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Guest Reference Library
Richard Foss

In decades of reading commentary on SF and attending conventions, I’ve encountered endless discussions of how modern science fiction is different from the works of the Golden Age. Indeed it is. We now have protagonists of both of the usual sexes and a couple of new ones, and they’re as complex, angst-ridden, and—in some cases—kinky as anything in mainstream literature or psychiatric textbooks. Our futures not only have nuts and bolts, but warts, blemishes, and cracks, and nowadays our generals need to file environmental impact statements before unleashing death rays on invading alien insects.

But the biggest difference is the structure of the stories themselves. The majority of written SF used to be short stories in magazines like this one, with the few longer works either serialized in the same pages or appearing elsewhere as an Ace Double or a stand-alone book. As publishers released more book length works, longer story arcs began to appear, starting with Asimov’s Foundation trilogy in 1951*. By the 1970s, multivolume works of SF were no longer unusual, and by the 1990s they were the norm. Near as I can tell, over 70% of SF books nowadays are part of a series, though whether this is because readers have very long attention spans or publishers like to buy books with room for sequels, I cannot say.

Which brings us to this month’s trove of books: four segments of various series, one excellent first novel, a collection that reminds us what SF used to be, and a compendium of essays about science by a promising young author.


Singularity’s Ring,
by Paul Melko,

Tor HB,
$24.95,
315 pp.
(ISBN: 9780765317773)

The debut novel is Singularity’s Ring, and it’s a delightful piece of hard SF told in a unique voice—or should that be voices? The five protagonists in this book are Apollo Papadopulos—and that’s not a typo, they are five individuals who have been genetically engineered so they can link to form a composite consciousness. Each individual has their own personality and brings their own skills to the group mind, but each has their own inner life. Characters who can meld consciousness have been the subject of science fiction stories before, but it has rarely been done this well—the individuals that form Apollo Papadopulos each narrate sections and chapters here, giving a vivid idea of a multifaceted existence.

The story begins on a sparsely populated Earth, a generation after most of humanity has moved to an orbital ring and undergone some sort of transformation that has led them to stop communicating with those they left behind. Apollo is an aspiring starship crew, being tested along with other multi-minded teams in rugged terrain, when a suspicious accident occurs. Odd events follow, including an encounter with telepathic bears and a meeting with a surly recluse who might have access to the secrets of the ring. I won’t even try to describe the plot further—it is complicated, subtle, and brilliantly thought out, and would have been a fine SF thriller even without the unique viewpoint character, er, characters. The dynamics of the relationships between these linked people are particularly well handled—we see the loving support and teamwork we might expect, but also some tensions and weaknesses that are outside our normal human experience. Author Paul Melko has produced the best first novel I can remember reading in years, a satisfying work in a world I wouldn’t mind revisiting.



Blue War,
by Jeffrey Thomas,

Solaris PB,
$7.99,
407 pp.
(ISBN: 9781844165322)

I wouldn’t mind revisiting the two worlds that are the setting for Jeffrey Thomas’s Blue War, either, but I wouldn’t want to live in either. One is a planet with a primitive alien culture that is dealing with the legacy of a recent civil war, and all we see of the other is the human city called Punktown, a gritty urban sprawl that seems to be inhabited entirely by misfits and losers. Jeremy Stake is a Punktown private eye in the classic mode and a veteran of the war, and he is on a case when he returns to the scene of the battles. It seems that an automated construction project designed as a small housing complex has expanded to the size of a city, is still growing, and can’t be shut off. It’s an ecological disaster that threatens to restart the conflict, and Stake has to stop it.

This sequel to Deadstock can be read as a standalone, but you’ll enjoy it a lot more if you read that first—there’s a lot of backstory here. Stake is an interesting character, and like all great modern detectives, he grapples with the moral dilemmas of a case, and this one has plenty. Blue War isn’t perfect; the story depends on an otherwise cynical and calculating realist being an emotional idiot when it comes to his lover, and though that situation certainly occurs in real life, it grates a bit when it happens so consistently in ways that advance the plot. This aside, the alien society is well crafted, the tension of a community that has recently been at war is palpable, and the fast-paced adventure stays lively right to the end. Fans of SF that merges thriller and detective elements will find Blue War a very worthwhile read.




Death’s Head: Maximum Offense,
by David Gunn,

Del Rey HB,
$25.00,
368pp.
(ISBN: 9780345500014)

The turbulent worlds of Blue War are party planets next to the settings for Death’s Head: Maximum Offense, which might have been named because some people will find this book maximally offensive. It is the sequel to Death’s Head, in which we first met Sergeant Sven Tveskoeg. He is brutal, vulgar, and prefers prostitutes to other forms of relationships because he only understands social rules when money changes hands. His only redeeming characteristics are his intelligence and his loyalty to the soldiers he leads, but both of those are in the service of a corrupt officer corps led by a capricious general who follows the whims of a psychotic emperor. In practice, this means that Sven is often extracting himself and his troops from bad situations caused by stupid orders.

The unschooled but smart noncom who succeeds despite his superiors is a common trope, but one which can still come to life when well handled. For my tastes, it isn’t in this book, primarily because the level of graphic violence is distractingly excessive. Open this book to almost any page and someone is getting killed, maimed, or raped, and details are not spared.

This isn’t to say that this book is just a gore-fest—there is a plot in here, a good one involving political intrigue, mutated humans with strange powers and inexplicable agendas, a talkative, sardonic gun, and an intelligent and lovingly protective space habitat. There are a few characters we might like to know more about; Sven’s motley crew includes several people who are more interesting than he is. David Gunn can certainly write, and there are many possible lessons in the story of an animalistic but smart warrior who serves a complex society but is more at home among savages and primitives. None of those ideas are explored here, unfortunately—this book is a simple military thriller with no time or interest in big ideas. Perhaps those will be explored in one of the inevitable sequels that this book will spawn. The luridly detailed violence is what most readers are more likely to remember about Maximum Offense.



Pirate Sun,
by Karl Schroeder,

Tor HB,
$25.95,
320 pp.
(ISBN 9780765315458)

There is violence aplenty in Karl Schroeder’s Pirate Sun too, but it is less graphic and happens amid a setting that is far more interesting—a vast space habitat that works at a pre-industrial level thanks to an artificial field that makes advanced electronics useless. Thus there are primitive jets but no radio, spinning cities in space held together with ropes and wood, pedal-operated spacecraft, and a whole array of implausible but delightful adaptations to a unique environment. We were introduced to this collection of floating worldlets in Sun of Suns and Queen of Candesce, the previous books in the series, but there are plenty of new consequences of living in this weird setting, and they’re lovingly explored here.

The plot in Pirate Sun is pure space opera, the characters cardboard cutouts, but made from very high quality cardboard. The ambassador is charming and devious, the admiral brave and resourceful, the plucky young crewman loyal to a fault, the mysterious female spy sensual, ingenious, and secretly troubled. Seven-eighths of this novel is a long chase scene, so most of the other characters are seen only briefly, but there are a few charming minor players. The action happens at a breakneck pace, and every few pages someone is escaping from a trap, foiling a plot, or leading a rebellion against an evil overlord. It’s all great fun, with melodramatic action and even some character development. Naturally, the closing pages include the setup for another thrilling adventure—and it’s one I look forward to.




Reading The Wind,
by Brenda Cooper,

Tor HB
$25.95,
448 pp.
(ISBN 9780765355096)

Not every sequel can sustain that excitement, and sometimes it can be interesting to analyze just why things don’t work. A case in point is Brenda Cooper’s Reading The Wind, the follow-up to The Silver Ship And The Sea. The first book introduced us to a group of children who had been left behind when their parents had fled after a war between two communities of settlers. The children grow up as outcasts, living reminders of a bloody war. The twist is that the hostile, intolerant natives are humans like us, while the children are genetically engineered for strength, agility, and various special skills. We sympathize with them at the same time as we understand how they are seen as a threat to people we can identify with, and it sets up an interesting tension. The characters are engrossing enough that we forgive the slow pacing and some obvious plot devices—for instance, in the opening pages someone mentions in passing the locked starship that nobody has been able to enter for twelve years. We immediately know that one of the kids is going to get inside and fire it up—the only question is what they’ll do with it. Cooper does manage to pull a surprise at the end of the book regarding who does what with the ship, and the sequel begins with some of the genetically altered teenagers on the planet and some in space.

Reading The Wind has different flaws and different virtues from the first book. The pacing is faster, in fact too fast at times; richly detailed passages are interspersed with short sections that summarize major events. The attention to character is also uneven—the children left on the planet develop complex emotional lives as they mature, while the interactions and dynamics of the other group are underdeveloped. We’re given a glimpse of what the culture of the genetically altered might be like, but only briefly, and largely as the backdrop of a chase scene. As Reading The Wind rushes on, new characters are introduced and discarded, improbable coincidences accumulate, and this time there’s no ingenious plot twist at the finish. Everything wraps up neatly and predictably, complete with a hastily convened group of amateurs defeating an invading band of mercenaries. It’s a disappointing end to what could have been a powerful work. Brenda Cooper is a talented writer, but the intricate world and involving characters she created in her first book are not well served in the second installment.



The Science Fiction Hall Of Fame, Volume Two B,
Ben Bova, ed.

Tor HB
$29.95,
544 pp,
(ISBN 9780765305329)

After reading these vast sagas, it’s instructive to review the briefer literature of an earlier day, as presented in the Science Fiction Hall Of Fame’s collection of the Greatest Novellas Of All Time, Volume Two-B.* These are stories by giants of the field like Asimov, Pohl, Simak, and Vance, as well as less remembered authors. The best of these stories, like T.L. Sherred’s “E For Effort,” Theodore Cogswell’s “The Spectre General,” and Vance’s “The Moon Moth,” show the universal appeal of a good story well told. They have lively writing, interesting characters, and tight plots with the mandatory twist at the end. Others are worth reading mainly as period pieces, classic idea stories with as much description and as many characters as needed to move the action forward and no more. Read these to savor the days when writers wrote tight, compressed prose and a thirty thousand word story was a big sale.


















The Coming Convergence,
by Stanley Schmidt,

Prometheus Books HB,
$27.95,
336 pp
(ISBN 9781591026136)

Finally, we have a nonfiction book by a writer whose name may be familiar to you, a gentleman named Stanley Schmidt who does a little editing on the side. Those of you who actually read the editorials in this magazine rather than flipping straight to the fiction already know that Stan is a scholar and philosopher of science and society. You might open this book expecting longer versions of his well-considered arguments, some gentle humor, and as much interest in defining a question as in providing an authoritative answer.

If so, you’re two thirds right about The Coming Convergence. The authoritative voice and conversational manner are there, but less in the speculative mode than usual. That’s appropriate, because this book is a history of ideas—which concepts came together to spark theories and inventions that were unforeseeable in an earlier time but are pivotal in ours. It’s a very useful endeavor, outlining the ways in which geniuses, crackpots, and just plain lucky folks engaged in unwitting collaborations with each other. The pace is brisk, the inventors’ backstories sometimes mentioned only briefly—the ideas are the focus here. The Coming Convergence is clearly written enough that it can instruct a high schooler, and in fact would be a splendid textbook to hook students on the history of scientific thought, but any adult will find new information and sparkling prose to enjoy.


"The Reference Library" copyright © 2009, Richard Foss
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