My Say

Reviews and Comments on Books and things generally science-fictional.
By Karen Johnson, from Out of the Kaje #1 (June/July 1998)

I recently sat down and made a list of my favourite authors for Bruce Gillespie, and I made an astounding discovery - even though I say I like science fiction, I donít read it very much. Almost all the authors on my list were there because they write fantasy or at best very Ďsoftí people-centred stories. I watch all the science fiction programs (Star Trek, Babylon 5 etc.) I can find, but I donít have the patience to read anything that takes a lot of work. I also donít like ugliness in my fiction - I read to get away from reality, not to take it with me.

Anyway, I decided that if I was going to hold my head up in public again (especially come Aussiecon) Iíd better do something to widen my horizons a little. My brother Greg reads more books than anyone else I know, and he keeps them all (no wimpy tossing out of books that you didnít really like/couldnít be bothered finishing for him). I asked him to give me a few representative samples of recent and/or Australian SF. So far Iíve been handed (and at least started) Excession (Ian M.Banks), Santiago (Mike Resnick), The Dark Between the Stars (Damien Broderick) and Distress (Greg Egan). Santiago is a western set in space. I didnít find it much more interesting than the traditional earthbound genre, so I gave up after 5 chapters.

The Dark Between the Stars

This is a collection of short stories previously published in assorted locations. Itís subtitled Ďspeculative fictioní and the four stories Iíve read so far are all highly speculative. They all make you think, but if theyíre typical of Damien Broderickís work, you want to read him in small doses as they are very, very dark. The first is the story of an encounter between a little man and a psychiatrist, with a twist in its tail. The second is an original but disturbing vision of a near-future where something nasty is happening to babies in utero. The third story, Resurrection, features a computer programmer who is a cryogenically frozen corpse for a few hundred centuries. When he is revived, he finds a world very different to our own. The fourth story, Coming Back, is about a researcher with a not particularly pleasant personality who is caught in a time loop during an experiment. There are another 6 stories in the anthology that I havenít read yet, but I have a feeling that they are more of the same.

Excession is Ian M.Banksí latest Culture novel. I havenít read any of the others, so I donít know if this typical Ian M.Banks or not (is there such a thing as Ďtypicalí Banks?), but it took me close to 100 pages to make much sense out of what was going on. Banks doesnít go in for explanations, so you start off by going ???, but if you keep going all gradually becomes clear. Iím only 1/3 of the way through, but Iíll be reading the rest in the near future so that I can find out whether the Ďobjectí is the outside-context-experience which could spell the downfall of the Culture, or whether they will continue to make the universe what they want it to be.
 

Distress

This was a very interesting book. The opening pages (a reporter observing the temporary resurrection of a crime victim who is clinically dead) pass the excitement test without a question. I picked it up off the table, started reading, and read 50 pages without even sitting down. Our hero finished his story, broke up with his girlfriend, and went off to an artificially engineered coral island in the middle of the Pacific to report on a physics conference before I caught my breath. Unfortunately, once the story moves to the conference, the physical action stops dead for a considerable length of time while metaphysics and the rival Theories of Everything (mathematical equations that would explain the existence of the Universe) are discussed at great length. Not being a physicist, or a mathematically minded person, I got rather lost here, and waded reluctantly through the next hundred pages or so. I was just about to give up when the pace picked up again - our hero is poisoned, chased, abducted, attemptedly brainwashed, and rescued in quick succession, and thereís still more than 100 pages to go. My attention was recaptured, and I read on to the end of the book with increased interest. The denouement is unexpected but it follows logically from the rest of the story, and I found it fascinating to consider its implications.

Distress is a novel packed with ideas - philosophy, physics, metaphysics, genetic engineering and its consequences, medical ethics etc. even the use of force against weaker nations in a slightly East Timorese situation, all come into it at some point. Unfortunately, it seems as if there are too many ideas packed into it to come to grips with them all. They were all interesting, carefully thought out, and provocative, but there were enough of them to provide the basis for at least one other book. I felt that the middle third could have been cut out altogether (or drastically shortened) without affecting the story, but you might not agree. Read it and decide for yourself.
 

Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt

When Iím not reading fantasy or SF, I have a weakness for thrillers, but only those by certain authors, especially Clive Cussler, Alastair Maclean and Dick Francis. I just read Clive Cusslerís latest Dirk Pitt epic Shock Wave. I enjoyed it, but I donít know how many more there can be after this. Dirk Pitt started out modestly enough, as a tough-guy marine expert with a taste for danger and no family to tie him down. Unfortunately, with each passing book Clive Cussler has raised the stakes to keep the readerís interest. The dangers Pitt faces have got more extreme, the villains wickeder, and the plots more dastardly and labyrinthine. To overcome these perils, Pitt and his faithful companion Giordino (who is a cross between a labrador retriever and a brick wall) have had to become more exaggerated, until the Dirk Pitt we see in Shock Wave (the 13th Dirk Pitt adventure) reminds me rather of Hitlerís ubermenschen, not because he is a fascist (nothing could be further from his mind) but because he is as good looking as Adonis, as indestructible as Superman, and as compassionate and self-sacrificing as Mother Teresa. If he becomes any more indestructible, Dirk Pitt will be able to breathe vacuum. Unfortunately, Pittís female companions are not as indestructible. The heroine of this book, Maeve Fletcher, is beautiful, intelligent and courageous, and has twin sons. She and Pitt fall madly in love with each other, so you can guess what happens in the end... modern-day superheroes donít get to be family men. If you enjoy exciting adventures in exotic locales, try Cussler on for size. Iíd recommend Inca Gold (the 12th book) highly.


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Want to contact me? E-mail karenji@labyrinth.net.au