Sunday, May 25, 2003

Winter, Douglas, Editor. Revelations. New York: Harper. 1/1998. 496pp.

You-all may have noticed that I tend to read a lot of anthologies of short fiction. Well, that's true and there are two very good reasons for that. First of all, I commute a lot and I generally have a book going just for my travel time. I hate reading novels when I commute; It just takes me too long to read a novel at 20-30 pages a day. So, short fiction fits the bill. Second, for many years I tended to read hardly any short fiction at all, so I feel that I'm sort of catching up. The third of my two reasons is that, for some reason, I don't like reading the fiction magazines: maybe it's the format, the variability in quality, I don't know. It's just the way I am. So, short fiction anthologies play a large part in my life. Which brings me to Revelations, a long book of long short fiction. The novella (stories between 17,500 and 40,000 words) is a venerable form in science fiction. Many, myself sometimes among them, consider the novella to be the ideal format for sf: long enough to develop both a convincing science fictional setting and a good story but not so long to become boring or repetitive. Not too hot or too cold, but just right. Great taste and less filling. Revelations qualifies on all counts. It is an excellant collection of ten dark fantasy stories revolving around a rather loose theme. The theme is that the century we are just finishing has been a long and bloody one, with many more dark and evil moments that moments of happiness and light. The stories make a very convincing argument: each one is set in a different decade of the century, starting with the 1900s and ending with the 1990s. The lead-off story is one of the strongest: “The Big Blow” by one of my favourite writers of gonzo, over-the-top horror and mystery, Joe R. Lansdale. The setting is Texas, the event is a boxing match between a decent black man trying to make a life for himself in the post-slavery south and a hired-gun killer sent to teach him a lesson. Then comes the storm of the century to mix it all up. This story is so wild and crazy it was almost a shame that it was the leadoff. None of the other stories really live up to its promise. This is not to say that there are no other good stories in the collection. Canadian David Morrell gives us a great story set during the influenza outbreak just after WWI. F. Paul Wilson's tale of the rise of Nazism in 1920s Berlin is equally mesmerizing and frightening. Poppy Z. Brite and Christa Faust take us into the mysterious world of Chinese opera at the outbreak of World War II; this story's bizarre mixture of gay passion, transvestism, organizied crime and drug running is something to behold. Whitley Strieber's “The Open Doors” is about the long shadow of the Manhattan Project and how one particular scientist learns to live (and die) with himself. Elizabeth Massie's and Richard Christian Matheson's (yes, he's the son of Richard Matheson of Twilight Zone and The Omega Man fame) take their inspiration from the hippie paranoia and rock & roll culture of the sixties and seventies. David J. Schow and Craig Spector's story, while ultimately disappointing, is a chilling look at the rebirth of the Nazi Movement in Germany. Finally, the 1990s story is of particular interest to us sf fans. Ramsey Campbell's “The Word” is a devastating look at fandom and how we are all a bunch of deluded losers who give up way too much of our lives to the worship of fivoulous pastimes. He casts a rather critical look at a guy who writes a fantasy novel that really does change the world and the loser fanzine editor and book reviewer (cough, cough) who hates and haunts him. Bizarre but fun, in a masochistic sort of way. What this collection really shows is how the Holocaust and Second World War, with its fifty million dead, really define this century. The first half of the century fans the flames of the conflict, the second half is still living with its consequences: frequent and ever bloodier genocides, Bosnia/Kosovo, nuclear terror, neo-nazis taking over the Internet. The list goes on. Read it and weep.

Simmons, Dan. Hyperion. New York: Bantam, 3/1990. 482pp.
Simmons, Dan. Fall of Hyperion. New York: Bantam, 3/1991. 517pp.

I'm not sure how to write a capsule review of these two landmark works of 1980's SF so I won't really try. The first book tells the story of seven travelers and their journey to the planet Hyperion. Each in turn tells their story and the circumstances that lead them to undertake the trip for on Hyperion they hope to encounter the mysterious being, The Shrike, hoping that it will grant them what they wish. The second volume, and by far the most interesting and exciting, tells the story of just how awful and wonderful (especially awful, remember: Simmons is also well known for his horror) it is to be so close and yet so far from what you really need. As the Time Tombs open, all the travelers are tested…

Friday, May 23, 2003

Russel, Mary Doria. The Sparrow. New York: Fawcett, 10/1997. 408pp.

Prieeeeeests in Spaaaaaace! Mary Doria Russell's Tiptree-award winning novel takes a rather different approach to the first contact novel than we're used to: an astronomer and his Jesuit priest friend, Emilio Sandoz, discover intelligent life on other planets by decoding a signal sent from that civilization. Ok, so this part isn't so unfamiliar. The real curveball here is that they don't tell anyone but the priest's superiors. The Society of Jesus then proceeds to plan and execute a secret mission to that planet before anyone else figures out what is going on and decodes the signals from that far-off planet. As you can see, this is somewhat similar to Sagan's Contact at the beginning, and in fact The Sparrow was aimed at a mainstream audience just like Contact was. Given that this novel has received such an unbelievably positive response, I feel a little guilty taking such a nitpicking approach to it (somewhat akin to the way Tom Godwin's “The Cold Equations” was picked apart in the pages and letter columns of the The New York Review of Science Fiction a few years back). I have to say that I found it somewhat disappointing. (As far as I can tell, Claude Lalumière and I are the only people on the planet that didn't like this novel) But first, a bit more of the plot: there are two parallel stories going on here. The first is the story of the discovery of the signal and the eight-person expedition out to the planet, which turns out to be called Rakhat. The second, and in some ways more interesting, begins with Sandoz returning alone from Rakhat and the slow unraveling of the traumatic events that lead to the death of the rest of the party, his total emotional collapse and subsequent return to Earth. So, you actually know what is going to happen at the end at the beginning, with only the details of what caused the Sandoz's final breakdown to be revealed at the end of the trip-to-Rakhat thread. The science fictional parts of the novel are really some of the least interesting aspects. This is more of an exploration of faith in times of adversity: Sandoz functions very much as a Job-like figure, trying to figure out if he really believes in a god that can inflict so much suffering on him as part of any kind of “plan.” Another problem I had with the novel is that Rakhat and its culture are rather Star-Treky in their blandness and predictability. Russell's background is in anthropology and it shows in the “humanness” of the culture: they have ports and farms and brothels and class structure and all kinds of other hallmarks of human culture. It feels like she took bits and pieces from different anthropology texts and stitched it all together. Also, the ultimate explanation for Sandoz's collapse, while understandably emotionally devastating, feels a little too engineered by the author, too much deus ex machina. This could be in part because the flashback style tells us from the beginning the results of his ordeal, but not what triggered his collapse. After all that build-up, nothing Russell could have come up with would have seemed satisfying. And some of the science is pretty lame. For example, how could any organization hide the fact that they were converting an asteroid into the first-ever interstellar vehicle? On the other hand, some of the other preparations for the trip seem a little amateurish for an organization that Russell implies is ultra-competent. Like not really bringing any weapons or only bringing one lander with a low fuel capacity. How about everyone going down to the planet at the same time. Not to mention the ultra-competent engineering guy making an obvious and fatal error. The crew also seems a little unlikely--average age too high, not enough cross-competencies, too many friends from before the discovery. They are also too overwhelmingly, unrealistically lovable. These people are adolescent idealizations of friends: too kind, generous and understanding. They laugh at each other's lame jokes too much, they are too supportive of each other. They just aren't real. The only way I can explain the raft of genre awards this novel won is that it appealed to our collective inferiority complex: a good novel published outside the genre must be a great genre novel. To sum up, I have to say that, even with the flaws, this is really a pretty good novel. Russell's dramatic flair, strong storytelling skills and sympathetic hand with characterization keep you turning the pages (even, in my case, sometimes with clenched teeth). It also functions a lot better as a futuristic retelling of Job than as a regular SF novel. After all, it is the author's first novel, and one that shows potential. It is even perhaps one of the best SF novels ever written from outside the genre and, therefore, divorced from its nitpicking expectations (mea culpa). I'm looking forward to reading the sequel, Children of God.

On Spec Editorial Collective. On Spec: The First Five Years. Edmonton: Tesseract, c1995.

This is a pretty good collection of Canadian SF stories from On Spec magazine. It has some fairly familiar names, such as Robert J. Sawyer and James Alan Gardner (both with very good stories from before they were famous), but it also features several less well known authors with very strong entries such as Derryl Murphy, Sally McBride, Erik Jon Spigel and Jason Kapalka. On the other hand, some of the items carry the weight of their small press origins with poor writing, "one-liner" surprise endings and a large dose of self-important "weighty" prose. Some also bear out the stigma of Canadian SF being grim and humourless, more literary and much less fun that its American counterpart. All in all, worth reading for the good ones, but beware the clunkers.

Murphy, Pat. Nadya. New York: Tor, 4/94. 480pp.

Nadya and her parents are immigrants to Missouri in the 1820s. But, they're not just any immigrants -- they're werewolves. Growing up on a farm, Nadya is more tomboy than polite society girl. This is in stark contrast to the other girls around her, who are more demur and lady-like. Those girls may be daughters of other farmers or shopkeepers, but they have pretensions and aspirations that Nadya just doesn't share. She is much happier out in the woods hunting and shooting. She even beats the local men in a sharp-shooting contest. Once she enters puberty, however, and starts changing into a werewolf like her parents, things start to fall apart. She falls in love with the wrong man, provoking a crisis which ends with her parents and her lover dead and Nadya fleeing westward towards California. She hooks up with an equally desperate young woman on the wagon trail - her father and the rest of their caravan have all been killed by Indians. Predictably, Nadya and Elisabeth fall in love on their arduous journey across deserts and mountains. This part of the novel is the most is the best and most dramatic, combining adventure with romance. Once they arrive in California, in the last quarter of the novel, I find the resolution less satisfying. Also, the werewolf elements sometimes seem almost tacked on to a conventional novel about a strong and independent woman in the wild west, as if Nadya had to be a werewolf (and bisexual) to make her believably different from the stereotypical woman of the era. However, when all is said and done, Nadya is an enjoyable novel of adventure, discovery and romance.

Thursday, May 22, 2003

Meynard, Yves. The Book of Knights. New York: Tor, 1/98. 222pp.

This is the kind of book where, if I didn't know the guy who wrote it, I would never give a thought to picking it up. Sure it's garnered rave reviews in Quill & Quire, The Globe and Mail and Locus, to name but a few. But, this kind of fantasy has just never appealed to me. You know, young orphan boy grows up always feeling somewhat different than those around him, runs away from home because he knows he's better than the life he's stuck with, finds a wise but crusty mentor, strikes out on a quest, has some rollicking adventures, falls in love and comes of age. The final act involves him returning to his childhood home, showing up all the old crowd, discovering who his true father is and, just for fun, confronting the forces of evil, usually his father. And through this confrontation, he discovers he's endowed with great gifts and an important role in the unfolding of the universe. It's been done. Well, Yves is a nice guy and I've loved some of the SF short stories he's recently published in English. I figured I'd give the book a try. If I don't like it, the topic need never come up. Well, I need never have worried. The Book of Knights is the story of Adelrune, a young boy who desperately wants to become a knight. The course of his quest follows the script pretty closely (with some significant deviations) but Yves's gorgeous prose and intense imagination bring an awful lot more to Adelrune's tale than just cliches. It is like a good jazz riff, using the basic melody as a basis to improvise an infinitely more complex - and more beautiful - variation. The Book of Knights is a story filled with compassion and understanding, containing many insights into the human heart, giving a view of both the darkest corners and lightest vistas.

Martin, George R. R. A Clash of Kings. New York: Bantam, 10/2000. 1009pp.

This is a great follow up to A Game of Thrones. Like any second-of-a-six-volume-series, it advances the plot without answering too many questions. Like the first volume, it's brutal, violent and realistic, with only slight touches of fantasy. A hard book about a hard world, no compromises, lots of surprises. As the title implies, this volume concerns the shattering of the old, monolithic kingdom into competing claims for the throne and the backstabbing and political wrangling that follows.

Martin, George R. R. A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam, 9/97. 835pp.

I hate big fantasy series. With a passion most people reserve for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Oh sure, I read a few in my youth, like David Eddings's Belgariad. The Lord of the Rings is an exception. Can't blame the parent for the excesses of the children. But overall, I have no time for the twenty volume saga of Sir Elvin Lightsmith Cornflakes and his quest for the One Ring That Rules All The Kraft Dinner. I just don't, so shoot me. Then along comes George R. R. Martin and A Game of Thrones, the first of a projected six part series. Needless to say, I was skeptical. Basically two factors conspired to get me to give this a try. On the one hand, I'm pretty familiar with Martin's other work. Fevre Dream and Armageddon Rag are classics of their respective genres, the vampire novel and the Rock & Roll fantasy. Tuff Voyaging is a solid, gritty space opera. “Sandkings” is a classic SF horror story, made into a pretty good two-parter on The Outer Limits. On the other hand, the novel got a lot of really good reviews from reviewers I respect. Keith at Nebula pushed it on me. Finally, I gave in. A Game of Thrones is a brilliant story, a headlong ride from page 1 to page 800. Martin keeps lots of balls in the air, occasionally dropping one big surprise on you to keep you honest. This is a gripping, brutal novel which never lets up and never cops out; it is fanatsy written as if it were reality. Volume two, A Clash of Kings, just came out. I'll keep you up to date.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Kress, Nancy. Beggars Ride. New York: Tor, 12/1997. 406pp.

Nancy Kress is one of the best sf writers going these days and she proves it with the finale to her Sleepless trilogy. In a world where people are divided into various camps, ranging from the Donkeys (the powerless, nomadic common people) all the way up to the genetically altered Supersleepless who have many times the intelligence of regular humans and need no sleep, a huge confrontation is shaping up for control of the genetic destiny of the human race. Who will win this Darwinian struggle for survival of the most genetically fit? Tune in to the trilogy and find out. This is definately a case where you have to read the earlier volumes for any of this to make sense; they are Beggars in Spain and Beggars and Choosers.

Hartwell, David G. Editor. Year's Best SF: 4. New York: Harper, 6/1999. 480pp.

Another strong volume from Hartwell, concentrating on good-old-fashioned SF, mostly of the hard variety. Hartwell's traditional definition of the genre is very welcome these days and complements Dozois's more expansive definition in his year's best volume (hopefully reviewed next time). No recommendation other than “must buy today” is really needed.

Hand, Elizabeth. Waking the Moon. New York: Harper, 4/96. 497p.

Elizabeth Hand is one of those funny cases. You know how there are some authors that you just can't seem to read--the words just don't seem to transfer from the page to the brain. In one eye and out the other ear. For some reason I have the same reaction to Alexander Jablokov. Anyways, I'd attempted to read several of Hand's short stories and novels in various places over the years but had never been able to finish any of them. I'd more or less written her off for any future consideration. But then Waking the Moon was published and the reviews started to poor in. They were great reviews, giving the impression that this was a different kind of story from the others. More accessable, a dark fantasy rather than sf. Set in the past rather than the far future. What the heck, I thought, give her work one more chance. Boy, am I ever glad I did. Waking the Moon is a classic example of a novel black magic, mysterious goddess cults and murder. In 1975, Sweeney Cassidy goes to Washington, DC to study Anthropology at the University of the Archangel and St. John the Divine, where she meets and falls in love with an angelic young man named Oliver and a mysterious young woman named Angelica. Unfortunately, Oliver and Angelica also seem to be in love and they are both also members of the mysterious group, the Benandati. On a school retreat, everything comes to a head, Oliver kills himself, Angelica disappears and Sweeny is alone. Skip to 1995, Sweeney has a steady museum job but no life. Suddenly, Angelica appears. It seems she is a up-and-coming figure who has written a few bestselling books and is founding a goddess cult. Of course, she is surrounded by mysterious murders and disappearances. Sweeney even meets and falls in love with Angelica's eighteen-year-old son. As you can imagine, it all comes to a head at the end with Sweeney being forced to overcome her doubts and make a choice. Not to be missed.

Green, Terence M. Blue Limbo. New York: Tor, 3/1998. 288pp.

Just imagine if murder victims could be revived long enough to tell who killed them. Just imagine if a rogue cop went crazy enough to try and clean up the dirty streets of a dystopian future Toronto all by himself. Just imagine a combination of hard-boiled detective violence a la Dirty Harry with high-tech noir wizardry a la Bladerunner. Mix it all up with a healthy dose of the sentimentallity and heart we've come to expect from Green after Shadow of Ashland and you get some idea of what Blue Limbo is all about. This short but powerful novel is a keeper from one of Canada's best.

Egan, Greg. Distress. London: Millenium, 1996. 342pp.

Australian Greg Egan is one of the best kept secrets in modern science fiction. Although he hasn't won any major awards yet, his stories are a fixture in the various year's best anthologies (see Dozois/Hartwell review).He writes the wildest of wild ultra-hard SF, usually revolving around grand metaphysical or scientific speculations, peopled by well-drawn and sympathetic characters engaged in dramatic moral and intellectual struggles. In other words, his novels and stories have something for everyone. Distress is set about 100 years in the future and follows science journalist Andrew Worth as he covers a conference where a controversial physicist is about to unveil her Theory of Everything, or TOE, which is a theory which seeks to explain all phenomena in the universe. Needless to say, there are terrorist and rival scientific groups which don't like her or her ideas. Worth, of course, gets caught up in all this. As a result, he gets kidnapped and/or threatened a few times and in the process discovers the secrets about the nature of our universe and how human observation affects that universe. Mind blowing stuff, not for the faint of heart but full of all the things that really puts the SCIENCE into science fiction.

Dozois, Gardner and Stanley Schmidt. Roads Not Taken. New York: Del Rey, 7/98. 322pp.

This is a solid collection of alternate history stories, all taken from well known science fiction magazines Asimov's or Analog. Briefly, some of the best stories are by Michael F. Flynn, Robert Silverberg, L. Sprague de Camp, Gregory Benford and the ubiqoutously alternate Harry Turtledove. Michael Flynn is a great new writer and "Forests of Time" from 1987 shows him at his best. His tales combine a libertarian outlook, a strong hard sf bent and close attention to the emotional lives of his characters. This example of a scientist lost on one twig in a forest of alternate realities is a brilliantly done example of economic alternate history: what if the politcal map of the world had developed without any large countries?

Dozois, Gardner, Editor. The Year's Best Science Fiction: Fifteenth Annual Collection. New York: St. Martin's, 6/98. 616pp. $24.99
Hartwell, David G, Editor. Year's Best SF: 3. New York: Harper, 8/98. 448pp. $8.50

If you only read two SF books every year, you usually can't do any better than the annual installments in Hartwell's and Dozois's ongoing series. This year's volumes are no exception. Except on price (Hartwell: $8.50, pb, 448 pages, 22 stories; Dozois: $24.99, trade pb, 616 tightly packed pages, 28 stories ), it is really hard to choose between these two. Both have a number of really terrific selections and both have a few weaker ones that I found disappointing. The standout stories common to both are by Robert Silverberg, Michael Swanwick, Brian Stableford and Greg Egan's "Yeyuka." The best in the Hartwell are by Terry Bisson, Nancy Kress, Kim Newman, Paul Levinson and Michael Moorcock. The best in the Dozois are by Stephen Baxter, Bill Johnson, Peter F. Hamilton, Gregory Benford and Elisabeth Malartre, and yet another Greg Egan. Some stories, of course, stand out more than others. Robert Silverberg shows his mastery of the genre with a moving tale of what life is like after a rather disastrous alien invasion while Bill Johnson's Hugo-award-winning "We Will Drink a Fish Together…" is a bizarrely wry tale of diplomacy and family ties involving rednecks and alien ambassadors. Peter F. Hamilton's prequel to his Reality Dysfunction novels is a rollicking example of modern space opera at it's best. Greg Egan's two tales are both wonderful examples of the tendency of more recent hard SF towards far-out extrapolations while also dealing more character-driven moral and ethical issues.

Dann, Jack, Editor. Nebula Awards 32. New York: Harcort Brace, 4/1998. 352pp.

The Nebula Awards series is another one whose volumes I check out every year. Unlike most fiction collections, say Hartwell's Years Best, one of the main attractions here is the non-fiction: recently the Nebula series has kicked off each volume with a bunch of essays summing up the paricular year in sf as well as a sort of State of the Union view of the genre. This volume has great, if occasionally depressing, essays by Elizabeth Hand, Lucius Shepard, Keith Ferrell, Ian Watson, Terry Dowling, Sean McMullen, Norman Spinrad and Robert Frazier. It's particularly interesting to compare Hand's essay on how SF and the mainstream are merging with Shepard's and Spinrad's essays on how the corporate bottom line is ruining that same SF. Their gestalt seems to suggest that literate SF is in pretty good shape, but you just have to know how to separate the needle from the chaff, not to mention locating the wheat in the haystack. But of course, I didn't buy the book for the essays, I bought it for the stories. And fine stories they are. As with many books of this type, there were a couple of stories in particular that I wanted to read: the novellas “Da Vinci Rising” by Jack Dann (the Nebula winner) and “Yaguara” by Nicola Griffith (standing in for Griffith's award-winning novel Slow River, one of the best novels of the 1990s and perhaps the best sf novel ever written about sewage). Dann's is an alternate history about Leonardo Da Vinci actually building the flying machines he so meticulously designed. Griffith' s is sort of like Pat Murphy's Nadya from last time, a tortured story of lesbian love and transformation in an extreme wilderness: this time it's big cats in the jungle instead of werewolves in the desert. If this sounds like I'm blowing it off as dull or derivative, that's not the case at all. Like all of Griffith's work, it's well done and interesting; she treats the sexuality of her characters casually and part of the background as opposed to being what the story is explicitly about. There is one other story that I want to point out and that is Paul Levinson's “Chronology Protection Case.” It's a wild and wooly gonzo kind of story, sort of a cross between Greg Egan and Terry Prachett.

de Lint, Charles.Trader. New York: Tor, 2/1998.

I really haven't read much de Lint in the past and what I have read I really haven't found to my taste. His brand of modern fantasy, while intellectually I can see its merits, is just not my cup of tea. But the reviews for this one were a little different, implying that Trader might appeal to a broader audience. And they were right. This is certainly the most enjoyable de Lint I have ever read. It takes the tried-and-true premise of body exchange and updates it into the present. Responsible, hard working, yet dull luthier (guitar maker) Max Trader wakes up one day to find that he has traded bodies with ne'er-do-well loser Johnny Devlin. In the process of getting back his own body, Max comes to terms with his past life and the chances he never took. This is a fun and engaging novel with a lot to recommend it to any reader.

Dick, Philip K. Divine Invasion. New York: Pocket, 7/82. 223pp.

This is by far the most confusing and scrambled of any Dick work I have ever read, and anyone who has read any amount of his work will know that's saying a lot. Of course, it continues the philosophical obsessions of the previous volume of the Valis trilogy (and most of the latter part of Dick's oeuvre), ie the nature of God, the uncertainty of identity and the screwed up human condition. Although it gets a little better in the second half, Dick's ruminations in this one are no where near as entertaining, interesting or funny as they were in VALIS. I wish I could describe the plot in some form of coherent manner, but that may be impossible. Skip this one, but please do try The Man in the High Castle, VALIS, Martian Time-Slip or any short story collection. When I get around to reading The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, the third in the informal trilogy, I let you know what it's like.

Benford, Gregory, Editor. The New Hugo Winners, Volume IV. New York: Baen, 11/97. 537pp. $8.99.

This is one of those books where I'd already read most of the stories elsewhere before picking it up. The ones I'd read elsewhere which I found memorable are those by Charles Sheffield, Nancy Kress and Connie Willis. The ones which were new to me (and which I mostly bought the book to read) which I found to be memorable were by Harry Turtledove, Lucius Shepard, Geoffrey Landis and Isaac Asimov. To be perfectly honest, I mostly bought the book to read Turtledove's "Down in the Bottomlands," which I found to be a fine story of political intreague and human failing in an environmentally devastated future (What, Harry, no alternate history?). But the surprise for me was Asimov's fine story, "Gold". It's a wry, self-deprecating look at a writer (in a 1950's New York-style future, natch) who would love to get one of his books filmed properly and the troubles he goes through to get it done. Looks like I'm becoming a bigger Asimov fan as I get older, eh?

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Baxter, Stephen, et al. The Web 2027. London: Orion, 1999. 568pp.

Individual stories by Stephen Baxter, Stephen Bowkett, Eric Brown, Graham Joyce, Peter F. Hamilton and Maggie Furey. This is a collection of six young adult novellas originally published separately in Britain and now collected in one volume. The premise is quite good: in the future virtual reality technology has become quite common place, especially amongst those ultimate early-adopters – teenagers! VR instruction has replaced regular classrooms as well as hanging out at the mall. But all is not so peachy-keen. There is a mysterious presence on the Web and this woman is up to no good. She sets up secret areas on the web, cracks into other areas and even kidnaps kids in the real world. She must be stopped! And who better than a bunch of kids! These six novellas tell the story of how a series of kids uncover bits and pieces of the plot and ultimately stop the bad guy in her virtual tracks. Each episode stars a new kid but each also has some kids overlapping in minor roles from previous episodes. Overall, the plot is very well constructed and each installment is quite good. It's light reading, of course, but it would be great for a long bus trip. I do have to make note of one particular episode, “Untouchable” by Eric Brown. All the other episodes focus on happy-go-lucky, reasonable prosperous First World kids, as is typical with most SF. So where does Brown set this story? In the slums of Calcutta. The hero, Ana, is a very poor girl, begging on the street to save money for an operation for her younger brother. Suddenly he is kidnapped and she must rely on help from a rich kid who has access to the Web to help her find him. This is a great story, by far the best in the collection, because it reminds us that while technology may be great, not everyone in the world has the same access to it that we do. And that this is unlikely to get any better in the future – probably only worse.

Asimov, Isaac. Forward the Foundation. New York: Bantam Spectra, 4/94. 480pp. $7.99

We've all read the Foundation Trilogy, right? Usually at a very young age so our current impressions of it are clouded by the mists of time and our somewhat immature literary tastes. Asimov wrote the three original novels as a series novellas in the 1940s and early 1950s, when they were first collected in book form. The were great books in their day; they helped define the parameters of the Galactic Empire sub-genre. But, in retrospect they suffered from all of Asimov's typical faults: too talky, somewhat contrived plots, flat characterizations, settings that invariably boil down to New York circa 1941. In the 1980s Asimov began to add to the series and began to tie the Foundation series to his other main work, the Robot series and the Empire series. Forward the Foundation is the last of the books that he added to the series, fittingly also published as a series of novellas in the early 1980s, just before he died. Eventhough it is the last book to be written in the Foundation series, it actually takes place chronologically before the original trilogy. It follows the Hari Seldon's efforts (from the age of about 40 until his death in his 70s) to develop psychohistory and set up the Foundation. Along the way, he has many adventures, survives numerous assasination attempts and coups, saves half his family from certain death; at various times he experiences the travails of family life, university life and then beaurocratic life and then old age. In many respects, Forward the Foundation is no different from that original trilogy: talky, overly familiar settings, unlikely situations, little feel for the strangeness of the future. You know, the Asimov stock faults. In many other respects, it is immensly different: it is a very mature work, adult work. It is concerned with families, mortality, coming to terms with ones place in life. Hari Seldon does something that is so rare in science fiction in any form, he goes through all the experiences and emotions that are part of normal life: love, loss, grief, joy, jealously. He gets to age gracefully, to see and appreciate the growth of his family and to grieve the passing of family and friends. To have ups and downs in his life's work over the course of his whole life, not artificially condensed to meet some sort of dramatic arc. Overall, I have to say that this is a mature work by an author at the height of his powers, coming to grips with his own mortality. I enjoyed this one in spite of its obvious flaws. Not to be missed.