1997 SFX Reviews

Robin Hobb: Assassin's Quest

(Voyager hardback, £16.99, 742pp, ISBN 0 00 224608 2)

Assassin's Quest completes Robin Hobb's strong and compulsively plotted "Farseer" fantasy trilogy.

Synopsis: our highly sympathetic, competent and flawed hero Fitz is a bastard sprig of royalty, trained as a diplomatic assassin and poisoner. He has a touch of the coveted Skill (telepathy/clairvoyance) and the loathed Wit, a psychic bonding with animals – Fitz's wolf companion is a fine bloodthirsty character. His land of Six Duchies is beset from outside by ruthless sea-Raiders who destroy their captives' souls, and from within by complex tangles of treachery.

As book three opens, the new King is lost on a hopeless-seeming search for allies; usurping Price Regal has eliminated virtually all opposition, using the Raiders' inadvertent help; and Fitz, after an almost literally suicidal prison escape, is officially dead. What next?

Assassin's Quest suffers slightly from the Long Journey Syndrome more common in middle volumes. Pulling himself together after being reduced to a beast, our hero covers many, many tense pages of repeated skirmishes, captures and escapes. His ultimate goal is a magic region where high prices of agony, blood and sacrifice must be paid for help. The heart-stopping finale has a bitter edge as we learn the Raiders' motives for their atrocities – revenge for their previous defeat by the same forces.

Robin Hobb (pseudonym of Megan Lindholm, of Wizard of the Pigeons fame) writes achingly well. You feel every blow, sword-cut and fever suffered by the hapless Fitz. Grim and gripping ... although there are a few too many pages.

Arthur C. Clarke: 3001: The Final Odyssey

(Voyager hardback, £16.99, 273pp, ISBN 0 246 12689 2)

There was once a tradition of utopian sf, in which hapless time-travellers from 1900 would undergo a relentless guided tour of the Future:

"Hail, visitor from primitive times! Welcome to our hygienic and sanitary world. War? Torture? Inequality? Gravity? Inertia? We solved these trifling problems long ago. Religion? That has been scientifically shown to be an irrational psychopathology – in fact, foul-mouthed stranger, 'G*d' is a dirty word and we now say 'Deus'. Note the efficient way in which we all shave our heads to improve the contact of the skullcaps used for communication with our marvellous Machines! Also we are, without exception, vegetarians. Come, see the wondrous 36,000 kilometre towers rising from our equator into the majestic vastness of Space ..."

About two-thirds of 3001 is rather like that. Frozen astronaut Frank Poole has drifted in space ever since being nobbled by HAL in 2001. In the year 3001 he's picked up by a passing comet-hunter and revived. Alas, his travelogue of the future is dismayingly bland. Being stranded a millennium from home ought to be an almighty jolt, but Poole takes it in his stride. His first chance of sex in a thousand years fails when the lady is revolted by his primitive, barbaric mutilation (he's circumcised): soon our hero is laughing heartily at the mishap.

As usual, Clarke has stuffed the book with all the ideas that occurred to him while writing it – no matter how irrelevant. There's a nice conceit about mining ice from distant comets because the Solar System Heritage people object to exploitation of Saturn's rings. There's some wish-fulfilment about flying with strap-on wings in low gravity (when Heinlein used this in "The Menace from Earth" he made it vital to the story, but Clarke doesn't bother). Perhaps the daftest notion is the mind-reading Thoughtwriter word processor, which produces garbage whenever you allow a distracting thought to enter your head.

Towards the end, we get a dose of plot. Ever since 2010: Odyssey Two, the minds of astronaut Dave Bowman and computer HAL have been stuck in a black monolith on Jupiter's moon Europa. For nearly 1,000 years, no landings on Europa have been permitted – but Poole is waved through as a VIP, and contacts the merged personality "Halman". Big news: thanks to a 500-year communication lag imposed by the speed of light, the monolith is only now receiving fresh instructions from interstellar Monolith HQ. Will it detonate the solar system? Safest to destroy it first. Fortunately Earth has a stockpile of ultimate software weapons ...

This is a profoundly irritating conclusion. First, that lightspeed limitation is utterly inconsistent with the hyperspace Star Gate technology which was central to 2001's climax. Clarke's answer, in his afterword: "It's fiction, stupid!" Second, it's a remarkable literary feat to describe the climactic assault on the godlike monolith without featuring any action more dramatic than carrying a parcel to the post office.

"Tension? Suspense? Excitement? You should know, foolish savage from the past, that we abolished these irrational emotions centuries ago ..."

Stephen Baxter: Vacuum Diagrams

(Voyager hardback, £16.99, 464pp, ISBN 0 00 225425)

Stephen Baxter has won a deserved reputation for Thinking Big. The background "secret history" of his Xeelee story-sequence (including the novels Raft, Timelike Infinity, Flux and Ring) is madly ambitious, with the entire universe shaped and reshaped by a colossal slow-motion battle that began roughly when life emerged on Earth. Entire galaxies are hurled like missiles. Even the godlike alien Xeelee are doomed to lose to the "photino" creatures – made of different, non-baryonic matter – who for their own excellent reasons are quietly extinguishing the stars.

Far out on the margins of this main action, human history takes place. Soon we and a gaggle of interesting aliens are fighting over scraps of supertechnology from Xeelee rubbish-heaps.... Earth is enslaved; freed; enslaved again (by my favourite Baxter aliens, the Qax – sentient systems of convection cells in turbulent fluid); freed again. Eventually, with colossal hubris and stupidity, humanity takes a crack at the Xeelee themselves. Bad move.

Vacuum Diagrams collects twenty-odd stories, spread over more than four million years of this timeline. It's an extraordinary mixture, full of genuinely clever uses of ideas from the cutting edge of mathematical physics and cosmology. When he's on form Baxter can overwhelm you with traditional sf "sense of wonder" until your jaw drops.

One downside is that sometimes the concepts are so tough and mind-boggling that they overwhelm the story. For example, most of the dialogue in "Planck Zero" (which I rather liked) consists of bringing the reader up to speed on the quantum theory underlying a doomed supercomputer project. Occasionally the story is less interesting than its central idea deserves: in "The Switch", a marvellous Xeelee gravity-control device is found, used for a crude revenge, and thrown away.

That story slightly resembles Larry Niven's "The Hole Man", and it's worth noting that Baxter pays frequent homage to Niven – from whom I think he learned a lot, and whom he can now teach a thing or two. His enjoyable romps "The Xeelee Flower", "Blue Shift" and "The Quagma Datum" follow the exuberant pattern of Niven's "Beowulf Shaeffer" adventures. The edge-of-the-seat relativistic chase in "Pilot" reads like a conscious response to similar pursuits in Niven stories, with Baxter outdoing his mentor via a brand-new trick with black holes.

Other sf homages to delight the cognoscenti are the rogue AI which is confined to a black hole, like the Mad Mind in Arthur C.Clarke's The City and the Stars, and the incredibly silly Xeelee "starbreaker" handgun used for detonating suns – a nod to Barrington Bayley's The Zen Gun. Baxter knows his sf. And in two stories of aliens caught in evolutionary traps, "The Sun-People" and "Cilia-of-Gold", he shows how well he can handle Clarke-style cosmic sadness....

It's a fine, if uneven, collection. You should probably read the novels first, and try not to snarl at the way bits of Raft and Ring are recycled here. Vacuum Diagrams contains something to amaze everybody.

Gregory Benford: Foundation's Fear

(Orbit hardback, £16.99, 425pp, ISBN 1 85723 463 4)

Isaac Asimov's death couldn't stop the expansion of his Foundation series – published as 1940s magazine serials, "finalized" in 1958, and afflicted with galloping sequelitis ever since the 1982 Foundation's Edge. Now Gregory Benford opens a new, authorized trilogy, to be continued by Greg Bear and David Brin.

Foundation's Fear revisits the life of mathematical guru Hari Seldon, whose predictive science of "psychohistory" is the series' central plot device. This story slots into the continuity between the first and second episodes of Asimov's last novel Forward the Foundation ... but introduces heaps of new material.

Benford conscientiously tackles some of the big problems which Asimov wrote into this universe by merging his near-future Robot and far-future Foundation series. Additions here include low-sentience robots or "tiktoks", a galactic Internet, cyberspace jockeying, and illegal artificial intelligences. Large chunks of narrative feature the adventures of Voltaire and Joan of Arc, recreated as AI simulations for a theological debate. They escape into the net, to discover an enemy that not even Asimov's behind-the-scenes robot conspirators knew about. The original series' mysterious lack of aliens is chillingly explained. Meanwhile, in between assassination attempts and bouts of tasteful sex, Seldon keeps having Great Insights into the maths of psychohistory.

It's good solid stuff, better-written than Asimov's own material and full of the rewarding nuggets of cleverness which Bob Shaw used to call "wee thinky bits". But Benford's sophistication clashes jarringly with the starkness of that original trilogy. Think of it as an alternate universe....

[I had a lot more to say about this weird patchwork novel when given enough space to discuss it elsewhere – DRL.]

Brian Stableford: Chimera's Cradle

(Legend hardback, £16.99, 508pp, ISBN 0 09 944371 6)

This hefty volume follows Serpent's Blood and Salamander's Fire, to conclude Brian Stableford's blockbuster "Books of Genesys". The story is patterned like an epic fantasy quest, with motley companions constantly being separated, rejoining, fighting inhuman menaces, and visiting places with exotic names (Lake of Colourless Blood, Spangled Desert, Gauntlet of Gladness) en route to the mysterious Chimera's Cradle....

But under its sword-and-sorcery disguise, this is hard science fiction – or squidgy sf, because high technology is impossible on a planet whose vicious microbes eat metal and stone. Its "dark lords" are monstrous lumps of unearthly life ("living ground"), enigmatic but hungry mountains and lakes. The world's ancient conflict isn't Good vs Evil but a kind of immune reaction as the native ecosystem tries to reject outside infections – like human colonists.

In between fairly routine fights and pursuits, Stableford shows us increasingly horrific or wonderful transformations. There is a long-running master plan at work, involving genetic mixing of humans, alien Serpents and Salamanders, plus a dose of nanotechnology. But – almost sarcastically – Chimera's Cradle features no Last Battle, no zapping of Dark Lords, not even the particular priceless treasure sought by some of the questers.

This fantasy epic is secretly a scientific romance, and people who journey to the heart of their world's hellish biological melting-pot come back (some of them) with no more than knowledge and understanding ... a real treasure, but a coin they may not be able to spend. Clever, subversive, highly intelligent and a bit too long.

Tom Holt: Open Sesame

(Orbit hardback, £15.99, 312pp, ISBN 1 85723 476 6)

Even when Tom Holt is off form, he's always inventively funny ... but the chunks of inventiveness don't always fit together, the narrative can wobble into manic inconsequentiality, and a deus ex machina may be needed to push the plot across the finishing line. Still, you can't help laughing.

Happily, in Open Sesame the whole thing works. Like his earlier My Hero, it's a story about the power of Stories – with a nod or two to Terry Pratchett's different take on this theme. SFX readers may run screaming for the exits if I say 'metafiction' or 'postmodern', and so I won't.

As can be cunningly deduced from Holt's title, the baseline story is 'Ali Baba', from the endless fantasies told by Scheherazade of the Arabian Nights to save her life. Here, her dangerous audience is the Fairy Godfather, a Sicilian mafioso who offers people three wishes they can't refuse ...

Akram the Terrible, chief of the Forty Thieves, is pissed off with his own repeated story. It always ends with that bastard Ali Baba stealing the pension fund and pouring boiling water into the jar where he's hiding. So Akram plans an escape from Storyland into reality – where Ali has already fled for civilian life as a dentist: 'Open Sesame!' Cue the Tooth Fairy.

Meanwhile, Ali's daughter – of mixed parentage and so only half fictional – has been raised like Mowgli or Tarzan by nonhumans ... a gabby group of household appliances. The Hoover has particularly traumatic memories of changing her nappies. How does a girl chat with a loose-lipped toaster ('Me and my big slots')? All you need is King Solomon's Ring.

Meanwhile, the leaderless 39 Thieves cause havoc in Storyland, disrupting the tales of Cinderella, Goldilocks, Puss in Boots, Rapunzel and more. An inept real-world thief complicates the issues. So does a bad-tempered phoenix. Naturally, too, there must be a genie in a lamp. (With a voice like Kenneth Williams. It's a camp lamp). And even though Scheherazade is frantically rewriting her story, its narrative momentum demands forty nasty deaths by scalding in jars ...

Silliest incidental set-piece: Storyland's birth control clinic, with shotguns deployed against the flying menace of storks. Most familiar Holt plot device: magical travel by fax machine. Most surreal daftness: the scene with a sesame plant, for which you'll have to read the book.

But the main characters aren't daft. Akram (weary of villainy) and Ali (tired of being a hero) are reasonable fellows, and in between chuckles you hope they'll win free of their stereotype roles. In the end, justice is satisfyingly done and even Scheherazade can take a break. I smiled a lot.

When Tom Holt's on form, the world seems a cheerier place.

Greg Bear: / (Slant)

(Legend hardback, £16.99, 491pp, ISBN 9 780099 350811)

In a way, there are two Greg Bears. The first does wide-screen blockbusters in which he cheerfully reduces the population of North America to sentient goo (Blood Music), smashes Earth to bits (The Forge of God), creates construction projects bigger than the universe (Eon) and then messily blows them up (Eternity). The other Bear goes for dark, dense, broody books about a mid-21st-century full of mixed blessings ... such as the 1990 Queen of Angels and its indirect sequel, Slant.

Slant is shaped like a complicated thriller, the sort where painstaking cops – including Mary Choy from Queen of Angels – slowly put together unconnected-seeming fragments into a big and very ugly picture. Jigsaw pieces include nasty deaths, a guilt-ridden multi-billionaire's mysterious suicide, mercenaries planning their high-tech assault on a cryonics store built like a fortress, and a unstoppable mind plague that's stripping away the 'therapy' which is all that keeps millions of people sane and functional in this high-stress future. Meanwhile, out there on the datanet, something unknown but hideously powerful is scorching through computer firewalls and wiping out the protected records – and human lives – which might contain a clue to what the hell is going on.

The tension builds, and the pages turn uncontrollably, to an extended climax which features the ultimate in boys' toys: Military Grade Nanotechnology, capable of conjuring up an entire surreal war machine behind the enemy lines. Bear's little joke is that this irresistible force and its baffled human leaders aren't quite ready for what really lies inside that fortress. Other genial nods to trad sf include a conspiracy against humanity, involving a mad scientist. Well, sort of mad. Our author has surely been swotting up Oliver Sacks on the subject of Tourette's Syndrome ...

It's a good story, and can be left to take care of itself. But there's also an underlay of darker stuff here. The downside of Slant's future is fraught with bad sex, poisoned love and emotional black holes. Bear is a long way from being a back-to-Nature evangelist, but he has a lot to say – obliquely – about the sterility of fun technologies like teledildonics. Underlining this point, the awesome intellect of the world's first true AI (already met in Queen of Angels) turns out to be seriously outclassed by a messy, yucky, organically-based rival.

Slant reads compulsively well – it's less intimidatingly jargon-ridden than Queen – and it ends on a note of hope despite all those gloomy undertones. Virtue triumphs, more or less, and perhaps just one of all the book's doomed couplings has been fruitful. A superior, thoughtful sf thriller which could put you off sex for quite a long time.

[Longer review elsewhere.]

Tim Powers: Earthquake Weather

(Legend hardback, £17.99, 565pp, ISBN 9 780099 560111)

You can expect two things from a Tim Powers fantasy. First, it will rewrite our world in strange ways, revealing complicated and painful magic under the surface. Second, someone will be violently separated from part of their body. In this book it's a hand that gets lost. Twice.

Earthquake Weather is doubly weird because it's a double sequel. Powers's Last Call features ghosts, magically booby-trapped card games, attempted identity theft and a one-eyed hero who finally emerges as a modern Fisher King to redeem the wasteland of Las Vegas. Expiration Date uses ghosts differently, as the psychic equivalent of cocaine in a corrupt Los Angeles where snorting spirits is the ultimate, rejuvenating high, and top-grade ghosts such as Edison's or Houdini's are chased like the Maltese Falcon.

This new novel is a sequel to both, which makes it distinctly clotted as Powers combines two cast lists and two extensive backgrounds of richly tatty detail. Freudian psychology, multiple personality disorder, Hispanic folklore, Edison's spirit telephone, Latin palindromes, Tarot, the Winchester Mystery House and several ancient myths (especially Bacchus or Dionysus) are all woven together.

What slowly emerges is that Scott Crane the secret King of the West has partly failed in his duty, causing phylloxera lice to ravage the Californian vineyards. In fact Crane is killed before this book begins. Most of the rather shambolic storyline features attempts either to revive his undecaying corpse or to crown a replacement, and so heal California. The obvious heir is young Kootie from Expiration Date, who has the traditional wound in his side that won't heal. (Kootie? Cultist parents gave him the Theosophical name Koot Hoomie, poor kid.) But there are many complications.

Too many, perhaps. Earthquake Weather putters around for ages with misguided rituals of resurrection before developing much plot tension. The streetwise magic is fun – an antique TV can tune in on ghost channels, etc – but often inconsequential. With the exception of one interestingly barmy psychiatrist, the bad guys are routine secret-society heavies. The climax, although it does eventually hit just the right note, is prolonged, tortuous and slightly confused. Powers revised both prequels after first publication ... maybe he hasn't finished with this one either.

You come to like the characters, though, and to wonder how many will survive the final encounters with raving Bacchanals, sinister hitmen and a god who's fond of earthquakes. Particularly fascinating is Ms Plumtree of the many personalities, whose crowded head has long contained one murderous ghost (her father's – what would Freud say?) and who has to take additional passengers aboard as things grow more convoluted.

Powers fans won't want to miss Earthquake Weather, however sprawling. New readers should try the prequels first.

[Longer review elsewhere.]

Greg Egan: Diaspora

(Orion hardback, £16.99, 295pp, ISBN 1 85798 438 2)

When tackling Greg Egan at his most abstruse, I'm supposed to have an advantage over most of you lot – a slightly rusty degree in physics. This does help with the intellectual bits, though not all that much ...

Diaspora begins in AD 2975 with a state-of-the-art childbirth in which a pure mind grows from a data seed, sucks knowledge from machine libraries and finally becomes a mature Citizen, all in virtual space with no messy biology. Being a sexless cyberperson is hell on the pronouns: 'Ve hated people who mocked ver and rudely said vis data structures were limp and weedy ...'

Down on isolationist Earth, old-fashioned 'fleshers' like us prefer the retro life. Bad news awaits them, though, because a far-off collision of neutron stars has detonated a huge gamma-ray flash which will shortly annihilate Earth's biosphere. Spectacular fireworks! Bye-bye, fleshers.

It's hindsight time. To ensure that something remotely human will survive even worse tricks expected from Nature (like the traditional exploding galactic core), our cyberspace descendants make a thousand clone-copies of their electronic space city, which head off to the stars in all directions. This is the Diaspora.

But first, following an erudite lesson in topology and a heavy exposition of third-millennium particle physics, there are long efforts to develop rapid 'wormhole' space travel. The story slows dismayingly, without a compensating payoff, because this immense project fails.

What next? Other parts of the galaxy contain amazing tourist spectacles, including a stunningly inventive idea for a 'natural' form of vegetable cyberspace with its own teeming data-life. ('A mathematical carrot? The mind boggles.') This is Egan's much-praised story 'Wang's Carpets', now plugged into the novel.

Finally, after the discovery of clues coded by superbeings into another world's actual atoms, the sense-of-wonder drive rips into high gear. The true use of wormholes emerges, as an exit hatch leading out of our cosmos into a 'macrosphere' ultra-universe with five dimensions. Weirdness reaches its peak when Egan's characters retool themselves to live in this deranged space/time where – for example – a four-legged chair is unstable and six legs are preferable. This applies to people, too.

Some of our heroes still refuse to stop travelling. There's another macrosphere 'outside' the first, and then another, and the whole cosmic journey continues for over 267 million million of these universe-levels. What do our voyagers find at the end of it all? Aha ...

Diaspora, though lumpy in its structure, contains far too many ingenious notions to list in one review. I can say with great conviction that Greg Egan is a fiendishly clever fellow. I have to add that my brain hurts.

Peter F. Hamilton: The Neutronium Alchemist

(Macmillan hardback, £17.99, 996pp, ISBN 0 333 66935 5)

Lord Byron bragged for years about swimming the Hellespont. Well into the new millennium, I'll still be telling complete strangers how I gobbled the 1,951 pages of The Reality Dysfunction and its sequel The Neutronium Alchemist in just two days ...

Yes, you need to read book 1. This establishes many characters in a large-scale, mostly peaceful, galactic Confederation, and then socks them with an ultimate threat straight out of horror. Dead souls are returning through flaws in space, possessing living bodies and wielding superpowers to match all but the most vicious future weaponry. Like Heinlein's Puppet Masters, these possessors recruit new victims in horridly unpleasant ways, taking over towns or planets at exponential speed.

All this emerges through a gruellingly realistic tangle of bad communications and bad luck, allowing the infection to spread far beyond the first-hit world. Quarantine attempts fail one by one. There's a lost doomsday weapon called the Alchemist, but by the time this is deployed in book 2, it's too late for mere weapons.

Hamilton has thought things through. The dead report that the void of afterlife is intolerable, so who can blame them for struggling back? (Nevertheless there are sympathetic revenants who feel guilty – just as there are dumb human kids who, lured by sexy advertising, volunteer for the hell of possession.) These bad guys' intelligence network is formidable, being able to interrogate anyone who has died – including possessors who die many times. Vaporize dead-soul spies, and they can still report back! Other developments are witty, like the returned Elvis confronting an impersonator. Or outrageous: Al Capone's organizational skill gains him an interplanetary empire.

Is there hope for the Confederation? Possible clues concern alien races who survived their own versions of this metaphysical menace. One lot 'triumphed' through apparent racial suicide. Another is still around, muttering enigmatically that their solution wouldn't help humanity. A partly mystical resolution seems inevitable in book 3, The Naked God.

Meanwhile, although some of the larger battle set-pieces seem a mite unfocused and hard to follow, the sheer scale of blazing action and galactic pursuit is genuinely impressive. Nanonics-enhanced warriors, intelligent space habitats, X-ray lasers, gamma pulsers, illicit antimatter bombs, whole arsenals of tasty assault weapons and improvised means of destruction – all that any connoisseur of boys' toys could possibly require. But interludes of tenderness, good sex and utopia make it clear that the Confederation is worth saving.

And what is that superultimate weapon, the Alchemist? Forgetting critical discretion, I will tell you. It is ... a neutral-grey globe 1.5 metres in diameter.

The Neutronium Alchemist is high space opera, an irresistible page-turner despite its dismaying size and sloppy prose, and it ends with a further colossal cliffhanger. Phew. Recommended.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Roverandom

(HarperCollins hardback, £12.99, 106pp, ISBN 0 261 10353 9)

Twenty-five years after Tolkien's death, he's still relentlessly publishing "new" stuff. Roverandom, as the introduction ominously explains, was a story improvised in 1925 to cheer up a young son who'd lost a favourite toy dog.

After the Tolkien estate's endless exploitation of scrappy notebooks and abandoned drafts never meant for publication, I expected the worst. But Tolkien did indeed revise Roverandom and offered it to his publishers in 1936. Eventually they decided they'd prefer a sequel to The Hobbit ... and they got one.

The lost story is a simple fairytale, written for a seven-year-old and easy to summarize: Rover the dog incautiously bites a wizard, gets magically turned into a toy and sold, is lost, has adventures on the Moon and with merfolk undersea, and against all the odds survives to the happy ending.

A mildly interesting game, played by the editors of this book, is spotting thematic connections with Middle-Earth. Every wizard has a slight family resemblance to Gandalf, and so on. In style it's like the early, cutesy sections of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the "talking down to kids" parts without any real sense of danger – though there are dark hints.

Overall, Roverandom contains enough colourful descriptions and well-turned phrases to earn it a minor place on Tolkien collectors' shelves. What comes next? "Written in 1918 to soothe a baby son plagued by nappy rash, Bottombalm is a brilliantly sustained flight of fantastic invention which prefigures ..."

For enthusiasts, and uncritical kids.

Margaret Weis & Don Perrin: Hung Out

(Gollancz hardback, £??.??, 384pp, ISBN 0 575 06170 7)

This space opera's title Hung Out eventually makes sense when you find there's a vast criminal conspiracy called the Hung, whose leaders are in prison, and that part of the complicatedly silly plot is about getting the Hung Out. There are several more jokes almost as hilarious as this.

Our good guys are the interstellar mercenaries Mag Force 7 – like the Magnificent Seven, geddit? The team includes Xris the cyborg leader, an explosives expert, a grumpy doctor, a telepath, the galaxy's best space pilot, a token alien, a token transsexual computer whiz with no detectable personality ... and, most embarrassingly, a gay assassin who shrieks and giggles and literally faints at the horror of clashing colour-schemes.

Xris is framed and bundled off to the prison-world Jango to crack its security from inside his cell, single-handed (his other one is prosthetic). Elsewhere, his shambolic mob is stuck with organizing a revolution on a police-state world, with only pacifist aliens as troops. Can they possibly succeed? These professionals are so dim that they let two different people bug their secret discussions in the course of six pages, but don't worry – the authors will see them right.

This kind of farrago can be fun if done with style and wit. Weis and Perrin try hard, and raise the occasional smile, but never generate real suspense or make their stooges interesting enough to care about. I longed to sack Mag Force 7 and hire the Saint or the Stainless Steel Rat instead.