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Newsletter #57 March - May, 2002

Short Recommendations
by Don Blyly

        In the previous issue of the Newsletter, I recommended the 2 prequels in the Liaden Universe by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, which were originally published in trade paperback as Pilots Choice ($20.00) before being published in mass market as Local Custom ($5.99) and Scout's Progress (due early May, $6.50). I had not re-read the original three books in the series (Conflict of Honors, Agent of Change, and Carpe Diem, currently available in an omnibus edition as Partners in Necessity ($20.00)) since they came out in the late 1980s, but I recently reread them before going on to the newest book in the series. These books were at least as enjoyable as I remembered them, and I think I even enjoyed them a little more this time through because of the background material I picked up in the two prequel novels about the Liaden culture and the unique position of Clan Korval within that culture.
        In Conflict of Honors we meet Priscilla and Shan. Priscilla had fled her home planet because she had been declared dead for violating a religious taboo, and was working on a badly-run Liaden trading ship when she discovered something she was not supposed to find out about the cargo it was hauling. She was dumped at a minor port with false entries made to her employment record that should have made it impossible for her to ever leave the planet. She is rescued by Shan, who is a master trader from Clan Korval, and his trading ship is very well run. Both he and Priscilla have reasons to seek revenge against the captain who dumped her on the planet, and that captain has been plotting against Shan for some time. While there is a fair amount of action in this book, much of the book is full of sly humor.


        In Agent of Change we meet Val Con of Clan Korval. He had been a First-In Scout, one of the elite who explore new worlds, make contact with new races, determine if the planet should be open to trade or kept closed to outsiders, etc. But he was switched over to the Liaden super-secret (even to the Liaden government) Department of the Interior, where he was made into an Agent of Change. He was brainwashed, had his old loyalties (such as to his Clan, his friends, and the legitimate government of Liaden) replaced with new loyalties and skills, and sent out into the universe as a spy and assassin. He had just assassinated a political leader of an extremist organization (which has infiltrated the planetary police force to a significant degree) and was trying to escape the planet when he encountered Miri fighting for her life. She was a former mercenary soldier who took a job as a bodyguard. Unfortunately, she discovered too late that the person who hired her was a former member of the Juntavas, the interstellar crime syndicate, who left the organization with a lot of their money and without their permission. When the mob finally tracked him down and started shooting, she killed enough of the mob hit men that she has now become a high-priority target of the mob. Val Con and Miri form a very uneasy partnership to try to get off the planet alive, with almost every armed person on the planet trying to shoot one or the other of them. Fortunately, they run into Edger, an alien that Val Con had met during his days as a First-In Scout. Edger was selected by his clan of Clutch-turtles to head a mission to look for markets among the humans for the blades they spend centuries growing from crystals, and Val Con was adopted into the clan when he became the first human to visit their planet. When Edger sees Val Con pass an extra knife to Miri, he thinks Val Con has proposed marriage to her (since that's the way such things are done in his clan), so he now views Miri as a clan-sister as well as Val Con as a clan-brother, and Edger is willing to use all the resources of the clan to protect his human clan-siblings. Meanwhile, Val Con is starting to break the brainwashing of the Department of the Interior. This book excels in fast action.


        In Carpe Diem, Val Con and Miri are still on the run from both the mob and the Department of the Interior (which has figured out that Val Con has managed to break the brainwashing), and Shan and the rest of Clan Korval have noticed that Val Con is missing and they are beginning to figure out the danger posed by the Department of the Interior.
        In Plan B ($14.00) the action continues, as both sides gather allies. A minor planet held by a clan allied to Clan Korval is invaded by the Yxtrang, a culture that has survived for over 1000 years by plundering planets and acting as pirates against interstellar shipping. Clan Korval seems to be down to just 9 adults and 5 children, but they have more allies than even they are aware of.
        The latest book, I Dare ($16.00 trade paperback or $30.00 signed hardcover), spends a lot of time developing a previously minor character, Pat Rin yos'Phelium, a ne'er-do-well member of Clan Korval. While all other adult members of Korval are pilots, Pat Rin is a professional gambler because he couldn't pass the pilot requirements. The Department of the Interior thinks that Pat Rin will be the perfect pawn, so they tell him that he is the last surviving member of Korval and offer him the Ring that would transfer all Korval property to him. He takes the Ring (which he recognizes as a fake), kills all the agents of the Department, and begins a long process of building the resources to achieve adequate revenge against the Department for killing the rest of Korval (which he believes they have accomplished). By the end of the book, all of the members of Korval and their allies achieve a Balancing with the Department of the Interior, but there are enough new plot twists in the last few pages of the book to make me impatient for the next book.



        As with many of Sheri S. Tepper's novels, The Visitor ($25.95, due early April) relies more on the reader's curiosity to figure out what's going on, rather than lots of action-adventure, to move the story along. Most of the story alternates between two time periods, early in the 21st century just before an asteroid hits the Earth wiping out most of the human race and about a thousand years later.
        In the near future, the story is told from the point of view of Nell Latimer, an astronomer in a bad marriage to Jerry, who started out as a scientist but has become obsessed with religion of the "prepare to meet thy maker" variety. When a large object is detected beyond the orbit of Saturn headed towards Earth, Nell spends the family savings on an underground shelter and starts stockpiling food and supplies to increase the family's chances of survival if the object strikes the Earth. Jerry joins with millions of others world-wide to pray for intervention from the heavens, hoping that doomsday has come and confident that they will be among the chosen. As the object passes near Saturn, it's path is deflected so that it is sure to miss Earth, but Jerry and millions like him continue to pray for intervention. The object passes near Jupiter and, against all the laws of gravity, turns back towards Earth, making several impossible course corrections on the way. Nell is chosen by the government to join groups of scientists that will go into shelters where each member will spend a four year shift "on duty" preserving science and observing the outside conditions and ninety six years frozen, waiting for the right time to come out and help restore civilization. Jerry and the kids go into the family shelter. Just before the asteroid hits the Earth, a large object separates from it and lands on the North Pole. The asteroid hits the Earth with enough force to wipe out 90% of the human race. The resulting "nuclear winter" wipes out 90% of the survivors. After the weather returns to normal, "monsters" kill 90% of remaining humans.


        A thousand years in the future, most of the action takes place in Bastion, a rigid theocracy that had been settled by survivors that had included Jerry and the kids after the weather had settled down. They believe that they are the Spared, the only humans to survive the apocalypse. This means that all of the other people outside Bastion, with whom they have to trade in order to get the food and technological devices that they depend on, can't be human. The Regime indoctrinate the population with the right way to think, and anybody who publicly expresses un-Regimatic thoughts is detected to have caught the Disease, which can be "treated" by amputating arms or legs or being placed in a Chair (a high-tech life-support wheelchair bought from outside Bastion). Of course, a ruthless person can aid their advancement by leaking "information" about somebody above them in their career path expressing un-Regimatic opinions. Because science is automatically bad, but the ancients were obviously capable of wonders that the Spared are no longer capable of, they teach that the ancients used magic and researchers are kept busy trying to recover the magical methods used by the ancients to create wonders (like wooden matches). But among the elite of the Regime there are those who secretly practice real black magic, involving human sacrifices and some being that lives in the caverns far below Bastion.
        By the time all the pieces of the story are in place, and we are about to discover the secret of the object that had landed on the North Pole a thousand years before, the action picks up much more than in most of Tepper's books, and while I was not completely satisfied with the final resolution of the plot, it was certainly interesting getting to the resolution.



        I've always enjoyed alternate history, and I'd been hearing great things about S. M. Stirling's series that begins with Island in the Sea of Time ($7.50) and continues with Against the Tide of Years ($6.99) and On the Oceans of Eternity ($7.50). Shortly before the beginning of tourist season, Nantucket Island and a Coast Guard training ship sailing nearby are transported back to 1250 BC. The Islanders can't grow enough food to support their population, and they don't want their descendants to live under the Bronze Age conditions that exist in the rest of the world, so they set out to establish trade relationships in the savage world they suddenly find themselves a part of. But some of them decide that they'd rather go off to Europe to conquer empires for themselves rather than preserving an American-style democracy, while others have flaky ideas about saving the pre-Aztec rulers of Mexico from cultural contamination from either the Islanders or future European explorers. The characters are interesting, the research seems sound, and the story really moves along. I'm eagerly awaiting the next volume.
        


        I was so favorably impressed with the series mentioned above that I immediately grabbed a copy of Stirling's latest book, The Peshawar Lancers ($23.95). This alternate history is based on the idea that in 1878 there were a series of collisions between the Earth and major pieces of space debris, wiping out cities and causing several years without summer in the northern hemisphere. Disraeli managed to get the British royal family and most of the bureaucracy of the British Empire moved to India (as well as large batches of the British population moved to South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand) before Britain was frozen in. The French government moved to Algeria. The Europeans who didn't get out in time either died or turned to cannibalism to survive, and lost civilization in the process. The Russians didn't follow this general trend; the czar declared that the Fall showed that Satan had defeated God, and he instituted ritual cannibalism as part of the new state religion. The Russian capital moved to Samarkand. The Japanese were less severally impacted than the Chinese, allowing the Samurai to conquer China after weather returned to near-normal. The Caliph in Damascus unified most of the Arab world, which was less severely impacted than any of the European powers. The U.S. is no longer a power, although the reason is not explained until the reader reaches Appendix One at the back of the book.
        The novel takes place in 2025, with the British Empire the strongest power on the planet. The Russians are still hated by everybody on the planet because of their religious practices, so they have to have a superb espionage service to achieve their goals. One of their top operatives is involved in a complex plot against the British, using lies and mis-direction to manipulate various extremist groups in India, corrupt British bureaucrats, Arabs, Afgans, and the Japanese/Chinese Empire. The story is action-packed and interesting. My only complaint is that Stirling seems to have assumed that most readers will already have significant knowledge of how the British Raj operated in our history, complete with an understanding of the various ethnic groups and tensions involved.

        Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt ($25.95, due about the end of February) is a very different alternate history novel. In our world, the Black Death wiped out a third of the population of Europe in the 14th century. In this novel, the Black Death wiped out 99% of the population of Europe. This allowed the cultures of China, India, Islam, and to a lesser extent Black Africa and Native Americans to grow and develop without being overwhelmed by European expansion.
        What makes this novel so different is the style in which it is told. A group of characters live through their lives in one culture, die, learn from their experiences in the afterlife, and are then cast back into life in another culture and another religion, and this process goes on for over 600 years. (Fortunately for the reader, one character always gets reincarnated with a name starting with "B", another with "K', etc.). As the characters move from culture to culture, the style of writing also changes. While some sections are more interesting than others, this experiment in writing technique worked well, and the story overall is very interesting.



        Fallen Host by Lyda Morehouse ($6.99, due May 7, signing at Uncle Hugo's Saturday, May 11, 1-3 pm) is a sequel to Archangel Protocol ($6.99). In Archangel Protocol, most of the world is ruled by theocracies, and only members of recognized religions are allowed to be LINKed to the world-wide computer network. Those who are not LINKed are the new underclass, unable to compete for most jobs against LINKed individual, and left out of the culture shared by the LINKed majority. Fake angels have appeared on the LINK, trying to influence the election of the next president of the United States, and some real angels have come to Earth in human form to put a stop to the fraudulent LINK-angels.
        In Fallen Host, we learn that most of the angels have stayed on Earth, where they have free will. Satan has been on Earth for some time, and as a front he runs a bookstore in Manhattan:
        Bookcases covered almost all of the wall space. The shelves were filled with the spoils of my various attempts to run a lucrative store. Thanks to the strange nature of my dark miracles, I'd never had much luck staying in business very long. If I wanted to make money, I'd probably be better off as a lawyer, a corporate magnate, or in some other profession that allowed me to profit from others' misfortunes. In fact, many of the Fallen took jobs in middle management.
        The Archangel Michael complains about how he always gets the munchies when he comes to Earth, as he crams in burgers and fries at a fast food restaurant. In Archangel Protocol, the plot was moved along mainly with lots of action, while serious religious/philosophical issues received a tip of the hat. In Fallen Host, there is much more humor and less action, but the serious religious/ philosophical issues are again touched on lightly.


        Satan (who prefers to go by the name Morningstar) has decided that he has to either find or create the Anti-Christ. One of his theories is that Page, one of the two Artificial Intelligences, can be tricked into the job. The Pope also has an Inquisitor looking into the issue of whether or not the AIs have souls. Page, who considers himself Islamic and tries to figure out he can fast for Ramadan, spends much of the book totally confused, and ends up working for the Yakuza, the Japanese mob.
        While the pacing of the second book was different from the first book, I enjoyed both books very much.

Science Fiction Reviews
by Deb Knops

        I had a few personal reasons for not wanting to read Lion's Blood ($24.95) by Steven Barnes. First, it's an alternate history novel. History has never been my strong suit, and a lot of alternate histories tend to make me feel downright ignorant-desperately trying to determine just what is alternate about this history tends to distract from my enjoyment of the story.
        Second, it's an alternate history, written by an African-American author, in which Africa becomes the dominant power instead of Europe and as a result North America is settled by black Muslims using white slave labor. For a child of the historical majority, such as myself, this seemed to have the makings of a diatribe that would stir up far too much guilt for the sins of my ancestors, especially if the alternate black culture were presented sympathetically, with benefit of the view from the moral high ground.


        However, in the end my fascination with the concept won out, and I'm glad it did. Barnes presents a compelling and balanced account of the effects of slavery on both owned and owners via the viewpoints of his two main characters: Aidan, an Irish slave and Kai, the son of the estate holder who buys Aidan. The philosophical question that is the heart of the book is examined thoroughly, but always in the context of telling an exciting story of high adventure.
        Barnes painlessly presents the few crucial pivot points upon which this version of history turns through lessons presented to Kai as a student. Alexander, instead of dying young, completes his conquests, establishing his throne at Alexandria.. He takes an Ethiopian princess to wife, and their twin sons are seated on thrones in Egypt and Ethiopia. Generations later, the kingdoms ally with Hannibal to raze Rome. Fanatical Zulus become the empire's standing army as sub-Saharan Africa is engulfed and unified. A religious schism develops following the rise of the prophet Muhammad. Ethiopia, home to Muhammad's daughter Fatima, crushes Egypt, and now the Empire is controlled by African Muslims, who colonize the New World. The court scholar, of a minority sect of Islam, points out to his students that "men create history to suit themselves"-Alexander and Muhammad are not of African descent, as is widely believed.


        Against the broad strokes of this historical canvas, the lives of Aidan and Kai are presented in detail. Aidan's story is particularly compelling, as he is taken as a young boy from a world of freedom in his Irish fishing village by "Northman" raiders, and sold into slavery in the Muslim New World of Bilalistan, which occupies roughly the territory of the southern U.S.A. Barnes' Irish characters are presented as loving, decent people, capable of warmth, affection and strong family bonds, which makes the horrors inflicted upon them during the middle passage even more vivid. For the white reader, or the reader whose view of history is very Eurocentric, this depiction of Europeans in slavery resonates very deeply on several levels. One is the exposure of the hidden human truth that our inherent empathy is more easily extended to those familiar to us, either in terms of race or culture. The second is that this truth, and our failure to move beyond it, accounts for much of the savagery we inflict upon one another as a species. The third truth is that even within a broadly accepted social framework, individual personalities differ and can make a difference.
        Barnes drives this point home by making Kai, the child of privilege, a sympathetic and fully realized human being. We'd like to hate him for being a slave owner, but he himself does not seem responsible; he merely accepts the "natural order". His father, the estate owner Abu Ali, is enlightened as slave owners go, allowing his slaves to keep their own names and cultural traditions. (Indeed, Barnes probably does not go far enough in depicting the true human talent for erasing cultures and crushing individual spirit, which allows his slave characters to continue to aspire toward freedom.) Kai and Aidan are friends, within the context of the master/slave relationship, until Sophia, Kai's pleasure slave, is found to prefer Aidan's company. This sets in motion a melodramatic chain of events that leads to a slave revolt. Finally thwarted and still enslaved, Aidan and Sophia are separated. Kai later must head up a military force to reclaim a mosque threatened by Aztecs on the western frontier. Slaves who survive the military action are guaranteed their freedom. Aidan enlists, hoping to eventually reunite with Sophia. But Kai's partner in battle, a truly monstrous Shaka Zulu, will stop at nothing to achieve victory, including deliberately using the slave soldiers as cannon fodder. In the heat of battle, both Kai and Aidan discover the essence of humanity and brotherhood, which is not dictated by skin color.


        Surprisingly, given my two big fears about the book, I found myself wishing Barnes had included more alternate history and more of the fascinating world that resulted. He hints at parts of the New World controlled by Northmen, by Aztecs and by native tribes, yet the story does not allow further exploration. And far from being a diatribe, the book reveals slavery as not the province of a single race, but as an inherent human failing, part of our nature which we all must struggle against. All in all, Lion's Blood does what only good science fiction can do--provide an insightful and thought provoking look at human nature through a credible "what if" extrapolation.

        It's safe to say the Mars Crossing ($7.99) by Geoffrey Landis was one of the most eagerly awaited first novels ever. If you read science fiction magazines such as Asimov's or Analog, then you have probably encountered Landis' short fiction. He's had over 50 stories published since 1984, and has won all the major science fiction awards. He is a working scientist at the NASA Research Center in Cleveland, designing experiments carried by space vehicles and by the Mars Pathfinder expedition. His science fiction is technical and technically accurate, and never ignores the human factors in the equation-or so I've heard. Confession time-since I haven't read any science fiction magazines in a long time, I had no familiarity with Landis' work whatsoever, and probably still wouldn't if not for the strong urgings of my group of Cleveland convention-going buddies who took me out to see Landis at an Ohio convention (thanks Lisa, Marcia, Sheryl and Ron!) He was a captivating speaker, so obviously passionate about his research and Mars exploration that it was impossible not to be fascinated.


        I admit to a certain jadedness regarding Mars. I had been exploring the cosmos through science fiction from a young age, and our own solar system felt rather commonplace. Mars in particular had been given so many literary treatments that familiarity was breeding not exactly contempt, but ennui. Well, I dove into Mars Crossing on the strength of Geoff Landis' personality and was delighted to find that through his eyes Mars was exciting again. He made me remember that Mars was not just the same old neighbor planet, but an actual alien world, full of strange, wonderful, marvelous and dangerous things. The book succeeds on many levels-as an adventure novel, a mystery novel, a fantastic piece of near-future speculation and a complex character study, both of the planet and the members of the expedition.
        Mars Crossing is the story of the third manned mission to Mars, the first two expeditions having ended in death: a two-man expedition died on the surface, and a larger follow up mission exploded in space on the return leg of the journey. The current mission actually began years before, when an unmanned robotic fuel manufacturing plant and return vehicle was sent to Mars, to begin creating fuel out of native Martian elements for the expedition's return trip. The expedition is to land, conduct their research and get back to Earth using the fueled return vehicle. Disaster strikes almost immediately. The fuel tanks, left on the surface of Mars for longer than intended due to the previous expedition failures, rupture upon the crew's inspection, killing one of the six expedition members. The remaining five set out across the surface of Mars toward the site of the failed expedition, intending to use that return vehicle. It is half a world away, at the pole, across the awesome depths of Martian canyons. And, as the cold equations reveal, the return vehicle can only carry two of the five of them home...
        Landis does a superb job with his five main characters, interspersing the narrative with flashbacks that reveal defining moments which make their motivations believable, while still preserving enough mystery that when additional deaths occur, any of the members seems a possible suspect. Mars itself receives star treatment. For some writers, the need for technical correctness can be a constraint. In Landis' hands, the opposite happens. Mars is evoked with the cutting edge of scientific accuracy highlighting its alien nature. Hard science gives rise to lyrical descriptions of haunting images: a meteor storm in the thin atmosphere, vented liquid oxygen forming a glistening pale blue foaming fountain, sunset rock fluorescence, ice crystal halos that cause the image of three suns to appear in the sky.


        I'm looking forward to any future Landis novels. And now, with the publication of his first short story collection Impact Parameter and Other Quantum Realities ($24.95), I'll get to pass the time until his next novel by catching up on his shorter works.
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