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Book Review #3, by Eric Weeks

April 5, 1998
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"Space War Blues," by Richard A. Lupoff, Dell Publishing, 1978.

This book starts with a lengthy introduction by Harlan Ellison, who loves this book. If you've read much Ellison before, you can probably understand that his introduction makes it clear that people who don't love this book are cretins. So I will try to carefully explain why this book falls short of the expectations I had from Ellison's opinion.

The plot is straightforward. Planets were long ago colonized by people from various different USA states, as well as small countries and territories. The white, racist people of N'Alabama are at war with the peaceful, black people of N'Haiti. On other planets such as N'Jaja ("New Georgia"), the whites are also racist, but unwilling to enter the war to help N'Alabama. The book hops from character to character, showing us scenes from the war, scenes on the two planets which are depleted through the war effort, and scenes of innocent bystanders (such as an ambassador from a bi-racial planet N'Louisana which is nominally an ally of N'Alabama).

My biggest problem with this book is that over a third of it is written in a futuristic "southern" dialect, which is hard to read. For example, "he thinks nownena summiz budies din maygit back fum the battle" for "he thinks now and then that some of his buddies didn't make it back from the battle." The dialect is sufficiently confusing that it has to be read slowly for comprehension. The only purpose of this dialect seems to be to emphasize that the racists of N'Alabama are stupid hicks. I don't care for that sort of tactic in a book, especially at the expense of making it hard to read.

A second problem with this book is that it is pieced together from previous stories written between 1967 and 1977, most notably the "Bentfin Boomer" stories (one of which appeared in Ellison's anthology Again, Dangerous Visions). The patchwork of the stories is weak. For example, the story of the ambassador from the bi-racial planet gets dropped early in the book without explanation, and I felt without completion. Other stories only seem loosely connected to the main plot.

A final problem I had with this book is that it seems to lack something significant to say. We already know racism is bad; we know racists are stupid. This book doesn't say anything past that. It offers no real insight into why the racists are the way they are, for example.

So what is good about this book? There are some excellent vignettes: the life of devolved humans floating in an ocean who no longer think, only sense (these creatures become important in the war); the story of the life and culture of aborigines originally from Australia who pilot space ships; a scene showing the impact of reintroducing a form of voodoo to the N'Haiti culture. Also, the characters introduced in the sections written in the southern dialect are solid and believable... I just wish those sections were easier to read. I can imagine in the mid-70's when Ellison was reading this book, that the book might have seemed more daring, shocking, and important, but I consider this only a 2 1/2 star book.

"The Adventures of Terra Tarkington," by Sharon Webb, Bantam Books, 1985.

Terra is a nurse, working far from Earth where she is one of only four humans to be working in a hospital with aliens as staff and patients. Her training is in alien medicine, but she still has troubles working with giant worm-like patients and cockroach doctors. Her bungling attempts to do the right thing to help her alien patients successfully drives the humor in the book. In addition to her medical and sociological difficulties, Terra doesn't realize that she is involved in a spy-vs-spy conflict.

Sharon Webb has collected five stories about Terra Tarkington, member of the Interstellar Nurses Corps, and written them into this humorous novel. Unfortunately the translation from short stories to novel form has diluted the individual stories and some of the humor. This book is even more of a patchwork than Space War Blues. I think the conflict between spy organizations GIA and KBG was not present when the stories were originally written, but in the novel it is presented as the central plot. This removes some of the charm of the original stories. Rather than being enjoyable stories by themselves, now they are minor appendages to the spy story. However, the pace of the spy story is tied to the original stories, and thus the spy plot moves sluggishly until near the end of the novel. I think the book would have been much better as a story collection, using the Terra Tarkington stories in their original form, and then writing a new novelette for the spy story. The bottom line is that the writing is funny, especially if you enjoy puns, but the plots of the stories are not as strong or funny as they were originally. 2 stars.

"The Cursed," by Dave Duncan, Ballatine Books, 1995.

Well, I just finished reviewing two books that were less than 3 stars, and I wanted to read a book that I'd like better. I also realized that while I mentioned in my first review that I'd review fantasy novels as well as science fiction, I hadn't yet read one. So, I decided to reread The Cursed. My impression from the first reading has not changed: this is a 3 1/2 star book, and it was definitely worth the re-read.

One reason I like Dave Duncan's novels is that they are not predictable. Good people can die, tragic things can happen, his books are not simply light hearted adventures where you know the ending. Not that this gives away anything about this particular book; I mostly mean that you cannot draw conclusions at the beginning of the book such as "these two characters will hate each other for a few chapters but then fall in love," or "this naive but good-hearted lad will become a skilled warrior and leader by the end of the book." Well, perhaps for some of his books you can do that (I just remembered the A Man of His Word series by Duncan), although even in those books the plots aren't very predictable.

For this book, I suspect Duncan decided to create a fantasy world that was truly unique, and he has succeeded. Forget magicians and elves (not that they can't make for good books too). In this world, some people are Cursed with special powers. These people aren't called Cursed for nothing -- while their powers can be positive at times, they also have bad side effects which result in most normal people trying to kill the Cursed or at least drive them away. For example, some people have the power to heal, but also the power to inflict suffering when they get angry. Other Cursed go insane through the side effects. The societal implications of having these people around are well dealt with in this book. There are six flavors of Cursed people, which are introduced gradually so that it is not hard to keep them straight.

That's the background. The characters are Gwin Solith, an innkeeper, and Bulion Tharn, a farmer. The plot is not uncommon for fantasy novels: these two normal people are swept into adventure they did not ask for. The source of the adventure is that certain prophesies have specifically named Bulion as the founder of a new empire. Uniting the local squabbling kingdoms into an empire would be useful, as barbarian hordes are preparing to invade the land, and will reach Bulion's farm sooner or later. While the prophesies are hard to believe, especially once you get to know Bulion, enough other people believe them to cause problems for Bulion. Gwin ends up coming along with Bulion on these adventures, and as the book progresses it becomes clear that both Gwin and Bulion are more important people than they ever wanted to be, although it is still not clear that the prophesies are necessarily true.

One of the best elements in this book is Tibal, a character who can see the future. Tibal's particular Curse is that his memories work in reverse; he remembers the future and has forgotten the past. I know what you're thinking -- "uh oh, sounds like another novel with time travel sorts of paradoxes which are poorly resolved." That's why I like this book: this future-memory is done very nicely. If such a person reveals information which changes the future, then their memories become distorted and they instantly go insane. Thus, such people avoid saying anything about the future, and those who do -- the prophets mentioned before -- go insane, allowing room for the prophesy to be wrong. Thus Tibal is an interesting character, who sometimes slightly foreshadows events, but not enough to make the book inconsistent or predictable. In fact, this is one of the reasons this book makes for great rereading. While it is perfectly enjoyable on the first reading, the second reading allows you a chance to watch Tibal more closely to see how he does respond to future events. (Still, I would not give a book 3 1/2 stars if a rereading was necessary.) I do like the way this book deals with future-memory better than Piers Anthony's book Bearing an Hourglass (although I haven't read that book in a very long time.)

Other reasons I like this book include an interesting barbarian horde, interesting characters, an occasional dash of philosophy, and some parts that are really funny. Anything wrong with this book? The main characters have fairly unsurprising personalities, but they are likable and interesting. There's no other real flaws, although this book isn't epic enough to merit 4 stars. Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.