Bookshelf (Starburst Reviews) Bookshelf compiled by David Howe
• part of Starburst's monthly Reviews section
Selected from Starburst #272

Selected this month: Stephen King's Dreamcatcher and
The Secret Of Life, by Paul J McAuley

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by Stephen King • Published by Hodder and Stoughton, March 29 • c.600pp, hardback • Reviewer: David Howe

Stephen King's Dreamcatcher

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‘King uses all the tricks to bring his characters to life, deftly sketching in backstory...’

Dreamcatcher is billed as Stephen King’s first full length novel for three years (the last was Bag of Bones) and, despite sounding a lot in the blurb like his previous novel It, manages to deliver on all counts.

We open with four childhood friends, Jones, Beaver, Henry and Pete, enjoying their annual hunting trip. Things are turned upside down when a stranger arrives, farting noxious gases, and appearing very unwell. Jones and Beaver look after him as best they can, but without warning, the man “gives birth’ to a snake-like alien creature which kills Beaver while Jones is trying to find a means of stopping it. Then Jones is confronted by a more archetypal alien creature (grey skin, large oval black eyes etc) which explodes into spores and takes over his body.

The army arrives under the command of the insane Kurtz and they start trying to hush up the fact that an alien ship has crashed in the vicinity, spreading a fungus-like growth to anything living, a growth which also grants telepathy to those infected. Henry escapes with one of Kurtz’ deputies, while Jones, under the control of the alien Mr Grey, is making for the reservoirs to spread the alien spores still further.

King uses all the tricks to bring his characters to life, deftly sketching in backstory, and introducing the autistic Duddits, a childhood friend of Jones, Pete, Beaver and Henry, who may hold the key to prevent the alien fungus taking over the Earth. The final part of the book, featuring a telepathically linked chase to stop Mr Grey is superb, and the book is both innovative and very readable.

King mixes mainstream ideas with science fiction and horror concepts. There are elements of It here but also themes of alien mind/body control from The Tommyknockers. Dreamcatcher matches these previous novels though. An excellent read.

Starburst rating: 8 / 10

by Paul J McAuley • Published by Voyager, 391pp • hardback • Reviewer: Tony Lee

The Secret Of Life

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'A compellingly written, exemplary hard-SF work that taps into a number of particularly topical concerns'

Mariella Anders is a gifted scientist from Scotland, chosen by NASA for a mission to Mars. An earlier Chinese expedition to the red planet is thought to have returned with biological samples, and this has links to a mysterious slick of possibly alien organisms growing in the Pacific Ocean.

Although fast-track astronaut training shields Mariella from intrusive media attention, and FBI agents protect her from political radicals of various Green campaigns, the project is shrouded in secrecy both corporate and state, and threatened by eco-fanatics and industrial spies. Ambitious biotech company Cytex want the genetic codes from Mars for potential copyright value, so data about the Pacific slick is unavailable to Mariella before launching into space, and she makes an enemy of rival specialist Penn Brown, who’s sold his soul to corporate sponsorship and can’t distinguish between the quest for truth and the schemes of global business. Is there life on Mars? What’s the origin of life on Earth? Could there be a common ancestry?

This is certainly Paul McAuley’s best novel to date, and he isn’t afraid to address such big questions in a refreshingly understated way, and with an insider’s view of how the scientific establishment works. The Secret Of Life may appear to be a portentous title, but it refers to DNA not philosophy (not to mention being a good pun on the plot!), and is well grounded in the author’s skilful balancing of plausible futuristic details (I liked the flourishing of experimental societies in this 21st century world), and some outstanding characterisation.

With initial results of the human genome project in, and GM vegetable and animal breakthroughs regularly making headline news, this is a compellingly written, exemplary hard-SF work that taps into a number of particularly topical concerns. McAuley’s achievement here is the faultless merging of several intriguing, speculative genre themes with his own professional background in science.

Starburst rating: 9 / 10

Reviews © Visual Imagination 2001. Not for reproduction