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Book Review #2, by Eric Weeks

March 22, 1998
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I've decided I should give the books I review a rating. 4 (out of 4) stars means the book is outstanding; I will use this rating only for truly rare & great books. 3 stars means a good, enjoyable read, 2 means you don't need to go out of your way to read it. 1 star books are probably only for true fans of an author, and a 0 star book is so horrible you shouldn't read it no matter what excuse (Xanth books, for example). I plan to avoid using 4 stars and 0 stars unless I come across a really worthy book, although I may tend to pick up 4 star books I've read before for rereading and review them.

The previous books I reviewed were Virtual Light by William Gibson (3 stars), The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell by Harry Harrison (3 stars), and three books by Gordon R. Dickson (2 stars each, maybe 2 1/2 stars for Outlander). These ratings are for books considered in their categories; Virtual Light is a 3 star cyberpunk book, and The Stainless Steel Rat... is a 3 star fluffy humor book. (If you strongly protest that William Gibson, the master of cyberpunk, should not receive a 3 star rating for any cyberpunk book he writes, you're probably someone will read all of Gibson's books no matter what I think of them -- that's fine.)

"The Mountains of Majipoor," by Robert Silverberg, Bantam Books, 1995.

Currently there are five books in the Majipoor series (starting with Lord Valentine's Castle). This was the fourth book written, and the events in the book occur after the other four books. It is easily read by itself without having read any of the others. However, I would suggest starting with Lord Valentine's Castle for a better introduction to the series, and a more enjoyable book. This book is good, but has some flaws.

In The Mountains of Majipoor, Harpirias is a nobleman who has been sent on an unusual and unpleasant mission. He is to serve as an ambassador to a remote kingdom in the mountains, to make a treaty with primitive people. If you haven't read the previous books, I should point out that this is, in fact, a science fiction book. The most interesting part of the book is not Harpirias's dealings with the king of the primitive tribe, but with Korinaam the Shapeshifter, his guide and interpreter. Shapeshifters are the original inhabitants of the planet Majipoor, and have been long oppressed by humans. The tensions between the human Harpirias and alien Korinaam are the strong point of the book.

However, I found the book frustrating. Harpirias is from a very technical society and is highly educated, yet has no clue how an ambassador should act. He ignores the advice of Korinaam, who is the only one who has dealt with the primitive people before. Also, the relationship between Korinaam and Harpirias never seems to improve as the book goes along. Not only does Harpirias struggle to understand the primitive people he is dealing with, he also struggles and fails to understand anything of Korinaam's personality.

In a good story, the main character(s) should show growth, and both Harpirias and Korinaam do grow. Perhaps it is only realistic that sometimes people fail to grow in all possible ways, that these two characters fail to grow to understand each other. I think I would enjoy another book which has Harpirias growing out of some of his ignorance, or else explains better his flaws. The book is enjoyable, but falls short of the earlier books in the series; I give it three stars out of four. (I'd give Lord Valentine's Castle 3 1/2 stars.)

"Anton York, Immortal," by Eando Binder, Belmont Books, 1965.

Eando Binder is the pseudonym of Earl and Otto Binder. This book is a collection of four stories written between 1937 and 1940 about Anton York and his wife, both of whom are immortal. Through centuries of scientific research, York wields colossal powers, both physical and mental. For example, at one point when York is not busy saving the universe, he casually rearranges the solar system for esthetic purposes, for which humanity is quite thankful. As he is so powerful, his adversaries in these stories are immortals as well; mere mortals are puny compared to York. In fact, York's battles tend to wipe out whole cities of normal people, but of course York is always fighting to save the entire human race from the nefarious schemes of the other immortals. The immortal bad guys always talk with exclamation points! Because they are so evil! And they will enslave the human race! And it's very melodramatic!

The chances that you'd be able to find this book anywhere are slim; I found it in a used bookstore, but I don't think many Eando Binder books are around. If you do find a book by Binder, I'd recommend it. This book is above average for the melodramatic space opera sort of sf written in the 1930's. For example, this book is less sexist than others of that time period. Anton York's wife Vera actually has some abilities of her own, and at one point in the book she solves a non-trivial science problem, not through a cliche such as "feminine intuition" but actual hard scientific work on her part. The book never uses the word "buxom" to describe her, a major difference from other 30's sf. A flaw in this novel and in most sf novels from the 30's is that the problems grow exponentially as things go on; the good guys and bad guys are always developing new weapons that are unimaginably more powerful than what they had a few pages ago, so powerful that exclamation points must be used to describe them! As I said above, you probably won't be able to find this exact book anywhere, but you may enjoy a similar book if you find one. This particular book I'd give 3 stars as an example of 30's sf, although it's only 1 1/2 stars when considering sf overall.

"After Long Silence," by Sheri S. Tepper, Bantam Books, 1987.

This is one of my favorite books by Tepper. The planet Jubal has been occupied by humans for many decades, and the BDL company has the exclusive rights to grow an important cash crop on the planet. Travel on the planet is difficult, due to the Presences. These are large crystalline structures above ground which are sensitive to vibrations (from vehicles, for example) and tend to resonate and explode. A guild of Tripsingers exists which has discovered effective "passwords" to sing near the Presences which somehow prevent the crystals from exploding, allowing caravans to pass. Thus the economic growth of the planet is limited by the difficulty of travel, and settlement is limited to the few areas without Presences.

The key question of this book is whether or not the Presences are sentient. If they are, and it can be proven, then the BDL corporation will be forced to leave by the off-planet government. If not, the exploitation of the planet by BDL can be escalated. In case you are in doubt of which outcome is more desirable, BDL is headed by extremely evil people. The planet is already a "company planet" and clearly the quality of life will worsen if BDL can show the Presences are nonsentient.

The main character is Tripsinger Tasmin Ferrence, although several other characters are also well developed. The good guys have discovered some clues that hint that the Presences are sentient, and they must find more evidence and determine what to do with it all. BDL wants to stop them, and has already corrupted other Tripsingers and also is covertly sponsoring anti-Tripsinger religious fanatics. In addition to this main plot, Tasmin has to deal with the death of his wife, and is forced to reevaluate much of his past life. In fact, all of the main characters are well-developed and interesting people. The only exception is that the villains are horribly evil, one-dimensional people, with no real explanation for their evil nature other than "power corrupts".

I give this book 3 1/2 stars. I'd give it 4 stars, but I have to reserve a 4 star rating for another of Tepper's books, The Gate to Women's Country, which perhaps I will reread and review in the future. The only shortcoming of After Long Silence, compared with the other book, is that ALS lacks the "something to say" quality. ALS is entertaining but the only message this book tries to convey is a vague sense of environmentalism. It is "vague" as the key question the characters face is not truly environmentalism but sentience.