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On Books

by Peter Heck

CROSSTALK
By Connie Willis
Del Rey, $28.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-345-54067-6

Willis’s latest blends near-future science fiction with screwball romantic comedy—two modes in which she has shown considerable virtuosity over her career.

The protagonist, Briddey Flannigan, works at a smartphone manufacturer trying to come up with something to compete with what’s expected to be a groundbreaking new release from Apple. As the story opens, we learn that Trent, a rising executive (and the most eligible bachelor) at the company, has asked her to get an EET—an innovative surgical procedure that lets the two members of a couple share their emotional states. Only one doctor does it, and he has a waiting list months long, due to the celebrity demand for the procedure.

To Briddey’s annoyance, the delay gives her numerous family ample time to try to argue her out of getting the EET. In addition, it’s the major item on the extremely active office gossip circuit at Commspan, the company where she and Trent work. Worse yet, the company technogeek, C.B. Schwartz, calls her to his cluttered basement lab to try to convince her not to get the EET. His arguments come across as the epitome of Luddite ignorance—nothing any sane person would credit. Briddey certainly doesn’t.

So Briddey and Trent go ahead and have the operation—and the real fun begins. When Briddey wakes up from the anesthesia, she anticipates getting bursts of emotion from Trent. But instead, she’s getting actual mental messages—like someone speaking to her—and they’re not from Trent! What’s going on?

First of all, she’s got to hide the unexpected telepathic input from Trent, who’s working on the natural assumption that everything will go as advertised, and who’s pushing her to let him know the minute she starts feeling his emotions. Then, having gotten so much grief from her family, she’s got to hide the very fact that she’s gone through with the operation from all her relatives. And she’s determined to keep the office gossip network from making her the prime topic of the day.

Willis juggles these problems, plus the very key issue of how she and the person she’s gotten connected to instead of Trent—sorry, no spoilers here—are going to deal with being able to “hear” all of each other’s thoughts 24-7. It won’t surprise anyone familiar with Willis’s short fiction that she plays the situation (and Briddey’s obsessive dithering about every detail of it) for maximum comic impact.

And while the situation is definitely mainline SF, this is also very much a novel of manners, filled with deliciously drawn characters. Besides the ones already mentioned, there’s Briddey’s family, an array of determined Irish women who bombard her with phone calls, texts and ill-timed personal visits. Her sister Kathleen needs help solving her problems with her own love life; her Aunt Oona keeps pushing her to attend meetings of the Daughters of Ireland and wants her to start dating a thoroughly unappetizing Irish bachelor; and her sister Mary Clare tries to involve her in her paranoid fantasies about her nine-year-old daughter’s perfectly normal life. The daughter, Maeve, wants Briddey to help her keep her mother off her back so she can actually enjoy growing up.

The book is a great romp—but it also has interesting insights into the social, ethical, even the military implications of telepathy.

Willis, who has been recognized as a SFWA Grand Master, has such a large body of work, in several different modes, that it’s almost meaningless to rate one book or another as her best. But for my money, in this one she is at the top of her game. Don’t miss it.

*   *   *

THE COLD EYE
By Laura Anne Gilman
Saga Press, $26.99 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-4814-2971-9

Gilman continues her “Devil’s West” fantasy series, set in early nineteenth century America. In the territory between the Mississippi and the Spanish holdings west of the Rockies, the Devil (yeah, the real Devil) rules the land from his home base in a saloon. He has an agreement with the native peoples to watch over the territory. To represent his authority, he has chosen Isobel, a sixteen-year-old abandoned by her parents and brought up in his saloon, as his Left Hand—“the cold eye and quick knife” to do his bidding.

In the first book in the series, “Silver on the Road,” the Devil teamed Isobel with Gabriel, a lawyer in the East before he returned to the territory to ride the roads. Under Gabriel’s mentorship, she learned the lay of the land, its people and their customs. The novel combined a travelogue of the early frontier with refreshingly original fantastic content that bears a convincing stamp of native origin. This second novel is more focused; Isobel now understands enough to take on a bigger, more challenging mission.

The novel begins as Isobel is riding off alone—Gabriel is still recovering from injuries incurred in the previous book—when she learns that a number of buffalo have been killed, their bodies left to rot. This is an unthinkable crime against the land; she promises the dead animals she will make it right. As it turns out, that is a much harder promise to keep than she at first understands. Because the buffalo kill is just the first sign of a much larger problem that she alone can solve.

Meanwhile, Gabriel gets a letter from a friend back East, bearing the news that U.S. President Jefferson has decided to send agents to map and explore the territory—a decision that can only mean trouble. The Americans will want to exploit the many resources they see waiting for them, and the Devil’s agreement with the land may not be strong enough to prevent them from moving in en masse. Not quite sure whether Isobel needs to know what’s happening outside the territory, Gabriel sits on the news—a mistake he comes to regret.

As Isobel’s powers have grown, she is more aware of the inhuman forces in the land. Spirit animals—a hawk, an elk, a snake—offer advice, sometimes contradictory. The land itself has deep messages, rising up from the earth and stones. The most dangerous forces she meets, though, are magicians—humans whose desire for power has made them no longer human. Isobel’s handling of the crisis at the core of this novel reveals how far her mission as the Devil’s hand has taken her from the tough saloon girl she once was.

The novel closes with a hint that the challenges met in this book—above all the threatened arrival of American explorers—will grow in the next volume. Even the Devil seems not quite sure where those challenges will lead Isobel. I’m looking forward to finding out. Recommended.

*   *   *

FALLOUT
By Harry Turtledove
Del Rey, $28.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-553-39073-5

Turtledove’s latest—second in the “Hot War” series that began with Bombs Away—is set in the early 1950s, after a decision to let Douglas MacArthur use nuclear weapons in the Korean War. It will probably surprise nobody that the Soviet Union, backing their communist allies, retaliated, setting off a World War III in which the use of nukes is not only thinkable, but taken for granted as an available option. In short, this is the 1950s that lurked in the nightmares of those who understood the real implications of nuclear war.

Turtledove uses this quite plausible scenario—MacArthur did in fact want to use nukes in Korea, but President Harry Truman turned down the request—to give a portrait of the 1950s where much has changed from the history we know. The cast of characters includes a number of familiar faces, however. Truman is still U.S. president, and Josef Stalin is on top in the USSR. Other historical figures are also in the roles they were in at the time—George Marshall, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, others perhaps less familiar.

But the main focus is on a large cast of role players, ordinary soldiers and civilians from all over the world. Turtledove follows a couple of dozen through the vicissitudes of a world where major cities in Europe, Asia, and America have been converted to radioactive ruins, and where tactical nukes have put even rear echelon troops in the crosshairs of destruction.

The overall effect, as in many of Turtledove’s novels, is to give the reader a ground-level view of the alternate world he’s created. Not only do we see the generals’ and presidents’ point of view, we get a look at how an English widow deals with the Bomb going off in the next town; how women prisoners survive in a Soviet gulag; or how a Los Angeles factory worker’s life is affected by post-nuclear chaos. The secondary characters around them—the family members, the coworkers, the other members of their military units—flesh out the portrait of a society even more.

The plot moves step by step, with each scene following one of the point-of-view characters, so some readers might find the novel slower to develop than one that focuses on one or two characters and their interrelated plots. But Turtledove isn’t interested in slam-bang action as much as the full-length portrait of a historical period—in this case, one that many of his readers lived through, although (fortunately) without the actual worldwide nuclear war.

There’s really no way to do that without spreading the point of view over a large number of characters, not all of whose lives are especially dramatic at any given instant.

Not to worry—Turtledove’s eye for the telling incident, and his ability to find the humor in often grim situations, are enough to ensure that there’s something interesting happening at any given time. Besides, the world situation is such that the characters’ lives can become very dramatic on short notice, and a reader can’t be too confident that a given character is going to make it to the end of this installment in the series.

It’s good to see someone taking on a plausible alternate history that doesn’t arise from either World War II or the Civil War, both of which have become pretty much the stock starting points of the subgenre. (And, it should be remembered, Turtledove has done outstanding work in both periods.) If you like looking at the what-ifs of history, done with meticulous attention to period detail, give this series a try—it’s practically a textbook example of how to do alternate history. Highly recommended, and not just for history buffs.

*   *   *

PIRATE UTOPIA
By Bruce Sterling
Tachyon, $19.95 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-61696-236-4

Here’s an alternate history set in a part of the world—Croatia, along the Adriatic coast—considerably less familiar to most American readers than the Civil War or World War II scenarios most A-H writers take on. In fact, I’d be surprised if many readers are aware of even the most general outlines of the region’s history or culture. I certainly wasn’t.

Basically, the story takes place in Fiume, a city of mixed Italian and Croatian population, in the years after World War I. At this point in actual history, a group of Italian military adventurers set up an independent republic, the Regency of Carnaro, based on ideas that originated with the Futurist movement. This Quixotic utopia was from the beginning shot full of contradictions: free love, military authority, nudism, primacy of the arts, workers owning their factories, equality of the sexes. It lasted just over a year, until its leaders made the mistake of declaring war on Italy, with predictable results.

Sterling’s novel, loosely based on actual history, follows Lorenzo Secondari, an Italian war veteran who dreams of creating an airborne radio-guided torpedo—essentially a guided missile. The plot is episodic, as Secondari interacts with various members of the ruling clique—who improve on their historical models by planning to conquer not just Italy but the world. To that end, they form alliances with Mussolini, who is just beginning to cause a stir in Italy, and a German fringe group that readers will recognize as the early Nazi party.

In addition to his dream of aerial torpedoes, Secondari finds himself involved with a local woman, Blanka Piffer, a Communist union leader who becomes dictator of the torpedo factory. With Blanka’s young daughter Maria, Secondari comes to understand that the twentieth century will be something completely new—and that the Futurists’ vision of that new world is perhaps not entirely trustworthy.

Sterling takes the absurdities of the Regency of Carnaro and the Futurist vision and runs with them, gradually introducing the deviations from actual events that qualify this as alternate history. The story reaches an appropriate climax in the final scenes with the appearance of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Howard as business associates of Houdini, who is an American spy traveling under the guise of a magic show.

In addition to the main text, the book includes period-appropriate illustrations by John Coulthart, an introduction by Warren Ellis, and an interview with Sterling in which he discusses the historical Carnaro and its place in history. If you’re looking for something off the beaten track, check out this provocative venture by a writer who isn’t afraid to push the envelope.

*   *   *

WORKING FOR BIGFOOT
By Jim Butcher
Subterranean, $35.00 (hc)
ISBN: 1-978-59606-730-1

This deluxe hardcover puts Butcher’s series character, wizard-detective Harry Dresden, to work for a Bigfoot in three connected short adventures.

Like most private eyes, Dresden is something of an outsider, good at what he does because he sees things from a perspective more conventional members of society miss. And working in a world that, like Harry Potter’s, bears a close resemblance to the one that his readers live in, but with the addition of magical and supernatural creatures, his outside-ness is exaggerated, because he’s also a bit of a misfit in the wizarding world. The tradeoff is that he can work in both the magical and the mundane worlds with a fair degree of facility.

In this set of stories, his client—an impressive Sasquatch named Strength of a River in His Shoulders—hires Dresden to look after his son, a half-human named Irwin, who has no idea who or what his father is. Irwin’s mother, an archaeologist who met River on a field trip, is trying to bring him up as normally as possible—a challenge, given that she spends much of her time in the outback, digging things up. Despite his son’s mixed parentage, the Sasquatch wants Irwin to have a “normal” childhood. That means, among other things, keeping Irwin in the dark as to who his father is.

So it’s Dresden job to untangle things. As it turns out, Irwin’s troubles arise from something more than routine schoolyard bullying or repressive school rules. As you’d expect from a story featuring a wizard detective, Dresden’s quickly discovers there’s a supernatural element to the youngster’s problems. The three cases are spaced over a period of years, finding Irwin in middle school, a private high school, and at last in a large university.

Butcher does a good job of making his Sasquatch believable. Irwin’s troubles are also thoroughly credible—and are nicely calibrated to his age in the different stories. The final installment, where we find him as a college student making the usual mistakes and discoveries of someone out in the world for the first time—with a “magical” first love that could be deadly—is particularly fun. Dresden’s dryly cynical point of view adds to the fun—it takes the traditional wise-guy attitude of the private eye one amusing step beyond.

If you’ve enjoyed the Dresden novels, or the Sci Fi channel series based on them, this one’s likely to be right up your alley. Butcher fans and collectors will want this deluxe hardcover of previously uncollected stories.

*   *   *

SLEEPING GIANTS
By Sylvain Neuvel
Del Rey, $26.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-101-88669-4

This striking first novel begins when a young girl, Rose Franklin, goes out to try her new bike and falls in a huge hole—at the bottom of which is an enormous metal hand.

The rest of the book follows up the implications of that hand—after all, where there’s a hand, there ought to be an arm and maybe a whole body attached to it. Neuvel tells the story primarily in the form of a series of interviews of various participants and observers, conducted by a character whose name we never learn, but who plays an active role in the project of assembling the body.

The story picks up Rose a number of years later, when she has become the scientist in charge of the secret program to study the hand and locate the other parts—which turn out to be scattered all over the world. The U.S. is sending secret teams of military personnel to recover the rest of the body. Two members of those military teams are eventually recruited to join Rose’s effort to assemble the giant statue—which, we learn, as parts are recovered, is a slightly distorted humanoid woman. It becomes clear as more parts are found that it is a mobile statue—meant to be operated by two of the race that made it working together. And, given its size, it is obviously a formidable weapon.

It also turns out that only certain people can operate the controls. One of them, a helicopter pilot named Kara Resnick, initially resents the questioning of the nameless interviewer, who she sees as having pulled her away from meaningful work. When she discovers that she has a knack for operating the controls for the statue’s upper body, she begins to find a real purpose in the project. Resnick teams up with Ryan Mitchell, another army recruit, who learns how to operate the legs. Oddly enough, the legs of the statue are articulated differently from human legs—more like a bird’s, with knees facing the wrong way, So Mitchell learns to work them facing backward.

And of course complications arise. Rose is ambivalent—to say the least—about the statue’s potential as a weapon. Other nations’ suspicions rise as the team’s efforts to retrieve the missing parts of the statue become known. And tensions on the team reach the breaking point. The origin of the statue also begins to become clearer—with worrisome implications. Neuvel weaves the various strands together convincingly, with several nice plot twists along the way—and a nice surprise at the end.

The “Themis Files,” of which this novel is the first installment, looks to be one of the more interesting new series out there. Definitely worth a look if you enjoy near-future SF.

*   *   *

DARK MATTER
By Blake Crouch
Crown, $26.99 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-101-90422-0

Crouch, best known for his “Wayward Pines” trilogy, has credits in several genres, including mystery and horror. This one’s being marketed as a techno-thriller, but with a theme of travel between different facets of the multiverse, it fits solidly in the SF genre.

The story begins with Jason Dessen, a physics professor at a minor university in Chicago, having drinks at home with his wife, Daniela, while their son, Charlie, plays a computer game. Daniela suggests he go see an old friend, who’s just won a major science prize, at a nearby bar. Jason agrees, planning to be back before dinner. But as he leaves the bar, he’s abducted by a masked gunman, who makes him drive to a warehouse on the outskirts of the city, strips him naked, and injects him with a drug—all the while asking detailed questions about his personal life and his relationship with his wife and son.

That’s the last thing Jason remembers until he wakes up in an unfamiliar environment. It gradually becomes clear that he has been sent to the home world of his abductor—also named Jason Dessen, with a background remarkably similar to his own—except he isn’t married. Now his abductor has taken over his life, including his wife and family. Meanwhile, Jason finds himself being questioned about his travel to another part of the multiverse, in a machine his counterpart has built. Confused and disoriented, he stalls for time—then breaks away to try to find people from his own life.

It quickly becomes clear why the other Jason Dessen might have decided to leave; the machine that allows him to cross between worlds is a super-secret project, with brutal security protocols in place. Even the possibility that someone outside the project might learn about it is enough to put them on the corporate owners’ hit list—as Jason learns in a particularly unsettling way. It is now obvious that he also needs to escape, if possible before anyone else in the project figures out he’s not the man who built the machine.

Escape he does—except he doesn’t have any real clue how to get back to the world he actually came from. The machine takes him to all possible alternate worlds, most of which are far less attractive than his home world. And Jason doesn’t want just any world; he wants his original home, with his wife and son and his old life.

Crouch does a good job of exploring the possibilities of his premise, hitting most of the plot twists one would expect and pulling a couple of fresh ones out of his pocket. The action bits flow naturally out of the central idea, and while there are a few cases of things working a bit too conveniently to be entirely plausible, that’s pretty much part of the deal with action-oriented fiction. A good, fast-paced read—another example of a writer without extensive genre credits taking a classic SF trope and making something fresh out of it.

*   *   *

DEATH’S BRIGHT DAY
By David Drake
Baen, $26.00 (hc)
ISBN: 078-1-4767-1847-1

One of the leading lights of military SF continues his long-running RCN series, featuring Captain Daniel Leary of the Republic of Cinnabar Navy and the crew of the corvette Princess Cecilia—the Sissy. The series has much of the air of Patrick O’Brian’s series of naval adventures set during the Napoleonic Wars, with more emphasis on character than hardware.

Leary and his bride Miranda are receiving guests after their wedding—and he is celebrating over drinks with fellow officers—when his lifelong servant Hogg tells him he has been asked to meet with an admiral. Drunk or not, duty is duty. But when the admiral makes him an offer he considers inconsistent with duty and honor, he makes it clear he isn’t to be bought at that price.

But once he’s established his loyalty to the Republic, Leary is offered the real proposition, He’s to take the Sissy to the Tarbell System, an independent group of worlds that’s in the middle of a civil war—and the Republic’s rival, the Alliance, is supporting one of the sides. Leary, if he accepts the assignment, is to put some iron into the Tarbell System’s navy. But to keep the Republic nominally clear of the conflict, he’s to operate as a “civilian” contractor.

Off goes the Sissy and her crew, arriving at the Tarbell System’s capital, at which point complications arise. Leary and his communications officer Adele Mundy, along with their personal servants, navigate their way through a series of challenges, each more formidable than the last, using a series of ruses, bluffs, and outright power plays to get through. The plot is episodic, without a lot of carry-over from one incident to the next—essentially, the protagonists solve a series of unrelated problems. And while there’s a certain amount of hand-waving to get the characters out of some of the pinches they find themselves in, the book moves forward irresistibly.

Unlike some writers of military SF, Drake doesn’t duck the implications of some of the things his protagonists do. Mundy and her servant Tovera are very matter-of-fact about killing those who oppose their mission. They’re not sadists; they’re doing a job, quickly and professionally, without really thinking about the people at the receiving end. This doesn’t make them especially likeable; they’re competent, loyal, and able to adapt to circumstances, and that’s all Leary expects of them. Given that the Republic is not itself a particularly admirable entity, it is probably as much as he has a right to expect.

This one’s definitely recommended for anyone who enjoys military SF. If you’re new to the RCN series, you may want to pick up one of the earlier volumes—there are ten, and they all work as standalonesto get a sense of the characters and scenario.

*   *   *

THE AUTHENTIC WILLIAM JAMES
By Stephen Gallagher
Subterranean, $40.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-59606-779-0

Here’s a mystery set in the days leading up to World War I, featuring Sebastian Becker, a special investigator for the British Crown. Becker is assigned to a branch that determines the mental competence of those whose families stand to benefit from having them declared insane. This time, he’s been asked to make the call on a music hall performer, William James, suspected of burning down a Brighton theater whose manager fired him—with dozens killed in the conflagration.

The authorities put Becker on the case not just because of the number of dead, but because one of the victims appears to be a German prince—and relations between Britain and Germany are frayed to the point where the incident might become a casus belli. Gallagher’s job is to prove the arsonist is sane, so they can hang him with a minimum of delay or compunction. Except that before Becker has gotten very far, James, with the help of his show-business companions, escapes from prison and flees the country. Since the possible conflict with Germany still looms large, Becker must follow him and, if possible, bring him back to justice.

And so we find Becker in a hotel room in a small Pennsylvania town, looking at what appears to be the body of the man he’s after—a gunshot wound in the back of his head. It looks as if the case is closed. But Becker isn’t quite satisfied. And the rest of the novel builds from that.

Set in late 1913, the novel is borderline alternate history, although it has no explicit SFnal content. But Gallagher does a brilliant job of world-building, creating the world of a British music-hall cowboy act and all that goes into it as part of a larger portrait of a world trembling on the brink of a war unlike anything it’s ever seen. American readers may have a couple of quibbles with lapses in the U.S. background—for example, a deputy sheriff is referred to as an under-sheriff—not, to my knowledge, a title used in Pennsylvania. But such lapses are rare, and the overall period flavor of the book is exquisite.

If you’re a reader who enjoys a well-written story without being too picky about what genre pigeonhole to file it in, you’re likely to enjoy this one.

*   *   *

“NOT SO MUCH,” SAID THE CAT
By Michael Swanwick
Tachyon, $15.95 (TP)
ISBN: 978-1-61696-228-9

Swanwick’s latest story collection shows off the author’s impressively wide range.

In Swanwick’s case, it’s not really a cliché to call him a multi-faceted talent. This collection runs the gamut from fantasy to hard SF, with settings ranging from late Cretaceous Earth to the far future on other planets to fairy-tale worlds. The mood of the stories covers a similar range, from resignation in the face of tragedy to hard-nosed slogging through the aftermath of disaster to smug exploitation of the opportunities presented by human weaknesses.

Among the seventeen stories here is “Tawny Petticoats,” a new Darger-Surplus caper set in New Orleans—with zombies and a retro-Old South atmosphere. “For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I’ll Not Be Back Again” takes us to a future Ireland where, no surprise, the “troubles” continue—though the enemy has changed. And “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” is told by an AI spacesuit called Rosamund, recounting a mission on an alien planet where two races dealing in different currencies—information and trust—run into the iron laws of economics. The latter two first appeared in this magazine, but the places of original publication of the other stories are so diverse that it would be a rare reader who has seen more than a few of them before this collection.

The book also includes an introduction in which Swanwick looks back on his career searching for an answer to the question, “Just when did I run away with the elves?” He never gives a very precise answer—though the self-portraits of himself over the years are a good indication that he ran away a long time ago. Needless to say, fans of his writing are very glad he did. 

Copyright © 2017 Peter Heck

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