Monday, August 31, 2009

Reviews From September 1985

Here's another retro-review. This appeared in the Baltimore Sun on 15 September 1985.


Footfall. Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle. Del Rey. 495 pages. $17.95.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are the most successful writing team in science fiction. Footfall, their latest offering, is a delight in more ways than one. At heart, it is an old-fashioned story of alien invasion: a mysterious spaceship arrives from outside the Solar System, attacks Earth, and lands alien troops to conquer the planet. The story is well-told and the suspense finely-crafted -- not until the very last page do we know the final outcome. There is heroism and cowardice, fear and bravery, and believable characters both Human and alien.

While undeniably science fiction, Footfall contains enough realism to satisfy any reader of LeCarre, Higgins, or Cussler. It particularly shines in portraying the top brass of the Soviet Union reacting to the invasion. The scenes set in the Kremlin are among the most fascinating in the novel.

Niven and Pournelle don't stint in their treatment of the aliens, either. The fithp, who resemble baby elephants, are a fully-realized and interesting race with a psychology at once alien and comprehensible, fully the equal of Niven's famous Puppeteers, Kzinti, or Protectors.

Footfall is brilliant, compelling, and as completely satisfying as a seven-course dinner at a fine restaurant. It is a sure bet to wind up on the ballots for next year's Hugo and Nebula awards. For the price, this is possibly the best bargain around.

The Invaders Plan. L. Ron Hubbard. Bridge Publications, Inc. 603 pages. $18.95.

The Invaders Plan may be the finest science fiction novel of 1933. Certainly it has nothing -- in ideas, plot, characterization, or writing -- to commend it to an audience in the 1980s.

This book, itself almost as long as the author's massive bestseller Battlefield Earth, is the first volume in a promised (or threatened?) series of ten billed as "the biggest science fiction dekalogy ever written."

The plot is simplistic. The 110-planet Voltarian Confederacy is involved in an endless interstellar war of conquest -- but the nefarious Lombar Hisst has plans of his own. Hisst heads the Apparatus: a division of the Confederacy government that seems devoted to torture, espionage, and other dreadful doings. Hisst sends the narrator, one Soltan Gris, to the planet Blito-P3 (Earth) in the company of a virtuous Space Patrol agent named Jettero Heller. Gris and Heller are supposed to infiltrate Earth's society and turn our world into a weapon for Hisst's dastardly schemes.

The rest of the story is as pathetic as it is predictable. Noble Heller defeats the scheming Gris at every turn, remaining perfectly loyal to the Confederacy and derailing the Apparatus plans.

The writing is worthy of a talented ten-year-old. Hubbard's paragraphs are sprinkled with childish outcries, exclamation points, and clumsy sentences that outdo the worst excesses of early pulp writers like E. E. Smith and Edmond Hamilton.

There is no real characterization -- the actors in Hubbard's interminable drama are cardboard cutouts of Virtue, Vice, Cruelty, and others that would be at home in a medieval morality play.

Hubbard's sense for scientific plausibility -- usually rather keen although understated -- went on vacation while he was writing this book.

The book's flaws -- its primitive language, lack of characterization, simplistic plot and total disregard of modern science -- are flaws appropriate to the novels of the thirties. The same criticisms can be levelled against any number of books that are classics of the field. may be the best sf book of 1933, but in 1985 it is almost unreadable.

Child of Fortune. Norman Spinrad. Bantam. 483 pages. $16.95.

Spinrad's latest is a sweeping tale of a journey of discovery. Wendi Shasta Leonardo was once a rich, empty-headed girl on the quiet and beautiful planet Glade. Wendi's voyages take her to many planets and introduce her to many unforgettable characters -- and in the end, she finds what she was looking for: herself.

In this novel Norman Spinrad has reached a new height of artistic writing. Those searching for a quick read or a nice adventure story should stay away...Child of Fortune is a book that should be savored, as much for its imaginative scenery as for the sheer beauty of the writing. Spinrad's words paint pictures like the impressionistic masters; in the end, the story of a young wanderer is all but lost in the experience of reading the book.

Ancient of Days. Michael Bishop. Arbor House. 354 pages. $16.95.

Michael Bishop gives us an excellent illustration of the fact that science fiction doesn't have to be about spaceships and far-off planets. In his most recent novel the world is present-day Earth, and the science that forms the book's basis is anthropology.

When a living caveman shows up in his ex-wife's garden, restauranteur Paul Loyd's life changes completely. When his beloved Ruth-Claire falls in love with the habiline -- whom she names Adam -- Paul feels jealousy, dismay, confusion...and eventually learns to accept and even love Adam. But can a Georgia woman and a living specimen of Homo habilis find happiness even in the big-city atmosphere of Atlanta?

The story runs on many different levels. Below the tale of Adam's discovery of civilization is the tale of Paul's discovery of himself, of love, and of the nature of spirituality. There is also the deeper story of our world and its reaction to things that are different, even if they are tender and beautiful.

Ancient of Days is gripping in its realism, and rewarding in its affirmation of the good things in life.

Eon. Greg Bear. Bluejay. 504 pages. $16.95.

One of the best new sf writers has given us a gripping novel in the tradition of Rendezvous with Rama and Childhood's End.

In the year 2005, mathematician Patricia Vasquez takes her first trip into space. Her destination is "the Stone"; a large, hollow, deserted asteroid that has taken up orbit around the Earth. In an atmosphere of international tension, Patricia begins to probe the secrets of the Stone's seven chambers.

The Stone is apparently from the far future -- a future that may or may not be Patricia's own. But there is something incredible about the seventh chamber -- it continues onward, in defiance of natural law, for millions of kilometers.

Before Patricia can deal with the seventh chamber, she learns another of the Stone's dreadful secrets: its intact libraries tell of an apocalyptic nuclear war on Earth...a war that is scheduled to take place in only a handful of weeks.

As international tensions mount and the war comes closer, Patricia becomes more obsessed with the seventh chamber -- and the question of what happened to the Stone's original inhabitants. But the answers are more shocking than she could possibly dream.…

Eon is a fine story of politics, time-travel, and discovery that changes man's conception of his place in the universe.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

January/February Column Submitted

Last night I finished and submitted my column for the January/February issue. This time around the theme is "otherness."

I'll post some more reprint reviews Real Soon Now. Meanwhile, there's a whole pile of reading for next month....