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AICN BOOKS! Adam Balm On SANDWORMS OF DUNE, Brin’s SKY HORIZON, New Van Vogt/Kevin J. Anderson And BRASYL!

Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. I’ve got two AICN BOOKS columns for you today, and the first is from our own Adam Balm, SF nerd extraordinaire. Glad to see his health’s on the upswing again, and not just so we get a new column. And it’s a good one this month, too...

Okay, so I was planning to open with a bit of bad news/good news. The bad news, as some already know, was that I had a return of my pneumonia from last year, which on top of all my other health problems pretty much guaranteed no column for the month of June. The good news was supposed to be “Yikes, that means in order to get caught up I'll have to cut the fat that usually dogs this column every month.” But as you can see, it ended up being just as long. Oh well. In any event, at least for brevity's sake I'm combining Kevin J. Anderson's two summer books, SLANT HUNTER and SANDWORMS OF DUNE, into one double-header just because otherwise I'd end up repeating myself. I'll probably be playing catch up for a while as I clear the pile off my desk, so you may be seeing a bit more of me in the coming weeks. Anyway, here's the playlist: SANDWORMS OF DUNE by Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert SLAN HUNTER by Kevin J. Anderson and A.E. Van Vogt SKY HORIZON by DAVID BRIN OVERDUE BOOKS: BRASYL by Ian MacDonald SANDWORMS OF DUNE by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson Tor/SciFi There's a moment toward the end of SANDWORMS OF DUNE where a major character walks through a palace she had once called home, a place that we know from thousands of years before. She walks through it and sees that it's now filled with cheap imitations, knock-offs in an attempt to recreate the way it used to be. It's a wistful moment. No one remembers that this isn't how it really was, no one knows that everything's just a copy of a copy. And so likewise is SANDWORMS OF DUNE (which strangely enough isn't really all that much about sandworms) filled with copies of the characters from throughout the series: The gholas of Duncan Idaho, Wellington Yeuh, Thufir Hawat, Liet-Kynes, Stilgar, Chani, Leto II, Baron Harkonnen, Jessica, and two---count 'em TWO----Paul Atreideses. (For the uninitiated, I suppose you can think of a ghola as a kind of clone that can regain its original's memories.) If that's not enough, the face dancers (kind of like shape shifters) prove to be another source of copies, stealing the appearance and identities of people, in order to fulfill their own secret agenda. Here we have the entire cast is assembled, all together again for one last time, and we clap politely as they make their final bow and then exit stage left. But of course it's not the cast we know. It's not the Dune we know. It lacks the poetry and density. This of course, as explained in the foreword to Hunters, was a conscious decision on the parts of Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. They weren't going to try to replicate the style of Frank Herbert's writing. Granted, that's a move you can respect. I mean, not everyone likes their fiction peppered with 30 page long conversations of pseudo-philosophical bits of fortune cookie wisdom. But at the same time the work suffers too often from just not 'feeling like Dune'. On the other hand where it suffers in complexity, it makes up for in accessibility, which was what KJVA and Brian Herbert intended all along. The Dune books had sold successively worse and worse with each new book, as it became ever more obscure and Byzantine, and they wanted to reverse that trend. Consequently, you'll have very little problem jumping back into the Duneiverse after years of absence. Everything is recapped and re-explained. It's a page turner, it's never boring, but it's also never confounding or mind-expanding. We pick up right where HUNTERS left off, with the crew of the no-ship Ithaca, and its family of gholas still fleeing from the tachyon web of the enemy, still hiding from the old man and woman who have been hunting them since fleeing Chapterhouse. The old man and woman (who were revealed at the end of Hunters of Dune to be Omnius and Erasmus, the thinking machine enemies of the Butlerian Jihad tens of thousands of years ago) are hell bent on finding the no-ship, convinced it contains the final Kwisatz Haderach. And whoever controls the Kwizats Haderach will be the victor in the coming Kralizec, the war at the end of the universe. At the same time, we follow Mother Commander Murbella on Chapterhouse, as the New Sisterhood desperately gears up to produce a war machine to stand against the coming onslaught of the unknown Enemy. We see humanity fractured more than at any time since the scattering, with the Guild seeking to replace the Navigators and the Navigators seeking to rise up against the Guild in some way. The third strand of the story concerns itself with the Baron Harkonnen ghola raising Paolo, the twisted evil incarnation of Paul, created to serve the ambitions of the thinking machines. The thinking machines themselves are probably the weakest point of SANDWORMS, and for the most part completely interchangeable with the robot baddies from The Matrix or Terminator, or Battlestar. “Well, we want to wipe out humans, but gosh, humans are such a mystery with their illogical behavior so maybe we should try to understand them while we kill them...” Which brings me to the ending. Now in a book whose entire purpose is to be an ending, it's almost impossible to discuss the relative merits of the book without talking about the ending itself. So, trying my best to avoid spoilage, I have to say that my biggest problem with SANDWORMS is in fact the ending, and how it seems to be in complete philosophical opposition to what Herbert stated as his intention with the Dune chronicles. Herbert was always somewhat cagey when asked about what Dune was supposed to mean, and of course there was never one single theme, but more a “fugue” of them. One theme was the allegory about our dependence on fossil fuels. (“The scarce water of Dune is an exact analog of oil scarcity.”, “CHOAM is OPEC”) Another theme was how humans interact with and change our environment. Another theme was predestination and if free will could be reconciled with it at all. But probably the biggest theme that Herbert said he wanted to explore, and the initial stated purpose of Dune, was to show the danger in our blind faith in heroes. It was the first major science fiction work to hold up a mirror to SF's cult of the hero and make us take a good hard look at the John Carters, Flash Gordons, John Stars, Perry Rhodans, and see the road that hero worship always leads to. As Michael Moorcock wrote "The bandit hero -- the underdog rebel -- so frequently becomes the political tyrant; and we are perpetually astonished! Heroes betray us. By having them, in real life, we betray ourselves." We cheered as Paul Atreides rallied an army of desert outcasts to overthrow a corrupt and stagnant empire. We then gasped in horror when he launched his genocidal jihad on the worlds of the Imperium who refuse his authority. We cheer as his son Leto overcomes conspiring factions to assume his rightful place as Emperor, and promises to enact his golden path. We then gasp in horror as the God Emperor becomes The Tyrant, and his Golden Path is a prison. But of course, the brilliance was that the Tyrant knew this. It was the entire point. The Golden Path seemed like Leto's way to burn this message into the consciousness of humanity, so that they would never again desire or need one man to lead them, so that they could determine their own destiny. So thousands of years later, as the saga wraps to a close...where are we at the end? Well, [MAJOR SPOILAGE WARNING] we may be back with the prospect of one man, the final Kwisatz Haderach, leading and dictatorially ruling over humanity again. (Actually, not just all humanity...) Meet the new messiah, same as the old messiah. [END MAJOR SPOILAGE] The problem isn't that the same human tragedies keep cropping up again and again, the problem is this irony seems completely lost on the writers. The irony is lost in an adrenaline high to cheer on the new hero who'll make it all right again. But that rant aside, SANDWORMS is never a “bad” book, per se. As I said, Tor, KJA, and Brian Herbert all know what they're doing. For the first time in two decades, Dune is back on the best-seller lists and being read like never before and along with POTTER 7 and HURIN, this is one of the three most anticipated genre books of the year. It certainly won't hurt that SANDWORMS is entertaining, fast paced in the tradition of modern baroque space opera, and guiltily I have to admit that it's a great ride to be on. For those of us who wanted Frank Herbert, well, we don't get him here. We don't even get the cheap ghola imitation many might accuse this of being. Instead, what we do get is something else entirely, something that many fans might not necessarily warm to. But if my own reading of it is any indicator, I wouldn't be surprised if both those who are satisfied and those that are left unsatisfied with SANDWORMS will both find themselves wanting to go back and re-read the original. The former because they'll be energized by a return to the universe they love so much, the latter because they realize how precious the original now is. SANDWORMS OF DUNE's national release date is August 21st. SLAN HUNTER by A.E. Van Vogt and Kevin J. Anderson Tor I often say in all sincerity that SLAN should really be taught in the classrooms. Not because it's all that good (It's Van Vogt's first, but definitely not his best.), but because I can only think of maybe a handful of novels in the 20th century that have had such an impact on pop culture. Any time you see the story of the gifted mutant, that next step in human evolution persecuted and misunderstood by an intolerant society, you're seeing Slan. Without it, we wouldn't have X-Men, and we wouldn't have HEROES. 'Fans are Slans' became one of the first rallying cries of organized fandom, and there's the often genuinely retold anecdote of the commune that was founded in its honor, with its members believing themselves to be Slans, even dying their hair to mimic the golden tendrils of the race. (So any time you think Trekkers are creepy, think of that.) It was the first in a long line of genre fiction that reinforced the geek wish-fulfillment dream that 'you're hated because you're different, different because you're better, better because you're smarter, better because you were meant to be.' But I repeat myself, I've talked about this before. SLAN begins with Jommy Cross, a boy Slan, on the run with his mother, fleeing from the secret police, the dreaded 'Slan Hunters'. Marked by their tendrils, they're pretty much what you'd expect in a superhuman power fantasy. They can read minds, fight with superstrength, learn and think faster than humans, etc. (And as you can only find in the golden age, Jommy even discovers a power of super-hypnotism involving crystals. God someone please pick up this trope.) Once, in the Slan Wars, the Slans forced their way into power and tried to take possession of the entire earth, but now they've been hunted nearly to extinction. After his mother is taken and killed, for all Jommy knows, he could be the last one. As he evades Secret Police Chief John Petty and his Slan Hunters, he in no particular order: gets kidnapped by a senile old witch only known as "granny", learns of his father's superscience research, finds an atomic disintegrator tube his father had left for him, discovers a twisted "tendrilless" offshoot of the Slan race, builds a secret laboratory to continue his father's work, befriends a Slan girl named Kathleen, builds his own rocketship, and travels to Mars where he discovers the tendrilless Slans are planning an invasion of earth. Jommy rushes back to warn the world president/dictator, who then reveals himself as actually a Slan in hiding. It looks like the final Slan War may be upon them, when suddenly.... nothing. It ends there. Many have read in the implication that Jommy was going to marry President Gray's daughter (the aforementioned Slan girl) and ascend to the throne as world dictator, but there still is the matter of those whacky mutant invaders from Mars who are still on their way. In any event, it's probably not so uncommon to end a story like this in the pulp age. Often authors, paid by the word, would write up until they had reached their word count and sent the manuscript in. A.E. Van Vogt often thought of telling the rest of the story, and doing a sequel to Slan. Over the years he made notes, and finally in 1989 he started work on it. But he struggled. He was now over eighty years old, it became harder and harder for him to work. As his wife Lydia writes in the foreword, one day while they were discussing the ending, it became clear that he didn't understand what they were talking about. For years he had experienced memory lapses and episodes of confusion, but they had been explained as 'just getting older', but it as time went on, it appeared that there was something else that was wrong. And in the early 90s, they had just found a name for the disease that was afflicting him: Alzheimer's disease. The man who was best known for writing about superior minds had his own stolen from him. Probably the most surprising thing is how well he hid it for so long. Many fans would only find out on January 26, 2000, when it was announced that he had died. He was never able to finish his sequel to SLAN. But why let a little thing like that stop you. Unless you pull a Harlan Ellison (Who ordered all his unfinished writing to be burned upon his death), there's very little chance of your work dying with you. SLAN HUNTER begins with the radio announcements of a coup. Outed as a Slan, the world dictator has been overthrown, and John Petty has seized power. Jommy and Kathleen have been captured, and the Tendrilless slans prepare their invasion fleet. When the invasion fleet arrives and decimates earth, Ex-President Gray, Jommy, John Petty, and Kathleen escape in Jommy's rocket car, while a mysterious human woman in Centropolis goes on the run after giving birth to a Slan baby. And as Gray scrambles to contact the tendrilless faction on Mars, we discover more about the secret origin of the Slans, and how the conflict between true and tendrilless slan emerged. We also find out where the true Slans have been hiding all this time, and learn the secret origins of both President Kieron Gray and Jommy's father. Unlike in his Dune books, I honestly can't tell where Vogt leaves off and KJA begins. What works best about SLAN HUNTER is the fact that it doesn't aspire to, nor pretend to be, 21st century science fiction. It's written just as you'd find it serialized in the pages of Astounding. Flat screen monitors are still "visiplates", there's no internet, no video games, no i-pods. It does digress every now and then to explain why people could breathe on Mars in the original book, or why technology hasn't advanced all that much hundreds of years from now. But it never betrays its origins and never pretends to be hip and modern. In that way, it feels far truer to the spirit of its predecessor than SANDWORMS was. Strangely enough I've actually seen some reviews that view this as a negative, that it's just as dated, just as much an artifact of its time as the original. I'd be curious to know what just they expected from a continuation of a book from the 40s. I just hope the twist ending was a twist for its own sake, and not a set-up for another sequel. Sometimes stories deserve to be ended. SLAN HUNTER hit shelves on July 10th. SKY HORIZON (Colony High: Book 1) written by David Brin, Illustrations by Scott Hampton Subterranean Press Life sucks when you're David Brin. Author of STARTIDE RISING, co-architect of the SF counter-reformation in the 80s, he is going to be remembered as the dude who wrote a book called The Postman, that was turned into a...I guess you could call it a movie....that turned off the life support on Kevin Costner's career. It didn't matter that liberties were taken and the book wasn't bad at all, if a bit on the preachy side. But Brin has done us a mitzvah, the old bastard. He's gone and done something that science fiction writers are too good for. He done gone and wrote himself a juvenile, and besides being all set-up and no pay-off, it's not too bad of a read. I think I've complained enough about the lack of science fiction books written for young adults. Go into the children's section of your B&N, and you'll find plenty of stories of mystical warriors, witches, visits to strange magical realms, but very little offering in anything that could be called science fiction. In a genre built on the backs of HAVE SPACESUIT WILL TRAVEL and LUCKY STARR, and where ENDER'S GAME continually outsells virtually everything else in the market, there's a surprising display of amnesia at work when it comes to giving kids their gateway drugs to SF. So we can let out a collective cheer whenever an established author decides he'll break with tradition and write a juvenile, even if the juvenile in question is a bit on the 'meh' side. And 'meh' it is. Clearly using E.T. as a template, you could call SKY HORIZON "E.T. with the head, but not the heart." Here we find an army brat in a small town in southern California who stumbles upon a stranded alien. Mark Bamford, an extreme sports nut who has earned the nickname "Bam" (I know.), has heard a rumor going around campus that some math club geeks are hiding an alien in one of their basements. Now this strikes Bam as stupid, not least of which because southern California houses usually don't have basements. So he decides to do some digging, and it's not long before he finds that the alien (named 'Xeno') has been stolen from the math club by jocks. Here's where Brin intentionally plays against the E.T. story model. Rather than well-meaning kids rescuing the alien and trying to keep it out of the heartless and evil government's clutches, here we find kids keeping the alien in a dog kennel and charging an admission fee to see him. And so, our hero ironically saves the alien by snitching him out to the man. Which, granted is somewhat more realistic, but also somewhat less dramatic. Of course he does so in a way that makes sure that Xeno isn't taken into some unnamed lab and dissected. He makes sure that when the black suits and the white unmarked vans pull up, they're surrounded by tv cameras and reporters. Which, of course, is what expect from the author of THE TRANSPARENT SOCIETY, and yes there's a certain logic to it...but that's also one of the problems with the story. The problem is that when 50 year old SF writers write teenagers, they write teenagers who talk like 50 year old SF writers trying to talk like teenagers; all detached and analytical without the slightest trace of being the littlest bit impulsive. Characters here don't make bad decisions. They aren't brash, jumping in too deep before they know what they're doing. The characters all think everything out ad infinitum before they act, which is something I don't exactly remember doing when I was a teenager. Although Orson Scott Card is able to write uber-analytical kids that still seem like kids, so maybe that's not the main problem. The basic theme of SKY HORIZON is an allusion to an old story where aliens come to earth in need of something we find relatively meaningless, such as a chemical from daisies. They offer to buy it from us, and we being humans say “Holy crap, they really gotta have this. Let's see how much we can get out of them.” The aliens offer free energy, starships, and more. But this is mere pittance to a god-like interstellar civilization. So we hold out. Finally we demand the hardest thing for them to give. We demand they say 'please'. They are enraged and they refuse, the moral being that you only say please to equals. We demanded to be recognized as equals, and that they could not do. Likewise, when the aliens come to rescue Xeno (Who's real name turns out to be Na-bistaka) they're not too grateful. They're pissed that they're now beholden to a type-zero civilization from nowhere. And as I said, the book is all set up----an increasing trend in genre fiction. Half the books on the new releases shelves now are emblazoned with something along the lines of "Part One of a six part galaxy spanning epic!". There's a growing contempt for the self-contained, satisfying story, which is of course economically driven. It's the salami effect. In any event, I suppose that ultimately when a book is all set-up, the criteria you have to use when judging its success is 'Does it make me want to buy the next one?' With SKY HORIZON, it's yes and no. Yes, I want to see where Brin goes with this, but not because the opening act was all that good. It's because it's Brin. SKY HORIZON will be released on August 20th. BRASYL [OVERDUE] by Ian MacDonald Pyr "Write what you know," is the first thing they teach you in a creative writing course. Write from experience. Tell your own story. Ian MacDonald on the other hand has become one of the top SF authors writing today by doing exactly the opposite. He writes what he doesn't know, or more accurately, he convinces you that he knows what he couldn't possibly know. And yet I walk away from this book convinced that he's lived it all. I absolutely believe that this middle-aged white Irishman is also an indian boy, a self-absorbed Latin American woman, a Jesuit priest, and a walker between the universes. There's no other explanation. What he did for India in River of Gods, he does here for probably the strangest and most fascinating country in all the Americas, a country of broken dreams that still calls itself the nation of the future. The story (billed as a “Bladerunner in the tropics”) is split into past, present, and future visions of Brazil, which only really show their connection to each other in the final act. The present story gives us Marcelina Hoffman, a vain and ruthless television producer, who's about to discover a new meaning to the term 'reality' show. In the future, we join Edson, a small time thief who crosses paths with a rogue quantum computer hacker. And in the past we meet Father Luis Quinn, who's been given a Heart-of-Darkness/Apocalypse Now mission to travel up the Amazon to depose a renegade priest who is enslaving and destroying entire peoples in a belief that only he has the power to give souls to these savages. As the interwoven storylines progress, we pick up clues that bind them together, like mysterious knife-wielding Order that pursues the characters. Central to all stories is the parable of the shadows and the frog, which was first elaborated in David Deutsch's THE FABRIC OF REALITY. The gist of it is that, unlike humans, frogs can see individual photons. And throwing in the double-slit experiment, long story short is that it's suggested that by being able to see the fundamental interactions of the photons, you can see them interacting with their counterparts in parallel universes (If you're an Everett-Wheeler fan I guess. I suppose very different stories could be written about Cramer's or the Copenhagen interpretation.) and thus would be able to see into the multitude of all possible universes. But that kind of stuff is old hat to SF readers, especially toward the end where it kind of descends into territory already mined by Stephen Baxter and Greg Egan. But the brilliance lies in how MacDonald marries these tropes of radical Hard SF to the South American traditional themes of Latin American magical realism, melding it all together and spitting out something that feels like it's never been done before. And on top of that, there's probably at least two new ideas on every page that stops you cold in your tracks, where you put the book down and just stare into space. From the Q-blades (knives sharpened to the quantum level, so sharp they cut through everything, and if broken with fall down to the center of the earth), to a dark pan-multiverse secretive order determined to keep knowledge of other worlds hidden forever, to mountains of junk electronics, to 'the angels of perpetual surveillance' just end up hating this guy for being so damn clever. I keep kicking myself ever since finishing this. I've had a galley of BRASYL sitting on my desk since maybe March, and one of the coolest things since I started doing this gig has been that when you discover something brilliant before everyone else does, and you get to be the one to tell everyone that there's a masterpiece coming their way. But here we are, over a month after BRASYL came out in America, and here I am finally getting around to reviewing it. Oh well. Unlike Ian MacDonald, I'm going to write from experience here, and experience tells me that I'm never again going to sit on an Ian MacDonald book. BRASYL came out all the way back on May 3rd in the US, and June 21st in the UK. Alright that's all for now, except for one last bit of business to take care of. Some of you may recall an offhanded comment I made a few months back about the Clarke awards (which is awarded for SF novels published in Britain the previous year.), that I wouldn't be covering them this year and I suggested others do so as well. The reasons were that that Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon were both excluded from consideration in the Arthur C. Clarke awards because they weren't submitted by their publishers. I thought excluding them took away from the legitimacy of an award long known for its commitment to the best in genre fiction. My first mistake was that I've been working under the ASSumption that no one reads my column, otherwise I'd get more hatemail about my myriad grammatical and spelling errors/gross misrepresentation of the facts/crimes against internet journalism/subliminal plugs for scientology. So I wasn't very prepared for the shit-storm that followed. Now keep in mind that I wasn't the first to open up my big fat mouth about this, (John Clute had talked about it months before I did, among others.) but just the same, it seemed to get a lot of attention when I complained about it. I got emails from people in this industry I really respect, telling me they cheered when they saw that, while at the same time I saw other people blog about the statement calling it laughable and ridiculous. Most interesting was when I got an email from Tom Hunter, the head of the Clarkes. He wasn't too happy with what I had said, and he thought I had misunderstood their rules. So I asked him to enlighten me. We exchanged a few emails, and while I still disagree with denying authors nominations for reasons other than the quality of the work, I thought at the very least he deserved a rebuttal. And no, the irony isn't lost on me that I've basically gave them far more publicity than if I had kept my trap shut. In any event, straight from the horse's mouth, here's the official Clarke Award response to my boycotting of them: "I wasn't quite sure what to think when I first heard that this column was calling for people to boycott the Arthur C. Clarke Award, although I must admit to being at least a little bit thrilled to have the attention. After all the Clarke Award has always sought to position itself at the heart of the science fictional literature world, and from that point of view all feedback, criticism and comments are more than welcome. What heartens me most is the level of passion the Award continues to incite, and this can only be a positive thing moving forward. I did briefly concern me that the call for this boycott was a result of a misunderstanding over our rules of eligibility, specifically concerning two very well received books that were not ultimately considered for the Award. Just to clarify this, our current policy is that a book must have been actively submitted in order for it to be considered by the judging panel. This process isn't just a matter of sitting back and seeing what turns up, but rather forms part of a very proactive and ongoing dialogue with publishers. In certain cases a publisher may actively decline to submit a requested book (in others they submit ones that are not in fact eligible under our criteria just on the off chance), which is a position we respect, even if we may try very hard to persuade them otherwise. The case here is that two potentially high profile books weren't considered eligible for entirely legitimate though regrettable reasons. We'd have loved to see them both submitted and made every effort to make this happen. Whether they would have actually made it to the shortlist we couldn't say (anything can happen in the world of literature awards after all) but that would have been a much more fun and legitimate debate. What encourages me most about this particular instance is that in this case the Clarke Award has been singled out for not including enough borderline science fiction/mainstream literary publications, which certainly makes a refreshing change from the more usual outcry that we're neglecting traditional SF novels in a search for some kind of perceived but unspecified literary street-cred. I'd like to thank all at Aint It Cool News for the commitment and support they have shown to the spirit of the Clarke Award, and look forward to many exciting years to come." -- Tom Hunter, Award Administrator Anyway, I'll be playing double duty trying to catch up including the latest from Neil Gaiman, Brian Aldiss, William Gibson, and one that I already hinted at in previous columns as one of the most original books of the year. And as always, feel free to tell me why I'm wrong. Adam Balm
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