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Between the Lines: Watch the Skies!
By David Pitt (December 2006)

There has been a lot of good science fiction and fantasy published recently. It's time to settle in with some space-java and check it out.

Galactic North (Orion) is a collection of eight stories by Alastair Reynolds, who re-energized, if not entirely redesigned, the space opera with novels such as Revelation Space and Absolution Gap. These stories, which are arranged chronologically from just around the corner to the far-flung future, feature space exploration, murder, baroque technology, and lots of high-speed excitement. Reynolds' science fiction manages to be solidly grounded in reality, and wildly fantastic, at the same time. In a genre rich with shining lights, his light shines brighter than most.

Pushing IceIf you're a Reynolds fan, and if you read science fiction you pretty much have to be, then you'll be glad to know that Pushing Ice (Gollancz) has just been released in mass-market paperback. In the near future, Janus, a moon of Saturn, suddenly moves out of orbit and reveals itself to be a vast machine. Bella Lind, the captain of a comet-mining ship, undertakes a perilous mission to follow Janus, and find out who, or what, built it. The quest takes the crew of the Rockhopper light years from home, and millennia into the future, and oh what a thrilling, breathtaking ride it is.

Adam Roberts has written a handful of original and wildly inventive novels. It's hard to say whether Gradisil (Orion) is his best, because they're all so darn good, but I will say this: it'll be a long time before you read anything even remotely like it. It's a story about space pioneers, a society floating above the Earth, murder and revenge and conquest. And an extremely unlikely hero, too. Honestly, in a genre full of visionaries and far-thinkers, Roberts occupies his own little niche, his imagination impossible to imitate, his books impossible to put down.

Red PlanetTwo of Robert A. Heinlein's classic books are making a welcome reappearance. Space Cadet (Tor), first published in 1948, follows a group of young men who join the Space Academy and find that life in the Interplanetary Patrol is lot more challenging - but also a lot more fulfilling - than they'd ever dreamed it would be. Heinlein's gifts as a storyteller still, even after all these years, seem limitless; and his novels, even after all these years, and everything that came after them, are still astonishing in their imagination and sheer adventure.

Red Planet (Del Rey) first appeared in 1949. It was heavily changed by its editor, and this re-release is based on Heinlein's original manuscript. If you have an older copy of the book, this version may startle you: the author's story of a boy coming of age on the barely-habitable planet of Mars is altogether starker, more elegant, and more mature than the version most science fiction fans grew up with.

Lies of Locke LamoraThe Lies of Locke Lamora (Bantam Spectra), by Scott Lynch, is a sort of science-fictiony retelling of Dickens' Oliver Twist, but it's so immensely entertaining, and so rich in otherworldly atmosphere and subtle characterization, that it would be a huge mistake to dismiss it as a mere rewrite. The story follows a gifted orphan as he falls in with a band of thieves and con artists known as the Gentlemen Bastards; soon he's their leader, pulling off one confidence game after another, humiliating the nobility and making a handful of enemies - including one so powerful that Locke soon realizes his own life may be at stake. This is Lynch's first novel, and it is simply splendid.

Robert Ferrigno's Prayers for the Assassin (Scribner) is set in 2040, in a United States you'll barely recognize. In this America, the terrorists have won. The country is an Islamic republic, a totalitarian state in which Christianity is tolerated, but barely; and where freedom is, for most people, merely something they read about it history books. Against this thought-provoking setting Ferrigno tells the story of a young woman who uncovers a world-shaking secret, and then disappears; the Islamic superspy who risks his life to find her, because he loves her; and the psychopath with his own murderous agenda. To call this alternate-future thriller brilliant would not be an exaggeration.

Speaking of brilliant, here's The Brightonomicon (Gollancz), a goofy cross-time mystery by Robert Rankin. In his efforts to keep the evil Count Otto Black from getting his hands on the Chronovision, with which the villain could rule the world, Hugo Rune, the self-appointed Greatest Man Who Ever Lived, the Guru's Guru, the Hokus Bloke, recruits the aid of a young man who's forgotten his own identity. It is only by solving the twelve mysteries of the little-known Brighton zodiac that Rune and his reluctant sidekick can foil Count Otto's nefarious plans. If this all sounds completely ludicrous, don't panic: it's supposed to. To Rankin, language is something to be bent, twisted, and reformatted to produce new rhythms and new sounds ('Professor Nessor the funambulist analyst'); and reality is something to be ignored, when it gets in the way. His books are full of wacky wordplay, comic incoherence, and sheer, joyous, laugh-out-loud adventure. If you've never read him, oh the fun you've been missing.

ToyminatorYou should also check out Rankin's The Toyminator (Orion), in which private detective Eddie Bear re-teams with his former partner, Jack, to find out who's behind an outbreak of Spontaneous Toy Combustion. Rankin's brilliance lies in writing loopy, goofy, silly stories for adults that only sound like kids' stories. They're full of puns, in-jokes, film references, daffy wordplay, and acres and acres of fun. Rankin writes about things that couldn't possibly exist - in this case, a city in which toys are living creatures - as though they're the most ordinary things in the world. He doesn't waste our time trying to convince us to believe in the unbelievable; he just sort of behaves as though there's nothing odd going on whatsoever.

In a similar vein, here's The Fourth Bear (Hodder & Stoughton), a new Nursery Crimes investigation by Jasper Fforde. A journalist is missing, and only a veteran detective and his young partner can find out what happened to her. Sounds ordinary enough, except that the detective is Jack Spratt, his partner is Mary Mary (who's not as contrary as you might expect), and the missing woman is Henrietta Hatchett, better known as Goldilocks. And the last people (well, sort of) to see her alive were a certain three bears. In Fforde's wildly inventive alternate reality, nursery rhymes and the creatures who inhabit them aren't mere fictions. They're as real as you and me. Fforde, who also writes the brilliant Thursday Next mysteries, builds stories out of wordplay, sight gags, unusual characters, and stories that would be absurd, if they weren't so much fun. This novel is the sequel to The Big Over Easy, and you must read them both.

HammerjackMarc D. Giller's Hammerjack (Bantam) is the fast-paced story of a former computer pirate, Cray Alden, who's now working for the big companies he used to raid. When Cray discovers he's got an assassin on his tail, he has to revert to his old pirate ways to stay alive. Soon he's navigating the seamy information underworld, running from killers and anti-tech cultists, trying to stay alive. If you've read William Gibson's classic Neuromancer, bits and pieces of Hammerjack will seem awfully familiar. But Giller, who lives in Florida, keeps things moving at a brisk clip and works enough variations on the cyberpunk theme to keep the book from feeling too derivative. Not the most original novel, but solid and entertaining.

Labyrinth (Orion), by Kate Mosse, begins with an archeologist, Alice Tanner, finding a strange symbol carved into the wall of a long-buried cave in France. She soon discovers that the symbol is a link to an eight-century-old book, one which purports to lay out the truth about the Holy Grail; and, amazingly, a link to Alice's own past. It's an elegant, centuries-spanning mystery that grabs you from the first page and won't let you go until the author is good and ready.

Similarly, here's Ann Benson's The Physician's Tale (Delacorte). In the near future, a physician and her husband lead a band of survivors after a devastating biological plague. In the 14th century, another physician is dealing with his own plague, the Black Death. These parallel stories (which are joined by a common thread) illuminate one another as Benson adroitly jumps back and forth through time. This is Benson's fourth novel with this structure, and you'd think the format would be getting a little tired, but it really isn't. With her rich narrative style, and compelling characters, she keeps the proceedings entirely fresh.

Prometheus Books, which for years specialized mostly in nonfiction, recently launched a line of science fiction novels under the Pyr imprint. They're a mixed bag - some are much better than others - but here are a few you should hunt down.

InfoquakeInfoquake, by David Louis Edelman, is a high-tech corporate thriller set several centuries down the road. Natch, at the top of his profession (bio/logics: programming the body as though it were a computer), is trying to develop a cutting-edge new technology while defending himself against the threat of hostile takeovers and a kind of energy plague, the infoquake, that threatens to crash all networks, everywhere. The book is clever and imaginative, and Edelman, a web programmer by trade, makes this far-future story feel completely contemporary, as though we were living in his invented world.

In John Meaney's To Hold Infinity, a biologist, Yoshiko Sunadomari, travels to a far-off world to visit her son. When she arrives, she discovers he's disappeared, vanished into the planet's undeveloped hinterlands, on the run and wanted for murder. Now Yoshiko must find her son and clear his name ... if she can outwit the despicably villainous Rafael. Meaney, who also wrote a very interesting trilogy called the Nulapeiron Sequence, writes with great enthusiasm. He believes this world, these people, are real, and so we believe it too.

The Liberty Gun is the third volume of Martin Sketchley's Structure series. Delgado and his companion, Ashala, are shunted forward in time. The Sinz, a predatory race consisting of three distinct species (humanoid, birdlike, and amphibian), are plotting to take over the Earth. Can our time-traveling warrior heroes avert disaster? Probably, but Sketchly sure does keep us guessing. By the way, if you don't know who Delgado and Ashala are, then you should go back and read the first two volumes in the series, The Destiny Mask and The Affinity Trap. Because, unless you do, nothing in The Liberty Gun is going to make a grain of sense to you. Lots of fun, though.

Physics of SuperheroesFinally, for a change of pace, check out The Physics of Superheroes (Gotham), by physics professor - and, evidently, rabid comic book fan - James Kakalios. Could Superman really leap a tall building in a single bound? Could the Flash run as fast as the comics say he could? Could Spider-Man really swing on a web? Kakalios goes into things in quite some detail (there are some equations in the book), and soon you forget that he's writing about wildly fictional characters, and you start to think: yes, I see, that's how it could work.
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