Reviewed by Michael Berry

In general, readers of science fiction put a greater value on an author's ability to create a sense of wonder than on his or her sense of humor. That doesn't mean, of course, that all writers within the genre are a humorless bunch. Five recent science fiction and fantasy releases display a wide range of wit, from the laugh-out-loud funny to the icily satirical.

Sean Stewart's "Mockingbird" (Ace; 272 pages; $21.95) may be the most pleasant surprise of the season. A funny and touching tale of Southwestern magical realism, it holds great appeal for a wide variety of readers.

For Antoinette Beauchamp, a thirtysomething actuary in Houston, her mother's death doesn't put an end to the older woman's meddlesome ways. Thanks to Elena's final gift, a single sip of Mockingbird Cordial, Toni falls under the spell of six Riders, god-like entities who take control of her body at inopportune moments.

Before she quite knows what has hit her, Toni finds herself pregnant, unemployed and at her wit's end.Desperate for an income, she tries setting herself up as a freelance commodities trader. But with both her little sister's wedding and a hurricane on the way, Toni may have to rely on the back-handed gifts of the Riders more than she wants to.

With such books as "Resurrection Man" and "The Night Watch," Stewart has proved himself an adept craftsman, a graceful stylist who knows how to create memorable characters and settings. His latest effort, however, could very well be his break-out novel. For all its trappings of voodoo and psychic powers, "Mockingbird" reads more like a well-crafted, mainstream literary novel than as a genre piece. It's a true tour de force, one of the best,. most enjoyable books of the year.

Avram Davidson, former editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, died in 1993, forgotten by many science fiction readers but remembered by aficionados for his convoluted, often indescribable short stories and such novels as "The Phoenix and the Mirror." Now, thanks to the efforts of his ex-wife and collaborator Grania Davis, Davidson's dark fantasy novella "The Boss in the Wall" (Tachyon Publications; 122 pages; $12), unfinished at the time of his death, is now available to the public.

For Professor Vlad Smith, a single night in a run-down houses spells disaster for his family. Something in the darkness bites out his uncle's throat and terrifies his wife and daughter into emotional collapse. Smith comes to believe that the culprit is a Paper-Man, a dessicated husk of a creature, barely alive but capable of great malevolence. With the assistance of a bizarre committee of folklorists, he sets out to learn everything he can about the Paper-Man in order to destrpy it.

"The Boss in the Wall" is more than just a posthumous curiosity. Davidson and Davis, working in tandem, have devised a story that works as both a chilling horror story and as a sly, academic satire. Tachyon Publications, a San Francisco-based small press, has done a splendid job of packaging this odd short novel, soliciting illuminating introductions from noted fantasists Michael Swanwick and Peter S. Beagle. Later this fall, Tor Books will publish a treasury of Davidson's best short work, and "The Boss in the Wall" may go far in whetting the appetites of a new generation of enthusiasts.

"Irrational Fears" by William Browning Spencer, author of "Zod Wallop" and "Resume with Monsters," takes an unorthodox, satirical look at Alcoholics Anonymous and the entire Twelve Step Movement.

For English professor Jack Lowry, drying out is hard enough without having to deal with kidnapping cultists and supernatural horrors. But if he hopes to save his sobriety and the life of a beautiful teenaged rehab patient, he must battle Lovecraftian horrors that feed off the souls of alcoholics.

Spencer is a bona fide original, reminiscent of Jonathan Carroll in the ways in which he twists the mundane into the surreal and horrific. Unfortunately, "Irrational Fears" doesn't find him in top form. As funny and quirky as much of the prose and dialogue are, the satire in this offering sometimes veers into the downright silly, the jokes becoming obvious and labored. "Irrational Fears" is well worth picking up, but the experience is not nearly as satisfying as "Zod Wallop," his previous novel, was.

"Beaker's Dozen" (Tor; 352 pages; $24.95) presents 13 recent short stories and novellas by Nancy Kress, author of "Brain Rose" and "Maximum Light." Long fascinated by the possibilities of genetic engineering, Kress illuminates the human cost of the coming revolution in biology.

The volume opens with one of Kress's best-known stories, "Beggars in Spain," a Hugo Award winner and the basis for three well-received novels. Genetic manipulation creates a children who never need to sleep. Their increased productivity allows them to achieve by the time they reach their early teens, but an unexpected side-effect of the procedure turns out to be near-immortality.

"Beaker's Dozen" presents stories with a good range of tones and styles. "Evolution" imagines a future when drug-resistant bacteria turn hospitals into plague houses. "Ars Longa" devises a different sort of destiny for a boy named Walt Disney. "Flowers of Aulit Prison" follows an alien convict-turned-informer as she attempts to learn the truth about her sister's death.

Kress's work is only occasionally overtly comic. She does, however, possess the keeness of vision that makes for formidable satire. "Beaker's Dozen" demonstrates that she sees the possibilities of the future very clearly and that are both fascinating and frightening.

With "One of Us" (Bantam; 302 pages; $23.95), Michael Marshall Smith, author of "Spares," delivers a noirish novel that reads like a gonzo collaboration by Raymond Chandler and Alfred Bester.

By becoming an employee of REMtemp and voluntarily experiencing the dreams and memories of its clients, petty criminal Hap Thompson believes he has found the perfect job. But when he goes out on his own and acquires a mysterious woman's memories of three bad days in Mexico, he winds up with far more trouble than he can handle, including a possible life sentence for killing a police officer. On the run and out of money, he has to contend with an ex-wife turned contract killer, angels of death wearing sunglasses and grey suits and a mysterious white light that makes people disappear.

Like Philip K. Dick before him, Smith is a "kitchen sink" kind of writer, one who throws in all kinds of off-the-wall ideas and situations into his fiction, hoping that they'll eventually coalesce into something coherent. The final effect can be alternately invigorating and wearying.

With "One of Us," it sometimes feels as if Smith is simply trying too hard, pushing the hardboiled humor and the futuristic riffs further than he should. But then one realizes that if the author ratcheted the pace down a notch, the novel's structure would collapse under the weight of its own improbability. "One of Us" is a rickety roller coaster of a book, but there's no denying the fun of some of the plot's hairpin turns.

(c) 1998 by Michael Berry

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