Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. I’m working to increase the amount of book coverage we do here at the site, and in the last few months, my plan seems to be working very, very well. In addition to our longtime book reviewer Frank Bascombe, there’s a new guy on the scene, Adam Balm, and they’re both kicking ass. Today, for the first time, they both have new columns going live. And I’ve been reviewing more books myself lately, including Chuck Palahniuk’s RANT and that fantastic THE MAKING OF STAR WARS. I just finished a debut novel from a guy named Jesse Ball that knocked me for a loop, and I’ll have more on that soon, but for now... let’s check in with Adam Balm and see what he’s been reading:
So as I said before, in the spring of every year, just as the weather begins to warm and you say to yourself “Self, I'd really like to go outside. I hear there's other people out there.”, then the book publishing world replies with a resolving “No, you will not go outside. This is convention season! This is awards season! And this is when we're releasing all the new books by dead authors for you, only half of which are written by Kevin J. Anderson....” This April we witnessed no less than one death and one resurrection: Kurt Vonnegut left the monkeyhouse for good, and Tolkien returned from Valinor for one last flash and dazzle. We also saw World Horror Con take place miraculously enough without Harlan Ellison showing up and grabbing someone's boob, and the Stoker Awards being handed out with Stephen King winning best novel (SHOCK!) for Lisey's Story. Didn't see that one coming. We also saw the Hugo noms announced...followed by the ballot being retracted and then rewritten to replace Pirates of the Caribbean with Children of Men. The Philip K. Dick went to Chris Moriarty's Spin Control. But probably the biggest news of the month may turn out to have been made by one of the books reviewed below. (Of course I'm going to say that.) 'Ancestor', a mildly entertaining Andromeda Strain-esque thriller that was first released months ago as a podcast, came out in book form and---without any advertising or advance promotion---ended up at top of the Amazon.com most-ordered list. Now this isn't entirely exciting in itself. It's a common trick for new authors and self-published ones to get all their friends to order at the same time, and thus bump up their books to the top for a couple hours, before fading back into obscurity again. There's even some companies out there who say they can do it for you for a price. What's most interesting is what followed next, with every-author-and-their-half-sister announcing that they're now podcasting their novels. A new podcasted-stories magazine, Well Told Tales, was announced around the same time. Whether there's a cause and effect relationship here or whether this was something that was building for a long time, I have no idea. Either way, I'd bet we're witnessing another symptom of a big shift happening in SF, a transformation in the way genre fiction---long tied to the monthly short fiction mag format---will be presented in the future. It's an interesting time at least, even if it means you forget what the sun looks like. THE REVIEW LIST: Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien Where's my Jetpack by Daniel H. Wilson Interzone #209 edited by Andy Cox Ancestor by Scott Siegler Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer CHILDREN OF HÚRIN by J.R.R. Tolkien (ed. By Christopher Tolkien) Houghton Mifflin There's almost nothing I could say of J.R.R. that would be new to anyone here. Everyone knows how he began his 'Book of Lost Tales' during the first world war, when he was a communications officer fighting on the western front. Everyone knows the story of how he returned---sickly from trench fever that wouldn't seem to leave him and shattered from the mechanized horror that took many of his childhood friends---coming back to a home that bore little resemblance to the Bela Epoche world he had grown up in. What most don't know is that it was in this time that he turned away from prose altogether and began an epic work of verse, something akin to that of Milton and Virgil. He called it TURIN SON OF HURIN AND GLORUND THE DRAGON. Equal parts Hamlet, Oedipus Rex and Icelandic family saga; it tells the story of a doomed man, born 'in the winter of the year' with 'omens of sorrow', a man who is cursed for the defiance of his father, who will only bring grief and despair to all who know him. It is also without a doubt, the most three dimensional character in his entire body of work, and it's no secret why. In the introduction, Christopher Tolkien explains the stark similarity between Turin and Tolkien (Not least of which is their names, obviously, something that was never an accident for such a lover of words as J.R.R.), their "severity and lack of gaiety, his sense of justice and compassion". This is the closest to an autobiography that Tolkien would ever let himself get. Tolkien would get two thousand lines into it before he eventually abandoned it and turned once again to something else. Then came the day he was in his office and the sentence 'There once was a hobbit who lived in a hole..." popped into his head. After the Hobbit was published in 1937, Tolkien went back once again to Turin. There's the old Tom Wolfe line that 'you can never go home again". Perhaps the one common theme throughout Tolkien's entire life was how hard he would always try to go home again. It's been said a million times before that he would always try to reach back into that age of dreams before his world was destroyed by trench warfare and mechanization. And in this effort to do so, Turin was never far from his mind. It was in the middle of the chapter "Turin among the Outlaws" that he would begin writing "A Long Expected Party" which he told his publisher would be a new chapter in the saga of Hobbits. This would occupy him til 1950 when it would be published in three volumes as The Lord of The Rings. As his Middle Earth cosmogeny grew in scope in Tolkien's mind, the time of Turin would be called The Elder Days, a time "unimaginably remote", six and a half thousand years before the War of the Ring, in a land that would be drowned beneath the seas in the Great Battle that would signify the end of the first age. It was the Elder Days that would occupy Tolkien until his death. There's been a lot of debate about how much of this is actually new material, and how much is already published, and whether this actually needed to be a stand alone book. One number I saw being thrown around was that 75% of what is contained in Húrin can be found in the Silmarillion and the Book of Unfinished Tales. Whether this “needed” to be published, I can't answer. But I think it deserved to be published. I think it stands on its own, and more importantly I think it can stand alongside the Hobbit and LotR as a worthy addition. That's not to say it reads the same as LotR or the Hobbit. Besides having kind of a dry and academic voice to it (The opening chapter reads a bit like the begats in the bible, “And Boron had a child, and he named him Eor, and Eor married Carbon, and bore him a son that they called Chloroflorocarbon...”) it's without a doubt the darkest thing Tolkien ever did. Think about how much darker LotR is than the Hobbit, and now imagine something that much darker than LotR, maybe more. There's a fatalism, a nihilism present here throughout. It begins with the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, and it ends no better. There's blood soaking every page, there's literally a mountain of dead bodies, there's near rapes, there's incest. There's no joyful fellowships singing songs together, no heroes making great sacrifices for the greater good, no bittersweet homecomings, no hope found amidst all the hopelessness. There's only a man who brings grief and despair to all who know him. There's only a curse that will follow him unto death. Turin the Dragon Helm, Turin the Blacksword, the Elf-Man, the man who gave himself so many names hoping it could somehow shield him from his terrible fate. It's interesting that Hurin hadn't even hit book stores before there was already talk of developing it into a movie; which, granted, makes a whole lot of sense from their point of view: The powers that be want to capitalize on the Tolkien brand but with the Hobbit rights possibly reverting back to Shaye, with actors refusing to come back without Jackson, with Jackson refusing to come back period, there's a lot of uncertainty hanging around Middle Earth. On the other hand, if you could set a movie in middle earth, needing none of the original cast or having to jump hoops around who owns what rights...well, you get the idea. And actually when you think about it, Húrin probably more tailor-made for the movies than Hobbit or LotR. Smaller scale and more personal, with fewer characters and a more focused linear plot, you can see how it would give a filmmaker far fewer headaches. But there's only two problems with that 1) The Tolkien estate has said they don't want them to make a Húrin movie. and 2) The only way you could do Húrin justice would be with an R rated movie. And I don't see anyone taking that chance any time soon. So, no, in the end Tolkien couldn't go home again. Instead, thirty years after his death, in a way he was able to take us home again, back to a time when evil had a face that wore a spiky crown and sat on a dark throne; when we could just run into the forest when things got tough, when all of life's confusions could be resolved with a heavy blade and a stout heart, when we didn't have to write fantasy books to find the magic in the world... WHERE'S MY JETPACK?: A GUIDE TO THE AMAZING SCIENCE FICTION FUTURE THAT NEVER ARRIVED by Daniel H. Wilson Bloomsbury USA "The future is now, and we are not impressed." It's practically a full time job these days, doing the post-postmortem to figure out exactly where the future went wrong. And it's not the first time this has happened. In the late 70s, they were asking the same questions. One of my favorites stories from around this period that illustrates this point is Greg Benford's CENTRIGRADE 233, where we find people gleefully burning old science fiction books and magazines for giving them false hopes. Around the turn of the millennium, this suddenly became popular again, this “Looking back at how we did a piss poor job at looking forward”. Maybe in a few years we'll be looking back at how we did a piss poor job at looking back at looking forward. Who knows. But as of 2007, here's our checklist so far: suburban sprawl, our promised mastery over nature has brought us global warming and the sixth great mass extinction upon the biosphere. Even our ultra-badass dystopic visions of the future have turned out to be a snooze. Cyberspace didn't bring us Gibson's cyber-cowboys in their mirror-shades rebelling against a corporate power structure, or reality-warping shared dreaming with new emergent artificial consciousnesses---mostly it brought us myspace and photoshop phriday. And um...AICN. So it's no surprise with such a shitty track record of predicting the future, that SF would now be in the grips of a new “mundane movement” to stop bullshitting with adolescent wish-fulfillment futures and return to dealing with the here and now. (But I'm completely biased here.) I suppose you could think of it as undiscovered modification to the second law of thermodynamics that the future will always end up boring us more than the past. Or so you get the impression from reading Daniel H. Wilson's second half-humor/half-science book. His previous outing, 'How to Survive a Robot Uprising' was named Wired's Rave Award for book of the Year. Jetpack uses the same illustrator as Robot Uprising, and like its predecessor its one of the slickest looking books you'll see on the shelves. Each chapter section begins with a full page diagram that reminds you of those little Department of Homeland Security instructions on what to do in a terrorist attack. (Honestly it would almost be worth it to buy the thing just to stare at it.) So, to answer the question posed in the title, why don't we have a jetpack? Well, for those that didn't already know, the basic flaw with the jet-pack was that it was always very fuel hungry, and so you're not going to be able to carry enough to last longer than a few seconds at least, a few minutes at most. What about ray guns? Well it's mostly to do with the current inefficiency of lasers, we find out. Only around 15% of electrical power is converted to the beam, the rest is wasted in heat. So basically you need a lot of hardware to power the thing, and a lot to cool it. So the smallest directed energy weapons you'll find are the size of refrigerators. How about food pills? Surprisingly there turned out to be no market for food that you have to choke down with a glass of water, although we're told that DARPA is working on a nutrient pill for soldiers that will feed keep them from starving for several days, along with a patch they can wear to do the same. So what about x-ray specs? Teleportation? An invisibility suit? It's all here. Wonder no more. You'll even find where you can get your very own hoverboard, if you're willing to pay through the nose for it. One big difference between this and Robot Uprising, and it is a big difference, is that Uprising had way more of an insider's perspective. Even though it was supposed to be a bit of a farce (It was actually written as a joke, because Dr. Wilson says he was sick of robots always being portrayed as rampaging sociopaths), you were getting expert opinion from the top experts in the field. This time out, for the ubergeek who already keeps up on his sci-tech news, surprisingly little will be new to you. Most of this stuff you probably already know from watching the Discovery Channel, or reading New Scientist or Popular Mechanics. I guess ultimately, if you really wanted to know, most of this stuff you could already find out in five minutes by googling. But on the other hand...you're not going to laugh this hard by googling. INTERZONE: 25TH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE Edited by Andy Cox TTA Press To understand why Interzone reaching it's 25th anniversary is such a big deal, I want to tell you a story. This story starts in 1982. It had been a few years since New Worlds, the magazine that ushered in the british SF new wave, closed its doors. A cold and empty wind blew through the corridors of SF fandom. As Andy Hedgecock describes in the issue, “fiction, music and films were becoming more predictable, less challenging and depressingly compliant with the social mainstream.” Bruce Sterling had been banging away in Cheap Truth calling for a new renaissance in SF, and while it seemed that there were those in America willing to take up the call, Britain was without a voice of its own. At least, it was until nine fans got together and decided that if no one else was going to do anything about it, they would. When they launched their magazine, it's often been repeated that Michael Moorcock predicted it would last three issues at most. It published dark and experimental fiction, like New Worlds before it. It published some of the New Wave authors like Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard and Disch, but its most important contributions was the new writers it unleashed upon an unexpecting world. It became 'an oasis of cultural resistance and brilliant storytelling.' John Clute (himself one of the original nine who started the magazine) wrote in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia that it "slowly became clear that this magazine, despite its slender resources and comparatively small readership, has been largely (if not SOLELY) responsible for catalyzing a second new wave of UK sf." Along the way it almost single-handedly launched the careers of no less than Greg Egan, Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Charles Stross, Paul J. MacAuley, Ian McDonald, and Ian R. MacLeod. I actually became aware of Interzone in a real backward way. Like most Americans, I had gone unaware of it for a long time. When I was around the 'golden age' of 12, I was cutting my fanboy teeth on Analog and Asimov, and I had only just started searching out the writers I liked best, checking out their backlists and reading everything they published from start to finish---and in the process I noticed an odd correlation: Virtually everyone of them got their start in this odd UK semi-pro zine with a name that was ripped off of Burroughs. American SF at the time was very safe (and still is for the most part). Besides Neal Stephenson, the cyberpunk movement had fizzled out years before, the battle for supremacy between the cyberpunks and the humanists had been decided, with the humanists being the victors, and SF was engaged in a new childlike and blind optimism. But at the same time, in the UK, a revolution was still going strong. A new radical hard science fiction was emerging, one that owed more to Wells than Heinlein. Greg Egan came in and destroyed our senses of reality and identity. For an American teenager, there was nothing more disturbing and more subversive. It was world shattering. It was honestly the first time I became aware of the possibilities of speculative fiction. I never had a subscription, and libraries and bookstores never carried them. I had to seek it out and find little scraps of it where I could. It was as hard to get a hold of as any other illicit mind-altering substance would be. David Pringle would get a lot of shit in the late nineties and early 2000s for going 'too commercial', for maybe being a little too conservative with what he published, not taking as many chances anymore. Those who complained were in for even more to bitch about. In 2005, he handed the reigns over to Andy Cox, who took it even more into the mainstream. The first thing he did was updated the look for the first time in twenty years, experimenting with a slick new layout that resembled more of a gaming magazine than the tired and bromide Bonestell landscapes that Asimov's and Analog still cover their issues with. It's probably the only SF mag being published today that looks like it belongs in the 21st century. And now for the first time he expanded the distribution to the United States. 25 years in, the magazine may very well be under a second renaissance. With the pedigree Interzone has, they could've easily just smacked together a double-sized issue filled with forgettable and nostalgic stories from big names like some other magazines have chosen to do. But then again, that's not what IZ is about. Instead they put together an issue that has the 'feel' of IZ, that doesn't rest on its laurels, but pushes the boundaries with dense and complex work and showcases new and up-and-coming voices. In WINTER, Jamie Barras plays with a more literal version of the idea of memes, the viral transmission of ideas, and explores a creepy-as-fuck alternate history where nazi experiments literally made consciousness spread in a plague. Both THE WHENEVER AT THE CITY'S HEART and BIG CAT are dense, labyrinthine, and difficult reads. Whatever you say about these two, you can't accuse IZ of playing it safe anymore. WHENEVER in particular is like a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in glossy magazine stock. Both of which indicate that, like the Third Alternative before it, Cox's editorship of Interzone is putting it on the front line of the 'New Weird'. TEARS FOR GODZILLA by Daniel Kaysen is one of those fun little meta Charlie Kaufmanesque yarns about writers and their cwaaaaazzy whacked up lives. Here we follow the main protagonist as he stands in line for coffee with a girl he knew from high school, while he imagines scenario after scenario involving monsters, zombies and ghosts, often ending up with the girl saying 'take me now!' and often ending up with her ex-husband dying of something horrible. That's not me being sarcastic, btw. It was probably the funnest read in the entire issue. In Alastair Reynold's THE SLEDGE-MAKER'S DAUGHTER we find ourselves in one of your garden variety 'dying sun' tales. In centuries hence, the sun has grown cold from energy mining, a war rages in the celestial heaven above, and metal shards of what was once human colonies rain down from the sky in 'skydrift'. A young woman, Kathrin Lynch, makes her way through the cold night to see an old witch who lives far beyond the Shield. Kathrin's the daughter of Brendan the Sledge-maker, who has fallen on hard times. Something is happening to the world, it's starting to warm from the Great Winter, and people no longer need sledges. The old woman who Kathrin has gone to see has a tale she wants to tell. It's a tale to tell of a winged man she once saw fall from the sky, a tale of the war between winged Fliers (humans) and jangling men, who were built to work in space, ala the replicants in 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep'. It's a short tale, perhaps too short. It's a bit of a pet peeve of mine when people publish stories that seem to mostly exist to set up future stories in the same universe. Maybe I'm wrong, but that's what this felt like a bit. All it needed was for the main character to leave off with "I get the feeling that the adventure's only beginning!" Basically, feels like I'm watching the scene from Star Wars where Obi-Wan gives Luke his light saber. Not exactly a satisfying, self-contained story, but that's a minor complaint really. It's definitely a beautifully told kind of sci-fantasy fairy tale, and shows that Reynolds is finally overcoming the old hard SF writers' curse of clunky dialog and stock characterization. And ultimately what I ended up digging about Sledge-Maker's Daughter is that this is kind of your classic Interzone story. It's all about entropy, decay, the darkness of human nature and the insignificance of man in the cosmos. It's what British SF has historically done best. While not Reynold's best work, it definitely belongs in an issue representing the history of the magazine. The final entry in this issue, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH by Edward Morris you can actually read for yourself here: http://www.ttapress.com/Journey.pdf. In any event, it's been a good quarter century for IZ, and I think that if there's anything like a short fiction market in the future (see the ancestor review below) for genre work, then Interzone is going to be at the forefront of it. ANCESTOR by Scott Siegler Dragon Moon Press Mostly I'm reviewing this because I want to talk about the effect this novel seems to be having, not the novel itself. Even for a thriller it was a bit lacking in the art of what makes a good page-turner. The basic jist of the idea is that a virus has emerged resulting from the transplantation of pig organs into human bodies. They put human DNA in the pigs so that the organs wouldn't be rejected when they were implanted into humans, but now that's all gone wacky and they got an outbreak on their hands. I really tried not to be too snobby with it, hell I love thrillers. Dean Koontz said that suspense fiction is most representative of life itself. But I think Ancestor fails as a thriller and I think the reasons aren't too hard to pin down. Aldiss wrote in Trillion Year Spree of H.G. Wells three principles for success in War of the Worlds, or indeed but which I think you can apply to any successful science fiction techno-thriller, those are: veracity, capacity, universality. I.e., this is the world, this is how it could change, this is what it would mean if it did change. Basically the first step, veracity, is where you draw a picture of the world as it exists today, to ground the fantastic of what is to come in the reality of the present place and time. In this Siegler fails because he doesn't give us a convincing setting so we may suspend our disbelief, what Palahniuk calls "establishing your authority". Instead of taking his inspiration from experience or the real world, Ancestor felt like Siegler just put Outbreak on continuous loop in the background. In fact there's a scene in the opening chapter where he describes a fuel air bomb as if he invented the thing, as if we didn't see the sequence in Outbreak where they used it to destroy a village in order to contain an epidemic. All the characters sound like they're trying their best to sound like Siegler supposes the military talks judging from all the movies he watched. The second principle, capacity, is where you use cutting edge scientific ideas to support the change you introduce in the novel, to make it credible, to show the magnitude it would have, and to further draw the reader in. This is going to automatically fail if you don't succeed with the first principle. And sadly, that's what happened with Ancestor. The science that he uses feels wiki'd, that he's regurgitating without truly understanding, and that he's telling without showing. Third, universality, is where you use what came before to make a criticism about society. Wells' Martians served as a critique of European imperialism, specifically that in Tasmania, and Crichton's dinosaurs in Jurassic Park served as a commentary on the hubris of meddling with nature (Except when it's carbon emissions, because omgz Crichton prooved global warmin iz a skam in St8 of Ph34r! lol wtf) and he extended this in the Lost World to comment on adaptation and the danger in becoming stagnant as a species. Even the worst of Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt novels touched on issues of "from immigration problems to threats of chemical war to overpopulation". True, often in a science or technothriller, this social criticism amounts to nothing more than "This is what happens when you play god!", and in that I suppose you could say Siegler succeeeded on the third principle. You could even say that he's just making a Dr. Moreau for the 21st century, with the Faustian mixing of man and beast. But my reaction is still just that it was poorly done, and that the commentary he offered felt like little more than "Whoah, isn't putting human organs in pigs pretty fucking disgusting?" which doesn't exactly open my eyes to new ideas I've never considered before. Ultimately, in Ancestor Siegler tries to make up for the novel's lack of depth with breadth. He thinks if he throws in enough characters and bloats the story with enough twists and turns, it'll make up for those characters being paper thin, and those plot twists predictable and superfluous. There's also one fundamental way that Siegler messed up. Macdonald Skillman wrote in WRITING THE THRILLER that "Suspense is emotional. It's surprise and confusion and fear and anticipation....it's worrying about what's going to happen, not about the action taking place at the moment." Siegler was so focused on jumping from one thing to the next, that he wasn't really too interested in making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, or making you bite your nails, afraid to turn the next page. But then again, it's not a bad novel at all, not compared to 90% of the other thrillers on the racks. I'm making it sound a lot worse than it is. And as I said, the big news isn't the novel itself, it's what it may mean for the genre. It's interesting that very few authors, at least at the top of list, serialize their novels anymore. It's almost quaint, and a little archaic when it happens. Podcasting has the potential to completely turn that around. And it has even more repercussions for short fiction. With magazine circulation declining year after year, something has got to change. It's getting to the point where it will no longer be economically feasible to make money off of it. It's been pointed out that stories that would have once found themselves as shorts now find themselves artificially bloated into novels, because authors are abandoning the short story. So short stories are either going to find themselves in original anthologies (like Lou Anders is doing) or they're going to have to find a new delivery system besides the monthly periodical. The only options are giving it away for free on a site like Strange Horizons or doing it in a subscription podcast form. ROLLBACK by Robert J. Sawyer Tor/SciFi Don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but the first thought that popped into my head after I finished Rollback was how odd it was for this to come out around the same time as Aronofsky's The Fountain. Both deal with the quest for immortality, in the personal and the cosmic sense, both focus around a man having to watch the love of his life die. Not that they invented the theme. One of the most common motifs from mythology that was adopted into SF has always been the whole 'Fountain of Youth' or 'Elixir of Life' bit. More often than not it comes to us as a cautionary tale. It's kind one of those holdovers from the gothic tradition that SF grew out of. Both George Bernard Shaw and co-inventor-of-the-word-robot Karel Capek wrote plays about it, Shaw believing that it was an inevitable gift of progress and Capek believing it would be terrible curse. Virtually every major writer of SF has written at least one of these stories. Heinlein gave us probably the most famous example in Time Enough for Love. Poul Anderson had Boat of a Million Years. Jack Vance had To Live Forever. Bester had Extro. And that's not even counting the billions of relativistic time dilation stories like Forever War and Tau Zero. Most recently we had it touched upon in Vinge's Rainbows End. Today you'll find most fountain of youth stories coming down on one side or another. It's hard to say where Rollback falls along those lines. Rollback, like The Fountain, isn't much concerned with the social ramifications of an end to aging, as it is concerned with telling a tragic love story, and how for beings finite in time such as ourselves, love will always be a fleeting thing. On March 1, 2009, a signal was received from Sigma Draconis, 18.8 light years away. A middle aged radio astronomer named Sarah Halifax was the first to crack the code and figure out what they were saying. A year later we responded with our own message, and since then the world has gone on, and many have forgotten about the day the aliens said hello. Sarah Halifax has drifted into obscurity, had a family, and time marched on as time has a way of doing. She had her big discovery, and for most scientists, that means your life is over. Now Sarah Halifax is in her eighties, and their reply has just come in. The chief funder of SETI, the billionaire Paul Allen/S.R. Hadden figure offers to have her “rolled back” so that she has time to decipher the message. A roll-back is a complete rejuvenation back to the point that you stopped growing, around your mid-twenties. Usually available only to the richest of the super-rich, it's an offer very few would refuse. Except for Sarah Halifax, who declines the offer unless her husband can join her. The plan goes a bit awry when the rollback works for her husband, but not for her. Suddenly she's sharing her house and her bed with a twenty five year old. They begin to drift apart as the age gap proves too much for love to bridge. Sarah loses herself in her work, and Don begins to create a secret alternate life without her. When Don begins having an affair with someone his own age, only to discover the real reason why he sought the woman out, Sawyer (either intentionally or not, it's a brilliant idea) raises some nifty ideas about free will. If we could go and experience it all over again, would we have a choice to do it differently or not? Would we subconsciously repeat all the decisions we made when we were young, even knowing how they turned out? It's actually such a brilliant twist that it's sad when it's not explored later on more fully. Now there's always a fine line between influence and imitation. Obviously Sawyer is using elements of Contact, the question is does it help or hinder the story. It's a bit distracting, especially when the characters actually sit down and watch Contact and we get to listen to them do their little DVD running commentary. But of course First Contact isn't what Rollback is about. Sawyer has his eyes closer to home. Even the Sigma Draconins themselves only serve the purpose of investigating immortality on a universal scale. Like bacteria (which are essentially immortal), they have ring-shaped chromosomes, and unlike our 'interlocking shoelace' shaped chromosomes which decay after a certain number of cell divisions, causing aging, the Sigma Draconins will never age. They have no concept of 'growing old' or dying by natural causes. They had no idea that Sarah Halifax wouldn't be there forever to talk to them. Another interesting idea Sawyer just touches on is Dawkins' application of kin selection over timescales to explain why we humans have such a short attention span. Why do we say 'OMG THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!' all the time, at the same time knowing that we're leaving them a broken planet, now being destroyed by anthropogenic climate change and mass extinction? Well basically kin selection says the degree to which we care about another person is directly proportional to how many genes they share in common with us. And anyone living further than a few generations down the line will share about as many genes in common with as thousands of other people you've never met. Our selfish genes condition us not to give a crap. Paul Di Filippo, in his review earlier this month at Scifi Weekly called Rollback a mash-up of Contact, Cocoon and On Golden Pond and I probably couldn't disagree. So many of these ideas have been covered before(and with greater skill), but at the same time, there's enough new ideas---and enough characters that we care about---to make this one really worth reading. Paul Di Filippo also thought this was an interesting metaphor for SF as a whole, as it ages and stagnates, and desperately seeks its own “rollback”. I wouldn't go that far. Rollback, like Donald Halifax is both old and new, both well-worn and fresh. And as long as we have characters we feel for and ideas that make us think, SF may live yet. Anyway, somewhere among the pile on my desk is The Raw Shark Texts (courtesy of one Frank Bascombe, yes I know it's been out for a month already...), the sequel to Slan (50-years-in-the-making!!!), Ian MacDonald's Brasyl, Sandworms of Dune, Best American Fantasy and a few surprises that you may not have heard of yet, but will be making noise by the end of summer. At least I won't be bored any time soon. In the meantime, let me know how I’m doing.