Category Archives: Book Review

The Fortunate Fall, Raphael Carter

Tor, 1996, 288 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86034-X

The adventure of discovery! The thrill of the new! The excitement of excellence! The perils of plunking down a sizable chunk of real money for a hardcover!

Who would want to go bungee-jumping when such thrills are so readily available to the average reader? Why go white-river rafting when a trip to the local bookstore can provide such exciting minutes of agonizing decisions?

Just in case you’re wondering, I’m talking about the rewards of reading first novels. This is where the local library comes in handy: At the worst, you’ll waste only time, not time AND money.

Which brings us to the subject of this review, a perfectly acceptable offering by Minneapolis, Minnesota resident Raphael Carter: The Fortunate Fall (In case you’re wondering who Carter is, you’re not alone, and not about to be satiated by the author’s blurb, which was reproduced here in its informative integrality.)

In a publishing world where every first novel is “the best book I’ve read in my life” or “the best look at postmodernist whatever since…”, It’s refreshing to find a first work that lives up to most of the quotes on the cover: There was no “better first novel published in 1996,” so Emma Bull won’t have to “eat [her] hard drive.”

The elements of the plot aren’t exactly new: Human cameras have been around for a while in SF (most famously in Gibson’s Count Zero) and avid readers of recent works in the genre will have a certain kick comparing this book to Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire. (both taking place mostly in a complexly fractalized near-future Europe and sporting female protagonists named Maya)

But Carter manages to do some impressive things with the concept: One camera must work with a Screener, which filters most of the unwanted peripheral sensations. The novel begins as Maya Andreyeva has to switch Screeners, only to end up with a female partner (an unusual occurrence.) Soon, Maya is dealing with a political coverup, an incarceration, long-distance love with her Screener and the biggest scoop of her life.

But never mind the plot. As with many new authors, it’s the details that are fascinating. Maya’s “objective” reality doesn’t exist any more. She is so wired that she can choose to see images, experience sensations… Perhaps the best passage in the novel is early on, when she tries to convince her rental automobile that the alcohol she’s taking is for medicinal purposes. (nanobots refuelling, actually) The car doesn’t see it the same way, and soon tries to stop, since drinking and driving are incompatible. The situation is resolved by the almost-literal appearance of Maya’s Screener and an instance of creating reprogramming.

It may sound boring, but Carter recounts it far better than I have. Surprisingly, his style is distinctive without being overwhelming. The prose is mostly uncluttered but assured, wry, confident… cool. If only for this quality, Carter has managed to get a “To Watch” rating on my mental Author Scoreboard. Unlike many new authors, Carter doesn’t have the impulse to show us how smart he is at the expense of good storytelling.

Yet, Carter’s work is smart. He mixes sociological insights with musings about the nature of love, life and everything… It’s an interesting mélange. The books succeeds more than it falters, and one couldn’t ask more.

I was a bit disappointed by the conclusion, where we go back to the time-honoured tradition of having the villain talk about his evil plan in front of billion of people (but this is excusable, since Maya is a camera, duh!) The finale is… interesting.

The book is full of “good bits”; the already-mentioned car argument, Maya’s interrogations by two “policemen”… but the background details are also interesting without being flashy: North America is a backward (“I could always emigrate [there] and spend my live seeing nothing more technologically advanced than a pitchfork”) continent, but Africa has brilliantly combined ancient traditions with high-technology.

The medium length of the book and the easygoing prose makes the readers breeze through the novel. I do get the feeling that this is one book I won’t avoid re-reading in a few years.

This is Good Stuff. Just when our bookstore’s shelves are covered with TV tie-ins and derivative trash, it’s refreshing to see original material like this. Kudos to The Fortunate Fall, its readers, Tor Books and Raphael Carter.

Besides, paperback books are way cheaper than bungee-jumping. And you can read The Fortunate Fall in the bathroom, instead of going to the bathroom before your unfortunate fall—

okay, so you got the point.

Dragon’s Egg, Robert L. Forward

Del Rey, 1984, 309 pages, C$2.75 mmpb, ISBN 0-345028349-X

(Or: Too much of a good thing. WAY too much of a good thing…)

I adore Hard SF.

You see, SF for me stands for Science-Fiction, not the recent wishy-washy labels “Speculative Fiction”, “Sociological Fantasy”, “San Francisco” or even (the pain!) the all-inclusive “Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror and all kind of stuff we just call SF because we really don’t have the IQ to know better.”

(It’s all a plot, I tell you: People without the technical qualification came in, found that they couldn’t compete with Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke on their own terms and resolved to change the rules of the game so they wouldn’t get beaten up so badly. Tie this with the decline of the American Empire and receive 5,000 bonus points.)

Generally, the harder the SF, the better I like it. It’s no accident that my favourite books last year were Red Mars, The Ascent of Wonder and Tau Zero, all heavily-hard SF. Pushed at the extremes, I’ll grab a science non-fiction book rather more quickly than a non-science fiction book.

(This is the point that I choose to remark that not everyone is mentally equipped to follow science non-fiction books… heh-heh-heh.)

I remember reading a Robert L Forward novel (Timemaster) a few years ago, and being embarrassed at the characterisation, which is quite a feat for someone who’s proud of being style-deaf. On a whim, I picked up Dragon’s Egg, resolved to find out if Forward was really as bad as I remembered.

He is. In the words of David Pringle’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of SF: “ill-written novels” Forward is a terrific idea generator, but can’t dramatize them for beans. In the tradition of the worst B movies, some of the dialogue is so bad, it’s hilarious. Here’s an instance, chosen at random: [Page 32 of the paperback edition]

“The pulses could be high frequency bursts that are higher than the nominal design frequency for the low frequency radio antennas,” he said. “Can you calculate the antenna pattern for a higher frequency?”

And this is one of the better ones. I am not making this up.

Yet, it would be too easy to blast this novel on poor drama, laughable dialogue and cardboard characters. These three literary qualities are not why this novel was published. And allowances must be made, for Dragon’s Egg was Forward’s first novel.

What is impressive about this book is the rigorous scientific extrapolation underlying the story: A race of sentient beings evolve on the crust of a neutron star, where gravities and magnetic fields are enormously more powerful than on earth. These beings, called Cheelas, live about ten thousand times more rapidly than humans. During one human hour, 5 cheela generations pass…

As it happens, one human scientific mission is there just at the good time and place to give a little help to the cheela. In twenty-four hours, they go from roman-type empire to FTL flight…

Most of the book is very, very boring. This is one of those few novels where the alien passages feel more natural than the human scenes. (See my gripes about dialogue: I can believe in aliens talking that way, but humans??? Nah….) But the scientific stuff is fascinating, and the last few pages are gripping; pure hard-SF candy for the mind.

It won’t surprise anyone that there’s a technical appendix at the end. Also not surprising is the usefulness of such an appendix. In a hurry, just read it and skim the remainder of the novel.

This surely isn’t a book for everyone. I had a few problems following the most abstract concepts, and I can’t expect everyone to slug through two hundred pages of polysyllabic words for a few pages of sensawunder and a technical appendix.

But if you’re able to handle it, go ahead…

Bestsellers Guaranteed, Joe R. Lansdale

Ace, 1993, 207 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-05502-8

Stephen King makes me laugh.

And I do mean this literally: I have a very high resistance to horror nowadays, and tend to laugh like a madman at supposedly “scary” movies. Part of the problem is a self-avowed tendency to make fun of everything video ala MST3K. But in the case of horror, the source material doesn’t help either: the transparency of the typical horror plot is the epitome of cookie-cutting: An evil concept, a troubled protagonist, a kill-the-sinners mentality. This is essentially King’s weakness: One can easily peer into the intentions of his fiction without going too deeply in the structure.

Apologies if I’m getting too academic, but the bottom line is simply that Stephen King doesn’t scare me, as much of the horror floating around these days.

This being said, I picked up Bestsellers Guaranteed for the wrong reasons: It was cheap, it had a wacky cover (librarian-type dragon lying on a pile of books) and the back-cover blurb was even wackier (Sample: “BOB THE DINOSAUR GOES TO DISNEYLAND: An inflatable toy dinosaur takes a dream vacation… that’s full of hot air.”)

If you don’t mind, I’ll take this occasion to present my “all-time most misrepresentative cover” award to Ace, for putting humorous jacket copy on a dark horror collection.

For this book is almost all-horror. Not the evil-thing-eats-them-all-up kind of horror, but the true, evil, dark stuff that will make you squirm and wince even though you can’t stop reading. I wasn’t creeped out by straight razors before, but now…

People gets eaten up a lot here, but they also get beheaded, chomped, sliced, quartered, stuffed, bludgeoned… Scary stuff, less predictable than King, and written in style, too! Despite -or maybe because- the subject matter, this book was read very, very quickly.

This is pure, undiluted good stuff. I was horrified, terrorized and grossed-out (for you who remember Stephen King’s degrees of horror). Joe Lansdale is an author with edges, a lot of them.

A last word of advice for just about everyone: Read the book during a day with plenty of sunlight, okay?

Glory Season, David Brin

Bantam Spectra, 1993, 772 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-56767-5

Some critics say that the difference between literature and the remainder of the “fiction” section is that literature is dedicated to a thoughtful exploration of the human mind. This, they tell us, is why SF will never be anything more than a glorified escapist genre for people who can’t handle the real world.

The appropriate response to these idiots is to pity them, for they are well and truly living in a world of their own.

Any half-decent SF fan already knows the answer to that accusation. But how to tell them that SF is uniquely positioned to examine the real issues that concern the human heart? What tool but SF lets authors examine the relationship between the flesh and the mind? (cyberpunk) The human and his times? (time travel) Man and his environment? (ecological/space stories) The person and the sex? (Gender explorations)

The last category is, to put it bluntly, a pack of troubles. Gender exploration is usually slanted toward feminist fiction (since that’s the underdog) and outright propaganda. Some of it is good (The Maerland Chronicles/In the Mother’s Land, Elisabeth Vonarburg), some of it is stuffy and boring (The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin) and some of it is plainly, embarrassingly bad (Ammonite, Nicola Griffith).

Another addition to the pack is David Brin’s Glory Season.

Now, understand that I like David Brin. His viewpoint is one of boundless technological optimism, which happens to be my favourite philosophy too. Almost everything he writes is thoughtful, inventive, entertaining and utterly readable. Glory Season is a mixed bag, but still upholds most of Brin’s usual qualities.

Glory Season weighs in at nearly 800 pages, and stars Maia, a young woman living on Stratos, a planet long divorced from the human confederation. Stratos’ society is mostly composed of females: Males are the disadvantaged sex. Two “kinds” of females exist on this planet: clones and the more Earth-familiar vars. (At this point, things get a bit complicated and Brin explains them better than myself anyway.)

At the beginning of the book, Maia leaves her home to make her fortune in the world. With her is Leie, her twin-sister. Not quite a var but not really a clone, Maia thinks she can make her fortune on Stratos… And the adventure begins. Maia’s story is intercut with “didactic interludes”, excepts of diaries and works about Stratos’ history. Like the “Ancillary Documentation” in Stephen R. Donaldson’s Gap series, these bits are tasty, interesting, and don’t really detract from the flow of the story.

And lest anyone be confused, this is a story. Brin never loses sight of the reason people buy his books: Entertainment. Maia will be participant in gunfights, revolutions, betrayals and the usual gamut of adventure fiction situations. To be fair, this is perhaps the weakest aspect of Glory Season: The fast-paced adventures of Maia are sometimes a bit too fast-paced to sustain interest. A quieter, shorter novel could have been better.

Fortunately, Maia’s an interesting protagonist and her coming-of-age is as fascinating as the society surrounding her. The ending is a bit abrupt, but still wrap most things up. It’s evident that Brin has spent a great deal of time thinking about the issues presented in this novel. Fans won’t be disappointed.

Neither conclusive nor embarrassing, Glory Season is a blend of adventure and extrapolation that’s perhaps not dense enough. Nevertheless, still a solid novel from David Brin.

The Talisman, Stephen King & Peter Straub

Berkley, 1984, 768 pages, C$8.75 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-10533-4

People often ask me why I read so much Science-Fiction. Frankly, that’s a very good question that I haven’t got around answering yet. Oh, sure, there are the usual excuses: I grew up with it, I watched Star Trek for as long as I remember, I’ve always been interested in space, science and stuff, etc… Nevertheless, the best answer may still be that, frankly, what else would I want to read?

Other genres are boring or limited in numbers: Techno-Thrillers are fun but few, romance isn’t my cup of tea, mysteries are (usually) mind-fluff, general literature meaningless AND boring, horror usually cliched and fantasy-

I don’t usually read much Fantasy, and The Talisman reminds me why.

Begin by ignoring the names on the cover. Sure, Stephen King and Peter Straub are two terrific horror writers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that The Talisman is horror.

It smells like fantasy, looks like fantasy and reads like fantasy. To wit:

A young boy, wise beyond his years, discovers that he can access a parallel world. His mother’s analogue in this world is a queen, and he must cross America to retrieve a talisman that will heal both versions of his mother. Opposing him are a powerful dark prince and his real-world analogue, a lawyer.

If that’s not the essential Fantasy Plot, what is?

Surely, there are enough dark critters and evil persons to transform this in a dark fantasy, but it’s still the usual plot taking place.

Like most novels by King -even though I suspect Straub might have written most of the book- this book is pleasantly readable… if such a word can be applied to dark fantasy. Characters are well-presented, the adventures of the hero are told reasonably well.

There are a few deviations from the standard plot, mostly dealing with the dual-universe nature of the story, but the thrust of the novel remains the same as countless fantasy trilogies before it. And I can’t help but be ambivalent about a novel that is explicitly aware of hard-SF, yet grossly contradicts its own rules. Oh, and the finale is interminable.

I’ve heard people say this is the best book they’re ever read. On the other hand, some people have called this the worst Stephen King book, ever. As usual, the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. In short: Average.

The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction, Ed. David Pringle

Carlton Books, 1995, 309 pages, C$40.00 hc, ISBN 1-85868-188-X

I recently detailed in these virtual pages my acquisition of The Science-Fiction Encyclopedia and The Visual Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction. To refresh some readers’ memories, my impression was unarguably positive. After all, how can you argue against 1,300 pages in one case and a page-full of photographic credits in the other?

Well, call me jaded, but the 304 pages and page-full of illustration credits of David Pringle’s The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction (subtitled The Definitive Illustrated Guide) aren’t quite as impressive…

The basic problem is how to present the subject, especially when it’s as diverse as SF. Do you go for the connoisseur, the fan or the general public? Talk about books nobody read any more or go for the quicker, stupider movies? To that, add the challenge of presenting visuals properly: By theme, date, subject, illustrator?

The choices made by the staff of TUEoSF are clear: They’re going for the general public and more accurately, the British general public. The cover illustration features the scantily-clad robot from METROPOLIS. The back cover has Jane Fonda as a suitably curvaceous Barbarella, Akira, Arnold S. as The Terminator and the ship from “2001”. That should give you an idea of the book’s media-oriented content.

For better and for worse, SF is now a genre most readily identified with television and movies. A large part of the encyclopedia reflects this. Of the eight sections, one 60-page segment is about movies, another 50 pages discuss TV and radio series. Other notable sections deal with Themes (40 pages), “creators” (writers and directors, 70 pages) and “Heroes and Villains” (45 pages) The last section is especially puzzling, since it’s not very useful as reference and pretty much unreadable to anyone not familiar with the books and movies discussed.

The British emphasis has its moments: The dry humour that permeates the book (a contribution of David Langford, perhaps?) is often disrespectful, irreverent and -yes- amusing, provided you’re in the appropriate mood. Unfortunately, it also means that UK authors get more than their fair share of representation: Two-shot Brit wonders are discussed while more prolific North-American authors are ignored. (Some nice photos, though)

Also notable for fan-boys like me are the positive comments about Babylon-5. (Even discussing the suspicious similarity with DS9, but underlining the fact that B5 was pitched to Paramount first…)

The commentary is excellent, even if the categories are suspicious. Interestingly, more than a few relevant comments about TV-SF later appeared in an article written for the very scholarly magazine “Science-Fiction Studies” by none other than Brain Stableford… who’s a collaborator to this book. (Amazing coincidence, don’t you think?)

But for your money, keep an eye on the Clute books. They’re more complete, much more informative and contain about as much illustrations that this book.

Courtship Rite, Donald Kingsbury

Pocket, 1982, 409 pages, C$4.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-46089-7

If you should be so lucky as to meet Donald Kingsbury in person, you will be impressed.  With his 6-foot+ frame, unkempt white hair and long-winded interventions, he’ll towers above you physically and intellectually. He’s the perfect picture of a British intellectual. He’d make a perfect mad scientist. Instead, he turned to Science-Fiction.

My first Kingsbury fiction was the excellent “To Bring in the Steel” in the Hard-SF anthology The Ascent of Wonder. A good hard-SF tale, it also delved unusually deep into the psyche of its characters. “A mix of Herbert and Heinlein,” I thought at the time.

With Courtship Rite, the comparison with Herbert seems more and more adequate:  it’s a planetary romance of the best, most intricate sort… just as Dune was.

On the planet of Geta, several centuries in the future, a human civilisation has evolved after quite a few centuries of isolation from Earth. Geta is a desert: arid, harsh, barren. Most of the plants are poisonous. The human society has adapted in consequence: Cannibalism is the only source of meat, marriages involve multiple partners, people “decorate” themselves with scars and complex rituals dictate courtship, death, love… This isn’t a “nice” society, nor an easy book to digest. The technological level is barely above medieval despite the advanced genetic knowledge and some scenes are simply brutal.

The story itself is ho-hum: Boys love girl, but chief orders them to marry barbarian princess. Boys stage Ritual of Death to see if she’s worthy and the story goes on from there. What follows is war, pain, death, a more-or-less happy ending, several levels of intersecting intrigue and a fascinating social exploration. The book is immensely detailed, yet effortlessly so: Kingsbury obviously knows Geta like he lived there.

For Courtship Rite is the social equivalent of Hard-SF tales. Geta’s society is meticulously described by affection and -yes- admiration. I was impressed by the originality and completeness of the vision. In many ways, this book is a trip on another planet.

The characters are exceptionally well-drawn. This is a superior planetary romance, on both sense of the term: A smart SF Harlequin book… (albeit an unusually sadistic one) Kingsbury had put a lot of care in his characters and it shows. Whatever the story is, you care for them. What’s more, I got the unusual feeling that the latter part of the book was moved along by the characters; excellent. Each of the book’s 66 chapters is headed by an original epigram -another touch of Dune– and some of them are true gems.

It’s a magnificent tapestry, a very dense, well-written book. I recommend spending a little more time on this book. I didn’t and frankly, I now regret it. A re-reading in a few year will be much more satisfying. It has the depth of Dune, if maybe not the strong narrative drive: The story is uneven and takes more than a while to rev up to speed. Add to that a few technological inconsistencies (the genetic vs mechanical knowledge) and the overall effect is diminished, but still impressive.

Still, it’s a very good read. It’s no wonder it was nominated for the 1982 Hugos. If you can find it in used libraries, don’t hesitate to pick it up. This isn’t for everyone, would make a rotten miniseries, will certainly shock most SF readers in places (even the most jaded) but is worth of attention by mature SF readers.

Ammonite, Nicola Griffith

Del Rey, 1992, 349 pages, C$4.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-37891-1

Re-reading the above reviews, I am filled with dread: Not only aren’t they very good, but they’re also insufferably nice. I hate nice. Sooner or later, someone is going to send me a nasty e-mail asking whether or not Kim Stanley Robinson paid me for the heaps of praise lavished on his Mars trilogy.

So, in an effort to scale back the balance a bit, I have selected the worst SF book I have read this year. And this book is gonna get it. Be sure of one thing; I am not going to get any check from Nicola Griffith in the foreseeable future.

Because, you see, Ammonite is a bad novel. There are many degrees of badness, as well as several factors that sour my opinions of a particular book and Ammonite is a particularly remarkable intersection of a bunch of these anti-qualities.

I’ll be honest: I’m less than partial to explicitly feminist novels. I’ve explained several of the reasons elsewhere, but my main point is that fighting excesses with excesses are not a good way to win. Castrating all males is as much a power fantasy as tying up all females. (Personally, —I have a sister—there’s no doubt in my mind that women are as much out equal in terms of aggressiveness and inherent potential for violence… watch out when social conditioning will crumble.)

And Ammonite is an explicitly feminist novel. In spades.

On a certain planet, all men die and most women get temporarily sick from a native virus. Centuries pass, and anthropologist Marghe Taishan (that’s our heroine) arrives on the abandoned planet to test a new vaccine. What she discovers is a pastoral, all-female society (or rather, societies: War’s still going on between the clans.) Ah, but if all males dies upon exposure at the virus, how are the women reproducing? Will Marghe be able to stop the conflict between the opposing forces? Will she find love, meaning and happiness on this planet?

Now here comes my biggest objection to the book. Any careful SF fan could be able to guess where the story’s going based on the previous paragraph: The women are able to reproduce themselves with the transformations brought by the virus. Marghe will go native, meet girl and fall in love, but not before going through some terrible experiences of her own. Odds are that she will go through the single most defining experience for a woman on the planet, which is becoming pregnant “all by herself” (with a little help from her friend.) Of course, we can expect her to solve the Big Political Conflict by the end of the book and Live Happily Ever After.

The fun of SF, in most cases, is to see the author destroy our preconceived assumptions while going through the novel. And it would be even better for said author to do it entertainingly: I want action, or intelligence. If you’re about to write a 350-pages book, be sure to sustain it with enough plot, storyline twists and surprises to make me feel I’ve paid an adequate sum for the g’darn book!

Sadly, this doesn’t happen here. The expected twists never come: Marghe goes native, is rejected by natives, goes through some terrible experiences, falls in love, never gets sympathetic but does get pregnant, solve the conflict and Lives Happily Ever after. Points are deducted for goofy science, interminable length and glorification of new-agish crap.

To put it simply: There are no surprises in this book. By the time the Big Political Conflict is solved, we just don’t care anymore. I would have liked the book better if Marghe would have either just hung herself or loosened the man-killing virus upon the galaxy. But this doesn’t happen.

It might be a wise time to include a personal interlude here: In the first three months of 1996, I took an English course at my very own UofO, entitled “Utopian and Science-Fiction.” The course, taught by a teacher by the unlikely name of P h y l l i s P. P e r r a k i s, stank, bored and confused. But that’s another essay: “How academia doesn’t get SF, or at least not around here.”

At one point in the course, a female student from nearby Carleton University came into our class to ask if anyone was interested in participating in a survey for some kind of thesis on feminist SF. One of the two books: Ammonite. One fellow classmate (female) wanted to participate: “Anything for a free book” she said.

I warned her. I told her it wasn’t worth it. I pleaded for abstinence and restraint. I used a great many deal of **asterisks** to convince her not to waste her time on the book. But she didn’t listen…

Guess what? A week later, same place, same time: Fellow (female) classmate comes to me and says: “You’re right. It’s an incredibly boring book.” Ha! Vindication! Seems that her problem with the book was the same than mine: No surprises, incredible ennui

Ammonite, to restate, is a failure as a novel. Even then, it almost succeeds as a science-fiction story. The first chapters are interesting, but as soon as we get an idea of where the novel’s going, it loses all interest. Marghe’s trek across the planet is nothing compared to the odyssey the reader has to endure through the novel’s 349 pages. By the time everything settles down, we just don’t care anymore.

More on new-ageish crap: The society described by Griffith in Ammonite is barely feudal. Isolated clans, fighting for dominance until Marghe makes them all cooperate. Rejection of technology (which only serves males or male-indoctrinated females) is much more than strongly implied. The goofy pseudo-explanation for the virus’ effect smacks more of undigested psychic healing exploita than actual biology. Techies, or just rational people, will have to go elsewhere to get decent entertainment.

As a feminist tract, it’s not very good either. It did win the Lambda award for best gay/lesbian/bisexual novel of the year, but this award means exactly what it does… Not that all “feminist” novels are bad, or anti-technology: Elisabeth Vonarburg’s In the Mother’s Land/The Maerlande Chronicles is a good example of female-dominated, interesting, non-anti-tech novel.

In summary: Burn, baby, burn!

A Million Open Doors, John Barnes

Tor, 1992, 315 pages, C$25.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-85210-X

Much like the Music Industry’s been feverishly looking for bands “like the Beatles”, SF has been looking for “Heinlein’s Successor” ever since the Grandmaster declined/became boring/died in 1988. Various successor have been appointed (including most notably Spider Robinson; not a bad choice) but none has risen to take the crown.

The latest heir to the throne is John Barnes, a science-fiction writer whose books have been steadily growing in maturity and intensity. From an inauspicious beginning (The Man Who Pulled Down the Sky, 1988) Barnes has produced a few fine novels (most notably Orbital Resonance and A Million Open Doors) before hitting the big-time in 1994 with his excellent disaster epic Mother of Storms, followed in 1995 by the ultraviolent Kaleidoscope Century (His latest projects are the fantasy One for the Morning Glory and a series of men’s adventure books self-admittedly written for a quick buck.)

Why the comparisons with Heinlein? Ask the four authors whose blurb on the back cover of A Million Open Doors compare Barnes to the Big Guy. Ask David Pringle, whose Ultimate Encyclopedia of SF says “If Robert Heinlein had been raised amid suburbs and malls and the socio-political chaos of the past three decades, he might have grown up to be John Barnes.”

Yet, the comparison is unfair: Barnes’ forte is sociological extrapolation and -lately,- fiction that isn’t afraid to pull its punches, may it be in violent or sexual content. Quite a few Usenet readers have expressed a few doubts about the author himself after reading the ultra-violent-porn subplot in Mother of Storms. Others are reputedly abandonning Barnes after the sometimes graphic Kaleidoscope Century.

Well, never mind that. With A Million Open Doors, we take a trip back to a kinder, gentler John Barnes. This is a tale of two planets: harsh Caledony, where a religious government casts a humorless, rigid shadow over their inhabitants and Nou Occitan, a planet “where duels are fought with equal passion over insults and artistic views alike.” The narrator of the tale is Girault, a “young” man living the extravagant life of the traditional Nou Occitans. He spends his days drinking with his friends, fighting duels, insulting strangers and writing poetry for his “girlfriend.” When said girlfriend “betrays him in the worst way possible”, Girault finds himself running away from her, off on Caledony.

Yep, this is a novel of Culture Shock: Imagine a 16th-century French aristocrat trying to convert modern-day Iran to his way of life and you’ll have a good idea of this novel’s thrust. But as Girault changes Caledonia, Caledonia changes him too… Like so many good Heinlein novels, this is also a very good coming-of-age story.

I was surprised and delighted by A Million Open Doors. It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s very amusing. This novel has that extra… oh… “joie-de-vivre” that leaves you smiling even days after reading this book. Better yet, this is an intelligent bright novel. Barnes’ insight in what make societies tick is impressive. At the same time, the story stays very personal: A strong cast of characters complement narrator Girault’s passage in adulthood, ten years belated. This isn’t as much a “Growing Up” novel as a “Will you grow up, already!” story.

This is a much more even novel than the latter Mother of Storms. It’s more focused and less dark. Less brilliant, perhaps (Mother of Storms is an incredibly smart novel, even for SF) but with a larger potential audience. (This isn’t to say A Million Open Doors is fluffy from start to finish: There’s a few darker passages, especially their solution to death…)

The cover art, as usual from artist John Harris (of Ender’s Game cover fame) is hopelessly out of touch from what’s in the novel.

Had I mentioned that the prose style is compulsively readable? Thought so.

It’s difficult to say which kind of novel I prefer from Barnes: The light, uplifting work like A Million Open Doors, the massive volume like Mother of Storms or the dark distopia of Kaleidoscope Century… In the end, the versatility of John Barnes might be his greatest talent yet.

I’ll keep reading.

[January 1997 addenda: Just to prove that I have a talent for being wrong, I claimed in a Usenet message that A Million Open Doors should please everyone. (Referring to the recent ultraviolent content in Mother of Storms and Kaleidoscope Century). A day or two passed, with a reply to my message saying that there was quite a bit of disgusting S&M sex, not-quite-jolly swordplay and rape in the book… which is absolutely correct.

To defend myself, I’ll point out that the S&M and swordplay bits are in the first hundred pages, the rape is in background and the whole impression of the book is far less violent than the others. Growing up, for Girault and his friends, implies leaving behind the S&M and the swordplay. A curious thing, selective memory is…

Still, I can be an idiot to most people, most of the time, see? 🙂 ]

Heavy Weather, Bruce Sterling

Bantam Spectra, 1994, 310 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-09393-2.

To make a weak joke right at the start of the review: Audiences worldwide stormed theaters in June 1996 to see the thunderous tornado flick “Twister.” I was there. It was fun. This movie showed me things I hadn’t seen before and was enjoyable despite the bland plot. In that respect, “Twister” stands among the most fun of 1996’s releases.

However, an oft-repeated comment on the net was “read Heavy Weather instead.” Curious, I resolved to check, even if the decision wasn’t that hard to make: Sterling is one of SF’s best authors. His fiction has acquired impressive weight in recent years: Schismatrix is one of the best, disturbing, most impressive and complex novel to come out of the Eighties. Only the presence of Ender’s Game on the 1985 Hugo ballot prevented—

—but this isn’t a review of Schismatrix (other that to say “Rush to your stores, the omnibus Schismatrix Plus is there!”) He’s not immensely prolific (about one book every two years) but what he writes is good, imaginative, fairly readable and original.

Sterling isn’t an easy writer to categorize. He has been one of the main drives behind cyberpunk fiction, but unlike a few writers of this genre he hasn’t really stayed in the genre. Is Heavy Weather cyberpunk? There are no easy answers.

For one thing, cyberpunk doesn’t automatically associate with tornadoes in my mind. Yet, tornadoes make up a rather large part of Heavy Weather’s plot: In an ecologically unstable future America, a bunch of young people, including genius mathematician Dr. Jerry Mulcahey, chase twisters for fun and profit. Mostly fun. Among this bunch of tornado hackers lives Jane Unger, rich heiress. As the book starts, Jane uses fancy technology to make her brother Alex escape from a Mexican clinic, bringing him into the “Storm Troupe” (Please do not groan when you realize that means the members of the group call themselves “Storm Troupers…” Okay.) Alex is not very good company: He’s physically sick, rebellious, unstable. Resentment abounds in the Troupe. Will he be able to contribute to the group? And what’s that about a permanent F-6 supertwister?

Sterling mixes a lot of high-tech goodies into his novel: Truly cross-country vehicles, VR delta-planes, Library-of-Congress-on-a-disk, “Shadow Government” outlaws, the destruction of a major town, DNA remedies… Fascinating stuff from start to finish.

The feel of Heavy Weather might be considered as straight cyberpunk: The intensely gritty atmosphere is far removed from squeaky-clean typical SF labs: The techno-toys are not treated with reverence, but as ordinary tools, prone to failure or uselessness. We suffer with the characters as they don’t bathe, wear decent clothes or have a decent sex life. The evolution of Sterling’s cyberpunk themes is interesting, and should provide ample material to future Eng. Lit. majors

Yet, this is more than straight cyberpuke. We even get to like a few characters: The evolution of Alex is especially heartening, as is his consequent acceptance in the Troupe and his relationship with his sister. Most of all, there’s one very good upbeat finale, something that caught me a bit unprepared given the tone of the rest of the book. Characters are okay, readability excellent, ideas original. Recommended.

As far as windy-disaster-type SF novels go, this is almost up to par to John Barnes’ superlative Mother of Storms. And it does beat “Twister” hands down for intelligence. There’s even a cow-bit!

[Page 258 of the hardcover edition]

Jane felt a chill existential horror as [their car] remained airborne, remained flying, and things began to drift gently and visibly past them. Things? Yes, all kinds of things. Road signs. Bushes. Big crooked pieces of tree. Half-naked chickens. A cow. The cow was alive, that was the strangest thing. The cow was alive and unharmed, and it was a flying cow. She was watching a flying cow. A Holstein. A big, plump, well-looked-after barnyard Holstein, with a smart collar around its neck. The cow looked like it was trying to swim. The cow would thrash its great clumsy legs in the chilly air and then it would stop for a second, and look puzzled.

I’ve said elsewhere that the difference between visual and written SF is that the latter does deal with consequences. Here’s the proof, from the book’s two subsequent paragraphs:

And then the cow hit a tree and the cow was smashed and dead, and was instantly far behind them.

And then [their car] hit another, different tree. And the air bag deployed, and it punched her really hard, right in the face.

Enough said. Now, go read the book!

Arc Light, Eric L. Harry

Simon & Schuster, 1994, 551 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 0-671-88048-9

Though Science Fiction remains my favourite literary genre, there’s a special shelf in my personal library for techno-thrillers, a genre more closely associated with SF that most people assume. If Fantasy is the new-age-ish sister of SF, Techno-thriller is the weird cousin always playing around with guns and borrowing stuff with no intention of ever bringing it back.

Naturally, there’s a whole range of techno-thrillers. At the lowest end, there’s the standard nice-but-unrewarding “Big Weapons, Terrorists, Explosions” plots, but it takes more than a few acronyms, nuclear weapons and middle-eastern villains to make a techno-thrillers. Moving out of Sturgeon’s 90%, we get authors like Tom Clancy, Dale Brown, Harold Coyle and Larry Bond, who write impeccable, believable 500-pages novels that read more like romanced histories of future wars than simple potboilers.

Or, should I say, used to write such novels. Clancy has moved on to other things: His three latest novels have been disappointing for a number of reasons, spin-off products are diluting the “Tom Clancy” trademark and his latest fiction has been steadily skewing toward the political rather than the military end of the techno-thriller spectrum. Harold Coyle’s two latest novels have been about the Civil War. Bond and Brown’s latest offerings are markedly duller than their predecessors.

Now here’s Eric L. Harry, with an invigorating novel of nuclear war between post-Cold War USA and Russia.

Arc Light begins with nuclear war. Barely a hundred pages in the novel, the deed is done: a limited nuclear strike has devastated both countries. While no major civilian centers are hit, the military capacity of each country is vitally wounded: one of the book’s subplots follows the ordeal of two servicemen stuck in a nuclear launch silo underneath a blast area. The two governments react differently: Russia toughs it out while the USA impeach their president. (Well… He did contribute somewhat to the war by telling the Chinese that Russia was about to attack them…)

The book goes on from there, topping even a big premise with ever-quirkier plot twists. President Livingstone is judged by the senate, servicemen are called back into service, the USA invades Russia… It all leads to a good techno/military/political thriller. The blurb states that this is the most electrifying debut since Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October and while this hyperbole should be taken with a bucketful of salt, there is at least ground for comparison.

I was especially impressed by the human side of Harry’s novel, which oscillates between maudlin tearjerkers and scenes that just feel right. While the some scenes in the Melissa Chandler subplot are a bit too emotionally cheap, there’s terrific material in the scenes following the soldiers going to war. The variety of the viewpoints is also impressive: Harry doesn’t shy away from covering the action from different perspectives, from strictly military action to top-level political intrigue and espionage hijinks. The characterisation is good enough for the genre: it may not be particularly impressive, but at least it’s there. It helps that even the Russians antagonists are represented with some degree of nuance.

On the flip side, not all subplots are equally interesting and the conclusion is a bit disappointing, in no small part due to the way the author painted himself in a particular corner. A similar situation was handled somewhat better in Joe Weber’s Defcon One.

But overall, I was impressed and I think that most thriller fans will react in the same way. With his debut novel, Harry has already become an author to watch. His second book (Society of the Mind) is in stores now, and it seems to be pushing the techno-thriller genre in another direction, tackling issues about Artificial Intelligence. This type of material coming for a non-Science Fiction writer is always interesting to contemplate: you can be sure that I’ll take a look.

The Legacy of Heorot, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes

Simon & Schuster, 1987, 383 pages, C$17.95 hc, ISBN 0-671-64094-1

Science-Fiction has a love/hate affair with the visual. The lurid covers of SF pulp magazines in the thirties traditionally represented bodacious babes threatened by evil bug-eyed monsters. While these covers probably attracted the most appropriate public for these magazines, it also had the effect of driving away anyone not in this age group. Fortunately, or so it seems, the illustrations have gotten better since these garish times. (Fortunately, bodacious babes still make appearances from time to time, but this time around, they’re the one threatening the bug-eyed monsters.)

Then there is the long and sorry case of SF on television. From “Buck Rogers” to “Babylon-5” there HAS been a certain evolution. But SF-TV would be nothing without the overwhelming influence of its big brother, SF-Cinema.

And therein lies the problem. For, to be quite blunt, most of SF-Cinema is unmitigated crap, produced by illiterate idiots for idiotic illiterates. In the past few months, I have heard two SF authors give up on SF-Cinema. (Robert J. Sawyer, in an interview with Sci-Fi Weekly (http://www.scifiweekly.com/) and Walter Jon Williams, in a Worldcon chat transcript, around the same http) And they’re right! Rare is the good, competent, intelligent SF film that pleases both the eye and the brain. (The most famous example, Star Wars is pleasant for the eyes, comforting in its simplistic story, very competent in sheer movie-making savvy but frustrating for lack of depth.)

Exceptions exist, but by far the most successful SF movies of recent years have been action/SF hybrids, building upon the SF concepts to provide great visuals: “Terminator II”, “Jurassic Park”…

…and “Aliens”, which brings us tortuously to the subject of this review. You see, “Aliens” is one of my favorite movies. Fabulously produced for a pitiful budget of something like 16 million US$, it has set a standard for SF/action flicks that has rarely been excelled since. Its suspense is extreme, the dialogue delightful (Quote heaven!), Sigourney Weaver’s performance exceptional… pile up the adjectives, man, I’m running out of them!

The theme of “Aliens” is known: Bunch’o’marines pitted against ultimate enemy of man. They duke it out.

Surprise, the theme of The Legacy of Heorot is known: Bunch’o’colonists pitted against ultimate enemy of man. They duke it out.

“Aliens”: 1986. The Legacy of Heorot: 1987.

TLoH might or might not be directly inspired by “Aliens”, but it doesn’t really matter. For the book is utterly enjoyable, even for fans of the movie. The action takes place on a planet orbiting Tau Ceti: Avalon is a planet ideal for colonization. No terraforming required. “Samlons” in the rivers, wildlife abound, the planet seems to contain no big surprises, even a few months after the foundation of the colony.

“Seems” is the key word here. For there is something on Avalon that’s ready to attack… That “something” is a “Grendel”… a bear-sized frog able to out-race medal-winning sprinters and eat them up when they catch their tasty human prize. Nasty, nasty critters. As the uncredited “Washington Times” blurb states, ‘makes “Aliens” look like a Disney nature film.’

As it might be expected, the colonists (led by the usual military expert so beloved of Pournelle and Niven) find a way to beat up the Grendel, then his half-dozen compadres in the immediate area. But-

at this point, we’re at mid-book. What is happening, here? In two words, ecological collapse. You see, the Grendels were part of a natural ecosystem designed to keep a certain segment of the wildlife in check…

And there lies the difference between “Aliens” and TLoH. One deals with the consequences of genocide. (Well, call it as you like. And no, I haven’t forgotten than the creatures in “Aliens” weren’t part of the natural ecosystem… Unless you’re one sadistic eco-designer.)

There are the other differences too. The characters in TLoH are sympathetic and more fully realized than their counterparts in “Aliens”. While still not great stuff, (we get the misunderstood and under-appreciated military man Who Cried Wolf, the nerdy guy Who Gets His, the incompetent politician Who Dismissed Military Guy and the usual assortment of competent females) they still felt closer to reality than the marine squad in the movie.

And the style… Niven fans know what to expect. Completely readable from page One to page 383.  I was easily caught up in the action and the minutiae of a brand-new colony. Even though I suspect that Barnes did most of the writing, with the N&P duo providing substantial creative input, it’s a very good read. Even if the finale is somewhat confusing, this is the kind of book they talk about when they’re saying “page-turner”.

As SF, it’s fairly light in concepts. The real strength of the book, like “Aliens”, is in suspense, entertainment and action. That will probably make it unsuitable for the literary crowd, but fine for most of us.

I liked it, can I say anything more? It doesn’t aspire to greatness, but it’s a fine, fine, fine read for summer afternoons…

I’m sorry if the preceding review praises TLoH at the detriment of “Aliens”. Fact is, I would probably choose the movie over the book… if you absolutely have to choose: These two works represent quite well, I feel, the potential strength of SF in both medium, given similar subjects.

And now for the harder question: Why don’t they make more SF movies as satisfying as “Aliens”? Answer next week, kiddos… Don’t forget, marks will be deducted for excessive spelling mistakes, general stupidity and gratuitous use of the three-letter string “ID4”…

Starplex, Robert J. Sawyer

Ace, 1996, 289 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00372-9

My first meeting with Robert J. Sawyer was at Can-Con ’95, when I was hanging around the handout table. Enter RJS, asking “Hey is this the handout table?” Upon being answered in the affirmative, he proceeded to put a few of his own handouts there, then went to the dealer’s room to sign a few books.

At the time, RJS was to me the author of “these dinosaur books”. Still, the guy impressed me. Since his panel was one of the few actually taking place at this point, I decide to see what was that all about.

A month afterward, I had read all Sawyer books. Addicted. Unfortunately, nothing from Sawyer appeared since then… until now.

(In the meantime, a few things happened to Sawyer: The Terminal Experiment won the HOMer, the Aurora and the Nebula. To name a few.)

Starplex was bought full-price the day it appeared in bookstores. Damn the ten-percent discount, I couldn’t wait!

And my, my, my… It was worth the wait. I’ll let the 12-years-old part of my personality review the book for a while:

Gosh, wow! Zonkers! Sawyer RULES, man! I mean, totally incredible! Alien, time-travel, big explosions, space-fights, immortality, gods, end and beginning of the universe, dark-matter creatures, fun physics stuff, holy geezz! I thought my brain would explode and run down my nose! Like this is like very EXCELLENT, D00D! I’d buy copies for all my friends if my parents would give me the money!

Ahem. The reason I like Sawyer’s books is straight from the golden age (12) of SF: THIS is what it must have felt to buy a copy of a magazine with a new Heinlein story. THIS is the good stuff. THIS is the new Golden Age and it’s MY Golden age. My critical faculties go out of the window under the assault of Sawyer’s imagination.

If you don’t know about Sawyer’s books, well IT’S NOT TOO LATE! Starplex is his best yet, combining the original super-concepts with fair plotting and interesting characters. This book is easier to swallow than End of an Era, is more focused than Golden Fleece and doesn’t contain the potentially displeasing theological “edge” that The Terminal Experiment had.

The usual Sawyer “tics” remain: The hero is the same, down to problems with his relationships. The conclusion is also anticlimactic, especially after the wild ride that preceded. The prose is journalistic: Nothing wrong (I don’t mind,) but then again, nothing like -for instance- Dan Simmons.

Oh, and the blurb is as usual hopelessly wrong. (The blurb for The Terminal Experiment didn’t even mention the main plot of the story!) But don’t worry: You’ll get a better book than described.

The designer of Starplex’s cover should be shot, or at the very least very hurt. I don’t think it’s possible to intentionally do a worse cover than this one. (Well, okay, I could, but that’s not my point.)

In short: A treat for Hard-SF fans. Sawyer’s best book yet, and again a strong contender for next year’s awards. Might not necessarily win, but will probably be nominated for just about everything.

Executive Orders, Tom Clancy

Putnam, 1996, 800 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-399-14219-3

[This review contains serious spoilers for Tom Clancy’s previous book, Debt of Honor However, since Executive Orders is a direct sequel to DoH, nothing here isn’t revealed in the jacket blurb to EO]

Reviewing books is difficult. For one thing, the honest critic has to assimilate the object of his review completely. The reviewer must watch the entire movie, listen to the record or read the book without falling asleep or having his attention distracted. Then there is the problem of forming coherent critical opinions about the said work of “art”. Finally, the last step may very well be the most difficult: Fuse all these strands of opinions into a sustained thesis, i.e.: a Review. (If the vocabulary’s confusing to you, don’t worry; it’s meaningless to me too.)

The difficulty arises when the object of the critic’s attention is bland, featureless or just ordinary. Bad things are easy to review: Just get that trusty thesaurus out and let the insults fly. For good measure, style points can be awarded for questioning the intellectual stability of the publisher(s) and gratuitous ad-hominem references to the creator(s) sex life. Boring things are a boon to the reviewer, since s/he can condense his/her review to “Zzzz” and get the paycheck anyway. Good things are embarrassing, since the readers will eventually think you’re paid by someone to talk that way about the review’s subject.

All this has no practical relevance to mega-bestseller Tom Clancy’s latest book except to say that this book is a reviewer’s dream. The story in itself is complex (always a plus when you’re trying to fill up wordage by resuming the plot) and wildly uneven, which lets this particular reviewer use one of his favorite expression. (it being “wildly uneven”, of course!) But beyond the story itself, the book-as-a-physical object is interesting, and beyond that, the theme of the book can open the doors wide open for a gratuitous analysis of the American psyche.

Stay with me, you’ll understand what I mean.

Clancy fans remember that at the end of his last book, Debt of Honor, a 747 crashed in the Capitol, reducing it to rubble, and incidentally killing off most of the US government (This meaning President, Staff, Congress, Senate, Supreme Court, Joint Chief of Staff, FBI and CIA directors, etc…) The occasion being celebrated in this meeting-of-the-honchos was the accession by Clancy’s all-American hero Jack Ryan to the Vice Presidency. Ryan miraculously escapes, and as DoH wraps to a close, he is now president-without-a-government.

This is where bells begin to ring in most reader’s minds.

After all, this isn’t only about Ryan rebuilding the government. This is also about Clancy himself rebuilding the government. Suffice to say that the line between fiction and propaganda in this case is very easy to cross. Many great authors have fallen into this trap, with unpredictable results. (SF fans will shudder, remembering latter-year Asimov and Heinlein efforts)

At the same time, there is the chance for the author to make a few statements about America, and how it should work.

Clancy mostly avoids the propaganda, but succumb to the irresistible lure of Making a Statement.

Executive Orders is a novel about many things, the most central of these being the difficult apprenticeship of John Patrick Ryan, President of the United States. Coming from a humble background, stockbroker-cum-historian-cum-CIA Analyst-cum-occasional Field operative-cum-CIA DDI-cum-National Security Adviser-cum-Vice-President Ryan (Told you he was an all-American hero!) is politically inept. He doesn’t have a clue about how to deal with the media, and his radical policy changes (simplify the tax code, downsize governmental bureaucracy, things like that) aren’t popular inside the beltway. As if the hostile media wasn’t enough, enemies both stateside and external are planning violent acts against the seemingly weak president… Ryan has many friends, but will they be enough?

Enough about the plot: How is the book?

“Overlong” seems a good place to start. This has to be one of the most fluffy novels I’ve seen. Even at 860-odd pages and 9-point typography, there is an enormous amount of detail. The bad guys do not simply built their evil weapon: They assemble it, research its efficiency, put it in place… Clancy and his readers alike relish details but enough is enough! Not all plots threads are equally interesting. Surprisingly, this time the military subplots are the most boring.

In fact, “Overlong” was also the biggest flaw of Clancy’s previous book The Sum of All Fears. (TSoAF) This time around, however, the payoff isn’t even near what TSoAF had to offer. While TSoAF was a slow fuse with a LOUD bang, Executive Orders doesn’t exactly fizzles, but the explosion at the end will let many readers wonder “Was that all?”

Make no mistake, it’s a good book anyway. But it could have been one corker of a thriller if a competent editor would have slashed two hundred pages or so. Oh well… Maybe in a few years, we’ll get a “cut” version.

[Mark my words: This will be the first 10$Can. mass-market paperback.]

[January 1998:  Close; 10.99 $Can.]

This is not a good book for Clancy neophytes: There are too many plot threads that essentially depends on previous books. At the very least, one should read DoH beforehand.

The rest is classic Clancy: Okay characters, okay prose, superb plotting, the old friends are back, lots of details, good action sequences. Fans know what to expect, but they should be warned that it isn’t Clancy’s best effort.

At least, Clancy manages to avoid turning his book into straight propaganda for his favorite political party. This is not to say that Clancy’s right-wing sympathies do not show up (they do, most notably on the subject of abortion and drugs) but they’re held down at an acceptable level. He does succumb to the lure of making a few comments about how the government should work. Nothing too revolutionary, of course: Simplify taxes, give a chance to the average worker, cut the bureaucracy… No flag-burning ideas here.

A sequel is probable but not immediate. And finally, this might be the first time Clancy is accused of subtlety. (See last page)

Okay. The book has been reviewed. My job is completed. You can either go to the next review, or stay a while to hear me blather about the subtext of the book. Fair enough?

[Whistling]

If you’re still hesitating, let it be known that I do not like make statement about subtexts, author’s intentions or “thematic concerns and symbolism.” Those kind of essays are best left to English Lit. Major, who probably don’t have much more of a clue about what it’s all about, but who can conceal this ignorance with better vocabulary.

The reason I dislike doing it is that, frankly, I’m wrong most of the time. The author might not be trying to pass the message I’m perceiving, or is trying to say something I completely missed. Anyway…

[End whistling]

For those who stayed, here are a few more thoughts:

The theme of Executive Orders is fa
scinating. It shows good old America staggering under a heavy blow, but recovering in time to kick some numerically superior enemy butt. Essentially, it’s saying “America may be decadent, but we’re still able to make you do what we want.” I don’t dwell much further into that, except to remark, fascinated, that the basic plot of Executive Orders is uncannily reminiscent of Larry Bond’s The Enemy Within, in which Iran sends terrorists in America to distract the USA from their activities in the Gulf. Hmmm… Also, -but I might be picking at details,- the ultimate resolution of Executive Orders also echoes another Bond story. (“Expert Advice”, in David Copperfield’s Tales of the Impossible.)

Both Executive Orders and TEW, published at a few month’s interval, show that Fortress America is feeling threatened. (Cynics will say that they’re dang straight to be concerned!) It will be interesting to see how this thread evolves, especially when you think that in the next few months, we’ll see the first wave of novels written after Oklahoma City. [December 1996: And now, unfortunately, after the Atlanta bombing.]

It also shows where thriller writers are going for inspiration, now that the Evil Empire is down (even if no particular attention has been given to the off-site backups). the drugs cartels of Columbia are less visible and Saddam himself gets an annual Tomahawk whuppin’: Home is where the action is.

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction, John Clute

Dorling Kindersley, 1995, 312 pages, C$50.00 hc, ISBN 0-7894-0185-1

Chance helps those who help themselves, they say. Or whatever. In this case, patience reward the deserving… or so I like to think.

Explanations: When the SFBC came out with their own edition of the quasi-legendary Encyclopedia of SF at better than half the price of the 90$ volume, I was ecstatic: Having borrowed my university’s copy of the encyclopedia more time than I like to think about, I salivated over the prospect of owning my very own copy of the bible… er… encyclopedia.

Same thing when the Illustrated encyclopedia came out. I spent many minutes in the bookstores, trying more or less spectacularly to keep my drool from dropping on the copies I was shamelessly studying. But the price tag of 50$ had a certain effect on my spending urge. Nevertheless! I vowed to myself: Once upon a time, this book WILL BE MINE! (I’m rotten at verb tense, but the store security people were really impressed by my delivery. They even asked to do an encore performance outside the store. No, really.)

But time dragged on, the effect of Pepsi wore off, the summer job kicked in and the idea faded. Until a certain day when an SFBC notice arrived in the mail, saying something like “Oh, you haven’t bought anything from us in six months. Awww… Here’s a coupon: Buy one of this month’s book and get another free.” Surprise, surprise: The month’s letter contained a flyer hawking the charms of both encyclopedias at 37,95 each. I decided… to sleep on it.

The morning after, it STILL seemed like a good idea. Off went the coupon. Final price? 47,02$ Can. for both books. Tee-hee-hee. That’s right. Both volumes for a bit more that half the cover price of the 1,300 pages encyclopedia. Ahem. Well, I did have to gloat somewhere, didn’t I? Fear nothing; Here’s the reviews:

The 1,300 pages Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction belongs on every serious fan’s reference bookshelf. More than a list of SF authors and bibliographies, it includes critical commentary, movie reviews, coverage of most medias, general themes essays and a lot of non-US material.

It is immensely useful: Even a few months after I’ve received it, I’m still using it regularly to check facts, dates or just for general entertainment.

The biggest flaw is inevitable: Obsolescence. Published in 1992, it’s beginning to (!) show its age. Some major writers of nowadays (Egan, Sawyer, Stephenson, even Straczynski) are absent, or casually dismissed on the basis of a single book.

(The book also contains quite a few errors, I’m told. My edition contains a 16-pages errata appendix, and some of the errors contained there are glaring. Researchers are advised to check there in every case after reading any article: Most major writers have an errata.)

Anyway, this is a bible, and should be treated as such.

The Illustrated encyclopedia of SF is an entirely different book. Do not be fooled by the author’s name (John Clute) because the IEoSF isn’t a subset of the EoSF.

For one thing, this book would have been better titled An Illustrated History of Science-Fiction or somesuch. In addition of settling the confusion between the IEoSF and the EoSF, it would also better describe the scope of the book.

Most of the IEoSF‘s bulk is composed of several retrospectives through SF’s history: Once by decade for themes, once by decade for historical context, once by four “eras” for magazines, one by half-decade for authors, once by decades for major titles and another time by decade for movies. Graphic works and television series are also covered historically, but in a less formal manner.

This book works at several levels. At the lowest, “gee-whiz-what-nice-pictures,” it succeeds pretty well, reproducing great book covers and pictures of the authors. It makes a great coffee-table book for the SF fans in the family. (It also makes a great source for scanning material, but… ahem… I digress…) On another level, it offers many pleasant surprises for the knowledgeable SF fan: Classic books covers, oft-needed author’s portraits (“Hey, that’s Nancy Kress? She’s kinda cute!”), fun 50’s magazine covers. Finally, the commentary that “surrounds” the pictures is worthwhile in itself.

Of course there are flaws. Not every author has a favorable picture of him/her; the covers offered are not always the most aesthetically pleasing. The definitely British origin of the book will jar a few readers’ perceptions. The critical content will probably please no one completely, and we often get an exasperating impression of superficiality from the bite-sized comments. Finally, like the EoSF, this book is firmly fixed in time, which is to say 1994. Although not a big problem yet, it will come…

Purely subjective fannish nit-pick: The mention of “Babylon-5” as being a derivative of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” is indicative of sloppy research and perception from John Clute, but this particular judgment is colored by my intense devotion to the TV series… [In a recent interview with the Webzine Science-Fiction Weekly (www.scifi.com), Clute basically admitted that his opinion has changed since.]

Nevertheless, this is a magnificent book. Even my uncle (far from being an SF fan) spent a good ten minutes just poring through the illustrations in the encyclopedia. Impressive to fans and non-fans alike, it offers what very well may be the most comprehensive historical view of the genre, and thus deserves a place on the bookshelf of even the most casual reader.

Just be sure to get it back once you’ve loaned it.