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Phoenixine Ninety-Five, July 1997

Nunc Dimittis. I've found the last of Sharyn McCrumb's Appalachian novels that I've spent the last year or so trying to track down. And yes, it was worth the wait. The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter is the best of the four; moving, lyrical and grim with just a touch of mysticism. This one kept me up all night. Four members of the Underhill family lie dead. Josh Underhill has killed his parents and his young brother and then turned the gun on himself in a gruesome murder-suicide. Mark and Maggie Underhill return home from a rehearsal of the school play to find the grisly remains.

There is no mystery here; this is not a whodunit. The only minor unexplained detail is why Josh took a shotgun to his family, and even this is resolved almost as an aside towards the end of the book. The main magic of the story lies, as always, in the interactions of the characters as they try to remake their lives in the shadow of tragedy. Laura Bruce, the parsons wife, eight months pregnant, who stands in loco parentis for Mark and Maggie Underhill. Sheriff Arrowood who takes on the cares of the community; his deputy Joe LeDonne the Vietnam veteran who can't get a dead rabbit out of his mind, and Nora Bonesteel who has the sight. The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter is magnificent shiver-down-the-spine material.

To keep the wolf from the door I teach people how to use their computers to the best advantage. Such intense intellectual effort over the course of a very long day requires that the brain and body be suitably refreshed. Until recently we took our students to a lunch bar known as Peppercorn Park wherein they imbibed soothing food and drink, to the benefit of all. However one recent Friday morning at 8:55am we received a telephone call from the proprietors of Peppercorn Park informing us that they had gone out of business and would be closed until further notice. Panic! We had a lunch crisis! What to do?

We ordered pizzas. What else would you do? But the chapter of events of that evil Friday was not yet done. The pizza delivery man crashed his van on the way to the office and no lunch eventuated. Hungry students ask vicious questions.

Larry Niven and multiple collaborators have brought us a sequel to their 1987 novel The Legacy of Heorot. As I recall the original novel, it was rather dull. Once the central mystery of the grendels was solved it turned into just another thud and blunder book. I'm pleased to say that The Dragons of Heorot is much better. The new generation of pioneers on the colony planet of Avalon want to leave the safety of their island and explore the mainland. After all, didn't they come here to explore and colonise a planet? However their parents, still running scared from being almost wiped out by the grendels when they first landed, are opposed to the idea. The stage is set for inter-generational conflict and the politics of the colonising mission are explored in fascinating detail. Add to this a truly alien biology and biochemistry and you have the makings of a fascinating straight down the middle of the road science fiction novel. Which is exactly what The Dragons of Heorot is; and what's wrong with that?

Niven's new solo novel, Destiny Road is set in the same universe as the Heorot books. It describes another colonisation attempt on a planet called Destiny. The story takes place some 250 years after the original landing on the planet. The colonisation ship Argos is long departed. In Spiral Town the hulk of the lander Columbiad supplies electrical power. Mechanisms are starting to fail and cannot be repaired; there is an air of decrepitude. Generations before, the other landing shuttle Cavorite left Spiral Town, using its fusion engines to melt a long road into the rocky landscape. The ship never came back and now the road stretches off seemingly into infinity. Jemmy Bloocher kills a man in a tavern brawl; the only safety lies along the road...

Actually this isn't a novel, it's a series of three interlinked novellas. It stands head and shoulders above anything Niven has produced lately but is still severely flawed. Niven's total inability to convey any sense of place renders the geography of Destiny highly confusing and his irritating habit of introducing anything up to eight characters within a single paragraph makes it impossible sometimes to figure out who is doing what to whom and why. But all that aside, it still isn't a bad quest novel, and the invention of alien lifeforms never flags.

Food is one of nature's great pleasures and eating it in company even more so. When in Wellington I often dine with friends. In the course of one convivial evening certain universal truths were revealed. "Once I started to shop", said the lady across the table, "my feet stopped hurting." I was so absorbed in the philosophical ramifications of this statement that I failed to notice the minor attack of St. Vitus dance that seemed to be afflicting the lady on my left. After a final enormous wriggle that broke through my reverie she held out her left arm. "Pull!" she ordered in stentorian tones. A slim strand hung from her sleeve. I pulled, and it lengthened and lengthened, revealing itself eventually as a bra which fell seductively into my hands. And it was still warm! Fair melted my ice cream, it did.

Firestar by Michael Flynn is a tour de force. If you read no other SF novel this year, read this one. It is everything that Ben Bova's Moonrise should have been but wasn't. It is set at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Mariesa van Huyten, heir to an industrial empire, has a dream of space. She has her own private reasons (and some might consider those reasons irrational) but they are reasons nonetheless and she sets out to realise her dream. The huge novel follows the threads of several projects that Mariesa initiates to put humanity back into space. These vary from educational initiatives in which her industrial empire takes over and runs state schools as private institutions, to high tech research and development on single stage to orbit spacecraft. But through all of these projects we never lose sight of the people involved -- the children and their reactions to the new teaching methods (some of these children will have a significant role to play in the years ahead); the test pilots of the experimental spaceships known as "planks" and all the myriad of friends and enemies that help and hinder Mariesa's plans. This is a book about humanity for humanity and despite the often very high-tech scenarios this humanity is never forgotten. It is above all a people book and I found it profoundly moving. I can even forgive Flynn his errors -- he confuses the Balkan Macedonia with the Greek province of the same name and conjures up an utterly unlikely and unconvincing war as a result. But even this absurdity is of little momentin the face of the magnificence of Flynn's vision.

Robert Silverberg's Reflections and Refractions is a collection of Agbergian essays that span almost quarter of a century. Not unnaturally some are now a little dated and many, having seen life originally as guest editorials and the like are necessarily a little shallow. But there is gold here to be mined if you dig deep enough and it is probably the best insight we will ever have into the mind and methods of one of this centuries more important (and prolific!) SF writers.

Recently someone asked the members of the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written to post examples of American authors making bad mistakes in their (British) English dialogue. So I pointed out my favourite example from a story called Fire Watch by Connie Willis wherein several "English" characters discuss vegetables and the word "rutabaga" is used. This is a word that would never sully the lips of a (British) English speaker, though it seems to be a common (American) English word. I confessed myself puzzled as to exactly what a rutabaga might be. This led to a heated discussion as we all attempted to pin down the elusive rutabaga. After a brief digression into white hairy carrots (quickly revealed to be parsnips) opinion solidified that the rutabaga was almost certainly a swede, although there were occasional puzzled interjections from a certain Scandinavian gentleman who failed to understand why his countrymen were being described as round and leafy.

Jon Swain is a journalist and I will never forget reading his reports from Vietnam and Cambodia in my teens and twenties. He brought that horrible war into our living rooms as few other journalists have ever done. Now in River of Time he writes of those years from a personal perspective. What was it like to be a journalist in those places at those times? This book is heart-breaking in its grim honesty. Despite the often sickening events that Swain describes there is still some hope. The mysterious appeal of war and death contrasts sharply with a profound humanity and an immense love -- south-east Asia has marked Swain for life. This book shows how the scar tissue was formed. I know of nothing else to compare it with save perhaps Michael Herr's Dispatches, and that is the highest praise of all. The word "classic" is so often overused and abused that it trivialises its subject; but no other word will do. This book is one of the great ones. Read it and weep.

Leslie Thomas is one of this century's best comic novelists. What makes him so great is that behind the surface farce of such famous books as The Virgin Soldiers, grim reality is always waiting to break through. His books pull you up with short, sharp shocks as comedy turns into tragedy in the blink of an eye. Normally he has this finely balanced, but in his new novel Kensington Heights the comedy is thin and cruel and the tragedy outweighs it too much. Frank Savage has been discharged from the army. He was shot in the head in Northern Ireland, his comrades on that fateful patrol were killed and for a long time it seemed that he would die as well. Now he wants to be alone and the top flat of Kensington Heights seems just the place to retreat from the world. But the world has a habit of breaking in on even the most reclusive of people and Frank is not well equipped to deal with it. The novel is sad rather than funny and I found it difficult to read because I can take no pleasure or enjoyment out of misery and pain. This is the comedy of cruelty and I have never liked it. I felt like a voyeur at Bedlam two centuries ago and my conscience hurt. To that extent this is a good book -- it is certainly moving, but it isn't funny.

Terry Bisson is also a great comic novelist -- he works in the SF tradition so he will probably never be as popular as Leslie Thomas, but that makes him no less of an artist. In Pirates of the Universe we see Gunther Glenn a twenty-first century space ranger. He hunts the Peteys, enigmatic "things" (for want of a better word) that traverse the solar system and whose skins can be harvested and processed into a substance more valuable than gold. With one more skin he should be rich enough to disappear forever into the virtual reality heaven of the Pirates of the Universe theme park. But things go wrong and Glen falls foul of the bureaucracy and his world disintegrates into a Kafka-esque nightmare. Bisson writes fables, but the fables have depth.

Recently it rained and I made the less than thrilling discovery that I had a hole in my shoe. I discover this about once a year, on average. The hole is always in my right shoe and is invariably a split right across the centre of the sole. Why this should be I have no idea since I do not recall ever using my right foot for anything I don't also use my left foot for (save only one -- see later); and yet every year my right shoe breaks and my left shoe does not. Perhaps it has something to do with the muscular tensions (and hence the pressure on the shoe) as I make constant minute adjustments to the throttle pedal in my car. I have no other explanation.

I was away from home when this crisis overtook me and I only had the one pair of shoes. Fortunately I came into possession of a women's magazine (don't ask) and so I ripped out several pages to line my shoe and protect my sock from the ravages of water. So for half a day or so I wandered the town walking on photographs of Princess Di, which afforded me much pleasure. Then I went into a shop and confessed my shoe crisis and bought a new pair, instructing the shopkeeper to dispose of the originals, together with Princess Di. This occasioned a few raised eyebrows, but my credit card was good and so nothing was said. Now my feet are dry, but I have blisters.

If Scott Adams had omitted the last chapter of The Dilbert Future he would have had another brilliant book to his credit. Doubtless it will still be a best seller, but it is flawed. That last chapter will come back to haunt him, mark my words.

Adams uses his crystal ball to predict that the future will arise from three immutable truths. Namely that humanity is stupid, selfish and horny. Apply these truths and the future is self evident. The cover of the book has a picture of Nostradogbert on it (he acted as consultant) and therefore this must all be true.

In a series of wittily profound observations, Adams makes a good case for the future as an extension of the present only more stupid. Scattered throughout are Dilbert cartoons that illuminate the theme. If you don't laugh at this you have no humour; if you don't recognise its essential truth you have no brain.

But in the last chapter, Adams puts the humour away and writes a serious essay about here and now, then and there. And in it, I'm sorry to say, he comes across as a gullible crank. Without the wit there is no wisdom. I don't think he's been listening to himself properly.

Sharyn McCrumb The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter Onyx
Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes The Legacy of Heorot  Orbit
Larry Niven Destiny Road Tor
Michael Flynn Firestar Tor
Robert Silverberg Reflections and Refractions Underwood
Jon Swain River of Time Minerva
 Leslie Thomas Kensington Heights Mandarin
Terry Bisson Pirates of the Universe Tor
Scott Adams The Dilbert Future Harper
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