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The Reference Library
Tom Easton 

The Sunborn, Gregory Benford, Warner, $24.95,
330 pp.
(ISBN: 0446530581).

Gregory Benford’s The Martian Race (reviewed here in March 2000) left Julia and Viktor alone on a Mars made mysterious by underground fungoid life forms. As The Sunborn opens, we see the scene years later, when Earth has sent many more researchers under a corporate aegis more interested in the bottom line than in science. Fleeing a new manager, Viktor and Julia go exploring in a new location, find a rich trove of “Marsmat,” get the notion that it is somehow trying to communicate, and try an impromptu experiment that nearly electrocutes Viktor. Meanwhile, the corporate chieftain’s daughter, Captain Shanna Axelrod, is exploring Pluto, discovering unexpected warmth fueled by ion currents from beyond, finding life plagued by robotic “Darksiders,” and establishing communication with the aid of a computerized translator (known as Wiseguy).

So Axelrod sends a fast fusion-drive ship to Mars to pick up Julia and Viktor and haul them out to Pluto to help. Not that Shanna really thinks she needs help. She’s proud and prickly, not on terribly good terms with Dear Old Dad, and more than a bit jealous of Julia, the “Queen of Mars.” But they manage to work together, and when they plunge out past Pluto in search of the source of the ion currents that warm the outermost world and even energize its too-simple ecosystem, they discover a realm of intelligent Beings, some larger than worlds, constructed of plasma and compacted magnetic fields. After a suitable battle, Wiseguy helps with communication and the negotiations begin.

Earth is concerned that the heliopause is moving in toward the inner worlds, bringing with it a flood of interstellar hydrogen that threatens drastic effects on Earth’s climate and livability. Can the Beings help? Well, why should they? What can such tiny, cold things as humans offer them? Some Beings are curious about the inner worlds; they have even done interesting experiments. Some want nothing to do with them and even think humanity should be destroyed; they know how to throw rocks. But Julia is an insightful woman . . .

Benford has constructed a fascinating vision of the depths of space, populating it with aliens as interesting and as vital as his human characters, who suffer a bit because most of the time his focus is more on the vision than on the people. All in all, The Sunborn is excellent fare for hard SF fans, Benford fans, and all who want to know what happened to Julia and Viktor.


The Unhandsome Prince,
John Moore, Ace,
266 pp.
(ISBN: 0441012876).

Every genre has its comedians. In SF&F, prominent names in recent years have been Robert Asprin, Terry Pratchett, and now John Moore. None are really slapstick enough to call them “The Three Stooges of SF&F,” but they definitely display a gift for comedy.

Moore’s maiden effort was Heroics for Beginners (reviewed here in December 2004), in which he played fun games with the Evil Overlord Manual. Now he brings us The Unhandsome Prince, which begins with Caroline, the most beautiful girl in the Kingdom of Melinower, industriously kissing every frog in the local swamp.

Why? Well, seven weeks previous, Prince Hal, sent by his royal dad to steal the philosopher’s stone from the local witch, got caught. With a cackle of glee, witch Amanda turned poor Hal into a mobile flycatcher and tossed him into the goop. Then she passed the word that if any of the local girls could find him and kiss him, she would marry a handsome prince. Soon thereafter, she died, meaning that nobody could then ask her what the heck she thought she was up to.

Alas, Caroline is not impressed. Prince Hal turns out to have distinctly dweebish looks. But he’s her ticket out of the village, so, accompanied by the witch’s daughter Emily, an apprentice witch who seems to like Hal a bit too much for Caroline’s taste, off they go to see the Big City, the Palace, and the Royal Family, which is well up to its ears in debt. Hal’s brothers, it turns out, are much more handsome than he, though Kenny is an abysmal jerk and Jeff seems to be an accountant. Add in a magic sword, Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel, a tourney, and an incipient expulsion of the Jews (as in Spain, a handy way to cancel an overload of debt), and you have a thoroughly scrambled fairy tale that works quite well. Thanks to a key word in the witch’s promise, the girls even get the right guys and “happily ever after” looks like a genuine possibility.

Have fun!

The Well of Stars,
Robert Reed, Tor,
299 pp.
(ISBN: 0765308606).

In Marrow (reviewed here in January 2001), Robert Reed gave us a vast starship the size of a world, barreling into the Milky Way from beyond. Robot craft from thousands of species and worlds flew out to meet it and goggle at the monstrous rocket nozzles protruding from its backside. Then come the living beings, and humans—highly engineered and virtually immortal—won possession, learned that the great Ship was apparently as old as the universe, repaired the Ship’s assorted systems, and invited others to come aboard, for a price. In time, over the millennia, the Ship came to contain billions of individuals of thousands of species. Some made the Ship home. Some found it a convenient way to travel through the galaxy. And then the Captains discovered that at the core of the Ship was a vault containing a cargo (perhaps a being) as old as the Ship. Exploration led to disaster and, millennia later, rebellion.

But the rebellion was put down. When The Well of Stars opens, the damaged Ship is being repaired. Miocene, the Ship’s captain, is now little more than a figurehead. Washen, at the beginning of Marrow a mere meeter and greeter of aliens, is now second in command by title but first by function. And the Ship is headed toward an inky black nebula known as the Ink Well, whose neighboring worlds report visits by oversized versions of their natives. Investigation reveals signs of life throughout the nebula: the sparks of fusion reactions, vast rivers of dust and water, movement, and a darker zone soon dubbed the Satin Sack. A visit discovers the polypond, a world-sized glob of water and chemicals; a huge being that seems quite cooperative. The Ship’s course cannot be changed? Then it must sweep a channel clear so the Ship’s passage will do no damage.

But soon it is clear that the polypond knows of Marrow and its cargo, wants access to it, and is plotting an irresistible assault on the Ship. Whether it succeeds or not, Reed now has the opportunity for a battle that outdoes all sfnal precedent for scale and special effects (sfx).

But his effort only succeeds on that level. This isn’t a character novel, but it necessarily has characters, and when characters live for millennia, they are impossible to describe convincingly. Perhaps worse, Reed has to pull several rabbits out of his hat at the end to bring about the conclusion he needs. There is the seventh Theory of Everything that no one believes, but that nevertheless provides the polypond’s motivation. There is the discovery, thanks to a bit of genetic analysis and the ancestral records of one of the Ship’s many species, of the polypond’s true nature. There is an ugly wad of alien psychoanalysis. There is the inspired improvisation, in the best tradition of 1930s SF, for the attack on the unbeatable ultimate weapon. And there is the new villain that pulls the last chestnut out of the fire and means there must be at least one more book in the series.

Glorious enough for scale and sfx to make this one fun for many readers. Less glorious for character and excessive reliance on the waving of magic wands. The combination means that this one is unlikely to win awards.

Sunstorm: A Time Odyssey 2,
Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter,
Del Rey,
328 pp.
(ISBN: 034545250X).

Arthur C. Clarke’s and Stephen Baxter’s Time’s Eye (reviewed here in June 2004) gave us an Earth transformed into a patchwork of eras, climates, geographies, and peoples by some mysterious power, apparently represented by silvery spheres that floated in the air to watch how Russian astronauts coped when they met Genghiz Khan, British tommies met australopithecines, a UN squad from the Afghanistan front met the tommies, and everyone went up against Alexander the Great. Brit Bisesa Durt, a UN observer, found the Big Ball in the Temple of Marduk in Babylon and after suitable revelations, found herself in her London flat, her daughter quite surprised to see her, and the sky outside looking pretty weird.

Sunstorm picks up the tale immediately thereafter, when Mikail, a solar weather analyst on the Moon, notices a massive sunspot just as hyper-genius theoretician Eugene (such a cutie!) arrives to say it’s all just as he predicted: Big storm coming, and worse ahead—Earth has just five years before it fries. Meanwhile, England’s Royal Astronomer Siobhan McGorran is coping with the results of the current flare—think global EMP!—and getting drafted to Do Something, which means, as soon as Eugene’s predictions grab attention, going to the Moon to talk to the experts and begin trying to figure out how to block a massive solar flare.

The tale advances by leaping considerable chunks of time to show the progress being made. Yes, the characters stay with the story, and yes, they get involved with each other, though this is hardly a character story. Yes, there are methods that might work. Yes, they require beggaring the world economy, and tapping new reserves of ingenuity, and finally clinging to the edge of the cliff by our fingernails before . . .  Well, the ultimate outcome, at least for this book, is fairly predictable.

But then . . .  Eugene lives for his computer models, and just because he’s spotted the biggest-ever disaster headed straight toward us, he’s hardly about to quit. Not at all, and now the models reveal that the disaster is no accident. It was made to happen.

So there’s an enemy, and we’re mad. There could well be a third volume in that . . .

Gil's All Fright Diner,
A. Lee Martinez,
268 pp.,
trade paper
($12.95, ISBN: 0765314711) and simultaneous hardcover
($23.95, ISBN: 0765311437).

A. Lee Martinez’s Gil’s All Fright Diner is a fun visit to the sort of horror fiction—loaded with eldritch horrors eager to erupt into the here and now—that was once all too common. As it opens, Duke the werewolf and Earl the vampire are rattling down the road in an old pickup, almost out of gas. Fortunately, they come to a diner. Unfortunately, Duke thinks he smells zombies, and as they’re having a bite, here they come.

Loretta, the diner’s owner, fetches her shotgun, but Duke and Earl don’t need a lot of help. On the other hand, they figure, Loretta does, so they decide to stick around for awhile, do a few chores to earn a full tank of gas, and so on. Pretty soon, Martinez introduces Tammy, or Mistress Lilith, Queen of the Night. She’s just a teenaged bimbo, but she has a copy of the Necronomicon plus ambitions to release the Elder Gods so they can erase the human world and make her the queen-pin. Bwah-Ha-Ha-Ha! There’s also Cathy, a ghost guarding the local cemetery (whence come the zombies), and pretty soon she and Earl are romantically interested in each other. Toss in some undead cattle and the mystic potency of pig latin, and you can see how much fun Martinez is having. Fortunately, her writing skills are great enough that you should have fun too. And if there’s any justice in this world, Martinez is already working on a sequel to star Duke, Earl, Cathy, and the ghost of a plucky little dog.


Pay the Piper,
Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple,
Tor Starscape,
176 pp.
(ISBN: 0765311585).

Got a young teen girl in the family? Jane Yolen and her son, musician Adam Stemple, launch their “rock ‘n’ roll fairy tale” series with Pay the Piper, in which fourteen-year-old Callie (for Calcephony, of all things!) McCallan just has to go to the Brass Rat concert. Her parents are pure-quill fuddy-duddies, but Callie’s a smart kid—she wangles a press pass from the school paper, and tells the folks it’s homework. Then it turns out the parental units are Brass Rat fans from waay back, and it’s cool, even if they want to go too, along with kid brother Nick.

It feels a bit weird, for Brass Rat’s members don’t seem to have changed much since the folks were fans. There’s flautist Gringras, drummer Alabas, and guitarist Scott, and we know from the start that Gringras is the piper, the same one that led the children out of Hamelin Town so many centuries ago.

But Callie doesn’t know that, not until she overhears the concert promoter stiffing the group for their fee, no matter that Gringras “must send silver or gold or souls Under the Hill  . . .  to pay off a blood guilt, a teind.” Then she sees Gringras playing for three dancing rats in the alley. And soon thereafter, all the kids in town disappear.

But Callie has an inkling, and despite the nigh-irresistible urge to dance mindlessly after the missing, she finds an ally and vows to rescue them all. Since it’s a fairy tale, the only mystery lies in just how she manages it, and I won’t spoil the fun by saying more. A young teen will love it, younger kids too, perhaps even kids so young you must read it to them, and then you can all look forward to the next in the series.

The World as it Shall Be,
Emile Souvestre,
trans. Margaret Clarke,
Wesleyan University Press,
249 + xxvi pp.
(ISBN: 0819566152).

When histories of SF look back, they miss a great deal. Fortunately, Wesleyan University Press is helping to fill in the gaps. One recent book was Robida’s The Twentieth Century, first published in France in 1882 (and reviewed here in October 2004); it was in the old mode of projective futurism, considering at length and with astonishing perceptiveness the social impacts of technological and economic changes. Emile Souvestre’s The World As It Shall Be first appeared in 1846 and took a dystopian view of the year 3000. The aim was to consider social trends (notably capitalism and the infatuation with progress) more than technological trends, to extrapolate them in roughly linear fashion, and thus to show people what a mess things would be “if this goes on.” It is thus a dystopian satire, and its aim was more to change the present than to portray a genuinely possible future.

Souvestre was a prolific writer of countryside (Breton) tales who here reacts against earlier utopian tales. Nevertheless he is working at the very dawn of la litterature futuriste (newly named in 1834) and his book is the first major dystopia. His translator, Margaret Clarke, has done an excellent job of making his antique French comprehensible, though the style will require getting used to. The introduction by I. F. Clarke very nicely sets the book in its context.


No Cover Available

The 2004 Rhysling Anthology: The Best of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Poetry of 2003,
Drew Morse, ed. (Rhysling Chair),
Science Fiction Poetry Association,
available from Dark Regions press,
64 pp.
(ISBN: 1888993405).

Every year, the Science Fiction Poetry Association awards its Rhysling Awards for best long and short poems in the fields of SF, fantasy, and horror. The 2004 Rhysling Anthology presents the 2003 works members of the SFPA deemed worthy as contenders for the awards. If you have any taste for this side of the SFF field, it’s an excellent chapbook to acquire. Sources for the material include major genre magazines, small press magazines, and single-author chapbooks (such as Mike Allen’s Petting the Time Shark). The poets covered include Diane Ackerman, Mike Allen, Bruce Boston, John Grey, David Kopaska-Merkel, Maureen McHugh, Steve Sneyd, John Teehan, Ian Watson, and many more. The poems themselves vary widely in approach, content, and cleverness. I liked Allen’s “How I Will Outwit the Time Thieves,” Grey’s “Night of the Living Dead,” Kopaska-Merkel’s “The Mad Scientist Has All the Time in the World,” and Teehan’s “What to Do When an Alien Spacecraft Lands and the Visitors Come Out to Greet You” (for one thing, “If you own a tractor or pet pig, hide them before giving any major interviews”).

American Science Fiction TV: Star Trek, Stargate and Beyond,
Jan Johnson Smith,
Wesleyan University Press,
308 + x pp.
(ISBN: 0819567388).

It has been forty years since Star Trek brought modern SF to TV. That show was remarkable for the time, but looking back, the sets were pretty cheesy and the sfx were feeble. But it was enough to establish SF in a new realm, a successor to the Western that found a new frontier to resonate with the American ethos. In the ’80s and ’90s, new computer technology made CGI (computer-generated imagery) sfx possible, and TV SF became something much more striking.

This is the sequence explored in Jan Johnson Smith’s American Science Fiction TV: Star Trek, Stargate and Beyond. Smith pays due attention to the SF background and such critical contributions as Darko Suvin’s novum, the place of the sublime (a.k.a. “sense of wonder”), and the new notion of “televisuality,” which means roughly the vast improvement in TV imagery that appeared in the ’80s. He then surveys series such as Stargate, Farscape, and Babylon 5 for narrative techniques, political and social commentary, and assorted other themes dear to the heart of media critics, concluding that “Science fiction television can [now] take on the mantle of a new kind of visual American mythos  . . .  which the elegiac Western could never actually do, time-tied as it was by the closure of a very real frontier.”

Just the ticket if you want to understand what’s going on with TV SF. It might even help answer the question of where the fans are going, and why.

Beam: The Race to Make the Lazer,
Jeff Hecht,
Oxford University Press,
274 + x
(ISBN: 0195142101).

As a science fiction writer, Jeff Hecht has appeared in these pages. As a science journalist, he works for New Scientist magazine, and he has tracked fiber optics and lasers for many years. The latest fruit of his efforts is Beam: The Race to Make the Laser, in which he follows the story from the early ’50s, when the hot news dealt with masers, until a decade later, when “the laser race was fading as news.”

The focus is firmly on the people who wanted to be the first to build an “optical maser,” and the big labs (such as Bell Labs) that pumped money into the project. There is ego and competition, insights and stumbles, insanities such as the way the FBI confiscated the notebooks of Gordon Gould, a nonconformist in the ’50s, when nonconformism equated to traitor, because he wasn’t cleared to see them. And then there is the grand story of the little guy, Theodore Maiman, who, working at Hughes Research Laboratory, was the first to make a ruby rod laser, with a setup so astonishingly elegant and simple that others could quickly repeat the work working from little more than newspaper clippings. It seems a shame that Maiman never got a share of a Nobel Prize for his contribution.

It also seems a shame that Oxford University Press can’t afford proofreaders good enough to catch errors such as “laser bean” (p. 223). But there are only a few such slips. The book is well worth the attention of anyone interested in the history of science and technology.

"The Reference Library" copyright 2005, Tom Easton
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