prevent a tyrant from consolidating power and she does so in various clever and often sexy ways.  This is a lightweight but not unpleasant series that doesnít take itself too seriously.  The protagonist is a kind of female version of Poul Anderson's Dominic Flandry, with a slightly different skill set but most of the same instincts.  Iím rather surprised Bantam has apparently discontinued publishing the series because I thought this was a pretty popular formula.  Maybe it has just gone out of vogue.  12/13/08

War Games by Christopher Anvil, Baen, 2008, $22, ISBN 978-1-4165-5602-2 

One of the most reliable sources of good stories in the magazines during the 1950s through 1970s was Christopher Anvil, who might not have gathered many awards but who was always entertaining.  This is the latest in a series of collections of his work published by Baen, which has been doing a good job of resurrecting relatively forgotten writers.  It includes a few of my favorites, like ďThe Trojan Bombardment,Ē ďGadget vs Trend,Ē and ďDevise and Conquer.Ē  Also included is a complete novel, The Steel, the Mist, and the Blazing Sun, originally published in 1980.  The novel is set after a nuclear war, and involves the usual power plays and conniving.  It was my least favorite of Anvilís novels and I didnít bother to re-read it.  The short stories, however, are a delightful congregation of old friends. 12/12/08

Fast Forward 2 edited by Lou Anders, Pyr, 2008, $15, ISBN 978-1-59102-692-1 1853

I was in the mood for short stories the last couple of days and found plenty of good ones.  I much prefer non-themed anthologies as a general rule, and thatís what this is.  It opens with two solid stories by Kay Kenyon and Paul Cornell, involving genetic engineering and interplanetary espionage.  Chris Nakashima-Brown, a new name to me, follows with a very strong story with some particularly strong imagery, after which Nancy Kress provides a quietly scary story of aliens so far in advance of humanity that they have a concept of the greater good considerably different than our own. Jack Skillingstead has a biting little satire that includes, among other things, talking urinals. Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctorow provide a collaborative short novel that examines intelligence and other ponderables in what is probably the single best piece in the collection, although not by much. Jack McDevitt has a nice piece about a balking AI.  Paul McAuley, Pat Cadigan, and Mike Resnick follow with solid though unremarkable stories, followed by one of Ian McDonaldís indescribable but always entertaining tales.  Kristine Kathryn Rusch has a mix of SF and mystery, a combination I always enjoy, and Karl Schroeder and Tobias Buckell collaborate on the second best story in the book.  Jeff Carlson and Paolo Bacigalupi finish up with nice stories as well.  A well balanced and mostly very high quality collection. 12/10/08

Talebones #37, Winter 2008, $7.00

The current issue of this neat looking speculative fiction magazine opens with a nice story by James Van Pelt about an experiment designed to prevent the destruction of the Earth.  William F. Nolan follows with a relatively minor story about alien abduction, sort of. Mark Rich tells a story of the quest for a kind of immortality by introducing life to the harsh environment of the planet Venus. Eric Del Carlo has a clever little story about the fires of Hell, literally, and Edd Vick has a good story about Moorish pirates and a rather unusual encounter.  Lon Prater has a touching quasi-ghost story about a man driving a war filled with memories of his dead daughter. Rebecca Tester adds an intriguing story about assassination as a profession.  The remaining stories are all readable although not as memorable.  A slightly above average issue with a nice mix of styles and themes. 12/10/08

Slow Train to Arcturus by Eric Flint and Dave Freer, Baen, 2008, $24, ISBN 978-1-4165-5585-8 

When most people think of science fiction, they think of spaceships, even though a very large proportion of SF in recent years has been set right on Earth.  That trend seems to be changing with lots of sophisticated space opera appearing from Jack McDevitt, Timothy Zahn, Peter Hamiltion, Iain Banks, Alastair Reynolds, and others.  One subset of space opera is the generation starship, usually vast constructions which house self sustaining human settlements while the ship moves slowly to a distant inhabitable planet.  Thatís the premise here, with a ship filled with various human mini-civilizations coming within range of the inhabitants of Miran.  They send out an expedition which, unfortunately, falls into the hands of very hostile humans, and only two survive to escape into more tolerant territory.  Various adventures ensue.  Good old fashioned space adventure.  It's nice to see stories like this growing in popularity again. 12/5/08

Mechanicum by Graham McNeill, Black Library, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-606-0

Dark Disciple by Anthony Reynolds, Black Library, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-607-4

Both of these are military SF novels set in the Warhammer universe.  The first involves the early stages of a civil war on the planet Mars, where the harsh hand of the authorities has led to unrest among the populace at large.  Thereís a pretty good story meandering its way through the stream of battles and confrontations.  This is an example of one of the better novels in this tie-in series, one which is accessible to general readers and entertaining as well.  The second one is more dependent on the internal structure of the shared world universe.  A megalomaniac who leads a splinter faction within the interstellar military has found a technological device that could provide him with considerable personal power.  All he has to do is master its working before one or more of his enemies makes an effective attack.  The plot isnít bad but the individual scenes are often awkward, feeling like comic book stories.  Reynolds is much better in the other half of the Warhammer universe, the one involving swords and sorcery. 12/3/08

Biohell by Andy Remic, Solaris, 2008, $15, ISBN 978-1-84416-5909-2 

Andy Remic combines two popular subgenres in his latest, military SF and the zombie story, the latter of whose popularity I still find puzzling.  Anyway, this is a rationalized zombie story in which nanotechnology gets out of control on a planet which has become one gigantic city, turning a large portion of the population into mindless killing machines.  Our heroes are a bunch of soldiers who are dropped onto the afflicted planet to investigate, and find themselves fighting for their lives against hordes of weird enemies.  Thereís also some actual plot Ė because the plague of nanotechnology was not entirely accidental, but itís secondary to the carnage.  Although Remic writes well enough, this one felt rather repetitive by half way through and the improvements later on were not enough to really ramp my interest level back up by any appreciable amount.  Labeled a Combat K novel, so presumably weíll see more of the heroes, or their fellows in the future. 12/1/08

Paul of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, Tor, 2008, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1294-5 

I have frankly been rather indifferent to the expansion of the Dune universe, originally created by Frank Herbert.  Even his later novels in the series interested me progressively less. Some of the recent sequels, prequels, and expansions by Herbert and Anderson have been good stories in their own right, particularly The Machine Crusade, but others have just replayed old themes and situations.  This might be rewarding for hard core fans of the series but I found them slight.  The latest is a rather pleasant change because it actually fills in a part of the story that I always thought should have been covered when the series was first appearing.  This is the story of Paul Atreides after the emperor was defeated but before the Jihad was successful in Dune Messiah.  There are, of course, the predictable struggles among the various groups that hope to influence, if not control, Muadídib, and Paul himself isnít always convinced that he is following the optimal path.  I think this might be the best of all the supplementary novels. 11/28/08

The United States of Atlantis by Harry Turtledove, Roc, 2008, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-451-46236-7 

This is the sequel to Opening Atlantis, an alternate history set in a version of Earth where thereís an eighth continent.  The British and French fought a war for control, the French lost, but now King Georgeís policies have led to a revolutionary movement among the colonists.  That revolution gets underway in this volume.  Sounds familiar, Ií m sure, and thatís actually my biggest problem with this one.  Although one might well expect a fairly similarly series of developments under these circumstances, there really isnít anything new or interesting.  Atlantis doesnít have exotic animals or advanced technology or anything to make it significantly different from America, so it feels very much like an historical novel with some names changed.  The story isnít bad, of course, but I found it disappointing.  We might at least have had some fascinating new predators. 11/26/08

Peacekeeper by Laura E. Reeve, Roc, 12/08, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-46245-9 1695 

The first adventure of Major Ariane Kedros, which looks like military SF, although this was is more in the nature of a murder mystery.  Kedros has a job working for an interplanetary consortium, but sheís also a part time soldier who is occasionally sent on mysterious assignments.  This is because sheís part of a group who received new identities after they performed a mission which caused the destruction of an entire world, an accomplishment that leaves Kedros with decidedly mixed feelings.  She prefers to forget the past, but someone has started murdering those who were associated with her on that terrible mission, apparently having penetrated their false identities.  So Kedros becomes the bait in a trap designed to catch those responsible.  And we all know what usually happens to the bait.  A nice mix of military and non-military plots, which separates it from the monotony of the former.  If future volumes are as innovative, this might be a series to watch. 11/24/08

Perfect Circle by Carlos J. Cortes, Bantam, 12/08, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-59162-0 1725 

A drilling operation in the Congo reaches a new depth, and finds something entirely unexpected.  A barrier consists of a metal previously unknown, valuable in itself, but surrounding an immense artifact that appears to date before the advent of human civilization.  A brilliant geologist is recruited into the effort to send a team down to explore the interior.  This effort, and the main story, is wrapped in a number of other problems, personal conflicts among the people managing the effort, the unstable political and military situation in the Congo, and so forth.  Thereís a native legend regarding the place, and an inquisitive government that wants to know what exactly is going on at the site.  Throw in a group of spies with their own agenda and you have an exciting and dangerous mix. 

The novel is written in the mode of the techno-thriller or a Michael Crichton novel rather than SF, which has become quite an extensive little subgenre overlapping SF and suspense over the course of the last decade. Thereís a bit of romance, nicely done, and the protagonist is more than just a typical rugged adventurer.  The secret of the excavation Ė which I obviously canít tell you without spoiling things Ė is not trivial and the consequences are even less so.  Oddly, this tends to work against the effectiveness of the novel, because it is both disproportionate to what went before, but also involves some pretty hefty coincidences.  Thereís also a bit of pseudo-science thrown in that jarred.  Iím afraid it was a little bit too Velikovsky for my tastes.  11/22/08

Night Work by Thomas Glavinic, Canongate, 11/08, $15, ISBN 978-1-84767-184-4 

One of the situations Iíve always found fascinating is the last person (or few persons) on Earth story, everything from The Last Man by Mary Shelley, The Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel, Second Ending by James White to I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. I even enjoyed the first half of the movie, Target Earth, in which Richard Deming awakens to find himself in an apparently deserted city.  This is a translation of a German novel on that same theme.  Jonas awakens one day in a completely empty Vienna.  Even the animals are gone.  Jonas goes looking for his girlfriend, but sheís gone as well.  His tour of Europe is the foundation for musings about the values we place on things in our life, on the transience of material things, and an exploration of the characterís personal feelings.  It is not, despite the situation, particularly suspenseful, which is probably the bookís biggest flaw.  It is a calm, contemplative story rather than an adventure, despite the eerie setting and situation.  A restful end of the world novel seems like a contradiction in terms, but that's what this is.   11/20/08

The Essential Captain America Volume 4, Marvel, 2008, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-7851-2770-3 

A compendium of Captain America stories originally published between 1973 and 1975.  Heís partnered with the Falcon for much of this, and for part of the time has super strength thanks to an unintended reaction when poisoned by one of his enemies.  He also has to maintain his secret identity as Steve Rogers, a police officer, while battling various enemies.  A couple of these adventures are really awful Ė particularly his encounter with the villain Faustus and then with a werewolf clan Ė and the Falcon who is briefly transformed into one. His battle with the Yellow Claw, obviously inspired by Fu Manchu, is considerably better.  Cap also battles the usual Superhero Angst, wondering if he is causing more harm than good, bemoaning the problems with his romantic life, comparing testosterone levels with other superheroes, and so forth.  Thereís also a campaign to have him declared a criminal vigilante and a plot to frame him for murder, and the Falcon has a running battle with Harlem gangsters.  There are guest appears by Cyclops, Ironman, the Black Panther, and others, and a parade of second grade villains. Captain America retires for a short while, and assumes the identity of a new superhero, Nomad, for an even briefer stint.  The Red Skull also makes an appearance.  This was a very uneven period for Captain America, with some really bad stories mixed in with the good ones. 11/18/08

Watermind by M.M. Buckner, Tor, 11/08, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-2024-7  1576

Iíve read several stories with variations of the plot where toxic waste causes various lifeforms to mutate and create a new and dangerous and usually icky monster.  Bucknerís first hardcover novel turns that premise not on its head exactly, more like on its side.  In this case, the pollution is not just organic.  There are microchips, nanomachines, and other technological wonders of the future which interact with the organic matter and create a sort of blend of the two.  A pair of minor researchers discover that a mixture of this mess has become arguably self aware, but then it kills someone and flees into the Mississippi River system.  And itís headed toward the ocean!  The blurbs on this compare it to Philip K. Dick with some justification, although itís much less stylistically quirky.  There is some dark humor mixed in with a quite suspenseful story, and I really got to like the two main characters as they get drawn into the race against time to, maybe, save the world.  This is easily Bucknerís best book to date and one of the better ones Iíve read this year. 11/17/08

Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert, Audiobook, Macmillan, 2008, $59.95, ISBN 978-1-4272-0316-8

This was the fifth of the Dune novels, and the one in which I started to lose interest in the series.  It takes place a long time after Paul Atreides is dead, the jihad is over, and the galaxy has changed dramatically.  Dune itself is now known as Rakis, and the ecology has changed so much that the sandworms are dying.  The current generation has to decide whether or not to reverse the ecological change, if they should even make the effort.  Thereís the usual political maneuvering by various parties, but this installment was even talkier than some of the others.  Listening to the audio version in small doses might well overcome some of those bad effects.  I can think of a lot of other SF classics that deserve an audio version much more than this one, but I imagine the market is much better for a Dune novel than for one by Sturgeon or Clarke or even Robert Heinlein.  15 CDs. 11/17/08

Foolsí Experiments by Edward M. Lerner, Tor, 11/08, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1901-2   

Sometimes things come in clusters.  This is the second book this week Iíve read in which some form of artificial, self aware computerware becomes a menace to the human race.  In this case, itís a kind of super computer virus that exceeds the parameters of its original design, becoming a kind of entity that can cause insanity or death in those it touches through the human/machine interface.  Itís bad enough on a limited scale, but when it replicates itself onto the internet, disasters begin to occur all over the world.  Although this one is clearly SF, it could easily have been marketed as a contemporary techno-thriller.  There are a couple of places where I thought the pace slowed a bit, but it always picked up before my attention began to wander.  If you think the viruses weíve seen so far are annoying and destructive, wait until you see what Lerner has imagined.  11/15/08

Strength and Honor by R.M. Meluch, DAW, 11/08, $24.95, ISBN 978- 0-7564-0527-4  1651 

Fourth in the Merrimack series, a space based military SF series.  Two human interstellar empires, one led by the United States, the other a colonial government that patterns itself after the Roman Empire for some reason, have been forced to a temporary truce because of the appearance of a third force, a common alien enemy.  Teamed with some alien races, this new and decidedly uneasy alliance seeks to destroy the Hive, a typical mass mind alien menace.  Although they are largely successful, a power struggle within the Roman oriented human culture leads to a change of government and fresh cause for concern.  In short order this leads to a renewal of the original hostilities on an even more destructive scale, and that leaves an opening for the Hive to renew its attack as well.  Standard military fare with a somewhat simplistic political set up, but itís all secondary to the battle sequences and such.  For devotees of the form. 11/14/08

The Essential Daredevil Volume 4, Marvel, 2007, $16.99, ISBN 0-7851-2762-3 

Another compilation of Daredevil comic adventures from the early 1970s.  The early adventures reprise a recurring theme in Marvel Ė superheroes who spend a lot of time feeling sorry for themselves, usually because of their screwed up love lives, and also superheroes who get into unnecessary fights with one another, instead of the bad guys.  Thereís an early sequence this time in which Daredevil, Spider-Man, and Sub-Mariner all succumb to this tendency at once, and it gets really irritating really quickly.  He fights a variety of villains, including the Owl and the Man-Bull, and gets a little help from the Black Widow, with whom he is linked romantically on and off.  His longest battle is against Mr. Kline, who turns out to be the Assassin, an agent from the distant future who wants to eliminate Daredevil for some reason.  He also meets several villains he fought in very early issues like Mr. Fear and Killgrave. I hadnít remembered Daredevil being so mopey and egocentric, but heís in the same pattern as most of the other Marvel superheroes in this regard. Several of the villains have unusually strong powers Ė one can instill fear in anyone, another can command with his voice, still another can recruit religious converts to his cause, and another is indestructible (although the device that renders him so is not). The solution to his battle with the Dark Messiah is really cheesy.  He and the Widow also enjoy a brief stint with the Avengers in a battle against Magneto. 11/11/08

Sunborn by Jeffrey A. Carver, Tor, 11/08, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-312-86543-8 

Itís been ten years since the last adventure of John Bandicut, but heís back at last.  He and his companions, a mix of aliens, sentient robots, and the like, are initially investigating a space station which is being disturbed by a series of gravity waves.  He barely escapes when the station is destroyed and in the process he learns that the same kind of force is being used to destroy entire star systems.  Whatís worse, an even greater disaster is imminent which could exterminate the human race, among others.  With help from extra dimensional and other creatures, he solves the mystery and averts the catastrophe, but the series is left open for still more hard science fiction adventure.  Hopefully the next volume wonít be quite so long delayed because Carver writes a unique brand of space opera that is always full of surprises.  If you havenít read the first three books in the Chaos Chronicles, this is a great excuse to go look for them. 11/5/08

The Devilís Eye by Jack McDevitt, Ace, 2008, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01635-8 

When this new adventure of Alex Benedict showed up, it magically jumped to the top of the stack.  Benedict, if you havenít read any of the three previous books in the series, is an interstellar antiquarian who, along with his companion and pilot Chase Kolpak, travels around looking for remnants of lost civilizations and outposts, although in this case, he gets involved with something else entirely.  A famous horror writer Ė and yes, there are horror writers in the distant future Ė visits a remote planet and returns, sends a large amount of money to Benedict with no explanation, then has her own personality wiped.  Curious, our heroes decide to retrace her footsteps and find out what happened.  They find themselves on a world recently freed from a brutal dictatorship and not completely free of the old ways of doing things.  Although their initial forays are fruitless, someone gets worried because they are abducted and imprisoned.  Fortunately, they figure out how to turn the tables on their captors and discover the truth, which Iím not going to tell you because it would spoil the mystery.  There are actually two stories here, one ending with their unraveling of the secrets of that distant world, and another that I canít be too specific about it concerning the consequences of that discovery.  I enjoyed this one immensely, but I had one caveat.  I still donít understand the motivation of the writer.  Why didnít she just reveal the secret herself?  I know that there were reasons why that decision might have been difficult, but certainly not as difficult as effectively committing suicide so that you encourage someone else to do it for you. 11/3/08

Sly Mongoose by Tobias S. Buckell, Tor, 2008, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1920-3  1720

Tobias Buckell is a new writer who is currently riding the wave of a renewed interest in far future space opera.  This is his third novel, the story of the planet Chilo and primarily of a teenager who gets caught up in events when a kind of spy/assassin from off planet is stranded there just prior to the onset of an invasion.  Much of the appeal of this one is the setting.  The surface of Chilo is essentially uninhabitable thanks to violent storms, and the colonists live in domed cities suspended in the air.  Just how such a society would have evolved is a bit problematic; it doesnít seem commercially viable to me.  I had no trouble ignoring this question, however, and the real story is about the purpose of the alien enemy in attacking what seems to be an insignificant and unlikely outpost of human civilization.  Beautifully written and thoroughly engrossing. 11/2/08

Kris Longknife: Intrepid by Mike Shepherd, Ace, 11/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01651-8 

Although I generally find most military SF to be repetitive and uninspired, there are some writers who still manage to hold my interest.  The Kris Longknife series is a case in point.  Although I didnít much care for the first two, theyíve improved considerably since then and the character has come to life.  Sheís still not commanding her own ship in this one, but she might as well be since she wields so much influence over the titular captain.  Although this starts with hints of the grandiose Ė a search for space pirates beyond the limits of familiar space Ė it switches quickly to a mild mystery in which Kris has to uncover those responsible for a plot to murder a prominent citizen.  A degree of complexity is added because the proposed victim is a member of a family which has been feuding with the Longknife clan for a long time, and feeling between them remains high.  That, of course, makes it entirely logical that the real killers might consider framing Kris for the crime as well as outwitting her detective abilities.  My attention wandered a bit right at the beginning, but never after that.  A good addition to the series. 10/30/08

Saint Antonyís Fire by Steve White, Baen, 11/08, $24, ISBN 978-1-4165-5598-6   

If I might coin a term, this is a quasi-alternate history novel.  There have been a number of these in the past, stories in which the course of human history has changed at some point in the past, but only because of external forces, like alien invaders in Harry Turtledoveís Colonization series, or a time displacement as in S.M. Stirlingís Nantucket series, or even an individual time traveler who has disproportionate influence, as in Leo Frankowskiís Stargard series.  This is another, set in the Elizabethan era around the time of the Spanish Armada.  The switch this time is that the Spanish have discovered a cache of alien technology, including weaponry, which gives them an even greater edge than they had already, at least up until the storm that ruined their invasion fleet.  White turns this all into an exciting adventure story, of course, so thereís little actual speculation about how the advanced technology may have altered human society, but what he has written is a fast moving, generally exciting romp that mixes disparate elements into a congenial whole.   10/29/08

Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi, Tor, 11/08, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1771-1  1623 

Scalzi originally published this lightly humorous novel on line and then in a limited edition, so this is the first time a mass audience will see this one.  The premise reminded me a bit of Mark Cliftonís When They Come from Space.  A rather unattractive alien race has decided to initiate contact with the human race, whom theyíve been observing for some time, but their physical nature and other attributes are clearly going to make it very difficult for them to be accepted in anything approaching a dignified and friendly manner.  So they consider their options and decide to improve their image in advance by hiring a Hollywood public relations firm to conduct a makeover.  Enter Thomas Stein, a fast talking, deal making, business is business type personality who accepts the job almost without blinking.  Funny SF is generally underrated so this isnít likely to be as popular as the authorís more serious books, but itís a nice, tightly written, and frequently very funny story. 10/22/08

Satellite E One by Jeffery Lloyd Castle, Bantam, 1954

Indulging my occasional yen for nostalgia, I re-read this recently, one of only two novels by this British author.  It was, I believe, the first novel I read that attempted to accurately describe the creation of a space station in orbit.  It is written in the form of a series of statements by people who were involved with the program, but a very large portion of the text is devoted to explaining the physical principles involved, artificial gravity through centrifugal force, stable orbits, and so forth.  The science is in that sense quite accurate considering this was more than fifty years ago.  The technology is another matter entirely.  Although some aspects are reasonable true to the present, Castle assumed that a practical spacesuit was improbable and that radio communications from orbit would be nearly impossible.  The peripheral political and social commentary is slight.  He did predict the European Union, but as we obviously know, they donít have a manned space program.  Although the novel is interesting because of its antedated view of space exploration, the story itself is rather dull and told in an almost journalistic style that doesnít really involve the reader.  10/21/08

Busted Flush edited by George R.R. Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass, Tor, 12/08, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1782-7 

I was, and am, a big fan of the original run of Wild Cards ďmosaic novelsĒ but I confess that I found the first of this new series somewhat disappointing and the current volume only slightly better.  Itís not the quality of the writing, which is generally quite high, but the situation and the stories just donít seem to have the same degree of relevance and sincerity.  Part of this might just be that times are changing, or that my tastes are changing.  In any case, the editors have brought together writers as diverse as Carrie Vaughn, Victor Milan, Stephen Leigh, and others for this interwoven story of the Aces, superpowered mutants, in a volume that is more globally centered (or dispersed) than the earlier books, which tended to concentrate on affairs in North America.  Some of the Aces are on the side of good, some not, and sometimes the definitions of the two sides arenít entirely clear.  Itís difficult to say who handles the theme better because of the way the stories wind around one another.  Iíd say this one was a step up from the last, Inside Straight, but still well short of the standard set during its earlier incarnation. 10/20/08

Extraordinary Engines edited by Nick Gevers, Solaris, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-600-8

Steampunk is the unifying theme in this excellent new collection from Solaris.  It opens with a very strong story about boxing automatons by James Lovegrove, a writer terribly overlooked on this side of the Atlantic.  The second story by Marly Youmans has an interesting concept, but never came to life for me.  The next two were nearly as good as the opener though Ė Kage Bakerís tale of the laying of a trans-Atlantic cable is this authorís best short fiction to date, and Ian R. MacLeodís tale of a man who harnesses the power of elementals is also superb. Margo Lanagan and James Morrow both have stories dealing with Victorian concepts of sexuality and gender roles, both brilliantly written.  Morrowís is more satiric while Lanaganís tale of the rather unorthodox use of an automated maid is quite serious, though humorous in a twisted way.  Keith Brookes adds a kind of police procedural that turns into essentially supernatural horror.  Thatís followed by Adam Robertsí tale of terrorists, parallel worlds, and an edict against digging tunnels in a wildly diverse alternate Victorian world.  Outlaw automatons pose problems for the authorities in Robert Reedís unusual and effective story, and salvagers find part of a metal man in his equally impressive contribution.  Jay Lake has an inventive piece set in the future after a steampunkish 19th Century.  Closing the book is Jeffrey Ford who closes tidily with an excellent story of scientific obsession and an experiment that alters the views of the world. This might well be the best original anthology published this year. 

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Hyperion, 10/08, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-439-02348-1   

This is the second book recently that Iíve read that is set in a post-collapse North America, both of which were written in present tense which Ė I admit up front Ė I dislike intensely.  In this case, itís the first in a young adult series in which a new government represses outlying communities and forces them to send teenagers for an annual duel to the death that is televised across the new country.  Shades of the ancient world.  The protagonist is a young woman who is selected and who, obviously, manages to survive what is essentially a death sentence.  Other than the annoying present tense narration, itís not a badly told story but Iím really not sure that the premise and set up in this one justifies further volumes. 10/12/08

Half a Crown by Jo Walton, Tor, 10/08, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1621-9  1569 

Jo Walton returns to the Peace with Honor series, set in an alternate 1960 after England signed a separate peace with Nazi Germany, changing the outcome of the war.  The protagonist is Peter Carmichael, an official in Englandís secret police, who hears troubling rumors on the eve of an international peace conference during which the victorious Axis powers plan to divide the world among themselves.  The sitting fascist government has grown increasingly unpopular with elements who are opposed to subservience to the Germans, and the exiled Duke of Windsor might prove to be the focal point around which a successful rebellion could be launched.  I wonít tell you too much more because that would spoil the fun, but Carmichael not only has to deal with his own conflicting loyalties but with those who hate, fear, and envy him both inside and outside the government.  First rate alternate history from a first rate writer. 10/7/08

Liberation by Brian Francis Slattery, Tor, 10/08, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-2046-9 1567

Iíve been seeing signs that the satiric SF novel might be making a small recovery from its years of exile.  We probably need a new label for it, performing a role like magic realism does for fantasy.  Technological unrealism or something like that.  Anyway, this one is set in a post-economic collapse world that reminded me a little bit of After Things Fell Apart by Ron Goulart, my favorite of that authorís novels.  Because of the collapse, some of the old institutions have returned to North America including slavery and Native American raids on settlements.  Everything seems to be deteriorating very quickly and the most organized force appears to be a criminal group known as the Slick Six, who may between them hold the power to restore something approximating an orderly society.  This is the closest Iíve come to actively enjoying a novel told in present tense in a very long time, and there were several periods during which I rarely if ever noticed the device.  My dislike of that format was just too much for me to say I thought the book was an unqualified success, but large parts of it were great fun. 10/4/08

Ex-Kop by Warren Hammond, Tor, 10/08, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1274-7  1565

Itís no secret that I am particularly fond of crossovers between SF and mystery, though I tend toward the classic detective story rather than the tough private investigator end of the spectrum.  This is somewhere between the two, sequel to Kop, with Juno Mazambe no longer officially part of the police force although when his ex-partner asks for his help and offers compensation, his lousy financial prospects and the medical bills his wife has been accumulating nudge him into accepting. She believes that a convicted woman is not guilty of murder after all, despite overwhelming evidence.  Juno is a blend of toughness and vulnerability, particularly where his wife is concerned, and heís also a discerning investigator in a plot that involves serial killings and a police officer who isnít entirely what he seems to be.  I liked this even better than its predecessor.  Both mix several subplots into one cohesive narrative but this one seemed more focused and suspenseful.  I imagine Juno will be back and Iíll be watching for him. 10/2/08

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway, Knopf, 9/08, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-307-26886-0

Iíve noticed a slow re-emergence of SF satire in the past couple of years, cast in the form of a kind of rationalized magic realism mixed with outwardly broad humor.  I believe this is a first novel and the publisher compares him to Kurt Vonnegut, Anthony Burgess, and George Orwell, excellent company but perhaps setting the bar too high.  The protagonist is Gonzo Lubitsch, head of a team of oddball characters whose job is to save the world from the latest ecological disaster.  There has been a major conflict, the Go-Away War, and the world has become a mix of recognizable and bizarre elements, some exaggerated for comic effect.  There are plenty of obstacles and villains to overcome, triumphs to be enjoyed, defeats to be avoided.  A lot of the book was quite good but it went on a bit too long and it also slammed up against my personal prejudice Ė itís written in present tense.  In fact, itís something of a testimony to the book that I finished it despite this mannerism. Harkaway, incidentally, is the son of John Le Carre.  9/29/08

The Apocalypse Directive by Douglas MacKinnon, Leisure, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-6088-4 1684 

Like many contemporary thrillers, this one is borderline science fiction.  It also bears some scary resemblance to recent events and contemporary personalities.  The lame duck President of the United States is a religious fanatic who believes that the End Times are imminent, and in fact that his role is to make sure they come about.  Unfortunately, a highly placed military officer is in his confidence and shares his apocalyptic vision of the near future.  Together they plot to precipitate a nuclear war and end the world.  This reminded by of Night at Camp David and Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey, the first political thrillers that really caught my attention. The action gets frantic, the Speaker of the House becomes President, but not until some missiles are already in the air.  I found this one less effective than the authorís previous Americaís Last Days, perhaps because the messages were a bit more heavy handed.  The author at one time worked in the White House, so the background has a very authentic feel. 9/25/08

Crusade by Taylor Anderson, Roc, 2008, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-451-46230-5

This is the second in the Destroyermen series, which borrows a concept from The Final Countdown and half a dozen books and stories.  During World War II, a pair of American destroyers are transported into an alternate world where humans never evolved.  The world is split between two intelligent, but primitive, species.  The Lemurians are descended from mammals and not surprisingly thatís where the sympathies of the Americans, and presumably the readers, lies.  Unfortunately, the other race Ė reptilian and therefore nasty Ė is far more numerous and warlike, and even with the help of the two destroyers, the war between the two seems likely to go in the wrong direction.  That becomes particularly likely when the scaley guys capture a Japanese cruiser which also crossed the gateway between realities.  Military alternate history with aliens Ė what more could you ask?  Iím starting to get a little tired of this particular device, but Anderson does create an unexpected and often quite interesting backdrop for his war games. 9/21/08

Intimate Beings by Jessica Inclan, Zebra, 2008, $13, ISBN 978-1-4201-0114-0 1710 

Imagine Steven Gouldís Jumper novels with a whole lot of sex.  The protagonist of this one is a young woman who can teleport to any place in the world instantaneously, and she thinks sheís one of a kind.  Eventually she crosses paths with another person with unusual powers, a man predictably, and a torrid romance appears to be in the cards.  But there are other players in the game, a mysterious race of secretive beings who want to destroy both of them.  Despite the melodrama, thereís not much story here for SF fans, and the consequences of teleportation arenít explored in any meaningful way.  On the other hand, the torrid sex is probably what attracts most readers to this book in the first place. 9/21/08

Tesseracts Twelve edited by Claude Lalumiere, Edge, 2008, $19.95, ISBN 978-1-894063-15-9 

This volume of the venerable Canadian anthology series consists of seven novellas, ranging from SF to fantasy.  In fact, it's so evenly split that I could have listed this just as easily in fantasy.  Iím not sure if it was intentional but thereís a persistent theme of veneration for or at least influence by previous generations.  Itís strongest in the first two stories, one by Derryl Murphy in which the magic of a prehistoric shaman reaches into the present, one by Michael Skeet and Jill Snider Lum, wherein respect for ancestors has consequences for the living.  E.L.Chenís contribution discusses the power of stories, legends, and such to enlighten and influence those who hear them.  Grace Seybold adds a story about psi powers and Gord Sellar provides an atypical tale of comic book style superheroes.  The collection ends with a strong story by David Nickle, in which the face of the physical world is malleable in the hands of humanity.  Nickleís is the strongest in a very respectable array of tales. 9/17/08

Freezing Point by Karen Dionne, Jove, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-515-14536-6 

Iím a pushover for well written, near future thrillers, of which this first novel is a perfect example.  Sometime not long from now, the global water shortage has become critical.  In order to deal with it, private companies are experimenting with harvesting water from giant icebergs via microwave heating and transportation to the mainland.  Ben Maki is running one of these operations, unaware of the fact that his boss has taken some unorthodox shortcuts designed to discredit him, and to hurry the program along.  When a giant ice shelf is surreptitiously blown loose from Antarctica, the operation begins.  Thereís a problem, though, which starts off at low key and builds gradually.  There are previously unsuspected hordes of rats living in Antarctica, rats which have learned to hunt in packs, grow larger than usual, and arenít afraid of humans.  They appear at the experimental installation and at a scientific research post, both of which only gradually realize the danger they are in.  Then everyone begins to get sick and we realize the rats are carrying a terrible plague, and the contaminated water is being shipped in a freighter which environmental extremists are planning to sabotage.  An excellent, fast paced, sometimes scary thriller.  Very much recommended.  9/14/08

The Last Oracle by James Rollins, Morrow, 2008, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-06-123094-3 

Although Iíve enjoyed all of the books published under this name (the writer also does fantasy as James Clemens), I havenít been as happy with the more recent titles, all of which are in the Sigma series about a kind of updated version of U.N.C.L.E., which battles enemies borrowed from science fiction.  This is another one, connected to the legend of the Oracle of Delphi, who may have been able to predict the future.  One of Sigmaís operatives, Gray Pierce, narrowly escapes death when a college professor dies trying to give him an ancient coin.  This leads to a mystery involving a group of genetically altered autistic children with savant abilities including predicting the future.  Lots of violence ensues and high adventure, some of it very engaging, but the story itself never really came to life for me.  I know series sell well, but Iíd be much happier if Rollins moved away from Sigma, at least occasionally.  His earlier, quasi-lost world novels were much more interesting. 9/12/08

Riders of the Storm by Julie E. Czerneda, DAW, 9/08, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0518-2 

Julie Czerneda returns to the universe of her debut novel once again in this other worlds adventure story set on a planet where three separate intelligent races exist in an unlikely and not entirely stable balance of power.  A member of one of the clans on this planet taps into an energy source that, frankly, feels more like magic than science at times.  This alters the political situation and the clan in question is almost annihilated.  Our chief protagonist is sent on a journey that is half quest, half exile, where she eventually crosses paths with a human explorer who, thankfully, has never heard of the Prime Directive and intercedes on their behalf.  Unfortunately, the exiles discover that once you achieve something you have been striving for, you sometimes discover it isnít exactly what you want, and their path leads them further into a mysterious massacre, a hidden political secret, an attempt to create a new clan, a territorial dispute, a mysterious missing race, and a global crisis.  Among other things.  The plot is very busy in this one, but the author manages to keep the various story lines from tangling except when she wants them to do so.  9/11/08

Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait by K.A. Bedford, Edge, 2008, $17.95, ISBN 978-1-894063-42-5 

The title and a quick glance led me to suspect that this was going to be primarily a funny novel, and since I wasnít in the mood, I kept pushing it back down the stack.  Well, there are some humorous bits all right, but thatís not the main thrust at all.  The protagonist is exactly what the title suggests, a technician whose current job is to repair faulty time machines.  In pursuit of that job, he inspects one machine and finds the dead body of a woman, which situation is obviously not covered in his repair manual.  Even more disturbing from his point of view is that his superiors appear to be covering something up rather than trying to solve the murder.  So naturally he decides to do some poking around himself, and uncovers a plot that transcends time and space.  I wasnít crazy about the cover on this one, but the contents are pretty neat.  Close your eyes until youíve opened the book and you should be all right. 9/5/08

Spaced Out by Judith Merril & C.M. Kornbluth, NESFA, 2008, $29, ISBN 978-1-886778-64-1 

This is an omnibus collection of three novels, all of which I originally read way back when I was in high school.  Two of them are collaborations, originally published as by Cyril Judd, and the third is by Merril alone.  Gunner Cade is one of the former, the story of a professional soldier of the far future who becomes a fugitive for reasons he doesnít understand, simply because he has knowledge whose significance he doesnít realize.  I liked this a lot when I first read it and it holds up pretty well.  Outpost Mars made less of an impression on me at the time.  A tentative colony on the planet Mars has its future threatened when the theft of a drug causes problems with the administration back on Earth.  Thereís the predictable commentary on colonialism, but this one doesnít hold up as well.  Finally we have Merrilís Shadow on the Hearth, which follows the tribulations of a family in the aftermath of a nuclear war.  Technically, I suppose, this is severely dated, but I still liked it best of the three because the reactions and interactions of the survivors was genuine even if the details of how the disaster occurred are no longer as plausible.  Post-apocalyptic novels have largely vanished in recent years Ė not, I suspect, because we no longer consider them likely, but because we no longer want to consider their likelihood. 9/1/08