Six Months of Science Fiction

The following are reviews of every science fiction book I read from November 1997 to May 1998. Yes, every one. One of these days I'm going to get around to polishing up the reviews I did of nonfiction books and other genres, too.

I picked up the George Turner collection A Pursuit of Miracles because I was curious what sort of writer the Australian Worldcon had picked as a Guest of Honor. An extremely good one, it turns out. In the afterword he writes, "Ideas are not so hard to come by; you have only to look straight at your subject and forget what other writers have done with it." Of course, merely looking straight is not enough, but combined with keen vision and a sharp wit it yields eight astonishing tales that convincingly provide new insights into such old s.f. tropes as immortality, superintelligence, and rebellious space colonies.

Earthquake Weather by Tim Powers is less interesting than either of the novels to which it is a sequel. The rules are too clear, the villain much less interesting, and the suspense largely absent. In Last Call and Expiration Date, the reader was on a journey of discovery. Earthquake Weather is more like an obstacle course. It's a very good book, though; it disappoints only in comparison to its predecessors.

Asimov's Pebble in the Sky's opening sentence is strong and intriguing: "Two minutes before he disappeared forever from the face of the Earth he knew, Joseph Schwartz strolled along the pleasant streets of suburban Chicago quoting Browning to himself." The device of placing someone from our own time into the far future is an old trick for explaining an exotic background. As readers have become familiar with s.f. conventions that trick has fallen into disuse. But it's worth remembering that it has literary merit in its own right, and this novel is a good example. Asimov also includes a broader range of characters than most modern novels do; how many space operas include tailors, or farmers? Not a great novel, but good fun.

The Book of Night With Moon by Diane Duane is set in the same world as So You Want To Be a Wizard? and the other books featuring Nita and Kit, but with rather different characters. This time four feline wizards face a challenge from the Lone Power. The cat p.o.v. is handled well, interestingly alien and convincing without being too cute. A worthy addition to a delightful series.

Greg Egan's Axiomatic is billed on the front cover as "Science fiction for people who like science fiction". Presumably they thought that was snappier than "The kind of thing that people who like this kind of thing will like". The back cover is even more bizarre. The copywriters claim that "junkies who drink from the time-stream" and "love affairs in time-reversed galaxies" (among others) are instances where "Greg Egan's future is frighteningly close to our own present".

This is totally wrong. Greg Egan's futures are mostly so weird that it's hard to imagine any link to the present world. He accomplishes the far more difficult task of finding the human consequences of changes in natural law. Several of his stories examine the nature of human identity. Others tackle social issues with savage intelligence. (Health insurers come under withering fire.) Love is stressed in unusual ways.

I found that I had to pause after each story to reflect, and even then I couldn't read more than two in a row. Egan is a brilliant writer, and this collection is an essential part of every fan's library.

Wilson Tucker's The Year of the Quiet Sun is a classic time travel novel. I was expecting a cautionary novel, based on a dystopian future plagued by racial strife, but found that the novel is really about the nature of prophecy. (This is unusual in a time travel novel, which are more commonly about paradox.) Much of the book has to do with the training the three time travellers receive before their mission, and the political pressures involved. By the time the characters get their first intimations of what their leader's selfish policies will lead to, we understand the world well enough to see why nothing will be done to change it. The Greeks took care that Cassandra's prophecies would never be believed, as otherwise wise men would see that they were avoided. Tucker takes the more bitter tack of having his world plunge into terrible times despite knowing exactly what is to come.

The first section of Earthling by Tony Daniel is written from the point of view of an artificial intelligence with the fragmentary memories of a dead geologist. The combination never managed to convince me. Fortunately, the second section is a travelogue featuring a Park Service ranger who is much more interesting, and when the robot shows up again he is more of a unified character. A good book.

Marella Sands's Sky Knife is a blend of historical fantasy and police procedural. When a Mayan temple attendant sees the death god during a ceremony--a very bad omen--the king charges him to seek out the sorcerer bringing bad luck on the city, proclaiming that the rules of status no longer apply to him, and that he may seek out and speak to anyone (which is, of course, practically the definition of a private eye novel). During the course of his investigation Sky Knife learns lessons about who to trust and the exercise of power, and is touched by several signs of divine favor. In the end, the evil that threatens his people cannot be defeated without a major sacrifice. This was an extremely enjoyable, quick-reading novel.

Nadya by Pat Murphy is the story of a female werewolf seeking a place of safety in the Old West. Nadya grows up on an isolated Missouri farm where (like all oppressed minorities) she learns tolerance, fortune-telling, and uncanny woodland skill. Eventually a settlement grows up around them, and the family decides a little too late to move on. Nadya finds herself alone, and sets out for Oregon. On her way there, she meets two women who are the only survivors of a wagon train and finds herself helping them to survive. The relationship between Nadya and Elizabeth is exceptionally good storytelling, and the journey itself is convincingly harsh. This is another very fine novel.

I planned to read a few chapters of Checkmate by Eric T. Baker while I was making dinner, and ended up reading till 1 a.m. (I workshopped the manuscript of this book, but that was a while ago.) Aaron Hudson is an undercover officer on a starship, tracking down black market and smuggled goods, and like the rest of the Contraband Unit he skims a portion of the contraband for his own use. When he gets a lead on a politically untouchable smuggler, and a robot officer begins investigating him, he finds himself in a situation that may be more dangerous than he can handle. The dialogue is crisp, the human/computer interface intriguing, the chess games exciting. And it has one of the all-time great typos: "Christ stood up and put his hand on my shoulder."

Thunder and Roses is Volume IV of The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon. Every hardcore science fiction fan should own this series, although at $25 a pop some may not be able to afford the full ten volumes. Sturgeon really hits his stride with this volume, which collects 15 stories from 1946-1948 (including both the original and revised versions of "Maturity"--the revision, unsurprisingly, is better). Occasionally Sturgeon seems to be in love with the sound of his voice, but it's a voice that's easy to love. Wonderful.

The second science fiction book I ever read (and the first good one) was Star Surgeon by Alan E. Nourse. I've been looking for a copy for years, finally found one in a used bookstore in North Dakota, and earned some kind of gold star for unselfishness by giving it to my sister for Christmas. But I couldn't resist rereading it myself, and while its flaws are pretty apparent (as my sister noted, Earth may have been ready to let an alien study medicine, but there are no women to be seen), it's still an entertaining yarn about an inexperienced doctor's struggle to make it through his medical initiation while fighting prejudice. It says something that of all Nourse's books, this is the only one that's practically impossible to find.

Dark of the Moon by P.C. Hodgell is the sequel to God Stalk, which struck me as a not terribly original novel about a young thief in a god-infested fantasy city. The sequel, which takes Jame from the outskirts of Tai-Tastigon to an encounter with her twin brother (who is also the Highlord of her race), is considerably more interesting. It delves into the secrets of her past and the situation of her brother, Torisen, a flawed hero who is still the best hope for his people's survival. Now I see why this author gets such good buzz.

Njal's Saga, with a circulation of 24 copies, was a thirteenth century bestseller. They don't make them like they used to. A family quarrel turns violent, honor demands satisfaction, and dead bodies litter the landscape in a bloodbath that spans generations. The laconic style of the saga writer takes some getting used to; characterization is subtle. It's an interesting effect. And the story itself is gripping. Anyone who is not familiar with the Icelandic sagas is missing out on something good.

The chapters about Viking missionaries bringing Christianity to Iceland are worthy of note. One missionary fights a duel, using a crucifix in place of a shield, and kills his opponent. Later, the saga tells how "they went on to Fljotshild and preached the faith. The strongest opposition came from Vretlidi the poet and his son Ari; so they killed Vretlidi."

Greg Egan takes the anthropic principle, which says that the universe must contain intelligent life because it cannot exist without an observer, one step further in his novel Distress. A cult of Anthrocosmologists believes that in order for natural laws to come into existence, there must at some point in time (not necessarily the present) be a mind capable of understanding those laws. A conference held to decide on a Theory of Everything seems destined to produce this individual, called the Keystone. Unfortunately, Egan being Egan, there are very good reasons for thinking this might be a bad thing, and a group of fanatics is out to stop it. Throw in technological advances which call the definition of humanity into question in assorted ways, and a renegade utopian anarcho-syndicalist artificial island called Stateless, and you have enough philosophy to keep most authors busy for a decade. Recommended.

Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman by Walter M. Miller Jr. is a compelling novel, a worthy successor to A Canticle For Leibowitz--and once you've said that, what more is there to add? Religion, politics, and ethics are rarely treated so thoughtfully. Highly recommended.

Greenwar by Steven Gould and Laura J. Mixon is an "ecothriller". That means there's lots of interesting environmental technology plugged into a fairly basic thriller plot. The characters are likeable, and if you enjoy reading about industrial processes (as most s.f. fans do) this is worth picking up for a fun read.

Corrupting Dr. Nice by John Kessel was an okay book, but I didn't laugh. Since it's supposed to be a screwball comedy, this is a bad thing.

The Gift by Patrick O'Leary is a deeply disappointing book. It's shooting for mythic resonance, but the use of Capital Letters to confer unearned significance on commonplace terms and the awkward introduction of computers, genetic engineering, etc., to 'explain' the fantasy elements are symptoms of the underlying shallowness of his world.

The language, however, is what really ruined this book for me. Consider: "First the fishing went bad on the Great River that ran from the northernmost ranges like the spine of a great dragon: Albino fish floated on the surface like leaves in a bowl of broth." I get hung up on sentences like this, trying to figure out how a river can be like a bowl of broth, or why white fish are like leaves, or what a mighty river has to do with a dragon's spine anyway. The more I read it, the less sense it makes, and the harder it is for me to go on.

Finally, O'Leary does not handle women well. Fortunately there are very few of them in the book.

This is not exactly a bad book--O'Leary clearly is talented--but it is deeply flawed.

Secret Vampire by L.J. Smith is a young adult romance. It would be a good brew, if only it weren't a weak brew. It's easy to read and there are hints of an interesting background. The Elders keep a rigid grip on the Night People (vampires, werewolves, witches) in order to keep control over the human world that's ignorant of their existence. Unfortunately, Smith spends much more time on a basically conventional romance plot than she does on exploring this secret world, and the heroine Poppy is unexceptionally perky. Her brother is an interesting character, though, smart, strong-willed, and adaptable enough to credibly challenge the Night World. I've heard the later volumes in the Night World series are more interesting, but picking them up is a low priority.

Jack Faust by Michael Swanwick is utterly brilliant. Mephistopheles is the representative of a malevolent alien race which hopes to destroy humanity by telling Faust--the truth. Faust agrees to this devil's bargain, on the grounds that if humanity cannot use knowledge wisely then it does not deserve to survive. Swanwick's vision of the industrial empire Faust eventually commands is darkly humorous and takes sharp jabs at some contemporary political ideas. In the end, of course, Mephistopheles damns Faust and all the rest of us, using nothing but the truth. This is the best book I've read in a long while.

Terry Pratchett can be counted on to take a more optimistic view of humanity. Only You Can Save Mankind is a video game that turns real for a twelve-year-old boy named Johnny Maxwell. When the aliens surrender to him, he must find a way to lead them a safe home, where their rapidly diminishing fleet will be safe from terrifying human starships that get killed but keep coming back! It isn't a terribly original plot, but it is an excuse for Pratchett to make keenly humorous observations on computer games, school, dysfunctional families, breakfast cereal, and the concept of "winning". Light entertainment, far more conventional than his Diskworld books, highly recommended.

Johnny and the Dead is the sequel to Only You Can Save Mankind. When Johnny discovers that he can talk to the dead, he finds himself with another cause: preventing a faceless conglomerate from constructing an office building on top of the local cemetery. Once again decency comes out on top, as Johnny injects a town meeting with a little good old-fashioned public spirit. Great stuff.

How Like a God by Brenda Clough has an intriguing premise. Her protagonist discovers one morning that he can read minds, and change them. Given this apparently unlimited power, how can he best use it? What acts can be morally justified? And can he even control the power? After he inadvertantly hurts his own family, he flees to New York, where he suffers a mental breakdown. His passage through despair, and gradual return to sanity, fills most of the book. Unfortunately the research psychologist who helps him recover is an incredibly annoying Polyanna, he finally gains control partly through a fortuitous incident which falls just short of deus ex machina, and the question of how to responsibly use his power for good is never adequately dealt with. Jack Faust deals with the same basic theme in a far bolder and more skillful way. This isn't a bad book, but it could have been better.

Paul Witcover's Waking Beauty says on the cover that it's an erotic fantasy. That means there's too much sex. It has a promising opening, introducing us to Cyrus Galingale and his village, part of the intriguingly exotic Heirarchate. This society can reasonably be compared to some of Jack Vance's best. 17 alphabetically named cities, from Arpagee to Quoz, define a rigid social structure. Women are subservient to men, but have a well-defined role which puts their husbands and fathers completely in their power each night. The novel's depiction of religious fervor is exceptional. The complex plots and counter-plots in the second part of the book are well-handled. Only the third part disappoints, as the plot relies heavily on miraculous events, and the science fictional flavor of the rest of the novel is lost. Witcover is clearly a novelist with great potential. I hope he can grow with his next novel into a great writer.

If fireworks were punctuation, then perhaps I could express how I feel about finally reading a new Dean novel, after far too long a wait. Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary, the new Pamela Dean novel, is similar in many ways to Tam Lin. The protagonist, Gentian, is a middle sister in a precocious family with a precocious group of friends called the Giant Ants, all of whom have rather too clear an idea of what kind of person they would like to be to be completely realistic, but Dean is so good at writing children that it almost doesn't matter. The different personalities are wonderfully drawn, and 350 pages of people conversing, philosophizing, and being judgemental, is not too much.

In fact, her prose is so entertaining and readable it's easy to miss how much food for thought is there too. The Giant Ants worry about whether they're too cliquish, and how bringing new friends into the group will change things, how to tell whether getting involved with people is a good idea or not, and what it really means to be responsible for your own life. In short, their everyday concerns are the stuff with which we all contend, and even when I hated part of it (the ending) I found all my arguments turning against me until I'd convinced myself I was wrong.

In order to appreciate the elegant black-on-black cover of Candas Jane Dorsey's Black Wine you must look closely. The same is true of the book, which takes its time about resolving its complex narrative structure. Three generations of women cross a continent in search of their identity, losing memory, freedom, and certainty on the way, and finding at times happiness. Heritage is a curse, a destiny, an irrelevance. This is a beautiful book, and a challenging one.

The Physiognomy by Jeffrey Ford is about an exotic world that never was. Physiognomists are among the ruling elite in the dictatorship of the Well-Built City, even though their science is all (or mostly) humbug. Clay, the protagonist, is arrogantly certain that he deserves his high rank in society, but a routine investigation into the theft of a holy object in a mountain town causes his downfall (in more ways than one). His journey through purgatory to redemption is exoticg, but except for the inventiveness of its background this book never really caught my interest. It's worth a look, maybe.

New Worlds is an original anthology edited by David Garnett. There's definitely a British flavor to the stories. The prose style is generally of high quality, a pleasure to read, and several of the stories are quite good. Michael Moorcock's "London Bone", about antiquarians fencing a valuable substance, is particulary fine. Some of the more experimental stories did nothing for me, and some of the stories seemed a bit conventional (not the conventions we're used to in America, but still conventions), but still I'm glad to see a collection of good original fiction. These stories are worth seeking out.

More Amazing Stories clears out the last of that magazine's inventory, and adds some reprints by big-name authors to fill out the volume. Editor Kim Mohan is fond of stories with a twist. It gets a little monotonous (Oh gee, irony! Who'd've thunk it!), and in some cases the stories are worse because of it. John Morressy's "The Persistence of Memory" would be award-caliber, in my opinion, if he hadn't gone for an excessively ironic ending. Daniel Hood's "Scipio" starts out with an fascinating, compelling protagonists and then dribbles it away. Still, all the stories are readable and some of them are first-rate.

I'd read a couple of books by Ward Moore, but until Del Rey reissued it recently I had never read his most famous, Bring the Jubilee. It deserves its fame. In Moore's alternate history, the South won a crushing military victory in the War of Southron Independence, and the North never recovered. Heavy reparations payments crippled the United States's economy, the most industrious citizens emigrated, and the army is kept weak by foreign powers, which freely meddle in the U.S.'s internal affairs. Hodge Backmaker is an American with a thirst for learning, too absent-minded to be useful. He leaves his family farm and walks to New York, where he finds a bookstore owner willing to take him in. But his patron is involved in the terrorist Grand Army, and Hodge is increasingly uncomfortable with what he witnesses. Eventually he leaves to join the utopian scholarly community of Haggershaven, where he finds peace for a time.

Hodge's story is secondary to the world he travels through. That, and the philosophical questions he grapples with, make this novel fascinating and extremely interesting. Highly recommended.

The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln by Scott McCloud is one of the best comic books to come along in a while. The backgrounds of each panel are computer-generated, with hand-drawn figures and computer colors, giving a very sharp-looking comic book. McCloud's faces--his entire figures, in fact--are wonderfully expressive.

The story is not entirely logical, but a lot of fun. Byron Johnson is in detention for showing insufficient patriotic zeal in history class when two of his fellow detainees ask who cares about history. Suddenly Abraham Lincoln smashes through a brick wall, shouting "I care! That's right, I'm back! And this time I'm playing for keeps!" Soon the three students are swept back in time on a flying American flag, to 162,000,000 years ago, when natural geological processes formed the heads on Mount Rushmore. A quick journey through key moments in American history shows us how we won the Cold War through bigger bombs and better hygiene. Byron knows it's all bunk, but can he convince anyone?

Soon the phony Lincoln is in Washington, where Congress agrees to let him resume his interrupted term of office. Only the real Abraham Lincoln has any hope of stopping him--but can a great man from our past prevail against the legend he's become? It's a battle of ideas against blind faith in symbols, a light-hearted romp with a serious message underneath it all. Highly recommended.

The Alleluia Files are the third volume in Sharon Shinn's Samarian series, set on a world where genetically engineered angels pray to a starship named Jehovah. At the end of Jovah's Angel, the second book, the angel Alleluia had just learned the truth about the technology underlying their religion. Now, a hundred years later, those proclaiming Jovah to be a machine are considered heretics and are butchered by the fanatic followers of the Archangel Bael. Legend says that Alleluia left a record of her discovery, and the search for this lost file is this book's McGuffin.

I was intrigued by Archangel's treatment of religion, and I can't help feeling that the later two books lost their way a bit, by privileging disbelief over faith. The virtues of Samarian society are not as readily apparent this time around. Moreover, technology is being rediscovered at a rapid pace, and nobody seems to be thinking much about how to prevent Samaria from becoming the kind of place they ran away from (although a few people do have the foresight to wring their hands a bit).

The Alleluia Files is surprisingly readable for a book with so many coincidences, improbably handsome heroes, convenient romances, and Hidden Secrets. It isn't one of the great novels of our time, but I found it a pleasant way to spend a few hours.

There ought to be a rule in the Hugo constitution forbidding the nomination of 500-page books that are the fourth in a series. Fortunately, I'd already read Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, so I only had Endymion to read before getting to the actual nominee.

Endymion is an easy read, moving quickly and remaining interesting even though, when you get down to it, not all that much happens. Raul Endymion rescues a girl with a messianic destiny from the Pax (a despicable theocracy) and they flee across several worlds while she gradually explains to him what's going on. More interesting is the story of Father Captain de Soya, the priest given the mission of capturing her. de Soya has the advantage of acting, not reacting, and of facing genuine moral questions.

Along the way we learn that the Church is not what it seems, the mysterious Technocore is not as long-gone as previously thought, and there's another entity that *nobody* knows much about. Presumably now that the questions have been posed, the sequel is free to give us some answers. It's good enough to make me want to keep going.

Children of God by Mary Doria Russell is a sequel to her earlier novel, The Sparrow. The early novel was marked by its exceptionally spiritual character, and if you're looking for the same here, you are likely to be disappointed. An ugly incident halfway through the book, for which Russell apologizes in the afterword, goes a long way towards compromising the principles of everyone involved. But the tale of revolution on Rakhat is interesting, as is the subplot involving an autistic child. Not as exciting as its predecessor, but worth reading.

Forever Peace shows Joe Haldeman near the top of his form. A technologically advanced Alliance has achieved a utopian state of plenty, thanks to nanoforges that can produce practically anything, but is locked in a brutal guerilla war with the have-not nations of the world. After several chapters establishing the characters and their situation, a technological discovery that threatens the survival of humanity shifts the plot into high gear, as Haldeman's heroes set off on a desperate attempt to end war forever. Even at its most fantastic, the thriller plot remains at a very human level. The Forever War is still Haldeman's best work by a wide margin, but Forever Peace is a worthy addition to the canon of science fiction classics.

Billions die in The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons, as Aenea sets out on her quest to overthrow the Pax and transform humanity. Simmons reveals his grand design over the course of several hundred pages, and for most of the novel his characters are overwhelmed by their role as cogs in a plot device. I found the final section of the novel, when (practically) All Has Been Revealed and the characters are free to get on with their lives, to be the most engaging, and some of his earlier discursiveness paid off in ways I hadn't anticipated. An entertaining and well-written novel, especially recommended for those who enjoy galaxy-sweeping sagas.

The Subtle Knife is the second book in Philip Pullman's Golden Compass trilogy. At the end of the first novel, Lyra had escaped from her own universe. The Subtle Knife shows us the world Lyra has escaped to, and introduces Will Parry, who is from our own world, and who has a vital role to play in Lord Asriel's battle against creation. The first book, with its smaller scope, intrigued me more, but this is a very readable and entertaining sequel, and I'm looking forward to the trilogy's conclusion. Recommended to all fantasy-lovers.

Interesting Times is another of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, this one featuring Rincewind (the incompetent, cowardly Wizzard) tangled up with a revolution on the Counterweight Continent. The first half of the novel got a number of smiles, but no real laughs, and the characters weren't my favorites. But after a while I started enjoying it more. This isn't one of his best books, but even a middling Pratchett novel is worth reading.

An Exchange of Hostages is Susan R. Matthew's first novel, about a nobleman reluctantly forced to become a torturer for an interstellar empire. We're expected to sympathize with Kosciusko even though he gets an erection when he hurts people, because he feels really bad about it afterwards. And it's okay that he's assigned slaves, because he treats them so nicely that they beg to remain in his service. In fact, everyone except the token villain admires Kosciusko. (You can tell who the villain is because she's not a very good torturer, and she dislikes Kosciusko.) There's one really bizarre scene where a group of women lure Kosciusko into a dark room and wrestle him into having sex with them. Apparently the author is so much in love with her own character, she assumes everyone else has to be.

The social system itself doesn't make a lot of sense. A judicial system whose first resort is torture is practically an absurdity, but we are not shown any system for detecting crimes besides torture or the threat of torture. The Bench has effective truth drugs, but their use is restricted to the Seventh Level and higher, which is above the point where an Inquisitor can legally torture somebody to death. To make things even stranger, torturers are bound by a code of honor to stay within the rigid guidelines of what the Nine Levels permit. This code of honor doesn't extend so far as to avoid railroading innocent men into slavery, though, or to treating slaves with common decency (beatings and rape are practically de rigeur). Matthews apparently wanted a system that was unequivocally bad enough for the reader to hiss at, but not quite so bad that Kosciusko can't be forgiven for compromising with it, and above all to have plenty of rape, torture, and humiliation.

The devil of it is, Matthews is not a bad writer. Kosciusko is an interesting character, and a good book could be written about a man rebelling against an unjust system. She's determined to hold out as long as possible before writing that book, though. An Exchange of Hostages takes us only to the end of Kosciusko's training, by which time he's managed to negotiate a few small acts of mercy and convince himself that the honorable course is to work within the system. The sequel, Prisoner of Conscience, puts him in a more morally charged situation, assigned to a post where he uncovers evidence of genocide, but his "rebellion" against the unwritten rules consists of acting within the written ones, and he's commended by his superiors, who are more honorable than one has any right to expect. The series thus progresses only glacially towards any sort of real moral turning point.

I hate to think of how long this series could go on. I believe Susan Matthews is capable of writing a book I could wholeheartedly admire; and I believe she doesn't want to write that kind of a book.

On a more cheerful note, Johnny and the Bomb by Terry Pratchett is a book full of humanity. Johnny Maxwell and his friends are swept back in time to the bombing of England during the second World War, and they have a chance to save lives, but they also have to worry about the possible danger of changing their own present. As always with this series, the right choice is the most humane one. Bravo.

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