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The Bitter Guide to Science Fiction


Hey. The clock on the wall says it's two in the morning on a Tuesday in Mid-September. That means a couple things. A) It's last call, but since I don't drink, not that important. B) I should have got the Bitter Guide in a couple weeks ago.

You'll note the complete lack of fear in my voice. But, hey, you're here, I'm here, let's get bitter.

First off, Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge. This is a huge book, and by huge book, I mean it took me a long time to read it. It's a sprawling space opera epic. And, my God. It took me all summer to get through this sucker. And it's not like I was that busy this summer, either. I had five classes (one of which was Humanities, and it's time for a short digression. The only people who are take Humanities and the various General Education courses are people A) too stupid or B) too lazy to get out of taking them), and that wasn't that heavy a course load.

But it still took me two months to get through this book. One thing I noticed while reading it was that about 90% of the reviews were screaming "Hey, Vernor! You clear off a spot on that mantelpiece, boy! You've got a Hugo coming, this time for sure! Whooooaaa, mama!" Now, while that isn't that bad a sentiment to offer in a review, it may be kinda cruel to get his hopes up like that, and come Huge day, he'll be standing in the audience, sobbing like a little girl (since I hear he did get one for it, it's okay).

The novel itself didn't suck. It was sprawling (have I mention it sprawled?), although the map in the front didn't seem to help me much (I guess I just don't think three dimensionally enough), and had a neat central idea. That being that the galaxy is layered, and the further you get from galactic central point, the smarter you can get (although no matter where you go, there will always be Scotsmen), until you can eventually become godlike. Or, for that matter, meet the devil, which is where this book starts.

In it, a group of data archeologists open a database that releases a force for ultimate evil (and let me tell you, this gives a WHOLE new meaning to 'corrupted data'). Anyway, the devil takes over chunks of the galaxy, and starts killing people en masse. In the end, the final battle is the forces of evil against a bunch of talking dogs, some Norwegians, and a pair of talking plants. At least none of them are 'sassy'. To completely give away the ending of the story, the enemy is defeated by shutting off the lights for a quarter of the galaxy.

It's not that bad a book. The characters are interesting, and the political dynamics of the world of dog packs is cool, but it took way too long for way too little to happen. I admit, I wanted the final battle at Endor for a climax, and what I got was not it.

Scholar of Decay is a Tanya Huff book. Regular readers can now skip to the next review if they'd like. It's a Ravenloft novel, so my initial reaction to it was "oh, crap. Game fiction." In my experience, most game fiction sucks. I keep wondering to myself "why am I hearing dice"?

Thankfully, this wasn't so much RPG fiction as a novel set in an RPG setting. Which is good, cause I can only vaguely remember being bored to tears by Vampire of the Mists and passing off Knight of the Black Rose to the then current SO, before she ascended to the mantle of Demon-Ex, and not caring that much if I got it back. One thing I would (digression time again) like to get back someday are those damn Heart's Quest books (teen romance CYOA books from TSR); while I did buy them on a lark, and send them off as part of a care package, they were pretty cool and I wouldn't mind keeping them around. If anyone knows where I can grab me a copy of those suckers, I'd appreciate it.

Anyway, Scholar of Decay is a mystery/horror novel set in a dank decaying restoration city (kinda like pre-Revolutionary France) where noble families politic and scurry for power; scurry being the operative word, because they're all wererats. Think of it as Ridicule with lycanthropes. Into this walk a wizard and his naive (or just plain stupid) brother; the wizard is seeking a cure for his wife, who's been turned into a statue by an evil wizard, who has himself been trapped in our hero's brain.

It's an interesting read, with more than a couple goofs on the part of our great magi. "Oops! Shouldn't have cast Fireball in that room full of cotton that's been soaked in gunpowder! Shouldn't have cast lightening bolt while I was swimming!" The story is fairly interesting, especially for a game novel. Of course, I have to wonder about the choice of wererats as the main villains. Werewolves? Ohhh, scary. Vampires? Ohhh, scary. Fleshy golemy Frankensteiny type monsters? Oh. Scary. Wererats? Oh. Scary. Pardon me while I go get my large stick.

The Vampire's Beautiful Daughter by S.P. Somtow is an interesting little story (emphasize on little; the book didn't make me break a sweat) about a young man of Indian/Jewish/Polish descent whose mother transcribes his grandfather's sayings, and next thing you know, they're off to Beverly Hills (swimming pools, bloodsucking monsters of the night). Junior finds himself settling in among the folk of the hills, and many a joke is made at the expense of Political Correctness (I find it hard to remember kid's novels of my day being quite so, oh, assoholic).

Anyway, Little Johnny meets Rebecca, who's got a decision to make, in that when she hits 16, she's got the chance to become a Vampire. You'd think that old Vlad would give his little miss the chance to, oh, finish puberty before he goes initiating her into the ranks of the damned. Since it's a young adult novel, I'll assume I'd have enjoyed it significantly more if I'd been either young or an adult. I figure I'll keep it for my kids (considering what I was shanghaied for it by the SFBC, I'm not gonna dispose of it) right next to those Pyradin books (your opinion holds no water on those, buddy; I read them, I liked them) and my unread copies of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (thank GOD they're making a movie).

Weird Heroes Vol. 1 is an anthology of modern pulp stories edited by Byron Preiss, who has edited a lot of other anthologies, mostly dealing with horrific monsters (Ultimate Dracula, Ultimate Frankenstein, Ultimate Martha Stewart, etc). It is an interesting experiment, bringing comic book writers and artists & SF writers together to create modern pulp heroes.

Two managed to hold my interest for significant amounts of time; The Gypsy was an interesting one, and Stalker, by the late lamented Archie Goodwin, was a semi-hero who fought against evil forces in Oklahoma. Guts, on the other hand, was the story of a time travelling super-Jew who travels through time defusing horrid things that'll destroy life as we know it, and Rose is an old woman in Florida. The interview with Fritz Leiber was interesting, if more of a romp down memory lane than a proper interview. It read more like a Tom Snyder transcript than anything else (did I mention that show causes me the willies?).

It's no surprise that I like Babylon 5. Everyone I know knows that, and either mocks or lauds me for it. However, it might come as a bit of a shock to hear me say that I did not enjoy Dark Genesis, the first book in the Psi Corps trilogy, by J. Gregory Keyes. To suggest I had problems with the pacing of the story is to insinuate I could find a pace within the story.

The novel, which told of the discovery of telepathy and the creation of the sinister Psi Corps, lurched along like an epileptic who'd just received a severe shock. It wasn't badly written, mind you. This wasn't helped by the fact 70 years could pass between chapters, with no more hint than the fact that a character who was 10 in one scene would suddenly be 80. This also caused me to hate the novel Sassinak, so that's hardly shocking. I just like to know when the events in the story are happening.

As a Babylon 5 novel, it falls down, especially since it has proudly pasted on the cover "from an outline by JMS". Tracking characters across the book was difficult, both with the time jumping and the fact they tended to go by a variety of names; how are you supposed to keep track of who is Blood, Barry, Monkey, George, Frank, Mick Foley, Dude Love and Mankind? By the end of the novel, that paragon of human rights, The Psi Corps has founded. How it happened, we don't really know, but it's sinister.

This is further proof of the hypothesis that Media SF sucks as a written genre, which bodes poorly for the copy of I, Jedi staring me in the eye from across the room. Damn book club. Thank God I've fulfilled my obligation to them.

The Wizard of Whitechapel, by Simon Hawke, author of The Wizard of Fourth St. That should have been a clue. More of a big warning sign. "You read the first book? No? What are you doing reading this one?" Fortunately, I don't pay attention to my internal monologue, so I bought it anyway.

It's a cheesy urban fantasy, with the normal stuff about how wonderful and fun loving ancient sorcerous peoples were, until they were slaughtered by the hateful folk from far lands (of course, midway through the book we get introduced to the human sacrifice rites of the Druids and Aztecs and other folk). It's set in some kind of post apocalyptic world, where magic has come back, and society has miraculously come back from nothing the same as it was before. Which, when you consider it, is kinda odd, as they can't keep track of which inbred honky is a noble, and which is just Scottish (wow; two in one column).

I didn't find the world all that interesting. I mean, there's enough mages around to drive cabs? Are there ICE engines left? If not, that means there's tonnes of drivers left, right? If not, why do people drive with car-mages, when they all seem pretty damn incompetent? The biggest flaw with the book was that I really couldn't find myself caring about any of the characters. If the bad guys had won, my reaction would have been something on the level of "oh. That was almost tragic." So, now, I have to glare at my copy of The Wizard of Rue Morgue I bought from the same UBS, and wonder what, exacly, I was thinking.

Well, that's it. A bad Calzone is gnawing its way through my stomach wall, so I'll be saying good night now.

Justin Mohareb, c/o bitter@rpg.net

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