Deep Outside SFFH - Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror

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BLOOM by Wil McCarthy - Del Rey Books, published August 1999. 303 pages, $6.99 US. website: www.randomhouse.com/bloom/

PROPHETS FOR THE END OF TIME by Marcos Donnelly Baen Books, published November, 1998. 366 pages, $5.99 US.

THE GREEN MILE by Stephen King Pocket Books, March 1999. 536 pages, $7.99 US.

ANTARCTICA by Kim Stanley Robinson Bantam Books, paperback edition July 1999. 653 pages, $6.99 US.

FOUR WAYS TO FORGIVENESS by Ursula K. Leguin HarperPrism, published August 1996. 305 pages, $5.99 US.

DEEPSIX by Jack McDevitt Eos Books, division of HarperCollins, September 2000. 432 pages.

CALCULATING GOD by Robert Sawyer Tor Books, June 2000. 334 pages. $23.95 US hardcover.

RED MOON by Michael Cassutt Forge Books, published January 2001. 380 pages, $25.95 US hardcover.

The best thing about being a reviewer is that people send me books to read. It should be said, however, that some of them aren't to my taste. Fantasy, for example. I don't care for the work of most modern practitioners, finding it highly derivative. The same can be said for a great deal of science fiction, of course, but I am inclined to be more forgiving there because most sf writers, as opposed to most writers of fantasy, seem to have better imaginations. This is why I rarely review fantasy. I have a bias against it, and I'm not inclined to write negative reviews unless I have a better point to make than "I don't like fantasy."

Don't send me any nasty letters about this, please, I'm entitled to my stupid, wrong opinions. You want to express your stupid, wrong opinions, go get a review column of your own.

The bad thing about getting a lot of books to read, however, is that I get so many that I can't read them all. I not only have a pile of books to be read, I have a pile of books I have read and haven't had time to review. Hence this column, where I am going to do a number of "mini-reviews" to clear both my desk and my conscience.

Wil McCarthy's BLOOM is set in 2106, when mankind has been dsriven into the further reaches of the solar system by an infestation of technogenic life forms, part nano machine and part fungus. The book details a trip made back to Earth by a team hoping to end the infestation once and for all. They run into a number of highly charged adventures along the way. McCarthy's writing is exciting and vivid. This the first book of his I've read, and I'll be looking for others. Imaginative and well plotted with good if not memorable characters. Recommended.

Marcos Donnelly handed me a copy of PROPHETS FOR THE END OF TIME at a Philcon a couple of years ago, and I'm embarrassed that it's taken me this long to review the book. I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was a sort of cat I hadn't encountered many times before, a farcical religious fantasy about the Apocalypse. For some reason, I like this sort of thing (such as Robert Rankin's THE ANTIPOPE, for example--Donnelly's work reminds me a good deal of Rankin). Donnelly writes with great verve, good humor and authority, continually surprising me with his depth of ecclesiastical knowledge. Come on, Marcos, you were an altar boy, right? Great fun, especially if you're looking for something a little different. Recommended.

Constant readers of this column will no doubt have noticed my fondness for Stephen King. I happened to see the film version of THE GREEN MILE before I read the book. I enjoyed the movie, and the book does not disappoint. King doesn't need my validation, but for what it's worth, this parable of redemption and sacrifice in a Southern prison circa 1932 packs a powerful punch. King excels at plotting and characterization. This book is less overtly supernatural than some, deriving its power from some heartbreaking situations. If ever there was a Christian writer, it's Stephen King. This book isn't as obvious a morality tale as THE STAND, but I think it is actually a better book because it is less fantastic. Recommended.

Kim Stanley Robinson's book ANTARCTICA ought to have been about a hundred pages shorter. It isn't a bad book by any means, but Robinson fell so much in love with his subject--even going to Antarctica in 1995--that he couldn't bear to not include any of his prodigious amount of research. The book becomes, in its final third, overly polemical and didactic, and sinks because of this load of scholarship. That's too bad, because I liked his characters very much, especially X, a general field assistant jack of all trades who takes on the initial as a self-denigrating joke. The early parts of the book are fast-paced and exciting, but Robinson has an environmental axe to grind and the weapon hampers his swing towards the end. Recommended, with reservations.

Ursula Le Guin's FOUR WAYS TO FORGIVENESS is one of the best sf works I've read in a while. She is a consistently excellent writer, but everyone reading this probably already knows that. These four interrelated novellas take place on the planets Werel and Yeowe, where humanity is divided into "assets" and "owners." Le Guin explores various permutations of what freedom means to different people. These are not slam-bang action tales, but moving and intense explorations of what it means to be human. Few writers in or out of science fiction write with as much heart as Le Guin. Highly recommended.

I'm kind of a sucker for books like DEEPSIX. It's basically a trek across an alien world before the thing is destroyed in a collision with a rogue gas giant. The trekkers experience weird and wonderful adventures on the way. Nothing much comes of this, but McDevitt's characters are good--and he isn't afraid to be nasty to them at unexpected times--and his imagination never flags. I thoroughly enjoyed this lightweight but fast-paced book. I'm sorry he destroyed the world at the end! I was hoping there would be a way out, because Deepsix is a fascinating place. Recommended. A great bedtime read.

It's always good when sf writers really try hard to do something different. I admire those who can set out to destroy the world--or the universe--in new and novel ways. Robert Sawyer has given more thought than most to spirituality and man's relation to the universe. In CALCULATING GOD, he presents us with aliens who have scientifically proved God's existence. I don't want to say much about this book because it's one of his better ones (despite one or two awkwardly placed scenes that really needed to be more carefully integrated into the plot) and the surprises it has to spring on the reader are better left unanticipated. Recommended.

Michael Cassutt's RED MOON is not science fiction per se it's a fictionalized history of the USSR's efforts within their manned space program to put a man on the Moon before the US. I love "science faction" of this sort. It's exciting and fast paced, with good characterizations and what certainly reads as a perfectly accurate and incisive look into the Soviet Union's early space efforts. Cassutt's afterword mentions that he interviewed a number of former cosmonauts, among others, for material. As one might expect, there is a lot here about politics and espionage (within the Communist party), but don't let that dissuade you--this is an excellent book for anyone interested in history. Plus, it's a damn good story. Highly recommended.

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