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 12/31/19

Lord of the Stars by Jean & Jeff Sutton, Putnam, 1969 

Alien from the Stars by Jeff & Jean Sutton., Putnam, 1970  

Two really bad stories for Young Adults. In the first mysterious aliens sabotage a ship and then use telepathy to contact the only survivor, a young boy, in order to learn more about human abilities. Eventually their purpose becomes obvious and their invasion plans are thwarted. The boy is rescued thanks to the superior human telepaths. The second is another story of an alien child stranded on Earth and befriended by a human his own age. They outwit the military, who search the countryside, and a handful of Russian spies, exposing the latter before the alien is rescued and returned to his people.  Neither has any appeal for adult readers. 12/31/19

The Lost Helix by Scott Coon, Dancing Lemur, 2019, $17.95, ISBN 978-1-939844-68-2

A young musician is trying to shape a life for himself in the asteroid belt, which is predictably dominated by mining corporations. When his father disappears, the protagonist discovers that there is an encrypted file connected to one of his compositions that the corporation would very much like to confiscate. The search for his father, his efforts to evade his pursuers, the secret of the mother he never knew, and hidden corporate installations whose existence have been withheld from the public all converge for the climax. This felt quite a bit like a Young Adult novel and while the reader is likely to be well ahead of the hero in figuring out what is going on, the ride is an entertaining one. 12/22/19

The Shift Key by John Brunner, Methuen, 1987  

I don’t believe this ever had an American edition. One morning a large number of people in a small English village act strangely. A doctor writes a prescription for a dead chicken, a judge sentences a boy to death for stealing a lamb, a woman claims that she is married to a neighbor, two teenage girls have strange memories of being boys, a bus driver uses the wrong side of the road, etc. The local minister is convinced that Satan is playing tricks. It feels like supernatural events but is eventually rationalized as a leak of a psychotropic drug. 12/20/19

The Man Who Saw Tomorrow by Jeff Sutton, Ace, 1968

A mysterious man accumulates a fortune so large that he virtually owns entire countries. Some people think he might be able to look into the future. Then several mathematicians working with multi-dimensional theory are murdered. Most readers will know right away that he is not psychic but a time traveler. The protagonist deals with him by killing an ancestor, but the author ignores the paradox and does not explain why the villain did not anticipate this. 12/18/19

Children of the Thunder by John Brunner, Del Rey, 1988 

This is probably Brunner’s bleakest novel. In a future where fascism, famine, pollution, global warming, and racial tensions are rapidly leading the world toward destruction, a group of teenagers finds that they have mental powers that allow them to manipulate other people. They begin to gather together, intent upon changing the world. But this is not an uplifting story. They are cruel, egotistical murderers intent upon getting their own way and there is no indication that the society they create will be any better than the one they are trying to supplant. This is a fairly longish novel and has a weak climax that is not as much of a surprise as it should have been. 12/17/19

The Tides of Time by John Brunner, Del Rey, 1984  

Two people wake up each morning centuries earlier in time, but with memories to fit their present chronology. They are obviously involved in some kind of experiment – it is never really explained but has something to do with travel through hyperspace. Each time they have a minor adventure and then tell a parable before they are finally restored to their own timeframe, with tragic consequences. Smoothly written, but of almost no interest whatsoever. The characterization is repetitive, the resolution murky, and there is no real plot at all. Very disappointing. 12/15/19

The Hawkline Monster by Richard Brautigan, Pocket, 1974 

Two identical sisters recruit two gunmen to kill the monster that lives in the ice caves below the basement. The basement contains their father’s laboratory, but he has disappeared, apparently carried off by the monster. The monster itself has a shadow, and the shadow has a separate identify of its own. The plot is not as straightforward as it seems, however, because Brautigan injects his own strange and occasionally surreal style into the story, which is labeled “a gothic western.” This is my favorite of the author’s novels and the only one that is clearly fantastic, although several others suggest the same. 12/14/19

Scornful Stars by Richard Baker, Tor, 2019, $21.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-9079-0

Concluding volume in a trilogy of military SF stories, and once again, I have never even seen copies of the first two. Fortunately the story is reasonably self contained and since most such novels just repeat virtually the same plot, it wasn't hard to pick up the threads of the story. The protagonist is captain of a  military ship who finds himself having to find his way through a political battle as well as financial and military ones. His crew is not particularly well integrated yet, providing some additional challenges. The writing isn't bad at all and I was entertained, but it all seemed very, very familiar. 12/12/19

The Beyond by Jean & Jeff Sutton, Putnam, 1967

I suspect that Jean Sutton was involved with some of the earlier novels as well, but this was the first to list her as co-author. It’s a rather bad young adult novel – although the main characters are actually all adults – set in a galactic civilization that exiles telepaths to proscribed worlds. Rumors that one of them has developed telekinesis results in two investigations, one by a sympathetic agency whose representative is secretly a telepath himself, and one by some comic book villains who want to execute somebody, guilty or not. Boring, and the society is not remotely believable. 12/11/19

The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean, Popular Library, 1962 

This is my favorite of MacLean’s novels and the only one that is clearly SF. It has a couple of minor plot problems, but otherwise it holds together. Someone has stolen the ultimate biological weapon from a British laboratory, one that could wipe out all life on Earth. A tough security operative has to figure out which of the staff worked with outsiders to steal the bug, and then retrieve it before a terrible catastrophe takes place. The movie version, incidentally, has a very different plot. He succeeds, of course, but only after having been taken prisoner three separate times. I’m not convinced the authorities would have given our hero such a free hand, but it makes a better story that way. 12/9/19

The Crucible of Time by John Brunner, Del Rey, 1983 

This longish novel is a series of stories separated from each other by centuries. They portray the evolution of a civilization of intelligent beings who are vaguely lobsterish and whose planet is subject to constant bombardment by meteors and faces destruction at some point in the future. They develop telescopes, then other technological advances, but from very early in their history they realize that they are going to have to find a way to abandon a doomed planet. The first half is quite good but the second half becomes repetitive and lacks the strong plot that enlivened the earlier chapters, two sections of which were published as novelettes. 12/8/19

Players at the Game of People by John Brunner, Del Rey, 1980 

Brunner employs surrealism in this novel set in a future England where a handful of elite people use mental powers and artificial illusions to live a life separate from, though among, the starving masses. We never figure out exactly what is going on but it appears that aliens with godlike powers are manipulating selected humans as pieces in an elaborate game. When the protagonist realizes that he is essentially just a pet, he is forced to take his own life. Not uplifting and too unstructured to be really successful. 12/6/19

Plumage from Pegasus by Paul Di Filippo, Wordfire, 2019  

This is a new collection of satirical stories from one of the masters of the art. Most of the contents originally appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction between 2010 and 2019.  One is new to this edition. They are for the most part comic tall tales with SF motifs - world shaking events, marvels of technology, secret histories, and many more. The author's ability to perceive the absurdities sometimes - not too well - concealed within our civilization and turn them into hilarious - if sometimes painful - entertainments is second to none. 12/5/19

H-Bomb Over America by Jeff Sutton, Ace, 1967  

A novel of espionage and brinkmanship that never quite becomes suspenseful. Dissident Russians launch a superbomb into orbit and the US goes on red alert. It turns out that the bomb is now under the control of the Chinese government, which wants to set off a war between Russia and America so that it can then strike and become the dominant power in the world. The politics are not very believable. An American orbital vehicle may be able to disable the bomb before it reaches its target. A spy in Hong Kong uncovers the truth. The peace faction in Russia eliminates the opposition. The bomb is disarmed and China is embarrassed. Mostly boring. 12/3/19

Fall, or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson, Morrow, 2019

This nearly nine hundred page novel is essentially about the battle to control the shape of a cybernetic afterlife. In the real and virtual worlds, various parties contend for control of the form the digital world will take. The part in virtual reality parallels Christian mythology -which is kind of strange since we are told that almost everyone is being uploaded, and Christians would be a decided minority. But that's just one of the many problems I had with this novel. Among other things, the virtual people are NOT the physical people who died. They're not even good copies. They retain some vague personality traits and predispositions, but they have essentially none of their earthly memories and without your memories, you are not the same person. This is quite obvious and therefore the near universal desire to be uploaded is implausible. On top of that, the main conflict is between two men with very different opinions about how the virtual world should be run. Except that it turns out that they both have pretty close to the same idea. They just want to be the one calling the shots. And most of the virtual people live squalid, unpleasant lives. Sometimes it is not clear what is happening or even who is who. Major disappointment. 12/2/19

The Infinitive of Go by John Brunner, Del Rey, 1980   

A very minor novel from late in Brunner’s career. Matter transmitters turn out to be more complicated than realized. They are actually swapping people among alternate realities. The protagonists have to figure out what is going on, and when the news leaks out, it causes social unrest that threatens civilization. Brunner had become so pessimistic during the 1970s that his novels were frequently depressing to read and this is one of them, and this one actually does not have any real ending, jus a kind of trailing off. 11/24/19

Web of Everywhere by John Brunner, Bantam, 1964  

The invention of practical matter transmission allowing people to move freely around the planet led to disastrous wars and plagues that brought down human civilization. A new one is rising in its place, but an obsessed man with few scruples gets in over his head when he decides to take advantage of a young woman from an isolated community.  11/22/19

Beyond Apollo by Jeff Sutton, Putnam, 1966 

This very realistic story of the early stages of building a colony on the Moon mostly recapitulates plot elements from the author’s earlier novels. The procedures are described in extreme detail and there is actually about enough plot for a short story. Predictably something goes Fowrong at the end and the man in charge of the mission has to make some last minute improvisations. This never even had a paperback edition and is probably the author’s least known book. 11/21/19

The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner, Ballantine, 1975 

This was really Brunner’s last major SF novel and another dystopia. The protagonist has learned how to live outside the computer interrelated system that dominates the world. He adopts a series of personalities until he makes a mistake and is captured by the secret government program that provided him with the education that allowed him to drop out. He eventually undermines the government and re-establishes a sane society. This was the only one of Brunner’s dystopian novels to have an upbeat ending. 11/18/19

The Atom Conspiracy by Jeff Sutton, Ace, 1963 

This was the author’s first variation from near future space fiction. Centuries after a nuclear war, the world is governed by an elitist system based on IQ testing. Atomic research is illegal. There is concern because some children are born with telepathic powers and the public fears that other psi talents will emerge and render them even more inferior than they already are. The story is riddled with errors, contradictions, typoes, lapses of logic, and unexplained elements the author introduces and then ignores. 11/16/19

Total Eclipse by John Brunner, DAW, 1974 

Another of my favorite SF plots is the investigation of a vanished civilization to determine what happened to them. In this one, Brunner poses a crablike race that reached space travel much more quickly than we did. They communicated through magnetic patterns rather than sound and there are various oddities about their civilization. The first quarter of the book is marred by a character so grotesque that I could not accept his reality, but he disappears at that point and the story gets much better. Bummer of an ending however. 11/13/19

Stone Clock by Andrew Bannister, Tor, 2019, $18.99, ISBN 978-1-250-17923-54

Third in a series - but I never saw the second and have it on order. In most of the Big Dumb Object stories that I have read, the builders have built their artifact to last indefinitely. The Spin, which incorporates worlds into its structure, was not so well planned. The main protagonist this time is an alien who has been studying the Spin and has been drawing some alarming conclusions. Everything runs down at the end, and unless steps are taken, uncounted numbers of intelligent beings may be at risk. I was mildly disappointed with the ending, which I won't reveal. The writing is streamlined and the story is fun. I believe this is the end of the series, but then again, never say never. 11/12/19

The Arcana of Maps by Jessica Reisman, Fairwood, 2019, $17.98, ISBN 978-1-933846-91-0

This is a collection of short stories, only a couple of which I had read before. They are drawn from a wide variety of publications - and one of them is original to the collection. I read the author's first novel more than a decade ago and enjoyed it a lot. So it came as no real surprise that I really enjoyed almost all of the stories here. Fairwood Press is one of several small publishers who continue to bring us single author collections, and it is often the case that authors who have produced a steady body of good work over an extended period get underrated without one. Most of these are science fiction, with a couple of fantasies, and they involve outer space, advanced technology, and other stories set in various parts of our world.  I have no favorites in this collection - they are quite uniform in quality and they all held my interest. 11/12/19

The Stone That Never Came Down by John Brunner, DAW, 1973

Another dystopian novel, this time one on the brink of war because of a change of government in Italy. Scientists have discovered a kind of contagious bug that enhances human intelligence and understanding and they rush to disseminate it before the world is destroyed by a new world war. Rather depressing in that it requires an external force to prevent humans from killing themselves, and there are a couple of breaks for extended, boring arguments about whether or not any of this is ethical and whether they have the right to change people without their permission. 11/9/19

Rage by Jonathan Maberry, St Martins, 2019, $18.99, ISBN 978-1-250-303578

A Joe Ledger novel. This one mixes an international spy story/thriller with quasi-zombies. A group of fanatics has decided to use extreme measures to reunite the two Koreas. They have deployed a biological agent that turns everyone infected into a murderous killer, essentially zombies, although not the shambling creatures created by George Romero. The subsequent carnage and tension brings the world to the brink of a major war, so Joe Ledger and a company of crack soldiers have to track down the people responsible and preventing them from spreading the contagion even further. Considerable violence ensues. This is more of a fast paced contemporary thriller than a horror story, despite some of the attributes of the latter genre. Whatever you choose to call it, the story is tense and will carry you along to its inevitable conclusion.11/6/19

Untamed Pellucidar by Lee Strong, ERB, 2018

Some Russian soldiers in the 1920s penetrate into Pellucidar – as created by Edgar Rice Burroughs – and find dangerous animals and people living inside the hollow Earth. I wish I could say that I enjoyed this a lot, but I never really felt as though this was the Pellucidar I knew, and I reread that series within the past year. And a nitpick. The Soviet Union did not exist until 1922 so it’s a bit misleading to claim that the Soviets were defeated in World War I. Mild, nostalgic adventure but I much prefer the originals. 11/5/19

Apollo at Go by Jeff Sutton, Popular Library, 1963

I read this account of the first moon landing before we really had one and it fascinated me at the time. Now it seems a bit tedious and predictable, although it was a lot more realistic than the author’s previous near space adventures. No villains at all. Three men reach lunar orbit, two descend in a lander – and find lichen – but there is a mishap in orbit and one of the three dies before the return trip. The trouble with writing a timely novel of the near future is that it is very quickly  no longer timely, nor the future. 11/2/19

Marvel Essential Daredevil V, Marvel, 2010

A big batch of his adventures, most of them accompanied by Black Widow, although there are other visitors from other comics to help out, including the Thing, Spiderman, Captain Marvel, Captain America, SHIELD, the Man-Thing, and others. He confronts a lot of villains in this volume, including Stiltman, Ramrod, Kraven, the Beetle, Mandrill, the Crusher, the Owl, the Gladiator, Copperhead, Blackwing, Dreadnaught, El Jaguar, and the Death-Stalker, as well as minions of Thanos, Black Spectre, and Hydra. He has a brief and distant romance with Moon Dragon. Fun. 10/31/19

The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner, Ballantine, 1973  

This is a kind of sequel to Stand on Zanzibar in which pollution has contaminated the world, particularly the US. A large cast of characters muddle their way through famine, low level plagues, assassinations, martial law, riots, avalanches, mutated earthworms, guerilla attacks from South America, and so on. Much of the exaggerated satire is right on target, although he lapses into virulent anti-Americanism at times and falls into lecture mode. The characters are generally repellent. Some of the things that seemed wildly unlikely when this appeared are now features of the current administration. 10/30/19

The Dramaturges of Yan by John Brunner, DAW, 1972

One of my favorite plots for SF novels involves attempting to figure out the nature of an alien culture. This is one of them. The Yannish people once had a very high civilization, but it crashed, probably because of the breakup of its moon. Now they have evolved into an incredibly stable culture similar in superficial ways to that of humans. A small human enclave is studying them but it thrown into turmoil when a famous creator of epic dramas arrives intending to put on a performance for the aliens. But it is soon clear that the situation is being directed by a hidden intelligence, and the results could be catastrophic. 10/25/19

The Wrong End of Time by John Brunner, DAW,1971   

This virulently anti-US novel was not among Brunner’s best, in large part because his polemics take up so much space that almost nothing happens in the first half of the novel. The US has become a fortress around a racist society with other flaws too numerous to list here. Russia has developed a space program – they’re the good guys – and have run into an inimical alien society beyond Pluto that threatens to destroy the Earth. A Russian agent sneaks into the US because it is thought that dropouts from a repressive society may have an idea how to deflect the attack. A clairvoyant dropout is manipulated by his own powers into becoming involved. Horrible ending. 10/21/19

The Man with the Strange Head by Miles J. Breuer. Bison, 2008 

Breuer was one of the best of the early contributors to Amazing Stories, although he is largely forgotten today. He was a practicing physician and not prolific, producing one novel – included here in book form for the first time, and a second in collaboration with Jack Williamson. Long time SF fans will recognize “The Gostak and the Doshes” but probably even they will recollect none of the other stories. There is a complete novel, Paradise and Iron, set on and island dominated by automated machines. It goes on far too long and the surprise revelation is obvious almost a hundred pages before it is made explicit.  The remaining stories are sometimes turgid and a couple of them reflect the author’s apparent aversion to machines as in the novel.  No real classics here, but Breuer was ahead of most of his contemporaries. 10/18/19

Spacehive by Jeff Sutton, Ace, 1960

The US is assembling a Venus exploration ship in orbit and the Russians and Chinese both send missiles, and eventually manned rockets, to destroy the project because somehow this would make the US militarily supreme on Earth. There is no explanation of this leap of logic, particularly since both Americans and Russians have moon bases and ICBMs. This felt like Sutton’s third version of the same story, with various missile attacks being thwarted, a few heroes dying, etc. The only difference is that this ends with the project badly damaged and never explains why this is a triumph. 10/16/19

The Gaudy Shadows by John Brunner, Beagle, 1971 

An American goes to London to visit an old friend and discovers that he has died under mysterious circumstances. He decides to investigate, which leads him to an expatriate German chemist whom a lot of people seem to be afraid of offending. There isn’t much SF in this, although it does involve an imaginary new discovery. I was disappointed in the ending, which is dramatically ironic but too understated. I’ve seen this listed as horror, but I have no idea why unless it's because this imprint did a lot of Lovecraft books. 10/15/19

Bombs in Orbit by Jeff Sutton, Ace, 1959 

A routine paranoid near space thriller in which the Russians have placed three nuclear bombs in orbit and American astronauts have to go up and disarm them, which nearly precipitates a nuclear war. It’s never clear why three bombs would make that much difference, given that there are dozens of nuclear missile armed submarines patrolling off our coasts. And the “secret” war involves launching nuclear warheads at American facilities. Our heroes manage to dismantle them all. No explanation why the Russians don't just send up some more. Surprisingly boring. 10/11/19

Timescoop by John Brunner, Dell, 1969  

A billionaire’s company invents a machine that can take a microsecond cross section of items from the past and bring them to the present where they acquire permanency. This leads to plans for an across the ages family reunion as a publicity stunt to promote the new device. Unfortunately, all of those selected have noticeable character flaws that lead to a series of mildly comical results. This was a rather minor effort that probably should have been half its length. 10/8/19

The Fossil by Greig Beck, Severed, 2019 

This novella is, unfortunately, rather silly. Time travelers from the far future are searching in our present for a missing bit of their technology. They consider us monsters and the reader is not supposed to realize that they are much smaller than we are, although they have fearsome weapons. It turns out that they are now the “little people” of legend, which is not only scientifically nonsense but also blatantly obvious almost from the outset.  There is no suspense about the various deaths in the present because we know who is responsible and why. 10/7/19

News from Nowhere by William Morris, Penguin, 1890     

One of the classic Utopian novels. The protagonist wakes up more than a century in his future to find that London has been replaced for the most part with parks, money no longer exists, along with formal schooling, prisons, and class distinctions. No one is poor. Everyone works for its own sake and gives away whatever they produce. Like most utopian fiction, it fails to explain how such a society could evolve and how humans could make it work without a complete change in human nature. The protagonist decides he likes it and settles down with a woman – the woman’s role in society has not changed much, apparently because they enjoy serving males. 10/6/19

The Jagged Orbit by John Brunner, Ace, 1969    

This is a long and rather depressing novel despite the upbeat ending. The future America – actually 2014 – has black enclaves and an increasingly well armed public. The government has by necessity grown both more repressive and less effective. Against that backdrop, we have an arms company planning to seize control of the country by means of a super computer, the director of a mental institution whose influence is changing human nature, a young woman who has genuine visions, and various other characters caught up in the conflict. The computer develops the ability to send messages back and forth through time, but one of the characters has a new mental power – she can cause electronic interference – and she interferes with the process, which eventually causes the conspiracy to collapse. This came out the same year as Stand on Zanzibar, which is probably why it did not win Brunner a second Hugo. 10/4/19

Double, Double by John Brunner, Del Rey, 1969

A group of musicians are having a picnic on a remote English beach when a man stumbles ashore. But he is not breathing, although he is moving, and has terrible wounds. When he disappears in the darkness, they notify the police, who are understandably skeptical. A local woman disappears and is then apparently seen in two places at once. This is a monster story, reminiscent of a 1950s SF movie. The world is in danger if the creatures are not destroyed because they reproduce by fission every two days. And naturally the authorities don’t believe a word of it. Suspenseful and generally well done. 10/2/19