Random Reading 7
David Langford

James Barclay, Shadowheart (2003), more sword-and-sorcery in the 'Raven' sequence, specializing in utterly impossible assaults, pursuits and defences against odds so staggeringly overwhelming that our rough, tough mercenary heroes can be saved only by the ultimate, godlike power of the Author himself. On Discworld, for comic effect, million-to-one chances come off nine times out of ten; in Barclayworld, it seems, rather more often. But the story moves fast and reads pretty well.

Stephen Baxter, Coalescent (2003): So this is why Mr Baxter has been going on about hive minds of late. In part it's a carefully researched historical novel about a tough woman surviving – not easily – the final collapse of Roman imperial influence in Britain, getting involved at some digressive length with a would-be saviour of Britain called Artorius, and eventually escaping to Rome itself, there to found a community meant to preserve her bloodline and household gods through present and future turbulence. The 21st-century strand slowly reveals how the rules she instinctively formulated for this enclave have led to the emergent phenomenon of a human hive mind. Certain associated physiological changes are a bit much to swallow as the result of just sixteen centuries, a mere evolutionary eyeblink; there is much urgent handwaving in this area. Other stuff doesn't quite seem part of the same novel: in particular, early foreshadowings of galactic events which suggest a link to the Xeelee series, and a late flash-forward into far future sf with similar implications, both rather tending to detract from the subtler creepiness of the present-day narrative but maybe necessary to the intended trilogy. Relevant John Wyndham story: 'Consider Her Ways'. It's always good to see Baxter grappling – intelligently as always – with a Great Big Idea.

M.A. Foster, The Morphodite (1981), sf somewhat in the vein of Jack Vance, though with the exotic colours and vocabulary partly muted. It is entirely Vancean that an offbeat world's favourite game should prove to be a ramified, status-obsessed and extensively footnoted version of Tag. Foster offers an interesting approach to the house-of-cards planetary society so common in early and middle Vance, waiting to be toppled by the right push: a stasis-obsessed government, a underground movement that favours change, and secret outside observers whose principles of noninterference have been subverted into tacit propping-up of that stasis. The Morphodite is an engineered assassin whose unlikely special talent is to identify the unsung key person whose death will make a movement or an entire society fall apart, to perform the kill, and to disappear via genetic auto-reprogramming that transforms him/her into a new person of opposite sex. The choice of victim is pleasingly logical, and the consequences neatly worked out. Less plausible is the elaborately daft ploy whereby this dangerous wild-card operative is created by the state itself, specifically by the local equivalent of the Ministry of Love – here called The Mask Factory, another little homage to Vance? – and released with the underground's approval to do the underground's work, the secret assumption of the Mask Factory being that the Morphodite's 'programming' is flawed and will therefore bring disaster to the rebels. Which is also the end result of unflawed performance: when serious upheaval begins, there's no place left for a faction whose only goal was to initiate change. A good old-fashioned sf read.

John Fuller, The Adventures of Speedfall (1985), short stories of donnish humour with a university setting, rather in the fantastical manner of Michael Innes. Includes some flirtations with genre: a credulity-defying murder mystery; a ghost story which introduces an unusual spectre and then stops dead; an sf oddity featuring a biological equivalent of Kurt Vonnegut's ice-nine (or nanotechnology's 'grey goo' fear) which most implausibly multiplies unchecked in the absence of nutrients or visible energy input. Amusing, stylish piffle.

Michael Gerber, Barry Trotter and the Unnecessary Sequel (2003): Oh dear. Not in fact as dire as its predecessor Barry Trotter and the Shameless Parody, since the device of giving Barry and Ermine (Harry and Hermione, of course) a son who must in turn go to the Hogwash wizarding school does allow better targeted pot-shots at what Rowling actually wrote – from Sorting to Quidditch – rather than continually escaping into metafictional inanity like the earlier book.

Terry Goodkind, Naked Empire (2003), eighth in the 'Sword of Truth' sequence. There are some determined if lumbering attempts at moral complexity here, but the bad guys keep demonstrating their Badness by needlessly revolting sadism, which does rather pall. Then comes the incredibly original plot device whereby the hero gets poisoned and must consume an antidote of which only a single dose exists, divided among four individually useless vials of which three are hidden in widely separated ... argh!

Robin Hobb, Fool's Fate (2003), concluding the 'Tawny Man' trilogy, a sequel – albeit with a 15-year gap – to the 'Assassin's Apprentice' trio. Although I missed the first two volumes of this set, 'Hobb' writes with sufficient charm and unobtrusive backfill to make latecomers feel welcomed. Indeed I found myself curiously pleased that our narrator Fitz has made a comeback from the gloom, decay and premature senescence into which (for no very good reason) he seemed to have settled by the end of that first trilogy. The plot is entertainingly convoluted, with many concealed motivations, and in the end unravels satisfyingly. One small caveat: it did seem a little much that the last-ditch Get Out Of Death Free card played in 'Assassins' Apprentice' has not only been already repeated with variations in this new sequence, but happens yet again here, even more implausibly since this time the body is well into decay.

Dean Koontz, The Face (2003), stalker/killer thriller with supernatural elements, in that the protagonist has a measure of ghostly protection but the boy victim he's guarding doesn't. Koontz gives us an effectively alarming villain with a set policy of disrupting society via acts of chaos, a dark Merry Prankster; but the book seems inflated far beyond its natural length by (Goodkindianly) demonstrating this fellow's wickedness again and again as he remorselessly kills a whole series of accomplices to his ultimate Big Bad Plan, while – being a deconstructionist professor – he naturally passes his spare time starving and tormenting a kidnapped colleague who gave offence by admiring such classics as Mark Twain. But of course. That's what deconstructionists do.

Matt Ruff, Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy (1997), a single, standalone novel despite the title. Surreal sf which distantly reminded me of Illuminatus!, owing to such elements as vast conspiracy theories and daft doings on a colourful submarine. It happens in 2023, years after a selective holocaust which has wiped out virtually all black people and which proves to have been no accident. That favourite paranoid theme of deadly wildlife in New York's sewers provides one incidental menace, a great white shark called Meisterbrau which tirelessly munches on minor characters, suffers spurts of evolution thanks to – ahem! – eating a packet of mutagens, and is clearly destined for a role in the socko climax. (Meisterbrau? Cunning spin from the NY Dept of Sewers Zoological Bureau, which cagily refers to appalling fauna by the longest possible Latin species names, while individual sharks are cosily nicknamed for beer brands. 'There's bacteria loose in the tunnels they don't even have long names for yet.') Besides an eccentric human cast – some of them rather underused – the novel features three self-aware AIs. One is inimical and buried under Disneyland, one gets accidentally booted up during the narrative to function as an emergency plot device, and one simulates the personality of Ayn Rand, whose political theories are summarized and subjected to much knockabout analysis. The fiendishness of the arch-villain is made manifest when, to open a certain dread portal, the protesting AI Rand is compelled to speak the loathed password 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.' Then there are the eco-terrorists who like to sink ships intended for Antarctic exploitation, in televised spectaculars involving such exotic weaponry as a 20lb kosher salami accelerated to Mach 9 with a railgun; and the renegade robot servitors conducting a programme of elaborately ironic homicides; and the legacy of J. Edgar Hoover, who turns out to have a lot to answer for; and more, and sillier. The finale involves a weirdly choreographed sequence of assaults on – and above, and beneath – the world's tallest building, in a tongue-in-cheek attempt to outdo every Bond extravaganza, while, of course, the clock ticks towards an apocalyptic explosion. Very entertaining on a page-by-page basis, but I felt distinctly uncomfortable about the use of deliberate racial genocide as a mere background device for a comic romp. And we've all read a few too many stories featuring all-encompassing, manipulative and machine-planned schemes which finally go astray thanks to human gutsiness (notably on the part of our tough, liberal heroine) and convenient random factors (notably Meisterbrau).

Tricia Sullivan, Someone To Watch Over Me (1997): this one provoked mixed feelings. This story of the grim, visceral implications of possible future mind control/transfer technology is well written, but somehow I couldn't muster any empathy for the variously hellbound characters, and kept feeling I wanted a shower as respite from successive doses of in-your-face sordidry. A not untypical moment: 'Squatting in the bathtub slick with sweat she watched the blood, skin oil, semen and tears mingle and slither toward the drain.' Yes, I know we all have occasional days like that, but ...