Bookshelf (Starburst Reviews) Bookshelf compiled by David Howe
• part of Starburst's monthly Reviews section
selected from Starburst #262

Selected this month:new SF fiction from Linda Nagata and a fantasy anthology from
Peter Haining

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Vast
by Linda Nagata, Published by Gollancz, 359pp

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‘It’s rare to find fiction that can teach the reader more than a textbook could’

Opening with the climax of a thousand year long chase through Space, this vigorously written hard-SF novel by Linda Nagata, an author new to me, takes the reader on a voyage of tremendous discoveries, into the past, present and future of its neo-human characters.

A character awakened from suspended animation is just as likely to plumb cyber-locked memories of a different era, as go exploring previously unvisited parts of their starship. This sort of thing makes the main plot, in which an automated alien warship pursues its prey (a living vessel called Null Boundary, apparently intent on slaying the crew of four – one of whom is fused with the ship) which may be all that remains of mankind, almost secondary.

The action is centred quite firmly on the characters so don’t expect Star Trek battles. A major plus, in my view anyway, is that Nagata does not document everything. She wisely leaves elements of mystery hanging around. Whether she hints that a full explanation of ‘zero point’ technology will be forthcoming or not, Vast is certainly one of the most intriguing books I’ve read for years.

It’s rare to find fiction that can teach the reader more than a textbook could, especially when part of the subject involves things like cybernetics. By exploring remote possibilities, Linda Nagata gives us insights into why, if not necessarily how, things work. But, even if you don’t know your allotropes from your isotopes, and have little or no interest in hard SF there’s still plenty to enjoy here. The characters are drawn with great care, so that no matter what the bizarre situation might involve, it’s no effort to identify with their emotional aspects.

Starburst rating: 9 / 10
Tony Lee

Knights of Madness
Edited by Peter Haining • Published by Orbit • 324pp paperback

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‘Haining deserves credit for bringing so many obscure tales blinking sheepishly into the light of day’

Peter Haining has cast his net wide for this latest collection of 24 ‘comic tales of Fantasy’. The earliest (Mediaeval Romance by Mark Twain) was first published in 1871 while the most recent (Wot the Eye Don’t See by Stan McMurtry) makes its début here.

The first group, Flights of Fantasy: Stories of the Absurd, is the most successful, and contains the pearls in this collection: Terry Pratchett’s Hollywood Chickens, a hysterical take on Why (not How) the chicken crossed the road; Peter S Beagle’s Lila the Werewolf – as astute and vibrant as when it was first written (1969); and Ray Bradbury’s hilarious account of how award winning films are really made The Year the Glop-Monster Won the Golden Lion at Cannes.

The middle group, The Muddle Ages: Tales of Heroic Times, mostly missed the mark for me. I loved Evan Hunter’s Dream Damsel, whose smart damsel bests her dim knight, but many of the other stories, while good, aren’t really ‘comic’. And I can’t help feeling that Haining allowed a love of celebrity to influence his inclusion of the yawn-inducing The Creation According to Spike Milligan, and Peter Sellers’ The Wastrel.

The final group, Malice in Blunderland: Cases of Crime, features many crime stories that are not actually ‘comic’, though Haining fields the ‘ironic’ get-out clause. Tom Sharpe’s wry look at the classified ads Stirring the Pot, and Stan McMurtry’s aforementioned début about a clueless pub owner are the most successful here.

Haining deserves credit for bringing so many obscure tales blinking sheepishly into the light of day. Unfortunately, time is not kind to comedy, and some simply don’t travel well out of context. But stories that didn’t tickle my funny bone may appeal to other readers. And the Pratchett, Beagle, and Bradbury contributions alone are worth the price of this collection.

Starburst rating: 7 / 10
Barbara Davies

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