November 22


Archived Newsletter Content


Newsletter #54 June - August, 2001

Short Recommendations
by Don Blyly

        Over a year ago I strongly recommended Heroes Die by Matthew Stover ($6.99), set on a future Earth with a rigid caste system. A method had been developed to send people from Earth to an alternate world (Overworld) where magic works, gods meddle in everyday affairs, elves and other non-human sentient races live alongside Overworld's humans (though not always peacefully), and things tend to be more interesting and violent than on Earth. Hari Michaelson had struggled from low caste (Laborer caste due to his professor father running afoul of the Social Police) to become an Actor through the patronage of a member of the Businessman caste. As an Actor, he had hardware wired into his brain so that he could broadcast his adventures live from the alternate world. As Caine, he became the most popular Actor in history, making himself and his patron rich. For a long time, he was willing, even eager, to commit as much violence as possible in order to keep his ratings high. But when the plot called for the death of somebody very close to him, he set out against impossible odds to save her.
        The sequel, Blade of Tyshalle ($16.00) is even more impressive. The story begins when Hari is struggling to get through the Studio Conservatory so that he can become an Actor. We get to see Hari at a much younger age than in Heroes Die and learn more about what drives him, as well as getting a better view of how both the caste system and the Studio system work. After about 50 pages of this background material, the story jumps ahead to about six years after the end of Heroes Die. Due to a sword thrust that severed his lower spinal cord at the end of Heroes Die, he can no longer return to Overworld as an Actor. He has received a medical device that is supposed to by-pass his severed spinal cord, and sometimes it actually works properly, but his wheelchair follows him everywhere because the by-pass fails so often. He has been made into the Administrator (higher caste than Actor) of the Studio. Both he and the higher powers believe he has been successfully bought by this promotion. He believes that the sword thrust that severed his spine killed Caine, and he hate everything about his life as Hari.
        The higher powers decide that the Studio approach isn't making enough money for them, so they decide to use biological warfare to wipe out all the sentient races of Overworld and then grab the entire planet for themselves. When Hari starts to figure out what has begun to happen he gets angry but continues to feel helpless. But when his wife is sent to Overworld to die and their young daughter is taken from him, we start to see that Caine isn't quite as dead as Hari and everybody else had believed.
        This novel operates on several levels. There is a lot of graphic violence. (People will be having deep philosophical discussions, and then Caine will be busting bones a couple of pages later-even though he can't stand up-he's a mean bastard when he gets riled up.) The plot is much more complex than in Heroes Die. And a mythology is created and then acted out in the novel. You'll get a quote that reads like an excerpt from Joseph Campbell, or perhaps from Hari's professor father's ground-breaking book on the history and mythology of the elves of Overworld, followed by a chapter of the current story. This technique shows the characters both as arch-types performing mythological roles to achieve global goals and as ordinary people dealing with the problems they encounter as best they can to achieve personal goals. There is also the interesting question: Is Caine a persona that Hari puts on to deal with the violent dangers of Overworld, or has Hari become a persona that Caine puts on to deal with the very different but equally dangerous perils of Earth.

        The Curse of Chalion ($25.00, due early August, signing Saturday, August 4) is Lois McMaster Bujold's second fantasy novel. While Spirit Ring ($6.99) was set in a slightly twisted medieval Italy, The Curse of Chalion seems to be based an a much more twisted version of medieval Spain, but is clearly not connected to Spirit Ring in any way.
        Cazaril had been a soldier for Chalion, but through treachery was sold into slavery. He escaped, but as a broken man. He returned to the household where he had served in his youth, hoping to beg for menial labor. But the gods have plans for him, and he becomes secretary-tutor to the strong-willed young lady who is sister to the heir to the throne. Her mother had brought both the heir and his sister to household at Valenda to shelter them from the intrigues and corruption of the royal court at Cardegass. But when the heir and his sister are commanded to return to the royal court, Cazaril is forced to go along. His life is in danger from those who arranged his downfall, and he seems to be the only man willing to try to save the heir and his sister from the many dangers at court, both political and magical.
        While the book is very good, it was strange to see so little humor in this book, especially compared to the Miles Vorkosigan books. Only in the last couple of chapter, after all of the bad guys had been dealt with, does Lois' sense of humor make a strong appearance.
        (For those who are eagerly awaiting the next Miles book: Lois says she is working on the next one, which will most likely come out in the second half of 2002.)

        I received a call from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, which primarily publishes Southern and literary fiction. They had purchased a novel from a literary author (Hugh Nissenson, whose previous novel had been a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award) which was a literary science fiction novel. They are very good at marketing the kinds of books they normally publish, but they didn't know how to market to the science fiction community. I tried to help them out with suggestions, names and addresses. They sent along a couple of advance reading copies of the novel, The Song of the Earth ($24.95), which is the story of the first genetically engineered artist, born in 2038.
        I approach science fiction novels by literary authors very cautiously, because usually literary authors don't understand how to communicate with science fiction readers. In this case, the novel is filled with art work created by the author that is supposed to be art work created by the genetically engineered artist in the novel. I briefly flipped through, looking at the art, and I was not very impressed, so I passed a copy of the book along to residence artist Ken Fletcher for his opinion. After a couple of chapters he started making such positive noises that I grabbed the other copy and started reading. I was hooked. The author truly understands science fiction, and tells a compelling story. The art that I was not impressed with when flipping through the book worked very well in the context of a young artist trying to expand his skills by constantly trying new techniques.
        This is a "biography" of the artist, after his death, taken from journal articles, interviews, e-mails, etc., but it is much more than that. Before his birth, global warming had gotten much worse, with dust bowl conditions in much of the midwestern U.S. for decades, and people have responded to the desperate conditions in assorted desperate ways. Those who can afford it live in "Keeps", domed communities that maintain comfortable temperatures year round and keep out the dust and the "wrinklies"--those who have to survive in the unfiltered natural environment. Gender warfare had become world-wide, and the artist's mother was an active member of the Gynarchist movement (but she decided to have a genetically engineered son, even though she knew it would end her lesbian partnership). A coalition of fundamentalist Mormons, muslims, and some Jews tried to get polygamy legalized in the U.S., using both campaign contributions and terrorism against Gynarchists as tactics. Gaia worship became popular, and the young gay artist was very active in that cult for a significant part of the book, complete with the sexual modifications required at the higher levels of the cult. The author skillfully introduces lots of background material and lots of issues without ever slowing down the story he is telling. Because of all the issues raised in The Song of the Earth about social attitudes, gender roles, and ecological concerns, I expect it will become popular with reading groups and college classes, and I can strongly recommend it for adult readers.

        Winter's Heart by Robert Jordan ($29.95) is the ninth book in the Wheel of Time series. Remember how in the eighth book, everybody kept saying, "I wonder where Mat is?' About a third of Winter's Heart involves where Mat has been, what he has been doing, and his various ideas on how to escape. Remember how the plot didn't seem to advance much in the eighth book? The ninth book is much better at advancing the plot. Something major happens at the very end of the ninth book. In another year and a half or maybe two years, we'll get to read about the repercussions of this major event. I envy the people who will someday be able to read the entire series as fast as they can turn the pages, instead of waiting years between installments.
        License Invoked by Robert Asprin and Jody Lynn Nye ($6.99) is a fun, light cross-over novel. Celtic-rock singer Fionna Kenmare has reported that she has been the subject of magical attacks. The first agent the Brits sent to investigate her claims ended up wandering the streets of Dublin, apparently crazy. Now, Fionna and her band are going to do a tour of the U.S., and the Brits are sending along Liz Mayfield, special agent for OOPSI (Office of Occult & Paranormal Sightings Investigation). The U.S. government has to have an agent involved, to watch over Fionna and the Brit agent, so the FBI sends in Beauray Boudreau ("Boo-Boo"). Both governments suspect it's all a rock-star publicity stunt, but Liz and Boo-Boo soon find out that the magical attacks are real and powerful. Most of the book is set in New Orleans, but small parts are in the Northwest, at cable station SATN-TV, where they have black magic telethons and programs like "Hate Your Neighbor".
        The authors seemed confused about how much they were going to rely on humor and how much on action to move the story along, and action seemed to win most of the time. Jokes seemed to be set up, and then forgotten before the punch line could be delivered. Still, I enjoyed it.

        Hammerfall by C. J. Cherryh ($25.00, due early July) is the first volume of The Gene Wars, but tells a complete story. Generations before the beginning of the novel, two interstellar empires used nanotechnology weapons against each other. The Ila was a warrior on one side, but instead of completing her mission she set up a colony on a desert planet behind the enemy's lines. She used nanotech tools to keep herself young, while the colonists live short, hard lives, and they are supposed to worship her as the voice of God. After many generations of this, many of the colonists (who are ignorant of the true history of the situation) are in rebellion against her. Then, others come from off-planet with more modern nano-tools to bring drastic changes to the planet.
        Much of the book is actually about desert survival, but it is compellingly written. The entire population must be gathered and moved across a huge desert while the planet is being pounded by asteroids, and many of them survive the ordeal.
        While I enjoyed the book, the packaging really bothers me. The advance reading copy I read proclaims on the front cover "Introducing the first new C. J. Cherryh universe in three decades!" As soon as I saw that, I picked up a copy of Rider at the Gate ($6.50) and saw on the back cover "A new universe by one of the most honored authors in modern science fiction: C. J. Cherryh" and saw 1995 on the copyright page. Then, there are the planet's camel-equivalent (I assume nano-engineered by the Ila from camel DNA), which are ridden by one adult, or sometimes an adult holding an infant or young child. On the back cover, the artist portrays it as about the size of a wooly mammoth, with an entire family riding in a canopied structure strapped to the critter's back.

        Harry Turtledove is working on two major alternate history series, plus writing enough other books that he seems to put out a new, fat, good novel every other month. I can't keep up with all the novels he puts out, but I do try to keep up with the two series.
        Colonization: Aftershocks ($26.00) is the seventh book in the series where alien invaders come to Earth during WW II. The first four books covered the battle between the invasion fleet and the various human armies who are forced by circumstances to stop fighting each other long enough to fight the much more dangerous invader from another star system. By the end of the fourth book, the invasion fleet realizes it has no chance of conquering all of Earth without using so many nuclear weapons that the planet would be of no use to them, so the fighting stops with the invaders officially ruling about half of the land masses of Earth, but subject to guerilla warfare and other problems.
        But a colonization fleet was coming twenty years behind the invasion fleet, expecting Earth to be subjugated. Aftershocks is the third of the novels set after the arrival of the colonization fleet, and it is clearly not the last. I was reading in the book about Harold Stassen becoming President of the U.S. a couple of days before his death filled the local news media, which was interesting timing. The entire series is recommendable, but should be read in order.
        His other major alternate history series began with How Few Remain ($7.99), which postulates that the Confederacy won it's independence in the Civil War, and in the 1880's there is a second war between the Union and the Confederacy, with both the Union and the Confederacy still relying primarily on the same military leaders as in the previous war, with England and France again helping the Confederacy, and with Germany as the Union's only ally. He then did a trilogy about World War I, with the Union tied by treaty to Germany and the Confederacy tied by treaty to England and France. The Great War: American Front ($7.99), The Great War: Walk in Hell ($7.99), and The Great War: Breakthroughs ($26.00, $7.99 pb due early July) tell (primarily) the story of World War I fought in North America, with a much stronger Union, led by Teddy Roosevelt, fighting against Canada to the north and a Confederacy to the south that seems deluded by visions of past glories.
        American Empire: Blood and Iron ($27.95, due beginning of August) begins immediately after The Great War: Breakthroughs, and includes a helpful 4-page introduction to remind readers of who the main characters were in the previous trilogy and what they were doing when we last saw them. As the (surviving) soldiers return from war, they find the job situation tough in the Union and much worse in the Confederacy (which is being forced to pay massive reparation to the Union, leading to hyper-inflation). In the Union, the Socialists gain strength, while in the Confederacy an extreme right wing party becomes very powerful. Although I enjoy his other series very much, I find that I enjoy this series even more.

        Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett ($25.00, signed copies available) is the latest of the very silly and successful Discworld series.
        The Monks of History have been controlling time on the Discworld for many centuries (since the days of Wen the Eternally Surprised and Clodpool the Apprentice). They take time from places it's not needed (like the bottom of the ocean) and send it to places it's really needed (like cities, where nobody has enough time). Usually, the monks can do their work at their monastery, but when they have to go out into the rest of the world, they are well trained in such martial arts as sna-fu and okidoki. And they are about to go out into the world, because something is going seriously wrong with time.
        The monks aren't the only ones that notice. Death also realizes that there is a problem. While he can't interfere directly, he gets his granddaughter, Miss Susan, to look into solving the problem. In case she fails, he also tries to get the other three horsemen of the apocalypse ready to ride--without much success.
        It seems that the Auditors of the universe like things orderly, and humans make things so disorderly. If the Auditors can stop time, they can wipe out the human race--as well as catching up on their paperwork.
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