JANUARY SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY RELEASES

Reviewed by Michael Berry

After publishing a trio of well-regarded novellas in trade paperback, Connie Willis, author of "Bellweather" and "Remake," returns to the full-length, hardcover novel with "To Say Nothing of the Dog" (Bantam Spectra; 434 pages; $23.95). The new book shares the central conceit of her Nebula and Hugo award-winning "Doomsday Book, an Oxford University-based time-traveling facility. This time, however, the results of time travel are much more light-hearted, making for a deliciously screwball homage to Jerome K. Jerome, Kenneth Grahame and P.G. Wodehouse.

Having shuttled too many times between the 21st century and the 1940s in search of a hideous Victorian artifact known as the "bishop's bird stump," time traveler Ned Henry figures that a vacation in the late 1880s is just what he needs. Unfortunately, Victorian Oxford proves anything but restful. A fellow historian,Verity Kindle, has created a major incongruity by bringing forward an item from the past, an act thought to be a complete impossibility. Unless Ned and Verity can put things right, not only will that bishop's bird stump be lost forever, but the entire space-time continuum may pull itself apart as well.

A good time-travel novel should be just complicated enough to keep the reader's head spinning, without inducing vertigo. "To Say Nothing of the Dog" does just that, its plot twisting and turning on the actions of a lovesick student, an absent-minded professor, a fraudulent medium, a death-defying cat and an impossibly spoiled young woman. Supporting all this inspired silliness is a serious examination of the forces that govern history, whether it is great individuals or small coincidences that shape the world.

Few writers can match Willis's blend of comedy and science fiction. "To Say Nothing of the Dog" finds her in top form.

Like Willis's "Doomsday Book," Joe Haldeman's classic "The Forever War" won both the Nebula and the Hugo Awards. Now the author of "Buying Time" and "The Hemingway Hoax" has produced not a direct sequel, but a thematic follow-up, "Forever Peace" (Ace; 336 pages; $21.95)

Set in 2043, eight years into a war fought largely by remote-controlled, robotic "soldierboys," "Forever Peace" focuses on Julian Class, an American draftee driven to the point of suicide by the psychological strain of participating in genocide. Class's lover, Dr. Amelia Harding, discovers that an experiment in theoretical physics taking place near Jupiter could destroy the entire universe. Humankind's only hope is to make it physically impossible for anyone on the planet to hurt another person, ensuring the no one will ever trigger this ultimate doomsday device.

That's a mighty tall order, but Class, Harding and their cohorts possess the technology necessary for creating a world of pacifists. Just as soldiers like Class can electronically "jack" into each other's consciousness to form one supertalented warrior from many minds, so can a group of trained killers be stripped of their collective aggression. Unfortunately, this plan has any number of violent opponents, in particular a powerful religious cult that would like to see Armageddon arrive sooner rather than later.

It takes a while for "Forever Peace" to rev up, at first seeming like just another "war is hell" polemic with a virtual reality twist. But Haldeman is skilled and crafty writer, and the novel soon heads into fresh, exciting territory. "Forever Peace" won't have the impact of "The Forever War," which burned with rage and sorrow over the Vietnam War, but it is still a solid, highly enjoyable thriller.

San Francisco writer Martha Soukup has been nominated numerous times for the Hugo and the Nebula in the short fiction category. "The Arbitrary Placement of Walls" (Dreamhaven; 206 pages; $25) collects 17 of her stories, including the Nebula-winning "The Defense of the Social Contracts."

In "Over the Long Haul," a welfare mother stuck riding a big rig on autopilot sees a way out of her predicament and thereby jeopardizes her entire family. The protagonist of "The Story So Far" reflects of what is means to be a supporting character in somebody else's narrative. "Things Not Seen" serves up a futuristic variation on the "locked room" whodunnit, with a balky robot as the prime witness.

Without a novel to her credit yet, Soukup is a rarity in contemporary science fiction, her considerable reputation based solely on a decade's worth of short stories. Even in the slightest pieces, she demonstrates a profound understanding of the underdog (quite literally, in "Good Girl, Bad Dog" and "Jones and the Stray") and is especially adept at charting the maps of love, longing and alienation. "The Arbitrary Placement of Walls" demonstrates exactly why she is so highly regarded by readers and peers.

In his first novel, "Door Number Three," Patrick O'Leary expertly juggled a handful of science fictional conventions and put his own unique spin on them. In "The Gift" (Tor; 288 pages; $22.95), he turns his attention to fantasy and concocts a complex and moving meditation on the nature of storytelling.

A naked dead woman pulled from the sea spurs a Teller to spin an intricate tale of magic and loss to his shipmates. He recounts how Simon, a king driven to madness by supersensitive hearing, teams up with Tim, a young orphan capable of controlling the winds, to challenge The Usher of the Night and his malevolent sidekick/master, the black bird known as Tomen. There are tales within tales, and even after the Teller finishes his stories, unexpected narrative threads remain to be tied up.

O'Leary's oblique approach to fantasy will remind some readers of the work of Gene Wolfe or Italo Covino, but "The Gift" is anything but derivative. Utterly unlike "Door Number Three" in style and substance, the new book achieves the same high level of accomplishment. It is beautifully written, elegantly structured and highly perceptive in its observations about the importance of imagination.

"The Invisibles: Bloody Hell in America," (DC Vertigo, 104 pages; $12.95) written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Phil Jimenez and John Stokes, collects four issues of the monthly comic. For readers new to the series or those put off by the elliptical nature of the early issues, this new volume is the perfect introduction to the comic that outdoes every conspiracy theory dished up by "The X Files."

The Invisibles are ancient and secret network of freedom fighters dedicated to the liberation and evolution of Humankind. Having spent a year recuperating from their last, nearly disastrous adventure, King Mob and his Invisibles teammates are ready for action again, this time traveling to New Mexico to liberate canisters of AIDS vaccine from a high-security military installation. Standing between them and their goal are poltergeists, heavily armed troops and a malevolent masked midget named Quimper.

Morrison has described "The Invisibles" as "a bit of radical posturing which talks about anarchy and insurrection while being published by a multinational corporation bent on enslaving the world." It's that sardonic appreciation for paradox that makes the series so entertaining and thought-provoking. On one hand, it's a violent mish-mash of every crackpot theory ever contemplated about the End of the World. On the other, it's as carefully constructed and deeply allusive as any science fiction novel offered today.

In any event, "The Invisibles" is a completely unique reading experience, highly rewarding even for those readers who still believe they've outgrown comics.

(c) 1998 by Michael Berry


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