Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#31: Short Takes on Gotlieb/White/Wallace/Price/McIntyre

"Sunburst" (***+), by Phyllis Gotlieb (1964) is one of the better takes on the children-of-the-atom theme. In this case they're called 'Dumplings', because when their powers manifested -- violently -- they were imprisoned in a high-tech containment known as the Dump, and declared a secret. (The original nuclear accident, the 'Blowup' was kept secret. Once you start hiding things like that, it becomes difficult to stop.) The Dumplings' first rampage was spontaneous. By the time they escape the Dump, years later, their second rampage has a real head of rage behind it. The story is told from the perpective of Shandy, a precocious thirteen-year-old who is not a Dumpling and can't read minds or telekinetically toss around heavy machinery -- but who is somehow impervious to being mind-read. "Sunburst" takes a thoughtful and sympathetic look at an evolutionary advance that might be an evolutionary mistake. Among her other books, Gotlieb is also the author of "A Judgment of Dragons" (***+), in which she takes the overworked cliche of intelligent, telepathic felines and manages to make them complex and interesting without making them disguised humans.

"The Watch Below" (***), by James White (1966) tells the parallel (and intersecting) stories of two thoroughly isolated groups. One consists of a handful of people trapped in an underwater wreck during WWII. They manage to put together a scratch ecosystem in which they can survive (this was obviously written pre-biosphere) but beyond that they have nothing to do but look at the walls and stay sane, as generations go by. Meanwhile, in space, a fleet of ships is fleeing a nova and heading towards Earth. Most of the survivors are in cold sleep, but a crew stays awake -- as generations go by. It's a flawed book, but it's my personal favorite fromWhite's four decades of writing. He is also the author of the "SectorGeneral" series (his novels generally have medical tie-ins), about a hospital meant to serve a vast disarray of species, of which "Star Surgeon" (***) may be the best. (The sequels start to drag after a while.)

"The World Assunder" (***+), by Ian Wallace (1976), is a strange romp. That can be said about all his books, actually. They all combine strange premises, strange (albeit competent) characters, and a refusal to take themselves too seriously. This science fantasy consists of two parallel and interacting (yes, we're being non-Euclidean today) stories. One takes place in 1952, when the main characters first encounter (create?) the being who calls himself (?) Kali. The other takes place in 2002, when Kali finally succeeds in destroying the Earth (which is a bad thing but not, if you'll pardon the expression, the end of the world). It's an odd book. The author's attention, and perforce the readers', is focused far less upon the how and why of these events than upon (to quote from the preface) "the responses of different kinds of intelligent people confronted by absolutely impossible situations." Other books by Wallace include "The Lucifer Comet" (***+), in which a neanderthaloid Satan meets a modern Pandora, and "Deathstar Voyage" (***), a Claudine St. Cyr 'mystery'. None of which are going to be to all tastes.

"The Jade Enchantress" (***+) is by E. Hoffmann Price (1982). Note that date, because this is the same Price who was writing for the pulps in the twenties and thirties. His later books certainly don't *read* like period pieces, though! The Jade Enchantress of the title is a minor Immortal, a Buddhist nun promoted to the celestial bureaucracy. After a thousand years of making jade out of moon beams, she petitions Chang Wo, the moon goddess, for a change of pace: She wants a lover. In fact, she has just the man picked out. The lucky man is Ju-hai -- who wasn't consulted, and whose troubles are just beginning. This is the book I point people to when they want something "like Hughart's 'Bridge of Birds'". It's not as good as Hughart's book -- though Price was probably more knowledgeable about the milieu -- but it's quite good. Price also wrote "The Devil Wives of Li Fong" (***), which you might think of as a rough draft of "The Jade Enchantress" (with different characters), and the 'Operation' series, which is self-indulgent and strange sf/satire.

"Dreamsnake" (****), by Vonda N. McIntyre (1978). I'm being silly again. Nobody's going to read this who hasn't already read "Dreamsnake", right? Right. Oh, well, as long as I've started... Snake is a healer, which in the post-holocaust world of the novel means that, among things, she has snakes which have been bioengineered to produce medicines. She also has a dreamsnake -- a creature of unknown but probably alien origin -- until it is killed through a wretched misunderstanding. And dreamsnakes are scarce -- irreplaceable. It's a brilliantly written book, set in a highly original world. The novel has two antecedents. It is an expansion of the novelette "Of Mist, Grass and Sand" (****, a Nebula award winner) and its setting is that of her early but promising "The Exile Waiting" (**+). The novelette ends with the death of the dreamsnake, and it's rarely a favor to a short piece to expand it into a novel, but in this case McIntyre manages to maintain most of the quality of the original as she takes Snake through more of her world. McIntyre's written good books since, but nothing this good.

Dani Zweig