2007 SFX Reviews

Steven Sivell: Cloud Cuckoo Land

(Publisher: Ziji * £9.99 * 266pp * ISBN: 978-0-9554051-0-5)

Who cares whether these people die?

In a seedy near-future Britain, bad times are looming. It emerges, rather too slowly, that a traditional asteroid impact – familiar from countless sf novels and movies – will shortly threaten humanity with extinction. Oh dear!

Nobody seems too worried. Applicants for possible survival tickets go through inane, rambling public interviews, lacking the expected undercurrent of tension. Our listless, ill-informed hero wanders vaguely round an unnamed city, discovering there's a barter economy and a strict curfew enforced by police who are all teenagers. He never learns why. Neither do we.

A small touch of satire involves a chap who's bought up the "international copyrights" to all known knots, and charges for permission to tie them. Obscurely motivated and generally charmless people shamble on and off. Perhaps they're meant to be droll eccentrics, but it's hard to like any of them. Occasional violent episodes are separated by tracts of padding, random philosophising, and sloppy prose that cruelly misuses the humble comma.

Dubious science includes the odd idea of using UV rather than radio scanners to detect implanted microchip tags. Eighteen days from disaster, the fatal asteroid, meteorite, comet or moon (these terms are used interchangeably) has yet to "pass through the gravitational field of Jupiter". Even if, impossibly, it already has its final impact speed, that puts it a year or more away ...

The "survival vessel" project is solidly implausible, a corrupt enterprise that's every bit as doomed as Douglas Adams's famous B Ark. Can our dozy hero make a real difference to the outcome, as the blurb suggests? Without giving away the climax, let's say that it disappoints.

According to his publicity sheet, Steven Sivell is a screenwriter (no actual screen credits listed) who even now is adapting this, his first novel. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Tricia Sullivan: Sound Mind

(Publisher: Orbit * £7.99 * 357pp * ISBN: 978-1-84149-405-0)

Imaginary spaces with real dragons in them

Tricia Sullivan's imagination is seriously weird. Sound Mind opens as an offbeat disaster novel, with student heroine Cassidy escaping from flame and chaos at Bard College, NY. In the nearby small town she finds a different past awaiting her: Bard has vanished from both maps and others' memories. The town itself is cut off from America by mysterious shadow-walls which only Cassidy can pass through.

Something's chasing her through these nested, booby-trapped worlds. It's a particular sound from her "Music Program Zero" course; an algorithmic dragon; a cancer that deconstructs reality but never quite kills Cassidy. Meanwhile ...

Part two flashes back to another heroine, Cookie, who's big and black and starred in Sullivan's previous novel Double Vision. Her history emerges in cryptic strobe flashes. The Dataplex project, a crazy mix of cyberspace and D&D, tried to exploit a region where mind and reality intersect. Whatever this place is – Cookie calls it the Grid or Synchronicity – it reacted with counter-exploitation. It's colonising America, like a spreading crack in the world.

How to enter the Synchronicity? Obviously, you walk through a television screen. What other SF author would introduce a major Force Of Evil consisting of the mere idea that true reality can be understood? James Blish, perhaps, or Philip K Dick, but they're dead ...

Sound Mind is wittily written and full of bizarre surprises. Too many SF novels over-explain; this one chucks you in at the deep end, especially if you haven't read Double Vision. Homages to The Last Action Hero and Zelig generate a nagging unease about what's behind your TV screen – and what might suddenly burst out. Enjoyably breathless and disorienting.

Tricia Sullivan studied in Music Program Zero at the real Bard College. Perhaps this is what warped her personal reality so much that she won the 1999 Clarke Award for Dreaming in Smoke.

Tom Holt: Barking

(Publisher: Orbit * £12.99 * 404pp * ISBN: 978-1-84149-285-8)

Lawyers – bloodsuckers vs ambulance-chasers

Most stories of the urban undead see werewolves as heavily into physical fitness, and vampires as natural all-night clubbers. Tom Holt knows better. It's the dog-eat-dog world of corporate law that gives werewolves a real opening for their special talents.

When Duncan Hatch signs up with London's predatory law firm Ferris and Loop, one major giveaway is the well-worn doggy basket in every partner's office. Meanwhile, his ballbreaking ex-wife has joined the rival outfit Crosswoods, where they have this lawyerly habit of biting people in the neck. A third faction – the zombies, brain-dead and mindlessly obedient – finds its natural niche in call centres.

Of course there are complications, including a shapeshifting unicorn with a deadly grudge against werewolves. The Estate Accounts From Hell, which relentlessly follow Duncan whenever he changes jobs, are the key to a secret that's far more sinister and ludicrous than he suspects. And now someone's gunning for him with silver bullets.

Between bouts of slapstick, cunningly meaningful names and bizarre plot twists, Tom Holt taps a deep vein of pessimism about life, marriage, the workplace, and the joy of reunion with old school chums. Even the liberation of becoming a legal werewolf has its little problems, like the compulsion to chase vehicles when in wolf shape. Guess what kind of vehicles?

Though over-long for its lightweight plot, Barking delivers the expected payload of quips and wicked turns of phrase: "as safe from disturbance as a Martin Amis novel in a library." Satisfying come-uppances and even happy endings are dished out at the finale. Highly readable silliness: it's not quite Upminster but it's definitely Barking.

Those job horrors are heartfelt. Tom Holt was once a solicitor specialising like Duncan in "death and taxes", before (in his own words) going straight in 1995 – as a full-time writer.

Martin Sketchley: The Liberty Gun

"Structure" series #3

(Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK * £12.99 * 310pp * ISBN: 978-0-7432-5681-0)

You only get one shot. A million-to-one chance, but ...

Following this author's debut SF novel The Affinity Trap and its sequel The Destiny Mask, the breathless action continues decades later on planet Seriatt. Our battered antihero Delgado and his tough female sidekick emerge from a time portal to find the alien Sinz invaders now running the world. Resistance is useless, but continues sporadically.

Meanwhile, Earth's unpleasant dictator Myson sends a new super-trooper in a super-spaceship – officially to clobber the Sinz, really to seize the time-portal technology. Very conveniently, the Sinz war effort depends on a gigantic McGuffin that can be disabled with one precisely placed shot from a special gun (see title) ...

Elsewhen, another version of Delgado is time-looping in frustrating and frustrated attempts to correct what happened at the gory climax of book one.

Once again the story is crammed with violent skirmishing. Delgado never simply flies from A to B but invariably gets into prolonged firefights and crash-lands, usually with heavy losses to the supporting cast. But Sketchley's writing is effective and inventive. The Sinz are interesting aliens, with multiple warrior subspecies (avians, amphibians, shapeshifters) and a messily complex biotechnology which – like Earth's cybersystems – has a mind or minds of its own. Also, there's further offbeat sex with the tri-gendered Seriatts.

The Seriatt climax works out pretty much as you'd expect, though with nasty minor twists. The manic reshuffling of past timelines threatens a final wish-fulfilment, but (as in Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass) mysterious Laws of Existence are invoked to disallow Delgado's preferred ending. Instead – and there's considerable irony here – a second Liberty Gun must be unwillingly deployed. A brutal but somehow exhilarating finish.

Martin Sketchley promises something different in his next novel: "The title's changed (I'm not sure I should tell you what it is ...). It's nothing like the previous books."

Kim Stanley Robinson: Sixty Days and Counting

"Science in the Capital" series #3

(Publisher: HarperCollins * £18.99 * 505pp * ISBN: 978-0-00-714892-9)

Everyone complains about the weather, nobody does anything about it ...

Can the powerless US National Science Foundation rescue Earth from climate change? Kim Stanley Robinson's carefully researched saga of science, government and personalities tracked global warming to a tipping point in Forty Signs of Rain. Next came wild reverberations of physical and political weather in Fifty Degrees Below.

Now there's a new President whose first sixty days show the will to tackle Earth's problems – maybe too late. Though last-ditch efforts restarted the stalled Gulf Stream, the coral reefs are gone and the Antarctic is still melting, threatening coastal lowlands worldwide. Meanwhile, an ultra-black intelligence agency from the Bush era works against the elected US government, and there's always some gun nut who fancies a shot at the President ...

Robinson creates memorable characters, avoids the disaster-novel cliche of introducing new ones just to kill them off, and never loses track of everyday life. America learns to cope with regular power blackouts and small tragedies like walking the High Sierras trails to find a once-beautiful landscape dying.

His nearest thing to a magic SF solution is an engineered carbon-fixing lichen whose release in Siberian forests may be a big mistake. Elsewhere, the fight to keep Earth habitable means hard work, serious spending and redefined priorities. But can China be persuaded to reduce its eco-exploitation?

"Think globally, act locally." The worldwide scene and inevitable infodump lectures are counterpointed by individual love affairs, family problems, moments of outright humour, and unexpected alternative viewpoints like the Dalai Lama's. Sixty Days is finely written and persuasively paints what may be – if climate change happens the way so many scientists fear – the best of all possible futures. Read it and worry.

One Robinson speculation has already come close to being prophetic. Forty Signs of Rain (2004) ended with the unthinkable: Washington DC under water. Next year, Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans ...

Ian McDonald: Brasyl

(Publisher: Gollancz * £18.99 * 384pp * ISBN: 978-0-575-08051-5)

Return I will to multiversal Brazil ...

Ian McDonald gave us a dazzling evocation of future India in River of Gods. Now it's Brazil's turn, captured in a triple-stranded SF narrative that glows with stronger colours and throbs to a more compulsive samba beat than mere reality can offer ...

In 2006, Marcelina the TV exec plans a brilliantly heartless new show that should be a sure-fire winner for its mix of Big Brother intrusiveness, human suffering, and Brazil's national obsession with "futebol". But who's the mysterious "anti-Marcelina" lookalike, cleverly sabotaging her life?

In 1732, Father Quinn of the Jesuits travels up the Amazon into heart-of-darkness territory, on a mission to confront something worse than the slaughter committed by the Conquistadores. Meanwhile an elusive native tribe supposedly has the secret of reliable prophecy.

In 2032, the Sao Paulo wide boy Edson gets entangled with streetwise uses of advanced quantum computing. It's top-secret technology, but spare parts nevertheless end up, like everything else, on the city dump to end all city dumps – "Our Lady of Trash". Street quantumeiros can break strong encryption as quickly as today's equivalents unlock mobile phones.

At first it seems these differently vibrant stories can't possibly intersect. Then a 2032 Q-knife, whose quantum blade can slice through anything, appears in the wrong timeline. Such dislocations become increasingly complicated. Those quantumeiros – and other visionaries – may be able to short-circuit the multiverse.

Into this heady mix, McDonald stirs glimpses of alternate worlds (Marcelina's 2006 isn't exactly ours), secret powers behind the wainscots of reality, and a dollop of bizarrely grandiose cosmology. Also there are many neatly choreographed fight scenes.

It's a great story, or braid of stories, and wonderfully written – packed with neon-lit images and nifty phrases. One cataclysm happens with "a shriek like the teeth of the world being pulled." This has to be a 2008 award contender.

Usually the vital turning points of history are wars and assassinations. Only in Brazil – and McDonald makes you believe it – could the key event be its defeat in the 1950 World Cup.

Adam Roberts: Splinter

(Publisher: Solaris * £9.99 * 240pp * ISBN: 978-1-84416-490-5)

The ultimate "cosy catastrophe" story?

You can rely on Adam Roberts for bizarre SF concepts, and this is guaranteed to outrage readers who expect lip-service to the laws of physics. As predicted by the leader of a tiny doomsday cult, a superdense something from space smashes Earth into fragments. Billions die. Fourteen cult survivors find themselves on a whirling splinter of North America, surrounded by white fog that used to be the Pacific Ocean, still breathing and subject to normal gravity.

Impossible? Wouldn't the cataclysmic energy release of that impact lead to swift cremation all round? Roberts is ready with a triple answer. First: this isn't realistic SF but intentional homage to Jules Verne's Hector Servadac (1877), whose hero toured the Solar System on a chunk of Algeria knocked loose by a comet. Second: that alien something, now apparently embedded in the splinter, could be stage-managing events. Third: maybe it's all a hoax or hallucination ...

Wimpish antihero Hector, sceptical son of the "prophet", fervently clings to this last explanation even when (like his Dad) he starts having visions. The others say he's in denial, but he can imagine hidden mechanisms producing the illusion of a foggy five-hour day. And why must everyone swallow little white pills whose purpose isn't explained?

Splinter is loaded with metaphorical trickiness – slightly reminiscent of Damon Knight's surreal novel Humpty Dumpty, where cracks appearing in the Earth may reflect the protagonist's bullet-fractured skull. Perhaps it's significant that Hector took a nasty tumble in the oddly muted tremors of apocalypse. Perhaps not.

There's a happy ending of sorts, though booby-trapped by [spoiler omitted], and a useful explanatory afterword. Offbeat, frustrating and fascinating.

The short-story germ of Splinter appeared as "Hector Servadac Jr" in that interesting tome The Mammoth Book of New Jules Verne Adventures ed. Mike Ashley and Eric Brown, 2005.

Vernor Vinge: Rainbows End

(Publisher: Tor UK (Pan Macmillan) * ISBN: 978-0-330-45194-9)

Heading for apocalypse without an apostrophe

Returning to Earth from his vast space operas, Vernor Vinge creates a quirky 2025 USA, transformed by escalating computer technology. This is Vinge home ground: he lives in San Diego, was a computer-science professor, and sets Rainbows End in the University of California in San Diego (UCSD).

His complex story mixes campus novel, family saga, grand-terrorism technothriller and outright farce. The villain honestly wants to save the world, with noble intentions and appalling methods. Fearing untimely exposure, he needs an elaborate caper operation to wipe the San Diego biotech-lab evidence. Time to consult Mr Rabbit.

Rabbit is a mysteriously resourceful net hacker who manifests as a cute rabbit avatar. (With 2025's wearable computers, avatars can appear anywhere.) Could he be an AI? Certainly he's a whimsical trickster and devious manipulator.

His recruits include famed poet Robert Gu, who's made a sleeper-awakes return from Alzheimer's thanks to new, cutting-edge biotech, but remains a total bastard. Gu is roped in both for his family connections in Homeland Security and to join the senile-delinquent academics fighting the UCSD Librareome Project.

This destructive book-digitising scheme is a high point of black comedy. Even sillier is the climactic protest rally where opposing fan "belief circles" clash in a spectacular outdoor VR show. During this Rabbit-planned distraction, Gu's wrinkly revolutionaries embark on a scheme they believe is their own – complicated by such wild cards as Gu's granddaughter, the villain's personal intervention, Murphy's Law, double-crosses, and growing suspicion at Homeland Security. Who, just to make America feel safer, can now deploy nukes.

Rainbows End raises frequent smiles by the sheer ingenuity of its ideas and technologies. It deserves its Hugo shortlisting. [Later: it won, too.] Recommended.

Maddeningly, one big question – who or what is Rabbit? – goes unanswered. Grilled about this in an interview (http://tinyurl.com/2qg644), Vinge suggests we'll learn more in a sequel.

Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson: Sandworms of Dune

(Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton * £19.99 * 494pp * ISBN: 978-0-340-83750-4)

All too many born-again messiahs

In the 42 years since Dune appeared, the series has clocked up over 5,000 years of internal chronology. Sandworms of Dune, second half of a "final" novel opening with Hunters of Dune, is very distant from the original rich mix of politics, ecology and mysticism. But then, so were Frank Herbert's own later sequels.

Sandworms is loaded with preposterous space-operatic melodrama. Those evil machine intelligences introduced and defeated in the Herbert/Anderson prequels have returned with unlimited resources and are methodically purging humans from the galaxy. Outnumbered, outgunned, sabotaged, multiply betrayed, ravaged by engineered plagues and infiltrated by shape-changing Face Dancers, the good guys can't possibly survive. Except through the logic of space opera.

Dune characters reappear as "ghola" clones, including the original messiah Paul (in two versions), several of his friends and family, and that ever-hissable pantomime villain Baron Harkonnen. Which of them will become the final Kwisatz Haderach, the prophesied saviour? Meanwhile, outlying areas of the plot are infested with those trademark sandworms, including a new, implausible breed of water-adapted "seaworms".

The most effective passages deal with reborn characters' struggle to reconcile old, returning memories and hatreds with their new situation and young bodies – though they mostly seem shallower, sketchier than their Dune originals.

Of course the climax has to include a suspenseful knife duel and a sandworm attack, but neither is much use against the two main Invincible Forces of Evil. It's time for a surprise deus ex machina! In fact it's time for two, including a plot device causing instant galaxy-wide genocide. A somewhat more satisfying coda reveals the survivors' fates. Readable, but very much for completists.

Here's the chronology: www.dunenovels.com/timeline.html. Dune itself begins in 10,190 AG – After (Spacing) Guild – and Sandworms in 15,261 AG. 1 AG is roughly 13,000 AD. The mind boggles.

George R.R. Martin, Gardner Dozois and Daniel Abraham: Hunter's Run

(Publisher: Voyager * £18.99 * 400pp * ISBN: 978-0-00-726021-8)

Set an earthling to catch an earthling

Hunter's Run takes a simple, old-fashioned SF scenario – a manhunt across alien wilderness – and spins it into an enjoyable read with nifty, atmospheric writing and some neat surprises.

In this future, the Dream of Space has soured because star travel is run by aliens who need us only as cheap labour to open up frontier colonies like the world called Sao Paulo. Here Mexican and Brazilian settlers provide a spicy Hispanic flavour, with names lifted from legend. La Llorona is a constellation, and the planet's nastiest predator is dubbed the chupacabra – the "goatsucker" so often sighted in Fortean Times.

After a stupidly macho killing, our hero or antihero Ramon Espejo realises he'd better leave Diegotown and go prospecting. By sheer accident he unearths a hideout of new, unknown aliens who want to keep their presence secret. (Their excellent reasons for this emerge later.) Bewildered Ramon finds himself enlisted as a bloodhound controlled by a deeply unpleasant bionic "leash". His task: to track the other wilderness wanderer who knows the secret, and stop him spilling the beans in Diegotown.

En route Ramon must endure his weirdly inhuman master Maneck, who forbids – on pain of pain – inefficient behaviour like laughing or getting cancer, i.e. having a smoke. Somewhere out in front there's a devilishly resourceful quarry whose identity provides the first of several shocks. Even while falling into the traps this man lays for his pursuers, Ramon has to admire their cleverness. Meanwhile, after everything we've heard about the nightmarish chupacabra, it's bound to make an appearance ...

Besides the reliable thrill of the chase, this is a story about learning better. Ramon faces repeated jolts from awkward home truths, and even gets lessons in humanity from the inscrutable though oddly patient Maneck. Beyond the expected violent climax, the action continues to another kind of ending. Unspectacular but satisfying.

Why three authors? 1976: Martin begins story, gets stuck. 1980-1981: Dozois tinkers with it, gets stuck. 2002: Abraham comes aboard. 2005: novella version published as Shadow Twin. 2007: at last, this novel.

Stephen R Donaldson: Fatal Revenant

"The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever" #2

(Publisher: Gollancz * £18.99 * 896pp * ISBN: 978-0-575-07600-6)

Don't trust anyone. Especially not yourself.

Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, hero of two massive trilogies, is dead but stays in touch. In The Runes of the Earth, he sent his one-time lover Linden Avery hints and dreams to help her face Lord Foul's latest assault on the fantasy Land – until the shock ending when Covenant and Linden's mentally damaged son both reappear, miraculously healed.

Too good to be true? Nothing is ever easy in Donaldson's tortured moral landscapes. Linden has to abandon a besieged stronghold for a time-travelling quest to the deep past, accompanied by loved ones whom she mustn't touch and daren't trust. She's forced to play the role of Unbeliever, until the moment of disastrous revelation ...

As always, the plot teems with impossible decisions, contradictory advice and plausible lies. Some former bad guys have switched sides, and one keeps on switching sides. Old allies reappear; new nasties include giant ravening magma-worms. Covenant's own son is actively working for Lord Foul. Unreliable superfolk play tricks with time: one needs mere seconds to defeat 500 skilled warriors in single combat, while another polishes off a horde of "indestructible" monsters in a minute or so. But the enemy of my enemy isn't necessarily my friend.

Amid a continuing bloodbath of allies, Linden faces her own version of Covenant's old dilemma. The weapons she holds, the Staff of Law and the wild magic of white gold, are never quite adequate. But if she seizes more power, it could be too much – enough to unravel time and end the world. Finally, after a gruelling journey to the land of the dead, Linden acts ... and may have made a terrible mistake. We won't know for sure until book three, whose title is Should Pass Utterly. Whatever happens, it won't be easy. The prose is still sometimes lumpish but Fatal Revenant remains oddly compulsive.

Donaldson's vocabulary makes many readers suspect that his native land is far-off Crosswordia. Favourite words this time around: cataphract, condign, eldritch, innominate, lucent, puissance and theurgy.

Ben Bova: The Aftermath

"The Asteroid Wars" #4

(Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton * £19.99 * 396pp * ISBN: 978-0-340-82398-0)

Heading off the space-rustlers at the pass

Ben Bova's Asteroid Wars trilogy has a strangely retro flavour. The tough frontier life of asteroid-mining and claim-jumping, with feisty independents battling a wicked corporate boss and hired space-pirates ... it's been a thuddingly familiar SF scenario for over 70 years. Perhaps the secret of Bova's success is that these time-smoothed cliches appeal to readers who distrust unpredictable, innovative science fiction.

The war's over, but The Aftermath backtracks to its final atrocity of a major space habitat being destroyed by a drug-crazed fanatic. Also attacked is the ore ship Syracuse, run by a nuclear family of "rock rat" miners. Father ends up drifting this way in the command pod while Syracuse, carrying mother plus bratty teenage son and daughter, speeds helplessly that way to oblivion. They're all doomed unless they can summon up ingenuity, pluck, and memory of traditional plot devices.

Scenes aboard Syracuse read like juvenile SF. That rebellious lad shocks Mum with his fearful oaths – "dammit", "goddamn", and worst of all "freaking illegitimate" – and there's some touchy-feely bonding of quarrelsome siblings starting to grow up. But the narrative lurches distractingly across the solar system to the exploits of Dad and other spacefarers: the now-reformed cyborg fanatic, a flotilla of corporate hitmen, an unscrupulous scavenger gang eager for hot teenage sex. There's a mystic alien artefact, too. Bova stresses how mindbogglingly big and empty the asteroid belt really is, making it almost incredible that most of the above should meet by chance for their final confrontations.

Though The Aftermath is inoffensively written and zips along at a fair pace, it's hard to get excited about two-dimensional characters in stock situations. Ho hum.

Best silly science: modifying a laser to make its pulses extra-short, "down into the petasecond range." Unfortunately a petasecond is nearly 32 million years ...