cover image The NCF Guide to

and Fandom

Fourth Edition
Edited by Robert Runté



Project Maldon cover

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.)

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.

[reprinted from Under the Ozone Hole, the Canadian sf newsletter.]

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Valor's Choice cover
Cover art by Jody Lee.

Tanya Huff, Valor's Choice

DAW, April 2000. 394pp $10.00 ISBN 0-88677-896-4

Tanya Huff has always been a solid genre writer, taking the tropes of fantasy or detective fiction, and giving them that slight twist that elevates her books above the run of the mill. In Valor's Choice she turns her considerable talents to the genre of hard, militaristic sf.

The plot is relatively straight forward: A group of marines freshly returned from combat are reassigned to a diplomatic mission where their role is supposed to be strictly ceremonial. Of course, it doesn't work out that way (this is, after all, an action adventure novel) and our marines spend a good deal of the book in combat. There are, however, four elements that elevate this novel far above others of its ilk.

First, Huff does an excellent job of developing the viewpoint character of Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr. Huff's protagonist is a solid portrayal of the archetypal Staff Sergeant, providing numerous insights into that rather unique role. (The book should be required reading for Canadian Forces NCO training.) In choosing the staff sergeant as the viewpoint character, Huff allows the reader to get up close and personal to both the other characters of the platoon (nicely fleshed out, without any of the more obvious clichés) and the actual combat. This stands in sharp contrast to most milartistic sf (e.g., David Webber's Honor series, Stirling's The General series, or anything by Steve White) which is usually written from the point of view of the commanding officer. Whereas most of the subgenre reads like some badly conceived role playing game in which planet-fulls of spear carriers are casually wiped out in the furtherment of our commander's game plan, Huff zooms in on the much more interesting and involving level of the marines actually doing the fighting.

Second, Huff can't resist injecting an undercurrent of black humor. Although understated and completely believable, the interplay between the characters is often wincingly funny. By her careful use of humor, Huff manages to both deepen her characterization of marines under stress, and the reader's connection to each of these individuals. Again, this stands in sharp contrast to the rest of this subgenre, in which humourless commanders pursue their personal destinies at the expense of the essentially invisible spear carriers who man their battles. Who cares about the exploits of any of these pompous egomaniacs? But we come to care deeply about each of the marines featured in Valor's Choice, precisely because their ability to recognize the absurdity of their situation makes them infinitely more human. The use of humour in such a context is extremely risky, but Huff pulls it off masterfully.

Third, Huff has adapted a real historical battle for use within a familiar sf setting. There is no expository lump here, no long socio-politicial-historical lectures on how our platoon came to find itself in this situation, because every sf reader is familiar with her choice of a standard stellar federation fighting the standard nameless nemesis of the "Others". Huff uses these familiar sf tropes to completely bypass the usual redundant set up, and simply dives right into the action. And the action is believable because, for all practical purposes, it really happened.

And kudos to Huff for waiting until the afterword to tell us on which battle the book was based. Again, this contrasts with the norm for the genre, in which most authors feel compelled to lay it on with a trowel. Take Saberhagen's recent reworking of the Battle of Midway in which he constantly rubbed the reader's face in the parallels, in the (apparently vain) hope that his American readers would catch the references. I found Saberhagen's approach both distracting and condescending, whereas Huff simply borrows the precedent without overly caring whether her readers are familiar with it. (My advice to the reader would be to not bother looking up the answer until afterwards, but suit yourself.)

Fourth, unlike practically every other militaristic sf novel I can think of, Huff is not a right-wing idiot. Although she sympathetically portrays the NCO's typical contempt for politicians, she does not indulge in the anti-democratic, anti-intellectual posturing of so many of the subgenre's authors. I can barely bring myself to read the likes of David Webber or Jerry Pournell, or Steve White, because their jingoistic posturing is so ludicrous. I'm sure these books go down very well with American audiences, but as a Canadian, it is simply painful to have to read the cold war politics of a previous generation extrapolated onto a galactic future. I have often wondered why it didn't seem to be possible to write military adventure without it sounding like the author was a member of an American militia, poised to defend America against the pending invasion of the UN's fleet of black helicopters. Well, in Huff, we finally have the proof that long political tirades or pseudo-historical accounts that blame everything for the next 10,000 years on democracy and progressive taxation, are not in fact a requirement of good militaristic fiction. Freed of the distraction of political exposition, Huff is able to concentrate on plot and character. The result is incredibly refreshing.

In summary, then, this is militaristic sf for people who normally can't stand militaristic sf. Fans of the subgenre won't be disappointed, but I highly recommend this delightful actioner to those who would normally reject any book with a gun-toting hero on the cover. This is Tanya Huff at her best, and that's well worth the $10 admission. Somebody should make the movie.

My only minor quibble with this novel is that Huff's Tuckerization of several of the book's main characters is occasionally distracting. For example, last I checked, "Mike Glichsohn" is a Toronto history teacher and a big name fan, not a Sergeant in the Confederation marines. For Canadian fans, finding a name that conjures up one set of images attributed to another character entirely is occasionally disconcerting, but probably won't be an issue for most general readers. (On the other hand, waiting to see which of these familiar characters Huff wanted to shot in her novel could be seen as adding another level of suspense!)

[Reviewed by Robert Runté, original to NCF Guide website]

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The Dragon's Eye cover

Design by Victoria Kuskowski

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.

[reprinted from Under the Ozone Hole, the Canadian sf newsletter.]

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Book of Knights cover

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.]

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This page last updated May 2000.