1996 SFX Reviews

Angus Wells: Exile's Children

(Millennium, hardback/large paperback, £16.99/£10.99, 582pp, ISBN 1 85798 289 4)

Here's another oversized fantasy whose dustjacket says ominously: "An epic adventure is only just beginning ..." In other words, "HM Government Warning: This is only volume one of the Interminabiliad. You must buy two more 600-page slabs to find what happens."

It's an odd and rather well-written beginning, drawing on familiar sources. A primitive land contains various tribes closely resembling American Indians, now beginning to squabble owing to Dark Influences. In the mountains are friendly, tunnel-dwelling stonemasters reminiscent of Tolkien's dwarfs. Beyond are the invading Breakers, swarming psychopathic nasties who ride chimerical monsters and wear designer armour in rainbow metal, just like Chaos hordes in Moorcock.

Elsewhere, an unpleasantly Puritanical magic-using theocracy is shipping prisoners to a new-found land which – after some confusion, because the separate narrative lines are dislocated in time – proves to be the Happy Hunting Ground to which the tribes and stone-wizards eventually escape, via magic portal, from the Breakers. (I predict that the bad guys will soon follow.) The book ends with the variously exiled lead characters from the tribes and the theocracy finally getting together. Apparently it's all been a mere prologue to the main action.

The characters are plausible and interesting, though not particularly deep ... but one quirk of their dialogue drove me crazy. In English, the word-order of the phrase "Am I insane" makes it a question needing a question mark. In Anguswellsian, it means "If I were insane". The illiterate-seeming statement "But are the Grannach with us, their stone magic should work to our advantage" has to be mentally translated as "But if the Grannach are with us ..." The steady drip of these screwed-up subjunctives is like Chinese water torture. Please, Mr Wells, revert to standard English for volume two ... be you not a sadist.

Jonathan Carroll: The Panic Hand

(HarperCollins, £4.99, 240pp, ISBN 0 00 647929 4)

Entering a Jonathan Carroll story is a bit like playing a camouflaged version of Doom. The practised player walks very uneasily into each new room, even though the interior seems bright and attractive, full of warm humour and engaging characters ... because in just a moment, from a completely unanticipated direction, something with a million fangs is going to Get You. Carroll's rate of acceleration from daydream to nightmare is unique.

This nineteen-story collection provides several examples. There's an almost comic fantasy about a celestial cleaning-woman who whizzes eccentrically through the house, leaving a trail of blinding cleanliness; all pure wish-fulfilment until her onslaught on the cellar starts turning up fragments of the past that you wanted to forget – that you knew you'd carefully destroyed.... Again, when a man makes a huge sacrifice for his pet dog it seems like a heart-warming Readers Digest anecdote; but then a psychic child who often seems reliable comes out with disconcerting things about the chap's lover and impossible things about his dog. In the title piece, a railway encounter with a fascinating, sexy woman and her painfully stuttering daughter avoids every obvious horror twist and instead trails off in a freezing shower of worrisome implications.

Other tales offer fresh angles on imaginary companions, werewolf detection, the secret feelings of money, the senility of God and other strange matters.

Yet another story shows a helpless-seeming woman being terrorized by a pair of frightening professional sadists. But hang on, she seems curiously able to cope: and then she talks directly to the puzzled reader. "Are you confused? Good! ... I want you frowning now, knowing something is very wrong with your parachute even before actually pulling the cord and praying it opens. PS. It won't."

That's the Jonathan Carroll technique. Read this.

Maureen F. McHugh: Half the Day is Night

(Orbit paperback, £6.99, 352pp, ISBN 1 85723 362 X)

This low-key sf thriller takes place in a 21st-century underwater nation-state which is enclosed by pressure domes so deep in the Caribbean that there is no sunlight and no natural warmth. Although it never rains, there's eternal gloomy darkness outside the heavy-duty windows. But high finance and low politics are still red-hot issues, with dodgy takeovers, terrorist threats, brutally inefficient police and plenty of illegal products – like the "pyroxin" drug that gives you an artifical fever and makes scuba fish-farming in the chilly depths just about tolerable.

Maureen McHugh describes all this in nifty prose, with a highly convincing density of detail. She focuses on two outsiders in this pressure-vessel society: a Chinese-American woman banker and a French-Vietnamese ex-soldier who grudgingly becomes the security guard she needs for insurance reasons. The tension increases notch by notch: is it because he forcibly rejects a terrorist recruiting team or because she refuses a loan to an illegal business that gunfire follows, and then a small but sufficient bomb? Financial sharks regard the woman as tasty prey, while the venal police reckon the man is a convenient scapegoat. The undersea nation of Caribe is a high-tech offshoot of the Third World: visitors who are seen as French and rich-American are never going to be given an even chance.

No: nobody saves the world or reforms society or conquers an alien invasion of green-fanged Thargs. The heart-stopping question is whether these two ill-assorted outsiders – both deprived of an exit visa – will manage to break free of this part-luxurious, part-squalid, and entirely sealed underwater trap. On the final page you may find yourself quite surprised to be able to breathe again. Another good writer to watch.

John Brosnan: Have Demon, Will Travel

(Voyager, £4.99, 168pp, ISBN 0 09 951231 9)

The forthcoming Fantasy Encyclopedia has an entry entitled LOW FANTASY, and this is a perfect example. You know High Fantasy: the characters are posh, speak a bit poetically, lack humour, and never, ever visit the loo. John Brosnan definitely writes Low Fantasy. Damned and Fancy, his first comic novel of the magic land of Samella (probably short for Salmonella) was replete with sweaty pongs, halitosis, farting and bad sex, and a major goal of the hero's Quest was to attain the glorious fulfilment of even one roll of soft toilet paper.

Have Demon, Will Travel continues this dirty realism in accursed London, to which our ex-hero has now returned. Unfortunately various Samellan characters have tagged along. There's a sexy soul-eating succubus, a beautiful princess who refuses to share her bed with commoners, and Jack the smelly midget demon who is a transformed producer of Hollywood exploitation movies. These are the good guys; the opposition consists of a nasty vampire and a nastier sorcerer, whose efforts to establish themselves by magically robbing banks result in a great many confused and annoyed policemen muttering about mass hypnosis.

Meanwhile Jack's master plan for easy money involves producing a film of the first book's events, to be called Damned and Fancy. This requires the screenwriting talent of permanently drunk Australian horror novelist Harry Adam Knight, who for some occult reason has struck several readers as strongly reminiscent of rarely sober Australian horror novelist John Brosnan. Allegedly.

The story has plenty of rudeness and slapstick (whenever the action flags, that invisible predatory succubus starts doing Naughty Things again) and reaches a happy ending which is plausibly shabby. Brosnan scores good marks for brevity and not trying to stuff every paragraph with lame puns. But it could usefully have been ten per cent funnier.

Stephen Baxter: Ring

(Voyager, £5.99, 443pp, ISBN 0 00 648221 X)

Stephen Baxter's future history began with bright, zippy stories like 'The Xeelee Flower' (in Interzone), which seemed rather reminiscent of Larry Niven ... but as the series grew, Baxter has proved more ambitious than Niven. He revels in gulfs of cosmological time, nodding to the chilly grandeur of Olaf Stapledon's admired but little-read novels Last and First Men and Star Maker.

Ring is the capstone of the 'Xeelee' series; it includes a helpful timeline which runs from the Big Bang to AD 10,000,000 and beyond, giving me a faint headache whenever I think about it. Here human history is a barely relevant skirmish on the fringes of a conflict 20 billion years old, between creatures built of different kinds of matter. We and the super-advanced Xeelee and all the other heavy-matter races are doomed to lose to the sun-devouring 'photino birds' – who, in a typically neat touch, turn out to be quite sympathetic.

The only hope is the Ring itself, one of the most colossal artifacts in sf, which has been under construction since the Sun's formation and under attack since life on Earth began. One boggling (perhaps too boggling) scene features an ancient battlefield where one side has been chucking galaxies at the Ring while its defenders slash apart these missiles with thousand-light-year loops of cosmic string, into one of which our heroes promptly run their spaceship....

Yes, there are characters, some quite likeable despite being dwarfed by the scenery. There's a woman who's been transformed to live within the sun (not to be confused with the people in Baxter's Flux who are modified to live in a neutron star – which makes a cameo appearance here) ... she becomes the one human to make friends with the destroying photino birds. Various others undergo a five-million-year flight to the premature ruin of the universe. We meet the last human. The motives of the dread and godlike Xeelee emerge at last.

It sounds like no-holds-barred space opera, especially when you throw in time travel, wormhole transitions and naked singularities, but Baxter roots it all in modern speculative physics. There's a genuine extra frisson in knowing that these wonders might just be possible. Almost, one can forgive the sheer volume of exposition as the characters desperately explain the workings of this cosmic-scale Science Museum to each other. Even a tragic parting comes out like this: 'I'm sorry. The quantum functions which sustain me don't traverse the plane of the singularity.'

Ring is the best book Baxter has written in his own voice, but he's crammed it so generously with scientific wonders as to threaten severe mental indigestion. Sometimes less is more. Neverthless ... good stuff.

Robert Silverberg: Starborne

(Voyager, £15.99, 291pp, ISBN 0 246 13721 5)

Synopsis: the stagnating society of a far-future Earth makes one final effort by building a starship which will carry 50 of its best and brightest on a mission to boldly find and colonize a new planet. Early landings meet death and disappointment, but then the story twists in a new direction ...

In other words, it's a bog-standard sf plot – vaguely like Robert Heinlein's 1963 Time for the Stars, with additional helpings of tasteful sex and a different (not to say new) closing twist. The industrial-quality gloss of the storytelling makes Starborne an effortless read; Silverberg is a mature, reliable professional whose writing never embarrasses you. There are plenty of what Bob Shaw used to call "wee thinky bits", featuring telepathy, blindness, shipboard politics, the game of Go, the mysterious non-space through which the ship is travelling, shifting personal relationships, and more sex.

Unfortunately, Starborne's portentous and doom-laden narrative tone promises more than ever gets delivered. It's told in the present tense, which Silverberg is rather good at using to give a sense of distant, timeless weirdness – as in his fine surreal novel Son of Man (1971). But it doesn't seem helpful in a straightforward space-saga with a good old sf punchline.

As for the final revelations, I am of course too nice to reveal them. Everything goes transcendent. Hello birds, hello sky, hello stars, we are at one with the Universe! Let's just say that the tepid bliss of Starborne's finale has a lot less joyous energy than Theodore Sturgeon's dazzling treatment of much the same sort of ending in 1958. And yet, who knows – this might come across as mindblowing originality to a new reader who hasn't yet shopped around. Would it be snide to say that Starborne is sf for people who haven't read much sf?

Neil Gaiman and Ed Kramer, ed.: The Sandman Book of Dreams

(Voyager hb, £16.99, 293pp, ISBN 0 00 224632 5)

Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" sequence of graphic novels has been extravagantly praised, and with good reason. Somehow the tales tap into a vein of myth, uncovering archetypes that were always there. Morpheus, Lord of Dreams and Stories, has become a 1990s icon – and likewise his siblings Destiny, Death (a female Gothic heart-throb), Destruction, Desire, Despair and Delirium, who are the "Endless".

So when a spinoff anthology appears, one cynically fears the worst. Here are 17 stories (plus a nifty Dave McKean jacket, an ugly frontispiece by Clive Barker, an introduction, a poem, and a reprinted afterword by Tori Amos). The odds are that at least half of them will be unworthy ... but, mindbogglingly, there's hardly a dud in the lot. However did they do it?

Colin Greenland, Lisa Goldstein, B.W. Clough, Tad Williams, Mark Kreighbaum, Karen Haber, Delia Sherman, Nancy A.Collins, Gene Wolfe, Steven Brust and Susanna Clarke all weave brand-new stories and fables about Dream and the Endless – who are sometimes named and sometimes not – and their interactions with our mundane world. A special delight is George Alec Effinger's crosshatching of Gaiman's Dreaming with the classic cartoon strip Little Nemo in Slumberland.

Others draw more specifically on the Sandman books. John M. Ford writes in the interstices of the very first Sandman story, mixing war and radar and sleeping sickness; Barbara Hambly does a splendid comic-horrific romp featuring our favourite servants in Dream's court; Will Shetterly dumps a splatter novelist into the serial killers' convention from A Doll's House; and Caitlin R. Kiernan and Robert Rodi both write movingly about Alvin/Wanda, the would-be transsexual in A Game of You.

I can scrape up one critical comment. Each piece has its own introduction by Neil Gaiman. These introductions (take that, Neil!) are definitely too short ...

Roger McBride Allen: Isaac Asimov's Utopia

(Orion hb, £16.99, 320pp, ISBN 1 85798 280 0)

Utopia completes Roger McBride Allen's trilogy of authorized spinoffs from Isaac Asimov's robot saga. The setting is the inhospitable planet Inferno, whose slow terraforming is complicated by endless strife between human splinter groups and three varieties of robot. First come Asimovian robots, slaves of the Three Laws of Robotics. New Law robots are modified to make them less over-protective and nannyish ... they can't kill humans but can allow them to die. And the experimental robot Caliban, just like us, has no built-in laws at all.

The earlier books Caliban and Inferno were competent Asimovian whodunnits, juggling with loopholes in robotics and the Laws. But Allen is better at large-scale action than Asimov's bloodless logic-chopping. Book three gleefully introduces big sf effects with the discovery that Inferno's failing terraforming process might be saved by arranging a series of gigantic comet-fragment strikes – obviously inspired by the Shoemaker-Levy impacts on Jupiter.

This involves big risks, which Three-Law robots (including the superbrain in charge of terraforming) can't tolerate. One, quite movingly, commits suicide. New Law robots are also unhappy, since their very own city will be splatted by the first impact. One of the human factions launches a large-scale kidnap and data-theft operation to stop the comet project – leading to a clever set-piece of terrorism in a public area clogged with too-helpful robots, whose First Law obligations to protect humans are exploited by both sides.

Can Inferno be saved despite the chaos of conflicting interests? Will Caliban's climactic confrontation in Robot City finish soon enough for a getaway before the comet strike? Will the secret villain get a suitable come-uppance? You can imagine the answers, and Allen delivers them competently. Perhaps he can now go back to writing his own original novels, rather than Asimov simulations ...

Tad Williams: Otherland: City of Golden Shadow

(Legend hb, £16.99, 770pp, ISBN 0 09 968301 6)

Legend's publicity declares that Otherland is a Lord of the Rings for the 21st century. It will certainly be hefty, with three books planned to follow this substantial opening volume. What appalling stamina Tad Williams has!

Full marks to him for not staying in a rut: he made his name with fantasy, notably the massive Memory, Sorrow and Thorn sequence, but this new venture begins as mid-21st-century sf. Just as Memory, Sorrow and Thorn gathered together a vast assortment of Tolkien-style fantasy devices and interestingly rearranged them, Otherland borrows all the post-Gibson sf apparatus of cyberpunk and virtual reality.

This is cunning. To next century's cyberjockeys, all-senses VR simulations approximate more and more closely to RL (Real Life) ... a solid sf rationale for fantasy scenarios. In a future even more mixed-up and economically unjust than the 1990s, going on-line is like passing through a magic portal into a tempting but dangerous otherworld. Deep inside, there are things that break the VR rules, including unreal simulations that bite back, visions of a golden city that's too impossibly detailed for the known state of computer art, and something that seems to eat children's souls.

Otherland itself is a super-technological net enclave of the very, very rich and powerful Grail Brotherhood, living their favourite dreams. These include painstakingly described versions of 1918 trench warfare, Jack-and-the-Beanstalk country, Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom, and Lewis Carroll's Wonderland – with a particularly nasty updating of the Walrus and the Carpenter.

Back in real life, a scattered handful of pitifully weak people are investigating: the black, female South African teacher and her mystically inclined Bushman student are especially sympathetic characters. They are up against the Dark Lords of our planet, who can overthrow governments with a gesture, but to whom Otherland offers something more than total world domination. As a doomed-seeming quest takes shape and its companions come together, Williams nods knowingly to high fantasy. There's a blind seer, a magic armoury (OK, an abandoned military base), and a Gandalf figure (that is, a computer wizard) who seemingly dies while crossing the hideously guarded software bridge to Otherland. At a climactic VR gathering, a young fantasy addict realizes: "This is the Council of Elrond!"

But it's nothing so cosy: Williams enjoys playing these games, setting up expectations and then pulling the rug from under his readers. At the end of this first fat book, much of the situation remains worryingly murky. Several characters are still enigmatic wild cards. We don't even know what the bad guys' evil goal actually is – although there are interestingly messianic hints. Could Otherland's incredible information density threaten to make it more real than reality itself?

So far, we've had a gratifying amount of good storytelling and plot-weaving. Tad Williams writes well (although he could do with better proofreaders, and perhaps fewer words). The real test of his inventiveness will be whether he can keep us all hooked for a further 2000-odd pages. So far: recommended.