NOTABLE SCIENCE FICTION/FANTASY OF 2000

Reviewed by Michael Berry

The Amber Spyglass
By Philip Pullman
Knopf; 524 pages; $19.95

Drawing on Milton's "Paradise Lost" for its inspiration, the novel recounts the final stage of a war between mortal creatures and the forces of an Authority that would keep them subjugated to its heavenly will. This final volume in Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy is full of the elements that draw readers to epic fantasy -- magical devices, heroic talking animals, secret identities and daunting quests. What distinguishes Pullman's work is its toughness, its unwillingness to accept the easy answers or deliver the expected effects. "The Amber Spyglass" may be marketed as a young-adult novel, but like the Harry Potter books, its appeal extends to anyone who appreciates a thoughtful, meticulously crafted adventure story.

Beluthahatchie and Other Stories
By Andy Duncan
Golden Gryphon Press; 288 pages; $23.95

It isn't often that a new writer of science fiction and fantasy is afforded the opportunity to publish a single-author collection just three years after his first sale. Duncan has the literary chops to pull it off, though. Like Howard Waldrop, he writes movingly about the semi-forgotten figures of history and popular culture. The 11 stories here include a look behind the scenes at Paris's Grand Guignol Theatre, a tale of blues singer Robert Johnson's arrival at the outskirts of Hell and a tug of war between two generations of public executioners. Reminiscent of Faulkner and Twain, Duncan's short stories are marvels of setting and diction.

Deadenders
By Ed Brubaker, illustrated by Warren Pleece and Richard Case
DC Comics/Vertigo;104 pages; $9.95

San Francisco comics writer Ed Brubaker gives a dystopian spin to teenage angst. Set in an urban wasteland where the sun literally never shines, the series focuses on Bartholomew "Beezer" Beezenbach, a young amphetamines dealer who has recurring visions of a better world where people can still swim in the ocean and breathe clean air. This collection includes only the series' first four issues and an eight-page short, but the story has enough intriguing characters and situations to warrant picking up the monthly comic on a regular basis.

Doors of Death and Life By Brenda Clough
Tor; 268 pages; $23.95

Clough uses the legend of Gilgamesh as a springboard for a thriller that combines tropes from science fiction, spy novels and family drama. Rob Lewis is an ordinary carpenter with an extraordinary talent, the ability to alter the minds of anyone around him. His best friend, biologist Edwin Barbarossa, holds one of Gilgamesh's talismans of power, the Pearl of Immortality. When a megalomanic billionaire gets wind of their combined powers, Rob and Ed must find a way of stopping him without compromising their beliefs about free will and the sanctity of human life. Clough takes a premise that might seem better suited for an "X-Men"comic book and gives it enough emotional heft and moral complexity to make a satisfying novel for adults.

The Fifth Elephant By Terry Pratchett
HarperCollins; 322 pages; $24

Police work and diplomacy are the main targets for satire in this installment of Pratchett's on-going saga of the Discworld. Commander Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork constabulary receives an unwelcome break from his duties when he is called upon to travel to neighboring Uberwald as an ambassador. The occasion is the coronation of the dwarfs' Low King, and there are numerous plots afoot to disrupt the ceremony.

Depending on what he chooses as his target, Pratchett's brand of scattershot humor can be either hilarious or tiresome. "The Fifth Elephant" finds him in good form, contriving a plot that manages to balance outlandish shtick with solid plotting.

First Contract By Greg Costikyan
Tor; 288 pages; $23.95

For Silicon Valley entrepreneur Johnson Mukerjii, president and chairman of Mukerjii Display Systems, life is humming along quite nicely, until the aliens arrive with their mind-boggling and dirt-cheap technology. It isn't often that science fiction writers consider the economics of the high-tech wonders they describe. With its rollicking good humor and sly understanding of how the world of commerce really works, "First Contract" is a refreshing change of pace from the usual "how the aliens conquered Earth" yarn.

Indigo By Graham Joyce
Pocket Books; 260 pages; $23.95

Named the executor of his estranged father's will, British process server Jack Chambers journeys to Chicago to sell the old man's apartment, reacquaint himself with his half-sister Louise and publish a bizarre manifesto, written by his father, entitled "Invisibility: A Manual of Light." The more Jack learns about his father's cult-like band of young followers, the more he begins to wonder whether he isn't risking his life by pursuing the exercises purported to teach the craft of invisibility.

"Indigo" is riddled with ambiguities and open to multiple interpretations. Is it truly a fantasy, or is there a rational explanation for everything that happens to the Chambers siblings? The answers aren't easy, and the plot doesn't head in any expected direction, either.

Magic Terror By Peter Straub
Random House; 340 pages; $24.95

The seven tales collected here weave in and out of the no-man's land between supernatural and realistic fiction. They are, by turns, horrifying and darkly funny."Ashputtle" reworks the story of Cinderella into a chilling confession by a homicidal kindergarten teacher. "Bunny Is Good Bread" chronicles the formative years of a serial killer. The volume's unquestioned highlight is "Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff," a demented riff on Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener." By seeking revenge against his unfaithful wife, the narrator puts himself at the mercy of two strange and unsavory "detectives" who lead him further and further down a path leading to mortification and self-mutilation.

Mendoza in Hollywood By Kage Baker
Harcourt Brace; 352 pages; $23

The third book about The Company, the mysterious organization that places immortal operatives in the far reaches of the past and then sets them the task of collecting long-extinct species and priceless antiquities, finds botanist Mendoza during a lull in her extraordinarily long career, still haunted by the death of her lover a century and a half ago. Baker, author of "In the Garden of Iden" and "Sky Coyote," does a thoroughly admirable job of evoking Civil War-era Southern California. Mendoza is far removed in time from the glamour capital that Hollywood will become, but she and her off-beat colleagues have the foresight to see the seeds of the 20th Century germinating around them.

Planetary: All Over the World and Other Stories Written by Warren Ellis, illustrated by John Cassady
Wildstorm/DC Comics; 160 pages; $14.95

In a depressed comics market, where it sometimes seems as if only the hackneyed can survive, Ellis thrives by breathing new life into old tropes. In this collection of the first six issues of his acclaimed ongoing series, he introduces a motley trio of archaeologists who investigate, among other mysteries, a monster graveyard, a ghostly Hong Kong gunslinger and the fates of the old pulp heroes. Cassady able fleshes out Ellis's outlandish concepts without losing the clarity of his storytelling.

Prospero's Children By Jan Siegel
Del Rey; 368 pages; $24

After their widowed father inherits a run-down farm in Yorkshire, sixteen-year-old Fern Capel and her younger brother William find themselves on a quest to locate a long-missing key, one capable of opening a doorway to another place and time. Fern ends up in Atlantis in the days before it sank beneath the waves. There she must battle a sorceress crazy enough to let the entire universe come unraveled while she pursues her mastery over death itself. "Prospero's Children" is an intriguing debut from a distinctive new voice.

Soulsaver By James Stevens-Arce
Harcourt; 266 pages; $24

New writer James Stevens-Arce presents a satirical look at a theocratic Puerto Rico on the cusp of the next century. Juan Bautista Lorca is a proud member of the Suicide Prevention Corps of America, riding around in his ambulance and picking up the corpses of those unfortunates who have tried to do themselves in.

A true believer in the Shepherdess, the beloved religious figure who has suspended the Bill of Rights for the good of all, Lorca begins to question his profession as he becomes better acquainted with his partner, Fabiola Munoz, and meets a set of fraternal twins who may well be the true messiahs. It's hard to maintain suspense when major characters become capable of literally working miracles and the emissaries of God and Satan take center stage to duke it out, but "Soulsaver" is still a witty and thoughtful debut.

The Telling By Ursula K. Le Guin
Harcourt; 272 pages; $24

Ursula K. Le Guin draws on Communist China's suppression of Taoism as a springboard for this latest addition in her "Hainish Cycle." When Sutty arrives on the planet Aka as an Observer for the Ekumen, she discovers a culture in the grip of a materialistic government. The monolithic Corporation State has tried to suppress any tradition that smacks of spirituality, but in the remote village of Okzat-Ozkat Sutty finds that the old ways are still practiced just out of sight of the authorities.

Le Guin brings to "The Telling" the same keen anthropological eye for detail that she brought to bear on "The Left Hand of Darkness" and "The Dispossessed." Although the novel sags in the middle with too much abstract philosophizing, the author rallies at the end and delivers an emotionally charged final confrontation between Sutty and her nemesis, the Monitor.

(c) 2000 by Michael Berry


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