Friday, June 26, 2009

SF Universe #1 (May 1988)

Here is another reprint of old reviews. This was my first column for the Wilson Library Bulletin, originally published in the May 1988 issue.


“Science fiction,” I told my boss, “is like olives. Either you cultivate a taste for it, or you can’t stand it. Very few people are in between.” She just smiled and shook her head. She does that a lot.

While I know that many of you have cultivated the taste (for science fiction, not olives), I’m also aware that most of you have not. I won’t be offended if you’re one of those who hates it. Yet you want to do the best you can for your patrons and customers who do fancy the stuff. Well, I think I can help.

A few words of introduction, and then we can get down to business. I’m a science fiction writer and public library paraprofessional. From my base here at Dons Acres, I’ll be giving you periodic updates about what’s happening in the world of sf. (Yes, some people call it sci-fi -- but to someone in the field, that’s a little bit like picturing librarians as wrinkled, grey-haired old women.)

The great John W. Campbell once defined the genre this way: “Science fiction is what science fiction editors buy,” and that's the definition I intend to use. Thus, when I refer to sf you can assume that I mean the related genres of science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction as well as the occasional piece of nonfiction.

Now let’s to work.

Mike Resnick is a dependable storyteller whose unusual characters and settings are nicely original. The Dark Lady, which is set against the interstellar art world of the 70th Century, is no exception.

The narrator is Leonardo, a nonhuman art appraiser working for a large gallery on the planet Far London. Without quite knowing how, the meek Leonardo finds himself embroiled in a mystery when he runs across several paintings of the same dark-haired woman...paintings done thousands of years apart.

In pursuit of this Dark Lady, Leonardo is thrown into association with misanthropic collectors, art thieves, mad artists and even a bounty hunter or two. He risks his status, courts banishment from his home world, and eventually hazards his life before learning the secret of the Dark Lady -- a secret that will change him forever.

The background is fascinating and the central enigma tantalyzing -- but ultimately the success of The Dark Lady is in Leonardo himself, and his progression from a timid creature of the herd to something more Human...and far more interesting.


A relatively recent phenomenon is sf publishing is that of the shared world anthology. A number of authors write stories set in a common world; their characters reappear in each others tales, sometimes the same events are retold from a different viewpoint. Shared worlds are usually fun for both writers and readers, and publishers like them because they sell well.

Fever Season is the most recent volume of tales set in C. J. Cherryh's Merovingen Nights world. (The first was Cherryh's novel Angel With the Sword, followed by the shared world anthology Festival Moon.)

At the mouth of the Det River on the world Merovin is the city Merovingen, a city reminiscent of a mixture of ancient Constantinople, medieval Venice and modern New Orleans. Barefoot traders and smugglers ply the canals of Merovingen while murderers and thieves lurk in the shadows; meanwhile, in the perfumed apartments of the upper class, nobles pursue their Byzantine schemes for wealth and power.

It is fever season in Merovingen: moving with the yearly plague is something darker, more treacherous -- war and betrayal. Thomas Mondragon is the one man who can keep the city from exploding...and Mondragon lies immobile in his fine house, a secret victim of the fever. His friends -- a rifraff collection of canalers, spies and traitors -- are the last hope of the beleaguered city.

And the fever still spreads...

Shared world anthologies, almost by their nature, are disjointed. Fever Season, though, has a coherence that others of its type lack. Indeed, it reads more like a collaborative novel than a collection of short stories. Cherryh, who serves as editor for the series, has done her homework. Not only do transition chapters link the various chapters, but the volume contains an appendix with maps, an explanation of diseases and treatments, and even a few songs.

All this work shows: Fever Season is captivating, and weaves a spell of pseudo-reality that persists after you finish the book. SF fans who like shared worlds will love it; a reader of historicals who is looking for something a little different would not, I think, be disappointed.


One of the most original new voices in science fiction is that of Melissa Scott. In 1986 she won the Campbell Award, given by fans to the best new writer of the year. Time has proven that the fans were not mistaken.

The book that established her reputation was Five-Twelfths of Heaven, published in 1985. The next year saw publication of a sequel, Silence in Solitude. Now, at last, the trilogy is complete...and the final book, The Empress of Earth, more than fulfills the promise of the earlier books.

To read The Empress of Earth is to step into Melissa Scott's world -- and a delightful world it is. In this universe, Einsteinian physics has been supplanted by a new physics based on the teachings of Aristotle and the Hermetic sciences of the Middle Ages. Magi study the mystical arts while satraps and Hegemons rule over a vast empire.

In the hands of a lesser writer, we might have wound up with a retelling of the Arabian Nights. Instead, Scott has made Hermetic magic the basis for a whole technology. Her Magi are the scientists of this universe; starships fly through the mystical dimension called Purgatory in order to reach distant worlds; and the Hegemon’s empire is one of planets, not deserts.

Into this universe comes Silence Leigh: a woman who has learned the male skills of piloting and magic. With her two husbands and her teacher Isambard, Silence has conquered every obstacle to her goal of finding the way to lost Earth. She has the skill, she has an ancient star map that shows the safe road to Earth -- and she has the help of the Hegemon himself.

The road is difficult, but what lies at the end is harder; for Earth is under the control of the despotic Rose Worlds, and great mystical siege engines block the way. Silence Leigh has overcome every obstacle so far...but can even this remarkable woman bring freedom to Earth?

Empress of Earth is a gourmet feast for those who like science fiction. The mystical technology is so well-conceived and exhaustively thought-out, that by the end you will find yourself convinced that it is real. The characters are finely drawn and will soon become fast friends: crusty Isambard, stolid Chase Mago, wily Balthasar, and of course the indomitable Silence herself. The action is nonstop; plan on losing sleep because you won’t be able to put it down.

Indeed, Empress of Earth has only one flaw, although it is a major one: however devoutly we wish otherwise, the book ends.

Any sf reader will love this book...and those who have not yet acquired the taste might give it a try. I guarantee, its not at all what you expect.



The Dark Lady by Mike Resnick. Tor, November 1987. $3.50. 279 pages.

Merovingen Nights #2: Fever Season edited by C.J. Cherryh. DAW, October 1987. $3.50. 297 pages.

The Empress of Earth by Melissa Scott. Baen, November 1987. $3.50. 346 pages.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

September Column Online

My September 2009 column is here.

There's not really a theme this time around. Books reviewed:
  • Hylozoic by Rudy Rucker
  • Buyout by Alexander C. Irvine
  • Flinx Transcendent by Alan Dean Foster
  • The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction Volume 3 edited by George Mann

Comment here or on the Analog Reader Forums.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Reviews From March 1987

Here is another set of retro-reviews. These appeared in the Baltimore Sun on March 8, 1987 and Philadelphia Daily News around the same time.


Foundation and Earth. Isaac Asimov. Doubleday. 365 pages. $16.95.

Foundation and Earth begins just after its predecessor, Foundation's Edge ended, in the five-hundredth year of the Foundation. Golan Trevize has just made a choice that will alter the direction of Human history; now, in the course of second-thoughts, he finds that he must locate the legendary planet Earth. Along with his companion Janov Pelorat and Bliss, a woman of the collective intelligence known as "Gaia," he sets out to locate the lost home planet of the Human Race.

On the way, Trevize and his friends visit five strange and different worlds. On each they find menace, and finally they face the greatest danger...and the end of their search...when they find Old Earth at last.

In a way, this should be the greatest of the "Foundation" books. Certainly the ending is mind-boggling enough. And yet, somehow the book seems to just miss its mark. The unexplained events are too unexplained; the subtle mind-tampering is too obvious; the odd characters are a little too odd for comfort. Again and again the reader mutters to himself: "There's no for thus-and-so to happen that way -- therefore it must be part of someone's unrevealed plan."

This does worse than spoiling the reader's enjoyment at the slow unfolding of an intricate plot; it blunts the impact of the final scene, so that when we reach the last chapter and find out just who has been manipulating Human history for twenty thousand years, it is a letdown. What could have been the most stunning revelation in science fiction hits the reader like the slap of a wet dishrag.

Judged in comparison with other novels of the year, Foundation's Edge is superb. As a continuation of the "Foundation" series, however, or in comparison to Asimov's other recent science fiction, it falls short. This is a good book, yes...but it is not a great book.

Marooned in Realtime. Vernor Vinge. Bluejay. 270 pages. $17.95.

Marooned in Realtime is a cracking good story that leaves the reader with plenty to think about.

In the late 23rd century, Mankind suddenly vanished from the earth. The only survivors were those who had previously frozen themselves in time, using a new technology known as "bobbling." Those who bobbled did so for a great variety of reasons -- incurable diseases, a desire to see the future, hope of becoming rich through multiplying investments. Some, like 21st-century cop Wil Brierson, were unwillingly bobbled.

Now, fifty million years after the Extinction, high-tech survivors under the leadership of Marta Korolev have gathered the only remaining Human beings to start a new world. Only a few hundred people exist, drawn from across the two centuries preceeding the Extinction. Many of the low-techs -- those from the earlier ages -- resent the rule of Marta Korolev and her fellow high-techs.

Then, suddenly, Marta is murdered in a spectacular and heartless way. Someone, it appears, wants the Human settlement to fail. But who? And when will they strike next?

Wil Brierson, the only detective left on earth, must solve the mystery...or watch Humanity's last chance for survival disappear.

Vernor Vinge draws fine characters and writes a compelling plot. Brierson's inner conflicts work in tandem with the contention in the Human community. In and around the whole murder investigation flows the greater mystery of the Extinction. Was Humanity slaughtered by hostile alien invaders, or did Mankind reach a pinnacle of knowledge and go on to some unimaginable other dimensions?

In the end, almost all the mysteries are solved -- the only loose ends are those which will leave you pondering the future of Mankind and of the earth for weeks after you finish the book.

Winter in Eden. Harry Harrison. Bantam. 399 pages. $18.95.

Winter in Eden in a sequel to the highly successful West of Eden. Once again Harry Harrison returns us to an Earth on which the dinosaurs never perished. The Yilane are the intelligent descendants of the great reptiles, and they rule the world. But the Yilane have rivals: the Tanu, the Human folk of this alternate world. The first book told of the beginning of the conflict between Yilane and Tanu, a conflict that would decide who would ultimately rule.

Now another ice age threatens, and the Yilane must move to warmer climates or die. So they are driven to conquer Human territory.

The delight in this book is the detail of Harrison's alternate earth. This is one of the most fully realized worlds in science fiction; the author has created languages, mythologies and whole biologies that are completely coherent and ring totally true. What J.R.R. Tolkien did for high fantasy, Harry Harrison has done for the genre of alternate history.

Winter in Eden is billed as the second book of a trilogy. Harrison could fill a dozen trilogies, fully exploring the world of the Yilane. If he does stop at only three books, then we the readers will be all the poorer.

Double Nocturne. Cynthia Felice. Bluejay. 330 pages. $16.95.

In Double Nocturne, Cynthia Felice has produced a dense, almost impenetrable book set on a colony planet whose society has become a feudal matriarchy. Into this world comes Tom Hark, a young technician sent from civilization to repair the colony's defective Artificial Intelligence...a kind of super-computer that guides the development of the colony.

Thus we are presented with three of science fiction's oldest cliches: the computer that takes over the world, the medieval society in the future, and the planet where the women are in charge. Of course Tom Hark's ship crashes, and of course he is taken captive by the Amazons of the planet. And of course there is an all-powerful religion to contend with, as well as a war going on...

Readers new to science fiction, or those who like variations on the same old tired themes, may like Double Nocturne. For everyone else, it is hardly worth the trouble.

The Starry Rift. James Tiptree, Jr. Tor. 250 pages. $14.95.

James Tiptree, Jr. (who is in reality Alice Sheldon) has a knack for wrapping the most elusive, abstract ideas in the most lyrical prose, thereby giving us all a glimpse of the reality that underlies life. The Starry Rift is a collection of three long stories, all set in the same future universe, in which she successfully tackles courage, love and truth in one big package.

The Starry Rift of the title is a vast, empty bit of space at the extreme frontier of the Federation. We read the tales of three different voyagers into the Rift, and each one is as delightful as it is mesmerising.

In "The Only Neat Thing to Do," (a Nebula Award nominee), a rich teenager in search of excitement finds one of the most original alien races in science fiction...and discovers what bravery is all about. "Good Night, Sweethearts" deals with a travelling Salvage officer who saves a space liner from pirates and confronts not one but two versions of a woman he loved and lost long ago. And in the final tale, "Collision," an interstellar war can be prevented only if two exploration crews -- one Human and one alien -- can see beyond misconceptions, illusions and hatred to the truth about one another.

Tiptree is a master of language and of character. Moreover, she manages to reach inside a reader and make him or her care, and care deeply, about the imaginary folk and worlds she creates. In all ways, she is a truly great writer, perhaps the greatest in science fiction today.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Songs of Distant Earth (1986)

This is another reprint review. It first appeared in the Baltimore Sun and Philadelphia Daily News in 1986.

The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke. Ballantine. $17.95. 256 pages

When "science fiction" is mentioned, Arthur Clarke's name is sure to come up. Even before he burst into public prominence with 2001: A Space Odyssey, he was a respected leader in the field. Although he ranks with such Golden Age giants as Asimov and Heinlein, Clarke's literary background has always been just a bit different. Born and raised in Somerset, England, his style owes as much to Wells, Huxley and Stapledon as it does to early American pulp sf writers like Smith, Campbell and Simak. Clarke's science is precise and his extrapolations exact; yet he writes in a lyrical style filled with a consciousness of the beauties of life.

More than a decade ago Clarke announced his retirement from writing -- since then, he has produced a string of "last" books ranging from the award-winning Rendezvous with Rama to his last runaway bestseller 2010: Odyssey Two, to several collections of nonfiction essays. Each "last book" is eagerly awaited, and each seems better than its predecessors. The Songs of Distant Earth is no exception.

Longtime Clarke readers will recognize the title; this book is loosely based on a 1957 short story. Those who have read the earlier work need not worry -- this current version is immeasurably better.

The story is set on the planet Thalassa: a watery world settled seven hundred years ago by automated seeder ships sent out by a doomed Earth to colonize the stars. The Thalassans are a gentle folk; the builders of the seed ships saw to it that only the best of Human knowledge went out into the universe with their progeny. The Thalassans have never known war, jealousy, murder or hate. They also have never known Earth -- except in age-old records, computerized databanks and music.

Into this tranquil garden comes an unexpected visitor: the starship Magellan, which carries the last survivors of the nova that destroyed Earth.

For the crewmen of Magellan, haunted by memories of Earth's destruction, Thalassa is merely a way-station; a planned stop where they can obtain supplies and make repairs. Earthmen and Thalassans face one another across a gap much wider than the lightyears that Magellan has travelled -- a gap of cultures. The Earthfolk bring many gifts to the Thalassans, but they also bring a threat. The people of Earth carry with them a heritage of passion, war and jealousy -- all the worst possibilities of Earth's culture, which Thalassa's creators labored so hard to eliminate. Magellan's visit lasts only one year -- but the effects of that visit will change Thalassan history forever.

The Songs of Distant Earth is written in a marvelously understated style which firmly guides the reader's imagination without stifling it. This technique is especially evocative in Clarke's descriptions of the violence of Earth's final days -- images of the melting Pyramids and boiling seas are haunting well after the book is done.

Although the clash of cultures is the main theme of The Songs of Distant Earth, the book abounds in well-drawn characters, both Earthmen and Thalassans. No character is more memorable than Earthman Moses Kaldor: a philosopher and religious leader, grief-stricken at the loss of his home world and his beloved wife. In Thalassa's timeless winds and gentle people he at last finds peace.

This book can be seen as a symbol of Clarke's concern with clashing cultures here on Earth -- it is easy to read the Earthmen as rich, decadent and corrupting Westerners, and the Thalassans as the third-world inhabitants of Clarke's own beloved Sri Lanka. But Clarke's message is no simplistic diatribe against the West; instead, he demonstrates the commonality of human experience, and shows how even two widely divergant cultures can each learn from one another. When Magellan departs, both Earthmen and Thalassans are much better off.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

November Column Submitted

Early this morning I finished and submitted my column for the November 2009 issue. In honor of the cover date and in the spirit of Thanksgiving, it's a very foody column. You'll see.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Star of Gypsies (1986)

Here's another reprint. This review appeared in The Baltimore Sun in 1986.


Star of Gypsies by Robert Silverberg. Donald I. Fine, Inc. 397 pages. $18.95.

Robert Silverberg is undeniably one of the modern masters of science fiction. His career began in the late 1950s with a long apprenticeship writing sf potboilers; by the end of the sixties he had moved on to more mature works that earned him a place in the forefront of the so-called "New Wave" movement. The "New Wave" stressed characterization and literary quality over straight action/adventure tales and stories in which the characters were little more than vehicles for scientific ideas. Silverberg had found his metier, and in years to come his skill would only improve.

Despite several announced retirements and a rather strong mid-seventies denial that he was a science-fiction writer at all (this rejection of the sf label seems to be a stage through which all of the New Wave writers had to pass sooner or later), Silverberg keeps returning to the field. And each return brings work that is stronger, broader, more vital.

The action/adventure phase gave way to emotionally powerful novels of near-future Earths : The World Inside is a masterful study of overpopulation taken to its extreme; To Live Again examines a world in which the recorded personalities of the dead are implanted in the minds of the living; and The Second Trip is an ultimate Jekyll-and-Hyde story. These seminal works guaranteed Silverberg a place in the higher ranks of sf writers; then his output moved away from the field, into almost-mainstream psychological novels that merely borrowed science-fictional themes.

In 1980 Silverberg returned to the field with a vengeance. Lord Valentine's Castle is a sprawling epic set on the far-future planet of Majipoor, the story of Lord Valentine's quest to find the great castle where he can claim his birthright. Majipoor is a world in which science fiction and fantasy become inextricably entwined: Lord Valentine's Castle and its companion books join the exalted ranks of those sf novels that actually become part of the genre of legend and myth. This new Silverberg, building upon all the strengths of his previous incarnations, is a modern successor to Homer, Virgil and John Milton: he is a teller of tales and a maker of myths.

Star of Gypsies is his best -- and most original -- foray into this new area.

In the hands of a lesser writer, the story would be prosaic: the bare bones of the plot concern a succession crisis in a future Galactic Empire, the telling of which is interspersed with flashbacks of the main character's life and travels to various worlds in the Empire and beyond. Hardly the stuff of myth. But Silverberg, master wordsmith and alchemist of the imagination, has touched this rather ordinary story, and turned it into something unexpected and wonderful.

The main character is Yakoub, King of Gypsies. In this future Empire, the Rom (as the Gypsies call themselves) have risen to Galactic power based on their mystical talents. Yakoub tells us the story of his long life, of the magnificent history of the Rom, and of the destiny of his people. For the Rom are not of Earth at all, and one day they will return to their long-lost homeworld, a small planet circling far-off Romany Star.

It is Yakoub who makes this story live. Centuries old, wise and yet humanly foolish, irreverant and bawdy, Yakoub is the embodiment of his people. It is Yakoub who brings reality to the absurd medieval Empire, to the ghosts and visions that pepper his story, to the wild and amazing places he has been. Who would believe a planet where rainbow fish swim through solid ice, or a world on which gold is plentiful as sand, or the living hell of Mentiroso where the very air makes you afraid? We believe, because Yakoub tells us it is so, and we feel we can trust Yakoub.

The universe of Star of Gypsies is a vast and marvelous one; Yakoub is one of the most finely-drawn and sheerly enjoyable characters in modern science fiction. From the moment you open the cover, you are drawn into Yakoub's world -- like Scheherezade, he will captivate you, entertain you, tell you of wonders and long-ago lands and a thousand things of which you never dreamed.

But Silverberg is a fine storyteller, and Yakoub is more than an old man reminiscing over his past. Together, they take the reader on a journey whose every step is well-planned, a journey toward a destination every bit as satisfying as the rest of the book. To reveal Yakoub's destiny -- which is the destiny of his people and of the whole Galaxy -- would be to cheat the reader out of one of the most enjoyable experiences of the year. Open the cover...put yourself into the hands of Silverberg and Yakoub. You will not regret embarking upon this journey.



(26 June 2009): I received an email from Robert Silverberg, which contains the following factual correction:

I never denied that I was a science-fiction writer. That was Ellison. When I retired "forever" in 1975, I simply said that I was tired of writing. (And I was.) But I never claimed that I was anything but an s-f writer, and I still am willing to admit to it.

I'm happy to have the chance to set the record straight, even if it is 23 years later.