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Guest Reference Library
Don Sakers


The Walls of the Universe,

by Paul Melko
Tor
$25.95 (hardcover)
384 pages
ISBN: 9780765319975
Genres:
Adventure SF,
Parallel Worlds/Other Dimensions

Every so often, a young man receives a strange gift or develops an unusual ability, and then goes on to adventures that explore some classic idea in SF. It happened with Kip Russell and alien invasion in Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel; with Daniel Eakins and time travel in David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself ; with Davy Rice and teleportation in Jumper by Steven Gould, and to various other heroes of classic Heinlein and André Norton juveniles.

Meet John Rayburn, and prepare for an action-packed tour through parallel universes.

John, a high school senior, is minding his own business on his family’s farm when he encounters a surprising visitor: himself. Or rather, an alternate version of himself from a parallel universe, John Prime. Prime has a portable device that allows him to travel between parallel universes, each of which is numbered (John’s home universe is 7533). Prime has a get-rich-quick scheme, and he wants John’s help. Rubik’s Cube, familiar to Prime but unknown in John’s universe, will make them a fortune. Countless other universes must contain countless inventions that could be exploited.

To prove his fantastic story, Prime offers to loan John the transfer device for 12 hours, so John can travel to a few other universes and then return. John agrees, and jumps into universe 7534. And that’s when things start to go wrong.

When the 12 hours are over and he tries to return to 7533, John learns the awful truth: the device is broken. It only counts forward, not back. Prime lied to him, took over his life, and exiled him from his home universe.

John soon learns that parallel universes are dangerous places. Some are tantalizingly familiar, others completely alien. He encounters vicious beasts, merciless police states, and the nightmare danger of materializing inside a marble wall or buried in the ground, immobile and forever unable to reach the button that activates the device. Further, he discovers that there are other cross-universe travelers out there: some high-tech societies routinely exile their criminals and troublemakers to lower-tech universes, where they prey on the inhabitants.

John finds a universe not unlike his own and determines to settle down and devote his time to trying to understand (and possibly fix) the transfer device. In the process, he accidentally introduces pinball to his new universe . . . and soon, he has attracted the attention of some mysterious bad guys.

This sort of book usually includes a coming-of-age story, and The Walls of the Universe is no exception. John faces serious questions of morality, starting with the temptation to trick another John Rayburn like Prime tricked him—and culminating with the inevitable moment when he holds Prime’s fate in his own hands.

All in all, the story of how John triumphs over his various difficulties is fun and exciting. The Walls of the Universe is definitely recommended.

One of the difficulties with classic Utopian fiction is that the reader is presented with a mature society rather than shown the intervening steps that would demonstrate how such a new civilization might evolve. The authors in this case address that problem, although in the real world the situation would certainly be far more complex and imperfect. The story is also far less melodramatic than it might have been if published during the 1950s. Included are brief discussions of mathematical and other scientific problems that evoke a kind of old-fashioned sense of wonder about the universe without disrupting the flow of the story. It is on the whole a remarkably intelligent reworking of a familiar genre theme.




City at the Edge of Time,
by Greg Bear,

Del Rey
$27.00 (hardcover),
476 pp.
ISBN : 9780345448392

All the Windwracked Stars,
by Elizabeth Bear,

Tor
$24.95 (hardcover),
368 pp.
ISBN: 9780765318824
Genres:
Dying Earth,
Far Future/Clarke's Law,
Science Fantasy


As usual, it started with H.G. Wells. In The Time Machine he presented a far-future in which everything had worn down: the Earth, the human race, even the Sun. John Campbell’s “Twilight” and Arthur C. Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night further explored these cold, cheerless eras, where advanced science became decadent magic, and science fiction was all but indistinguishable from fantasy. It fell to Jack Vance to produce the book that would give this subgenre its generally accepted name: The Dying Earth.

Dying Earth novels have been out of favor in recent years. In fantasy, the subgenre devolved (what else?) into generic sword-and-sorcery; in SF, it seemed that Michael Moorcock’s “Dancers at the End of Time” series had said everything there was to say.

Now, two writers named Bear have blazed trails into this long-unexplored territory, and they’ve come back with some pretty compelling visions.

Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time begins in the present day with three dreamers: Daniel, Ginny, and Jack. Each, in his or her own way, is cast adrift in time; each, in his or her own way, is linked with a city in the unimaginably distant future. This city, the Kalpa, is the last crumbling refuge against the final night. And before the end comes, all three dreamers have their parts to play.

Elizabeth Bear’s All the Windwracked Stars starts with the desolate aftermath of a battle, the defeat of the Children of Light on the Norse-flavored world of Valdyrgard. Two survivors of that battle find each other: Muire, the last Valkyrie, and Kasimir, a winged steed.

Curtain falls, rising 2300 years later. Human civilization on Valdyrgard, once risen to tremendous heights, has fallen; one decrepit domed city remains, ruled by the despotic Technomancer. Muire walks the city in search of something she never expected: another surviving Child of Light.

These are two very different books, but they share some of the same sensibilities: grand expanses of time, epic events, technology so advanced that it’s magic, powerful heroes and implacable villains, and the constant presence of entropy and despair so palpable that they might as well be characters in the story. This is science fiction taken to the level of mythology. If that sort of thing appeals to you, this is one Bear market you don’t want to miss.




Steal Across the Sky,
by Nancy Kress,

Tor,
$25.95 (hardcover),
336 pp.
ISBN: 9780765319869
Genres:
Alien Beings,
Other Worlds,
Psychological/Sociological SF,
Religious/Philosophical SF

I don’t think Nancy Kress can write a bad book.

Aliens land on the moon and place an ad on the Internet (it’s the best way to reach a lot of people in a hurry). Calling themselves the Atoners, they claim that ten thousand years ago, they wronged humanity, and now they’re looking for volunteers to visit seven planets to “Witness.” The Atoners won’t reveal the nature of their foul deed, nor will they show themselves in person.

Cam, Lucca, and Soledad are the team of Witnesses dispatched to the Kular system. As Steal Across the Sky opens, they arrive and survey the two inhabited planets. Lucca takes a shuttle down to Kular A, while Cam descends to Kular B. Soledad stays behind in the mothership to coordinate communications and handle emergencies.

Both Kular worlds are inhabited by humans, descended from seed stock the Atoners stole from Earth ten thousand years ago. As Lucca and Cam play amateur anthropologists in the fascinating, pre-industrial societies of their respective worlds, they have no clue what they’re looking for: the Atoners have only told them that they’ll know it when they see it.

Kress spends the first half of the novel carefully and artfully revealing the big secret; I’m going to blab it in the next paragraph. If you don’t want to know ahead of time, stop reading this review and go enjoy Steal Across the Sky with my blessing. The book is well worth your time.

Still here? Eventually it develops that the people of Kular A (but not Kular B) seem to be able to see and converse with the recently dead. All humans once had this ability; the crime of the Atoners is that they removed the associated genes from the human race. They set up Kular A and B (as well as seven other pairs of inhabited planets) as laboratory experiments: altered humans on one world, control groups of unaltered humans on the other.

Another writer would spend the rest of the book exploring the implications of this idea: the meaning of death, the nature of the afterlife, the impact on human religion, philosophy, and science. It’s a huge theme, with repercussions for all of humanity. But Nancy Kress is no ordinary SF writer, and she knows that sometimes world-altering events can best be approached through their effect on individual people. She chooses to follow the Witnesses back to Earth, and in the second half of the book she unravels their own very personal responses to what they’ve experienced.

One Witness, refusing to believe in life after death, withdraws into seclusion. Another becomes a media superstar, preaching the gospel of the Atoners in revivalist style. Yet another accepts government relocation, trying to rebuild as normal a life as possible. Meanwhile, the Atoners go silent, retreating into their sealed moonbase and saying nothing.

Ultimately, the fates of all the Witnesses come together and all questions are answered, including the biggest one: what are the Atoners up to?

Thought-provoking and powerful, Steal Across the Sky is a book that will stay with you long after your reach the last page. Highly recommended.




The Unincorporated Man,
by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin,

Ace,
25.95,
480 pp.
ISBN 9780765318992
Genres:
Future Worlds,
Psychological/ Sociological SF

In science fiction circles, it is an article of faith that anything can be a subject for an SF story. Politics, sex, violence, slavery, cannibalism, religion: nothing is too controversial or too obscure to be the basis of an SF novel.

In The Unincorporated Man, the subject is economic theory.

In the twenty-fourth century, everyone is incorporated, and nobody gets anything for free. From birth, individuals sell shares of themselves: to parents, teachers, even the doctors who attended one’s birth. As a result, the average adult spends half a lifetime buying back shares in an attempt to gain majority control of one’s own life.

Into this world comes Justin Cord, a twenty-first century billionaire who was secretly put into suspended animation after his death. By now, resurrecting and curing Cord is trivial; the big problem is that he is the only unincorporated individual in the world. And this erstwhile tycoon is a poor match for the utopian society into which he’s awakened.

It’s an interesting and compelling idea; unfortunately, the Kollin brothers don’t succeed in turning the idea into an equally interesting and compelling novel.

Let me be perfectly clear, I am making no judgment on the idea, just the execution of the story. The characters never really come alive: they are merely placeholders in the authors’ exploration of their world. Even Justin Cord, who was obviously meant to be the most sympathetic and appealing character, is nothing more than a cardboard mouthpiece.

Science fiction writers always have the challenge of introducing background information to the reader. One common pitfall is the infodump: an indigestible mass of data that brings the story to a crashing halt. The Unincorporated Man is filled with infodumps, many of which would be more at home in Corporate Investing for Dummies or a similar book.

Another technique is to introduce a naive observer, such as a traveler from another place or time. As the observer learns, so does the reader. Nancy Kress deftly uses this technique to great effect in Steal Across the Sky, as her Witnesses learn about the worlds upon which they’ve landed. In The Unincorporated Man the same technique is awkward and disruptive. Justin Cord is always learning about his new world in long expository passages that don’t fit and serve to slow down the reader.

The plot of The Unincorporated Man is mainly an excuse to get Justin Cord touring the world so the reader can learn about the underlying economic theory. The villains are bad not because of any underlying human motivations, but because, well, you need to have some bad guys. If this future world has any serious flaw, it’s that life is too perfect. In the fullness of time, Justin inspires revolution throughout the Solar System, the bad guys are defeated, and all is well.

The Unincorporated Man comes accompanied by breathless publicity proclaiming it to be groundbreaking and important, and quotes likening it to Heinlein. Treat these claims as hyperbole. Heinlein at his best was an exceptional storyteller; the storytelling here is, to be generous, pedestrian.

If you’re looking for a good novel, I would counsel you to look elsewhere.

So who would like this book? Among your circle of friends, look for the hardcore libertarians—those who think that all roads should be toll roads, or that the greatest evil in the modern world is the income tax. Or those who can quote Ayn Rand chapter and verse. Recommend The Unincorporated Man to them, and they’ll be eternally grateful. And if you don’t have anyone like that among your circle of friends, you need to get out more and make more friends.




Death From the Skies!,
by Philip Plait, Ph.D.,

Viking,
$25.95,
326 pp.
ISBN 9780670019977

Philip Plait is a professional astronomer and runs the popular-science website www. badastronomy.com. In Death From the Skies! he’s produced a fun yet factual book that should be of interest to just about any Analog reader—or writer!

In nine chapters of easy, informal prose, Plait examines and explains many different astronomical phenomena that could result in the end of the world. From asteroid impacts and solar flare-ups to crashing galaxies and the heat-death of the universe, Plait educates his readers in modern astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology. Along the way he touches on supernovae, gamma-ray bursts, stellar evolution, mass extinction events, the history of the universe, and even the possibilities of alien life.

Plait’s style recalls the playfulness of George Gamow and the sense-of-wonder of Carl Sagan. There’s plenty of humor here; the first sentence is “The universe is trying to kill you.” What’s not to like?

By the time you finish Death From the Skies! you will learn something, even if you start with the average Analog reader’s familiarity with modern astronomical knowledge. And you’ll certainly know a few more ways to destroy the planet. (A helpful appendix lists 24 nearby stars that will eventually go supernova.) When you’re done, you can give the book to a bright child or other science enthusiast in confidence that they will enjoy it as well. n

Don Sakers is the author of A Rose From Old Terra and Dance for the Ivory Madonna. For more information, visit www.scatteredworlds.com.





"The Reference Library" copyright © 2009, Don Sakers
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