Proteus in the Underworld, Charles Sheffield

Baen, 1995, 304 pages, C$7.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-87659-7

During the last few years of his life, the late Charles Sheffield produced an astonishing number of novels (up to three or four a year!), some of them quite good and some of them quite dull. Fortunately, Proteus in the Underworld is one of the better ones, an irresistibly readable work of old-school science-fiction.

In some ways, it’s not overly surprising given that it is the third volume in the “Proteus” trilogy, a decent follow-up to two novels (Sight of Proteus and Proteus Unbound, combined in the Proteus Manifest omnibus) that exemplified how old-style SF should be written; take a few neat ideas, wrap them in an engaging action-adventure plot seasoned with an upbeat attitude and let the reader have tons of fun.

Proteus in the Underworld is a dignified heir to the series. Once again, super-scientist Behrooz Wolf (Bey Wolf to just about everyone) is called upon to serve the future; in a universe where extreme body modifications have become the norm, where the entire solar system is colonized and where social norms are somewhat weirder than today, well, Bey is a man of singular talents. One of the leading scientists of the form-change revolution, he’s still at the top of the game in more ways than one; even though he’s officially retired, every woman he meets seems intent on seducing him, for business purposes or simple pleasure. Whatta guy!

One of those women is Sondra Dearborn, a novice agent at the Office of Form Control. A hot case has been dropped on her lap, and she doesn’t quite know what to do with it; a strange matter of feral forms passing human-detection tests, throwing a Really Big Wrench in hitherto-unchallenged assumptions. (Including, one will note, those of the Proteus series itself) Out of ideas and maybe even out of time, she calls upon Bey Wolf to help.

But he’s retired, ga’dang it. Plus he’s got another offer on his plate; Multi-billionaire owner of one of the solar system’s biggest corporation Trudy Melford also wants to pay him for intellectual services. The only catch is that he’s have to go to Mars in order to do so, but why hesitate when interplanetary transport can be instantaneous?

In short order, Sonya is forced to fend for herself on one of the cold outer colonies, Bey’s Mars contract proves eventful, conspiracies start to accumulate and we’re thick in a futuristic mystery novel. It’s all quite enjoyable; Sheffield’s style is here crystal-clear, with nary a dull moment in sight.

Oh, it’s not perfect, mind you: much as the two previous volumes had a few rough spots (the first novel depended on “biofeedback” as a science, and the second featured a man whose crazy dances drove others to insanity!), Proteus in the Underworld is sometimes too simple; this type of one-corporation-rules, one-test-is-infallible, one-man-knows-all fiction isn’t particularly realistic. The real world doesn’t work that way. But such shortcuts can be fun, and that’s all we’re asking for when it comes to old-school SF.

While the science can be wonky at times (this is adventure, not hard-SF), the mystery is satisfying, the prose is dynamic, the characters are terrific in their own way and the imagined future feels utterly comfortable. Combine that will a killer cover illustration by Gary Ruddell (Rwowrrr, Sondra!) and the result is one of Sheffield’s most enjoyable work, and a great third volume in a cool trilogy from an author that deserves to be fondly remembered.

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