Science Fiction Book Reviews

by Mac Tonnies


HOMINIDS Robert J. Sawyer

The first in a trilogy, "Hominids" is a compulsively readable book with tons of great ideas just waiting to be utilized. Unfortunately, "Hominids" never really aspires to more than a retelling of "Stranger in a Strange Land." Simply substitute Heinlein's Martian-raised hero with a Neanderthal from a parallel Earth and you've got the idea. Not that "Hominids" is a lame book -- at its best moments it captures a certain poignancy that eludes most practioners of "hard" science fiction -- but its scope is limited in a way that may disappoint fans of the more philosophically robust "Calculating God." On the other hand, "Hominids" is a prequel, and as such does an effective job of supplying back-story for readers who wish to continue.

Neither a failure nor a triumph, Sawyer's tale of human-Neanderthal relations tantalizes rather than satisfies. But perhaps this is the entire point.

THE DYING EARTH Jack Vance

Jack Vance's mystical vision of a surreal, depopulated Earth hovering at the edge of history epitomizes science-fantasy at its best. "The Dying Earth," a collection of stories included in the omnibus "Tales of the Dying Earth," depicts a gorgeous, haunting landscape that recalls Ray Bradbury's Mars. "The Dying Earth" is an intoxicating glimpse that promises even stranger wonders in the following installments.

PICOVERSE Robert A. Metzger

Robert Metzger's "Picoverse" is a breathless, fast-forward treatment of the much-chewed parallel universe theme. "Picoverse" is packed with interesting riffs on familiar hard-SF concepts: custom-crafted universes, wormholes, human-machine hybrids, fast-acting "genetic templates," artificial black holes, and much more. The problem is that all of Metzger's hyper-real trappings are unleavened by a sense of humanity. Watching his rapid-fire plot develop provides a certain vicarious thrill, but in the end it's simply tiring, conspicuously lacking the character-driven rewards that typify better writers such as Robert Charles Wilson and Robert J. Sawyer.

"Picoverse" is a good novel, with lots of interesting conceptual scenery. But the sum of its parts is rather less than the multiplex ideas Metzger attempts to pack into less than 400 pages.

DAMNATION ALLEY Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny's "Damnation Alley" serves up a taut, post-apocalyptic road-trip complete with surreal scenery, gritty dialogue and moments of lyricism. Zelazny's brief tale of heroism and hope is told with a refined sense of the horrific -- Stephen King's "The Gunslinger" meets "The Road Warrior."

WYRMHOLE Jay Caselberg

"Wyrmhole" is a toothless book draped in ill-fitting "future noir" clothing. The surprises aren't surprising and the characters are uniformally dead-on-arrival. Worse still, the "mystery" at the heart of Caselberg's first novel is abundantly obvious from the book's title. (Substitute the archaic "Y" for "O" and you get "wormhole." Get it?) Caselberg's novel features one or two potentially neat ideas, but leaves them ill-defined and underdeveloped. The characters are weak; the setting is an unmitigated disaster. I literally didn't know what planet this book took place on. Not that it particularly matters, as the awkward, self-sustaining "Locality" in which the "action" takes place is no more than a shoddy fusion of places readers have been before. Although Caselberg doesn't specifically invoke the "N" word, the Locality is basically a dreary rendition of the nanotech city theme, in which buildings can grow unassisted. This could have been used to great ambient effect; instead, it's just another cliche. Nothing new here. Nothing to see. And worst of all, nothing to make you think.

THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS John Wyndham

John Wyndham's 1951 "The Day of the Triffids" is one of our best (and overlooked) Cold War nightmares. The premise is exquisite and carried out with macabre attention to detail. In Wyndham's alternate 1950s Britain, strange but basically harmless mobile plants known as "triffids" are harvested for industrial uses. Although the triffids' origins are mysterious -- the best account decribes a Russian biowarfare experiment gone afoul -- life among the bizarre plants is serene enough. Until the night mysterious green flashes fill the sky, blinding the vast majority of the population. Now, untended by humans, the triffids begin to deploy their whip-like poison-stingers . . . As society falls apart, survivors with eyesight flee cities littered with corpses and inundated with an unaccountable fast-spreading infection. The triffids pursue doggedly, governed by a weird vegetable intelligence.

Coincidentally (?), "The Day of the Triffids" is an almost scene-by-scene precursor to the zombie movie "28 Days Later," from the protagonist's awakening in an emptied hospital to the relentless menace of the triffids (which function for all intents and purposes as shambling, leafy zombies). Wyndham's novel is genuinely scary. It has scenes that haunt your senses and an overarching sense of malevolence that eclipses most competing post-apocalyptic fiction of the era. Vintage stuff.

A CASE OF CONSCIENCE James Blish

James Blish's Hugo Award-winning "A Case of Conscience" is a smart examination of the politics of belief strained to their breaking point. Blish's premise is deceptively simple: a Jesuit priest/biologist on a survey mission to a newly discovered planet realizes that the native inhabitants have somehow achieved a perfect -- and perfectly godless -- social order. Fearing metaphysical trickery, he votes to quarantine the planet -- only to find himself a reluctant foster-parent to one of the reptilian aliens, who proceeds to provoke havoc on 21st century Earth. Not surprisingly, "A Case of Conscience" hinges on arcane Roman Catholic cosmology; thankfully Blish does an excellent job of making it accessible, allowing readers to partake in the main character's theological dilemma. In this slender philosophical thriller -- one of science fiction's premiere examples of "science meets religion" -- Blish has taken a Christian Armageddon scenario and transformed it into a rich story without the condescending approach one might expect in these days of decidedly unsubtle apocalyptic tall-tales.

TOWER OF GLASS, THE MAN IN THE MAZE, THORNS, DYING INSIDE and THE ALIEN YEARS Robert Silverberg

Silverberg's "Tower of Glass" stands as a model speculative novel, fully realized in its social dimensions. Silverberg unveils a world of instantaneous travel, free labor (in the form of genetically manufactured androids that prefigure the "replicants" of "Blade Runner") and colorful technologies -- up to and including cybernetic ego transplantation, a device used to wonderful effect near the book's climax.

"Tower of Glass" revolves around venture capitalist Simeon Krug, the inventor of android technology, who is singularly obsessed with communicating with strange beings from another star. His tower -- an enormous vertical particle accelerator designed to transmit faster-than-light messages into interstellar space -- grows skyward throughout the novel, the center of an increasingly tangled web of intrigues both human and android. Told with a visionary's finesse, Silverberg's tale of hubris and devotion ranks with the best science fiction of a generation.

In "The Man in Maze" we meet a pariah inflicted with a psychic ailment that makes interpersonal contact impossible. Dejected, he manages to purposefully lose himself in a labyrinth of alien manufacture, ensuring his solitude. But when his unwanted ability is the only weapon that can save his disowned home planet from invasion, can he be coaxed from his solipsism? "The Man in the Maze" is Kafkaesque allegory in the guise of science fiction; Silverberg leaves no stone unturned.

Likewise in "Thorns," in which an astronaut is rendered into a chimeric Elephant Man by inscrutable alien surgeons. Introduced to a timid biotechnology donor bent on reclaiming the children harvested from her ovaries, the astronaut overcomes his initial self-horror only to descend into a paradoxical malaise in which he is both hero and monster. Silverberg's depiction of internal struggle is beautifully told and the central love affair is wrenchingly effective.

I don't hesitate to rank Silverberg's "Dying Inside" is one of the most exquisitely told stories in the genre, ranking with Walter Tevis' "The Man Who Fell to Earth." Written in an appealing blend of first- and third-person, "Dying Inside" is a bitter, poignant chronicle of a man gifted with telepathic powers . . . and the psychological odyssey he endures as his gift inexplicably fades. Like "The Man in the Maze" and "Thorns," "Dying Inside" is an astute, heartfelt study of the effects of alienation, widely considered one of Silverberg's very best works. Highly recommended.

"The Alien Years" is a decidedly mixed bag of a novel. While failing to live up to the cover's claim that it's Silverberg's "masterpiece," it's a perfectly readable book with doses of keen psychological insight and at least one harrowing action sequence. The problem is that there simply isn't enough intellectual excitement to warrant the novel's plodding narration and overall lack of direction. ("The Alien Years" is a large book, covering fifty-some years of occupation after inscrutable squid-like aliens take over Earth's major cities, decimating human society in the process.)

The initial takeover sequence is, in essence, a distended -- if well-written -- cliche that pays tribute to H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds." Happily, Silverberg's aliens are not the gun-toting tyrants of "B"-movies; if anything, they seem not to notice humanity, deigning to acknowledge our presence only when we annoy them in ill-fated attempts to blow up their starships. It's humanity's sense of apathy and helplessness in the face of omnipotent and unknowable powers that helps distinguish Silverberg's yarn from weaker invasion-from-beyond stories.

But for a 600-page book, "The Alien Years" is disappointingly bereft of originality. Silverberg's prose is lean and mostly effective, but far too many of his characters are faceless props that serve only to confuse. And while I liked the ending -- or at least the concept behind the ending -- it's scant reward for enduring the machinations and character studies that litter the bulk of the story.

DARWINIA, THE CHRONOLITHS, BIOS and BLIND LAKE Robert Charles Wilson

"Darwinia" is an eerie, frequently fascinating tale that takes place after Europe is suddenly and mysteriously transformed into an uncharted no-man's land. Guilford Law, a photographer drawn by the continent's enigma, takes part in an expedition to its interior, facing evolutionary mysteries and paradigm-toppling revelations. Wilson is one of the genre's most appealing and overlooked storytellers, and "Darwinia" is a canvas of cosmic scope. Unfortunately, the ending is something of a letdown after the initial build-up; "Darwinia" reads as a paleantological thriller gene-spliced with a virtual reality shoot-'em-up, complete with interdimensional mutants and bullet-proof avatars. Edgar Rice Burroughs meets "The Matrix."

In "The Chronoliths," Robert Charles Wilson depicts a world on the brink of disintegration. Capably and sensitively told from the viewpoint of an alienated computer programmer, this unsettling novel begins with the inexplicable overnight appearance of a gigantic monolith from the near-future.

As more of the enigmatic structures arrive across Asia (accompanied by tell-tale rises in radiation that allow mystified scientists to predict when the next "Chronolith" will make its appearance), political alliances crumble and the world gradually falls into a sort of apocalyptic stupor. For the "Chronoliths" appear to be victory monuments dedicated to a Hitler-like warlord who rises to power in a mere twenty years. And then things get weird: those unlucky enough to witness a Chronolith "touchdown" find themselves victims of "tau turbulence," an acausal phenomenon that casts severe doubt on the reality of "coincidence."

Like M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs" on a planetary canvas, "The Chronoliths" is intellectually fascinating and distinctly human; there's not a wasted word or misplaced scene in the whole book. "The Chronoliths" is a masterpiece by a writer who knows precisely what he's doing, and certainly one of the very best SF novels of the decade.

Wilson's interstellar disaster novel "Bios" tells the story of the planet Isis--teeming with poisonous foliage and wildlife that render it uninhabitable to would-be colonists. Wilson tells his story with candor and precision. "Bios" is a dark and unsettling space exploration novel, securely rooted in science and handled with humanity and intelligence.

"Blind Lake" is perhaps Robert Charles Wilson's best novel yet. Lyrical, frightening and atmospheric, "Blind Lake's" main triumph is its utterly believable cast of characters. This is the best hard-SF novel I've read in seeming ages: a deft glimpse into the future of astronomy and a studious examination of our foibles and aspirations.

STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND and FARNHAM'S FREEHOLD Robert Heinlein

One of the century's most celebrated countercultural documents, Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" is a preachy sociopolitical novel about the life and times of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised by sagely Martians who journeys to Earth in an effort to "grok" humankind's endless quirks. Heinlein inserts himself in the story in the form of misanthropic philosopher Jubal Harshaw, Valentine's mentor and protector.

"Stranger in a Strange Land" is a quintessentially 1960s science fiction novel, steeped in erotic liberation and free love. Unfortunately, it passes up the opportunity to satirize modern society's foibles, dwelling instead on Valentine's sexual and religious misadventures. Heinlein brings "Stranger in a Strange Land" to a perilously cheesy climax, with Earthlings embracing Valentine's New Age Martian gospel in the face of Establishment opposition. Despite myriad shortcomings, Heinlein's most famous novel remains a popular and sought-after title. But is this due to literary merit or mere hippie nostalgia?

"Abrasive" is probably the best word to describe Heinlein's "Farnham's Freehold," a grim tale of a nuclear war that inexplicably transports a 20th century fallout shelter 2,000 years into the future. Heinlein's characters are universally despicable and/or boorish, up to and including Hugh Farnham, the ostensible hero of this dystopian yarn. Why dystopian? Because in post-holocaust society, light-skinned people are enslaved by a black technocracy.

Some readers see Heinlein's outspoken speculation on race as evidence of bigotry. While I don't think "Farnham's Freehold" is quite the scandalous racist parable some critics maintain, I found it appallingly boring and uninspired. "Science fiction's most controversial novel"? Hardly. Although it might qualify as the silliest.

EVERGENCE: THE PRODIGAL SUN Sean Williams, Shane Dix

"The Prodigal Sun" is the first in a promising space-opera reminescent of Peter F. Hamilton's "Night's Dawn" sequence. Although craftily plotted and well-written, "The Prodigal Sun" doesn't break any new ground. (Perhaps the last space-opera to inject the genre with fresh ideas was Bruce Sterling's "Schismatrix," from which Williams and Dix borrow liberally, if not necessarily knowingly.) I find myself generally avoiding stories of far-flung galactic empires or federations; I think the odds of post-terrestrial humanity striving for political and cultural coherence are witheringly low. Still, the idea can be fun, and "The Prodigal Sun" sets the stage for an engaging epic that looms above most of its competition.

BIG PLANET Jack Vance

"Big Planet" is an enjoyable "planetary romance" written with a certain dry humor. Unfortunately, this 1950s pulp novel (originally published as a serialization) lacks in new ideas and characterization. Vance's novel is very much in the same vein as Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars books; fans of early SF adventure will likely find "Big Planet" a fun trip as long as they keep in mind the story's inherent limitations.

TERRAFORMING EARTH Jack Williamson

"Terraforming Earth" is a good, idea-rich SF novel. It should be; science fiction Grand Master Jack Williamson invented the word "terraforming" in his rollicking pulp novel "Seetee Ship" and went on to coin the term "genetic engineering." But while "Terraforming Earth" is a worthy read, it's far from perfect.

Beginning with a frighteningly relevant premise -- Earth's demise after a collision with a murderous asteroid -- Williamson's tale consists of several loosely interwoven novelettes that chronicle generations of human clones who monitor Earth's progress from their automated refuge on the Moon. At least one of the stories in "Terraforming Earth" could be straight from the 1950s: chirpy dialogue, bad characterization and an embarrassingly implausible rendering of post-disaster society. But there are moments of wonder to be found here, not the least of which is the sheer time-scale Williamson works with. Although its constituent tales are dangerously quaint at times, the scope of the novel (if "novel" is really the proper term) is completely enjoyable. "Terraforming Earth" might lack some of the literary artistry that's revitalized the genre since the so-called Golden Age of science fiction, but it manages to succeed and entertain.

DUNE Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert's "Dune" is an enduring epic that fuses ecological speculation and psychelic experience into a singular interstellar adventure. Written with a shrewd eye for politics, "Dune" outshines most space-opera by virtue of its transcending theme and gritty verisimilitude. "Dune" is the story of the desert planet Arrakis, home of a sought-after narcotic that gives its users the power to bend space and time. Herbert depicts his hyper-realized future society with subtlety; for all of its length and convoluted political trappings, "Dune" never condescends. "Dune" is a deft, cerebral SF milestone.

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CALCULATING GOD Robert J. Sawyer

"Calculating God" is, very simply, astonishing, and quite possibly one of the most flawless pieces of science fiction I've ever read. This is doubly impressing because of the various layers that make up the story; "Calculating God" isn't a simple book -- in fact, it brims with enough heady speculation for a career-full of genre thrillers. But, remarkably, it's a breeze to read, encapsulating everything that makes science fiction such a potent form of literature: brains, ambition, humanity, and a delicious, brain-tingling sense of the cosmic.

The story is much more than the sum of its parts, but here's the gist: an alien scientist investigating mass extinctions on multiple worlds lands in Toronto and requests to speak with a paleantologist. Accompanied by Dr. Tom Jericho, a dinosaur-hunter suffering from terminal cancer, the extraterrestrial pursues a most unusual hunt for proof of God's existence.

"Calculating God" is easily the best novel to have tackled contemporary scientific thought and theological matters. Carl Sagan may have attempted to conjoin the two in "Contact," but the result--an often boring stew of stereotypes and intellectual discourse--doesn't come close to this. Sawyer's novel addresses mortality, cosmology and existentialism with incredible finesse and verve. And to top it of, it's funny. Read this book, tell your friends about it, and hope that Sawyer will keep writing more of them.

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THE MEEK Scott Mackay

"The Meek" by Scott Mackay is an exciting science fiction novel that uses shopworn genre concepts to create a fresh narrative of sometimes unbearable suspense. "The Meek" is SF in the old-fashioned tradition: When a survey ship is sent to inspect an asteroid habitat thirty years after a bloody civil uprising and attempted extermination, the crew finds that the habitat is populated by genetically modified humans with superior strength and intelligence.

Stranded and unsure whether the unsuspected inhabitants can be trusted, the central characters are pitted against time as the government demands the asteroid's unconditional surrender. Part technothriller and part evolutionary detective story, "The Meek" builds to a rousing climax that shows Mackay is every bit as good at writing about humans as he is at depicting alien landscapes and the consequences of biotechnology.

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REVELATION SPACE Alastair Reynolds

If Arthur C. Clarke and Bruce Sterling were forced to collaborate while locked in an ill-lit Gothic cathedral, "Relelation Space," Alastair Reynolds' first novel, just might be the result.

"Revelation Space" is a big, gripping novel that bristles with feverish detail, lavish alien settings, and an arsenal of ingenius Big Ideas. Reynolds' highly stylized cosmological detective story is conceptually fascinating and becomingly moody; the author whisks readers from the ruinous, "Blade Runner"-like urban wilderness of Chasm City to the vertiginous, rat-infested corridors of the starship Nostalgia for Infinity, revealing a future history as interesting and plausible as those of Ken MacLeod ("The Stone Canal") and Peter F. Hamilton ("The Reality Dysfunction.")

Reynolds' novel is weighed down by some ponderous factional infighting, and the characters never manage to achieve the sort of full-bodied "Turing compliance" possessed by the artificial intelligences that populate his story. Nevertheless, "Revelation Space" succeeds. Sophisticated and gritty, Reynolds' vision of a not-too-implausible far-future is an excellent effort that infuses "space opera" with the reckless surrealism of vintage cyberpunk.

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SLAVE TRADE Susan Wright

Remember the "Gor" books by John Norman? Norman's premise was insanely campy yet nonetheless commercial: women of Earth kidnapped and sold as sex slaves on a "Counter-Earth" reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom. The first few novels in the "Gor" series are actually entertaining (despite protests from science fiction critics who blanch at the politically incorrect leanings that carried later installments into literary oblivion). In "Slave Trade," the opening volume in a space opera trilogy, newcomer Susan Wright appears to aspire to Norman's racy canon, substituting a suspiciously familiar galactic milieu for Norman's technologically backward Counter-Earth.

"Slave Trade" depicts a spacefaring society of remarkably boring aliens who abduct humans to serve as sexual delicacies. This sounds stupid, and in Wright's hands it is. The alien abduction premise could have been a vehicle for penetrating satire; instead, Wright has managed to write a novel devoid of the slightest hint of subversive or erotic nuance. "Slave Trade" is a cul-de-sac of exhausted ideas that will leave readers rolling their eyes in sheer exasperation. Sex with aliens has never been this tiring.

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EON, BLOOD MUSIC and HEADS Greg Bear

Greg Bear is one of my favorite SF writers, gifted with a mind-bending knack for epic scenarios, high technology, and the thrill of scientific discovery. "Eon" is one of his best. When astronauts are sent to investigate an anomaly in deep space, they discover an asteroid settlement from Earth's own future. Bear handles complex plotting and rigorous theoretical science with the flare his readers have come to expect. An improbable cross between Arthur C. Clarke's "Rendezvous with Rama" and Bruce Sterling's "Schismatrix," "Eon" is a modern classic of the human future, fully developed in story and characterization.

Bear's "Blood Music" is hands-down one of the most harrowing and bizarre books in all science-fiction, written with cyberpunk intensity and an uncompromising grasp of the surreal. What happens when human blood cells become self-aware? Bear depicts human identity and society overrun and utterly redefined by self-replicating "noocytes." This is the ultimate nanotech thriller, prefiguring a mass of later "nano" works by lesser authors.

Greg Bear's short novel "Heads" takes on more edgy scientific ideas per chapter than many authors address in their careers. Cryonic suspension, the quest for Absolute Zero, cultism and lunar colonization are just a few of the concepts Bear juggles with practiced ease in this stunning and genuinely frightening philosophical thriller. Also see: "Moving Mars."

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TITAN and MANIFOLD: TIME Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter's "Titan" is the "Blade Runner" of planetary exploration novels: gloomy, forbidding and more than a little existential. In a disintegrating near-future, a hasty manned mission to Saturn's moon Titan is launched to follow up on signs of life detected by an earlier unmanned probe. But funds are scarce, the crew is impoverished by its failing on-board ecosystem, and politics on Earth are beginning to sour.

Baxter's epic is ponderous but fascinating, and confronts us with a queasily convincing image of the future of manned spaceflight. Like the original theatrical release of "Blade Runner," "Titan" is marred by an unconvincingly "happy" ending. For all of its depressing excess, Baxter's journey is ultimately one of awe and discovery. "Titan" is an unusual novel that somehow manages to thread social dystopian trends, the romance of adventure and the harsh realities of spaceflight into a single compelling story. If you're up for the author's paradoxical blend of adventure and cynicism, by all means visit Baxter's "Titan."

"Manifold: Time" is Baxter's most Arthur C. Clarke-ian novel to date: a bold, original retelling of "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Childhood's End." The first in a trilogy of cosmological thrillers, "Manifold: Time" is crammed with edgy physics, a rousing argument for colonizing the Solar System, and a large cast of interesting characters whose lives interpenetrate in unexpected ways. Baxter's story-telling ability is in top form, rewarding readers with the thrill of discovery and "sense of wonder" equated with the best of hard SF.

"Manifold: Time" is a riveting, if uneven, novel that takes us to the edge of reality and back again. Novels like this make me appreciate the SF genre and its singular virtues; Baxter's cerebral vantage on humanity's place in the cosmos makes for an intellectual and philosophical experience not to be missed.

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THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells' "The Island of Dr. Moreau" is as visceral and horrifying as it was when published, and stands as one of the most prescient and important science fiction novels ever written. Like Orwell's "1984," "The Island of Dr. Moreau" has been incorporated in our cultural fabric, conjuring up visions of medical science gone out of control. Wells' perspective on bioethics and medical breakthroughs is at least as illuminating as today's voluminous, ongoing debate about the merits and hazards of genetic engineering--and it reads with the headlong momentum of a particularly lucid nightmare.

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HALF LIFE Hal Clement

In "Half Life," Hal Clement serves up a fast-paced but unrewarding scientific detective story set in the foreseeable future. Clement's smooth dialogue and well-realized technologies make "Half Life" worth reading, but his peculiarly colorless portrait of deep-space is disconcerting at best. Clement begins with a gruesomely potent premise: Earth's population is being killed off by rapidly evolving diseases. Hope rests in the not-quite-expert hands of a terminally ill team stationed in orbit above Saturn's moon Titan, who hope to find prebiotic clues to explain the epidemics back home.

What follows is an often numbing mass of scientific pontification as the chemist-astronauts pilot telerobotic ramjets to and from the Titanian surface. While Clement is a skilled storyteller, he fails to give the reader any particular reason to want his characters to succeed; his future Earth, when addressed at all, is an abstracted concept, and his characters little more than mouth-pieces for Clement's endless supply of facts and figures. (How many times do we really need to know the wind direction on Titan in exacting detail?) Conceptually interesting but stilted in execution, "Half Life" showcases both the merits and potential pitfalls of "hard" SF.

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K-PAX Gene Brewer

"K-PAX" by Gene Brewer is a manipulative and shallow book utterly devoid of surprise, characterization or interest. Although "K-PAX" takes on the guise of a psychological mystery, the only real mystery in evidence is how any publisher could see this novel as anything more than the heartless rip-off it is. Reviewers have dutifully compared Brewer's first book to Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." But the similarity is skin-deep; while Kesey's novel is a classic and genuinely provocative exploration of good vs. evil, Brewer's is an affected and vacuous retelling that simply substitutes a man who may or may not be an extraterrestrial for Kesey's enduring hero.

Even Brewer's alien twist bombs horribly: I didn't care if the main character, "prot," was an interstellar tourist or not; I just wanted to finish the book so I could move on to more promising titles (thankfully, "K-PAX" is a short read). If you're into "feel-good" drivel, "K-PAX"--and its inevitable sequel--might be for you. If not, treat yourself to Walter Tevis' brilliant "The Man Who Fell to Earth."

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THE OTHER END OF TIME, THE SIEGE OF ETERNITY and THE FAR SHORE OF TIME Frederik Pohl

The first novel in Frederik Pohl's Eschaton trilogy, "The Other End of Time" sets the stage for an engrossing--if philosophically underdeveloped--sequence about a near-future invasion of Earth by a duplicitous alien race that calls itself "The Beloved Leaders." Pohl's future Earth is believable, his political maneuvering is spooky and plausible, and his aliens are appropriately enigmatic. Continued in the addictive "The Siege of Eternity" and concluded in the breezy, exciting "The Far Shore of Time," Pohl does an admirable job of tackling the cliched theme of alien invasion.

There are some notable let-downs in the plot--the most obvious being the nature of the alleged "Eschaton" the invading aliens are fighting over--but I found myself enjoying the trilogy for its knowing, behind-the-scenes portrayal of the world's intelligence communities caught unprepared in a struggle at the threshold of comprehension. Greg Bear has referred Pohl's far-flung adventure as "the thinking person's 'Independence Day.'" I recommend the Eschaton trilogy to anyone searching for a diverting, intelligent adventure about a "first contact" scenario that could actually happen.

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MAN PLUS Frederik Pohl

Writers such as Kim Stanley Robinson have explored the possibility of "terraforming" the Red Planet to make it hospitable to humans. In "Man Plus," Frederik Pohl examines the obvious alternative: modifying the human physique to allow it to withstand Mars' harsh conditions. "Man Plus" is less a novel of interplanetary conquest than an exploration of what it is to be human. A relatively early example of the "cyborg" theme in science fiction, "Man Plus" remains a stirring and compassionate novel that addresses provocative questions with unnerving precision.

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EARTH David Brin

"Earth," David Brin's near-future epic, is a creative and cautionary environmental saga: a fiction equivalent to Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring." Just as in real life, Earth is in serious trouble: species are becoming extinct, the climate's a mess, and to make matters worse, an artificial black hole has escaped laboratory custody, threatening to swallow the entire planet. Brin's climax is stunning and richly philosophical.

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SHIP OF FOOLS Richard Paul Russo

Russo's novel is a dreadfully uneventful gothic space yarn a la "Aliens." Subscribing quite literally to the "what you don't see is scarier than what you do" school of the macabre, Russo sets out to tell a story about good versus evil and the role of faith and values in a seemingly pointless universe. But "Ship of Fools" only leaves a thick residue of unanswered questions, severed subplots, and disposable characters. In space, no one can hear you sigh.

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2001 and 2010 Arthur C. Clarke

"2001: A Space Odyssey," Arthur C. Clarke's eerie and stirring novel of human evolution and artificial intelligence, remains one of the most mature treatments of the "first contact" premise in the genre. After the discovery of an inscrutable black monolith buried under the lunar surface, a manned mission to Jupiter is launched to investigate an alien artifact of mind-altering potency. Along the way we meet HAL-9000, an overtaxed computer system whose priorities cause it to kill off the mission's crew, and ultimately glimpse the workings of an alien mind so powerful it threatens to redefine humanity's role in the cosmos.

Deeply philosophical yet conveyed with spare urgency, Clarke's most famous work is science fiction at its thought-provoking best. ("2001" is based loosely on the short-story "The Sentinel," which is widely anthologized. Clarke's "The Lost Worlds of '2001'" contains alternate chapters and background material that were deleted from the novel as well as interesting commentary on the co-creative process between Clarke and Kubrick, who jointly conceived both novel and film versions.)

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Clarke continues the future history of "2001" in his suspenseful and scientifically dazzling "2010: Odyssey Two." Picking up where the acclaimed film version of "2001" left off, "2010" reintroduces us to HAL as a joint Russian-American mission sets off to find what happened to the previous "Discovery" mission to Jupiter. Clarke sets his story of exploration and mortality against a lush depiction of the Solar System, providing awe-inspiring scenery and moments of sheer wonder.

"2010" is much more than a simple follow-up to "2001"; expertly plotted and fully realized in its philosophical implications, Clarke's lucid vision of the human future in space is as stimulating as "2001." (Clarke follows up on "2010" with the mostly uninteresting "2061," in which humans land on Halley's Comet, and "3001," an intriguing but fragmented adventure that unites one of the astronauts from "2001" with a spacefaring society a thousand years more advanced than his own. While both books are entertaining enough, they lack the heady "sense of wonder" of the first two.)

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RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA Arthur C. Clarke

Alongside "2001" and "2010," Clarke's "Rendezvous with Rama" is among the best novels to address contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. In "Rendezvous with Rama," an enormous, uninhabited starship wafts into the Solar System. Astronauts are sent to explore the monstrous derelict and find themselves confronted with a parade of enigmas. Clarke's heroic tale is gripping and eerily beautiful. Who sent the starship to Earth? Why is it abandoned? Are the ship's architects still out there, or are we truly alone? "Rendezvous with Rama" is delightfully existential, and its surreal alien landscape is unforgettable.

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CHILDHOOD'S END Arthur C. Clarke

Clarke's early novel "Childhood's End" is a mind-bending odyssey every bit as mature and intelligent as his later works. In "Childhood's End," humankind's evolution is hastened by a mysterious race known as the Overlords. A compelling mix of utopian experiment, cosmological discourse and myth-making, "Childhood's End" bravely overturns our species' most deeply treasured notions.

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THE MAMMOTH ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SCIENCE FICTION George Mann, ed.

George Mann's accessible and well-organized encyclopedia of the genre makes for a fun read and a great introduction to emerging authors. While Mann succeeds in highlighting promising new talents, he lamentably excludes many deserving "big names." And the section devoted to SF movies and television, while entertaining, seems ill-suited for a work concerned almost wholly with literary works. Regardless of any given reader's bickering with who Mann chooses to exlude, the "Encyclopedia" is a studious and helpful reference for genre addicts and curious initiates alike.

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FLATLAND Edwin Abbott

Edwin Abbott's classic "Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions," is widely cited by popular science writers for its elegantly simple depictions of the second and third dimensions. Originally published under the pseudonym "A. Square," "Flatland" is a colorful and eye-opening look at the geometry of spacetime. But Abbott's stinging commentary on Victorian class structure has gone relatively unnoted. By interweaving clever social satire with mathematical esoterica, "Flatland" achieves a quirky genre all its own. "Flatland" is a psychedelic delight and a seminal work of popular science.

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THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH Walter Tevis

Walter Tevis' "The Man Who Fell to Earth" is the SF equivalent to Albert Camus' "The Stranger." After his spaceship crashes, a human-like alien pursues a plan to ferry water to his home world's thinning population. But Earth's excesses and social complexities begin to spoil his resolution, leaving him psychologically stranded. Tevis' heartbreaking novel is one of the best-kept secrets in the genre. ("The Man Who Fell to Earth" was later filmed with David Bowie aptly cast as the title character.)

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THE REALITY DYSFUNCTION: EMERGENCE and EXPANSION Peter F. Hamilton

Originally published as a trilogy, Peter Hamilton's Night's Dawn sequence (published in the U.S. in six fat volumes) represents state-of-the-art space opera that makes up for in pace and sheer storytelling energy what it lacks in style. The first installment introduces us to the dualing doctrines of the neo-fundamentalist Adamists and telepathic Edenists (an ideological gulf suspiciously similar to that of the Shapers and Mechanists of Bruce Sterling's excellent "Schismatrix").

Hamilton's galaxy-spanning conflict is well-realized and fascinating, even if his characters occasionally succumb to the one-dimensional predictability of their pulp-fiction predecessors. "Emergence" is a promising far-future romp that successfully breathes new life into the much-chewed turf of galactic conflict and promises a lot of fun; I'll read later installments with interest.

Hamilton continues his bold galactic tale in "Expansion." The second half of "The Reality Dysfunction" is without doubt the best, and an absorbing reward for readers who decide to tag along after the introductory material covered in "Emergence." Brimming with capably written action sequences and harrowing excursions into uncharted interstellar depths, "Expansion" manages to boost the Night's Dawn sequence into literary escape velocity.

Hamilton's main goal in writing this series is to tell a story, and he succeeds in maintaining a sense of suspense while juggling a vast cast of characters and alien environments. A sort of cyberpunk fusion between Stephen King's "The Stand" and Isaac Asimov's "Foundation," "The Reality Dysfunction" is one of the most enjoyable and refreshingly unpretentious sagas to grace science fiction bookshelves in a long time.

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THE NEUTRONIUM ALCHEMIST: CONSOLIDATION and CONFLICT Peter F. Hamilton

"Consolidation," the first part of the second installment in Hamilton's sprawling Night's Dawn sequence, sees the characters and situations of the first two-part novel thrust deeper and farther into intricate and deftly balanced storylines. As the series matures and gathers momentum, Hamilton is able to develop and humanize his protaganists; more than before, the characters seem real enough to actually root for.

Fortunately for readers who have made it this far, Hamilton manages to counter his incendiary action sequences with existential paradox and fiendish genre-crossing sensibility. The result is a completely arresting widescreen fiction experience that raises profound questions while maintaining a consistently high level of suspense. Hamilton's series is staggering in its kinetic, playful vision, and "Consolidation" leaves us thirsting for more.

"Conflict" introduces some heady new concepts and elaborates on those introduced in previous volumes. Hamilton keeps the pace fast and furious; "Conflict" boasts a few of the most gripping chase scenes and narrow escapes I've encountered in genre fiction. The story so far: an interstellar army of souls from another dimension is inexorably conquering the known galaxy. Meanwhile, rival Adamists (who use nanotech brain implants to communicate) and utopian Edenists unite in a war that forces Hamilton's characters to seek out the meaning of humanity and death itself.

"Conflict" is the most metaphysical volume in the Night's Dawn series so far; not content with world-destoying weaponry and organic starships, Hamilton indulges in a bizarre SF theology that sees the plot through literally thousands of pages without boring or patronizing. Hamilton knows precisely when and how to leave readers' questions suspended deliciously in mid-air. If you've made it this far, there's no turning back.

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THE NAKED GOD: FLIGHT and FAITH Peter F. Hamilton

In writing "Flight," the first part of "The Naked God," Peter Hamilton has given himself a huge challenge: completing the Night's Dawn series in a manner that reconciles his far-flung subplots, makes sense of the somewhat incomprehensible "reality dysfunction" his heroes are trying to divert--and doing so without the condescension he's proven remarkably good at avoiding so far. Arguably the most entertaining installment yet, "Flight" introduces the enigma posed by the alien Kiint and Tyrathca races, whose wanderings through the galaxy may hold the clue to humanity's survival. Al Capone's interstellar mafia features big in "Flight" (a little too big, in this reviewer's opinion), and the quest of satanist bad-guy Quinn Dexter finally comes into its own, plot-wise.

Ironically, Dexter's character is one of the weaker links in Hamilton's epic. For a transdimensional messiah bent on destroying the universe, Dexter comes across as little more than a screwed-up teenager who's listened to too much Marilyn Manson. Shortcomings are possibly inevitable for a work of this length (and yes, it's too long). But Hamilton is able to dish up some hugely entertaining (and often thought-provoking) scenarios. The storming of the derelict Tyrathca arkship in the book's later chapters is especially well-crafted, as are Louise and Genevieve's exploits on an environmentally devastated future Earth. Consistently impressive in scope and plot, "Flight" is a good read that promises big rewards.

"Faith," the last of the Night's Dawn series, is one of the most consistently enjoyable volumes, with myriad subplots racing toward completion. Part of the enjoyment from "Faith" comes from the fact that the reader knows this is it: what Hamilton commits to paper will either make or break this series as a piece of popular literature. Can he satisfactorily resolve the conflict from previous installments? Can a series of such exuberant detail and scope come to a believable conclusion?

The results--perhaps inevitably--are mixed. Hamilton resorts to the ultimate deus ex machina (the "Naked God" of the title), whisking away his universe's problems in a sweeping final few hundred pages. Hamilton rises to the challenge; he tries to tie up his series' ferociously tangled plot-knots, but his stylistic acumen just isn't quite up to the challenge, leaving readers rattled but peculiarly unenlightened.

This isn't to say I disliked "Faith." Joshua Calvert's adventures in deep-space are the best yet. Louise's character matures, and we're able to sympathize with the possessed--and their reality-bending implications--through the thoughtful storyline developed on the planet Norfolk. Quinn Dexter's character is what ultimately hinders "Faith"; the final confrontation between good and evil is embarrassingly campy and cinematic. The virtues of Hamilton's series are not to be found in the so-called "climax," but in the playful narrative texture.

Looking back at this series as a whole, I fail to see the need for the emphasis placed on the Alchemist weapon; Alkad Mzu's character is not much more than a placeholder for other, more promising subplots. Chasing the Alchemist across the galaxy amounts to little more than a red herring at the reader's expense. The Night's Dawn series could have benefitted from losing several hundred pages: a good deal of the characters' economic and political haggling could have been more artfully painted into the background rather than turned into major subplots.

Regardless of its faults, I enjoyed this series. Hamilton has a lot to show us, and for the most part conveys his galaxy-spanning milieu with dexterity and intelligence. I don't regret signing up for this fascinating, if shaky, roller-coaster of a series.

IN THE OCEAN OF NIGHT Gregory Benford

"In the Ocean of Night" is the first volume in Benford's Galactic Center series. And although I liked the book and the concepts it introduces, it reads with a jerky, uncertain quality, like watching brief rushes of film in no particular order. In Benford's defense, "In the Ocean of Night" is essentially stage-setting for the rest of the five-book series; don't expect any jaw-dropping cosmic revelations just yet. Benford's novel wanders, broaching speculative subjects with varying degrees of accuracy. 21st century readers can't help but laugh at Benford's naive extrapolation of television and computer technology. Nor is the fanciful religion that hovers at the book's event horizon particularly interesting or convincing. But Benford is unafraid to tackle thorny new ideas, and SF fans will likely marvel at the novel's overall dexterity. I will most certainly read the next book in the series.

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TIMESCAPE and AGAINST INFINITY Gregory Benford

In "Timescape," possibly the author's very best, Gregory Benford imagines an alternate 1990s where ecological damage promises to kill the planet. Scientists, desperate for a way to avert the unthinkable, devise a bizarre scheme: communicate with scientists from the Earth's own past using faster-than-light particles. This fascinating story is told from two vantages as the narrative flashes back to the momentous discovery of the message from the future (initially interpreted as an extraterrestrial broadcast). Benford succeeds in creating a believable and infectious vision of scientists at work, and the problems they surmount are both chilling and awe-inspiring.

Benford is one of the very best "hard" science fiction writers around, and "Against Infinity" is a mesmerizing example of what he can do. "Against Infinity" is the story of one man's attempt to track down and destroy the mysterious "Aleph": a physics-defying alien artifact that haunts the icy deserts of Jupiter's moon Ganymede. Benford writes as if he's actually visited the alien environments he writes about; his Ganymede is full of wonder, terror, and a well-conceived sense of the alien.

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A FIRE UPON THE DEEP Vernor Vinge

Vernor Vinge's "A Fire Upon the Deep" is a complex, fast-paced and exhilerating story crammed with powerful ideas. Vinge's far-future milieu is thoughtful and unique: the galactic disc is stratified into varying exclusive "zones of thought," so that what a computer can do in one zone it can't in the next. Toss in a planet of xenophobic sentient canines, an interstellar rescue mission and an intriguing cast of characters (human, alien and other), and "A Fire Upon the Deep" achieves escape velocity. Vinge's contemporary slant on classic SF tropes has helped pave the way for cyber-literate space-opera such as Peter F. Hamilton's "Night's Dawn" series.

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MOTHER OF STORMS, ORBITAL RESONANCE and FINITY John Barnes

"Mother of Storms" is a spellbinding and ambitious novel about a future Earth ravaged by artificially induced hurricanes. "Mother of Storms" combines everything that made David Brin's "Earth" and Bruce Sterling's "Heavy Weather" fun to read, combined with the rousing environmental edge of John Brunner's "The Sheep Look Up." Treat yourself to the best eco-disaster novel ever written.

To skip reading "Orbital Resonance" because its main characters are adolescents is like setting aside "A Clockwork Orange" because it's violent. Barnes' coming-of-age novel, set aboard an asteroid colony in the not-so-distant future, is thoroughly enjoyable and never less than provocative. "Orbital Resonance" is a superb "Golden Age"-style space adventure populated by winning characters and held together by transcending premises.

"Finity" is an intriguing alternate-history thriller poised on the bleeding edge of quantum mechanics' Many Worlds Interpretation, in which all possible universes are equally real. (In one chapter, the bewildered hero has to confront the unsettling fact that he's involved with two versions of his wife, each literally universes apart in personality and demeanor.)

"Finity" loses momentum in its final chapters, as a group of Net-surfing expatriots attempts to discover why the United States has seemingly disappeared from the information landscape. "Finity's" themes promise big intellectual rewards; while it doesn't quite succeed, it doesn't exactly fail, either. At the very least, Barnes will leave you questioning what we casually call "reality."

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BROTHER TERMITE Patricia Anthony

Patricia Anthony is one of the most prolific literary SF writers. "Brother Termite," her second novel, is a second-to-none political satire told through from the perspective of an alien bent on a quiet takeover of Earth. Paranoid, chilling and funny, "Brother Termite" is a uniquely moving novel that taps the anxieties of late twentieth century culture. Alongside John Shirley's "Silicon Embrace," Anthony's novel is one of the most interesting "alien invasion" yarns ever conceived.

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STEEL BEACH John Varley

Varley's "Steel Beach" is a whirlwind epic about an artificial utopia built on the Moon after Earth has been invaded by enigmatic aliens. Varley's cyberpunkish future world has plenty of colorful scenery, bizarre characters, and brilliant speculation on the future of society and sexual identity. Probably the funniest hard SF book ever written, "Steel Beach" asks vital questions about the human future. Classic.


Check your local library or used-book store for the following...

THE MEN INSIDE Barry Malzberg

"The Men Inside" -- an existential drama that reads like a noxious, embittered "Fantastic Voyage" -- presents a dystopian world whose urban poor are recruited to be miniaturized and implanted in the bodies of the elderly elite to combat disease. Malzberg's neurotic hero, revolting against the social order and his odious professional life, decides to put his medical knowledge to lethal ends. Barry Malzberg is one of science fiction's most unconventional storytellers.

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