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Book Review #1, by Eric Weeks

March 8, 1998
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This is the first of hopefully many reviews, so I will briefly introduce myself. My credentials for writing a review column include that I have read lots of sf books, and I have lots of opinions. I'm an experimental physicist, but despite that (or perhaps because of it) I care less for hard science fiction than for other varieties of sf. For the purpose of this review column, "sf" includes both science fiction and fantasy books, although I tend to read more of the former. My reading habits, and thus my book reviews, tend more towards old paperbacks I find in used bookstores, although I do occasionally buy a new hardcover book. Hopefully with this column I will occasionally point you towards old classics or interesting books by more or less obscure authors. Email is welcome (, and book publishers are welcome to send me lots of free books to review (don't email them, though).

I should mention my biases. I maintain the Theodore Sturgeon Page, and I also really like Philip K. Dick's short stories. My current favorite authors are Walter Jon Williams and Guy Gavriel Kay. Other biases I'll try to point out as I go along.

"Virtual Light," by William Gibson, Bantam Books, 1993, $5.99 in paperback

I read Neuromancer by Gibson several years ago, and found it a little hard to follow. After reading Virtual Light, I've decided to go back and give Neuromancer another try. Virtual Light is the story of Chevette, a bicycle messenger who steals a pair of Very Important sunglasses, and Rydell, a mostly unsuccessful rentacop who is brought in to find Chevette and the sunglasses. In the course of the story, we see futuristic Californian poverty, learn pieces of Chevette's life, and follow the various wrong turns Rydell's life has taken. Chevette and Rydell are the heroes of this book, struggling to deal with a cyberpunk world they poorly understand.

The book starts slowly, with flashbacks developing the characters and taking them up to the point the story actually begins. Once the sunglasses are stolen, the plot rapidly takes off and the flashbacks subside to an occasional murmur. Chevette works to understand why her theft is changing her life so dramatically, and what she can do about it. Rydell is moved about in the story by forces within and without that he doesn't understand, and the best parts of the book are when Rydell tries to figure out why everybody is so worked up about the sunglasses, and what his role is in getting them back. Rydell eventually catches up with Chevette and then struggles to figure out his next move; he's fundamentally an honest person, and has started to figure out that the job he's been hired to do perhaps isn't as honorable as he had thought.

William Gibson is regarded as the master of cyberpunk, and this book is an excellent example of the genre. The fun part is that neither of the main characters are typical cyberpunk characters; they are not computer hackers and they don't do drugs, for example. The quotes on the book cover compare Rydell to Raymond Chandler's detective Philip Marlowe. This comparison is apt in that Rydell is often maltreated by the people that deal with him in the gritty world of future California. The interesting difference from Marlowe is that Rydell, unlike a hard-boiled detective, is still trying to figure out who he is and what his place is in his world.

There are only a few weaknesses in this novel. The first chapter was particularly hard to read; it attempts to set the mood without introducing the plot, and I had to keep rereading sections to try to understand it. Eventually I realized that it was a mood-chapter and not a plot-chapter. The importance of the Very Important sunglasses that the plot revolves around is not adequately dealt with; an explanation is given, but there the specific reason they are important is fairly irrelevant to the rest of the plot. The flashbacks are sometimes disorienting early in the novel; I found it hard to grasp the plot while following two flashbacks occurring simultaneously in chapter 2. However, soon enough the plot is clear and the book becomes hard to put down. Fans of William Gibson won't be disappointed, and newcomers to cyberpunk will find the book worth the first few difficult chapters (less difficult to cyberpunk aficianados).

"The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell," by Harry Harrison, Tor Books, 1996

The latest novel in the series of the Stainless Steel Rat finds Jim diGriz going from the frying pan into the hellfire to save his wife. Harrison started this humorous sf series in 1961 with The Stainless Steel Rat, and this latest book is one of the better ones of the series. It is useful to have read the other books in the series, and many are still in print. However, this book does stand alone, and can be easily enjoyed without having read the others. Jim diGriz, the title character of the series, is a former crook and con artist who now works for the good guys. However, he continues to steal and cheat the sheeplike citizens of the universe, to keep himself from getting bored.

In this particular book, his wife (also a former criminal mastermind working for the good guys) disappears after visiting the Temple of Eternal Truth. The Rat finds that her kidnappers are more powerful than your average religious con-men, but as a man who once saved the universe (in the book The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the Universe), nothing daunts him, not even being sent literally to hell. Despite being in hell, this remains a science fiction novel (a light-hearted one, to be sure) and technology and quick-thinking save the day.

If you've liked the other books in the series, you'll definitely enjoy this one. Some of Harrison's books are very similar to each other in that their humor derives from having the main character deal with the catch-22 nature of the military; this book doesn't have that problem. (See Bill the Galactic Hero, as well as some of the Stainless Steel Rat books, for the military based humor.) If you haven't read the other books in this series, I still recommend this one; the series is written so that any of the books can be read in any order, although there is progression in the Rat's life from book to book. While the science fiction elements in the story are reasonable, the novel is more for entertainment than for science fiction. The one criticism I'd have is that it is fairly obvious while reading the book at what point Jim's plans are going to start succeeding (rather than getting him into deeper trouble), but this is the nature of such books; eventually the characters have to find a way to wrap things up.

"Wolfling," by Gordon R. Dickson, Dell Publishing, 1968.
"Hour of the Horde," by Gordon R. Dickson, DAW Books, 1970.
"The Outposter," by Gordon R. Dickson, Baen Books, 1972.

Gordon R. Dickson is best known for his many volume Childe Cycle series (also known as the Dorsai series, after one of the most popular books in the series). He started writing that series in the 1960's, and continues adding books now. The three books listed above were written earlier in his career, and are unconnected to the universe of the Childe Cycle (and unconnected to each other). However, they are remarkably similar to the typical Childe Cycle novel.

Each of these three books features an extraordinary, unique man, with talents or capabilities well beyond his peers. In all three books, there is a female character who is attracted to this man, because he is so unique and powerful. However, this romance interest remains in the background of the story, to let the main character go out and do what he's uniquely capable of doing. Wolfling sends Jim Keil to deal with the alien rulers of a decadent but powerful galactic Empire. Despite lack of technology and physical inferiority to the aliens, he succeeds in his dealings due to sheer will power. Hour of the Horde has Miles Vander representing the human race in a vast war against invaders from another galaxy. The human race is so backwards compared to the superior technology of the aliens of our galaxy that Vander is essentially cannon fodder in the war. Despite this, his determination turns the tide in the car. Both Wolfling and Hour of the Horde feature determined, driven humans triumphing over the technologically superior but spiritually weaker aliens. In Outposter, Mark 10 Roos is a superior man in charge of a human colony. Due to his strong drive, he fends off aliens which have been harassing the human colonies for decades, and organizes his colony to make it self-sufficient and independent of Earth.

Dickson clearly writes this sort of novel well, novels centering around one male person who has more drive and willpower than those around him, and thus is able to accomplish wonderful things by organizing those around him and taking actions others are too timid to contemplate. In the Childe series novels, these characters are serving a larger purpose of advancing Dickson's vast future history and illuminating what Dickson sees as important human values and characteristics. In the three novels above, the scope is smaller and the novels are aiming more for pure entertainment. They are enjoyable reads, if you like this sort of novel that Dickson writes. Hour of the Horde is the most straightforward entertainment. Wolfling has elements of a mystery in it, although the resolution is a tiny bit unsatisfying. Outposter was my favorite, perhaps because it most strongly resembled the Childe Cycle novels. Mark 10 Roos has to organize human beings to solve problems, rather than merely saving the universe by himself.