cover image The NCF Guideto

and Fandom

Fourth Edition
Edited by Robert Runté


By Robert Runté


Chris Atack Project Maldon

NY: Baen, 1997. 375pp. ISBN0-671-87786-0

Chris Atack's Project Maldon, is a surprisingly good read. Indeed, I was so surprised that I decided to go to the trouble of actually writing a review. I hope to convince you to rush out and buy a copy of this debute novel, in spite of the apparently good reasons not to.

I must confess that I had originally bought the book only out of a sense of completion: I try to keep my Canadian sf library up to date. (That, and because Mr. Atack turned out to be standing next to me when I asked the clerk about new Canadian sf, and I was too embarrassed to reject his book with him actually standing there, watching.)  Project Maldon cover

I admit I really wanted to put the book back. The cover art -- two poorly drawn stealth bombers apparently attacking a space station, complete with firery explosions -- is not what you would call promising. The artwork is also, as it turns out, completely irrelevant: there aren't any space battles in the book. (Okay; there is a rather tense board meeting in Earth orbit, but I don't think that counts.) Worse even than the artwork is the typography: "Project Maldon" juts out of the cover like some cheezie movie marque. Even the author's name works against him, summoning up visions of glorified violence and hacknyed mayhem. This is not, I am sorry to say, a cover that would draw a second glance from even the most fanatical devotee of milateristic space opera.

But never one to judge a book by its cover, I turned to the blurb. Where it appears that Project Maldon is yet another redundant entry in the seemingly endless procession of cyberpunk cash-ins: the dystopian future; the god-like AI, the slow slide towards Armageddon. Gibson's once-original vision has been rehashed by so many talentless hacks, that I swear I'll give up sf if I have to read one more of these annoyingly predictable, formulaic, mass market, processed cheese substitutes. Cyberpunk is an idea whose time has past, okay folks? I mean I teach in a town where half the population still thinks that giving women the vote was a bad idea, and yet even my most isolated rural students routinely debate the finer details of artificial intelligence on their web pages. I'm telling you, this isn't sf any longer, it now belongs to the genre of "bad mainstream bestsellers". I fully expect the next cyberpunk offering to be by Danielle Steele.

Front cover art and back cover blurb notwithstanding, however, this first novel is well worth your attention. Atack's strong narrative skills and engaging style elevate Project Maldon above the run of the cyber-mill, and the familiarity of the Canadian locales and future history added to my enjoyment. (That the story is told from the perspective of a dashing sociologist didn't exactly hurt either. I haven't enjoyed a sociologist as protagonist this much since Chad C. Mulligan in Brunner's Stand On Zanzbar.) Drawn into the action, I found myself reluctant to put the book down again, even though much of it is Canadianly-depressing.

Atack is clearly carrying on a long tradition of Canadian sf. There is no happy ending, for example, no American-style saved-by-the-calvalry rescue. Almost everybody we care about gets killed, the good guys lose, and our protagonists fails to achieve his major goals. In the end, this turns out not to matter terribly, because most of the battles he has been fighting were the wrong ones anyway. The ending is typically Canadian in its ambiguity: our side didn't win, but neither did the bad guys. Are things better or worse than when the book started? We can't tell, and won't know until history passes judgement years later, though it is already clear that almost no one got what they thought they wanted.

Atack's future is depressingly familiar and believable, though the strong narrative carries us past the bleak cityscapes at a sufficiently page-turning pace that you'll be hooked anyway. Unlike many books set in the near future, Atack resists the temptation of spelling out the details of that future history. None of Atack's characters can really understand how the country came to be in such a terrible mess, which is both more believable and more emotionally satisfying for the reader than any pat explanation would be. As a sociologist, I almost always find authors' predictions to be annoyingly niave, but Atack simply avoids the whole issue by sticking to nicely vague allusions, and the occasional cliched encyclopedia entry.

I also really appreciated that Atack left much of the old world quietly in place, untouched by the developments around them. The protagonist's office is next door to a soap factory, for example, which continues to pump out detergent pretty much as it always has, even while everything else around it is going to hell.

There are a lot of such nice touches in this book. Although admittedly a novel in the cyberpunk tradition, it is sufficiently original to warrent attention, particularly given that it is Atack's first time out. Project Maldon is easily comparable to Robert Sawyer's first novel, Golden Fleece, and might even be the best first since Sean Stewart's Passion Play. Atack is, therefore, clearly worth watching.

[Reviewed by Robert Runté, reprinted from Under the Ozone Hole, the Canadian sf newsletter.]

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Fungus Garden Cover

Brian Brett The Fungus Garden

Thistledown Press, 1988. ISBN 0-920633-47-1, Trade paperback, 127 pp.

I have argued elsewhere that one of the strengths of Canadian sf is that it is less isolated from the mainstream than its American counterpart, and consequently that Canada's literary greats often contribute to the genre. It must be admitted, however, that this does not always work to our advantage. Blundering into a genre they don't understand, and ignorant of its long traditions, some mainstream authors clumsily reinvent the clichés the rest of us have bannished to our better-fogotten pasts.

Unfortunately, Brian Brett's The Fungus Garden is one such example. Like innumerable mainstream writers before him, Brett has been seduced by the painfully obvious political allegory of ant society to produce yet another heavy-handed social commentary. The plot concerns a rebellious youth (cliché #1) who escapes an oppressive robot-controlled society (cliché #2) by running through some caves with luminous slime (he doesn't actually say "radioactive", but I think we can still count this as cliché #3) which causes him to become the incredible shrinking man (cliché #4) where upon he is captured by termites (cliché #5) and through the application of termite hormones, is himself turned into an insect (a concept too dumb to be cliché). And, like the worst episode of Dallas, the whole thing turns out to have been a dream (cliché #6). Needless to say, one's suspension of disbelief quickly collapses under this weight of compounded cliché and ludicrous psuedo-science.

At a literal level, the novel does provide a glimpse of the workings of a termite colony, but a National Geographic article would serve this purpose better and without having to grant the author so much poetic license. Frederik Grove's Consider Her Ways, written nearly 60 years ago, was better researched and more thoughtfully extrapolated.

At a metaphoric level, the allegory is simplistic and naive. Termites, robots, and the rebel's Central Committee are clichés precisely because they are the too-easily identified bogeymen thrown up by capitalist ideologues to distract us from the real dehumanizing forces in society. By focusing on such strawmen, Brett not only reveals his complete lack of imagination and originality, but also his lack of any true social insight.

To pile on yet another cliché -- to add insult to injury -- Brett's only response to these forces of oppression is to have his hero build a guitar and sing protest songs. By individualizing rebellion and channeling it into harmless outlets like rock'n'roll (rather than, say, fermenting constructive mass action) Brett is ultimately serving the very conservative forces he believes himself to be condemning.

Allegory has a long and honourable tradition in sf, and much of literary merit in our genre derives from the allegorical parallels drawn between extrapolated worlds and various contemporary issues. Here, however, the allegory has been allowed to dominate the story to the exclusion of a plausible narrative, and given the essentially shallow political analysis underlying the alegory, it quickly degenerates into unfocused whining. One need only contrast The Fungus Garden with the effective use of allegory in such books as Negovan Rajic's The Mole Men to realize just how badly Brett has overreached himself.

Nor does the book succeed stylistically. Brett's background as a poet is clearly evident in his preoccupation with imagery at the expense of plot, characterization, dialog, and the other elements of good novel writing. The style is so ponderous that it is unlikely that even the most pretentious English prof could find anything good to say about it.

I am at a loss to explain how such a weak book could get past the usually sensible editorial board at Thistledown Press.

[Reviewed by Robert Runté, reprinted from NCF 1989]

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Joël Champetier The Dragon's Eye

Translated by Jean-Louis Trudel.
NY: Tor, 1999. 296pp ISBN 0-312-86882-0 Hardcover: $34.95 Canadian

Joël Champetier's The Dragon's Eye (seamlessly translated by fellow novelist Jean-Louis Trudel ) is a crossover novel: the setting is hard sf, but the plot is pure spy thriller. The point of setting a spy thriller in an sf locale is that the reader is too removed in time and space to have ready-made, knee-jerk reactions to the political issues of the day. The point of plotting an sf novel as a spy thriller is that the reader is so caught up in the page-turning action that Champetier is able to sneak in all sorts of literary values that elevate this novel well above the norm for hard sf.

The action takes place on a planet of a binary star system, where the second sun pumps out such high levels of UV that all outdoor activity essentially comes to a standstill while its up. Since this significantly diminishes the desirability of this piece of stellar real estate, the world has been left to the Chinese to settle -- the Europeans and Japanese having grabbed off all the good planets. Setting the novel in New China was a refreshing change from the usual projections of Anglo-American culture that dominate our genre, and the sociological half of Champetier's world building is easily as significant and intriguing and believable as the physical setting. For example, without ever digressing from the heart-stopping action, Champetier has nevertheless managed to provide an excellent illustration -- one could almost say analysis -- of colonialism at the end of empire. When hard sf is successfully combined with social science fiction the interplay often gives rise, as here, to some of the very best our genre has to offer.

If the centrality of the setting is characteristic of Canadian sf, than so are the characterization and themes. Champetier's cast of double agents and hapless bystanders is pure Canadiana. Our protagonist may appear to be a typical Ian Fleming superspy, but he keeps fumbling the ball in typical Canadian fashion. Indeed, it is not even clear that he is fighting for the right side, because -- as with THE BOOK OF KNIGHTS -- Champetier's characters are adrift in a sea of moral ambiguity. In this spy novel, even the ends don't come close to justifying the means .

Similarly, Champetier characterizes the New Chinese as motivated by the desire to recreate the best of Imperial China, before the intrusion of Western and Japanese influence. This may strike some American reviewers as anachronistic or unconvincing, but anyone familiar with the history of New France knows that the colony was founded in part out of the desire to recreate in the new world a pure Christian France, unsullied by worldly and foreign influences. Thus, Champetier has merely projected a tiny aspect of Canadian history into a completely believable future, even though the setting is Chinese.

But let me reemphasize: this is a tightly written (and skillfully translated) novel that cannot be put down once it is picked up. If you ever needed proof that "Canadian" is not synonymous with "boring", this is a good place to start.

[Reviewed by Robert Runté, reprinted from Under the Ozone Hole, the Canadian sf newsletter.]

For another review of this book.

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Dave Duncan Strings

[Ballantine/Del Rey, 1989. 311pp. ISBN 0-345-36191-1

Once started, I had real trouble tearing myself away from Dave Duncan's lastest novel. Strings is an intriguing thriller which keeps the reader guessing right up to the last page.

"Strings" refers to the windows to other worlds opened by a technology based on superstring theory. The catch is that these windows are openned strictly at random, and once a string is broken, it can never be recaptured. Consequently, Earth has a very limited period in which to explore each new world, decide whether it's habitable, and to take the necessary steps to establish a colony which will have to be self-sustaining once this initial contact is lost. The central problem of the book is that even the very few worlds which appear suitable for settlement usually have a hidden flaw, such as too high a concentration of heavy metals, or an erratic orbit.

"Strings" is also the central metaphor of the book, and reoccurs constantly. The heroine's psychic abilities, for example, are likened to tugging on the separate strings of potential future timelines that meet at the present where they are braided into the rope of the past. The heroine's national symbol is a double helix formed by a cobra and a silk string. The hero is linked to various powerful world figures by virture of their shared strings of chromosones. These powerbrokers are in turn constantly pulling strings: calling in favours, extorting, and bribing their way to the top; and they are constantly seeking new strings with which to bind allies to them. Our hopelessly niave (though resiliant) hero is a mere puppet, jerked around as others yank his rope, controlling his every move.

Of course the major string is the complicated plotline itself. Just about everything anybody says or does in this book is the exact opposite of what they really mean, and Duncan obviously enjoys stringing the reader along through this machaivellian tangle of lies, half-truths, disinformation, and incorrect assumptions. There are enough twists and turns in this novel to tie even the sharpest reader in knots.

Strings is unquestionably Duncan's best book yet. Highly recommended.

[Reviewed by Robert Runté reprinted from the NCF, 1990.]

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Leslie Gadallah Cat's Pawn

Del Rey / Ballantine / Random House of Canada, 1987. 262 pp ISBN 0-345-33742-5, $3.95

After a slow start (23 pages of an over-long prologue that provides a necessary but initially distracting framing device) the book warms up to become a fairly entertaining adventure yarn. A bored linguist, posted to a distant colony as punishment for telling off his superiors, is hijacked by pirates. Stranded on an alien world, he becomes embroiled in local politics, the underworld, and drugs.

Much of the book is pure space opera, complete with blaster-toting bug-eyed monsters, and is written in a light sardonic tone. Beneath the action and the personal adventure of our protangonist, however, Gadallah has managed to build-in a brooding, pessimistic, and thoughtful subplot. While our hero blasts his way through his own life story, the forces of evil are quietly plotting our downfall, and Gadallah makes it clear that all the hero's frantic activity is completely irrelevant to what's really going on in the world.

Unlike most other examples of the space opera genre, then, the book does not have a particularly happy resolution. Elsewhere I have argued that while Americans write happy endings, and the British unhappy ones, Canadians typically leave their heroes in ambiguous situations. So it is with Cat's Pawn: the heroes are no better off than when they started. Their plans unraveled, their sacrifices unrewarded, and their stories forgotten, they live out their lives in tedious retirement.

This is not to suggest, however, that Cat's Pawn is preoccupied with existentialangst or unpleasant endings. On the contrary, the action elements carry the reader along at a good clip, and the heroes manage to avoid the worse case scenarios, which, from a certain perspective, could be interpreted as success. Overall, Cat's Pawn is a good light read.

[Reviewed by Robert Runté, reprinted from NCF]

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Leslie Gadallah Loremasters

Del Rey / Ballantine / Random House Canada, 1988. 280pp. ISBN 0-345-35576-8

Gadallah's second book is the story of the clash between a technologically advanced culture and one that is essentially medieval. The plot concerns the efforts of Earth's surviving technological enclaves to locate uranium sources without attracting the unwanted attention of the surrounding feudal society. You've seen it all before, but it is well done of its type and quite enjoyable.

What makes Gadallah's work distinctive is the Canadian flavor of her characterizations. A cast of well-intended characters bungles through their various adventures, winning through to a happy ending more by luck than good management. Our hero blows his cover almost at once, is arrested, and spends most of the book awaiting rescue. Our heroine chickens out half-way through the book and leaves our hero to be dragged off to the dungeons. The cavalry keeps arriving too late, or breaks into the wrong prison, or bogs down in bureaucratic squabbling over which department should fund the expedition. Fortunately, the bad guys are just as disorganized and fractious, and neither side ever manages to complete any action they initiate. Of course there are moments of true heroism as this or that character rises briefly to the occasion, but it almost always turns out to have been the wrong thing to do, or at best, ineffectual.

Furthermore, while there is a happy ending of sorts, nobody has ended up with what -- or whom -- they thought they wanted at the outset. As with all good literature, the characters are changed by their adventures, but as typical of Canadian literature, this change does not represent growth. Rather, they take on new careers, adapt to changed circumstances and generally continue to muddle through, albeit headed in a new direction. (The exception here is the fifteen year old heroine who does mature, but given Gadallah's portrayal of adults in this book, we are left with the impression that this is only the start of her problems.)

None of this distracts from the action, however, and for my money, the people in Gadallah's books are far more believable and human than the two-fisted heroes of most other adventure fiction. Although everyone enjoys vicariously experiencing the superior bravery and cleverness of a James Bond, it's nice to occasionally find protagonists with whom one can really identify.

Thus, lacking the pyrotechnics of a Raiders of the Lost Ark, Loremasters is a quietly successful book.

[Reviewed by Robert Runté, reprinted from NCF]

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Tanya Huff Child Of The Grove

DAW, 1988, 288 pp ISBN 0-88677-272-9.

There are really two complete stories here, set four generations apart. Both concern a fairly standard confrontation between the forces of good and evil, featuring the usual assortment of hamadryads, dwarves, centaurs, wizards, and dragons, with a brief guest appearance by a unicorn. I generally get headaches whenever I try to make it through a wizard and unicorn book, and I have long complained about the dearth of imagination in a fantasy mainstream that seems obsessed with recycling the same ten elements in perpetual permutation.

With Child Of The Grove I have to take it all back. Although there is little here that will not be immediately familiar to fantasy fans, Huff has nevertheless managed to create a work uniquely hers. Unlike the formulaic writing of much of the genre, Huff's characterizations go far beyond the usual cardboard cutouts, and her action sequences focus on how people feel and react, rather than on a recitation of cut and parry. The book is about people, and if they happen to be wizards or kings or hamadryas, they still have the same problems dealing with birth, death, and the confusing bits in between.

Huff's strength lies in a style which is both breezy and powerfully compact. Take, for example, this necessary but potentially dry account of the army marching off to battle:

And then came the remnants of the Palace Guard and the surviving Elite.. . . And then the Army of Ardhan, cavalry leading infantry--an order the infantry heartily wished reversed, horses being horses.
With the last line, Huff has not only managed to lighten the tone, but also deflated a fantasy cliché by replacing the traditionally over-romatisized image with the realistic sights and sounds and smells of a battlefield.

She also has an acute sense of what makes people individuals, and weaves these key details into her complex characterizations. At one level this simply means that Huff can cram more meaning into a single phrase or image than most fantasists can manage in entire trilogies. "She had a sudden vision of the way Riven's hair always fell over his face and her fingers itched to push it back." Here we see physical characteristics, mannerisms, and something of the characters' relationship in a single sentence, the more revealing because it intrudes on the character's thoughts in middle of an unrelated paragraph.

At a higher level, Huff has a profound understanding of the sorts of incidents that shape us; the ridiculous, irrational emotions that motivate us; and the mundane human responses even the most fantastic situations can elicit from us. For example, in the midst of the battle of titanic forces which will determine the fate of the world, the heroine's mother is preoccupied with the heroine's observation of proper courtly etiquette; and having just saved the world, the heroine's return is greeted by her maid complaining that she looks terrible dressed in red. This constant juxtaposition of the fantastic and the mundane provides a depth and reality to the characterizations seldom found in other fantasy works.

Huff also uses close-ups to good effect, focusing on a single event to illustrate long periods of time or very broad trends. In one three and a half page scene, for example, Huff sums up the suffering caused by the war, the impending defeat of the forces of good, and twelve years in the life and marriage of a minor character, simply by depicting that character taking leave of her husband.

Above all, Huff is the master of understatement, using the reader's own imagination to flesh out her vision. This is especially effective in the battle sequences (on which most fantasists lavish tedious detail) and in portraying the forces of evil. The scenes with the villain are particularly creepy precisely because Huff allows us only a tantalizing glimpse of the disgusting things he is doing. The reader's imagination balks at confronting the full implications of what Huff leaves unstated, so the evil becomes truly..."unimaginable".

About the only complaint I have with this book is the poor choice of character names. Two of the main characters are Rael and Raen which gets awfully confusing (one should always choose names with different first letters), and the repeated phrase "Hanna and her cousins" is unintentionally funny for Woody Allen fans. These are hardly serious flaws, however, and I would recommend this book even to those who don't usually enjoy fantasy.

[Reviewed by Robert Runté, reprinted from NCF]

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Tanya Huff The Last Wizard

DAW, 1989. 288 pp ISBN 0-88677-331-8

This is the second in Huff's Crystal Wizard duology. Unlike most sequels, this is an even better book than the original. You'll probably enjoy The Last Wizard more by reading Child of the Grove first, but this is a definite "must read."

The Last Wizard interweaves three brilliant plot elements, only one of which is safe to give away here:

Crystal had been created for one purpose and one purpose only, and no one gave a thought to how she'd feel when that was finished, knowing the world held no place for her.

Here Huff has taken the ultimate cliché of the hero riding off into the sunset and turned it inside out. More than that, she's dealt with a very real problem: After you've achieved all your goals, after you've landed on the moon or won The Campionship Season. . . . what do you do for an encore? Our heroine has trained her whole life for the climatic battle of Child of the Grove, which she fights at age 17. Like the veterans of any war returning to civilian society, Crystal is set adrift in a world which frankly no longer needs her. Now what? And the "now what?" gets particularly scary if you happen to be immortal. . . .

The second plot line revolves around Lord Death. Here again Huff transcends the usual clichés to produce a characterization that is uniquely hers: logical, consistent, and occasionally poignant, Lord Death is painted with original and striking imagery. Like Death in Terry Pratchett's Disc World series, Huff has created a completely new vision of death, and one more appropriate to the 1980s; but where Pratchett went for laughs, Huff plays it straight.

It is in such characterization that we see Huff's true genius. Forget the "grim reaper", the wise old wizard, the sinister demons waiting to devour the souls of the unwary: Huff's immortals are all incredibly fallible individuals afflicted with the same problems as the rest of us. Instead of the usual pompous pronouncements about good and evil that we get from the stock characters of other fantasists, Huff gives us dialog that could have come from our own mouths. I identified with Lord Death precisely because I recognize myself in this portrayal, and my neighbours in Crystal and her friends.

Huff has rediscovered the essence of all great fantasy: what made the Tale of Gillgamesh and the Illiad successful was that they were the original soap operas. The gods and legendary heroes of the Iliad were a complete bunch of jerks, and their adolescent behaviour was their most pronounced attribute. The gods were us writ large; a way of distancing ourselves from our own failings, so we could discuss and examine them. Nobody wants to be reminded about their own stupid behaviour with the opposite sex, for example, unless it is projected onto the gods, where it is comforting to note that even such all-powerful figures can screw up as badly as the rest of us. This emotional basis of all great fantasy has been forgotten by most modern writers, who instead get hung up on the "technical" details of the magical powers they describe, just as 1950s sf got hung up on warp drives and bug-eyed monsters.

In sharp contrast, Huff's writing emphasizes character rather than stock characteristics, and she packs all of human nature into a few key phrases. There are so many examples of this, I'm tempted to share some of them with you, but the joy of reading Huff's work comes in part from her ability to surprise us with characters whose traits are simultaneously original and intuitively familiar. The signature line of the goddess of chance, for example, is both hilarious and--once Huff has pointed it out to us--obvious and inevitable.

Huff's style is powerful without sinking into the usual pretentiousness, and she uses humour effectively, not only to lighten the mood at appropriate intervals, but also to reveal character. Where Thomas Convanent, for example, whinned continuously for six unrelenting volumes, which is both tiresome and unbelievable, Huff's characters break off their introspection for snowball fights, lovemaking, and the other tension releasing activities of real people.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and await Huff's next project with eager anticipation.

[Reviewed by Robert Runté, reprinted from NCF]

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Tanya Huff Wizard of the Grove [1999]

I can't tell you how annoyed I was to have bought this book, only to discover that it was not the third in the series I had so enjoyed, but a reprint of the original duology I already owned. *Sigh* Teach me to read the fine print.

However, if you haven't already read Child of the Grove or The Last Wizard, then this reprint is just the ticket. Indeed, it is nice to see the publisher recognize that Huff is something more than yet another routine fantasist and that these two novels deserved to be re-released for the next generation of fantasy readers. For a detailed review, go to the Child of the Grove review (above) and read down.

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Crawford Kilian Brother Jonathan

Ace sf, June, 1985. 183 pp. 0-441-08227-0

A dog, two chimpanzees, and four crippled children have an Adventure in the middle of a cyberpunk universe. The combination of lovable characters and pessimistic, high tech future gives one the sensation of watching a Walt Disney movie whose script has been inexplicably shuffled with pages from Neuromancer. Nevertheless, a delightful book which manages to be warm and optimistic without being sappy. Recommended.

[Reviewed by Robert Runté, reprinted from NCF]

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Crawford Kilian The Fall Of The Republic
(The Chronoplane Wars #1)

Del Rey / Ballantine / Random House of Canada, 1987. 293 pp ISBN 0-345-34273-9, .

Crawford Kilian Rogue Emperor
(The Chronoplane Wars #2)

, Del Rey / Ballantine / Random House of Canada, 1988. 296 pp. ISBN 0-345-35078-2

Crawford Kilian. The Empire Of Time
(The Chronoplane Wars #3)

Del Rey / Ballantine / Random House of Canada, 1978. 183 pp. ISBN 0-345-34759-5

(Ignore publication dates and read them in order indicated.)

The action in the Chronoplane books evolves from three discoveries: Training, a method of absorbing vast amounts of information, but which only works for 12% of the population; I-Gates which open on eleven other Earths, identical to ours except that they are at different points on the time stream; and Doomsday, the unsettling discovery that the two I-Gates to Earth's future lead to dead worlds.

In The Fall Of The Republic a group of Trainable officers conspires to overthrow the government of the United States in an attempt to stave off the Doomsday that destroyed Earth's two future twins. An excellent action adventure, the book is particularly interesting because American nationalists are cast as the bad guys, and the traitors are the protagonists.

In Rogue Emperor a militant group of fundamentalist Christians travels through an I-Gate to ancient Rome to give the early Christian church a hand in converting the Roman Empire. Another excellent action adventure, it combines the best elements of spy novels and time-travel stories.

In The Empire Of Time our protagonist slowly realizes that his resolution to the problems presented in the first two books has only led to even worse problems in the long run. And time is running out for the Earth.

All three books are written from the viewpoint of Jerry Pierce, a borderline sociopath who manages to betray or kill just about everyone with whom he comes in contact. (In Pierce's twisted value system, it's ok to maneuver your friends into positions that will get them killed, so long as you avenge their deaths afterwards.) Kilian's masterful handling of the action, and his portrayal of Pierce as a victim of even more callous superiors, distracts us from the fact that Pierce is not a very sympathetic hero.

In fact, further analysis reveals a right-wing subtext in the seeming approval for characters taking the law into their own hands, the acceptance of a ruling elite, and the fundamental distrust of the masses, all of which are inherent in the superhero-saviour motif. These right-wing tendencies are offset somewhat, however, by Kilian's pervasive cynicism, his anti-American internationalism, and the series' conclusion that the protagonists were mostly doing the wrong thing.

Politically correct or not, all three books are fine swashbucklers.

[Reviewed by Robert Runté, reprinted from NCF]

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Donn Kushner A Book Dragon

MacMillan of Canada, 1987. 197pp ISBN 0-7715-9515-8 Illustrated by Nancy Ruth Jackson

This is one of those books that almost makes me wish I was a classroom teacher again, because it's the sort of thing that demands to be read to a room full of 12 year olds.

A Book Dragon is the delightful tale of Nonesuch, a dragon who adopts an illustrated manuscript as his personal treasure and defends it against all comers. Nonesuch survives into the present day by shrinking to insect size, and becomes a fly-on-the-wall observer of various human comings and goings. Kushner is thus able to give us the Cook's tour of the last 500 years of civilization, and a parade of various human archetypes. (He concludes this portrayal of social evolution, appropriately enough, with the archetypal sf fan.)

There is not much physical action of the dragon verses knight variety here: no massed armies fighting each other for the succession, no heroic hobbits taking on evil sorcerers, no high speed car chases. In typical Canadian style, most of the action takes place off stage, and instead of battling the forces of evil, the protagonists simply endure their enemies with a quiet stoicism. Violence is depicted as cowardly or unproductive, and even when fully justified, Nonesuch finds it distasteful (in both sense of the word). Nonesuch's own role in the story is largely restricted to interested observer, and when he does occasionally intervene in the affairs of men, he does so anonymously and without heroic bluster.

Like all great books, however, this one can be read at several levels. Many children's authors erroneously believe that keeping the story simple means avoiding any kind of emotional or intellectual depth. In sharp contrast, Kushner treats his readers to some rather nice symbolism and a goodly number of philosophical asides, which children will find both accessible and thought provoking. When dragons eat people, for example, they take on the victim's thoughts, so killing evil-doers simply means you sink to their level. There is also an undertone of humor throughout the story, which pokes gentle fun at human weakness and Nonesuch's own early pretensions. This occasionally erupts into black comedy as the off stage action hints at sinister deeds, but this merely adds to the story's profundity.

Kushner's previous book, The Violin-Maker's Gift, won the 1980 Canadian Library Association's Book of the Year for Children Award, and this one seems an equally worthy contribution to children's literature.

[Reviewed by Robert Runté, reprinted from NCF]

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Nicole Luiken Escape To The Overworld

Tree Frog Press, 1988, Trade paperback, 141 pp. ISBN 0-88967-078-1

Like the openning scenes of The Fungus Garden, Nicole Luiken's Escape To The Overworld concerns rebellious youth escaping a robot-dominated society. In sharp contrast to the former, however, the latter is a surprisingly good juvenile adventure.

The writing is as good as most of the juveniles on the market, and seems limited more by the need to retain a simple vocabulary and syntax for young readers than by any lack of ability on the part of the author. The plot, while nothing new, is well paced and believable. The story is set in Toronto some 200 years in the future and revolves around two teenagers who struggle to escape from the Humanoid robots and the struggle to prevent them from destroying the Earth. Like most fiction for young adults in the 80's, heroism is depicted as a team effort, with the female getting just as many of the good lines. Our hero and heroine eventually marry, but unlike many adult-written juveniles, the romance is handled without condescension and without dominating the rest of the story.

I've read a number of sf juveniles recently (in preparing my bibliography of Canadian sf) and I have no hesitation in recommending this one as above average.

Nicole wrote Escape To The Overworld when she was 15, but her first published novel was written when she was 13, and she had another eleven novels completed and looking for publishers by age 17. Part of this productivity can be explained by living in Hawk Hills, Alberta (which is near Manning, which is two hours from Grande Prairie, which is five hours north of Edmonton, so we're talking your basic isolated farming community here). With a two hour bus commute everyday to school, she had a lot of time on her hands for writing.

[Reviewed by Robert Runté, reprinted from NCF]

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Yves Meynard The Book Of Knights

NY: Tor, 1998. 222pp. ISBN 0-312-86482-5 Hardcover

Yves Meynard's delightful fantasy, The Book Of Knights, is the story of a young boy whose only outlet from an abusive homelife is his discovery of an old copy of The Book Of Knights. Inspired by its tales of honour and adventure he runs away from home, resolving to become a knight.

At first glance, this may appear to be just another in the familiar genre of quest fantasies, albeit much better written than most. The individual adventures are highly original, and oddly off-center to English language readers used to the sanitized fairy tales of our Disney-dominated culture. There is an underlying edginess and quirky dark humour here that harkens back to the traditional French or German folktale, with all the potential for mayhem that implies.

But Meynard does much more than merely string together a series of unrelated adventures. In the final chapter, Meynard manages to pull all our hero's disparate adventures together into a single coherent whole, thereby elevating it from escapist fantasy to a highly satisfying morality tale. While the narrative keeps the reader entertained and distracted, Meynard slips in some of the most literate fantasy metaphor I've encountered in years, to immerse the reader in a universe of moral ambiguity. Instead of the simplistic absolutes of "good wizard vs bad" that pollutes so much of the fantasy section's shelf space these days, Meynard confronts his characters with real moral choices, asking them (and the reader) to think for themselves. It is the sort of book that makes you feel you've grown as a result of reading it, even though you were having outrageous fun the whole time.

I highly recommend The Book Of Knights. Indeed, in tone, maturity, and significance, it must be considered Quebec's answer to Sean Nobody's Son.

[Reviewed by Robert Runté reprinted from Under the Ozone Hole, Canada's sf Newlsetter.]

Douglas Barbour provides another review of this book.

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William Pasnak In The City of the King

Douglas & McIntyre ,1987 ISBN 0-88899-027-8

Ariel and Elena are traveling entertainers who arrive in the capital of Estria to discover that the king has fallen under the influence of an order of evil priests. Ariel turns out to be an agent of a secret brotherhood dedicated to protecting the king, and 12 year old Elena is inducted into an even more secret society, the Daughters of Ismay. Elena's dancing and pure heart challenge the evil priesthood's control over the king, and good and evil fight it out.

This is a good young adult novel in which a routine storyline is balanced by some nice writing. The characterization of Elena as a young but strong heroine is particularly well handled, and should appeal to the Andre Norton crowd.

[Reviewed by Robert Runté, reprinted from NCF]

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William Pasnak Under The Eagle's Claw

Douglas & McIntyre, 1988, 136 pp.ISBN 0-88899-078-2,

The further adventures of Elena and Ariel, though this time Ariel definitely takes a backseat to Elena, who has to fill in for an ailing Ariel at a ceremony in a neighbouring community. Once again the battle between good and evil is fairly routine, but young readers will be able to identify with the frustrations faced by 12 year old Elena in getting any of the adults to heed her warnings.

Both of Pasnak's books leave a great deal unresolved, particularly concerning the nature of the Brotherhood and the Daughters of Ismay, but I hope that's because Pasnak intends to keep Elena and Ariel adventuring through a whole series of books. Pasnak's plots are simple, as is appropriate for this age level, but one can already begin to see the cummulative development possible as Elena learns and grows with each new adventure.

Although difficult to put my finger on, there is a certain emotional maturity about Pasnak's works that makes them both more interesting and more rewarding than a plot summary would suggest. Pasnak's charaterizations are realistic and convincing, but also teach young readers something about human nature. Although there are happy endings, these are tinged with regrets and trade-offs, as Elena must leave friends behind and move on. She chooses growth and self-discipline over a comfortable but too safe lifestyle.

Overall, then, pretty good stuff.

[Reviewed by Robert Runté, reprinted from NCF]

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Garfield Reeves-Stevens Nighteyes

[A Seal Book, McClelland/Bantam, 1989. ISBN 0-7704-2366-3 (Canadian Catalog Card # C88-095416-71989) 434 pp.]

At first glance Nighteyes appears to be a cross-over novel: part mainstream best seller, part Steven King horror, part spy thriller, but mostly a sinister version of Close Encounters. Well it's all of that, but at heart it remains a better than average sf novel.

Garfield begins with the intriguing premise that if (a) UFO's were really in the habit of abducting human subjects from secluded locations, and if (b) spys spend a lot of their time conducting covert actions in said secluded locations, then (c) it stands to reason that sooner or later the aliens are going to abduct a spy from the middle of a stakeout, to the great consternation of all involved.

From here Garfield weaves an intriguing tapestry of ideas combining elements of the UFO mythos with the latest theoretical advances in physics and biology. Nighteyes twists and turns, not only between genres, but from one side of the UFO question to the other. Just when you think one of the characters has finally figured out what's going on, has nailed down whether we are dealing with aliens, Soviet agents, or psychotic episodes, one of the other characters explains why the current conclusion couldn't possibly be the correct one. Whatever you think you're reading, it turns into something completely different two chapters later.

But the suspense runs much deeper than merely trying to guess what will happen next. Garfield has managed to identify the underlying psychological archtypes that give rise to the UFO mythos, and therefore to tap into the reader's own childhood nightmares. Ever had an imaginary friend? Dreamt of flying, falling or floating? Huddled under the covers as the clothes in your anxiety closet turn into an undefined monster? Garfield hints insidiously that these may be the suppressed memories of your own brief abduction by UFOs. As one of the character puts it: "And at times like these, she knew why there were some movies that she couldn't watch, whose makers had been here and unknowingly reproduced this, drawing from their own half-remembered dreams." It doesn't matter who you are, Garfield has a chapter somewhere with your personal dread in it.

Nighteyes is a virtual catalog of paranoid fantasies: Various viewpoint characters believe themselves hunted by fanatical government agents, kidnapped by flying saucers, controlled by alien conditioning, victims of rape, falsely accused of sexual child abuse, or that they've lost their babies. There is no way you can defend your psyche from everything he throws at it, because if you can laugh off the martians and the CIA and the dead cats, there's always those mounting accusations that you're the neighbourhood pervert, to leave you feeling violated, exposed, and vulnerable.

Even characterization is a vehicle for developing tension in this novel. With nearly five hundred pages to play around in, Garfield can afford to provide even the minor characters with a richly detailed interior life, so that it's never clear which, if any, of the protangonists are going to make it out alive.

Besides being a great thriller, Nighteyes is also a handbook of spy procedures and a summary of current UFO "research". If you want to know what's going on in UFOlogy these days without actually bothering to read that drek yourself, or if you wish to get the feel for the internal politics of the CIA without actually undertaking a career change, this is the book for you. All in all, Nighteyes is a surprisingly good read.

[Reprinted from NCF.]

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Robert J. Sawyer Golden Fleece

Questar/Popular Library, 1990,197pp.ISBN 0-445-21078

Golden Fleece is Toronto author Robert Sawyer's first novel, an expansion of his nebula-nominated short story of the same name, originally published in the Sept 1988 issue of Amazing. It's the story of JASON the shipboard computer that murders one of the crew and tries to pass if off as a suicide. Once one has gotten over the inevitable comparisons with HAL (the computer from 2001), Golden Fleece emerges as a fairly ingenious sf murder mystery.

Unlike most mysteries, however, the object is not to guess "who" done it but the much more subtle questions of "how" and "why". Sawyer shows us the murder in the first five pages, and Hitchcock-like, sucks us into sympathizing with the "bad guy" by making him the viewpoint character. Sawyer manages to generate a good deal of tension as various characters begin to suspect that all is not as it should be aboard ship, and JASON tries to mislead or silence those who are getting too close to the truth. The mystery is deftly handled, with the clues neatly laid out for us, but the pattern remains unrecognizable until the final confrontation.

As often happens with expansions from a shorter work, the novel is a bit lumpy. Sawyer often stops the murder mystery to wander off to deal with other subplots or to have JASON ramble on about this or that aspect of ship-board life. One generally forgives Sawyer these expository lumps, however, because so many of his ideas are genuinely intriguing. Besides, the story is being told from JASON's point of view, and as a multitasking computer, we have to expect our narrator to have more than one project on the go at a time. And it must be conceded that several of the scenes I had originally thought rather gratitious turned out to be central to the story's resolution. And that resolution is both brilliant and typically Canadian.

I do have a couple of very minor complaints, however. First (and you never though you'd hear this from me) there is too damn much Canadian content. Real Canadian content, it seems to me, manifests itself in terms of themes and style, and not through an endless stream of Canadian place names and historical references. The worst example of this in Golden Fleece is when Sawyer includes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as one of the seven "great fundamental documents of human rights" enshrined in the ship's council chamber. Give me a break! The Canadian Charter's failure to enshrine first nation rights or provide protection for sexual preference meant that it wasn't even very liberal by current standards, let alone as viewed from 200 years in the future. Such Canadian chauvanism is as embarrassing as Asimov's inclusion of the American Constitution in Stars Like Dust or the "Omaga Glory" (Yang vs. Con) episode of Star Trek.

Second, there are occasional touches that recall the Buck Roger's trappings of the pulp era. Several of the flashback scenes on Earth, for example, include mention of aircars. Now I don't know about where you live, but the only reason I feel safe at night is knowing that I'm on the fourth floor and that the drunks who regularly drive into (and occasionally over) the concrete barriers in front of my apartment can't get at me. Can you imagine what would happen if traffic were 3D? (As I type this review, one of my neighbours is dropping beer bottles out of his 15th story window to hear them break on the concrete below. I don't care how advanced the technology, I don't want this clown to ever own an aircar, you know?)

But such trival complaints aside, this is a pretty good read. It works well both as a mystery and as hard sf, and adds yet another innovative voice to the growing ranks of Canadian authors. Recommended.

[Reviewed by Robert Runté reprinted from NCF.]

[Editor's Update: The major reaction to this review when it came out was about 60 letters and emails on why there will too be aircars. I remain unconvinced concerning their practicality, but I was obviously way off the mark on their popularity with the readers! So please, no air car emails this time.

On re-reading my review, I don't think I was successful in conveying how much I liked this book: I would have liked to have discussed some of Saywer's clever ideas, such as his ingenious computer virus, and his treatment of the central moral issue of 'the right to know', but I absolutely detest reviewers who give away too much (or who restrict themselves to plot summary) so I resisted the temptation. I really liked the book though, and still consider it one of Sawyer's best. I particularly liked the ending. It's recent re-release is excellent news for Sawyer fans who missed it the first time round!]

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Andrew Weiner Station Gehenna

Worldwide Library ("Isaac Asimov Presents"), 1988. 250pp ISBN 0-373-30306-8

Part sf, part mystery, it took me about 80 pages to become even half-way hooked, and even then I'm not sure I liked it. Only Harlan Ellison's recommendation on the backcover ("Weiner is a wonderful storyteller, and Station Gehenna is the dreamspinner at the height of his powers"), and my own fanatic nationalism, kept me going for the first third of the book.

Part of the problem is that the first person narrator is an insufferable ass. Let me give you an example:

Irritated with myself, I tried to focus my thoughts on the situation I would be facing at Station Gehenna. It would be a difficult one, no doubt, and likely to challenge my abilities to the fullest. But it would not, finally, prove impenetrable, once attacked with efficiency and rationality, the very qualities upon which I had built my so-far successful career.
This becomes somewhat more bearable as the story progresses and our protangonist begins to redeem himself, but the first third of the book is like having to listen to the worst pompous ass you've ever met. Of course, one can't fault Weiner for what is really a very effective characterization, and it is a refreshing change to have such a realistic portrayal instead of the usual sardonic or superagent narration.

And to be fair, the characterization probably won't annoy you half as much as it did me. Weiner's protagonist is an academic dropout who spends pages rambling on about how much he hates the outdoors, academica, and people who think he has an issue with personal control. As an academic who has an issue with personal control and who hates the outdoors, I was not terribly amused. (If there is one thing more annoying than a pompous jerk, it's pompous jerk who is quoting you verbatim.)

On the other hand, Weiner has two other bad habits that are guaranteed to piss off everyone. First, he constantly has the narrator make pronouncements about upcoming chapters. For example, the passage quoted above continues:

On this score I was quite wrong. But of course I did not know that....
Arrrrgggg! I hate people who do this. It drives me crazy! Not only is this an incredibly crude form of foreshadowing, it is completely self-defeating in a murder mystery where it simply telegraphs who is about to get it, and which clues don't count. Weiner is continually throwing away whatever suspense he's managed to build up by telling us what is about to happen. This almost ruined the last half of the book for me, which was otherwise starting to get fairly interesting.

Second, Weiner has a tendency to belabour even the smallest point, as if his readers were too stupid to follow the simplest developments without this tedious repetition. This may be part of an attempt to hide clues to the mystery behind a barrage of verbiage, but I suspect it is just a lack of control. Take for example this line from page 59:

"I don't understand," I said, completely baffled now.
Presumably the reader could have guessed that our narrator was confused by the fact that he says, "I don't understand" and the added "completely baffled now" is simply redundant and distracting. This is a picky example, but his whole style tends to be overly wordy, slowing the pace of what could have been a much more gripping story.

Similarly, I found the underlying themes of the book spelt out too explicitly, as if Weiner were afraid that we'd miss them unless he underlined them and had various characters debate them for us. I would have preferred a more subtle work.

On the positive side, Weiner is a much better storyteller than he is a writer. He uses flashbacks to good effect, and the mystery did have me going there for a while. I agree completely with Asimov's introduction in which he compares this book with his own Caves of Steel; Station Gehenna is at least as good and Weiner's psychological insights are a good deal sounder. Furthermore, while perhaps lacking in subtly, Weiner did have a few things to say and went beyond the standard who done it to address some fairly universal issues. In spite of its flaws, this is a respectable first novel. I look forward to Weiner's next book, which presumbably won't hit the same annoying buttons for me.

[Reviewed by Robert Runté, reprinted from NCF]

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Robert Charles Wilson A Hidden Place

Bantam Spectra Book, 1986. 212pp. ISBN 0-553-26103-7

In one of the most intelligent cover quotes ever, Michael Bishop calls A Hidden Place "reminiscent of vintage Theodore Sturgeon in its moving and authentic evocations of place and people." In a genre dominated by ideas, Sturgeon stood out as an author prepared to deal with characterization, emotion, and values. In his first novel, Wilson clearly demonstrates these same strengths.

This is a compelling novel. Once you pick it up you can't put it down. It's not that it's an edge-of-the-seat thriller, the sort of fast paced plot that keeps you guessing what happens next. Hell, the cover tells you the whole plot. It's just that once you start, Wilson plunges you into such an emotional maelstrom you have to read through to the end, because you are driven by the same needs as the characters. The only way you are going to be able to get to sleep at night is if you, like the characters, work it through to Wilson's resolution.

What makes this particularly scary is that Wilson is clearly not the kind of guy to give you a throw away happy ending. If the characters win their struggles (mostly with themselves) all well and good; but if their basic flaws defeat them, then they're gonna die.

And what makes that unnerving is that nearly everyone in this book gets a turn as viewpoint character. You just know that they can't all make it, that at least some of these weak and deeply flawed people are going to succumb. And they're probably going to take the others with them.

But an uncertain ending is only a small part of the tension in this book. The real heart of the work is the way Wilson forces you to see each of the characters from their own point of view. Just when you start to despise this or that villian, Wilson pops you inside the bastard and makes you feel what the character feels. Wilson doesn't allow you to write anybody off with a simple condescending 'bad guy' label; everybody is a victim in Wilson's universe, and everybody's guilty to at least some extent. Unfortunately, that means you too, since you are forced into one viewpoint character after another.

So, you feel guilty about sympathizing with some very unsympathetic characters, but at the same time you feel quilty for having hated them before you understood what it was like to be them, and that makes you feel guilty about hating their real world analogs. Without realizing quite what's happening, you are caught up in the same sort of internal conflict as most of Wilson's characters.

Wilson is particularly effective in this because this is a book about fans. Not literally, of course, but in its emotional targets. The protagonist (if you can identify one character as such) is the archetypal fan, the loner alienated from the rest of society. The antagonists are fundamentalists, small town vigilantes, rapists, childabusers, bigots; all the too easily stereotyped and dismissed enemies of bookish urban liberals (i.e., fans). I'm not sure which is more uncomfortable: squirming inside the suddenly understandable persona of the antagonists, or seeing one's own weaknesses and powerlessness reflected in the protagonist.

Wilson wraps all these characters in the increasingly oppressive atmosphere of the deepening 1930s depression. The setting is not unlike a small room in which the walls are slowly closing in, building up an intolerable pressure on the central characters. To this Wilson adds the slow fuse of a freight train bearing down on our protagonists, tied as it were to the tracks.

This is an emotional book. It's about emotions. The central metaphor is of a mirror for the emotions into which the characters are compelled to look, though they are uncomfortable with their reflections. We perhaps understand their discomforture as we look into the mirror that is the book and see ourselves reflected in the characters we might have become had circumstances called forth those aspects of ourselves.

This is a good book. Maybe even an important one. As a first novel, it's absolutely amazing, and I was severely disappointed that Wislon failed to attract the critical attention and award nominations he so clearly deserved.

[Reviewed by Robert Runté, reprinted from NCF 1986]

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Robert Charles Wilson Memory Wire

Bantam Spectra, 1987, 219ppISBN 0-553-26853-8

As if A Hidden Place weren't enough of a triumph, Wilson actually managed to top himself in his second novel.

At first glance, Memory Wire appears to be simply another cyberpunk entry, but 25 pages into the novel it becomes apparent that this is no mere derivative vision. Wilson's technological and militaristic future bears passing similarity to that portrayed in cyberpunk, but Wilson populates this desolate landscape with real people who feel and cope and grow, as well as think and act. Although comparisons with William Gibson are inevitable, Wilson is clearly the better author. Gibson's novels are slickly done, but he is ultimately content to settle for a thriller that says little beyond rubbing our noses in the coming/current corporate dystopia. Wilson goes beyond this primitive level of social commentary to produce a thriller that is also psychologically profound. Where Gibson says the future is shit, Wilson tells us what it will smell like, how we'll feel about it, and what we'll do to cover up the stink.

Thematically, Memory Wire is a vehicle for Wilson to discuss the nature of memory: how our personal pasts shapes the people we become, how it blocks or frees us, and how we sometimes have to struggle to come to grips with who and what we are. On all these subjects Wilson has something important to say, and he says it with style and feeling. Not only do the characters experience growth in this book, I think I did. Much as I enjoyed Neuromancer, and much as it may have caused many people to change their thinking about the future, it had little impact on me as a person. Wilson, in contrast, makes you think about your life, your values, and your own emotional health.

What elevates Wilson to true genius, however, is that he manages all this without detracting from a driving narrative. This is an edge-of-the-seat thriller, complete with smugglers, drug dealers, secret police and a moving love story. The plot twists and turns around a number of brilliant sf concepts, any one of which could have stood on its own as the basis for a complete novel. Wilson's handling of setting is equally marvelous, particularly the South American scenes based on Brazil's Sera Paladé gold mine.

This is very nearly a perfect novel. Go get this book. Special order it if you have to, but this is a "must read".

[Reviewed by Robert Runté, reprinted from NCF 1988]

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