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Newsletter #50 June - August, 2000

Short Recommendations
by Don Blyly

        Bloom by Will McCarthy ($6.99) is a book that I should have enjoyed more than I did. It is a hard science sf novel full of really neat ideas, and I normally like those a lot. I think the problem was the character who was used to tell the story.
        Years before the story begins, nanotechnology got way out of control on Earth, causing a "bloom" that ate the Earth and everything and everybody on the Earth. There are some humans living in the asteroid belt and under the ice of the moons of Jupiter, but the entire inner solar system has now been consumed by the "Mycosystem". And the remaining humans are sometimes at risk from spores that reach the outer system and try to "bloom", once again eating everything and everybody within reach until the Immunity (as the human colony under Ganymede calls itself) finds the right responses to kill the "bloom". Immunity's head of research has decided to send a manned research ship, equipped with all the latest immune response technology, into the inner system to study the Mycosystem. The ship will be crewed by some of the top researchers, plus a reporter to send articles back to Immunity to keep the public informed and raise public moral. For the reporter, the head of research picks John Strasheim, who works in a shoe factory, but in his spare time writes articles and opinion pieces that he posts on a futuristic version of the internet. The entire novel is told from John's point of view.
        I guess John can give the reader a "common man's" view of things, and he provides the scientists with an excuse to explain highly technical things in a way that John can then pass on to the general public. But I never "bonded" with John as a character, I got irritated when John would sometime explain to the researchers things in their own specialty that they should have figured out instead of John figuring it out first, and I often found his reports to the folks back at home to be disruptive to the flow of the story without doing much to add to the richness of the story.
        I don't want to discourage you from reading the book. The science is well done, the various cultures that develop among the human refugees are interesting, there are some very interesting surprises as the story develops, and overall I enjoyed the book. But I would have enjoyed it much more if the story had been told by a character that I liked better.

        Sean Williams is an Australian writer who has quite a following down under, but none of the books he has written by himself have been reprinted in the U.S. yet. The Prodigal Sun: Evergence ($6.99) is by Sean Williams and Shane Dix (also an Australian), and it is very good. I love science fiction novels with a rich, detailed background, and this certainly counts.
        The human race (with various degrees of modification) have colonized the entire galaxy for about half a million years before this story begins. The human race has fragmented into many castes, which are generally divided into High (those who have transcended mundane affairs, are very long lived, are capable of comprehending the galaxy in it's entirety (usually by spreading their consciousness through numerous electronic devices), and who usually leave mundane humans alone), Low (those who have devolved to an animal-like existence), and mundane (with includes both Pristine and many Exotic human castes). Empires have arisen, prospered for hundreds or thousands of years, and fallen many, many times over the last half a million years.
        Morgan Roche is a field intelligence agent for the Commonwealth of Empires (a democratic association of about 1,000 inhabited star systems), and she is escorting an artificial intelligence (known as "The Box") back to headquarters. Several agents went to the source of the artificial intelligence and then left by different routes to keep any possible spy from know which actually had possession of The Box. She is aboard a frigate taking a fresh load of convicts to the prison planet Sciacca's World when the ship is attacked by a group of warships from the Dato Bloc (the remains of the Ataman Theocracy, an empire that fought two wars with the Commonwealth over the past 800 years, and seems eager for a third war). Morgan, The Box, and a mysterious stranger are the only survivors from the frigate to reach the surface of the prison planet. Once there, they find that the administration of the planet is thoroughly corrupt and helping the Dato Block, and that they are in the middle of a civil war. (The humans who had lived on the planet for many generations before it became a prison planet want their planet back.) They have to deal with the rebels, the goons, the enemy fleet, and get The Box back to Commonwealth intelligence headquarters. There's plenty of edge-of-the-seat excitement in this novel. The book tells a complete story, but the team that Morgan assembled during the course of the book obviously are good for plenty of additional adventures, and I'm looking forward to the second novel [Evergence 2: The Dying Light ($6.99)], which is scheduled to arrive early in July.

        When Terry Pratchett did a drive-by signing in April, we had enough advance warning for everybody who works here to dig through their personal collections and bring in Pratchett books to be signed. When I dug through about 60 cases of books in my basement and pulled Pratchett books off my bookshelves, I found that I had accumulated a few duplicates over the years. I had read about half a dozen Discworld novels over the years, and decided to read the duplicate copies of any titles I hadn't yet read, and then put them out for sale at the store.
        For those who haven't yet discover the Discworld series, let me explain. The Discworld is a circular, fairly flat world that travels through space on the back of four elephants, who stand on top of a giant turtle. The Discworld is filled with magic and one-liners, as well as slightly twisted versions of things that occur elsewhere in the universe. Although there is a vague time-line, each book can be read independently, which is just as well since most of the books seem to be out-of-print most of the time in the U.S. The first three books in the series, The Color of Magic, The Light Fantastic, and Equal Rites have just been issued at a special introductory price of $3.99 by his new U.S. publisher. But since I read those years ago, I won't discuss them here.
        Of the six Discworld books I read this time, the two I enjoyed most were Soul Music ($6.50) and Interesting Times ($5.99), although I enjoyed all six book.
        There are two primary plot lines in Soul Music. First, Death stops doing his job, so his granddaughter Susan must sneak away from the very prim Quirm College for Young Ladies and do his job for him. Second, the spirit of Rock & Roll tries to invade the Discworld by taking over a young bard whose name would roughly translate as Bud Holly. I suspect I missed a few of the jokes due to Pratchett's knowledge of the early days of rock and roll exceeding my knowledge, but it was still great fun.
        In Interesting Times, Cohen the Barbarian leads his Silver Horde (six geriatric barbarian heroes, each with at least 70 year experience at not being killed in battle) in an attempt to conquer the Discworld's equivalent to ancient China. The very lucky but magically-challenged wizard Rincewind and his man-eating Luggage are also sent by the Unseen University to the equivalent of ancient China, where the five chief warlords (Hong, Sung, Fang, Tang, and McSweeney) are waiting for the old emperor to die, so that they can fight to see who will succeed him. Waiting for Rincewind is the oh-so-polite Red Army, full of slogans like "Regrettable Decease Without Undue Suffering To The Forces Of Oppression!"
        The Discworld series has made Pratchett the best-selling living author in England (I didn't ask him which dead authors are out-performing him), and I've enjoyed every Discworld novel I've read. But after six in a row, I had overdosed on fluff and had to switch to something with more substance.

        Prometheus Books is a publisher that does overwhelmingly non-fiction, so I was very surprised when they sent me a couple of books. The first, Galactic Rapture by Tom Flynn ($19.95, trade paperback), is probably the first science fiction novel they've published, so I approached it with caution. I was very pleasantly surprised.
        Over 40,000 years ago some unknown group came to Earth and took away samples of humans, tinkered slightly with their DNA, planted colonies on thousands of planets across the galaxy, and then disappeared. A small percentage of these colonies became advanced enough to form the Galactic Confetory, but most planets are quarantined by law from all contact with the galactic civilization--until they develop something on their own that the Galactic Confetory wants badly enough to allow them to join. In 2344, Earth is the most backward planet ever to be admitted, but Earth had two lucrative exports.
        One lucrative export is religion, which has an enormous appeal to the Galactics. The Roman Catholic Church became so successful at exploiting this interest that they were able to buy a planet of their own, called Vatican, and changed their name to the Universal Catholic Church. Once the Pope introduced (over the strenuous opposition of the Jesuit) the theology of "serial reincarnation", the money really rolled in. The idea is that God at some time sends his son to each of the planets with a human colony, and for a huge amount of money Vatican will reveal which person (historical or still living) was the reincarnation of Jesus on a particular planet. The wealthy elite of each planet has a vested interest in who gets picked as Jesus for their planet, not only because of the teachings of a prospective candidate, but also because of the real estate deals, theme park opportunities, etc. associated with each candidate. So many church officials on Vatican have their hands out for bribes that its said that every day is Palm Sunday on Vatican. At the beginning of the book, a Mormon tridee-evangalist has decided to compete for the Galactic cash.
        The other lucrative export is "senso" technology. A "Spectator" is a human filled with bio-implants that allow everything he/she sees, tastes, hears, feels, etc., to be broadcast to a satellite. Then, an editor creates a "senso" which is distributed to the masses, so that anybody can experience what the Spectator experienced. Spectators are almost always Earth humans (without the color blindness or other sensory gaps created by the genetic tinkering done by whoever set up all the human colonies), and the most popular sensos are of Spectators on quarantined planets, so that the jaded Galactics can experience the violent lifestyles of uncivilized humans.
        When I first looked at the book, I was afraid it might all be poking fun at corrupt church con artists. It turned out to be about 80% action, which grabs the reader right away and makes the book hard to put down, about 10% poking fun at corrupt church con artists, and about 10% serious consideration of legitimate ethical issues. Highly recommended.
        The author will be signing at Uncle Hugo's on Saturday, July 29, 1 to 2 pm.

        The other book Prometheus Books sent was Pioneers of Wonder: Conversations with the Founders of Science Fiction by Eric Leif Davin ($24.95). Roughly the first 300 pages of the book is about the science fiction pulps in the 1920s and 1930s, with about one third of the content being text from Davin giving historical background and perspective for the other two thirds, which is interviews with and about key people from the period. I found this portion of the book absolutely fascinating, and was especially pleased with how well Davin gave a "sense of place and time" for these people creating a new field a literature, mostly during the Great Depression. The rest of the book covered the transition of science fiction to the movies and earlier efforts to create a history of science fiction. I found the last few chapters less interesting than the first 300 pages, but other people might find them more interesting.
        If you're only interested in reading sf, you probably will not be interested in this book. If, like me, you are also interested in the history and personalities of the field, I recommend this book to you.

        I enjoyed Martha Well's Death of the Necromancer ($6.99) very much, so I was delighted when an advance reading copy arrived of her next book, Wheel of the Infinite ($24.00, due early July).
        In the Celestial Empire (which felt to me a lot like ancient India), the priests must remake the Wheel of the Infinite every year, and every 100 years they must take special care in remaking the Wheel, because they believe the Wheel controls reality. In fact, long ago they learned shortly before they remade the Wheel that an invasion fleet was headed towards them, so they remade the Wheel without the strait that the fleet would have to come through. The world was in fact remade without the strait, and the invasion fleet never arrived.
        Key members of the priesthood are the Voices of the ancestors. Certain ancestors are so strong and so concerned about their former world that they pass along information through their Voices to the land of the living, and because these ancestors were once alive they understand enough about humans to be able to communicate clearly. But the ancestors realized that they alone were not strong enough to protect their former world, so they created the Adversary to serve justice and protect the world. The Voice of the Adversary has powerful magic to carry out those functions, but since the Adversary was never human, the communications to The Voice are often hard to understand.
        Maskelle was once the Voice of the Adversary, but took extreme actions based on a misunderstanding of a message from the Adversary, resulting in her exile from the Empire. But something is going seriously wrong with the 100 year remaking of the Wheel, so serious that she is called back to the Empire. None of the other Voices can figure out what is wrong or how to solve the problem, so they hope that the Adversary will once again speak through Maskelle. There are two groups out to get Maskelle, the ordinary humans who want revenge for her actions that resulted in her exile, and the group that is using alien magic to twist the remaking to their own mysterious ends.
        The story, the characters, and the exotic setting grabbed me immediately and kept me interested all the way through the book. It was only after I finished the book that I realized that I wasn't quite as impressed as I was by The Death of the Necromancer. Still, it was very good.

        The Glasswright's Apprentice ($6.99, due early July) is the first published novel from Mindy L. Klasky, a graduate of Edina High School who went on to become an East Coast lawyer. (Author signing at Uncle Hugo's Saturday, August 5, 1 to 2 pm).
        In a kingdom with a rigid class structure, thirteen-year-old Rani Trader is unusual--her merchant family has sacrificed almost everything to buy her an apprenticeship in the Glasswrights' Guild. But when she witnesses the murder of the Crown Prince in the cathedral, people believe that she was part of the conspiracy that killed him. She must hide from the authorities, survive by her wits, and try to find out what really happened. In the process, she shows the reader the various classes within her society. A lot of people die or have other gruesome things happen to them in this book, which is probably why it is marketed as an adult novel rather than a young adult novel. With the help of one of the secret societies, she manages to find out which other secret society was behind the murder and why. In order to advance the plot, Rani flips back and forth between naive and shrewd a bit too much for my taste, but this is an enjoyable first novel.

        Robert T. Sawyer is one of the top "hard science" writers in the field, and I've read and enjoyed most of his books. His latest, Calculating God ($23.95), is full of interesting ideas, but the story line does not flow as well as in most of his novels.
        The opening is wonderful. An alien space ship lands in a parking lot near the Royal Ontario Museum. "Rather than being covered with robot puke, like just about every spaceship in every movie since Star Wars, the landing craft's hull was completely smooth." An alien that looks like a giant spider gets out, walks into the museum, and says to the security guard
in perfect English, "Excuse me. I would like to see a paleontologist."
        "What kind of paleontologist?' deadpans the security guard.
        "A pleasant one, I suppose."
        "I mean, do you want an invertibrate or a vertibrate?"
        "Are not all of your paleontologists human?" [I've substantially condensed this scene for the review--the full scene is much better.]
        The spider-like aliens are Forhilnors, and a ship full of them have been exploring a number of star systems looking for intelligent life. They've found one other living intelligent race (the Wreeds) before they reached Earth, and brought some of them along for the trip. They also found several planets that had clear evidence of intelligent life, but the inhabitants seemed to have just gone away mysteriously. They want to compare Earth's fossil records to their own and the fossil records of the Wreeds' home world. The Forhilnors firmly believe that God created the universe, and the purpose of scientists is to study and quantify how God did this. When the atheist human paleontologist comments that we've determined that the universe is around 12 billion years old, the Forhilnor named Hollus assures him that it is actually 13.93422 billion Earth years old. The Wreeds also firmly believe that God created the universe, but they never developed mathematics, and their thought processes are so different from both the Forhilnors and the humans that they don't really play a major role in most of the book.
        It seems that the major near-extinction events in Earth's history occurred at the same time as similar events on the Forhilnor and Wreed home planets, in each case wiping out most life forms but changing things in such a way as to encourage the development of intelligent life. This, plus many other scientific puzzles (such as what happened to the missing intelligent races, and why), are explored and solved by the end of the book.
        Unfortunately, there is so much lecturing in this book, mostly from Hollus to Dr. Jericho, the human paleontologist, that the book actually seemed to "lighten up" when the plot shifted to Dr. Jericho's terminal lung cancer--it was a pleasant break from another of Hollus' lectures on God and science, while Dr. Jericho tries to defend his own very different views.
        I felt the book was very much worth reading, but Sawyer is usually better with the pacing of his novels.

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