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Paul Di Filippo reviews Elan Mastai

All Our Wrong Todays, by Elan Mastai (Dutton 978-1-101-98513-7, $26, 384pp, hardcover February 7, 2017

When a writer from outside the genre decides to write SF (and it gets marketed as mainstream), they usually favor a subset of stefnal tropes, usually the softer ones: time travel, dystopia, or counterfactual. You seldom see, say, a writer like Martin Amis attempting an alien invasion story, or an Alice Hoffman dealing with, oh, undersea colonization or galactic empires. Artificial intelligence might perhaps be a slightly hard-edged exception, as in Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2. But that’s because it allows for exploration of such classic humanistic themes as the nature of the soul, Frankensteinian hubris, etc.

Of all the favored fantastika tropes beloved by the generally mimetically inclined author, time travel has lately been experiencing a mini-boom, as with The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray (review here). The latest entry in this trend, All Our Wrong Todays, happens also to be a debut novel. And it proves to be a great and exceptional find, so let’s give it a gander.

The first thing to note is that although Mastai might very well have been raised outside strict genre borders, he exhibits a playful fluency with, and is creatively savvy about, all the genre appurtenances and furniture. His does not make a single misstep with his speculations or language. This degree of sophistication probably just goes to show that the tropes and novums of the field have thoroughly saturated our culture to the point that inside/outside distinctions are becoming less and less meaningful.

Another thing to note before diving into the plot is that Kurt Vonnegut is referenced admiringly early on by our hero-narrator, and this tip of the hat induces us to read the book as deliberately Vonnegutian in purpose and tone—a not unfair description, I think. Its short chapters, its punchy, demotic, self-denigrating prose, its tragicomic ambiance resulting in genuine catharsis and epiphany, and its general fascination with the ways humans can screw up—all these are pure Vonnegut.

Here’s the scenario. The year of our opening action is 2016, but a 2016 on an alternate timeline. This particular year resembles the future of Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum” or that utopian mirage depicted in George Clooney’s Tomorrowland. A Campbellian “yesterday’s tomorrow” made real. This world got there because in 1965, an infinite free power source, the Goettreider Engine, was developed.

Our protagonist is Tom Barren, son of a genius named Victor Barren. Tom is kind of a schlub and nowhere guy, all too conscious of his inferiority in the light of his dominant genius father. The elder Barren, by the way, has recently invented time travel. Just to give his pitiful offspring something to do, Professor Barren enlists his son as a backup chrononaut. Through a long sequence of events, which I shan’t spoil, Tom becomes the first person to employ the machine—unofficially—and he journeys back to the day when the Goettreider Engine was first tested. He manages to botch the test and taint the Goettreider Engine with permanent failure, thus erasing his own timeline.

But Tom himself, miraculously, does not pop out of existence as part of the aborted future. Instead, he wakes up in our timeline, inhabiting the body of his doppelganger, John Barren. The two avatars share impossibly divergent, bipolar memories—John’s life has followed a vastly different course, naturally, than Tom’s—but Tom seems temporarily the dominant personality. Naturally, no one believes his tale. So he sets out to prove the truth of his assertions. This involves tracking down Lionel Goettreider, and attempting to reboot his pivotal invention. But what Tom discovers is that his native timeline is not the only one striving to be reborn.

Mastai achieves any number of excellent things here. Enumerated in no particular order:

He portrays the disjunction between Tom’s native 2016 and our version—“political chaos, social dysfunction, technological incompetence, and putrid toxicity”—with acid humor and insight. And then at the end he manages to invert the value judgments about which timeline is better and offers more potential for the human future. Actually, not to give too much away, the winning solution is a hybrid of both timelines.

Next, Mastai conjures up a great character in the person of Tom, a fellow of no obvious great talents yet whose heart is in the right place—at least by book’s end. Tom’s love for Penelope/Penny Weschler in both timelines is his ultimate redeeming feature. Additionally, a complicated romance involving Goettreider runs fruitfully in parallel.

Third, we get all the elaborate paradoxes and causal loops that any great time travel novel must offer. Mastai lives up to classics such as Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps.”

Lastly, Tom’s musings and eventual enlightenment on the nature of science-fictional or futurism-derived dreaming and striving taps deep into the core of how we chart and plan and reify humanity’s course. Mastai believes we have an obligation to pilot a course “between futurist manifest destiny and apocalyptic ruin.”

His comedic, clever, sometimes silly, sometimes tragic, and ultimately morally resonant tale illustrates exactly the kind of value and utility science fiction has always delivered, and must continue to deliver. His next novel is eagerly awaited, on this or any other continuum.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Richard Kadrey

The Wrong Dead Guy, by Richard Kadrey (Harper Voyager 978-0062389572, $24.99, 432pp, hardcover February 28, 2017

Richard Kadrey’s newest novel is a fast-arriving—and fast-paced, fast-talking, fast-flummoxing—sequel to 2016’s The Everything Box. In reviewing that series debut for the Barnes & Noble Review, I said in part: “The novel is gonzo, ribald, hilarious, zippy and innovative with its magical apparatus and tricks. If Donald Westlake had been a dilettante follower of Satanist Anton LaVey, humanity might have previously been gifted with such a book. Or if Jack Benny’s under-regarded film The Horn Blows at Midnight were remade by the Coen Brothers, a similar funhouse ride might ensue.”

Is it possible for Kadrey to strike gold twice? Let’s see!

At the close of the last adventure, our freelance thief, Charlie “Coop” Cooper, specialist in purloining the outré and uncanny, congenitally immune to most magics, had succeeded in thwarting the apocalypse. All well and good, although saving civilization proved not to be particularly lucrative. And in doing so, he had come to the attention of the Department of Peculiar Science, a classified agency whose remit overlapped his skills and interests. More or less forced to work for them, or face jail time, along with his partner Morty, Coop at least has the incentive that Giselle, now a fellow operative, has again become his lover. But that barely suffices to cover his annoyance with Woolrich, his demanding boss.

Now Woolrich has a fresh and lame assignment for Coop and team. Steal a low-rent Egyptian mummy—named Harkhuf—from a second-rate museum: the Brian Z. Pierson Museum of Art, Antiquities, and Folderol. It’s hardly worthy of Coop’s skills, but he irritably gets with the program. And this is where the trouble starts. Harkhuf proves to be sentient and maliciously alive. He is on a quest for his ancient mummy inamorata, Shemetet. Once they are reunited, they plan to conquer the world.

But not all of this is apparent to Coop and company at the outset. So they bumble through the seemingly inconsequential job, with Coop acquiring a curse from Harkhuf that results in such unpalatable demands as being summoned from his home by the mummy, while clad in only his Star Wars underwear, and giving the whole neighborhood a lingering glimpse of his naked butt.

Outside Coop’s inner circle of pals and co-workers, there are a half-dozen other troupes of farcical players, whom Kadrey intercuts into the main narrative, before finally blending all the subplots together in a milkshake of madness. There’s a group of rich kids who fancy themselves to be eco-terrorists. There’s an elderly faded fortune-teller named Minerva—looking like “Stevie Nicks’s stunt double”—and her buddy Kellar, who want in on the supernatural mummy action. Down in the mailroom of DOPS, Nelson—a mook or zombie with a grudge against Coop—is plotting his own rebellion, while abusing his assistant McCloud. Sheriff Wayne Jr. is busy making auteur-style commercials for his car lot, where the climax of the book will occur. Froehlich, head of security at the Pierson museum, has managed to become enthralled to Harkhuf, and is serving as his mortal catspaw, while introducing the mummy to the wonders of South American TV game shows. Vengeful DOPS auditors Night and Knight are on the track of missing office supplies. And down in the Extra-Confidential Inscrutabilis Unit of DOPS, buddies Vargas and Zulawski are about to undergo some very chilling manifestations.

This tornado-cum-whirlpool of comedic insanity blends together into a very satisfactory and surprising escapade. Kadrey juggles everything like a six-armed master, dovetailing all the loose bits you swear could not be connected.

The first thing to mention when comparing this novel to its predecessor is the nature of its novum: here, classic, as opposed to revolutionary in The Everything Box. The first book’s occult MacGuffin was more devious and unprecedented than this book’s Universal-Monsters-style Egyptian revenant. Given the spate of mummy movies within recent memory, from the Brendan Fraser franchise to The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec and a Tom Cruise mummy reboot for 2017, one might at first be a tad dismayed that Kadrey did not center his tale on a less well-handled trope. But as Rudy Rucker famously says, such immemorial ideas are “power chords” that allow each new writer to riff according to his or her muse. A handy armature for tale-telling.

And so once the reader has acclimatized himself or herself to that conceptual hurdle, we find four major aspects to savor.

There is the acidic social commentary. Set in Los Angeles, the book is replete with instances of all the cultural detritus of La La Land. Much as Ron Goulart itemized and savaged California of the 1960s in his classic fiction (albeit by casting the contemporary stuff into a near-future setting), so Kadrey takes the piss out of the zany customs of his home state. And he remains always topical. “Ramsey Fitzgerald’s life was the rags-to-riches story of a man who started out with only a few hundred million dollars of family money and managed to turn it into even more hundreds of millions by sheer force of will, insider trading, and blackmail, a formula he referred to in his autobiography as the ‘Torquemada Reach Around.’”

Then there is the classic screwball comedy. Kadrey has a gift for staging improbable disasters and cascades of events involving elephants, specters, malicious mice and a dozen other components. The improbable ridiculousness of it all evokes much laughter. “A team of six people stripped Coop down and covered him from head to toe in a clear gel so that he could squeeze into a skintight carbon-fiber suit that made him feel less like a secret government agent and more like a bratwurst having second thoughts about his life choices, his sanity, and whether he would be able to keep down those chili cheese fries he’d eaten earlier.”

Third on the list of enjoyments are the character portraits and interactions. All these folks are as unique and quirky as real humans, and their prickly dealings with each other are as far from genteel and politically correct as possible. I have not yet even mentioned Dr. Lupinsky, who resides in a mobile mecha framework encasing an antique TV whose screen manifests the good doctor’s avatar: a winsome cat.

Lastly, and possibly the biggest attraction of the book, is the sheer language. Like S. J. Perelman writing for the Marx Brothers, combined with Raymond Chandler’s propensity for over-the-top similes and metaphors, Kadrey’s language pops off the page, whether as dialogue or description. There’s a handful of quotable sentences on every page. “Nelson began to recite a language that sounded like someone trying to plunger out a toilet full of creamed corn… Coop said a word that was just as odd as the ones in Nelson’s recitation, only Coop’s word sounded like someone dropping unripe watermelons down a spiral staircase.”

Before closing my review of this absurdly entertaining and entertainingly absurd urban fantasy on that note, let me just highlight the employment of that adjective “spiral.” Not just any old staircase, but a spiral staircase. That’s the true touch of a genius.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Faren Miller reviews Laura Eve

The Graces, Laure Eve (Abrams Amulet 978-1-4197-21236, $18.95, 342pp, hc) September 2016. Cover by Spencer Charles.

What is myth for the new millennium? In The Graces, Laure Eve confronts what’s left of the old with something that might take its place (no galactic empires required). The teenage narrator is new to school in a small town far enough from England’s great cities to have woodlands and wild seas nearby, show traces of its pagan past, and host a family of ‘‘witches.’’ The youngest Graces (male and female twins Fenrin and Thalia approaching graduation, sister Summer a few years behind) move through their fellow students ‘‘like sleek fish, ripples in their wake, stares following their backs and their hair.’’

They rouse an even more urgent attraction in the girl describing them in those terms, and it swiftly becomes intriguing. She gives her ‘‘secret name’’ as River Page but offers little further comment. What draws her to the Graces? It lurks in ‘‘the core of me, burning endlessly, coal black and coal bright.’’ While she chronicles budding friendship (and a passion for the boy that goes beyond his role as ‘‘school Pan’’), the entertain­ing details onstage can’t keep us from sensing other forces at work behind the scenes.

River notices things the Graces miss. A wall-carving prompts her to wonder, ‘‘Was it a real being I could talk to? … What did it think about humans? What did it know?’’ Thalia says it’s ‘‘just a local nature god’’ from a part of town where ‘‘old stuff hangs around.’’ Waiting for them at a standing stone, River imagines all it must have seen, ‘‘blood on its hands.’’ Yet when Fenrin asks Summer why she chose it for the rendezvous, she answers with a mental shrug (‘‘It’s on the way….’’). Nevertheless, their spells, rituals and celebrations seem to give River her only chance to find a place: with them, beyond the mundane. Even the ongoing threat of a Grace curse prompts her to tinker with another rite.

Stark mystery returns at the end of Part One, when a Lammas party leads to one man’s disap­pearance, and likely drowning. Part Two deals with the pain, and its source. Only now do we begin to see what the three Graces learned from River while she made her way into their world. It leads to scenes where a moment’s action and reaction goad power to manifest again – and see itself in full for the first time.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Norman Spinrad

The People’s Police, by Norman Spinrad (Tor 978-0765384270, $27.99, 288pp, hardcover) February 2017

Closing in fast and vigorously on his fifty-fifth year of fiction writing (that anniversary will occur in 2018, dating from his first sale in 1963), Norman Spinrad remains an irreplaceable voice in the SF field. Critic, provocateur, daring dreamer, he deserves a prominence even higher than what the field has already accorded him. Visitors to this very venue will have seen me recommending him as the next SFWA Grand Master, so I think there will be no surprise when I report that I was very excited at the arrival of his new novel. Let’s have a look at it!

The book is set in the city of New Orleans in the very near future, and while the technological surround is more or less unchanged, the sociopolitical environment is rapidly mutating, giving Spinrad a chance to do what he likes to do best, as seen in his classic Bug Jack Barron: mess around satirically with all the hot-button topics of the moment.

We open with a chapter narrated in the first-person by one Jean-Baptiste Lafitte, local saloonkeeper, whorehouse owner, and all-around anything-for-a-buck businessman. (Lafitte’s intimate presence and point-of-view will recur at intervals throughout the novel, usually in separate chapters, but sometimes in the middle of other sections.) But despite his venality, he owes an underlying sense of civic loyalty and virtue to his unique hometown and its downtrodden masses, and he knows its history and probable future inside out—knowledge he shares with the readers in some discursive backstory.

This narrative tactic, it should be noted at the outset, reflects Spinrad’s approach for the majority of the novel. The story is not dramatized so much as it is recounted, in a quasi-historical or almost journalistic or tall-tale-spinning fashion. We do get some good you-are-there dramatic set-pieces, but for the most part we are listening either to Lafitte’s voice or that of an omniscient raconteur. Now, this mode violates the current preference for “show not tell” that most SF and most naturalistic fiction follows. But it hews to an older kind of pre-modern story-telling that remains perfectly enjoyable. And given the need to chart socioeconomic and cultural forces not apprehensible by the average person in the midst of living this tale, I think Spinrad made the right choice.

In any case, we next learn the life history of one Luke Martin, a low-level cop, not particularly ethical or smart, but possessing a certain hard-earned street wisdom. After making his rep by riding herd, somewhat illegally, on the thugs and gangbangers of the Alligator Swamp portion of the city, Luke has married well and gotten some more genteel duties, such as serving eviction notices. Then comes the moment, almost Phildickian, when he is accidentally (?) handed the paperwork to kick himself and his family out of his own domicile!

This is the triggering event that will lead to the formation of the “People’s Police.” Egged on by Lafitte and various other players, the city cops rebel en masse, with Luke becoming the front man for the cause of economic justice. Soon the demands and disruptions of the cops will extend far beyond mere matters of eviction.

Highly relevant to this crusade is one Mama Legba, the city’s prime public proponent of the Voodoo religion—despite being a white girl with shallow roots. Mama Legba’s power stems from her genuine abilities to host the supernatural loa entities, whose antics have even garnered her own TV show. With Legba throwing in with the renegade cops, a powerful hurricane of insurrection is born. And with the Louisiana governor’s election right around the corner, who knows how far this storm could travel?

Spinrad revels in the juicy, sleazy, all-too-human Machiavellian machinations of all the parties, the rebels and the establishment alike. His ability to chart thrust and counter-thrust is akin to that of some television political strategist following the twists and turns of national affairs. Certainly he echoes the savvy work of one of his great Sixties peers, John Brunner, in this regard. And, like Brunner, he never forgets the microcosmic side of affairs, giving all his characters moments of emotional and intellectual vividness and depth.

The notion of a roots rebellion creating a “temporary autonomous zone” (Peter Lamborn Wilson’s term) is hardly a new one in SF, going back at least as far as Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. But Spinrad proves that he is not stuck in some Sixties counterculture mindset, as he adds up-to-the-minute aspects of media coverage, organizational innovations, etc., to his rebellion. Yet at the same time the tale has an eternal aspect—especially in its quasi-tragic ending—that harks back to every failed utopia from Classical times onward.

Spinrad barrels though his fable with a caustic, cynical-yet-hopeful, wise-ass mouth and mentality. Yet the tale is never didactic or righteously self-congratulatory toward any side. Spinrad is too cognizant of the failed, fallen state of the human animal to expect or demand holiness from any individual, even when that individual is ostensibly doing “good.”

This book shares its heart and soul with two great films on similar themes: A Face in the Crowd and The Great McGinty. Spinrad is more like wildman Preston Sturges, director of the latter film, than like Frank Capra, whose sincerity sometimes devolved into cornball simplicities. With a sympathetic eye for all human foibles and aspirations, Spinrad, employing the same sharp satiric scalpel used by Tom Wolfe at his best, delivers parables and parodies of our uncivil civic sphere.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

The Boy Who Fell to Earth: A Review of The Space Between Us

by Gary Westfahl

Like a NASA rocket slowly rising from the surface, The Space Between Us takes a long time to achieve escape velocity and soar through space; however, if you can endure one of the most boring opening sequences in any film I can recall, and about an hour of trite melodramatic sequences interspersed with inauthentic personal drama, its last thirty minutes are actually quite enjoyable, even moving. Whether it is a film worth seeing, then, hinges upon whether you most value the journey, or the destination.

In some respects, the film resembles what might have happened if someone had resolved to finally get a film version of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) green-lighted by excising all of its controversial elements – the sex, the politics, the religion, the social satire. One would be left with the story of a pioneering female astronaut, Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery), who gives birth to a son on Mars and immediately dies, leaving her son to be raised by others (here, human astronauts, not intelligent Martians). As a young adult, Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield) is finally able to come to Earth and soon achieves a satisfying romantic relationship with a teenager named Tulsa (Britt Robertson). So described, one imagines the resulting film would become a sensitive, coming-of-age drama involving a troubled youth confronting a challenging adult world, the sort of production that regularly wows audiences at the Sundance Festival and garners Oscar nominations (such as, for example, Moonlight [2016]); and at times, it is evident that director Peter Chelsom and writers Allan Loeb, Richard Barton Lewis, and Stewart Schill were striving to create a film of precisely that nature.

Unfortunately, The Space Between Us was also going to be a science fiction film, and everyone in Hollywood knows that science fiction films have to be filled with action; so, making the same mistake that doomed Tomorrowland (2015 – review here), Chelsom and company dutifully inserted car crashes, an explosion, and several absurd chase scenes – the most risible one involving a car and a vintage biplane. Thankfully, though, Gardner and Tulsa are never called upon to punch out any of their opponents, since their chief pursuers – former project director Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) and mothering astronaut Kendra Wyndham (Carla Cugino) – only have Gardner’s best interests at heart, seeking to capture him solely to protect him from the potentially fatal effects of living in Earth’s oppressive gravity. Further, in order to make all of Gardner and Tulsa’s daring escapes even barely plausible, the film necessarily posits that NASA has been keeping Gardner’s existence a secret for sixteen years, hindering their efforts to locate and seize him. Yet despite some sporadic, halfhearted explanations, the film never manages to articulate a truly convincing reason for all this secrecy, which is being maintained solely to keep the plot in motion. In addition, it is a Hollywood truism that the course of true love never runs smooth, so despite their long-time online friendship, Gardner and Tulsa must constantly bicker, for one idiotic reason after another, generating additional “conflict” in the interludes between their exciting escapades.

Instead of providing viewers with frenetic chases and contrived arguments, which they have all seen many times before, The Space Between Us would have been better advised to focus on more original material – namely, how Earth would be perceived by a visitor from an alien planet. There are only scattered scenes of this nature: while Tulsa is admiring a vast canyon, Gardner is fascinated by a caterpillar – for he has seen many barren landscapes before, but he has never seen a caterpillar; he relishes the first time he feels rain hitting his face; and he is startled by the appearance of a horse, recalling a similar moment in Arthur C. Clarke’s Imperial Earth (1975) when a visitor from Titan sees a horse and describes it as his “first Monster from Outer Space.” If he had not been trapped in his own version of The Fugitive, constantly on the run, Gardner could have experienced more of Earth’s myriad wonders, visiting museums and zoos, skin-diving to observe the wonders of the sea (like Clarke’s protagonist), enjoying a snowfall as well as rain, learning how to dance or roller-skate – the possibilities are endless. But, the filmmakers clearly thought, why bore audiences with such mundane moments when you can thrill them by showing a departing biplane being chased by a car?

Along with the competing impulses to develop its characters and to keep them in constant motion, this film is also conflicted about one of its central settings, the planet Mars. In telling the story of a boy who was born and raised on Mars, the film should logically spend a lot of time describing his upbringing on Mars – and films like The Martian (2015 – review here) demonstrate that one can craft involving dramas about surviving in that harsh environment. However, although the film is willing to devote a considerable amount of screen time to Shepherd’s remarkably uninspiring inspirational speech about the need to colonize Mars, and although it also bothers to include scenes of a routine spacecraft launch and orbital docking, The Space Between Us actually seems anxious to hurry Gardner away from Mars and get him to the familiar setting of Earth, so he can start running away from Shepherd and get together with Tulsa. All one gets of Mars is some glimpses of a stark orange landscape and the interiors of the astronauts’ dwellings. The film also argues repeatedly that it was cruel to force Gardner to live in a horrible place like Mars, requiring the authorities to bring him back to Earth, seemingly the only place really suitable for human life. Thus, like Gravity (2013 – review here) and The Martian, The Space Between Us is a film about space travel that subtly argues against space travel.

Another problem with the film is the character of Nathaniel Shepherd – who is not really a character at all, but rather a chess piece that the screenwriters arbitrarily move in any direction that the plot requires at the moment. Sometimes he is bold and visionary; sometimes he is cowardly and petty-minded. He can be warm and compassionate; he can also be cold and calculating. He has spent his entire life obsessed with colonizing space; yet he completely abandons the space program because of the death of one astronaut. He is devoted above all else to ensuring Gardner’s safety; yet his reckless pursuit at one point almost causes his death. Confronted with the impossible task of making this collage of contradictions seem like a real person, the normally reliable Oldman understandably provides an inept, unpersuasive performance, constantly posturing and hyperventilating; one dreads his frequent appearances, inasmuch as he commands an inordinate amount of attention in a film that should be focusing on its youthful protagonists. The illuminating contrast here is to Ender’s Game (2013 – review here) another Asa Butterfield film that also featured a major star, Harrison Ford, but wisely relegated him to a supporting role.

But as I said, all of these infelicities dissipate in the last part of the film, which I can generally discuss without offering any “spoilers.” First, Gardner’s declining health fortuitously means that he is no longer in any shape to frantically run away, forcing the film to finally slow down its pace and eliminate all of its verbal sparring. Shepherd is virtually invisible, further allowing Gardner and Tulsa to blossom as likable characters, and when he ultimately reappears, he begins acting, for the first time, in a manner that actually makes sense. And the final scenes are firmly supportive of a continuing human presence on Mars – though in an understated way, avoiding the blatant propaganda that marred the final scenes of The Martian.

Regardless of their flaws, I am always heartened by the appearance of films that deal realistically with space travel – though such films are also regularly criticized for scientific errors, as was the case with Gravity and The Martian. In some respects, this film’s scientific accuracy can be praised: it addresses an issue that Heinlein ignored, that a person raised on Mars would struggle to adjust to Earth’s gravity; a humorous sign that Gardner observes on Mars – “Earth 140,000,000 miles –>” – accurately provides the average distance between the planets; and the way that Gardner’s bones are strengthened before he travels to Earth – with “carbon nanotubes” – is soberly regarded as a realistic possibility. I do wonder how Sarah, when she was nine months pregnant, managed to fit into her spacesuit – one issue, I suppose, that NASA must address in the future. But the film’s most conspicuous flaw is depicting instantaneous online communication between Gardner on Mars and Tulsa on Earth, which is impossible; as Clarke noted in Imperial Earth, “Earth could talk to Mars – but its words would always take at least three minutes to get there, and the reply would take just as long.” However, in this age of short attention spans, one cannot imagine that Tulsa would put up with an online correspondent who took six minutes to respond to each of her messages; in addition, in order to explain the delay, Gardner would have to admit that he was on Mars, eliminating one pretext for the tension between them on Earth – that she doesn’t believe he is from Mars. The needs of the story, then, outweigh the needs of the science.

Some issues also emerge if one carefully examines the film’s chronology, since it seems that the screenwriters didn’t. It was spectacularly unwise to set the year of the first Mars landing as 2018, since such an achievement is surely at least a decade away. We are told that a twelve-year-old Shepherd wrote a letter to the President following a space disaster; since writing about the 2003 Columbia tragedy would make him 27 years old at the time the film starts – much too young to be in charge of a space mission – he must have been responding to the Challenger tragedy, which means he was born around 1974, was 44 years old at the time of the launch, and 60 years old sixteen years later, when Gardner comes to Earth. Yet he always looks about the same age, which is older than 44 and younger than 60. A tombstone says that Sarah was born in 1984, making her extraordinarily young, at the age of 34, to be commanding a mission to Mars. And if most of the film takes place in 2034, one would expect something to look different – yet everything on Earth looks exactly the same as it does in 2017. The film’s only futuristic touches are some advanced spacecraft; Gardner’s robot companion on Mars, Centaur (who annoyingly sounds exactly like Star Wars’s C-3PO); and a preponderance of transparent laptops and tablets (yet transparent screens are already available, and transparent keyboards cannot be far away). Oh yes – and the film imagines that a future Las Vegas will include a hotel modeled on Shanghai, a nod no doubt to its Chinese producers.

Of course, instead of quibbling about background details, the filmmakers clearly want audiences to focus on the messages they are placing in the foreground. It is hard to ignore, for example, the film’s religious references. The mission to colonize Mars is called the Genesis Project; before journeying to Mars, Gardner learns that his mother visited a Shaman Neka (Gil Birmingham), and she announces before leaving that “courage is fear that has said its prayers”; both her and Gardner’s last name, Elliot, is a Hebrew word for “God”; Gardner’s first name might reference the Garden of Eden (and he is observed tending a greenhouse garden on Mars); the Psalms remind us that the Lord is our Shepherd; and in ways I won’t describe that most viewers will fortunately miss, the final scenes suggest that Gardner is something of a Christ figure. Most blatantly, Gardner likens himself to the protagonist of the 1987 film Wings of Desire, an angel who “fell to Earth” because he is in love with a mortal woman. The message from all of this is clear: Mars is Heaven. Strangely enough, there is a slight scientific justification for the idea, since Clarke also repeatedly maintained that people living in lower gravity would have longer lifespans, rendering them somewhat godlike figures; yet the film never raises this possibility.

One way that people can effect their heavenly aspirations is to learn how to fly; and in addition to images of imagined people with wings, and astronauts floating in zero gravity, the film provides a capsule history of human flight. One observes a fleet of colorful balloons; the aforementioned biplane, which Gardner is thrilled to ride in; a helicopter; a passenger jet; and several types of spaceships. Traveling to distant Mars, then, is merely a natural extension of an ancient desire to rise about the ground. There is also the suggestion that conquering Mars would be analogous to the conquest of the American West: the Martian colony is called “East Texas,” and in his travels, Gardner replicates the movements of western settlers by going from Florida to Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and California (while accompanied by a girl named after Tulsa, Oklahoma).

It is incongruous, though, that the film is also dedicated to a decidedly less ambitious goal; for in keeping with its title, the film provides Tulsa with dialogue noting that most people maintain “guards and shields” to avoid expressing their true feelings, a habit that must be abandoned so that people can be “happy.” One way to facilitate self-expression, it seems, is to learn to play a musical instrument, as Tulsa writes songs on the piano and Gardner starts playing a harmonica. But to celebrate “expressing your true feelings” as the main purpose of life is moving into the territory of the Care Bears, and it also does not accord with everyone’s ongoing determination to keep Gardner’s existence a secret. As another uplifting theme, the film begins by emphasizing the importance of human “courage,” but the idea is quickly dropped, as no one in the rest of the film really does anything that is particularly courageous. And the film briefly reinforces the stereotype that scientists are unemotional when Gardner observes that people on Mars don’t kiss – they “just studied ground samples.” Actual scientists do both things.

As I discuss this film, Arthur C. Clarke keeps coming to mind, I think, because no other science fiction writer was more devoted to telling stories about ordinary people living ordinary lives in the future; and that is what The Space Between Us should have been doing. Indeed, the film could also be interpreted as what might have happened if Hollywood had undertaken to adapt Imperial Earth – changing a visitor from Titan into a visitor from Mars (“Who’s heard of Titan?”); shifting the setting to a more familiar near future; and replacing the intriguing mystery that Clarke’s hero must solve on Earth with dollops of romance and fast-paced adventure. But no space between us is vaster than the distance between what science fiction writers like Clarke are inclined to do, and what contemporary filmmakers are inclined to do.

Gary Westfahl has published 25 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and William Gibson (2013); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books. His most recent books are the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History (2015) and An Alien Abroad: Science Fiction Columns from Interzone (2016), now available from Wildside Press.

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Ellen Klages

Passing Strange, Ellen Klages (Tor.com 978-0-7653-8952-7, $14.99, 222pp, tp) January 2017. Cover by Gregory Manchess

As satisfying as Ellen Klages’s YA historicals The Green Glass Sea and White Sands, Red Menace are, in terms of SF and fantasy she belongs to that select but important group of well-received short fiction writers whose readers would be thrilled at the prospect of seeing her unique vi­sion at novel length. Passing Strange isn’t quite that, but as one of the longer entries in Tor.com’s consistently impressive novella series, it comes close, approaching the wordage of a good many SF paperbacks from the 1950s or 1960s. More im­portant than its length, however, is how it displays Klages’s various skills as a writer – the meticulous historical research into San Francisco history, the intricate plotting and ‘‘forbidden’’ romance that we saw in ‘‘Time Gypsy’’, the judicious use of magic that we saw in ‘‘Basement Magic’’ and ‘‘Caligo Lane’’ (whose magical origami shows up again here), the strong, creative, educated women who face professional discrimination even as they manage to keep their sexual orientation hidden. One of the circle of women that form the support system at the center of the story is a Ph.D. in mathematics who can only get a job as a lecturer; another, Helen, is a lawyer who has to supplement her income dancing in a Chinese-themed tourist trap nightclub; another is a once-aspiring writer expelled from Wellesley after getting caught in bed with her girlfriend.

The central figure of this group, however, is Loretta Haskel, a successful pulp magazine cover artist modeled on Margaret Brundage of Weird Tales (here called Weird Menace), whose sensual, lurid covers were viewed as borderline pornography. Decades later, original ‘‘L. Haskel’’ paintings are rare collector’s items, though so little is known about her that collectors assume she was a male artist. As the story begins, the now hundred-year-old Helen, who was Haskel’s model as well as lawyer, ‘‘on the last Monday of her life,’’ retrieves a sealed box hidden deep in Chinatown and presents it to a rare-book dealer. The sealed box is what frames the larger narra­tive, which is partly a love letter to historical San Francisco, complete with an extended visit to the 1940 ‘‘Magic City’’ World’s Fair (where Haskel’s friend Diego Rivera is completing a mural), and partly a tense portrait of what it meant to survive as a gay person in the 1940s, with lesbian night­clubs that served at once as refuges and as traps for prurient tourists.

The magic of these opening chapters derives mostly from this evocative historical setting and from the stories of this circle of mutually sup­portive women, especially the growing romance between Haskel and Emily, the refugee from a well-to-do family who had been expelled from Wellesley. At the same time, though, we’re offered glimpses of the real magical powers that will eventually converge in an ingenious resolution after a figure from Haskel’s past threatens her life with Emily: Franny, described as a witch, can fold paper in a way that alters real-world geography; Polly, a refugee from England, worked as an as­sistant to her magician father; and Haskel herself owns an old family necklace anchored by a stone said to have magical properties. Together, they concoct a scheme at once wildly romantic and thoroughly satisfying, and that moves Passing Strange into the company of fantasies like Robert Nathan’s Portrait of Jenny, which explore the power of art over time. Passing Strange may be the most fully developed and richly detailed of all of Klages’s stories for adults, but it never feels like it needs to be a longer novel, and despite the fascinating side-trips into the World’s Fair or those painfully exploitative nightclubs, its plot unfolds with the same clarity and focus we’ve come to expect from Klages’s stories. This may be, and probably is, her finest short work to date.

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Liz Bourke reviews Wesley Chu

The Rise of Io, Wesley Chu (Angry Robot 978-0857665812, £8.99, 424pp, tp) October 2016.

Wesley Chu is racking up quite a track record. With 2015’s John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer behind him, and a television option on his first novel, The Lives of Tao, as well as a film option on his Time Salvager – one with Michael Bay’s name attached – it looks as though Chu’s enjoying a very successful run. So what about The Rise of Io? Critical success, ambitious failure, some­where in the middle of the road?

The Rise of Io is the first novel by Chu that I’ve read, so I can’t relate this book to his body of work. That’s a shame, because – as I didn’t realise until some time after I’d started reading the novel – The Rise of Io is in fact set in the same universe as Chu’s Tao trilogy. It follows a (mostly) separate set of characters, but I’m given to understand that, in terms of the timeline, it’s pretty much a direct sequel.

Context aside, taken on its own merits, The Rise of Io is a messy, scrappy, and yet incred­ibly fun science fiction thriller with extra body-snatching (more like body-sharing) aliens.

Earth has suffered the ravages of a war between rival alien factions. In its aftermath, Ella Patel is an adolescent thief, sometime smuggler, some­time con-artist, living and working in a former refugee camp-turned-slum. When a job goes awry, Ella is in the right – or exactly the wrong – place at the right time to see a man and a woman pursued by their enemies. The man panics, and the woman is left to take on five attackers herself, with fatal results. When she dies, it transpires that she was the host for a near-immortal alien intelligence, one of those aliens of the faction calling themselves the Quasing. This alien, Io, enters Ella instead of her previous host’s male companion – though Ella doesn’t know at first what’s happened.

Io can’t control her hosts. At least, not when they’re conscious, and Ella has decided ideas about the inconvenience of an alien operative defining the course of her life. But Io was on a mission, and members of the other faction of aliens – the Genjix – are interested in Io and her mission, and now in Ella.

Unfortunately for Ella, Io has a track record of making really bad decisions. Those decisions are going to cause Ella no end of inconvenience – especially since there’s no way, short of dying, for Ella to get rid of her new alien partner.

The Rise of Io has three main characters: Ella, Io, and a Genjix host/operative called Shura. Shura is ruthless, ambitious, and a little hot-headed, with a talent for assassination and the most brutal sort of politics, and right now she’s looking to restore her family’s previous position in the Genjix hierarchy. It would be easy for an author to depict her as the caricature of a ruthless woman – the stereotype is sufficiently familiar that I’m always surprised when a writer, particu­larly a male writer, doesn’t fall into that trap – but Chu draws Shura as a complex, human (despite her alien partner) and even occasionally somewhat sympathetic antagonist.

Io is a little less well-rounded, and indeed a little less alien than one might have hoped. However, it’s possible that she comes across as less well-rounded be­cause she’s a decidedly unpleasant sort of person, by turns self-aggrandising and self-pitying, and inclined to carp. I find myself with very little sympathy for her, and suspect this is entirely Chu’s design, since Ella, on the other hand, is a remarkably fun character. Brash, stubborn, resolutely low-class, lonely, determined, and not nearly as hard-hearted and mercenary as she’d like to present herself, the intrusion of alien machinations into her personal life is the very last thing she ever expected or wanted.

The novel is paced somewhat awkwardly: for the most part Chu has a thriller writer’s atten­tion to tension and rapid progress, but there are points at which the narrative falls off into a lull, or where there is a little too much going on at once. This detracts from the overall effect. While Chu does have a touch for a telling turn of phrase, the prose is more often closer to competence than to elegance.

That said, this is a minor complaint: taken as a whole, The Rise of Io is a fast, fun romp, with high stakes and plenty of explosions. Definitely a pleasantly diverting read.

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Adrienne Martini reviews Bob Proehl

A Hundred Thousand Worlds, Bob Proehl (Viking 978-03-99562-21-1, $26.00, 362pp, hc) June 2016.

Beause I can be an idiot, I thought I knew what Bob Proehl’s A Hundred Thousand Worlds would be about be­fore I even cracked the spine. It’s about comic book conventions, the blurbs on the back said, and follows small group of loosely intertwined comics-industry-adjacent characters as they travel across the country from one con to the next. I already know this plot, I thought. It’ll be all spandex and boobs and man-boys.

Yes, it is that – but 100% not in the way that I was anticipating. Instead, Proehl’s book is full of gentle wit and whip-smart commentary, while still telling an emotionally resonant story about a mother and her son that feels grounded and real, despite the larger-than-life setting. Val, a middle-aged actress who once starred in a cult TV classic, is on the road with her 11-year-old son Alex, who must be delivered to LA for rea­sons that will become clear. And, no, no science fictional/fantasy elements are direct plot devices; this is a story grounded in realism, even though a few of the characters wear tights. While the book itself isn’t genre, the world in which Proehl is playing is.

Proehl’s love for this world comes through in every word – and the moments in which he points out how alienating the comic scene can be for anyone who isn’t straight, white, and/or male clearly come from a desire for everyone to be able to find a place in his beloved community. There’s a chorus of costumed booth babes whose dressing room chatter reads like a treatise on gender dynamics. There’s Gail, a writer who knows exactly how mostly male-driven comic book stories come together and why, even though she wants to break that pattern:

‘‘That’s just not how it works,’’ says Gail. ‘‘We work in tropes. Broad, familiar strokes. Women are in the story to get the men where they need to be. Dead lovers and mothers, mostly.’’

But, mostly, A Hundred Thousand Worlds is about why we need stories, even imperfect ones, and how we discover them in order to make sense of the world. It’s about messy relationships and humans doing stupid things, sometimes, and redeeming themselves when they are able.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews David Brin & Stephen W. Potts

Chasing Shadows: Visions of Our Coming Transparent World, edited by David Brin & Stephen W. Potts (Tor 978-0-7653-8258-0, $29.99, 336pp, hardcover) January 2017

The twin and inextricably intertwined notions of privacy and surveillance have been an important element of the core issues of science fiction since the birth of the genre. And the broader literature’s concern with these themes actually extends back even further than SF’s genre origins. Every utopia and every dystopia since Plato’s Republic has been concerned with monitoring its citizens somehow, to track their compliance with either supposedly liberating principles of fraternity and equality or with totalitarian dictates of limitation and suppression. (Sometimes it’s hard to tell the two extremes apart.) The tightrope balancing act between freedoms of the individual and civic duties always involves the question of how much information is to be shared among competing entities.

And so from Zamyatin’s We to Lang’s Metropolis, from Orwell’s 1984 to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, from Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” to Doctorow’s Little Brother, the genre has presented us with classic, mind-blowing exercises in secrecy versus transparency. (Novels involving generalized telepathy, such as Bester’s The Demolished Man, are an eccentric offshoot of the theme, as are ones that posit universal space-time viewers, such as Baxter and Clarke’s The Light of Other Days.)

When the computer revolution began to accelerate in the mid-1960s, prospects for even more intrusive practices than possible in the past began to impinge on the minds of SF writers. I recall one of Isaac Asimov’s essays from F&SF, at least forty years ago—which one, I cannot pinpoint; perhaps a reader will know—that speculated on the pluses and minuses of a universal identification card. If I remember correctly, Asimov was not wild about the idea, but felt in the end that it would have more benefits than deficits, especially for honest upright citizens who never did anything wrong—an argument still being made today.

A milestone work of non-fiction in this vein, now almost twenty years old, comes from within the genre. David Brin’s The Transparent Society (1998) surveyed the new technology that is driving us towards more and more disclosure, and drew fresh new conclusions about the issues.

Now, still cogitating on the ramifications of these issues, and displaying admirable tenacity and dedication to the cause, Brin offers an anthology of fiction on the topic, featuring a stellar lineup of contributors. At this juncture, I might also mention a similar contemporary project in which I myself was involved: Watchlist, edited by Bryan Hurt.

Brin and Potts’s book features a majority of original pieces with several reprint selections, as well as some non-fiction. We can select a few highlights from the over-two-dozen excellent tales—mainly from among the fresh items—that shed exceptional light on the matter to hand.

We start with a superb introduction by James Gunn, who covers in fascinating detail the territory that I highlighted above. Then we leap into “Mine, Yours, Ours” by Jack Skillingstead, which follows the fate of a woman who subscribes nobly to the share-an-organ plan of her era. “What is it you need from me?” “Your right lung for transplantation.”

James Morrow in his typical confidently acerbic mode slyly conflates a serum for temporary werewolfism with a device that sniffs out secrets, all in a setting of local schoolboard politics, and gives us “The Werewolves of Maplewood.” His hacker hero is surprisingly Ruckeresque.

D. G. Compton’s The Unsleeping Eye from 1973 was, if not the first, then one of the earliest stories to examine the notion of a person wired to transmit what they saw for public consumption. David Walton proves that the trope still has hidden corners in “Eyejacked.” “You promised the bedroom would be off-limits,” our protagonist implores his publicity-addicted wife. And the coincidentally allied title from Jack McDevitt—“Your Lying Eyes”—actually refers to a pair of smart glasses that reveal the falsity of any utterance. McDevitt compacts a lot of social change and challenge into a small compass.

Possibly my favorite entry in the volume, for its sprightly refusal to trade in clichés and its cockeyed optimism, is Brenda Cooper’s “Street Life in the Emerald City.” The radical move of equipping the homeless with drones results in nonlinear transformational social changes. “A park had grown on our street. The empty lots where two buildings had been torn down were green. There were trees and benches.” The street finds its own uses for things, indeed.

Ramez Naam gives us “The Disconnected,” which is a Wellsian “story-essay” that paints an utterly convincing future paradise—then pulls the rug out from under it by showing us “the holes in the world…the dark place…the dark hours.”

Karl Schroeder’s “Eminence” gives us the scoop on “Gwaiicoin,” the potlatch currency of a future Canada, while also dealing with the attendant encryption rituals, all while not slighting the deeply human aspects of the tale.

“Elephant on Table” is primo Bruce Sterling, showing us postmodern life in the Shadow House of Sardinia, circa 2073, “an opaque structure in a transparent world,” and the motley inhabitants thereof: the Chief, Tullio and Irma. Overstuffed with ideas and speculations, the story pivots and darts all over the map, yet remains organically whole. The hooker-cum-industrial agent Monica might be the most vibrant character: “My sugar daddy is a big defense corporation. It’s an artificial intelligence… It knows all my personal habits, and it takes real good care of me… So sometimes I do a favor—I mean, just a small personal favor for my big AI boyfriend…”

And finally, Brin himself closes out the book with “A Tsunami of Light,” a cogent wrap-up essay.

This anthology satisfies on many levels. It offers dramatic storytelling, grand ideas, and mutually divergent speculations which hew to no particular ideological party line. If we enter the transparent world with any kind of foreknowledge, it will be due to well-conceived and well-executed projects such as this one.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Gordon Eklund

Cosmic Fusion, by Gordon Eklund (Wildside Press 978-1479423859, $19.99, 526pp, trade paperback) October 2016

Few occasions give more pleasure to a reader than witnessing the unexpected return to print of a long-silent author who once had a rewarding, admirable career. This time around, the satisfaction derives from the appearance of Cosmic Fusion, by Gordon Eklund. Eklund had a solid run once, starting with his first story sale in 1970 and up to about 1989. I certainly collected and enjoyed his work during this period. Then he left the field, and writing in general. That era of his departure was nigh onto thirty years ago, and his voice has been missed. All credit, then, to Eklund for revivifying himself, and to Wildside Press for bringing the new work to us.

Now, admittedly, this novel is a “trunk” book. As Eklund states in his preface, it was written circa 1973-1982, contracted for, paid for, then never published, for reasons unknown. (Although Eklund makes some speculations.) Now it’s been dusted off and polished a tad, and finally gets a public viewing.

The book, Eklund promises, is one of those kind of SF novels that don’t really seem to get written much anymore. Syncretic, philosophical, all-encompassing, jam-packed with every notion the writer could squeeze in. Somehow emblematic of a whole worldview or the zeitgeist. Maybe the first such book was Charles Harness’s The Paradox Men. Bester’s two classics fall a bit into this realm. Delany’s Nova fixed the template. Then we had Piers Anthony’s Macroscope, John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and George Zebrowski’s Macrolife. A fantasy equivalent might be Crowley’s Little, Big; while today Kim Stanley Robinson dips partially into the mode with a book like 2312. One might think of these titles as the SF analogue to “The Great American Novel.” And just as “The Great American Novel” seldom gets attempted any longer—for reasons of cultural fragmentation and multiplicity of voices—so too has this type of SF novel faded from the scene.

Upon reading, Cosmic Fusion does not resemble the titles I’ve cited so much as it resembles a couple of other strains of science fiction from about its era of composition. That would be the Vonnegut-style tragicomic homage to SF, and the High Camp Anarchist SF of Buckaroo Banzai and the Illuminatus Trilogy. As such it has an unmistakable ambiance of that period, while still remaining fun and fresh and relevant—especially since folks really aren’t writing this kind of book much any more.

The narrative, we shall soon see, is rife with allusions to past SF.
First up is a Doc Savage scenario. Our hero is one Desmond Blue, a giant of a fellow who is dubbed the world’s greatest detective (echoes of Holmes and Batman here) and who has a trio of followers much like Doc did with is five-man crew. There’s Gordon Schwerner, a genius yet maladjusted biologist raised as an orphan by robots. Schwerner happens to have succeeded in creating life from scratch, resulting in two beautiful androgynous androids named Jai and Lai, who will figure in the plot. Next is Alfie Jarrett, a kind of tough-guy hood. Third is Peter Mark, part cyborg along the lines of DC Comics’ Robotman. (There’s kind of a Doom Patrol vibe to this setup as well.) Blue also boasts three gorgeous female secretaries, in the manner of Heinlein’s Jubal Harshaw.

Blue and his crew inhabit a post-apocalyptic Earth. What happened, as backstory, is this: aliens came, destroyed much infrastructure; and murdered then inexplicably revived millions of people, now known as “spooks.” (Blue’s wife was tragically one such victim.) Naturally, all national and international power relationships and polities were shot to hell and reconfigured by the alien invasion. For instance, there are independent “spook reservations.” What we have in the USA is a kind of “Fragmented America” like the scenario famously patented by Ron Goulart circa 1968. The characters take all this merely for granted.

In a fallow period, Blue is intrigued when he learns that a secretive agency has perfected a time-viewer. But in looking at photos taken with the device, he notes anomalous figures in several scenes that alert him to the presence of actual time travelers who are warping history. These villains are known as the Sect, and Blue sets out to track them down and stymie them.

He dispatches Alfie to San Francisco, a city in ruins which is now the private preserve of millionaire John Hartford Hennesey (and his beautiful daughter Tess). Hennesey, it eventuates, is building the first FTL spaceship. The discerning reader quickly detects parallels with Heinlein’s “The Man Who Sold the Moon.”

Peter, meanwhile, is off in Winesap, Illinois, a bucolic community where book-burning by firemen is the rule, and a frustrated SF writer named Roy Goldman is the local black sheep.

Schwerner ends up in Africa where, among other exploits, he meets the four disabled children who together form a gestalt personality known as the Linkage. (Cue Sturgeon, natch.)

Blue himself jaunts all over the planet, eventually ending up at the hidden colony known as Futura, in deepest Tibet. Might I mention here the presence of an intelligent computer named Isaac that specializes in psychohistory? The mystery and menace of the Sect will be defused, but not in the manner expected. A Kilgore Trout-style coda wraps things up.

Eklund maintains these four separate threads with brio and with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Farcical exploits of a Marx Brothers nature proliferate wildly. Here’s a sample of the deadpan yet hyperbolic prose and style.

As Desmond Blue hastened through the nighttime streets of old Kabul accompanied by the disguised dwarf Louie Roth on the way to the offices of Dr. Ling Chi Ho, dentist and erstwhile criminal mastermind, he was reminded of an earlier occasion he had visited this fascinating city.

It was some years ago now—on his honeymoon. I was a different man then, thought Blue: tall, lean, lanky, dapper, handsome in his own peculiar way with a strong direct gaze, gentle mouth, firm sensitive jaw. Doctor Desmond Blue, psychoanalyst (Dezi to my friends.) Not yet celebrated in any sense but a dedicated practitioner of an honest trade.

And madly in love too. With the lovely young woman he’d only recently wed.

There are numerous entertaining side excursions into matters of sex, culture, history, science and philosophy—as well as quirky backstories for all the protagonists—but they do not totalize to the overarching weltanschauung of, say, Stranger in a Strange Land.

Ultimately, the book achieves a kind of manic droll world-weary humor like a fusion of Philip Jose Farmer and Neal Barrett. Not a negligible achievement, and one that should have seen the light of day much earlier, when the book could have entered a revered place in the canon.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.


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