have had occasion to review novels by Charles L. Harness several times over the years (The Catalyst [September 1980], Firebird [October 1981], Redworld [December 1986], and Krono [August 1989]). Glancing back at those reviews, I find that I have praised him as charming while also criticizing a tendency to improvise too freely. His writing has been uneven overall, though individual titles have been quite interesting.
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Cybele, with Bluebonnets,
Charles L. Harness, NESFA Press (P.O. Box 809, Framingham, MA 01701), $21.00
157 pp. (ISBN:1886778418).
His latest, Cybele, with Bluebonnets, may well be the best thing he has ever done. It is certainly the novel I have enjoyed most this month, and it is, of all things, a ghost story.
A ghost story? For Analog readers? Why not? Harness is himself a chemist and patent attorney and his novels have been toward the hard end of the SF scale. He would be a very Analogical fellow even if his shorter pieces had never graced these pageswhich they have.
Cybele has the feel of a memoir, which is perhaps not surprising. As George Zebrowski notes in his introduction, Harness has always rooted his writing in autobiography. Each novel is then in a sense another chapter in a continuing memoir of chemistry and patent law. This chapter begins in the 1920s, in the Texas of Harnesss childhood, with a young boy who will grow up to be a chemist and patent attorney. A typical boy, Joe Barnes is enchanted by his high school chemistry teacher, Cybele Wilson. He can hardly wait for class, where he "could daily undress her with adoring lascivious adolescent eyes." She is also something of a social outcast, for she is intelligent, single, educated, fond of forecasting the technological future (in terms that made me wonder if she would turn out to be a time traveler), and raised in the monastery of Saint Joseph of Arimathea, whereaccording to rumorthe Holy Grail itself is preserved.
Things turn weird after Joe recalls a time some years previous, when he had found an excellent skipping stone (a fossil, actually, with a hole in its center). Alas, it skipped off the water into the mouth of a streambank cave, and when he pursued it, he found the cave was occupied. He did not, however, linger long enough to learn whether the occupant was beast or human, monster or mortal. Thoroughly spooked, he fled, leaving his skipper behind.
And then, one day in class, his chemistry teacher produces the very stone he had lost. He is spooked again, yet there is now a sense that Joe and Cybele are linked in some mysterious fashion. That sense strengthens as she nudges him toward chemistry and part-time work.
When Joe graduates, it seems for a while that the link is severed, but the fates have other plans. They meet by chance and she tells him of a job opening. He starts studying at a local bible college, until his creativity gets him condemned as a spawn of Satan. And then . . . another chance encounter? The link between them snaps strong, glows white hot, and they are lovers. Yet the relationship is doomed in more than one way. It must end, in the pain of loss and a mystery involving the mystic powers of the Grail.
Yet Joe and Cybele are not done, for she has sworn never to leave him, even if she must fulfill her vow in a thoroughly unusual way. If you think that is a reference to impending horror, rest assured that only joy is to come, in a context shaped by Harnesss major continuing themes of the power of hope and the denial of death. As he must, Joe moves on, traveling to Washington, D.C., getting his chemistry degree, working for the government during World War II, and getting a law degree. He even finds another to love and marry, and with whom to make the perfect child.
I dare say no more, except to promise you a most pleasurable, enchanting, and satisfying read. As Zebrowski says, Harness has always impressed some people as a master. I have been more skeptical in my past reviews, but Cybele, I proclaim, is indeed the master at the pinnacle of his powers.
The Omega Point is an idea that has fascinated a number of SF writers. It is the end of time, when life and intelligence have evolved to fill the universe, perhaps in the form of a colossal artificial intelligence, and the universe itself is dying, either by expansion and heat-death or by Big Crunch. The Final Intelligence might as well be god, for it will decide that there is nothing better for it to do than to simulate all the beings that have ever lived within its memory spaces. Thus we will indeed live again, and since the heat-death stretches into the indefinite future and the Big Crunch puts time on hold for anything falling into the universal singularity (as at the event horizon of a black hole), we will live forever after.
It is not surprising to find Brian Stableford turning his attention Omega-wards, for he has lately been much concerned with immortality and death, beginning with Inherit the Earth (reviewed here in February 1999) and continuing through Architects of Emortality (March 2000), and The Fountains of Youth (October 2000). He has described the development of nanotech and biotech modes of life extension and their impacts on humanity, and in The Cassandra Complex (September 2001) he followed the career of Mortimer Gray, who took centuries to write the definitive history of death. Now, in The Omega Expedition, he shifts forward in time, to the Fourth Millennium, when Madoc Tamlin is awakened from a long cryonic sleep. He cannot remember why he was icedonly that that is the fate of criminalsbut he soon discovers that he and serial killer Christine Caine are apparently warm-ups for the revival of Adam Zimmerman, "The Man Who Stole the World" for the megacorp cartel that now owns everything and the man who used his wealth to found and fund the Ahasuerus Foundation to develop immortalityand wake him when its ready for him.
Madoc spends a bit of time worrying about how he can possibly fit into a world so far out of his temporal joint. Perhaps, he thinks, he could be refrozen, to be awakened again another millennium or so into the future, and again, and again, and thus undertake an expedition all the way to the famed Omega Point. Yet if one can only avoid accident and murder, immortality is also a sort of Omega Expedition, and there are now several sorts of immortality available.
There are also job offers from characters we met in previous installments of Stablefords saga. Mortimer Gray is coming to witness the grand awakening of Adam Zimmerman, as is Michael Lowenthal, representative of the cartel Adam helped create. Representatives are also coming from the outer worlds, riding spaceships controlled by highly sophisticated artificial intelligences (who are definitely not really intelligent, you understand. Oh, no!). Zimmerman is to be greeted by emissaries from all humanity, and as soon as possible he is to be given a tour of the local scene.
Thats when things go wrong.
"Extreme danger!" bellows the spaceship Child of Fortune (pace Norman Spinrad) as it enfolds everyone for safety and supplies visuals of a pirate attack.
Waaiitt a minute, says Madoc Tamlin. No way. These visuals are fake!
And so they are. A new force has joined the game, and all humanity is suddenly at risk. Stableford delays identifying this force as long as he can, but I think Ive handed you enough clues to identify it. The result reminds of the books of Hans Moravec, among others, and it is thereby an interesting capstone to this multi-volume meditation upon death and mortality.
And a meditation it is. Stableford is writing novels, and some are active enough. But if you crave action, you probably wont enjoy The Omega Expedition. It is distinctly cerebral, in the British mode; interesting, but not a thriller.?
Literary private eyes and secret agents seem to be pretty secular folks. They smoke, swear, drink, bed the pretties, play rough, and generally behave no better than they have to. But priests smoke, drink, and bed the pretties too, as weve been learning from the scandals rocking the Catholic church in the last few years. And the Warriors of God have been known to play rough as well. Think of the Inquisition. Think also of the Crusades, and the role played therein by militant orders such as the Knights Templar.
Most folks surely think the Knights Templar are long gone, dismantled in the wake of scandal and conspiracy. But, says James D. Macdonald in his latest, The Apocalypse Door, thats far from the truth. Theyre still around, and the Inner Circle sends its agents into the world to fight the forces of Satan.
Meet Knight Peter Crossman, who has just finished checking out black masses in Canada. His new target is a warehouse in New Jersey, which may have something to do with some missing UN peacekeepers. He and his apprentice get past the guards and find high-tech security and a crate full of reeking compost and mushrooms that recoil from a cross.
Not a good sign, he thinks. Thats when Sister Mary Magdalene of the Special Action Executive of the Poor Clares sidles up to him in the bar where hes waiting for a contact, nibbles his ear, and whispers, "Ive come here to kill you," and joins the mission. A few minutes later they find the contact in an alley, missing his face.
And Macdonald is off and running, playing with the ancient split between the Knights Templar and the Teutonic Knights, the legend of the Baphomet, the conventions of the secret agent yarn, and alien invasion. Thats rightits science fiction after all, and it works very well. Macdonald is good, and he has a very entertaining gimmick here. With luck, hell play with it some more.
Timothy Zahns novels have showed up in this column nine times since 1984, when I reviewed The Blackcollar. In 1985, Cobra began a popular series. Later he added more works to his shelf, including three Star Wars novels.
Timothy Zahn, TOR, $24.95, 427 pp. (ISBN: 031287829X).
Whats he up to now? Mantas Gift opens as Jakob Faraday and Scotto Chippawa ride an exploratory probe as it is lowered deep into Jupiters atmosphere. All is going well until they begin to hear a humming noise. Flying shapesliving things!appear out of the surrounding mists. One hits and breaks the tether. They begin to plummet into the depths, but then a larger being rises beneath them to slow their fall. Skin begins to grow around them, and thats when they manage to blast free.
Years later, Matthew Raimey, a young chucklehead, tries to ski through a tree. Instead of impressing his girlfriend, he turns himself into a quadriplegic. While he is glumly sinking into his hospital mattress, Faraday shows up with an offer: Theyve been studying the Qanska, theyve learned to talk with them a bit, and they have a deal. The Qanska are willing to foster a human, a process involving surgical modification, implantation in a Qanskan womb, and rebirth as a Qanskan in form, albeit still human in brain and mind.
It sounds like quite a trick, and it surely would be a nifty way to study an alien species from the inside out. But Raimey is skeptical, at least until the forlorn wee hours of the next night. He accepts the offer, and soon he is being reborn as Manta.
It takes him awhile to adjust. His brain and mind have a lot of new tricks to learn, and some things he may never manage. For one thing, he just doesnt think like a Qanskaas Qanska grow, they pass from infancy through childhood to Breeder status to Protector and onward. It is the job of the Protectors to fight off predators. But chucklehead though he remains, Manta has the human idea that if someones in trouble, you jump in to help. You dont wait for the big guys to show up. Certainly not if you can make it work.
Despite the difficulties, he makes friends. He acclimates a bit. He has some hope of really doing some good work as an observer and intermediary. Thats when Faraday springs Mantas real mission on him: Earths heavy-handed government is convinced that the Qanska have a star-drive hidden somewhere on Jupiter, and they want it.
"This is crazy," says Manta, and he takes off. He is no longer going to play the game.
So the government sends a goon to take over the project and use thoroughly goonish tactics to pry the star-drive out of the Qanskans. When Manta interferes, the goon turns him into a puppetuntil one of Mantas friends finds a counter and in the process turns Manta into a pariah.
The situation is not good. Chaos rules in Jupiters clouds and on the orbiting station. But in due time . . .
Remember the title. Manta has to find a prize for someone, and given that the only maguffin in sight is the one the humans want . . .
The Astute Reader can surely fill in the blank there. But Zahn provides a good deal of detail, as well as another maguffin, before he wraps things up. As usual, he draws his characters simplythere is a distinct tendency to caricatureand often poses them rather stiffly on the stage. Yet Zahn is ingenious in his plotting and well versed in keeping things moving. Mantas Gift leaves the reader feeling very satisfied.
Clifford Pickover has written a number of books dealing with math, religion, and even art. Ive reviewed several of the math books here, and you may recall the description of the way he presents mathinfinities, higher dimensions, and so onas a guided tour. His tour guides tend to be fey characters embarked on zany quests, and the overall feel is distinctly surreal.
The Lobotomy Club,
Clifford Pickover, Lighthouse Press, $14.95, 264 pp. (ISBN: 0971482772).
Clifford Pickover, Lighthouse Press, $14.95, 272 pp. (ISBN: 0971482764).
So now hes decided to chuck the math and concentrate on the tour guides (the math creeps in from time to time but is by no means central). The result is his "Neoreality" series, consisting of four novels, The Lobotomy Club, Liquid Earth, Sushi Never Sleeps, and Egg Drop Soup. In the first, Adam, a neuroscientist, meets a girl who introduces him to the club of the title, a group of strange friends who have dedicated themselves to altering their brain anatomy (not merely the chemistry) so they can see new realities. Adam agrees to induce in them and himself the "Cerebral Mobius Strip," which had been found in the brains of monks given to trances and visions (though it apparently killed them).
This doesnt strike me as a particularly bright idea, but what the heck. This is fiction, right? So pretty soon Adam and the girl are strolling from New Orleans into a desert where Noah is building his ark and a giant mantis is devouring people. It takes a while to get home again.
In Liquid Earth, private eye Max is engaged by a lady, part of whose brain has been replaced by a chunk of gibbon brain. His mission: To seek the source of the chronoplasmids terrorists are using to warp reality. Dollar bills show John Adams, and no one (except Max, of course) seems to notice. So pretty soon Max and the lady, accompanied by a robot cat, are struggling across a rather rubbery landscape, coping with vanishing roads and tribes of savage gibbons, in search of the chronoplasmids. They know the source is in a supermarket, right over there, but they just cant seem to get to it.
If you like tales constructed with dream logic, youll love these.
Pamela Sargent has been contributing excellent stories to the library of science fiction and fantasy for many years. There was The Golden Space (reviewed here in June 1982; it dealt with the conflict of rationality and sexuality), Earthseed (January 1984; maturation on a colony ship), Venus of Dreams (June 1986; the beginning of a three-volume family saga of the terraforming of Venus), The Shore of Women (August 1988; post-post-holocaust feminist absurdity and reconciliation), and more novels. A bakers dozen of her shorter works are collected in The Mountain Cage and Other Stories.
The first story, "The Sleeping Serpent," should be enough to whet your appetite. Here is a North America never named by Amerigo Vespucci. The English cling to the northeastern coast, but south, on a long island not far from the land of the Hiroquois, is a city of Mongols. In this world, their wave did not ebb from the western borders of Europe, but washed on, flooding all but the island kingdom. Now an emissary, Yesuntai Noyan, has arrived from the Khan with word that the English must go. Michel Bahadur, captured as a child by the Hiroquois and raised among them, left a wife and son behind when he returned to the Mongols as an ambassador and intermediary. Now he must take Noyan to the woods and rouse the Hiroquois against the English.
They win and the tale ends, but not before it casts a complex shadow: The Hiroquois, who permit all a voice in their councils, are learning to dream of empire, while Noyan dreams of a Mongol realm truer and stronger than the decadence of Europe, with himself (of course!) as its all-powerful khan. The two dreams are hardly compatible.
The rest of her stories are just as enticing. Enjoy!
Many years ago, a generation of SF fans and future writers were awed by the deft and witty works of Fredric Brown (1906-1972). He was a master of the short-short, and over a hundred were collected by NESFA Press in From These Ashes. He didnt write many novels, but What Mad Universe and Martians, Go Home remain titles to conjure memories and visions. You can now get these tales, along with The Mind Thing, The Lights in the Sky Are Stars, Rogue in Space, and two shorts that eventually became the last, in Martians and Madness: The Complete SF Novels of Fredric Brown.
Theyre oldUniverse dates back to 1949but they remain gems for the field of SF. If youve never seen them, give yourself a treat.
Death and the Librarian and Other Stories
Esther Friesner, Five Star, $23.95, 292 pp. (ISBN: 0786246820).
Five Star (an imprint of the Gale Group) is still at it, bringing out collections of short stories by authors so noted that I hardly need do more here than tell you the books exist. So, if you crave a fix of Esther Friesner, go get a copy of Death and the Librarian and Other Stories. For a few doses of Jack Chalker, get Dancer in the Dark. For ten hits of George Zebrowski, look for In the Distance, and Ahead in Time. And if Mantas Gift made you wish for more of Timothy Zahn, order up a Star Song and Other Stories.