Category Archives: Book Review

1632 by Eric Flint

1632 Cover

Riverdale, NY: Baen Books, 2000; $24.00 hardcover;
504 pp.

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

This review originally appeared in the December 2000 issue (#148) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

1632 is a novel whose popularity initially seems to defy explanation. If you go to Amazon.com, and pull up this book, you’ll immediately notice that the average customer review is four-and-a-half stars out of five. However, not knowing if this sort of thing was normal on Amazon, I checked out a few other time travel/alternate history books, which I thought were far superior, to see how they compared. Michael Swanwick’s Jack Faust: 3.5 stars; Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South: 4.5 stars; Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee: 4.5 stars; Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: 3.5 stars; L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall: 4.5 stars.

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The Holy Land by Robert Zubrin

Holy Land Cover

ISBN-13: 978-0974144306
ISBN-10: 0974144304
Publisher: Polaris Books
Pub. date: Sept. 2003
$14.95, 298 pages,
trade paperback

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

This review was originally published in the July, 2004 issue (#191) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

Under normal circumstances, I am a huge fan of satire and of taking absurd situations to their logical extreme. In my opinion, one can find comedy in almost any situation. Almost any situation. Given the complexities of Middle East politics, the present American stance in confronting terrorism, and the tragedies that have taken place, I find very little potential for humor in the events that precipitated and followed the September 11 attacks. However, that doesn’t preclude the possibility that someone else can find the humor and point it out to me. That’s where Robert Zubrin steps in with his sophomore fictional effort (as founder of the Mars Society, he has published extensively on behalf of space exploration), The Holy Land, in which he attempts to satirically skewer the last 55 years of Middle East history rearranging the major players and events.

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Infinity Beach by Jack McDevitt

Infinity Beach Cover

New York, NY: HarperPrism, 2000; $25.00 hardcover; 431 pp.

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

This review originally appeared in the August 2000 issue (#144) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

“For intelligence and clarity, Jack McDevitt is the natural heir to Isaac Asimov.” After reading a few of McDevitt’s novels, it’s not hard to see why this quote from Michael Swanwick has appeared on the cover of a couple of McDevitt’s other works. With an incredibly clear and unobtrusive (almost to the point of simplistic) style, McDevitt seems to want to relate his story to the reader as transparently as possible, as if he doesn’t want you to notice the writing at all, just the story itself. But the similarity between McDevitt and Asimov is much more than stylistic. Like Asimov, McDevitt’s strength lies in the story itself, with the characterization taking a back seat to the plot and subplots. This is not to say that McDevitt cannot give us quality characters. Rather, it is the events and their unfolding that draws our attention. As a result, novels such as Engines of God, Ancient Shores, and Eternity Road end up as incredible page turners that completely absorb you until the last page.

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Cities in Flight by James Blish

Cities in Flight Cover

Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2000; $35.00 hardcover; 591 pp.

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

This review originally appeared in the October 2000 issue (#146) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

Because most of the genre’s classics were written well before my adolescence, I often bemoan the fact that many are out of print, making it hard for me to track them down and read them for myself. Luckily, however, the task is not impossible. Often, with a little perseverance, I can find these novels used, and occasionally they come back into print, making my search easier. When I do find them, I sometimes find myself with contradictory reactions to them. For example, after reading Slan by A. E. van Vogt, I understood intellectually its importance to the genre and its popularity when it first arrived, but I couldn’t fathom how someone reading the novel today for the first time could think it a great example of sf. In fact, I found much of the writing so outright laughable that I was left wondering why it was necessary to bring the novel back into print.

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Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels by David Pringle

100 Best Novels Cover

New York, NY: Carroll & Graf, 1997; $10.95 trade paperback; 220 pp.

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

This review originally appeared in the July 1999 issue (#131) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

Over the past decade or so, Carroll & Graf became a leader of sf reprints by bringing many classics of sf back into print, even if only for a brief period. This army of reprints includes, but is not limited to, Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration, at least three J. G. Ballard books, Ian Watson’s The Embedding, Clifford Simak’s Ring Around the Sun, and Murray Leinster’s The Forgotten Planet. As part of their marketing strategy, Carroll & Graf made extensive use of David Pringle’s Science Fiction: 100 Best Novels for their back cover blurbs; if a reprint made it into his list, then Carroll & Graf made it clear by placing the line “Selected by David Pringle as one of the best 100 novels of all time” on the back cover. Sometimes, the novel itself didn’t even have to make the list; if another of the author’s novels made the list then Carroll & Graf would excerpt a Pringle quote that praised the author in general. It should then come as little surprise that Carroll & Graf is reprinting David Pringle’s 100 Best, originally published in 1985, but out of print for many years.

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Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Old Man's War Cover

New York, NY: Tor Books, 2005; $23.95 hardcover;
320 pp.

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

An edited version of this review originally appeared in the April 2006 issue (#212) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

The urge for authors to write a novel in response to Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is completely understandable. In addition to the genre’s well-established internal dialog, Heinlein’s statue and influence in the field, combined with his didactic and inflammatory statements concerning citizenship and the responsibilities of those who serve in the armed forces, almost demand a response from each new generation of sf writers. What’s really amazing is that it inspired John Scalzi to compose Old Man’s War, a novel that in some ways is very similar to Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, even though Scalzi never read Haldeman’s classic. Don’t let the structural similarities fool you though; Heinlein inspired Scalzi to write something different from Haldeman’s take on the material nearly 30 years ago.

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The Meek by Scott MacKay

Meek Cover

New York, NY: Roc, 2001; $5.99 paperback; 328 pp.

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

This review originally appeared in the November 2001 issue (#159) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

Scott MacKay’s first sf novel, Outpost, was a haunting piece of science fiction that blurred the lines of genre literature. Though the novel was definitely sf, a pervasive Kafkaesque quality made it feel more like a work of dark fantasy. Despite a few highly implausible plot turns, especially towards the end, it was an aggressive piece of writing that hinted at great potential for MacKay as a sf novelist. Yet, despite mostly favorable reviews, Outpost didn’t garner much attention from the field. MacKay’s second sf novel, The Meek, takes a much more conventional approach. Whereas Outpost blurred genre lines and had an intricate, slowly unfolding plot that traveled across time, The Meek is a straightforward novel that carefully stays within the sf tropes and makes its revelations in a more linear fashion. Do not misconstrue that, however, as saying that MacKay has decided to blaze an easier trail with this book. The Meek shows much of the daring and dense storytelling exhibited in Outpost.

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Termination Node by Lois H. Gresh & Robert Weinberg

Termination Node Cover

New York, NY: Del Rey, 1999; $6.99 paperback;
302 pp.

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

This review originally appeared in the September 2000 issue (#145) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

Like many thrillers, The Termination Node wastes no time in getting the action moving. Just about a decade in the future, the novel’s protagonist, superhacker and computer specialist Judy Carmody, is working an overnighter at Laguna Savings Bank. In the middle of what should be a routine operation, a hacker breaks into the bank’s network and starts rewriting account balances all over the system. Nothing Judy does seems to have any impact on the hacker; his commands are moving faster than she can react to stop or divert them. Yet, when the whole scenario completely plays out, all the account balances are returned to the original states.

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Newton’s Cannon by J. Gregory Keyes

Newton's Cannon Cover

New York, NY: Del Rey, 1998; $14.00 trade paperback; 368 pp.

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

This review originally appeared in the December 1998 issue (#124) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

Most alternate history stories have as their “what if’ scenario something seemingly plausible. What if the Roman Empire never fell? What if the United States had lost the Revolutionary War? What if Napoleon didn’t invade Russia? What if the South won at Gettysburg? What if the Nazis had won World War II? What if a professional baseball team thought a young Fidel Castro had enough pitching talent to sign him to a contract? Well, the last question might be a bit of a stretch—talent scouts universally thought little of Castro’s arm—but such “stretches,” while a minority, are not that uncommon to alternate history: Harry Turtledove, easily the current leader in this subgenre, recently finished a four-book series where aliens invaded Earth during the middle of World War II; the hero of Ward Moore’s classic Bring the Jubilee alters the course of history by arriving in Gettysburg during the Civil War (widely accepted sf trope or not, we all know time travel is impossible); and in L. Sprague de Camp’s classic Lest Darkness Fall, the hero attempts to prevent the fall of the Roman Empire after falling through a crack in the space-time continuum.

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City on Fire by Walter Jon Williams

City on Fire Cover

New York, NY: HarperPrism, 1997; $6.99 paperback; 560 pp.

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

This review originally appeared in the July 1998 issue (#119) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

That the major publishers, with their obsessive desire to pigeonhole everything into its proper marketable niche, or away from an undesired niche, have difficulty in categorizing gives me some joy. HarperPrism provided an excellent example of this when they marketed Walter Jon Williams’s Metropolitan as science fiction and its recent follow-up, City on Fire, as fantasy.

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