OCTOBER SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY RELEASES

Reviewed by Michael Berry

Science fiction and fantasy are sometimes accused of overemphasizing plot and premise at the expense of characterization and other literary elements. Five recent releases, however, depend on distinctive authorial tones and narrative styles to develop their fictional worlds.

"The Amber Spyglass" (Knopf; 524 pages; $19.95) brings Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy to a triumphant close. 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.

Pullman begins this volume in the aftermath of a terrible battle that has separated his two young heroes, Will Parry and Lyra Silvertongue. Will wields the subtle knife, a blade able to cut anything, even the fabric of space-time that separates an infinite number of parallel worlds. Lyra has been prophesied as a new Eve and is somehow destined to change the very fate of the universe by her actions. Together they must escape her villainous mother and journey to the land of the dead to make amends with the friend Lyra unwittingly betrayed and the father Will never had a chance to know.

"The Amber Spyglass" is full of the elements that draw readers to epic fantasy -- magical devices, heroic talking animals, daunting quests and answers to Life's Big Questions. What distinguishes Pullman's trilogy is its toughness, its unwillingness to accept the easy answers or deliver the expected effects. No one, hero or villain, is guaranteed anything.

The language Pullman uses resonates with unexpected poetry. He moves from viewpoint to viewpoint with masterful grace, telling the tale from a variety of perspectives. Best of all, his prose never stoops to condescension but reveals the wonders he describes with remarkable clarity and power.

"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.

In "First Contract" (Tor; 288 pages; $23.95), Greg Costikyan details the economic chaos that ensues in the aftermath of the arrival of Earth's first extraterrestrial visitors.

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. Almost overnight, Mukerjii's product becomes obsolete, his company goes bankrupt and his treacherous wife absconds with his savings and sells his home out from under him.

Like every other Earthling, Mukerjii must suddenly learn to compete, not globally, but intergalactically. Marshalling his resources, he invents a product that the aliens want but can't be bothered to manufacture themselves.

The author of "By the Sword" and "Another Day, Another Dungeon," Costikyan is working in the satirical tradition best exemplified by Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth's "The Space Merchants." Sometimes his humor plays a bit too broadly (Does Mukerjii's legal counsel really need to be named "Captious, Invidious, Conniving &Cruik"?), but his snarky depictions of alien trade shows, ill-considered IPOs and jingoistic writers of hard science fiction are hard to resist.

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.

In "Soulsaver" (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. Some individuals are completely beyond repair, of course, but many can be frozen, healed and resurrected, thus ensuring that their immortal souls will be spared an eternity in Hell.

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. Munoz introduces him to a set of fraternal twins who may well be the true messiahs.

"Soulsaver"starts with an intriguing premise and maintains a high level of invention for most of its course. Stevens-Arce does a commendable job of charting his protagonist's journey from blind obedience to true faith. The literally apocalyptic climax, however, is something of a let-down. 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. Nevertheless, "Soulsaver" is a witty and thoughtful debut.

Peter Straub's "Magic Terror" (Random House; 340 pages; $24.95) contains seven tales that 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," a missing chapter from Straub's masterful novel "The Throat," chronicles the formative years of a serial killer.

Unequivocal in their fantastic content are "The Ghost Village" and "Hunger: A Introduction." The former is a chilling precursor to "Koko," Straub's breakout Vietnam novel, and mixes a Mai Lai-like massacre with the unpredictable repercussions of child abuse. The second features a ghostly narrator whose depiction of the afterlife is both pathetic and oddly funny.

The ornate tone of "Hunger" points the way to the volume's final novella and its unquestioned highlight, "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. What sets the story apart is its ridiculously hyperbolic tone, which somehow offsets the truly horrible fate that befalls the narrator. Like much of "Magic Terror," "Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff" is smart and nasty black comedy.

San Francisco comics writer Ed Brubaker, author of "Scene of the Crime," gives a dystopian spin to teenage angst in "Deadenders" (DC Comics/Vertigo;104 pages; $9.95 ), illustrated by Warren Pleece and Richard Case. 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.

When his best friend is critically wounded in a scooter accident following a bungled car theft, Beezer concocts a scheme to leave Sector 5 and steal a "weather machine." Dogging his heels is a government scientist who wants to study the nature of his strange hallucinations.

This collection includes only the series' first four issues and an eight-page short, so it is difficult to tell exactly where Brubaker is headed in the long run with "Deadenders." The story has enough intriguing characters and situations, however, to warrant picking up the monthly comic on a regular basis. This collection affords the new reader an inexpensive and entertaining entry into the series.

(c) 2000 by Michael Berry


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