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Last Updated 07 December 2003

Positive short reviews; less-generous short reviews are in Dumpster Diving, although the truly ugly works will continue to get their own space (if only to avoid contaminating the other books).

  (1) Norman Spinrad, Greenhouse Summer. [14 Aug 00] 3 stars (good)
  (2) Kristine Smith, Law of Survival. [13 Dec 01] 4 stars (excellent)
  (3) Ken Wharton, Divine Intervention. [24 Feb 02] 4 stars (excellent)
  (4) Terry McGarry, Illumination. [24 Feb 02] 4 stars (excellent)
  (5) Charles de Lint, The Onion Girl. [09 May 02] 3 stars (very good)
  (6) Sean Russell, The Isle of Battle. [05 Oct 02] 4 stars (excellent)
  (7) Scott Turow, Reversible Errors. [12 Jan 03] 4 stars (excellent)
  (8) Allen Steele, Coyote. [19 Mar 03] 4 stars (excellent)
  (9) Jasper Fforde, Lost in a Good Book. [30 Apr 03] 3 stars (good)
(10) Philip Pullman, Lyra's Oxford. [13 Nov 03] 3 stars (very good)
(11) Ursula K. Le Guin, Changing Planes. [07 Dec 03] 4 stars (excellent)

 (1) Norman Spinrad, Greenhouse Summer

14 August 2000

Just to keep everyone honest, I'm running a no-punches-pulled review full-length (Review 57) and a relatively kind review here. But only relatively kind, because the book is not up to the author's usual standards.

Spinrad is at his best when he's venting his spleen on a large target—Neonaziism, unthinking fandom, and mass hysteria (The Iron Dream, one of the best alternate histories prior to the explosion of the subtype in the late 1980s); the power of broadcasting, personality cults, and paranoia (Bug Jack Barron, an eerily twisted view of talk-show hosting that is, in many ways, frighteningly prescient); the Cold War and its aftermath, and the people caught up therein (Russian Spring). Smaller targets lead to lesser works. Although the subject matter of Greenhouse Summer is far from small—the potential Venerian death of the Terran biosphere—his target is much smaller.

Spinrad's conclusion—that attempting to predict future climate is probably futile, because man's meddling in the biosphere has created a purely chaotic (in the mathematical sense) climate—is subordinate to his attack on corporate profit motives. The almost epiphanal climax and resolution seriously undermine the strength of his attack, though.

Spinrad's wordplay is as clever as ever, reflecting a very detailed and very sick understanding of how words enter popular use. His use of "disney" for things that attempt, with both technical panache and artistic failure, to recreate other eras is inspired (and inspired, no doubt, by EuroDisney in his own back yard). It's almost as much fun to see what he's leaving out of his own "disney" as what he's putting in.

The major weakness of this book, though, is in the secondary characters. With the possible exception of Ari, the Mossad operative, the secondary characters just never come alive; they are very much parts of the scenery. Although this is a relatively short book for contemporary publishing—a tad over 300 pages—it is, nonetheless, a novel, and one should expect fuller character sketches of major, albeit secondary, characters.

Good 3 stars. Worth reading, and will be a quickie (puns intended). Spinrad has (rightly or wrongly) pissed off the New York commercial publishing establishment, and they're returning the favor. There is essentially no support for the book whatsoever.

 (2) Kristine Smith, Law of Survival

13 December 2001

Eos doesn't understand what it has here. This is the third book in a series, but is more standalone than most. Smith won the Campbell Award (Best New Writer) at the 2001 WorldCon in Philadelphia, and deservedly so. This book presents many, many opportunities to fall into a formula as established in first two books (reviewed in full previously—Code of Conduct, Rules of Conflict). Smith never even comes close to falling into those traps, because she's writing a serial-novel thriller about subjects that actually matter.

Jani Killian has remained her irascible, paranoid (but justifiably so) self. In a way. However, the hybridization of her body is continuing, and perhaps accelerating; in any event, it's ahead of any hybridization of her mind, although she still has far more understanding of the Idomeni culture than virtually anyone else—even the Idomeni. Jani is nonetheless changing, and struggling with the changes physically, emotionally, and intellectually. (Smith doesn't stoop to moralizing, but I can definitely see a somewhat dense teacher with a personal agenda assigning this book in particular to demonstrate the process of female adolescence. It would be wrong to do so, but it could well happen.)

Smith has nicely balanced the physical skullduggery with the political intrigue and emotional blackmail. The situation, and the two antagonistic cultures, have softened from black and white to charcoal and smoke as this series goes on—a sort of hybridization that we should have learned by now is inevitible. In our Western arrogance, we assume that the only cultural contamination is as the "inferior" societies pick up on bits and pieces of our "superior" culture. In this series, both cultures consider themselves "superior," and they're steadily contaminating each other. The Idomeni are discovering the joys (such as they are) of unregulated capitalism and entrepreneurship without much in the way of competition. I'm not entirely certain what humanity is discovering, except perhaps the intellectual honesty of admitting to conflict on both an interpersonal and intercultural level.

Excellent 4 stars. Thrillers with something to gnaw on that is not the author's thinly veiled allegory for The Way Things Should Be are all too rare, particularly from relatively new authors.

 (3) Ken Wharton, Divine Intervention

24 February 2002

This is a chameleon sort of novel: the most significant aspects are hiding in plain sight, but unless one is looking for them they won't be seen. It has also been nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award (best paperback original).

Professor Wharton's book is clothed in cutting-edge science, and looks very much like the hardest of hard science fiction to the casual reader. It has lots of "neat ideas" of the type beloved of the wiring-diagram school of speculative fiction: a plausible laser-catalyzed starship drive (no surprise given Wharton's research in optics), a jerry-rigged spaceship built in secret, an alien intelligence, and many other goodies. As much fun as that sounds, though, it's just misdirection.

The novel concerns itself on multiple levels with the creation of life and the question of divinity. That kind of material lends itself all to easily to polemic, to allegory, to the bigotry smoldering behind the miserable Left Behind books and their ilk. The opening of the novel slyly undercuts that danger, though, even though the initial viewpoint character is a preacher of a very odd sort of religion that looks, initially, like more New Age nonsense. It's more subtle than that.

The writing is assured, without the arrogance all too common to harder varieties of speculative fiction, particularly those involving isolated colonies (which, for some reason, so often turn into a totalitarian system that the locals just don't care to overthrow). This itself is a relief after the pseudolibertarian bombast put forth by Heinlein, and imitated by all too many to this day. The characterization is nicely balanced, and matches well with the plot, the technique, the environment, and the theme. That's a tall order for any novel, and particularly for a first novel.

Excellent 4 stars. Wharton is definitely an author to watch.

 (4) Terry McGarry, Illumination

24 February 2002

Another first novel. Another vastly superior first novel that shows a maturity of approach that most "veteran" novelists don't approach. McGarry is not exactly a novice writer (she was on the editorial staff at The New Yorker, which did require some competence even under Tina Brown), with a couple dozen prior publications of short fiction.

Illumination stands out from most contemporary fantasy novels in a number of ways. The most obvious difference is that the prose maintains a certain elegance without descending into the pretentious lunacy of the hardcore postmodernist literary magazines (a "hardcore" often far more offensive than anything in Hustler could ever hope to be). Along with that, though, the characters are completely appropriate to the environment. Liath's role in Eiden Myr fits Eiden Myr, and unlike oh so many female protagonists in contemporary fantasy, she doesn't spout forth liberté—egalité—fraternité, or rely upon sanitation not available to the majority of humanity now.

The most interesting aspect of Illumination, though, is the crosstalk between the magic system and the magic of storytelling. McGarry handles this much more subtly than do others who attempt metafictional works, particularly because she avoids lecturing and preaching. That the metafiction ties in nicely—not neatly, but nicely—with the resolution of the novel is a bonus (and a not insignificant one). The plot itself, although a cursory examination might make it look like a typical plot-coupon epic, is actually that of the roman fleuve. The plot is merely a mechanism to allow Liath to grow from an ignorant, bigoted girl into… well, that would be telling.

Excellent 4 stars. A very nice start.

 (5) Charles de Lint, The Onion Girl

09 May 2002

Charles de Lint is beginning to skate on dangerously thin ice with The Onion Girl, his most recent novel. As noted previously, Newford is a fascinating canvas for storytelling on the edge of reality. Although de Lint has set a broad range of stories in Newford, his novels over the last half-dozen years have begun to focus on a single type of protagonist, the adult female survivor of child abuse. Although one can hardly claim that these protagonists are of a type, the resulting themes are: the use of the shadow worlds that intersect with Newford in a literal and metaphoric journey toward healing the psychological damage of that abuse.

This is a sad underuse of de Lint's talent, as shown by The Onion Girl itself. The difficulty with this particular thematic thread is that is beginning to resemble the so-called "abuse excuse." That virtually the entire circle of friends who form the focus of the Newford stories has abuse in her past only reinforces this resemblance. The book would have been much stronger, and have seemed much less a mere echo of its predecessors, had it spent more time exploring the interaction among the characters' backstories than watching another attempt to bring someone out of a traumatized past.

That said, the writing is smooth, and the characterization itself (in isolation from the theme) is nicely limned. Although the plot is more than somewhat predictable, it remains serviceable, as the plot itself is less important to this kind of story than is the characters' various reactions to plot events. In the end, though, this is the weakness of this book: the characters tend to react more than they act, precisely because the theme cannot be kept in isolation.

Very good 3 stars. Mature writing, but thematically indistinguishable from the author's other recent work, and perhaps somewhat less interesting for that reason.

 (6) Sean Russell, The Isle of Battle

05 October 2002

Although I am ordinarily loathe to review middle books in fantasy series, Russell's work is a bit of an exception, for several reasons. To begin with, this series shows no signs of becoming an interminable fantasy series. Russell clearly has an objective in mind, and does not seem to be losing narrative pace as more ideas fill in.

Second, unlike most books in long series, Russell does not waste substantial parts of the first couple of chapters helping readers "catch up" from the previous book. The Isle of Battle does not stand on its own; instead, it is some "middle chapters" in a long, serial novel. The book doesn't make all that much sense without having read the first book. Russell also respects his readers enough to assume that they actually remember critical events and features from the first book, such as the complete context of Elise Wills's then-pending marriage, or Dease's part in the attempted assassination.

Third, and perhaps most important, Russell does not stoop to using set-piece battles as major transition points. Rather the opposite, in fact: the three major transition points in The Isle of Battle are instead between major events, instead of immediately before or after those major events. These are transition points in the reader's POV, not in anything so pedestrian as switching a POV character.

If there is an underlying theme here, it is the futility of longterm hatred. This theme is reflected in the struggles of both family against family and sorceror against sorceror. Instead of hamfistedly forcing the theme to remain in developmental parallel throughout, though, Russell challenges the reader to engage the theme by having these struggles remain in different patterns, different stages, different contexts.

The one major weakness of this book is its headhopping. Many chapters include multiple points of view, and Russell is attempting to weave multiple threads together in very close proximity in the novel. I think this a mistake with this kind of material, particularly as the mirrored theme provides some interesting opportunities to create further tension if a given thread received more development in each segment instead of switching to another thread.

Excellent 4 stars. Russell seems to have solved the pacing difficulties of The One Kingdom, the preceding book in The Swans' War, and is working toward an objective.

 (7) Scott Turow, Reversible Errors

12 January 2003

So, then, why a "legal thriller" on these pages, given my disdain for Grishamesque idiocy? Because Turow's novels are not legal thrillers: they are instead subtle alternate history.

Most legal thrillers are set in real cities, or at worst small nameless towns that can be transplanted from one novel to another—even between authors—with nobody noticing. Turow's novels, however, are set in Kindle County, and the county and its citizens are characters as much as any of the viewpoint characters.

Reversible Errors, if anything makes Turow's worldbuilding both more transparent and more admirable. Turning on the current controversy over the wrongfully convicted who make it to death row here in Illlinois, other details are enough to show its origin. Kindle County is alternate history—a Chicago without Mrs. O'Leary's cow. Once one begins looking, the resemblances become far too strong and interrelated to merely be pieces put together out of whole cloth. Whether as alternate history or whole cloth, though, Kindle County is an admirable piece of worldbuilding.

Turow's skill at imparting complex information clearly without ever interrupting the narrative flow is simply breathtaking. Frankly, it's easier to discuss subatomic structure than to discuss the intricacies of habeas corpus procedure. This novel and Turow's earlier Presumed Innocent are excellent models of how to avoid the infodump while getting the context material across clearly, succinctly, and accurately.

Finally, as I've remarked over in Surreality Check, too much fiction ignores the characters' "day jobs." Conversely, too much category fiction ignores the characters' personal lives. Perhaps the greatest strength of Reversible Errors is the balance and intertwining between these elements.

If reversible Errors has a fault, it is that the ultimate mystery is not exactly an idiot plot, but its close cousin the bureaucratic self-interest plot. Many of the investigative steps that take place in the last third of the novel should have been among the first ones a conscientious attorney would have demanded (or taken, if within his or her authority). The relationship of names between the critical witness and his alias is readily obvious as soon as the alias is dropped on us.

Excellent 4 stars. Many, even most, speculative fiction readers and writers could learn a great deal about good writing technique from Reversible Errors. As a bonus, Turow avoids preaching, or even reaching an unambiguous conclusion—which is perhaps the most realistic touch of all.

 (8) Allen Steele, Coyote

19 March 2003

The sales possibilities of this book are thoroughly undermined by the blurbs on the back cover. Neither of the blurbers has much in the way of credibility, either as to accuracy of description or critical acumen. If I had not already read and enjoyed the novelette "Stealing Alabama" that is folded into the beginning of Coyote, I would not have touched it. To pick principally on the second blurb, the world-building has nothing to do with the extremes of possibility that mark Hal Clement's style, and don't rely upon cleverly inserting equations into the text to "convince" the reader of plausibility; the action is not A.E. van Vogt-style, because it doesn't stop every 750 words for another exposition on just how much cleverer the main character (and hence author) is than everyone else; and part of the point of the book is that "pioneer spirit" doesn't matter. The less said about the first blurb the better. Somebody please shoot the marketing dork who did this!

That said, what is Coyote about? In a sense, it is a funhouse-mirror image of Heinlein's Methuselah's Children and so many other novels that try to explore a new frontier. There is a significant bite to the initial journey, however: it's not the downtrodden right-wing libertarians who couldn't get along in an ignorant society who leave for space (by stealing humanity's first NAFAL starship)—but a somewhat liberal, and certainly democracy-oriented, group of intellectuals, scientists, and their families who were successful, until the right-wing libertarian (or, in reality, cryptofascist) revolution overthrew the US. If anything, the story of this theft is not completely successful for a very simple reason: the security precautions of the government to protect the mission are just plain laughable. However, that theft and the ensuing mission is just a starting point.

The book is worth reading for the second segment alone: the story of a cold-sleep passenger awakened after only three months, not 226 years, and unable to reenter cold sleep. What eventually saves Gillis's sanity is not some external threat, or sense of duty, or indomitable strength of character; it is a passion for art. It cannot save him entirely, for he does die with the ship still around 200 years from its destination. The legacy that he leaves behind, however, is an absolutely critical one for the colonists.

Steele also departs from the stereotyped "military folks will lead the colony" approach of so many other colonization sagas and tells the remainder of the book principally from the viewpoint, and usually through the eyes, of children—children who had no special training for survival or anything else. In the end, though, their vitality and disregard for consequences are critical to moving not just the plot, but the colony's survival itself.

Excellent 4 stars. Steele plays just enough games with the "traditional" space-colonization novel to give himself free play with the results. The results are internally consistent, unpredictable, and interesting. The concluding metaphorical finger that the colonists give to the later arrivals completes an interesting counterpoint that bears comparison with Ken Wharton's Divine Intervention. If the novel has a weakness, it is in Steele's tendency to overelaborate explanations; this, however, seems endemic to hard(er) science fiction.

 (9) Jasper Fforde, Lost in a Good Book

30 April 2003

Jasper Fforde is not a "science fiction writer." He even says so in every interview that he gives (which are almost as grudging as those of his protagonist, Thursday Next). So what, then, is this book? And, for that matter, its somewhat superior predecessor (The Jane Eyre Affair)?

A look at the actual context of Fforde's novels reveals a somewhat different context than that which he claims. This is, of course, not surprising. Margaret Atwood denies that she writes science fiction (The Handmaid's Tale and her most recent work). And, of course, she's right, as is Fforde. Atwood at least admits to writing "speculative fiction," although she gets the definition wrong; she claims that the differences is that "speculative fiction" could happen, even though it hasn't. Applying this definition to The Handmaid's Tale itself reveals its nonsensical nature. Instead, "speculative fiction" is properly the generic term for "fiction based upon alteration of fundamental historical or physical characteristics of the story's environment." We're not talking about retelling the Civil War through the eyes of made-up characters, as in the various pieces of crap put out by the Shaaras (which I heartily recommend avoiding if you have any taste whatsoever).

In this sense, Fforde is clearly writing speculative fiction. The Special Operations branch, with its myriad departments, has responsibility for a great many things that do not belong in our everyday existence. SO-17's need to capture and confine werewolves and malevolent spirits is only the least of the disjunctures with "reality."

Or is it a disjuncture at all?

This is, in fact, what Fforde seems to be up to: he is making a world out of reader-response criticism (if you dare, work your way through Stanley Fish). It's an interesting concept, with the constant struggle of readers and their personal whims against "established" texts. It was, frankly, better done in The Eyre Affair, particularly when comparing the last third of that book to Lost in a Good Book. In some sense, though, one must feel like the audience viewing a talking dog: that the books even attempt to grapple with critical theory is far more important than how well they do so.

Making a reality out of the extreme visions of critical theory is, if anything, the most speculative fiction of all.

Good 3 stars. This book is more worthwhile for where the reader might go afterward than for itself. It is certainly craftsmanlike, although the author/narrator's knowing nudges for the reader are quite a bit more obvious than they were in The Eyre Affair. Like Joanne Harris's Chocolat, the greatest weakness is Fforde's timidity in walking right up to magic and not letting it loose in his text, particularly by trying to call it something else. These books are an enjoyable romp for those of us with classical educations, but need more of a Voltairian sensibility to truly stand on their own and allow the excellence in their core to suffuse the execution.

(10) Philip Pullman, Lyra's Oxford

13 November 2003

This follow-on to Pullman's challenging (if somewhat hastily concluded) serial novel His Dark Materials is an enchanting little book of around 60 pages containing 15,000 words or so. It tells a story—or more than one story—occurring two years after the end of HDM. Lyra is now taking lessons, or at least she is supposed to be at lessons. Just as in HDM, the tale begins when she is outside instead of doing whatever she was supposed to be doing.

I seriously doubt that a book this well crafted could have been printed by any of the major printers in the US. The craftsmanship that went into its design and production, ranging from a binding that neither gaps nor warps despite a foldout map in the middle of the book to the quality of the map itself, just blow away anything that I've seen produced in large (over 20,000 copies) print runs in this country today. Although the book itself is somewhat "thin" for its price, it is well-priced for the quality of craftsmanship.

In any event, adults still speak in circles, with multiple intended and unintended meanings. These meanings are both reinforced and diffused by the nonlinear materials included in the book, ranging from the map to images of postcards. Although marketed as a "children's book," it is even less for children than was HDM. This is true even though some of the in-jokes will probably be most clear to children—such as the advertisements for Fraud: An Exposure of Scientific Imposture (by "Professor P. Trelawney") and The Bronze Clocks of Benin (by Marisa Coulter)—found on the fold-in map. Some of the other references, however, are more interesting to adults with an odd sense of humor and broad education, such as the advertisement for A Treatise on the Use of the Sextant by "Giovanni Battista Kremer"; Giovanni Battista della Porta was a Renaissance cryptographer who made one of the first practical cipher wheels, which has interesting correspondence to the sextant-like Golden Compass of HDM, while Giovanni Battista Piranesi is a Renaissance engraver best known for his almost surreal depictions of architecture.

Without giving much away about the novelette itself, I was a bit disappointed that Lyra seems to have become so trusting of others. Perhaps part of the point was to reawaken Lyra to duplicity; but since duplicity is supposed to be her role in life, that seems a bit bizarre.

Very good 3 stars. Once upon a time, including documentation in a work of fiction was not precisely common, but at least accepted. After 1984, it went out of fashion (outside of parody), for both sound and unsound reasons. Lyra's Oxford demonstrates some of the wonderfully subversive uses for such documentation.

(11) Ursula K. Le Guin, Changing Planes

07 December 2003

In some ways, this is a far more archly literary work than Fforde's little conceits. Structurally, The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book are plain-vanilla novels, with linear plots (even though time travel is integral, they are linear to the protagonist). Changing Planes, however, is an almost experimental work. It is certainly a collection of stories, and individual pieces after the first one; it is also at least three different novels, depending upon the order in which one reads them.

The basic conceit is simple: while waiting at airports to change planes, a variety of meditation allows bored, frustrated travellers to change planes of reality. As the first story notes,

The Interplanary Agency long ago established that a specific combination of tense misery, indigestion, and boredom is the essential facilitator of interplanary travel; but most people, from most planes, don't have to suffer the way we do.

In other words, "Thinking is the best way to travel"—and apparently for more than just Timothy Leary and the Moody Blues.

Each story is almost a laboratory experiment, in the sense that one variable is under examination. The relationship between dreams and reality forms the subtext both of the whole book and of "Social Dreaming of the Frin," while "The Royals of Hegn" seems to be founded on a satire on aristocratic decadence. This kind of structure leaves lots of opportunities for preaching—opportunities that Le Guin rightly spurns on all but one occasion.

Le Guin's satire also extends to the archly literary crap that so often masquerades as short fiction in fashionable mainstream outlets. The "plotless" or "characterless" story is usually so tedious (and tendentious) that just finishing the story without throwing the magazine across the room is a major achievement. Le Guin gets away with it several times, because the stories are not banal (unlike, say, Ann Beattie or Ann Tyler). The interplay among physical and interplanary travel; mundane and virtual tourism; and real and fictional viewpoints is simultaneously playful and serious. The distinction—and it is an important one—between the banal mainstream nonsense and Le Guin's pieces is that Le Guin is decidedly not nihilistic. Even when minimizing plot and character, she does so in a balanced fashion that does not actively deny theme or other elements of story.

Excellent 4 stars. Reminiscent of Borges at his best, this collection is perhaps the paradigm of the whole—whichever whole one chooses—exceeding the sum of the parts. "Woeful Tales From Mahigul," "Social Dreaming of the Frin," and "Confusions of Uñi" are particularly fine, new stories that in a just world would get close attention at award time.

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