November 22


Archived Newsletter Content


Newsletter #41 March - May, 1998

Short Recommendations
by Don Blyly

        Peter Hamilton is becoming one of my favorite science fiction authors. He has two series going. Mindstar Rising ($6.99, highly recommended here last year) starts a trilogy set in the middle of next century in England after global warming has melted the ice at both poles, raising the oceans significantly and creating enormous political and economic upheaval. Greg Mandel, an ex-commando with psychic abilities, works as a private eye in this trilogy. The second in the series, Quantum Murder ($24.95 for U.S. hardcover), takes place a couple of years later, and I found it much slower and somewhat less interesting than the first. I finally got around to reading a British copy of the third, The Nano Flower ($25.95 for U.S. hardcover), which takes place 17 years after the first of the series. It is far better than the second, and you can safely skip the second book if you'd like. At the beginning of the book, Greg has been retired from the private eye business for 15 years, raising a family and running an orchard in the meantime. But Julie Evans, richest woman in the world and his client in both of the first two books, needs him. Her eccentric hacker husband Royan, who is also one of Greg's oldest friends, has been missing for months, and he is a good enough hacker to cover his tracks very well. Now, there is a story of new technology far in advance of anything that any Earth researcher is working on, and many huge multinationals are determined to get ahold of that technology, with no regard for how many people they have to kill with their private armies. When Royan sends Julie a flower with DNA clearly of extraterrestrial origin, things get really interesting. Greg tries to solve several mysteries at once, the body count rises rapidly as one of the multinationals sends a "hardliner" team commanded by a psycho killer to stop Greg, and it all leads to a strange and frightening form of first contact.
        His other series, which is even better, begins with The Reality Dysfunction (published in England as one very fat book, but split into two books at $5.99 each in the U.S., very highly recommended here last year). This series is set centuries in the future, with the human race rapidly spreading colonies through the stars, and occasionally encountering other intelligent races, or the remains of other extinct races. The human race has split into two segments, the Edenists (who use biological technology--bitek--to create living starships and living space colonies around gas giants, and are telepathically linked to these starships and colonies) and the Adamists (who for religious reasons are opposed to messing with DNA, and try to use physics and chemistry to keep up with the accomplishments of the Edenists). In The Reality Dysfunction, there is an invasion of human space that involves human bodies being Possessed by new personalities, but it is unclear to the non-Possessed whether this is some form of alien invasion, a new secret weapon of one human government that got out of hand, or if human dead are really coming back from beyond to take over the bodies of the living.
        The second installment, The Neutronium Alchemist (again, published in England as one very fat book, but split into two books at $6.50 each, coming in early March and early April), makes it clear what is happening, but not how or why. The dead are definitely taking over the bodies of the living, but the ones we saw in The Reality Dysfunction were the most desperate and ruthless of the dead. As many millions more come back, many of them don't want to follow the game plan of the ruthless few who started the invasion. Some are confused, some feel guilty about stealing somebody else's body, and a few are determined to use their stolen bodies to fight the invasion. One of the main characters in this book is Al Capone, who is determined to run things his way instead of following orders from anybody else. He soon is running an entire planet and has big expansion plans.
        One of the intelligent races that the humans had been dealing with informs the humans that all intelligent races eventually have to face this problem, but that the humans will be too dangerous to be around until they either solve the problem or kill themselves off, so goodbye and lots of luck. Another of the races continues to observe the humans but won't reveal anything useful about dealing with the problem.
        Both the Edenists and the Adamists are troubled both militarily and philosophically by the return of the Possessed. The Edenists had written off religion as a primitive old superstition that they no longer needed, since when an Edenist dies, his memories and personality are simply loaded into the memory banks of his living space colony, where he lives on and visits with living family members and others who pre-deceased him for as long as he wishes. The Adamists thought they knew all about the afterlife, but the return of the Possessed seems to indicate that their religious teachings are wrong.
        There is plenty of action, and plenty of thought-provoking ideas in this series. Unfortunately, I now have to wait until next year for the conclusion of the series.

        I have a strong prejudice in favor of novels over short stories. Normally, when I read a good short story collection, I think several times during the book, "Hey, that was a good story. Too bad the author didn't care enough about it to expand it into a novel." I was so impressed with Allen Steele's Kings of Infinite Space ($23.00, recommended last issue) that I decided to give one of his short story collections a try. All-American Alien Boy ($5.99) surprised me because I not only enjoyed the stories, but they all seemed just the right length to satisfy. My favorite was Hunting Wabbit, about an author who decides that if an asteroid is about to wipe out life on Earth, he'll first deal with an unethical reviewer who only slams books. I still prefer novels over short stories, including Steele's novels over his short stories, but this is a fun collection of well-crafted short stories.

        As long as I was reading short stories, I picked up Year's Best SF edited by David G. Hartwell ($5.50) and found most of the stories very enjoyable. I don't read enough short stories to be able to tell if these really were the best of the year, but the collection was certainly worth reading. I then picked up a copy of Nanodreams edited by Elton Elliott, which has already gone out of print. This is supposed to be a collection of essays and stories about nanotechnology, and there are some rather pompous comments that suggest that any sf author who isn't writing about nanotechnology is wasting his time and his readers' time. Several of the stories are not about nanotechnology (as the term is defined in the essays), and I strongly believe that a writer who writes any story that is enjoyed by a large number of readers is not wasting either his time or his readers' time. In spite of these disagreements with the editorial tone of the book, I enjoyed the book a great deal. This is actually a collection of fine stories and thought-provoking essays on the impact of technological change (sometimes nanotech, sometimes biological tech, sometimes computer advancements) on human society. We rarely see this book come back used, but it is worth searching for.

        Richard Paul Russo's Carlucci's Heart ($6.50) is the third in his series about Lt. Frank Carlucci, a homicide detective in a gritty future San Francisco which makes me think of a future where Newt Gringrich got everything he wanted through Congress--no social safety nets, high tech for those who can afford it, and enormous differences between the very rich and the very poor, with very few middle class.. The first, Destroying Angel, is long out of print and hard to find used, so it's fortunate that each novel can be read on its own. The second, Carlucci's Edge ($5.99), was a Philip K. Dick Award-winner.
        Carlucci's older daughter goes to visit a friend with AIDS at the Sisters of the Forgotten death house, but discovers that he has been kidnapped by men from a mysterious secret group called Cancer Cell, which is rumored to be engaged in unauthorized medical experimentation. Normally, the police wouldn't even bother to investigate such a crime--the guy was dying anyway, and it happened in the worst part of town. But Frank puts out a few feelers as a favor to his daughter, and finds that very few people know anything about Cancer Cell, and the few who do know aren't talking. He gets a tip on one person who might know something, but all she tells him is that when lots of people start dying she will perhaps be willing to talk about Cancer Cell. Shortly after he talks to her, she is murdered and is found with "CC" carved on her forehead.
        The missing guy with AIDS shows up, dies very messily of something other than AIDS, and soon lots of people start dying very messily (vomiting lots of blood, among other things). The Center for Disease Control gets involved, but mainly to hush things up and spread mis-information. When Frank continues to dig, somebody infects his younger daughter with the new disease. The story moves swiftly, vividly, and depressingly along, and Frank eventually puts all the pieces together. This is a well-written book, but you might need a strong stomach to get through it.

        I've enjoyed everything I've read by Pat Murphy, especially her Nebula Award-winning The Falling Woman ($9.95), but it took me quite a while to get around to reading her latest, Nadya ($6.99). I made the mistake of thinking that a werewolf novel would be a horror novel, and I don't read many horror novels. But these werewolves simply turn into ordinary wolves one night per month and have the sense to avoid humans while in wolf -form. There's no superhuman strength or silver bullet nonsense about these werewolves.
        Nadya's father was a werewolf who had fled Poland in the early 1800s after the rest of his family was killed, becoming a trapper in the American West. In 1826 in St. Louis he met Nadya's mother, a werewolf who had fled France. They settled a small farm in the Ozarks, far from other European settlers, and had Nadya. But as Nadya entered her teens, even the Ozarks were starting to become crowded with settlers and dangerous for werewolves. The family decides to head farther west, but Nadya finally has to make the trip on her own. The novel becomes a somewhat graphic bi-sexual coming-of- age story for Nadya as she heads for California in the 1840s. I recommend this book for adult readers, but would be hesitant to pass it along to younger teenagers.

        I went on a mini-binge of reading alternate history novels. I read a couple of recent alternate histories by a couple of well-known authors, and was disappointed in both, so I won't discuss them here. I then picked up Mike Moscoe's first novel, First Dawn ($5.99), the first of a trilogy called The Lost Millennium. In the near future, a third world dictator searching for a biological weapon manages to produce and let loose a new plague that is clearly going to exterminate the entire human race. Some scientists in the U.S. have developed a very experimental time machine, and two military officers (one male, one female) are sent back in time 6000 years to teach the peaceful, matriarchal, goddess-worshiping society in the Danube River area to defend themselves from a wave of horse-barbarians invading from Central Asia. It is hoped that stopping this invasion will give the Danube River society time to become advanced enough to resist all the future waves of invading horse-barbarians from Central Asia, and thus change history enough to prevent any more third world dictators from wanting to develop biological weapons 6000 years later. This premise didn't seem well thought-out, but the writing was adequate, I only felt like throwing the book at the wall once, and I ended up enjoying the book more than the two books I had just read by well-known authors. Mike stopped through town to do a signing a few weeks ago, and said that he learned so much while writing the first book that the other two (Second Fire and Lost Days, $5.99 each) are much better. I haven't had a chance to find out yet. We have signed copies of Second Fire and Lost Days left from the signing.

        A year ago I recommended The Skystone ($6.99) by Canadian author Jack Whyte, the first of a series that present a historically plausible, non-magical explanation for the King Arthur legend. I finally got around to reading the second, The Singing Sword ($6.99), which continues the story of the worsening troubles in Britain as the Roman Empire continues to have problems everywhere. This novel follows the same main characters as the first novel, and ends shortly after the births of Arthur (Uther Pendragon) and Merlin (Caius Merlyn Britannicus). I found that the writing was much better and more thought-provoking than at least 80% of the books I've read in the past year. The third of the series, The Eagle's Brood, is available as a $25.95 signed hardcover, and will be out as a $6.99 paperback in early May, and The Saxon Shore will be coming out in hardcover at $26.95 around the same time.

        More Than Honor edited by David Weber ($5.99) is a collection of three novella set in Weber's Honor Harrington universe. Weber gives us the story of the first contact between the newly-arrived human settlers of Sphinx and the native sentient treecats, which involves some of Honor Harrington's ancestors. David Drake gives us a story of an early conflict between the Royal Maticoran Navy and the Expansion Navy of the People's Republic of Haven. S.M. Stirling delivers a revolutionary tale from the People's Republic of Haven, and shows that he is bettter at writing in Weber's style than Drake is. All the stories are enjoyable, but not as enjoyable as another Honor Harrington novel would have been.

        Back when Harry Turtledove was a graduate student, he published a couple of heroic fantasy novels (Werenight and Wereblood) under the pseudonym Eric Iverson. A decade and a half later, he did some re-writing and put them back out under his own name as a single novel, Werenight ($4.99). He later did a couple of new novels in the series, Prince of the North ($5.99) and King of the North ($5.99), which were a little smoother than Werenight, but were still quick, light heroic fantasies. The latest book in the series, Fox and Empire ($6.99), continues the story of Gerin the Fox in the Northlands, but seemed much better written than the earlier books in the series. The characters seemed more three dimensional, the plot more complex, and the story more vivid. While I would have been happy to recommend the earlier books to somebody who had run out of Conan books to read, I'd now be willing to recommend the series to a reader looking for a higher-level fantasy series.

        Greg Bear's Dinosaur Summer ($23.00) could have been packaged as a young adult novel since the story is told from the viewpoint of a teenage boy, but it was instead marketed as an adult novel. I'm glad it was, because I probably would not have made the time to read it if I had thought it was a young adult novel.
        Dinosaur Summer is set in the world of Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World. Professor Challenger found living dinosaurs on the high plateau of El Grande in Venezuela in 1912. This led to both big game hunting for trophies and to the capture of dinosaurs for circuses, zoos and museums--until the government of Venezuela stopped all expeditions from going to El Grande. For a while, everybody went dinosaur crazy, but then the fad faded.
        The story begins in 1947. The last dinosaur circus is going to give a final performance, and then (according to the public story) the dinosaurs will be retired to Florida. In fact, the National Geographic Society has pulled some strings and will help return the last few dinosaurs to the plateau in Venezuela. Peter's father, Anthony, is a free-lance writer and photographer who has been hired to cover the story for National Geographic. Anthony tells Peter the public version and takes him along for the summer, so Peter won't have a chance to tell his mother (divorced years before) and give her a chance to interfer with Anthony's plan to give his bookish son a big adventure.
        Anthony isn't the only one covering the return of the dinosaurs. The producers of King Kong have decided to make a documentary about the expedition, and they send Willis O'Brien (who handled special effects for King Kong) and a young filmmaker named Ray Harryhausen to handle the filming.
        To make Peter feel like he is part of the expedition, Anthony insists that he keep a journal of his experiences. Soon, the chief animal handler for the circus (who will be in charge of the dinosaurs until they are released on El Grande, and takes his job very seriously) makes Peter his apprentice--teaching him about feeding and cleaning the dinosaurs, as well as the joys of cleaning the cages of such large critters. Peter also soon becomes close friends with Ray Harryhausen and learns of his dreams of making stop-motion movies about mythological beings.
        Things go fairly smoothly until the freighter full of dinos reaches Venezuela, but then all kinds of troubles arise. The army is feuding with the president, with civil war threatening to break out at any moment--so the fact that the expedition has been approved by the government in Caracas doesn't carry much wait with the local military commander. The area Indians have long considered El Grande a sacred site, and new Indian leaders arise after spending time on El Grande. The local military wants to keep everybody off El Grande, but especially the Indians who have been hired to help transport the dinosaur home. Of course, when the expedition finally reaches El Grande, all sorts of things go wrong and five members of the expedition are trapped on El Grande without adequate supplies, surrounded by critters that want to eat them.
        The book is made even more enjoyable by the large number of full color and black-and-white illustrations. The novel works quite well as an adult novel, but would probably be even more fun for a young adult to read.

        Robin Hobb's The Ship of Magic ($23.95) is the first of The Liveship Traders Trilogy. It is set on the same world as The Farseer Trilogy, but can be read independently of the earlier series.
        The Farseer Trilogy was set in the Six Duchies, towards the north of the continent. Far to the south is Bingtown, home of the Bingtown Traders, who sail ships made of wizardwood and trade in magical items that come from the area up the Rain Wild River. The magic is so powerful that no ordinary ship can survive sailing up the Rain Wild River, and those who search for the magical items are twisted by the magic.
        But a ship made of wizardwood can do many things that an ordinary ship cannot do. It can learn things from its captain, especially if the captain dies aboard the ship. If three generations of captains of the same family die aboard the ship, it comes to life. A Liveship can use the wind and avoid underwater hazards beyond the capability of any ordinary ship. But wizardwood comes from the Rain Wild area, and it is very expensive. To purchase enough wizardwood to build a ship, a family will go into debt for many generations. And a member of the family must sail on the liveship, or it starts to go crazy.
        Old Captain Vestrit is the third generation of Vestrits to sail the Vivacia, and he had hoped to pay off the ship before dying, bring the ship to life at his death, and pass it along to his daughter Althea, who has practically grown up aboard the ship and has bonded with the ship. But sickness catches up with him sooner than expected, and Althea isn't experienced enough yet to take command. So he passes control to the conniving son-in-law who married Althea's older sister. Things start going badly as soon as the new captain takes the ship for his first trip, but after the old captain dies and the new captain feels that he now has an iron grip on all the Vestrit resources, things really go to hell. He throws Althea off the ship, forces his own son to leave the priesthood, keeps his son prisoner on board the ship, and converts the ship from a trading ship to a slaver. But the new captain doesn't really understand all the differences between a Liveship and an ordinary ship, nor does he know about many dark secrets that the Bingtown Traders have kept secret from outsiders many for generations. And he is too arrogant to realize how dangerous is his ignorance. Althea is determined to take the ship back.
        Meanwhile, a ruthless pirate captain has decided that he want to become king of the pirates, and that he will have to capture a Liveship (heretofore thought impossible) in order to achieve his goal.
        I enjoyed Ship of Magic more than I enjoyed the Farseer series, and I enjoyed the Farseer series very much.
        [There was a very interesting interview with Robin Hobb in the January, 1998 issue of Locus ($4.95), in which she discusses both trilogies, her approach to her characters, and many other things.]
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