Allen Steele’s Coyote trilogy began with the idea that in the not-too-distant future, the US turned thoroughly into the night of the religious right, giving a Department of Internal Security the powers of East Germany’s erstwhile stasi or the Soviet KGB and interning dissident intellectuals (DIs), meaning any scientist, university faculty member, or educated person who dared to question the party line. The tyrants said they had brought America back to its roots, its true self, but the Bill of Rights was no more and the Liberty Bell was no longer on public view, apparently for fear that it might inspire rebellion. But though the country was socially benighted, it remained a technical powerhouse. Starship Alabama was about to launch. However, the DIs managed to hijack it and settle the world of Coyote free of tyranny. And when the folks back home eventually sent more ships to bring the rebels back under the thumb, they licked ’em (see Coyote Rising, reviewed here in May 2005).
And now here’s Coyote Frontier, which begins as Jonas Whittaker, a DI who missed the Alabama, is being taken for a ride to meet the head of Internal Security, who turns out to be an ally. He knows of Jonas’s work on the theory that might someday make starbridgesshortcuts through hyperspacepossible, and he’s offering to put Jonas in suspended animation until his theory can be made real.
You got it. It works, and in due time Jonas arrives at Coyote aboard a new starship, the Columbus, to install the bridge. By then the colony is having trouble because old equipment is wearing out. The colonists greet Jonas with mixed feelings, for they need equipment only Earth can provide. But Earth is deep into environmental collapse. It needs resources and even lebensraum. Can a treaty work? Can Coyote be protected from the depredations of capitalism, both homegrown and Earth-grown? Can it remain independent? Can its primitive natives be preserved? Or must Coyote go the way of Earth? And what happened to the very first starbridge ship, which went out to the Oort Cloud and vanished?
Many of the characters are familiar. Carlos Montero, no longer a wild kid or a charismatic rebel, is Coyote’s president, who must lead the treaty negotiations. His daughter Susan is a naturalist studying the natives. Manny Castro, savant (AI robot), lives in the wilderness and avoids people, at least until Jon Parson, who deserts his post on the Columbus to go native, shows up. Lars Thompson is busily clear-cutting the forest, is perfectly happy to sell more lumber to new colonists, and thinks natives are just in the way. His son Hawk will eventually rebel against Lars and join Jon, Manny, and Susan in an attempt to protect Coyote.
And in the end . . . Steele does not disappoint. In this series, he expresses deep concern for the directionspolitical, ideological, economic, and environmentalin which we are moving today. He considers what we would have to do to resist or reverse the trends and concludes that drastic action is essential, as is great determination not to succumb to those forces that would undo any progress made. Success would be its own reward, but perhaps, if anyone is watching, there might be something more.
Yes, Steele leaves a hook at the end on which he might just be planning to hang a new novel, or even a trilogy. If you enjoyed the earlier books, you will find this one an entirely fitting conclusion, and you will be eager for whatever he comes up with next.
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller begin a new series, Beneath Strange Skies, with Sword of Orion. Some years past, a tyranny was defeated when two heroes pulled a stunt that made two opposing fleets vanish. First, however, they saw to it that their infant daughter was spirited away to safety. Now that daughter, Jerel, is a teen, and those who would revive the Old Order want to use her. She escapes kidnappers and flees with a friend, Kay, and her uncle Orned. Alas, Kay’s mother yearns for the old days, and when she urges Kay to go with Jerel, the Canny Reader suspects she has sewed a locator beacon in his socks. That suspicion is never confirmed, but the bad guys don’t seem to have much trouble zeroing in on the fleeing trio again and again.
Lee and Miller tell us why the bad guys want Jerel and they manage to keep her on the run until the final cliffhanger. There’s no resolution, but this is Book One, remember? The chase will go on and on and on, until . . . Only the authors know the end of the tale.
Charlaine Harris’s Grave Sight is an interesting blend of fantasy and crime. The protagonist, Harper, was struck by lightning as a child. Now she detects dead bodies and sees their last moments. And there’s a living in this, for folks are willing to pay to find the missing and/or to learn what happened to them. Unfortunately, they don’t always like what they hear, which is why Harper’s stepbrother Tolliver travels with her as friend, companion, and bodyguard.
And so they come to Sarne, an Ozark town that has lost its old economic base and tried rather desperately to replace it with tourists. A boy has been found dead (suicide, say the cops), and his much lower-class girlfriend is missing. Not suicide, says Harper as soon as she looks, and then she finds the girl, shot in the back. Soon a local cop is asking her to check his late wife’s grave. That, says Harper, was murder too, and perhaps it is just coincidence that the two dead women were sisters. But then their mother hears the news and says she must tell their fathers. And soon she’s dead.
What’s going on? I’m afraid I spotted the guilty party long before the author exposed that card (look for the most unctuous of the locals), but I still enjoyed the tale. Harris has a gift for deft description, entertaining characters and interactions, and convincing plotting. I’m looking forward to more by this writer.
The latest book in Catherine Asaro’s saga of the Skolian Empire is The Final Key, following last year’s Schism, in which Eldrinson rejected his children for going off to the Empire’s military academy to become Jagernauts. Althor wound up apparently brain-dead and Eldrin (married to the Ruby Pharaoh) discovered a rather nasty drug in his search for something to control his empathic headaches, but Soz became a star student, rushing through the program in record time while also accumulating a record number of demerits. That’s when Eldrinson shows up, ready at last for reconciliation.
It’s also when Jagernauts start collapsing, their software somehow corrupted, the military leader, Kurj, goes into a coma, the Kyle Web that supports Skolian civilization starts unraveling, and the Traders, those evil slavers who love nothing better than to torture empaths and get off on pain, attack the heart of the empire with a massive fleet and even capture the ship bearing Roca, the kids’ mother.
Soz, enjoying a quiet training gig on a battleship, is suddenly in the middle of a war, and she just may be the only one who can hold the Web together long enough to give Skolia a fighting chance. Meanwhile, Shannon, who yearns to join the Blue Dale Archers, gets his chance and discovers that they can apparently visit Kyle space in trance. But then another member of the family steps up to the plate and informs the reader that this book is not called “Part Two of Triad” because it’s part of a trilogy (if it were, it should be Part ThreeSkyfall and Schism both preceded it).
The tale starts slowly, for Asaro feels obliged to recap the background at some length, but it soon moves into high gear with some very satisfying action scenes. Characters develop in directions we expect if we recall earlier books in the saga. And the ending is warm and touching enough to soften the hearts of the most hardened readers. But there is a flaw: Asaro is a physicist with expertise in quantum theory, which provides her with some pretty convincing bafflegab. However, her bafflegab has rules that say some things are possible in the universe of her saga, and some things aren’t. Part of the resolution here involves violating the rules, and when a character says that is impossible, Asaro says something like “Oh, well” and waves her magic wand.
At least she lets a character call her on it, which amounts to a sort of apology to the reader. A great many classic tales have done the same sort of thing without any sort of apology. And if it didn’t hurt their success, it shouldn’t hurt Asaro’s. This one’s an essential part of her canon, and if I seem too vague about the details, that’s deliberate. Anything more specific might spoil your fun.
Walter Mosley is a writer of varied talents. He is responsible for the Easy Rawlins mysteries, and he has given young adults 47, which brings SF tropes head-to-head with slavery. In adult SF, he has given us Blue Light and Futureland, and now The Wave, a thoroughly strange concoction that may impress non-SF readers more than SF readers.
The protagonist is Errol, whose father has been dead for years. One day he starts getting mysterious phone calls from someone who says he’s Airy’s dad. Now that just can’t be, right? That’s what Errol thinks, too, but he tracks the caller to the cemetery and finds a very strange fellow, GT (for the Good Times he says are coming), who bears an uncanny resemblance to Dad when he was young and knows an enormous amount of stuff about Errol’s childhood. He also talks about the Wave, something that has been sweeping through the Earth until GT could rise “from the deep memory, replenished by the numberless, reminded, readied, and then released.”
Thoroughly mysterious! It stays that way, too, until military agents kidnap Errol and GT and reveal the strange microorganismsvery reminiscent of Greg Bear’s twenty-year-old Blood Musicthat seem to create zombies and just may threaten all life on Earth. Or do they? Errol isn’t so sure, for the officer in charge seems more than one card short of a full deck and GT has been pretty clear that his agenda, whatever it is, is not destructive, although he is certainly capable of self-defense. And soon after Errol escapes his captors, he meets the Wave itself and learns what side he is on.
This is the literary side of the genre. If your tastes lean that way, you will enjoy the tale. If they don’t, it may give you the pip.
Paul Levinson’s new novel is both very different from anything he has done before and very satisfying. The Plot to Save Socrates begins when Sierra, a graduate student, is shown a new Socratic dialogue by her elderly advisor, Thomas O’Leary. It’s just a fragment, but it quite clearly describes a visitor who is trying to persuade Socrates to forego the hemlock and let a soulless clone die instead.
A clone? The visitor must be a time traveler, of course, and soon Sierra is looking at a photo of Thomas O’Leary that is well over a century old and shows him the same age she knows him as today. Before long, she is a time traveler herself, visiting Heron of Alexandria, who it seems hails from the further future, complete with the time machines, hidden in the attics of gentlemen’s clubs, that everyone in the tale uses. She shares the dialogue with him, and he is off to do . . .
What? Though there is no clue to the identity of Socrates’ visitor, there is soon no shortage of folks who seem eager to help himor even force himto live. Yet there also seem to be extra forces in play whose agendas are less certain, while the temporal paths of the charactersSierra and her lover Alcibiades, Heron, Thomas, even William Henry Appleton, the famous publisherentwine and tangle in interlocking circles that make Socrates’ later observation that “Sometimes a circle is the best guide, especially if you want to know yourself” seem a welcome simplification. (Note that this line is close kin to one of Socrates’ famous injunctions.)
So what’s to know? Why was Socrates so prepared to die? Why should Sierra stay away from Alexandria? Who is Thomas O’Leary, really? Why does Levinson have the staff of the gentlemen’s clubs, in London and New York and in several times, exclaiming over how the food is so much better now that they have a new chef? Why do certain members of those staffs seem extraordinarily long-lived?
The last two are never answered, but the new chefs are mentioned often enough that for much of the novel I was waiting to see Socrateswith perhaps a clone or twotake up a new career. That may have been a deliberate red herring, designed to keep readers from seeing what Levinson is really up to. Or perhaps the author just left in a couple of hints that he eventually chose not to fulfill as he pursued his chief characters through time and identity shifts enough to confuse even a philosopher.
This, I think, is the first of Levinson’s novels to deserve to be called a tour de force. Watch for it on award ballots.
I met Alix Paultre at Albacon last October. He’s an enthusiastic tech journalist who has tried his hand at SF with Cyberchild, with results that indicate that though he still has a ways to goespecially in his dialoghe already knows how to tell a pretty good story. The cast of characters begins with Gordona, a little girl in Gavrilova, an Eastern European hellhole (think Bosnia a few years back); her father is a leader of the local rebels who want independence for their province. Then there’s Steve Dixon, a tech consultant who is steering one clientwho wants to develop a computer to be constructed inside the brain by nanotech bots, without interference by bleeding hearts who think certain kinds of research should be regulatedtowards setting up in Gavrilova. He’s also hunting for a computer criminal who has released a virus that funnels tiny amounts from millions of victims into his pocket. Add in Eileen Harris, leader of the Non-Human Liberation Front, bleeding-heart animal rights extremists with an action arm that is not above violence, as they demonstrate when they get wind of the research being done in Gavrilova and decide to funnel funds and weapons to Gordona’s dad. She, of course, must be on-site to supervise the destruction of the research facility and the slaughter of the researchers, and to get there she enlists the aid of Z-Man, a computer whiz and old friend of her own father.
Dixon learns that his hacker target is in Europe and homes in. Perhaps not surprisingly, he promptly bumps into Eileen and discovers attraction despite differences before he also bumps into his target and the chase is on, all the way to Gavrilova, where the bots are building their first brain-computer just as the raid brings everything to a halt. But Gordona’s dad brings the ape with the nascent computer home, where it bleeds on Gordona before it dies. Soon the kid has a computer, complete with Web-access, and the industrialist who doesn’t care for bleeding hearts is after her (as well as revenge on Eileen and her group).
The plot moves along very nicely. The defects are stiff and even monotonous dialog (the characters lack distinct voices), unsubtle characterization (to the point of caricature), and heavy reliance on coincidence (not that coincidence is a rare plot device!). As one might expect from a tech fan, Paultre sprinkles a vast array of gadgetry through his tale, most of it well based in what is coming out of the labs and only some of it actually superfluous to the story (he does like the occasional James Bond touch). If my words make you wonder whether the book is worth buying, go to http://www.smartalix.com and download a free copy.
This one’s fun! Terry Bisson’s Numbers Don’t Lie presents the continuing tale (in three installments previously published in Asimov’s) of a lackadaisical lawyer with a strange friend, one Wilson Wu, who is a mathematical wizard with a background in rock music, camel driving, aeronautics, law, meteorology, and a good deal more. Perhaps it is no wonder that they discover (in “The Hole in the Hole”) a Volvos-only junkyard in Brooklyn, where a space-warp opens directly onto the surface of the Moon. What a great way to dispose of old tires! And a great way to salvage a rover, or a piece of one. “The Edge of the Universe” involves a kerosene-powered fax machine and a reversal in the flow of time that threatens both to reverse the expansion of the universe and to bring an incipient father-in-law, long known as a remarkable SOB, out of his thankfully terminal Alzheimer’s. “Get Me to the Church on Time” concerns butterflies (moths, really) whose wing-flaps control hurricanes and connects the dots of an antique TV set, a cell phone hidden under a baggage carousel, a mad scientist, and a surprising lack of delay in making connections in and around New York. And everything is knitted together by Wu’s woo-woo equations, which have been vetted for elegance (if not accuracy) by Rudy Rucker.
Bisson is famous for two things: He is reliably quirky, and he’s a national treasure. Order this one now!
Robert Sheckley, renowned as one of SF’s seminal writers, was the guest of honor at the 2005 World Science Fiction Convention held in Glasgow, Scotland. As is its wont, NESFA Press honored the occasion with a nicely produced volume of the GOH’s work. The Masque of Manana presents forty-one of Sheckley’s best short stories, including “Seventh Victim” (1953), which became the novel and film The 10th Victim. I have been known to express negative opinions of some of his later work, but I cannot deny the strengths Sheckley displays at his best, which amply justify his reputation for originality, cleverness, and humor.
This one’s an essential part of the history of the field. Don’t let it get by you.
“Will the Washington of tomorrow be a beacon of democracy, a monument to the adage about the dangers of absolute power, or a nearly forgotten footnote in humanity’s history?” asks Ernest Lilley at the end of his introduction to Future Washington, just before he turns Steven Sawicki, Jack McDevitt, Brenda W. Clough, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ed Lerner, Joe Haldeman, Allen Steele, Cory Doctorow, and several more of SF’s best and brightest loose on the question. One interesting answer is Brenda Clough’s: ghost town, after midwestern realtors hatch a plot to scare everyone away from DC.