Ace, 337 pages, $25.95 (hardcover)
Series: Coyote 5
Genre: Other Worlds
One of the key skills of the science fiction writer is world building: the process of constructing consistent, believable planets. Selecting and calculating a planet’s physical parameters (orbital dynamics, axial tilt, mass, surface gravity, atmosphere, temperature, and so on) is only the first step in building a world. After that comes geography, climate, biology, history, sociology, and economics . . . to name just a few. All of these factors define and constrain characters and plot elements, giving shape to the kinds of stories the writer can tell. Then, if the writer does a good job, all of this effort becomes largely invisible to the reader, serving as the unique background of the story.
Examples of fine world building are legion in science fiction. Some of the great names of the past were masters: Poul Anderson, Hal Clement, Philip José Farmer, Robert L. Forward, Harry Harrison, E.C. Tubb, and Jack Vance instantly spring to mind. David Brin, C.J. Cherryh, and Larry Niven made their names with excellent world building. Other recent notable world builders include Stephen Baxter, Kim Stanley Robinson, Dan Simmons, Sheri S. Tepper, John Varley, Joan D. Vinge, and Vernor Vinge. Really, just about any science fiction writer of tales set on another planet has engaged in world building to one degree or another.
What I want to talk about now, however, goes beyond mere world building. In some cases, a writer presents a particular fictional world that is so interesting and compelling that it moves out of the background, transcending mere setting to become almost a character in its own right. These are SF’s beloved worlds, places so convincing in their artificial reality that readers feel as if they’ve actually been there—or even that they want to move in. These are the worlds that so fascinate readers that their creators have no choice but to keep writing books set there.
In the early days of SF, Edgar Rice Burroughs turned Mars into the world Barsoom, and for decades readers longed to visit its dead sea bottoms and ruined cities. The field has since moved on and modern readers are likely to find the Barsoom books less than accessible; if you once loved them and now feel the urge to revisit, you’re well advised to approach them in a spirit of friendly nostalgia. (Nevertheless, there’s a killer movie or several waiting in those books, now that special effects technology has caught up to Burroughs’ imagination. Do you hear me, Hollywood?)
Frank Herbert’s desert world Arrakis, usually quite rightly quoted as the premier example of world building, is another world that’s become almost real to readers. I don’t know how many of us would want to actually live there, but everyone certainly wanted more than one visit: the ever-expanding Dune series is the result. About the only planet that can compete with Arrakis in readers’ hearts is Anne McCaffrey’s Pern. Compared to Arrakis, Pern is a lovely place . . . and now that they’ve got that Thread problem licked, I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want to have at least a summer house there. (And while we’re at it, where are the Dragonriders of Pern movies? Peter Jackson, I’m looking at you.) Incidentally, both Pern and Arrakis first saw print in the pages of Analog, a fact which gives an interesting perspective on the eternal question of whether Pern is SF or fantasy. (My own argument is that any books that repeatedly reference the chemical formula for nitric acid, as the Pern books do with the compound called “agenothree,” clearly belong under the SF umbrella. I don’t know whether it was McCaffrey or Campbell who came up with that one, but either way it’s sheer genius.)
Other such beloved places in SF include Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover, Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld, and Larry Niven’s Ringworld. All of these took hold of readers’ hearts and imaginations and did not let go, resulting in multiple books. Some other classic beloved worlds such as Discworld, Earthsea, Witch World, and of course Middle Earth are fantasy and thus beyond our immediate purview—but don’t let that stop you from paying a visit.
Science fiction, it’s time to add another world to the club.
The planet called Coyote, 46 light years from Earth, first appeared in Allen Steele’s 2002 aptly titled novel Coyote (based on stories that had appeared in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine). The next two books, Coyote Rising (2004) and Coyote Frontier (2005), completed a trilogy describing the settlement of Coyote, growth of human civilization on the world, and the political troubles of the colonists. In the end, advanced aliens helped Coyote’s people build a hyperspace starbridge to allow near-instant travel to and from Earth (as well as other planets).
Steele thought he was done with Coyote, and he moved on to two other novels (Spindrift and Galaxy Blues) set in the same universe, but away from Coyote’s lush riverscapes. Readers, however, weren’t ready to leave. As Steele himself says, “Readers continued to insist that I write more about the world I had created, and after a while I came to realize that, although the original story arc was complete, I wasn’t finished with the place yet.”
Thus came Coyote Horizon (2009) and Coyote Destiny (2010). These two form a continuing narrative, but it’s not necessary to read one in order to enjoy the other.
So what is it about Coyote that so grabs the readers? First, there’s Allen Steele’s writing. He tells sometimes-complex stories in a very straightforward way, and his characters are realistic and appealing. Fact is, Allen Steele is just a good storyteller, so we readers are already inclined to enjoy any place he takes us.
Second, Coyote is a compellingly interesting place. It’s a Mars-size moon of a gas giant, there are rivers all over the place, and the biology and ecology are fascinating. In both geography and biology, Coyote falls squarely between the familiar and the exotic. It’s an immediately comfortable place for the reader, although the opinion of the first settlers may have differed.
David Louis Edelman
Pyr, 520 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
Series: Jump 225 3
Third, Coyote is a place of hope. The first three books concern the struggle between collectivism and individualism, between society and individual freedom. These are themes that resonate well with Western readers. As the series progresses and things on Earth get more and more dire, Coyote becomes the shining beacon, the future of the human race. It’s hard not to feel good about a place like that.
In the previous book, Coyote Horizon, religious revolution came to Coyote in the form of an alien philosophy book. Human Hawk Thompson, putting the alien philosophies into practice, became the leader (chaaz’maha) of a powerful new cult. Coyote Horizon ended with Thompson’s death in a terrorist bombing that also destroyed the starbridge, thus severing Coyote’s link to Earth and the rest of the Galaxy.
After a brief prologue, Coyote Destiny opens twenty years later. The starbridge is rebuilt, but for some reason there has been no contact with Earth. Jorge Montero is recalled from an exploration mission, along with his comrade, Inez Torres, to find his world turned upside down.
For one thing, Inez (on whom Jorge has an unrequited crush) turns out to be Inez Sanchez, daughter of Hawk Thompson and Jorge’s cousin. For another, a ship from Earth has arrived with shocking news: Hawk Thompson, the chaaz’maha, survived the blast and is alive in Boston. And finally, the terrorist is also still alive, and loose somewhere on Coyote. And he’s planning worse.
So Jorge and Inez are off to Earth to find Hawk, while another group goes in search of the terrorist.
What follows is a story with plenty of action, adventure, politics, religion, exotic locales, and fascinating aliens. It brings the story to a satisfactory ending, but we can trust that this isn’t the last we’ll see of Coyote. I hope.
David Louis Edelman
Now let’s talk about a place you wouldn’t want to visit in person: the future of David Louis Edelman’s Jump 225 trilogy. It’s a crazy, dangerous world filled with crazy, dangerous people—and boy is it fun to read about!
If you’ve read the previous two books (Infoquake and MultiReal), please skip ahead while I attempt the impossible: describing Edelman’s madcap future in a nutshell.
Take one part Silicon Valley, one part Wall Street, one part Libertarian philosophy, and several large parts of neuro-biological nanotechnology. Stir together, add a few Machiavellian schemes and assorted psychopaths, connect the whole thing to a couple high-voltage lines, and allow to simmer for a few centuries. What you wind up with is a world of corporate power gone mad and software become the basis of reality. After the Autonomous Revolt of AIs devastated the world centuries ago, the tyrannical Defense and Wellness Council took control. Thousands of corporations (fiefcorps) market nanotech-based programs that run not on computers, but on, in, and around the human body itself. The road to success is to work for a fiefcorp that can become powerful enough to dominate.
Into this world is born Natch, a gifted programmer and total sociopath—which means he has just the skills he needs to succeed. Natch gets involved in a civil war between two of the world’s richest and most powerful people: Margaret Surina and Len Borda. Along the way, Natch gains access to a new technology called MultiReal, which allows the creation and manipulation of multiple realities. By the end of MultiReal, though, Natch is infected with Black Code, a mysterious virus that render him blind and helpless, and his side seems doomed to defeat. Meanwhile, violent rebellion against the Council has sprung up worldwide.
In Geosynchron, the concluding volume, Natch awakens and moves from peril to peril while the world falls apart around him. No, literally: MultiReal and similar technologies have become weapons in the civil war, weapons that threaten reality itself.
Edward M. Lerner
FoxAcre, 290 pages, $23.00 (trade paperback)
Series: InterstellarNet 1
Genre: Alien Beings
Natch might just be the only person who can save the world, but there are two huge obstacles to overcome. First, he has to save himself. And second, he has to be convinced that this world he ultimately despises is worth saving.
This is the kind of book that jumps you in a dark alley, steals your wallet, and races away daring you to keep up. It’s an adrenalin rush from beginning to end, and if it takes a few chapters to get your bearings, you don’t really mind. Don’t worry if you haven’t read the first two books: Geosynchron contains a helpful synopsis to get you up to speed.
Edward M. Lerner
Faster-than-light travel is such a commonplace convention in SF that we seldom consider the flip side: a universe in which FTL does not exist. In this book, a collection of short pieces that originally appeared in Analog and a few other venues, Edward M. Lerner uses such a universe to great effect.
Just because we can’t travel between the stars, there is no reason we can’t communicate with alien races. In the present day, a SETI-like program receives a signal from intelligent aliens. Before long, the U.N. gets in on the fun, settling the question of whether we should reply or not, and who’s going to be in charge of everything we learn.
Over time, Earth becomes part of InterstellarNet: a communications network based on trading intellectual property, new technologies, and the like. AI agents are put in charge of the negotiations, but there are still a lot of surprises.
These are mainly nice little puzzle stories, reminiscent of Isaac Asimov’s early robot stories. They’re certainly enjoyable enough. Even if you read the ones in Analog, you’ll get a few extra stories here—and it’s nice to have them all in the same volume.
A second volume is in preparation.
The Business of Science Fiction:
Two Insiders Discuss Writing and Publishing
Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg
Between them, Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg have published over 150 books. Both are legends in the field. When the two of them get together to discuss the state of SF and the publishing industry, who wouldn’t be interested in what they say?
Well, for more than a decade, these two hardworking writers have been doing just that in the pages of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Now 26 of these dialogues have been collected in one volume, and it’s every bit as fascinating, educational, and downright fun as you’d expect.
The topics break down into three main subject areas: Writing and Selling, The Business, and The Field. Under the first heading, topics range from the marketplace to conventions to collaborations. In the second section, they discuss such mysteries as agents, professionalism, print-on-demand, and the irresistible “really dumb ideas.” And in the third section these two writers, who have been part of the SF scene forever, talk about the history and future direction of the field.
Obviously, if you’re an aspiring writer (I think there are one or two still around), you won’t want to miss this volume. At $35 it might seem a little pricey, but if you think of it as a textbook for a writing class, it’s a bargain. One caveat, though—the publishing industry is currently in the grip of enormous changes, and what was good advice ten years ago might be less applicable two years from now. Still, an awful lot of what appears here is timeless.
For the non-writing fan of SF, this book might be a harder sell. If it helps, this is a fun and engaging read—Resnick and Malzberg are good writers, after all—and there’s a fair amount of interesting gossip about the SF publishing world (nothing salacious or titillating, I hasten to add). If you have any interest in what goes on behind the scenes of the books and magazines you read, this is a painless way to find out.