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On Books by Peter Heck

City at the End of Time

By Greg Bear

Del Rey,

ISBN 9780345448392

Greg Bear’s latest alternates a far-future scenario with a story set in what looks at first like our present—except that a hint of magical powers gives a it a fantastic twist. This big, sweeping, heavily symbolic tale is one of Bear’s most ambitious, following a string of strong books in a more commercial vein.

One of the book’s two plotlines centers around several young people in present-day Seattle, each of whom has dreams of a strange city in the far future, under siege by unearthly powers. Each of the protagonists is in some way an outsider—jobless, threatened, and all but invisible to the system. Ginny has the power to make people forget her. Daniel is something of a shapeshifter. Jack is an itinerant juggler. The only other thing they have in common are their dreams.

But the city they dream of is not an illusion. It is the last bastion of our reality, in a universe under attack by what might as well be called forces of chaos. The central character at this end of the time frame is Jebrassy, who at first is bent on making his mark in a sort of ritual combat popular with the young. He changes direction when he meets a young woman, Tiadba, who invites him to a mysterious meeting at the edge of the city. There she recruits him into a group of last-ditch fighters to stave off the ultimate collapse of reality.

Perhaps tellingly, the strongest tools deployed against the forces of chaos, both in the far future and in our own time, are books. The last bastion of our current world is a large warehouse stocked with all kinds of books, the stronghold of Bidewell, apparently an eccentric bibliophile who tracks the minor variants in rare editions as a way of monitoring the shifts in realities. In the far future, an equivalent bibliographic activity is taking place, searching for the tiny number of true books among a huge library. The reminiscence of Borges’ story “The Library of Babel,” or the still older one, Kurt Lasswitz’s “The Universal Library,” is most likely conscious and intentional. It’s also a metaphor that anyone whose life is built around books—whether as a writer, reader, or bookseller—can readily empathize with. (See also the more recent, humorous version of the theme in Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” series—highly recommended, by the way.) But Bear is using the trope not just as a thought experiment, but as a central plot element.

The larger conflict of the book, with dramatic consequences for the universe, depends on the four flawed but determined main characters. Jebrassy faces the most desperate challenge, struggling through an environment where chaos is rapidly impinging on ordered reality. There are points where I wished Bear had kept a tighter focus on the far-future story instead of skipping back to the contemporary setting—but in the end, the plotlines come together, and the complexities merge into a satisfying unity.

Bear is one of the few current genre writers capable of taking on such an ambitious project. One hopes the book will reach a wide audience and that Bear will continue stretching the accepted formulas for genre success.

Perfect Circle

By Carlos J. Cortes

Bantam Spectra,
$6.99 (mm),
ISBN 9780553591620

Cortes’s first novel has elements of a near-future thriller, but spins off into an apocalyptic conclusion reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke.

The protagonist, Paul Reece, is the estranged heir to International Mining Corporation. As the story begins, an IMC exploration team in the Congo has discovered a huge artificial structure nearly four miles beneath the surface. Paul’s grandfather Hugh Reece, the power at the top of the corporation, believes that only Paul has the skills to learn what the discovery means, and convinces him to undertake the mission.

The mission is dangerous enough—descending to the structure in a special capsule designed to protect a single occupant during a journey deep underground. But success will also require Paul to survive the hostile jungle environment, rebel armies, and treachery by one of his team. In short, everything is stacked against him—in addition to which, he is under observation by the mysterious Dr. Shermaine Mosengwo, a Congolese scientist who appears to be a government watchdog—but is that all she is?

Cortes mixes these plot elements effectively, building tension as we see various forces being marshaled against Paul. Then the plot jumps in an unexpected direction, as an excursion away from the camp into deep jungle brings him in contact with unexpected allies. What he learns there is that the buried artifact is not unique; it is one of several around the earth, some of which have been discovered in the past—and that the entire history of the human race has been altered each time. If Paul goes through with his journey deep below the surface, there is every reason to expect that it will happen again.

The novel isn’t flawless—not that many first novels are. Cortes plays fast and loose with some of his scientific material, relying a bit too much on the premise that super-advanced technology left behind by a civilization millennia beyond our level won’t make sense to us poor primitives anyhow. This slides over into a sort of bargain-basement mysticism and stereotyped plot elements—ancient astronauts, hidden Tibetan monasteries, Stonehenge, etc. Surprisingly, it works—Cortes’s approach to the material is fresh enough to carry the reader with him.

In this respect, the novel is more like some of the SF of the 1940s, including works by some of the most respected figures in the field: Clarke and Heinlein, just to name a couple. I sometimes wished the science were a little more rigorous, but I kept wanting to see what was going to happen next.

The bottom line is that Cortes generates a high-energy plot, with plenty of action and a fair quota of surprises. There’s probably a bit more outright brutality in the central action scenes than some readers will be comfortable with; some will also find Paul’s back story a bit over the top, and some of the characters border on caricature.

But Cortes is taking risks, pushing the envelope, and putting action and excitement on the front burner. If you’re in the mood for an adrenaline rush of a book, with plenty of noise and light and blowin’ stuff up real good, this one just might be your dish. Cortes shows enough raw talent to be worth watching—especially when so many other books fall into bland similarity.

The Automatic Detective

by A. Lee Martinez

$14.95 (tp),
ISBN 9780765318343

A robot named Mack Megaton, designed by a mad scientist to defeat the human race, seems an unlikely protagonist for a detective story. But Martinez makes it work in this quirky, cartoon-like tale of a city under assault and the unlikely forces aligned to save it.

Mack is working a minimum-wage job, keeping his distance from almost everyone. His main goal is working hard and proving that he qualifies for full citizenship. But things go off the smooth track when he walks into an apparent domestic disturbance at his next door neighbor’s; a four-armed thug is apparently terrorizing the family. The mother claims nothing’s wrong, but the eight-year-old daughter, April, gives Mack a drawing before he leaves. He tucks it in his pocket without really looking at it. Next day, when the family has disappeared, Mack knows he has to find them. And his only clue is the drawing.

This sets him off on a manhunt across a bizarre future city that mixes the tropes of superhero cartoons with a fast-paced SF detective story somewhat in the manner of Ron Goulart. Not only is the protagonist an incredibly powerful (and nearly indestructible) robot; mutants are commonplace, as are a variety of psychic powers (kidnapped April can see the future). The villain’s motivations are pretty much incredible, but this isn’t the kind of book you pick up looking for subtle characterization. Nor should anybody expect much in the way of scientific subtlety; this is pretty frankly movie-type sci-fi, not hard SF. But what fun it is!

As in Cortes’s novel, a reader might want to check any sophisticated literary standards at the door and enjoy the romp—just as a progressive jazz fan might just want to crank up the volume on some Ramones or Clash every now and then. The book is good fun, the protagonist is an amusingly warped descendent of a thousand previous hardboiled tecs, and there are plenty of points where the only appropriate reaction is a broad grin..

The Engine's Child

by Holly Phillips

Del Ray,
$15.00 (tp),
ISBN 9780345499653

Marketed as fantasy, this ambitious novel could just as easily be described as steampunk in some of its basic premises—although it’s set in a far future, and much of the action centers around engineering problems.

The setting is a structured, hierarchical society on a distant world where the underclass is busily building a huge machine that will somehow change the world. There are hints of a history on another world—ours?—that seems to have destroyed itself by putting too much faith in machines; but there is also a cult that seems to be working to find a path back to that world.

Moth is a dedicant at the temple, supposedly devoting her life to prayer and religious training; but in the very first scene she sneaks away to meet a lover, one of the priests. That is already enough to get her in trouble; but on the way back from the tryst, she sees a “manifest”—a mysterious object that seems somewhere between a machine and a sentient creature, that shouldn’t be anywhere near where she sees it.

Meanwhile, the powerful Lady Vashmarna, whom we learn is Moth’s patron, has problems of her own. The shaduah, the ruler of the city, has called Vashmarna to report on the current situation, in particular the shadow cult that may be causing the manifests and creating power shortages in the city. At the same time, her rival, Lord Ghar, who controls the city guard, is maneuvering to have his own power increased at the expense of hers.

Of course, Phillips is setting up a much more complex game than this quick summary indicates. The tensions between the various factions in the city are bubbling toward open conflict. Moth is an intermediary between Vashmarna, the temple, and the barely suppressed underclass that lives at the edge of the city. She is caught in the machinations of these different factions—and as an unexpected consequence of her own actions, is exiled to a distant part of the country.

The book walks a fine line between SF and fantasy—is the engine being built in the depths of the city a piece of technology, or somehow magical? Phillips doesn’t really make it clear; she is more interested in the play of character and motivations, and the consequences of her characters’ actions are not always easy to foresee.

Subtle, full of well-drawn characters and situations, and considerably more complex morally than much recent fantasy. Well worth a look.

The Shadow Pavilion

By Liz Williams

Night Shade,
ISBN 9781597801225

Here’s the fourth in Williams’s Detective Inspector Chen series of fantastic mysteries that combine Asian mythology with a definitely noir police story, set in a future Singapore Three.

For those who haven’t caught up with the series, it’d be a good idea to go find the first volume—now available as a mass market paperback—Snake Agent, in which Chen and his partner, Seneschal Zhu Irzh, a demon from the Chinese hell, are introduced. Not that you wouldn’t be able to understand this one without reading it—it’s just that the series is enough fun that it’s well worth picking it up at the beginning.

The story begins as Zhu Irzh and a magical badger, the guardian spirit of Chen’s wife Inari, are investigating a rumored sweatshop manned by illegal immigrants from Hell—the result of an economic crash following a war between Hell and Heaven. When both disappear without a trace, Chen has to go to work finding them. As you might expect, what follows is both weirder—and funnier—than any of them have any right to expect.

Along the way, we meet a pair of young Bollywood film makers, Pauleng Go and Beni, who’ve made a series of smash hits built around a starlet, Lara Chowdijahree. But Lara’s suddenly gotten ideas of her own about how her character ought to be played, ideas totally at odds with the sweet, innocent heroine that Go and Beni want her to play. Unfortunately, she’s so stunningly beautiful—and so popular with the Indian audience—that the directors know their film’s going nowhere without her. Worse yet, she’s got connections with one of the other planes of reality—one that, unsurprisingly, turns out to be connected with Zhu Irzh’s problems.

As in the previous books, Williams mixes mythologies with a free hand, playing the conflicts between various heavens and hells for all the dark comedy she can milk out of them. The opportunistic Zhu Irzh again bumbles his way in and out of a series of apparently hopeless situations, involving hostile gods, demigods, heroes, and demons from all over the mythological map. Meanwhile Chen works within and around the system to try to rescue his partner and save Singapore yet again from the attentions of supernatural entities most of its citizens have no idea even exist.

Williams is doing some of the most adventurous and distinctive work in modern fantasy. Highly recommended.

Death From The Skies

by Philip Plait, Ph.D.

$24.95 (hc),
ISBN 9780670019977

In case you hadn’t noticed, the universe is set up to destroy us. Nothing personal; it’s just the way the laws of physics and astronomy are set up. Plait, the author of Bad Astronomy, offers a guided tour of the major deathtraps—and a crash course in astronomy at the same time.

Plait begins the first chapter of the book with a short sketch involving the collision of earth and an asteroid—probably the most familiar kind of cosmic disaster, to most readers. He goes on to explain the science behind the disaster he’s just dramatized: what meteors and asteroids are and how often they hit Earth. He summarizes the evidence that it’s happened in the past (particularly at the end of the Cretaceous era, when it seems likely that a large impact killed off the dinosaurs) and the high probability that another one just as big is going to hit our planet sooner or later. He also points out that humans could prevent that from happening—if we’re motivated enough to find and deflect the potential impactors.

A hyperactive sun, raising global temperatures and threatening to dry out the planet, is the focus of the next chapter. Each chapter introduces a new scenario for disaster: nearby supernovae, cosmic ray bursts, black holes, hostile aliens, and so on—most of them, unlike the asteroid impacts, impossible to prevent. The later chapters offer the long-range certainties: the eventual dying of the sun, of the galaxy, and of the universe as a whole. For each, he calculates the probability (supernovae are unlikely in the local stellar neighborhood; the death of the sun, in the long run, appears to be dead certain).

Along the way, Plait uses each of the doomsday scenarios to teach basic lessons in astronomy and physics. For example, the chapter on supernovae includes material on the history of science, stellar evolution, astrophysics, and day-to-day astronomy. In one chapter he estimates the amount of material from the Crab Nebula supernova, light from which was detected nearly a thousand years ago, that will eventually impact Earth at roughly one hundred tons. That sounds like a lot, until you learn that some twenty to forty tons of meteoric material impacts our planet every day—so the effect of the Crab will be at most a blip in the usual bombardment. The text is full of similar interesting facts, related clearly and logically to the sensational scenarios that are the author’s purported subject.

After Plait runs down all the possibilities, he calculates the odds of each in an epilogue—appropriately subtitled, “What, Me Worry?” Most of the scenarios are extremely unlikely—we’re talking roughly ten million to one odds against a supernova exploding close enough for us to feel, and that’s one of the more likely ones. As for the really unstoppable ones, like the heat death of the universe—nobody reading this review particularly needs to worry about them.

Despite the scary title, this is a surprisingly enjoyable book, and a great survey of a wide swath of basic astronomy and cosmology.


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"On Books" byPeter Heck, copyright © 2009, with permission of the author.

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