Three Monkeys - Ten Minutes #5

It has been more than six months since I wrote any book reviews for Phoenixine. In that time I have read perhaps sixty or seventy books, therefore it should have been easy for me to find a few to review. In practice, it proved to be not so simple as most of the books proved not to be suitable when I applied my usual selection criteria.

Much of my reading over the last six months has not been SF. I have been reading a lot of humour and mystery novels as well as "general" fiction and quite a bit of non-fiction. Since Phoenix is an SF organisation, I prefer not to include too may non genre titles in a set of reviews for its magazine. I also prefer not to include older titles that I get from secondhand shops. This constitutes a significant proportion of my recent reading. Also excluded are books which are so mediocre that there is nothing to say about them. Thankfully, there are not so many of these, so that I was left with enough books to select the following handful for your consideration.

There is nothing mediocre about Connie Willis. She has won more Hugo and Nebula fiction awards than any other author. Her latest work is called To Say Nothing of the Dog. It contains familiar Willis themes of time travel and convoluted personal relationships. What really makes it stand out however is that it is a homage to Jerome K Jerome's famous novel Three Men and a Boat. Willis captures both the setting and the spirit of this earlier whimsical work with great skill as she tell her tale of time travelers trying to find artifacts for a restoration of Coventry cathedral. I had coincidentally re-read the Jerome book a few months before reading the Willis book and this helped place many of the references which put the icing on the cake for me. Both books are very funny with the Willis book having the added advantage of being a well crafted SF time travel mystery as well. The book of the year so far for me.

Jack McDevitt may not be in the same class as Connie Willis, but he does produce very good hard SF adventures. His latest, and best so far, is called Moonfall. It tells the story of the effect of a massive comet impact on the Moon. It follows the stories of a number of characters who are directly concerned with a disaster large enough to break the Moon into pieces. In particular, it follows the vice president of the USA who just happens to be visiting the "moonbase" when the asteroid is discovered. This allows a strong political thread to be added to the adventure story of the escape from the Moon and the battle to stop a large fragment from hitting the Earth. McDevitt represents the latest wave of writers in the oldest form in the genre and while his type of story rarely wins any Hugo awards these days, he is well worth reading for straight entertainment value.

The back cover blurb of Matt Ruff's novel Sewer, Gas & Electric contains a review quote by Neal Stevenson. This is very appropriate as the book is rather reminiscent of Stevenson's work although played much more for laughs. If it helps you to understand the book, you might think of it as a cross between the already light hearted Stevenson and the manic Tom Holt. It you do not know those two author's work, you should go and remedy that situation as soon as you can. Ruff has created a high tech near future world on the edge of ecological breakdown. A mutant Great White shark hunts in the sewers of New York terrorising the teams sent down to kill the albino alligators while an ecological terrorist hunts the seas in his huge polka dot submarine looking for endangered species to save. Into this situation, add a bunch of characters of dubious sanity and you have the ingredients for a potentially humorous novel. Being funny in print is perhaps the hardest challenge for any writer - many attempt it but few succeed. Ruff has done well with this book and even manages to keep the plot fairly well in shape. I look forward to his next effort.

Mention Harry Turtledove and most SF readers will think Alternate History. While he also writes some straight fantasy, he is certainly best known for his "What If?" scenarios. In the case of A Whole New World the changed factor is that Mars is a larger world than we know it and is therefore capable of sustaining an atmosphere. When the Viking lander sends back pictures of an apparently intelligent tool using creature, a manned mission is sent to investigate. From this point on, the story is pretty much a conventional first contact tale about two crews which each encounter tribes of intelligent but primitive aliens. As first contact stories go, it is well told, but I could not help but be a little irked by the unnecessary alternate world wrapping that goes around it - I guess Harry just cannot get out of the habit. The strength of this novel is the very well constructed alien physiology and the social consequences that go with it. The main features of the "Minervans" are a six fold symmetry and a fatal breeding method. Coupled with the interesting world building is a well told adventure story which is up to Turtledove's usual standards in this department, which is to say that the pacing could be a bit better but there is plenty of varied and well told action going on.

Because her work tends to deal with near future bio-tech issues, Nancy Kress's work has the noticeable advantage that it is very topical. Strong plots and character representation means that there is a pretty good chance that the work will transcend topicality and survive in the longer term. Maximum Light deals with fertility issues related to environmental problems, cloning human hybrid genetic engineering. The development of the characters is handled through a first person viewpoint from characters who are trying to fight out of victim situations. This style works well for Kress giving good buy-in for the reader. With a believable story and plenty of action this is Kress's best work so far.