2006 SFX Reviews

Colin Duriez: A Field Guide to Narnia

(Sutton * £20.00 * 228pp * ISBN: 0-7509-3876-5)

The lion, the witch and the padding

Of course the Narnia film has sent the C.S. Lewis book industry into spasm. This carefully timed volume, first published in America in 2004, is by a man who knows his lions, witches and wardrobes: Duriez also wrote The C.S. Lewis Encyclopedia.

But it seems thin stuff for twenty quid. Unlike Middle-Earth with its intricate, deeply layered history, Narnia isn't a fantasyland huge enough to get lost in. The magic lies in storytelling rather than world-building. When your detailed A to Z of Narnian names and places will only stretch to 68 pages, how do you fill a book?

There's a potted life of Lewis, and rapid tours of his literary sources, themes and images, his other works, and of course his theology. Following breathless plot summaries of all seven Narnia books, we get the world's history in five pages and its geography in two, without the familiar map. There are tantalizing references to the allegorical map from Lewis's Pilgrim's Regress, also omitted. Copyright problems, no doubt.

Though often describing the same events again and again in different contexts, Duriez misses an occasional trick. It's interesting to learn that the young Lewis called his favourite zoo bear Mr Bultitude; surprising to find no mention of the bear with this very name in That Hideous Strength.

An easy read, perhaps a little devout for some tastes, but a handy introduction to Narnia and its creator.

Did you know that the wicked wolf Maugrim in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was renamed Fenris Ulf (Fenris Wolf; very Nordic) in all American editions until 1994? Gosh.

Allen Steele: Coyote Frontier

(Orbit * £6.99 * 485pp * ISBN: 1-84149-369-4)

Those pesky liberal environmentalists

In Coyote, the colony world of the title was settled from Earth. Book two saw a low-key war of independence. Now Earth intrudes again, thanks to "starbridge" technology that shrinks the 46-lightyear gap to a quick hop on the Wormhole Underground.

Over the centuries, global warming has drowned large chunks of our old continents. Earth fancies exporting its resources problems to Coyote, with massive clear-cutting of virgin forest. Who needs environmental do-gooders on the new frontier; who cares about alien natives?

Steele's ever-reliable storytelling takes it from there. In human terms, Coyote remains a small world that operates by village politics, not interstellar diplomacy. So it's natural that some of the new revolutionaries come from the colony president's own family: "I'm sorry ... Aunt Wendy."

Episodic chapters build up a feelgood story in which, against all the odds, political opponents work out non-violent solutions. One chap gets beaten up, and there's a bloodless hijacking, but that's about it. Steele's restraint makes for effective suspense. The pages turn fast. The landscapes linger in the memory.

Less plausible is the final twist, bringing on the deus ex machina that's been waiting offstage ever since a mysterious light was spotted in book one. Will Coyote eventually be exploited to death, just like Earth? This hard question is suddenly brushed under the carpet as Coyote Frontier shifts gear into a different kind of SF. Too good to be true.

The trilogy is complete. Steele is still writing stories about his beloved world Coyote, but doesn't plan another novel. Yet. He has fond hopes of a Coyote TV miniseries ...

Bob Johnson: Sound Bytes

(Book Guild * £17.99 * 308pp * ISBN: 1-84624-022-0)

Beware the exploding hamster!

There's a science fiction idea in here, but Sound Bytes is more a technothriller. That is, the importance of the book's new invention isn't that it changes the world but that it attracts murderous heavies who want to steal or suppress this technology, because it could expose the great international cover-up ...

The Sound Bytes device itself is pure magic. Based on the experimental gear of a mad scientist who makes hamsters explode, it converts sound-only recordings into video images of whatever the original microphone could "see". For added unbelievability, the video is in full colour. This is because of quantum.

Plenty of gripping stories have used daft science, but Sound Bytes fails to grip. The banal characters spend far too many pages getting pissed and having bad sex before the big discovery. Even when events start moving, we get bald chunks of exposition: "Bink was ecstatic. Sound Bytes took off. It was big business. They were talking telephone numbers." This is hardly vibrant prose.

Clichés abound. The nastiest hired thug loves watching sado-masochistic videos and torturing people. His final, subtle character touch: "He was a rampant homosexual ..."

The international conspiracy angle opens quite promisingly, with surprise video evidence recreated from Hitler's speeches. It all fizzles out, though, in a long explanation of why the cover-up is a Good Thing. Finally, too late for plausibility, there's some predictable SF wish-fulfilment. Disappointing.

Bob Johnson is a musician and property developer, which may explain his irrelevant digressions on how to succeed as an estate agent. Book Guild is a vanity press, though a relatively upmarket one.

Chris Bunch: Star Risk

(Publisher: Orbit * £6.99 * 340pp * ISBN: 1-84149-453-4)

The Magnificently Dirty Five

Star Risk Ltd is a rough, tough team of interstellar troubleshooters who don't intend to let scruples interfere with profits. There's an ex-Space Navy schemer, two gorgeous women--one combat-trained, the other a business whiz who may be a robot--plus a big furry alien who provides finance, electronics expertise and muscle for the inevitable bar-room brawls.

Their first operation is to extract an enhanced super-soldier from death row of a maximum-security prison. Easy stuff. Now there are five of them, the Famous Five. Onward, to the serious job of tracking down this vast organisation of space pirates who are harassing the plucky asteroid miners.

If the scenario sounds somehow familiar, this may be because of its extreme familiarity. Bunch keeps his story moving in a rapid stutter of action. Bad guys do bad things. Star Risk gets a lead. Several evil henchmen are noisily wiped out, but who was giving the orders? Star Risk tries again ... again ...

Light-hearted fun, but short on suspense. Each mini-episode ends in violence before building up real tension. Our heroes are as unkillable as James Bond. Even the big finale--after discovery of the usual big double-cross--is more of the same. A fusillade of grenades and blaster bolts, some larger-than-usual explosions that would look good in the movie, and it's all over until the next adventure. Three sequels duly follow.

Bunch, who died in 2005, knew his SF. His enhanced super-commandos are "besterised"--see Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination. His mining/piracy setup includes much wry homage to Doc Smith's Lensman stories.

M John Harrison: Nova Swing

(Publisher: Gollancz * £16.99/£9.99 * 240pp * ISBN: 0-575-07027-7 hb, 0-575-07028-5 tpb)

Down these mean cyberstreets a man must go ...

Billed as a sequel to M John Harrison's weird horror-space opera Light, this is (he says) "an independent novel set in the same general universe." Light ended in 2400AD with hints of future wonders – all still centuries away during the 2444 action of Nova Swing.

Saudade city may be on a distant world bathed in the unhealthy glow of the galactic Kefahuchi Tract, but there's a classic noir feel to its shabby bars and mean streets. Dubious characters plan dope-running operations. The police, who aren't immune to addiction, wearily try to control this unstoppable trade.

The drug, though, isn't a drug. It's a psychic craving for the Site, where alien physics from the Tract once fell out of the sky to warp part of Saudade. Amazing artefacts and technologies can be found there, plus hazards like "daughter-code" machine viruses that leap the gap between cybernetics and biology.

Most people are heavily gene-engineered (one nameless policewoman is a terrifying fighting machine), but human nature remains sleazy as ever. There are plots, manoeuvres, betrayals.

Nova Swing is dominated by the eerie "aureole" of the Site, where logic and sanity break down. It spawns tides of unreal cats that fill the streets, and bewildered pseudo-humans who join nightclub life but – however closely watched – quietly fade away. Inside, they say, are places where the air is filled with old shoes, or where something like a huge white face watches you from over the roofs. Everyone sees different things. No maps are reliable. Inevitably, towards the end, the three most obsessed characters go deep into the Site ...

Harrison dislikes easy answers. He made his reputation with stories that converted the ravages of entropy into bleakly haunting poetry. Nevertheless he allows a few happy endings; and even death, in the Site, may not be death as we know it. Nova Swing is chilling, enigmatic, often darkly funny, and beautifully written.

Is the Site a homage to the Zone in the film Stalker? Harrison hints at this with an epigraph from Arkady & Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic, on which Stalker was based.