Short Langford Reviews

Douglas Adams, ed. Geoffrey Perkins: Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Original Radio Scripts

(Pan, 249pp, £4.99)

At last, like the Worm Ouroboros biting itself in the rear, the Hitch-Hiker phenomenon has come full circle. The radio series begat the amended repeats, which begat the records, which begat the books, which begat the TV series: now at last we can learn what really happened in the Beginning. It's an opportunity as tempting as checking the Ten Commandments' original carbon copies. ("But Moses, it says adulteration....")

Here, in short, are the original Hitcher scripts as they were first broadcast. Parts are disappointing: Pan promise "bits which were reluctantly cut", but most such material was thriftily recycled into the records, books, etc. It's also surprising how many good lines, which you could swear you heard in this first series, turn out not to be here at all: the weak parts have been through a lot of polishing since 1978.

On the other hand, certain chunks were broadcast and then vanished: the deadly encounter between Beeblebrox and the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast, the gigantic statue of Arthur Dent Throwing The Nutrimatic Cup, the clones, the ecological tangle of birds and shoeshops.... Also included are forgotten snippets like the Announcer's throwaway lines ("Parents of young organic lifeforms are warned that towels can be harmful if swallowed in large quantities") and Radio Times captions (ARTHUR: Don't ask me how it works or I'll start to whimper).

The man who steals the show is producer Perkins, whose introduction and footnotes are (a) funny; (b) informative, right down to music credits and special-effects secrets; and (c) not half as familiar as Adam's gags. "Peculiarly enough," he reveals, "quite a few people had already come across an Arthur Dent who in 1601 had published a Puritan tract called 'The Plaine Man's Pathway to Heaven'. Douglas claims never to have heard of this...."

Adams, though popping up to reveal the inner significance of towels and the source of his shoeshop phobia, now seems jaded as regards humour. But his original effects directions still conjure up the manic feel of that departed era:


It may be my hearing trouble, but I don't remember that sound effect at all.

Despite minor disappointments, this is a good, solid book: twelve complete scripts, two introductions, pages of annotation, no scribbles or pretentious layout to get between you and the all-important words. It does not, however, have the words DON'T PANIC in large, friendly letters on the cover. Instead, look for a teacup, the numerals 42 and a disembodied ear ... which for all I know mean DON'T PANIC in large, friendly Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Starburst 90, February 1986

Piers Anthony: On a Pale Horse

(Granada, 325pp, £2.50)

Piers Anthony is a strange writer; talented, but his sense of proportion keeps blowing fuses. His recent novel Refugee harrows readers with endless piracy, rape, pillage, torture, mutilation, cannibalism... and it's so overdone that it turns into a running joke, Monty Python style. When he focuses his brain, though, Anthony tells a good story: On a Pale Horse is his best in some while.

Scenario: In an alternate world much like ours, magic and technology both operate. So does the business of Heaven and Hell, with Satan advertising fiery delights via billboards and TV commercials while God stays inscrutably silent. Besides God and the Opposition there's a kind of Permanent Civil Service – five 'Incarnations' recruited from ordinary people, who enjoy a sort of immortality and bear the vaguely familiar names Time, War, Nature, Fate and Death.

On a Pale Horse is naturally the book of Death. Zane, the slightly wimpish hero, is driven to suicide by disastrous adventures with substandard magic imported from Taiwan. The Grim Reaper calls to collect his soul; in one of those unfortunate domestic accidents, Zane's bullet perforates the visitor and not Zane. Death is dead – long live Death! The rules of supernatural bureaucracy force Zane to take the black robe and scythe, and learn (on the job) the business of grimly reaping....

Anthony's had fun making his set-up work – logically explaining, for example, how Zane/Death can cope single-handed with so many simultaneous house calls. Inventive touches include a pale horse which transforms to a pale limousine or even a pale aeroplane as required. But the strict (Christian?) rules of salvation and damnation under which Death works are clearly unfair. For once, this author's slightly priggish tendency to moralize is a success: instead of (as in the Xanth books) agonizing over stuff like whether white lies are justifiable, Anthony here gets down to Matters of Life and Death.

Zane, an SF hero at heart, duly revolts against the system: first in small ways by humanely easing, delaying or accelerating death, and finally going on strike altogether when Satan takes out a contract on his (Zane's) girlfriend. Lots of action, excitement, suspense and good fun. Can Anthony keep it up through four sequels (one book per 'Incarnation')? Watch for number two, Bearing an Hourglass.

Starburst 83, July 1985.
The second book went sharply downhill, alas, with some interesting speculation on the powers and nature of the Incarnation of Time alternating with a comic space-opera strand of numbingly Xanthian silliness.

Isaac Asimov: The Robots of Dawn

Asimov's robot/detective novels of the fifties – The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun – are fondly remembered. They had their problems, like creaky melodrama and awkward points which had to be fudged or glossed over to make the plot work: but they're honest books which tried to play fair with the reader. So much for the fifties.

This sequel comes from the eighties Asimov, the man who's famous and knows it, the man whose mere name on the cover could sell three hundred blank pages. (He came close to doing just this when he published Foundation's Edge.) In more words than both the previous books together, The Robots of Dawn achieves less plot, atmosphere or interest than either. Which is a pity, since deep inside the flab is a nice little SF/detective story struggling to be let out.

Again detective Elijah Baley tangles with robotic crime. An unfortunate robot has had its mind quite literally blown. Only one man could have done the deed, and of course he didn't. Armed only with Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics and trusty metallic sidekick R.Daneel Olivaw, Baley pursues his usual police technique – hurling accusations in all directions in hope of scaring a confession from some innocent bystander before actually running out of suspects. Whenever he goes to bed (did I mention that this is the novel in which Asimov discovers sex?) he has a great flash of insight, sees the answer, nods off, and wakes up next morning to find he's forgotten it again.

Pages and pages are devoted to descriptions of public toilets, to the naughty bits of humanoid robots, to the Three Laws repeated so often that they seem like thirty, to wearisome efforts at linking the robot books with the Foundation tetralogy ... to writing which is simply dull.

The irritating point is that the central SF/detective puzzle is quite legitimate, fair and clever – it even justifies some of the continual references to Asimov's other work. Back in the fifties some editor would have said, 'Great story, Isaac, but you need to tighten it up – trim a hundred pages at least.' What we have here, in The Robots of Dawn, is a valuable DIY kit – you yourself can cut out padding, pare the book to punchy 1950s size, and acquire the skills of a famous SF editor. Go to it!

Starburst 83, July 1985.

Isaac Asimov: Banquets of the Black Widowers

(Granada, 212pp, £8.95)

Isaac Asimov's SF has always leaned towards detective-story plots. It's natural enough, if you like science in your SF: great scientific insights have the same bubbly feel as when the Great Detective cries "Eureka! I see it all!" The difference is that we understand "The butler did it!" better than we understand "E=mc2!". Asimov's best SF detection gives this heady atmosphere of scientific breakthrough, but without the headaches....

But Banquets of the Black Widowers contains twelve non-SF detective tales, bringing this series up to forty-eight stories. (There are a few added fillips for SF readers: for example, Darius Just – who gets a big role in one of these pieces – is a barely disguised Harlan Ellison.) The "Black Widowers" dinner-club is now over-familiar: much the same repartee each time, always the same setting, the problem always solved by the omniscient waiter Henry.

Henry is the sort of person who wins International Mastermind and does the Times crossword in four minutes. Henry knows the answer to every question in the "Trivial Pursuit" game, and has memorized entire libraries of science, literature, mythology, linguistics and baseball. In short, if he weren't crippled by modesty, Henry would be a lot like Isaac Asimov.

The trouble with the Black Widowers is that their detective problems have a kind of desperate triviality. Each turns on a crumb of fact, but such a tiny, tiny crumb. I remember one stinker – not in this collection – where the whole "mystery" revolved around the staggeringly inventive idea of a confusion between delivering something "tomorrow" and delivering it "to Morrow". Morrow is a New York publisher. Tough luck if you're British!

Likewise, stories in Banquets depend on obscure nineteenth-century American political slogans, baseball esoterica, the windows of French restaurants, and how Plato is pronounced in Russian. Others are a bit fairer to the reader but remain contrived and incredible. Maybe it's possible to invent a good reason why a man stands to lose millions of dollars if he can't prove which year The Pirates of Penzance is set in, but Asimov fails to do so: he's only interested in his semi-clever quibble, and the story falls to pieces around it.

For hardened addicts only.

Starburst 86, October 1985

David Brin: Sundiver

(Bantam/Corgi 340pp £1.95)

Last year's main Hugo Award was voted to Startide Rising by David Brin, and I joined British fans' wild, enthusiastic chorus of "Who?" This was Brin's second novel, sequel to his first: Sundiver.

Sundiver is "hard" SF, a traditional mix of high technology, alien machinations, bigger-than-cosmic questions, engagingly daft sociology, and characters with passable life and colour provided you don't approach them edge-on and notice they're only cardboard. All the ingredients for a ripping yarn, though not all quite cooked enough.

Brin expands Erich von Daniken's loony theory (that people of yore were too stupid to have evolved into Erich von Daniken without help from superpowered aliens) into a Galactic society based on Patronage. Patrons are those who've "uplifted" a lesser race into developing brains, civilization and underarm deodorants. Top of the social heap are races "descended" thus from the first Patrons who began it all. (Brin, like von Daniken, shirks the question of how they got started without a helping tentacle.) At the bottom are those who've never, er, Patronized a lesser species at all.

But guess what – humanity seems to have started without aid! And by the time of the book has gained galactic status by raising Earthly inferiors to human intelligence: chimps, dolphins, gorillas and dogs, though not as yet football supporters. The plot gets moving with the rumour that magnetovores, energy creatures in the Sun's chromosphere, may be (a) intelligent, and (b) the missing Patrons which "explain" the rise of the human race....

Ensuing trips into the Sun itself bring lots of complications, perhaps too many, with some nicely described hardware, three aliens (each with its own obscure motives), murder, psychosis, detection (complete with the hero gathering the suspects in the library), and a climax of slam-bang violence on a crippled ship falling into the Sun.

Unfortunately, parts are peculiarly paced and others barely believable. People act weirdly for reasons of plot. It's the sort of book in which a race – I won't say which – proves to have concealed unlikely, plot-saving super-powers from everyone, for millennia ... 'nuff said. The happy ending seems an unconvincing afterthought; the whopping central question (did humanity have Patrons?) remains unanswered.

Good fun for a first novel; must look at his second.

Starburst 85, September 1985

Algis Budrys: Rogue Moon

(Gollancz 173pp £2.95)

This, eleventh in Gollancz's "Classic SF" series, is one of the most hair-raising novels of hard SF ever published. Its technological props of matter transmission have dated slightly since 1960; the neurotic, obsessed characters are fresh as ever as they struggle against each other and the timeless, incomprehensible alien death machine found on our Moon.

Hawks the scientist can tape men and beam endless copies of them moonwards, to investigate the deadly artifact. It invariably kills the duplicates, and as a side-effect drives the (telepathically linked) originals insane. Barker the playboy is already insane, more than half in love with death: just the man to map the alien maze by surviving a few seconds longer on each of countless visits. The two men inevitably collide head-on, and you're left to decide which is the stronger, and which wins.

The matter transmitter itself is also "the death machine" (Budrys's original title for the novel); what comes out is only a copy of the man who went in, and the copy may not be perfect. When the maze seems almost mapped, versions of Hawks and Barker stumble together through its psychedelic horror – littered with the corpses of past Barkers at each false turning – in hope of being the first to enter and emerge again. This final sequence inside the alien machine could be a filmic trip to rival 2001's Star Gate – but filming would ruin it, because the nightmares are subjective: Barker doesn't see the same as Hawks.... And there's still one last black twist to come in the power-game between the two.

"You thought then you'd already felt the surest death of all. You hadn't. I have to do it once more."

Rogue Moon is impressive, compulsive SF, a novel that can be read many times without going stale. Don't miss it.

Starburst 110, October 1986

C.J. Cherryh: Cyteen

(NEL 680pp £4.99)

Cyteen was the popular winner of 1989's Hugo Award for Best SF Novel, repeating Cherryh's 1981 success with Downbelow Station. Both books are set in her large and sprawling "Union vs Alliance" future history. The earlier one was an ambitious blockbuster of politics, prolixity, and enough loose ends to make it (for me) something of a disappointment.

Cyteen breaks new ground by being set on Cyteen itself, chief planet of the Union of breakaway Earth colonies which hitherto have merely been the baddies. Its ugly, ruthless society (reminiscent of Thatcherism plus corporate private armies) is shown almost sympathetically, from the inside.

This isn't dystopian gloom, though, but the story of a life: of Ari Emory, 120 years old, a leading Cyteen politician and also de-facto boss of the colossally powerful research outfit Reseune with its near-monopoly on advanced genetics. Besides tinkering with human genes, Reseune executives are accustomed to opening up minds and rearranging memory and motivation as casually as we might change a fuse. Indeed Ari does just this to a generally sympathetic male character, Justin, early in the book.

Then she is (apparently) murdered, and Cyteen shifts its focus to Ari II, a genetic replica burdened with all this unpromising heredity and raised in a heavily controlled environment intended to force-grow her into a replica of the Ari I whose programmed personality is still monitoring events from Reseune's computers.

Among the things Ari II doesn't know is why this chap Justin trembles and twitches at the sight of her.... There are lashings of excitement and irony as she grows up as something both like and unlike what was intended.

All this adds up to a page-turner of a story, but the loose ends and cross-references make parts of it heavy going. Cyteen is a distant sequel to Downbelow Station, whose political background is fortunately summarized in an introduction. The new book also makes great play with Cherryh's parallel novel Forty Thousand in Gehenna (1983), whose events prove to have been heavily influenced by Ari I and become the hottest of political potatoes in Cyteen ... so perhaps you'd better read Gehenna first. This chronicles the unexpected effects of a fiendish Cyteen plot aimed at the Alliance, all so convoluted as to boggle John Le Carré.

Although £4.99 doesn't look cheap, NEL's package is good value in terms of wordage; big pages, lots of them, and smallish print. For once we get a better deal than the Americans, where the paperback publisher split Cyteen into three "popularly priced" books which together cost significantly more than one large-format volume. Cunning, eh?

I liked this book despite its final vague air of inconclusiveness – as though Cherryh shortly plans another massive blockbuster which will make no sense unless you've read and remembered the above prequels, including Cyteen. (No doubt most of the Hugo voters will relish doing exactly this.) Recommended, with only these faint reservations.

Starburst Yearbook, Winter 1989-1990

Arthur C.Clarke: 1984: Spring – A Choice of Futures

(Granada 268pp £2.50)

One of the embarrassments of SF is that at core it's an intellectual sort of fiction – "a literature of ideas". No harm in that, except that a gripping story often isn't the best way to put across a logical argument. (Emotional arguments are another kettle of fish: Uncle Tom's Cabin packed more of a wallop than whole libraries of statistics on slavery.) You know how it goes: some character foolishly asks "Gee, Professor, how does the quongo ray projector work, exactly?" and the action stops dead for three pages of indigestible lecturing, not counting the equations....

Which is a roundabout way of saying it's sometimes good to see Clarke wipe off the fictional greasepaint and argue with us in his very own voice. He's had plenty of practice – his nonfictional writings now outweigh his SF, and each of these 31 essays and speeches contains something interesting.

Mind you, the book tots up to less than the sum of its parts. Some of the pieces are trivial. Some are repetitive: in speeches to various riffraff (academics, scientists, UN conferences) Clarke makes the same points, tells the same anecdotes, again and again. This is because he reckons they're important – which they are – but couldn't a man who's so concerned about our future have spared the odd tree by editing out repetitions here?

Never mind. Here you'll find Clarke being sane, rational and compassionate as ever ... meaning that, since these adjectives are out of fashion, he's blazingly controversial. He wants science used to promote peace! His proposal for UN-sponsored spy satellites (so all of us, not just superpowers, can monitor the world) makes such sense that the superpowers vetoed it. His pouring of cold water on America's ludicrous "star wars" defence project is rumoured to have so maddened Robert Heinlein that there was nearly a punch-up. He puts the boot into the even more alarming nonsense of "creation science" (whose fans insist the Bible is the definitive textbook on evolution). I was cheering all the way.

Other subjects include space, communications, SF, snorkeling, poetry and a weird 1947 correspondence with Bernard Shaw (who reckoned the sound barrier resembled a brick wall). Despite the trivia, the gems are well worth the price of admission.

Starburst 85, September 1985

Harry Harrison: West of Eden

(Granada, 578pp, £2.50)

This, says the blurb, is The Surging Epic Novel Of Titanic Conflict In An Astounding World! Well, I agree with parts of that analysis – like "novel", and "the". It's Harry Harrison's ambitious shot at a big, important SF blockbuster. The path of SF history is littered with the whitened bones of authors who tried this....

West of Eden is based on a nifty enough notion. By lucky cosmic chance, Harrison's dinosaurs never became extinct, probably because they banned cigarette advertising before it was too late. The Yilane, highly-evolved descendants of the terrible lizards, have a civilization covering most of the Old World, and an array of fantastic technologies rooted in genetic engineering. The obvious thing for them to do is to discover America – which, it turns out, is inhabited by primitive people of the human persuasion, all of whom instinctively loathe the Yilane. Clearly the stage is set for titanic conflict.

It's one of the terrible lessons of science fiction that huge, stupendous ideas can overwhelm their creators. Larry Niven tried twice to construct a plot that would do justice to his lovely notion of the Ringworld, but never quite succeeded. Harrison deploys oodles of impressive research: with a biologist and a linguist on the team, his Yilane are well enough documented to overflow into forty pages of appendix. The publishers have done him proud by including hordes of illustrations in the style of Thomas Bewick. It's all there – to paraphrase Thurber, this book taught me more about Dinosaur Sapiens than I wished to know.

Indeed, this sheer weight of research capsizes the very simple plot. A lad falls into Yilane hands, is raised by them for research purposes, enjoys kinky sex with them, and escapes to join the human revolt against reptile imperialism. Of course Yilane biotechnology completely outclasses the humans' pointed sticks, but in one of those electrifyingly banal reversals which only SF can give you, it turns out that the saurian stronghold is constructed from materials slightly less fireproof than four-star petrol....

Conscientiously researched, honestly crafted, containing quite a few good ideas, West of Eden manages to be a great, grey, stodgy book. It makes you long for Harrison's old raucous wit. Where's the Stainless Steel Rat when we need him?

Starburst 87, November 1985

Frank Herbert: Chapter House Dune

(NEL, 469pp, £2.95)

Dune was a perfect book for the 60s. Ecology was in the air, and this was the first ecological SF blockbuster. Mysticism and drugs infested the hippy movement: Herbert scored heavily with his mind-expanding spice drug and mysterious mental disciplines – not to mention dialogue as smugly cryptic as anything in Zen. The 60s faded, the hippies became stockbrokers, and Dune's five lucrative sequels wreaked havoc among our trees....

Chapter House is book 6, many millennia away from Dune. Herbert was fond of whopping gaps like the 3500 years between volumes 3 and 4 – gaps big enough to explain the oddest political realignments between books. (What they don't explain is the relative lack of technological advance: a gadget or two per millennium is all.)

Situation report: planet Dune was wasted in book 5, Heretics of Dune. The villains are a monstrous regiment of women called the Honoured Matres, vicious fighters and past mistresses of controlling mere men through s*x. They're apparently a renegade branch of the Bene Gesserit, that wise and inscrutable sisterhood which has been struggling to recoup ever since Paul Atreides in Dune mucked up its never clearly explained plans for the human race. The Bee Gees (sorry) are busy converting their own world Chapter House into desert, to rear the sandworm they've saved from Dune. I'm sure they have excellent reasons for this.

For complication, there are gholas – clones to you and me. Duncan Idaho from Dune is back in his umpteenth incarnation; more important is Miles Teg, who in Heretics turned for no apparent reason into Superman and whose ghola is definitely one to have on your side. A key character is Murbella, a renegade Honoured Matre now being trained by the BGs. An apparent key character, the Master of the vile Tleilaxu ghola-makers, proves to be a flagrant red herring: for the entire book he sits twirling his moustachios ominously, until the final chapter makes it clear that he's only here as a set-up for the next sequel.

All these folk and more alternate between swapping epigrams and killing one another. "Power attracts the corruptible. Absolute power attracts the absolutely corruptible." Towards the end, the intricate political struggle is sorted out by hand-to-hand mayhem: pow! "It'll be a bloody union, this joining of Bene Gesserit and Honoured Matre...."

An interesting read – if you don't mind over-cryptic conversations punctuated by characters thinking in italics, plus the nagging sense that whole chapters of involuted subtlety would collapse to mere paragraphs were anyone to break the unwritten rule and use plain English.

Will the foreshadowed sequel appear? Nobody seems to know whether it was finished, or begun: Frank Herbert died in February this year, aged 65. He will be fondly remembered for several books, including The Dragon in the Sea and Dune itself: I'm less sure about the immortality of the sequels.

Starburst 93, May 1986

Ursula Le Guin: The Wind's Twelve Quarters

(VGSF Classics 1989 reissue, xiv+303pp, £3.99)

These seventeen stories come from that slightly stretched decade of 1962-1974 that saw Ursula Le Guin's rise from anonymity to award-winning fame. They're an excellent introduction to her work, many being prequels or pendants to acclaimed novels.

For example, "The Word of Unbinding" and "The Rule of Names" are small fables from the world of the Earthsea trilogy (recently reissued by Gollancz). "Winter's King" takes us to Gethen, planetary setting of the Hugo- and Nebula-winning The Left Hand of Darkness. The touching "Day Before the Revolution" shows us the woman who made the anarchic utopia of the ambitious and admirable (if not always likeable) The Dispossessed, but won't live to see it.

Even the slightest fairy-tale from Le Guin is memorable for a kind of moral toughness – the Taoist vision of balance, the knowledge that prices must be paid. Like Tolkien, she allows no easy victories. I've always had a special fondness for the early "Semley's Necklace", where a very old folk-nightmare about the penalty for visiting magic realms is given cruel modern teeth by the workings of relativity.

And every politician should be compelled to read "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas", another Hugo winner: a savage "psychomyth" about the kind of price we should refuse to pay, its stripped Borges-like brilliance glittering with real tears.

There's much more: one of SF's most notable clone stories in "Nine Lives", an assault on America's Vietnam hangup in "Vaster than Empires and More Slow" (which I don't think quite succeeds but which won a Hugo anyway), a weird slant on relativity and perspective from the viewpoint of a roadside tree in "Direction of the Road"....

Finally, Le Guin writes beautifully. Buy this.

Starburst 136, December 1989

Richard A. Lupoff: Circumpolar!

(Granada, 352pp, £2.50)

Plenty of SF is based on alternate history: Richard Lupoff's offbeat romp goes one better, and throws in alternate geography. In his world, not only was the recent First World War a short-lived affair starting in 1912, but the seas and continents we know are less than half of planet Earth. The top half, to be precise....

This Earth resembles a squashed doughnut, a cunning compromise between reality and famous dotty theories. Instead of the North Pole, there's the hole in the doughnut, through which explorers hope to fly to the uncharted flipside. Instead of Antarctica, there's a world-circling rim-wall of ice, over the edge of which other explorers plan to make it in their trusty monoplane.

Tongue tucked in cheek, Lupoff gives due credit to his highly scientific sources. The hole in the middle is Symmes's Hole: yes, there was a Symmes early last century, and he really believed his perforated-Arctic theory. SF fans remember him fondly as the man who minted the pole with the hole. Somehow his name gets confused with Poe's fictional Antarctic explorer, Arthur Gordon Pym (or Pymmes). Also on the other side are the Greeks' legendary river-sea Okeanos, and the lost land of Mu – complete with a technology of Mysterious Magnetic Energies. Yes, this book could set SF back sixty years.

There's also a plot. Those magnificent men (and token women) in their flying machines are racing to traverse Earth's flipside. The good guys: Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes and Amelia Earhart aboard the monoplane Spirit of San Diego. In the black corner: the hissable Von Richthofen brothers and a Russian princess, whose sinister victory plan involves multi-engined planes and portable Zeppelins.

The expected adventures follow. Somewhere on the other side of Earth, the plot goes ape: you get sense-numbing coincidences and a feeling that the author's pushed his tongue so far into his cheek that it's gone numb. The increasingly silly air duels can't be believed (nuclear-powered winged horses, etc.) but are played too straight to allow a smile. To keep the action going, Lupoff unfairly turns the Red Baron into a low cheat who'd stab you in the back: his descendants should sue....

OK as entertainment. Just don't think about it.

Starburst 88, December 1985

R.A. MacAvoy: Damiano

(Bantam/Corgi 243pp £1.95)

Reading this was like biting into a British Rail sandwich and (to one's stunned amazement) finding it delicious. Damiano carries, like spots of mildew, the outward danger-signs: it's a fantasy novel, by an American lady, volume 1 of yet another trilogy, with the usual rave recommendations from Anne McCaffrey and Andre Norton (who these days seem to spend more time plugging others' books than writing their own). Ho hum. But instead of swordsmen in fur jockstraps on the cover, there's a fine Alpine scene from Britain's very own Jim Burns; instead of routine fantasy questing within, we get a finely written mix of history and magic.

Damiano Delstrego is a young alchemist of an altered but very evocative Renaissance Italy. His life is soaked in magic: the angel Raphael drops by from time to time to give him lute lessons, while his talkative dog Macchiata (translation: Spot) is an amusing character in her own right. The word 'charming' springs to mind, and once or twice it looks as though MacAvoy is going to lose control of her rampant niceness – to get all twee and Disney-like. This never quite happens, though, because the author takes risks and does the unexpected.

When his little town Partestrada gets caught in the gears of war between the city-states, Damiano goes hopelessly searching for a way to keep the place peaceful and unspoilt. Soon his own naive niceness starts to wear thin. Efforts to use his talents in the war appal him with their frightful, bloody success. His hoped-for girlfriend retires to a nunnery. Villains have their own reasonable viewpoint and can grow into friends; the good folk of Partestrada itself can at times be a pretty rotten bunch. Damiano bargains with an upmarket witch and with the Devil, accepting damnation if he can achieve his aim, not that anyone will be grateful if he succeeds that way....

In this book and its sequel Damiano's Lute, there are events to jolt anyone expecting a safe, predictable fantasy. There are lovable characters whom you just know will survive to the happy ending of the trilogy: but some of them die. Nor is it usual for a fantasy hero, after a confused and ambiguous victory, to imitate Prospero – breaking his staff, drowning his book, and leaving his magic behind, to vanish into the woods. Good grief, this isn't cricket: what would have happened to Middle Earth if Gandalf retired to draw his pension at the end of book one?

I like a story to surprise me, and R.A.MacAvoy has certainly achieved this. With charm. Recommended, unless you really prefer mighty barbarians in fur jockstraps questing through wastelands of padding for the Runetoothpick of the Elder Gods.

Starburst 84, August 1985

Mack Reynolds: Lagrange Five

Buried somewhere in this book is an essay – perhaps already written by some prophet of the L5 cult – on the socioeconomic impact on dull old Earth of flourishing, utopian space colonies close to independence. It's credible that Earthbound interests like oil nations would fight against being undersold by cheap beamed power from the colonies. What isn't credible is that part to which Reynolds gives less attention: dialogue, character, motivation, little things like that.

Background data are presented with stupefying hamhandedness. For example, there's 'space cafard', a dread claustrophobia which has little effect on astronauts in their roomy capsules but strikes with full and crippling force when you're cooped up in a few score cubic miles of space colony. This occupational hazard is introduced by wheeling on a disposable cardboard character who catches it and does not omit to recite all the synonyms: 'I've got Island fever. I've got Wide Syndrome. I've got ... space cafard.'. Next page the doctor fears we may have forgotten, and murmurs a resumé ('Space cafard,' he muttered. 'So-called Island fever. Sometimes it's named "Wide Syndrome".') before passing the time by lecturing a nurse, who spends most of her life dealing with space cafard, on the interesting subject of space cafard. At last the actual hero comes aboard, and – being clearly well briefed for his mission – is swift to ask his lady mentor: 'What's space cafard?' And ... she tells him.

Every character loves to abandon the plot and deliver a lecture instead. Indigestible knowledge is hurled around like sacks of cement: we have speeches on the L5 economy (pp 38-42), space cafard again (48-49), food production and local hobbies (54-56), racial conflict (61-64), economics of building colonies (65), Utopian eugenics (69-73, 76-78), space cafard (81-82) ... Subtly realized future slang comprises the word wizard (meaning 'fine' or 'OK') and the fearful oath Holy Zen! (in extreme cases Holy Jumping Zen!). The frequent recurrence of these gave me agonizing bouts of space cafard.

The plot relies on everyone being so short-sighted as not to spot likely economic and other tensions produced by L5 colonies until several are built. Since the issues have already been publicly debated, it's perverse to base a story on such sluggish realization that physically independent colonies might fancy legal independence, or that a beamed power system giving virtual monopoly of Earth's electricity supply might be used (oh surprise, oh plot-twisting ingenuity) for blackmail. Far from becoming suddenly apparent at such a late date, factors like these are already working against the possibility of the colonies ever being built at all.

Foundation 20, 1980.

James H.Schmitz: The Witches Of Karres

(VGSF, 1988, 286pp £3.50)

Genuinely light-hearted "adventure" SF is rare stuff: challenged for examples, the average fan might after some head-scratching suggest Eric Frank Russell and, er, Eric Frank Russell....

James Schmitz tried his hand at this tiny subgenre and did it well enough to catch Terry Carr's eye and make it into the first series of Ace SF Specials. In some ways The Witches of Karres (1966) is atypical for Schmitz: his usual female lead character is fragmented into a trio of admittedly show-stealing young witches in secondary roles, and the Analog-spawned obsession with mighty psi powers as arbitrary plot devices is – well, not quite parodied but certainly not taken seriously, with a semi-omnipotent psionic "vatch" helping to achieve the most ludicrously melodramatic and/or convenient transitions. If the vatch isn't handy, you can be sure the straight-man hero will suffer equally improbable larcenies and plot-turns thanks to witchy travel modes more appalling than British Rail, like the Sheewash Drive and the Egger Route. However, note that Schmitz's galactic piracy and warfare are more restrained than Doc Smith's. The book features only two manoeuvrable planets.

The mix also includes lashings of colour, and a range of cheerfully unspeakable perils and foes: the shunned light-years of the Chaladoor, the dread Agandar and his Sheem Assassin spider-robot, the sinisterly undescribed Nuri whose vile practices leave yellow stains in space ("Worm Weather"), Moander Who Speaks With A Thousand Voices, etc. There are perhaps a few too many exclamation marks, and the plot really isn't defensible, but when all else fails The Witches of Karres is saved by pace and good humour. And unlike the dismal ponderosities of Piers Anthony, its tone is genuinely light. Recommended for frivolous relaxation. Abandon moral uplift, all ye who enter here.

Paperback Inferno, February/March 1989

Ian Watson: The Book of the River

(Granada, 240pp, £1.95)

"One of the most satisfyingly accessible of all Mr Watson's novels," says the Times blurb quote – this translates as, "Thank goodness, he's finally written one I can understand!" Watson, leading intellectual of British SF, has lately been letting his hair down: deadpan fun in Deathhunter, unsuccessful slapstick in Converts ... and now, with his first trilogy, a wholly "reader-friendly" tone of light-hearted wit in a rich, exotic setting.

(The author claims it's the first trilogy ever to occur by spontaneous generation. "My first-person heroine sprang into existence fully alive and took over, telling me her story ... Coleridge needed opium; I had a week on a canal boat.")

Not that Watson's abandoned his favourite Cosmic Concepts. Mystery and mysticism lie along the two-thousand-mile River, on which heroine Yaleen sails with the all-female boating guild. Why all-female? There's a sexist something in the River, called the Black Current: a vein of dark jelly which runs its full length, isolates the feminist east from the male chauvinist west, and drives men to suicide should they go boating twice. (Once is OK – for their wedding trips. Anybody who suspects a bit of satire at the expense of old Earth customs will probably detect the author winking.)

Yaleen, engagingly cheery and resourceful, gets deeply involved with the Black Current. This, on closer acquaintance, proves to be a seven-hundred-league Worm – its tail lodged in mountains far inland, its head out beyond the River-mouth, at sea. The Worm of the World I am, it says hollowly on first acquaintance ... but though it wants to be a God, practical Yaleen soon has it talking less pretentiously. As the plot contorts, the Worm gets hilariously over-enthusiastic....

"Outside, the world was in chaos. A giant tadpole wanted to make love to me, or something. And the roof was falling on my head. In such a moment, what could save a girl but a sense of humour?"

Why the Worm is there at all ... how this colony world relates to the God-Mind computer back on Earth ... how the Universe is to be saved ... the answers are reserved for two equally offbeat and inventive sequels. Not Great SF, but great fun.

Starburst 88, December 1985.

Gene Wolfe: Free Live Free

(Gollancz, 399pp, £9.95)

Gene Wolfe is a unique writer. There's nothing in SF to match his amazing Fifth Head of Cerberus; nothing in "science fantasy" with the far-off atmosphere, surface simplicity and hidden depths of his Book of the New Sun tetralogy. Free Live Free is labelled as fantasy – but a magician like Wolfe doesn't always deal from the top of the pack. Gollancz have played along splendidly, adding a cover that's true to the book's fairytale spirit while making no real contact with its events.

Aged Ben Free invites four varyingly seedy characters to share the slum house he loves, which is about to be demolished. A failed salesman, an unlicensed private eye, a fat prostitute, a professed witch ... unlikely, downmarket heroes and heroines: but they become heroic. Free drops fascinatingly misleading hints about his origin, his secret powers and the talisman which could make someone master of the world.

Then the eviction squad arrives – and it turns into a comic novel as well: the defence of Free's home is resourceful and silly. Imagine eight Chicago cops trying to evict an unwilling, and naked, 300-pound lady who's taken the precaution of greasing herself all over. (That unhealthy sound you can hear is John Brosnan panting in anticipation of the film version.)

With Free mysteriously vanished and the empty house awaiting the wreckers' ball, his ex-lodgers resolve to track him down. After funny and bizarre events in hotels and mental homes, they realize that someone or something is tracking them down. As well as fantasy and comedy, it's a detective novel or spy story.... Or is it? What's that funny smile on the author's face?

Strange agencies conspire behind the scenes. The four "holy fools", heroes of the most inconsequential fantasy quest since Winnie-the-Pooh went seeking the Heffalump, are clearly up against the powers of darkness. But more surprises are in store, including happy ones (anyone who's read Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday will feel a thrill of recognition here). With a final wild flight into the skies, Wolfe comes to rest in a fictional genre different from all the previous red herrings.

Free Live Free is, in short, unclassifiable ... but from any viewpoint it's a fine, delightful book.

Starburst 88, December 1985
(John Brosnan, now alas no longer with us, was the magazine's movie columnist.)