The Official Newsletter of PARSEC


June 1997, Issue 137

Book Reviews

Ferman's Devils by Joe Clifford Faust

Review by James Walton

The copy on the back of Ferman's Devils calls the book "outrageous dark comedy." I'm glad they told me. I wouldn't have known otherwise.

My sense of humor is a bit different from most. I usually find books reputed to be funny quite tedious at best and I avoid them. (I will admit, however, to laughing out loud while reading the first three Xanth books and chuckling a few times during the first 3 HitchHiker's Guide to the Galaxy books. Both those series went on much too long.)

Ferman's Devils is the tale of a young advertising executive, Boddecker by name, who wanders into a bad neighborhood and comes to the attention of a street gang, the Devils of the books title. Boddecker promises to feature the gang in an unnamed commercial in an attempt to save his life. Much to his surprise, the Devils accept Boddecker's proposal.

Most of the book details Boddecker's dealings with his fellows at the advertising agency which employs him. Creative types all, Boddecker has to stroke egos and fend off the unwanted attentions of female coworkers, all the while lusting after his dream house and dream girl. (I was very disappointed that Boddecker got the girl in the end; it was too easy.) The scene where Boddecker sat through a meeting surrounded by inconsiderate boors who constantly made snide remarks was quite painful for me. I've sat through too many meetings in which insecure and infantile coworkers demonstrated how much they hate not being the center of attention. Definitely not a funny scene.

Boddecker's world has a day-after-tomorrow feel to it. Nothing much has really changed from today's world. Except for the nano-technology, most of the electronic marvels Faust mentions already exist to some degree. (Okay, the talking slave program in the computer is a welcome change from Windows 95, but I suspect it's a memory hog too.)

Boddecker is again surprised (but we aren't) when his company decides to produce the commercial featuring The Devils. The results are predictable.

There is one running joke which Faust allows Boddecker to explain near the end of the book. I smiled and shook my head at that one, so not all of the humor was lost on me.

Ferman's Devils doesn't end, it quits. Several points are left unresolved, but the book's front cover advises us that there is a second volume in the works.

While I don't think Ferman's Devils is a bad book, there isn't much to recommend it. I will probably skip the upcoming sequel Boddecker's Demons.

Headcrash by Bruce Bethke

Review by Timons Esaias

When they pitch the movie deal for this book in Hollywood they'll be saying, "Think Snow Crash meets Dilbert." They won't be far off.

Right up front it should be honestly admitted that this reviewer enjoyed the heck out of this one, and dragged his copy to Minicon to have it autographed. (I had wisely arranged to have Bethke on a panel with me.) It's a stitch.

The main character, Jack Burroughs, works for Monolithic Diversified Enterprises dealing primarily with computer systems. He is constantly threatened by downsizing, and relieves his tensions by scooting around the Virtual Freeway in the notorious guise of MAX_KOOL. MAX is the kind of high-rep, killer-cool, cutting edge hacker genius that we know so well from cyberpunkiana by other authors. And on the Net, he is.

Off the Net, though, Jack isn't. He's a dateless nerd, famous for inventing a VR game he no longer owns the rights to, and is no longer connected with the continuing updating of, whose hacker skills are fast going out of date. The mid-20s are so hard on a guy. He lives in his mother's basement in Minnesota. He owes student loans big time. And he gets fired, because his old flame is now sleeping with the boss.

But then the dream offer comes along. Something like a million dollars plus all the latest equipment in exchange for just a little righteous hacking and theft, to MAX_KOOL and his associates. Revenge on his former employer is included in the package. He goes for it, and the rest of the book follows his delightful, and ironic, adventures.

You think VR gloves and helmets are something? You need to learn about data-shorts. And I will only mention, but not describe, the ProctoProd.

If you think that virtual reality is a bit overdone, this is the comedy for you.

Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon

Review by James Mann

I must admit that I'd not read any Elizabeth Moon prior to Remnant Population being nominated for the Hugo. I had been scared off by her co-authoring several things with Anne McCaffrey (whose writing I haven't liked for 20 years). However, I decided to at least give Remnant Population a try. I'm very glad that I did.

Remnant Population is a first contact story, with several interesting twists. It starts on a colony world. The company that runs the colony has lost its contract, so it plans to move the colony - which has been in place for decades - to another world. One old woman (70-year-old Ofelia), not wanting to leave her home and in any case tired of living based on the expectations of other, decides to hide out and remain behind. The colony leaves, and she remains, tending her garden and the farm animals and living life as she'd like to live it.

One day, the colony radio picks up a radio broadcast from an incoming shuttle. Ofelia listens as the new company gets ready to come in and establish its own colony on the other side of the planet. As she listens, the shuttle and the new colonists are attacked and wiped out by a previously unknown intelligent species.

As the novel progresses, the intelligent species, remembering that they had scene the same shuttle signs in the sky in the far distance, go to investigate, find Ofelia, and make contact. The rest of the novel centers on the details of Ofelia's contact with the aliens and her later mediation between those aliens and representatives of humanity who come back to the planet to contact the first intelligent species mankind has found.

The novel works well in a number of ways. It is a suberb SF first contact story. The aliens and their society are well done. In a nice touch, Moon makes them less advanced but obviously more intelligent that humans.

The character of Ofelia is very well drawn. She is quite believable. She is also very different from your typical SF heroine in several ways. She is old, and many of her concerns and views are those of an older person, not some young adventurer. Moreover, while bright and self reliant, she isn't educated in many areas. She doesn't know how to explain the machines around her to the aliens. She knows enough to say that the lights and computers are powered by electricity, but not to explain more than that. This is quite different from the know-it-all heroes in so many books.

Moon's examination of aging - how older people view the world as well as how society often undervalues the contributions and abilities of the old - is very well done. Ofelia's way of looking a the world is that of a mature person, who sees things based on the experience of many years. Those around her often dismiss her simply because she is old, though in the end it is Ofelia who matters more than the bright young scientist.

This book is highly recommended. I'll probably vote for it number 2 on my Hugo ballot (right behind Blue Mars) though I wouldn't be overly upset if it beat Blue Mars.

Bending the Landscape: Fantasy

Edited by Nicola Griffith and Stephen Pagel

Review by James Walton

Bending the Landscape is said to be the first in a series of anthologies which will takes us to places "that are vastly different from the familiar." Hmm. No, these places can't be found anywhere in our mundane lives, but we have visited them many times in our books. What distinguishes this volume from other anthologies is each story features homosexual characters. Perhaps taken as social commentary, Bending is an important collection. Taken as literature, in general the inclusion of details of the characters sexual orientation added nothing to most of these stories. I found myself going over each story to decide if such details added or detracted. Would a story be as interesting (or as dull) if they were re-written from a Straight point of view? In several of the stories the mention of sexual preferences seemed to be tacked onto pieces the author couldn't sell elsewhere.

The best story in this volume, in my opinion, is "The Fall of the Kings" by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman. It is the story of two male lovers, one a professor in a university, the other a rich young man about town, and a book of magic. It is in what I assume to be a medieval setting, which the authors did not deign to describe. I doubt very much that this story could be told with female characters, while the story's ending could not have come about without an element of the fantastic. The authors, both female, did an exceptional job of depicting males.

I was disappointed in "Gestures Too Late on a Gravel Road" from the usually very imaginative Mark W. Tiedemann. I guess I've read too many similar tales.

"In Memory Of" by Don Bassingthwaite is an interesting tale of brothers who are gay (the story would have had a slightly different feel if either or both were heterosexual) and shapeshifters. They have a very long way to go to outgrow their sibling rivalry. I found myself wanting to know more about the origins of these brothers and some of their previous adventures.

Tanya Huff's piece, "In Mysterious Ways," is about a female thief who is so capable she is hired to steal from a god. Along the way we are told the thief has a female lover somewhere in the city. The addition of those 2 or 3 sentences did absolutely nothing to improve this generic Dungeons and Dragons romp. I suspect the thief was originally male, but Ms. Huff performed a sex change when she found out she could finally sell this manuscript.

Bending the Landscape: Fantasy, with its lackluster offerings, fails to achieve its mission. Most of the selections only peripherally fulfill the anthology's theme. As a result this volume is lackluster. But I will probably read next volume to see if things get better.

An Exchange of Hostages by Susan R. Matthews

Review by Dan Bloch

An Exchange of Hostages takes place some time in the far future, in a universe mostly ruled by a galactic-empire-like-thing, which seems fairly evil and rules by repression, notably by torture. The main character is a young, highly skilled physician, who has been sent, for family reasons which are never completely explained, to a space station to become a torturer for this regime. In the course of the book, which covers the period of his training, we (and he) find that in spite of being in all other ways a very decent person, he likes torturing people.

The writing is fairly good, except for awkward "futuristic" additions to the language. The characters, even the minor characters, are well-drawn and have distinct personalities. Perhaps because of this evidence of talent on the part of the author, I found the book disappointing overall.

Its most serious flaw is it's only half a book. It never comes to a climax or has a resolution, and ends with lots of unresolved questions and subplots. The exchange of hostages of the title is a relatively minor incident. I have to assume the other half has been written and the publisher is holding it back. It doesn't make sense otherwise.

A substantial suspension of disbelief is required (torture can only be done by trained physicians; the galactic empire relies on torture to get information although they have very effective truth serums; all these basically good characters voluntarily support the evil system), and while I don't mind suspending my belief in a good cause, I'd like to get something more than this in return.

The book is disturbing, which is evidence of quality, but again, if I'm going to be disturbed I want to get something in return. The book ultimately doesn't provide enough substance to make itself believable. The torture scenes are somehow antiseptic and impersonal, so while we see the protagonist's fascination, the pain and damage doesn't come through. Without this, the book doesn't seem grounded in reality, and without that, reading it is just an exercise in morbid fascination.

Not recommended. This may change if the second half of the book is published. The author is worth watching.

The longest total solar eclipse was June 20th, 1955 at 7 minutes 8 seconds.

Reviews From the Video Cellar

X the Unknown

Dean Jagger, Leo McKern, William Lucas, & others.

Review by Henry Tjernlund

1956 British sci-fi monster film set in Scotland recently aired on the American Movie Classics (AMC) channel. This is one of the notorious "Hammer Productions" made in the era of good spooky, eerie, monster movies.

The film opens with a military training exercise where military troops are learning to detect, find, and mark radioactive "targets". (Anyone remember the cold war?) The sample used in their training is "harmless" *cough*. Well during the final drill the officers become frustrated when the last recruit not only fails to find the hidden sample but seems to be tracking something else instead that is even more radioactive. (If monster films have taught us anything it is to never be the last one to do something. That and to announce you only have a few days before retirement.) Anyway, a fissure opens in the ground with a bizarre explosion leaving the recruit with extensive burns that turn out to be radiation in nature.

Next the elderly scientist hero is introduced who of course works at a nearby nuclear, er, um, I mean "atomic" (its the 1950's remember?) experiment station. He is at odds with his superiors (just as all heroes should be).The police and military consult with him about the mysterious training accident.

The fissure is "sectioned off" in typical military style with bored, yawning, coffee drinking guards and such. (Another monster movie survival rule, never be bored when on guard, not to mention avoiding sex at all cost for contemporary slasher films.) Over the next few days a series of sightings of something strange in the woods is reported accompanied by radiation burns to those who investigate a little too closely. Of course the guards disappear as well while investigating a noise in the darkness. (Leave noises in the dark alone.)

The hero scientist concludes that a radioactive creature is roaming the country side consuming Radium this and Radium that and otherwise "zapping" anyone who is unfortunate enough to cross its path. The police and military express some reservation but the scientist is eventually proven right (it is a monster movie). Even though there is some dissension people actually work together for a common goal, something sadly lacking in modern scripts. (Perhaps modern stories are trying to warn us that inter-human conflict is worse than any outside threat.)

I will let you rent the movie and see the ending for yourself. (As if a 1950's monster movie is not as predictable as contemporary ones even if the outcome is different.) "X the Unknown" is one of the good old fashion, plain meant to be scary, movies. There are a few scenes where it definitely succeeds. Plus it's a refreshing break from the anthropomorphic, guy in a rubber suit, monster. Definitely one to watch on a late Friday or Saturday night huddled on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and all the house lights turned off. Don't forget the blanket (for hiding).

Movie Reviews

The Saint

Review by Bill Hall

It may not get much better than this, in terms of adventure hero movies for 1997. Which is a bit of a bleak comment on 1997, but probably true. As many variables as possible --- Thurman, Silverstone, Schwartzenegger --- are getting tossed into the stew that is Batman and Robin, and Tommie Lee Jones is doing double time saving us from aliens AND a volcano. In such grim times, with not even a James Bond flick yet in sight, The Saint is as good as sheer fun heroics are going to get, not unless Harrison Ford ever plays Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan as President.

The Saint has one serious drawback, to be expected from the same industry that gave us Independance Day and Jurassic Park: a loathing of science as anything deeper than spell casting. The macguffin is cold fusion, a phrase that gets repeated until the movie feels like an ad, and we are stuck with Elizabeth Shue, from Adventures in Babysitting to Soapdish to Leaving Las Vegas, so I tend to blame the "concept" of her character, Dr. Emma Russell, more than the actress. She's supposed to be a breathless romantic innocent, for whom the great secret just intuitively tumbled into place, and the movie actually expects us to be terrified and awestruck by her using "deuterons" and "palladium" in the same sentence. Cold fusion, she tells us (so cheerfully we expect a caption to flash "Call 1-800-ATOM-JAR for an informative brochure"), will create "energy in the form of helium." My suspicion is that you are more likely to get Mickey Mouse voices in the form of helium.

Anyhow, she's the key. Uricchio's P-G review is way off: the plot is pretty straightforward. The Saint (introduced to us in a very nifty if melodramatic opening sequence as a young boy, whose true name we never hear and who adopts the name Simon Templar) is hired by crooked Russian fuel czar (you should excuse the term) Ivan Tretiak to grab Emma's secret. His plan: to sit on crucial heating oil, induce a panic, then arise as Russia's savior (he's also in the political arena) by revealing cold fusion. So Val Kilmer as Simon (or whoever) dons what looks like the same leather pants he wore as Jim Morrison in The Doors and lounges beguilingly by a sculpture so that he can "just happen" to get to know Emma. But wouldnchya know, his mercenary heart is moved by her spirit and her dream, and he can't bring himself to do it. This gets Tretiak mad at both of them, and makes Simon Emma's guardian from Tretiak.

At this point, Emma becomes awfully embarrassing. She carries her formula in her bra; she tells Simon, "Take off your pants," when she means his sweater; she nobly strips down before cuddling with Simon to save him from hypothermia. Even James Bond movies are doing better with their female leads.

Kilmer's at his best having fun with makeup, costumes, and voices involved in his endless disguises, and he conveys amoral coolness and one moment of vulnerability as well; in most of his time romancing Shue, though, he seems just like a jerk.

There are prior influences for The Saint's kookiness. Cold fusion? Chain Reaction. A brash young Westerner saving Russia? Terminal Velocity. As for the Saint himself, he's coma a long way from Roger Moore or even Ian Ogilvie. ("Ian who?" you're surely asking.) The Leslie Charteris character was simply a professional thief, calling himself the Saint because of his monogram; here, we're told he keeps using saints' names as aliases. (Which means you would think the authorities could start ANTICIPATING his aliases by now. Also, considering that he saves Russia, it's a pity there are no Eastern Orthodox names among the Roman Catholic selections.) No name, no home, no life, just risk money and the occasional glimmer of conscience. this concept's time has come. The snatches of the original theme music are okay; the trademark pin from the Roger Moore days is a bit forced. Yet if The Saint is to do well serially, he is going to complete all the harder with Mission: Impossible or Goldeneye. I hope he can.

Smilla's Sense of Snow

Review by Bill Hall

What may be th best SF movie of 1997 may also be the best mystery of 1997, be it SF, "mundane," or whatever. (Forthcoming "serious" SF projects sound worrisome. Bruce Willis as a futuristic cabby in The Fifth Element sounds like one stab of lightning too many at the 12 Monkeys territory, and I dread director Robert Zemeckis (Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Back to the Future) trying to get "serious" as Jodie Foster gets mass transmitted in Contact. (Yet once more I must ask: Why does no one see the essential lethality of this?) and The Lost World ... ai yi yi.) Smilla's Sense of Snow is, as the film industry goes, as even-handed and non-kooky an SF adventure as we get.

That said, both the Peter Hoeg novel and Ann Biderman screenplay hold to certain depressing conventions. There is no real wonder of science here, only fear; thus a lesser story may be more inspiring to our SF community, simply by being more optimistic. Hoeg postulated a mysterious meteorite that was the ultimate missing link between inorganic Creation and the dawn of organic life, then added a danger to it and said that our greedy Need to Know would carry this "Genesis rock" (to invoke Project Apollo) out into the world despite its dormant plague. It's a subtle point that Biderman simply trades in for a "source of energy," heat being spontaneously generated from within the meteorite for billions of years without radioactivity. So between Hoeg and Biderman we have a supreme scientific it-can-be-anything Grail --- or as Hitchcock would call it, macguffin.

Smilla's carries on, then, very much in the tradition of Frankenstien --- so much so that it is set in precisely the kind of polar ice where Mary Shelly's original creature perished. (Stitched together human, mysteriously war meteorite, what's the difference? It's all the same commentary on hubris.) The parallels increase in irony when one remembers the little girl who Boris Karloff threw into the water in Frankenstein's original cut; this time around, the child, now a boy, gets avenged.

Julia Ormond stars as half-Greenlandic Smilla Jaspersen, and it's inspired casting. In Legends of the Fall or Sabrina, she just seems generally glamorous; here, she has a stark, serious, wolflike presence that suits her very well. Smilla is not at all an easy person to warm to; to some she may suggest supreme strength and self-possession, but to me Smilla comes across more as a uniquely European type of neurotic, and others will just find her awfully snippy. Yet there's a kind of moral in that, as if to say "It takes a strange person to notice and care about the strange goings-on." Specifically, Smilla cares about a Greenlandic boy named Isaiah and befriends in spite of herself, little realizing what is as work inside his body. Half a century after America's own infamous Tuskagee study, in which four hundred Alabama blacks were infected with syphilis, there are unscrupulous scientists and businessmen permitting the super worm unleashed by their hallowed meteorite to eat away inside the boy and make him deaf. Thanks to Smilla's ability to read Isaiah's footprints in the snow before he falls to his death, she is able to set to work sorting all this out.

I went into this with great trepidation, having heard moans of, "Oh, it starts off fine, then turns into James Bond or Roger Corman," expecting it to go very seriously awry indeed, and it didn't. I found Smilla's to be steady, consistent, gently unfolding. Of course, there's a lot of convenient cramming together of various clues, and a rather suspiciously staged final showdown, but these are problems that come with trying to sum up a human condition or a historical trend tightly in one single tale. The movie is assisted pretty well by Gabriel Byrne as Smilla's love interest and all-around guardian angel, Vanesa Redgrave as a crucial contact who injects Christian imagery into all this, and Richard Harris as the amoral scientist Tork. (Sad that so immense a villain should be named after one of The Monkees, but oh well.) Smilla gets an awful lot done without ever once having to personally handle a gun, quite a breakthrough in and of itself for an adventure movie protagonist, and her titular sense of snow turns out not only to be her first clue but her final advantage over Tork. All in all, a cool, cool story.

Since I'm writing this on March 25th, and there's the "We can't guarantee it will get into Sigma if it arrives after the 20th" policy, I suppose this may get used in May, by which time Smilla's may have left the Rex. So, consider this an early video alert. if The Fifth Element or Contact do indeed fail to deliver, you can always rent Smilla's.


In 1944 Langley Searles launched "Fantasy Commentator," which is still coming out one a year more than half a century later. It is a one-man, low-tech, scholarly pub. dedicated to serious articles on F&SF. It has a mailing list all over the country and overseas (mainly England) of about 500. Now Searles has a great need of short book reviews (no pay) and wonders if contributors to SIGMA would object to reprinting SIGMA reviews later in "Fantasy Commentator." It'd be a way of reaching an audience outside Pittsburgh with your prejudiced & biased opinions!

If this is NOT OK with reviewers, please contact Eric Davin, local liaison for "Commentator," & tell him so. He can be reached via Email at: or Snail Mail at: Box 90087, Pgh. 15224.

Here's the break for SF immortality you've been waiting for!

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