Visions of Paradise

Saturday, December 30, 2006


Stephen Baxter has the reputation of creating the fullest future history of any current science fiction writer. I have read a handful of his short stories and novellas in various best-of-the-year volumes, and they have been without exception excellent. So when Resplendent, a huge collection of his Xeelee short fiction, was published in England, I decided this was a good time to start reading his fiction in book form before trying one of his several series, which is never a good commitment to make with an author with whom I have limited experience.

Resplendent has verified my initial impression that Baxter is a fine storyteller with a strong sense of wonder and thought-provoking ideas. There is not a bad story in this 600+ page collection, and several of them are superb.

The first section Resurgence contains 4 stories about the Qax domination of Earth. This alien race attempts to eliminate all human culture and history, forcing all humans into “cadres” whose only loyalties lie to the Qax themselves. The exceptions are the immortal Pharoahs who carry out the Qax directives and their underling jasofts who are basically bureaucrats.

The first story “Cadre Siblings” shows life under the Qax. “Conurbation 2473" shows the typical human reaction to their suppressive dictators suddenly fleeing Earth, leaving Earthlings free for the first time in centuries. Rather than banding together to rebuild society, humans fight among themselves for dominance (such as what takes place virtually everywhere in the world nowadays). The best story of this group is “Reality Dust,” the story of a group of free humans pursuing fleeing Renegades to a moon of Jupiter where they find amazing scientific research taking place.

The next section The War with the Ghosts shows episodes from the millennia-long war between humans and a symbiotic race known as the Silver Ghosts. It is hard throughout this section to consider humans as anything but the villains of the war. The Ghosts are an advanced, peaceful race whose scientific knowledge far outshines that of humans. They have no interest in warfare, but their civilization stands in the path of humanity’s Third Expansion.

Consider the following exchange from “The Cold Sink” between a human and a Ghost ambassador which took place prior to the war:

“You see this place as a bolt-hole? What are you hiding from?”

“You,” said the Ambassador.

That took him aback.

“Jack Raoul, your Expansion is already expanding exponentially. We are in your way.”
Raoul had heard this said. The Ghosts’ home range lay between mankind and the rich fields of the Galaxy’s core, and the Expansion was pressing.

But he protested, “It’s a big Galaxy. It’s not even as if we are fighting over the same kinds of territory, or resources. Ghosts are adapted to the cold and dark, humans to deep gravity wells. There is room for all of us.”

“That is true,” said the Ambassador. “But irrelevant. Your expansion is fueled by ideology as much as by resource acquisition–and it is not an ideology that preaches of sharing.”

And the following discussion from “On the Orion Line”:

He said to me, “You see , child, as long as explorers and the mining fleets and the colony ships are pushing outwards, as long as the Third Expansion is growing, our economy works. But the system is utterly dependent on continual conquest. From virgin stars the riches can continue to flow inwards, into the older, mined-out systems, feeding a vast horde of humanity who have become more populous than the stars themselves. But as soon as that growth falters...”

Jeru was silent.

I understood some of this. This was a war of colonisation, of world-building. For a thousand years we had expanded steadily from star to star, using the resources of one system to explore, terraform and populate the worlds of the next. With too deep a break in that chain of exploitation, the enterprise broke down.

Baxter’s carefully-thought out future history is not the traditional sfnal one of mankind’s great expansion through the galaxy, exploring, colonizing and dealing with alien races as equals. Instead Baxter looks at our history, at humanity’s tendency toward greed and self-aggrandizement, and he envisions a future built on the same self-interest and arrogance. It makes for a thoughtful series of stories, but what it does not lend itself to is great heroes of the type found in the future history of, say, Poul Anderson, whose Nicholas Van Rijn is positively heroic by comparison.

After the war with the Ghosts ends, the human expansion continues, eventually bringing them into conflict with the Xeelee, a much older and more powerful race. In fact, the title of the book’s last section The Fall of Mankind gives some indication of how this war will ultimately end.
When I began reading Resplendent, in the back of my head was the image of Poul Anderson and his future histories about the Polesotechnic League and its successor Terran Empire. But as I got further into the book, I saw familiarities to another hard science fiction writer one generation later than Anderson, that being Larry Niven’s Known Space series. This image became most glaring when I reached “Lakes of Light” and its image of a spherical world enclosing a group of suns where life exists on the outside surface of the sphere. This was a truly wondrous concept akin to Niven’s Ringworld, and Baxter carries it off very well.

Baxter is very fond of wondrous images of the future, and one of his best are the giant Spline, living spaceships which early on co-exist with humans before becoming totally subservient to them in later millennia. These creatures are explored in depth in “Breeding Ground,” in which a group of survivors of a space battle are trapped inside one of the giant creatures as it returns to its home world.

For me, Resplendent reaches its peak in “The Chop Line,” a story set in 20,424 A.D. in the midst of the war with the Xeelee when it has entered a new phase involving time slips. The point of view character is a young female ensign on a Spline which has rescued another battered Spline which turns out to be one which is not even in military service yet at the time of the story, but will be two decades in the future. The wounded ship has engaged in a battle which, at the moment of its defeat, somehow slipped through time into the past. The ensign is stunned to recognize the ship’s captain whose “face seemed oddly reversed, as if she was a mirror image of what I was used to.”

One of the story’s finest scenes is when the captain is showing her younger self the injured Spline:

I knew where I was. “This is the hyperdrive chamber.”

“Yes.” She reached up and stroked fibres. “Magnificent, isn’t it? I remember when I first saw a Spline hyperdrive muscle–“

”Of course you remember.”


“Because it’s now. This is my first time seeing this. And I’m you.” Some day, I thought gloomily, I would inevitably find myself standing on the other side of this room, looking back at my own face.

It seems that in engaging in the battle which inflicted grievous injury on a Xeelee site as well as on the ship itself, the captain had violated a retreat order to do so. And now the navy was ordering the captain to be placed under inquiry, with her prosecuting advocate the young ensign destined to grow into her in twenty years.

“The Chop Line” is the most thought-provoking story in the book, partly for its insight into future paradoxes, but mostly for its glimpse at the logic of warfare in which both sides have the ability to forecast future scenarios and probabilities. Consider the following exchange in which one character learns that he is destined to die on the ship returning from battle into the past:

Tarco said apprehensively, “Sir, please–what about me?”

Gravely, Dakk handed him a data disk.

“Hey, buttface,” he said, reading. “You make me your exec. How about that. Maybe it was a bad year in the draft.”

I didn’t feel like laughing. “Read it all.”

“I know what it says.” His broad face was relaxed.

“You don’t make it home. That’s what it says, doesn’t it? You’re going to die out there, in the Fog.”

He actually smiled. “I’ve been anticipating this since the Torch came into port. Haven’t you?”

My mouth opened and closed, as if I was a swordtail fish in the belly of a Spline. “Call me unimaginative,” I said. “How can you accept this assignment, knowing it’s going to kill you?”

He seemed puzzled. “What else would I do?”

“The Chop Line” illustrates most of what I believe great science fiction should be: while simultaneously exploring a fully-realized future world involving believable, thinking human beings, it raises questions which need to be answered both by the story’s characters and also by the reader as well. It is the highlight of this entire book, and certainly one of my favorite sf stories of the current decade.

“Riding the Rock” illustrates several of Stephen Baxter’s philosophical premises for the entire Xeelee sequence: the importance of means versus ends, the natural conflict between devotion to the doctrine of human expansion and the need to balance practicality with philosophy. This story takes place during the war against the Xeelee, on the farthest edge of human expansion, away from the decision-making centers, where absolute control is necessarily more flexible, especially since all the humans in this region, whether soldiers or settlers from the previous Second Expansion, are fodder for the war against the enemy. Read the following explanation from one of the Commissaries visiting that edge:

“Ideally all human beings, across the Galaxy, would think exactly the same thought at every moment; that is what we must ultimately strive for. But out here on the fringe of the Expansion, where resources are limited, things are–looser. The three million inhabitants here have been left to their own devices–such as their own peculiar form of government, which lapsed into a kind of monarchy. The war against the Xeelee is a priority over cleansing the minds of a few fisher-folk on a dirt ball like this.”

“Riding the Rock” also illustrates the horrors of war in the needs for regimentation and preparing children as part of the totalitarian machine:

“Even in the face of violence a child’s social and moral concepts are surprisingly resilient; it takes a year or more before such things as family bonds are finally broken. After that the child crosses an inner threshold. Her sense of loyalty–why, her sense of self–becomes entwined not with he family but with the regime. And, of course, the first experience of combat itself is the final threshold. After that, with all she has seen and done, she cannot go home. She has been reborn. She doesn’t even want to be anywhere else.

This is a chilling story in its depiction of total devotion to war, even a war which Baxter reminds us from story to story is meaningless both in its causes and in its ultimate goals.

“Mayflower II” is a story I reviewed when it appeared in Jonathan Strahan’s Best Short Novels 2005. I said about it then,

“Mayflower II” is the story of a generation ship, but it takes a different approach than most stories of that particular sub-genre usually do. It is the story of the movers and shakers of the ship and how they try to protect the ultimate goal of the ship against the inevitable degeneration of the ship’s populace over the millennia. We watch the society alter, and the very intellectual level of the people erode, as the near-immortal protagonist himself watches it, knowing he is largely helpless to do anything about it, yet still make whatever small nudges he can to maintain the ship’s goal. A strong, interesting, thoughtful story, which probably would have benefitted from being longer and somewhat more in-depth.

“Between Worlds” was the title novella of Robert Silverberg’s original anthology of that name, which I also reviewed and said:

“Between Worlds” takes place after a galactic war when a virtual representation of a thousand year old messiah becomes a negotiator with a war refugee who sneaked a bomb onto a spacecraft, demanding that she be returned to her homeworld to see a daughter who, according to all records, never existed. Baxter ranks with Alastair Reynolds as the best storytellers among the newer hard-science writers, and this is a strong story from him. The story contains enough strangeness to feel futuristic, including spiked, intelligent ships such as the strangely-named Ask Politely, climaxed by the huge swarming of ships.

The characters are also fascinating, especially the virtual Poole and Futurity’s Dream, the religious acolyte who is the main viewpoint character of the story. Like the Silverberg story, the climax is both unexpected but believable.

The last story in the book, “The Siege of Earth,” is a fitting coda for the entire Xeelee series. Set one million years in the future, it shows the final attempt by the ancient Pharaohs to save Earth from their relentless enemies. Not so much story as a travelogue, it brings a fitting symmetry to the series as it relates back to the earliest stories in it.

Overall, Resplendent is one of the finest single-author collections I have ever read. It offers most of what I expect in great science fiction but find far too seldom: a well-developed future history, a creative vision vast in scope yet grounded in well-developed stories based on human interest. There are some minor weaknesses. The writing is satisfactory, if not exciting itself, and the characterization does tend to a bit of sameness (for example, many of the stories feature naive young protagonists barely out of their teens struggling against older, rigid leaders). But the incredible ideas and their development make the entire series, and most of the stories, absolutely splendid.

What makes this collection even more exciting is that it is actually a framework for Stephen Baxter’s Destiny’s Children trilogy, whose three novels explore the same future history by filling in different segments of the future than these stories do. I am anxious to read that trilogy now, and hope that my high aspirations for it–expecting it to be even better than Alastair Reynold’s Conjoiners-Inhibitors trilogy–do not set a bar which is impossible to achieve. But the thrill of finding that out should be joyous indeed.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The DaVinci Code (movie)

Jean and I had one blockbuster certificate left for a free video, but it expires Christmas Day. So last night we decided to get a video to watch. However, I forgot to check my list of Recommended Movies before leaving home–so why the heck do I keep the darned list anyway if I don’t use it?–and when we got to Blockbuster we did not see a single movie on the wall of new releases that looked interesting. We browsed the archives section without luck either, so we finally settled on The DaVinci Code.

I never had any interest in reading The DaVinci Code for several reasons: I do not like thrillers whose main plot motivations are murders, would-be murders, and fast-paced pursuits; plus I am very interested in history but all I have read about Dan Brown’s misuse of historical facts totally turned me off.

However, The DaVinci Code was so popular, and seemingly every reader in the country other than myself actually enjoyed it, including several people whose judgments I trust. So I did have a bit of interest in learning exactly what the book had to offer, and whether I had any agreement with those people’s opinions (and, in a peripheral way, how far out of the mainstream of reading taste I actually am). But while I could never bring myself to invest hours in a book which is basically a thriller, I have considerably lower standards for movies than I do for books. For me, books are a passion, while movies are merely entertainments.

Overall, The DaVinci Code was an entertaining movie. I could have done without the thriller aspects (the car-in-reverse chase scene, the murderous albino monk, the Opus Dei versus Priory of Sion subplot, the French police officer’s relentless pursuit of the heroes) because the historical mystery was sufficient to carry my interest. And the solution to solving the mystery was more deus ex machina than playing fair (“Look, here’s a mysterious key!” “Wow! We are the heirs to a cryptex”). And I cringed every time Dan Brown twisted historical facts for his own purposes. But the movie was entertaining, and I was actually hoping to learn the identity of the “teacher” (which I did not guess) and the “heir” (which both Jean and I guessed correctly).

More importantly, I got one bonus out of watching The DaVinci Code. One of my historical interests is classical Roman history and the development of Christianity. This is not primarily for religious purposes though. I attended Catholic schools my entire life, even taught in one for 6 years, and in those schools I received a greatly-skewed background in Christian history as determined by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is a powerful political structure which is as concerned with pushing its own agenda as any political structure invariably is. Part of me has always been interested in learning more about the truth behind Christianity than was taught in Catholic schools. For decades I have heard of the Gospel of Thomas and the other Gnostic Gospels, but I know relatively little about any of them.

Last summer I read and enjoyed Conclave, a history of the papacy and, especially, papal elections. My Recommended Nonfiction list includes books by biblical scholars Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels, some of which are offered in two books clubs I belong to, the History Book Club and the Discovery Channel Book Club (which, like most books clubs nowadays, are part of the same umbrella containing the SFBC, BOMC and QPBC as well). Now I have a bit more incentive to buy and read some of those books. Maybe someday I’ll have a review of one of them here.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Samuel R. Delany

What can you say about a teenager who writes a dozen unpublished novels before finally selling one at age nineteen? Or about a critic who writes a book-length analysis of a 7,800 word science fiction short story? Both of these are the same person, Samuel Ray Delany, one of the most critically-acclaimed writers in science fiction history. And with good reason since Delany has done more to expand the borders of science fiction than any writer since Robert A. Heinlein, and was a leading influence on both 1980s Cyberpunk and 1990s New Space Opera.

Delany was a prolific writer for a half-dozen years in the mid-to-late 1960s following the publication of his first novel The Jewels of Aptor. During that period he published eight novels and a collection of short fiction. Most of the novels were published before Delany tried any short fiction. They included the acclaimed trilogy The Fall of the Towers–consisting of Captives of the Flame, The Towers of Toron, and City of a Thousand Suns–and the short novels The Ballad of Beta-2 and Empire Star.

Most important for the development of future science fiction were the last three novels Delany published in the decade. First was Babel-17, which won a Nebula Award for Best Novel, immediately raising Delany from obscurity to the ranks of major science fiction writers. A space opera in form, its major concern is with the role of language in shaping reality. It is also one of the first major science fiction novels with a female protagonist.

Next came The Einstein Intersection, a second Nebula winner as Best Novel. It is basically the Orpheus legend retold by aliens who have taken human form in an attempt to understand extinct humanity.

Lastly came Nova. Although it did not win any major awards, it is a superb accomplishment, and generally considered one of the best science fiction novels ever written. Like most of Delany’s early sf, it unabashedly accepted the form of a space opera yet was still intended to be a serious work of fiction. It was heavily-influenced by Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, but it extends the earlier novel's pyrotechnics even further.

In 1967 Delany published his first piece of short science fiction “The Star Pit.” As complex and thought-provoking as his novels, it was the first of a series of major short works over the next three years. “Aye and Gomorrah” won a Nebula Award as Best Short Story. “We, In Some Strange Power's Employ, Move On a Rigorous Line” (under the considerably simpler title “Lines of Power”) was both a Hugo and Nebula nominee for Best Novella. “Time Considered As A Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” won both Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novelette in spite of being published in the rather obscure British science fiction prozine New Worlds.

Delany was mostly silent for six years following the publication of Nova. He re-emerged with the controversial novel Dhalgren. Over 800 pages long, it was an explicit analysis of an imaginary city on the verge of collapse. Hailed by many for its study of characters, images and relationships, others panned its long, convoluted plot structure that ends by completing a circle back to its opening scene.

Much more traditionally structured was Triton, which returned to many of Delany’s concerns of the 1960s.

Following Triton, Delany turned his attention to heroic fantasy. He created a fantasy world Neverÿon which he placed under the same careful scrutiny he had previously turned on space operas. The series included three collections Tales of Neveryon, Flight From Neveryon, The Bridge of Lost Desire, and the novel Neveryóna.

Delany returned to science fiction in 1984 with Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, which was as much a quantum leap beyond most 1980s science fiction as Nova was in 1968. Unfortunately, it was intended to be the first of a diptych, but the second novel The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities was never published, apparently a victim of Delany’s loss of interest in writing science fiction.

Besides being perhaps the most serious writer of science fiction ever, Delany has also been an important editor and critic of the genre. With his wife Marilyn Hatcher he edited a series of ground-breaking anthologies Quark. His nonfiction books include The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, a series of critical essays about science fiction; The American Shore, a book-length analysis of Thomas M. Disch's short story “Angouleme”; the semi-autobiographical novel Heavenly Breakfast; and the Hugo-winning autobiography The Motion of Light in Water.

Samuel R. Delany is one of the few science fiction writers to have successfully infused a new vision on the genre. H.G. Wells and Robert A. Heinlein are his peers in that regard. Most of the innovations in the genre of the past thirty years owe at least some of their inspiration to Delany. It is hard to imagine John Varley's groundbreaking fiction without Delany's example. It is even harder to imagine the existence of Cyberpunk, the dominant movement of the 1980s, without Delany. And most of the New Space Opera writers owe a debt to Delany if only for his embracing what was considered bad, derivative hackwork and shining it until it sparkled as brightly as any of sf’s other sub-genres.

Not only is Samuel R. Delany one of the most important science fiction writers ever, but one of the best as well. We can only dream that he rises phoenix-like and resume writing science fiction, as Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber and Ursula K Le Guin all did in earlier generations.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Books to Read

I keep several extensive lists on my computer, including Recommended Reading lists (which I have discussed here on 5/20/06) and Books To Read. The latter are books which I have already purchased but sit unread in my collection. Here are some of the sf books on that list with comments on each.

Inheritor, by C.J. Cherryh: I read the first two novels in this initial Foreigner trilogy, and I bought this third book about a month ago. I plan to read it during Christmas week when I will have much more uninterrupted reading time than I have during school.

Scout’s Progress, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller: This is the second Liaden novel in the collection Pilot’s Choice. The first novel was promising, so I hope to read this second one sometime in 2007.

Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, by Samuel R. Delany: Delany was one of my favorite writers of the 60s/70s, but I don’t read books in series until the entire series is complete. This novel was published in 1984, and a follow-up The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities was promised for 1985. 20 years later I guess it is time to admit that Delany lost interest in the second book and I should read the first one.

The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson: I started reading this book a decade ago when I was still recovering from my one-year burnout on sf, so I lost interest in it after about 20 pages. But a few years later I read and totally enjoyed Cryptonomicom, so I think I should give this book another try.

Galactic North, by Alastair Reynolds: Having loved his trilogy Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap, I ordered this collection from, and it arrived a mere two days after it was shipped. Since it is part of my Christmas present, I am resisting reading it until at least the morning of December 25th!

Resplendent, by Stephen Baxter: Like Reynolds, I have always enjoyed what short fiction I have read by Baxter in various anthologies and best-of-the-year volumes, so when this book was published in England, I ordered it from It is the book I am reading currently (alternating with The Space Opera Renaissance).

Stories of Your Life
, by Ted Chiang: If there is a better short fiction writer in sf I have not discovered him. Although I have read virtually all these stories previously, they are good enough to own and read in one volume.

Castle of Days, by Gene Wolfe: Having reread the entire Book of the New Sun series a few years ago, I bought this book as a bridge before starting Wolfe’s other two series Book of the Long Sun and Book of the Short Sun. But it is hard to find time to read such thoughtful, intertwined series, so I have been hesitating reading these books.

Off the Main Sequence, by Robert Heinlein: I always enjoyed Heinlein’s short fiction better than many of his novels, particularly The Past Through Tomorrow future history stories. I think this will be an enjoyable book when I find time to read it.

Temeraire, by Naomi Novik: great reviews, historical fiction, dragons! What more could I want in great reading? This is another book (or at least one of the 3 novels included therein) I hope to read during Christmas vacation.

Ilium / Olympos, by Dan Simmons. Since I loved his Hyperion Cantos so much, I have high expectations for these two books. But their length make finding time to read them inconvenient. Hopefully next summer.

I also have a considerably longer list of historical fiction and nonfiction which I have bought but not read. I’ll just list a few of those titles without comment:

Empress, by Shan Sa
The Last Witchfinder, by James Morrow
The Cider House Rules, by John Irving
The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
The March, by E.L. Doctorow
Ramayana, by Kamala Subramaniam
A Traveler in Rome, by H.V. Morton
Charlemagne, by Derek Wilson
Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, by Ross King
The Empire of Genghis Khan, by Stanley Stewart

So many books, so little time!!!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Forbidden Planets (ed. by Marvin Kaye)

In his editorial for Forbidden Planets, editor Marvin Kaye mentions that this is the 27th anthology he has edited for the Science Fiction Book Club since 1970, but this is the first one of his I have bought for a simple reason: all the previous ones were fantasy. This book is the latest collection in the series of books of original novellas published by the SFBC. Previously I have bought–and enjoyed–Robert Silverberg’s Between Worlds, Mike Resnick’s Down These Dark Spaceways, and Gardner Dozois’ One Million A.D. Each of the previous volumes have featured one or two exceptional stories, with the others all ranging between good and very good. I had no reason to expect this volume would be any less interesting, nor was I disappointed.

It seems inevitable that a Robert Reed novella would be one of the highlights of the book, since his masterful “Good Mountain” was the best story in One Million A.D. and his “Camouflage” was one of the highlights of Down These Dark Spaceways. Reading a Robert Reed story is virtually a guarantee that you will get a creative, thoughtful, well-plotted story, often a memorable one as well. How he keeps turning out such a constant stream of top-notch stories is amazing to me, as is the fact that he has never received a major award for any of his stories. He has not even had as many nominees as many lesser writers: 5 Hugo nominations, and a single Nebula nomination, 2 John W. Campbell finalists, and a single World Fantasy nomination. He has done better with the Locus poll, making the final list 40 times, but even there he has been underrated since he has never finished higher than one 5th place finish.

So I guess it is not surprising that Reed’s “Rococo” was one of the high points of Forbidden Planets. It was a Great Ship story–which is where Reed does some of his very best stuff, such as the unfairly unawarded “Marrow” and “The Remoras”–but instead of being set exclusively on the Great Ship, this is a story concerned with its discovery and one of the alien races which petition for space on the ship. It tells the story of a woman Aasleen and her brother Rococo who is beloved by everybody on the Great Ship, until he abruptly and mysteriously tries to land on a forbidden world and she is sent to bring him back. The plot itself is interesting, but the story’s strength is the alien world Chaos and its various races, particularly the Scypha. Reed fans will not be disappointed by this story.

Jack McDevitt has also appeared in several of these SFBC volumes but, unlike Reed, he has not done his very best stuff in them. “Kaminsky at War” is a story which questions the Prime Directive of much classic SF, including the various Star Trek series. Kaminsky is an anthropologist on a space ship studying a world inhabited by particularly violent natives. The comparisons to 20th and 21st century humans are fairly obvious in the story. After observing a particularly brutal slaughter, Kaminsky can no longer accept the Protocol and sets out to do whatever he can to end the slaughter. The story is interesting reading, but it is primarily a wish fulfilment story, with a wish fulfilment ending, and is ultimately less successful than other stories in the book.

Julie Czerneda has gotten popular in recent years with several series of biologically-based sf adventures, none of which I have read. But her overall popularity among both readers and critics have interested me, so I was glad to see her story “No Place Like Home” here. It tells the story of a humanoid race who have lived in spacecraft for so many generations they have no knowledge of their legendary homeworld. So their craft travel from world to world seeking their homeworld. Rather than send boarding parties to the planet, the ships contain a group of “walkers” who travel to the planet vicariously through a link with cloned Avatars. The story is told through the point of view of Walker Drewe who grows interested in the technology behind the creation of the Avatars, so that she and the reader learn the biology behind it simultaneously.

One story I did not like at all was Alan Dean Foster’s “Midworld.” The introduction describes Midworld as so full of dangerous life-forms that no one in her or his right mind would ever venture to explore it.” So the first eight pages of the story consist of a team of 4 men who come to Midworld to seek a missing scientist on its surface discussing the planet with an expert on the planet’s dangers. Those 8 pages consist of the 4 men ridiculing the expert while struggling to repress their laughter at his warnings about the planet’s dangers. The remaining 37 pages of the story consist of those 4 men traversing the planet as one-by-one the planet’s indigenous lifeforms kill them. That’s it. There is some attempt at sense of wonder at the planet’s vegetation and subhuman lifeforms, but not a very successful attempt. I’m not sure what the purpose of this story was.

Comparing Foster’s story with Nancy Kress’ “JQ211F and Holding” only illuminates the weaknesses of Foster’s story more. Kress creates a world even more inhospitable than Foster’s, one that has been recently discovered by a scientist who has proven without shadow of a doubt that the world is the source of all life in the galaxy, life which then spread via panspermia to other worlds. Another scientist on the small ship is a devout Christian who believes the world is Hell. The story combines the scientists’ search for primordial life on the world with the Christian who seeks her own unannounced agenda there. This is a typically-strong Kress story, albeit one which does not stand up to deep philosophical thought.

Not surprisingly, Allan Steele’s “Walking Star” is a very traditional story about a field guide on a somewhat-hostile world–although nowhere near as hostile as Kress’ and Foster’s worlds–who is hired by a rich man to seek one of his former employees and close friend who has abandoned his job apparently under the spell of a strong native drug. Typical of stories of the 50s era, the missing man harbors deeper secrets than mere drugs, so the story packs an unexpected, and somewhat dire, ending. Pleasant reading although less-thought-provoking than Kress’ story.

Overall, this is a slightly weaker volume than either Silverberg’s Between Worlds or Dozois’ One Million A.D. I would rate one story as superb (Reed’s “Rococo”), two better-than-average (Kress and Czerneda) and two worthwhile (McDevitt and Steele). That’s not a bad percentage.