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Vol. 3.8 1999 by Ernest Lilley

SF Bookshelf
Cryptonomicon / The Decent / Singer from the Sea / O' PioneerIsard's Revenge - Star Wars X-Wing Series #8

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Sex and exposition, that's what SF is missing these days...but not Cryptonomicon.




Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Hardcover - 918 pages (May 1999) Avon Books; ISBN
: 0380973464
Review by Ernest Lilley

Sex and exposition, that's what SF is missing these days. Well, it's not missing from Neal Stephenson's foray into intel and IPO. Cryptonomicon offers enough of both to warm any geek's heart while not forgetting to give us action, adventure, and engaging characters.

Cryptonomicon follows two time frames and three generations of characters through WWII on the one hand and the immediate future on the other. Lawrence Waterhouse, a young mathematical prodigy, drifts along undiscovered until just after Pearl Harbor, when he discovers, to his delight, a happy talent for code breaking. Deep into the Allies Intel effort he goes adding more and more chapters to the classified handbook of cryptography -- the Cryptonomicon. Lawrence is the ultimate geek/savant. A friend of Alan Turing, one of the inventors of computing, he's the sort of deep thinker that could bicycle through the Hindenburg disaster and not be sure he'd actually seen it, the theorems in his mind being more real. In some ways he's a throwback to the Super-Scientist character of early SF, but considerably better realized.

Two generations later Randal Waterhouse, grandson of Lawrence, is a moderately brilliant Unix guru, MUD player, hacker and all round Californian geek. Tapped by his friend Avi to be the technical know how behind an Interenet IPO, Randy finds himself in the far east slogging through tropical cities and jungles as they struggle to create a data haven on the internet.

Ostensibly, Avi wants to create a space that cannot be controlled by governments as part of his belief that government controlled information allows the kind of genocidal madness that mankind has been so fond of from generation to generation. Be that as it may, the project predictably attracts the interests of both organized crime and government and Randy and Avi quickly find themselves at the center of international and corporate intrigue played by very serious players.

Meanwhile, back in the WWII, Lawrence is wandering around British intel sporting the highest clearance in the game -- Ultra-Enigma -- which designates him as being privy to the output from both the American and British super secret intel output from the broken cryto engines of the Japanese and the Nazis. His clearance is so secret that he spends a considerable amount of time getting lesser clearances so that he can admit to existing at all. For the most part, Lawrence has moved beyond crypto and into the murky waters of statistial analysis. If a sufficiently clever Nazi examines the pattern of U-Boat sinkings in the North Atlantic, can he deduce that it is due to Allied decoding of their communications? Into the deep end of the pool he plunges to fathom the question on which hinges the best kept secret in the war.

Action and adventure abounds in this book as well, largely in the person of Marine Sergeant Bobby Shaftoe. Starting out in the Philippines before the war, he winds up implementing the plans that are created to provide plausible alternate sources of intel to the Germans, always deep behind enemy lines, rarely with any idea why he and his men are doing the things they do, usually loitering around until the Germans can almost catch them just so their work won't be missed. Not that uderstanding the big picture is a big concern of his, leaving that sort of thing to the officers except when necessary. Not that Shaftoe isn't bright --he's that and one of the most interesting characters in the book as well -- but there's a deal in the military that he firmly believes in, and it involves a total separation of command and implementation. It's classic Marine thinking and the author presents it very well.

The author presents a lot of stuff very well. Internet technology, telecommunications, the whole IPO and business world, early computer development and the economics of world banking. Neal Stephenson doesn't mind stopping to explain any of it, and if I was bored I would have skipped right over the tech bits, but that never happened. Well almost never.

Not only are there tech bits, but naughty bits as well. The cast of the book is unrepentantly male, and they spend a considerable amount of time preoccupied with the second highest concentration of nerve ganglia in their bodies. Just like in real life. I contend that it isn't  gratuitous sex, just a lot of boys doing what boys do.

In the end, the storylines dovetail around a conspiracy involving more wealth than I can imagine and the boys grow up to become men. I liked this book so much that it stopped pretty much everything else in my life for a week while I read it the old fashioned way…one word at a time.

Neal Stephenson isn't trapped in Cyberpunk, nor is he likely to burn out in the near future. With Cryptonomicon, he continues to establish himself as a writer to be reckoned with.

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"Hell exists... It is real. A geological, historical, place beneath our feet. And it is inhabited. Savagely."

"But Hell?"

"An upper lithospheric environment. An abyssal region riddled with holes..."


No thousand foot waterfalls. No dinosaurs, for chrissake. Most of all there was not supposed to be light. But there was all of that.  - The Descent

The Decent by Jeff Long
Hardcover (July 1999) Crown Books; ISBN: 0609602934
Review by Ernest Lilley

"Hell exists... It is real. A geological, historical, place beneath our feet. And it is inhabited. Savagely." said the President, and plans were laid to wipe it out from under the feet of the Earth.

"Do you believe in Satan?" asks a reporter of the General in charge of the War on Hell.

"I believe in winning."

Ike Crockett is one of the few humans who have survived the decent into Hell, lived through slavery and torture by it's grotesque denizens and emerged still almost human. He is chosen to act as the guide for a research expedition that will cross beneath the pacific floor charting the abyssal depths and leading the way for the colonization of Hell. Along with the mercenaries and the scientists comes linguist Ami Von Schade, to decipher the language of the Hadites, to bridge the gap between species with dialogue, or so she thinks. Ami's religious vows set her apart form the others as much as Ike's life in slavery separates him for humanity, so the two are naturally drawn together in the abyssal dark.

And along with their cargo of scientific equipment the expedition carries a horror greater than anything even the minions of Hell could unleash.

The writing captivated me, and the voyage into darkness intrigued me. In addition to the storyline about the expedition, there is a human cabal searching through every scrap of knowledge they can find to determine if there was a real Satan at the heart of myth... and if there is, could he be alive and in their midst?

Oddly the one thing that fell short was the spelunking. I often lost the sense of absolute darkness that the author tried to paint. Though the author commented that he decided to write more than just a spelunking novel, and in contrast to his previous mountaineering novel, Ascent, this story relies more on the religious and character aspects of the plot rather than the technical elements of caving. There was also the matter of life support 10 miles below the surface of the Earth, and we were left on our own to figure out how enough oxygen could be generated to support the underworld's population.

The Descent has pays knowing tribute to everything written about the underworld, from the travels on the River Styx to the underground seas of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth.

In a number of ways it's like Mary Russell's The Sparrow, only turned upside down. Instead of a trip to the stars to greet an alien race, the descent takes us on a Vernian excursion to the center of the earth, or at least the nearer depths, to confront Satan and a branch of humanity that was old when our race was very young.

Instead of a linguist Priest, the linguist is a Nun, but the central characters include a beautiful linguist who is a member of the cloth, as does the Sparrow, and there is certainly enough slavery and mutilation at the hands of the Haddites. If you have read the Sparrow, I think you will be intrigued by the similarities and differences.

If you're a fan of Verne or Dante, if you liked Mary Russell's The Sparrow, or if you just want to read about a place hotter than where you were this summer, The Descent might just be the book for you.

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singerfromthesea.jpg (20135 bytes) Singer from the Sea by Sheri S. Tepper
Hardcover -  pages (April 1999) Avon/EOS  ISBN 0380974800
Review by E.J. McClure

Genevieve dreams. And as she grows into womanhood in Haven, fettered by the ancient covenants to a life of submission, her dreams grow ever more vivid and compelling. They forbid her to bury herself in the life her father the Marshal wants for her, though at first she tries dutifully to please him. When he is abruptly summoned from his military duties to attend the Lord Paramount in Havenor, Genevieve leaves school and her friends to accompany him. She does everything in her power to run his household and manage his social schedule as a covenantly daughter should. When her inexperience overwhelms her, she turns to her father's equerry, Colonel Aufors Leys. To her dismay, Genevieve finds herself falling in love with Aufors, a sentiment the handsome but common-born young officer returns with interest.

Both are honorable enough to deny the tug of forbidden attraction until the fateful dinner party when old Prince Yugh Delganor intimates that he wants Genevieve for his third--or is it his fourth?--wife. Revolted at the prospect, Genevieve turns to the Duchess Alicia for help. Alicia is alarmed; she has been at court long enough to see the cronies of the Lord Paramount take wife after wife, all of whom die soon after bearing a child, while the old men themselves live on and on. She does not know the reason behind this ominous pattern, but she believes Genevieve is in real danger and arranges the girl's escape before Prince Delganor can formally propose.

During her flight Genevieve tumbles into a web of secrets more sinister than anything Alicia feared, secrets that compel her to return to her father and pretend submission to his ambitions. To her surprise, she is not sent back to their country estate in disgrace. Rather, she required to accompany her father and Prince Delganor on an arduous journey to the desert island of Mahahm. Much to his surprise, Aufors Leys is included in the delegation. Their mission is to treat with the reclusive and fantatical zealots of Mahahm for an increased supply of P'naki, the drug used to cure the batfly fever that kills so many nursing mothers.

Cultural differences and political intrigue weave a deadly web around the young lovers. By listening to the ancient lore of the "unclean" Malghaste servants, Genevieve is able to glean tantalizing hints about the history of their world, and the peril it now faces. She also comes to realize that the Malghaste are far more than beggars and servants, and in her moment of greatest danger she turns to them for help.

An emphasis on ecological themes, a background woven from Polynesian and Middle Eastern cultures and a cast comprised largely of female characters combine to make Singer from the Sea a unique work of fantasy. It almost delivers everything it promises. There are some sketchy passages in which the plot is pushed along by an omniscient narrator anxious to get to the next dramatic scene. The dialogue is required to carry a freight of philosophical exposition that slows the pace of action in the middle of the book. But taken as a whole, Singer from the Sea is a richly textured narrative of economic and cultural conflict experienced from a young woman's perspective. For Genevieve, piecing together the truth of her heritage is only part of the battle; the real challenge lies in deciding what to do with the knowledge. She has no swift recourse to martial action. Every move she makes is strictly circumscribed by custom, law and religious dictates. As she finds allies among other women, both Havenor and Malghaste, she also manages to find surprising freedom within her cultural role. Her real test comes as she searches for the spiritual strength to embrace her destiny, though her actions will change her world forever, and may cost her Aufors' love and trust.

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opioneer.jpg (27489 bytes) O' Pioneer by Frederik Pohl
Mass Market Paperback -  pages (Apr 1999) St.Martin's Press; ISBN: 081254443
Review by Paul J. Giguere

Life is good for Evesham Giyt. He has all the money he needs, he has a
beautiful and intelligent girlfriend and (when he chooses to be) can wield
real power around the world. The problem is that Evesham is a top-notch
computer hacker who yearns for another kind of life for himself and his
girldfriend Rina. After meeting with a representative of the colony world
of Tupelo, Evesham and Rina decide to marry (at least on paper) and move to
Tupelo as husband and wife via the Sommermen Transportation drive which
allows for instantaneous transportation to the colony world.

Tupelo is actually colonized by five races besides humans: the Centaurs,
the Kalkaboos, the Petty Primes, the Slugs, and the Delts. Each race has
its own peculiar and fun quirks (the Centaurs interpretation of the English
language and Earth customs make for some fun moments). All seems well at
first; Evesham and Rina are welcomed by Hoak Hagbarth, the real power in
the human-occupied colony, and the various communities of Tupelo seem to
have embraced the Giyts After Evesham reluctantly accepts a candidacy for
mayor of the human colony and wins by a landslide, he finds himself in the
midst of political posturing among the humans and the other races for
control of natural resources and of the Sommermen Transportation drive
itself. Evesham's loyalties are eventually stretched between his new found
alien friends and the human colonists as he begins to discover that Hoak
Hagbarth and some humans loyal to Hagbart may have other plans for Tupelo,
plans that include taking the whole planet in the name of Earth. Evesham
calls upon his expert hacking skills once more to crack the conspiracy

O Pioneer is Pohl in his top satiric form. The politicians of the various
alien races have names like Petty-Prime Responsible One and Principal Slug.
The political situations are funny and sometimes painfully too close to
reality for comfort (but that is part of the fun as well). Evesham is a
good character but he is overshadowed by the aliens who are really the
stars of the novel. The story flows nicely but is ultimately predictable
but the ride along the way is fun and amusing. Nothing serious here but O
Pioneer is a great Summer read.

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isardsrevenge.jpg (28879 bytes) Isard's Revenge   - Star Wars X-Wing Series, No.8 by Michael J. Stackpole
Mass Market Paperback -   pages (Apr 1999) Bantam Books; ISBN: 0553579037
Review by Thomas Seay

Isard's Revenge is the eighth book in the X-Wing series, and it marks Michael A. Stackpole's return to the world of Corran Horn, Wedge Antilles, and Rogue Squadron. According to this latest tale, Ysanne Isard managed to survive the liberation of Thyferra, and she's teamed up with an Imperial Warlord named Krennel to oppose the New Republic.

Corran Horn survives a twisty opening plot to learn that Isard is working on a new superweapon, based on the original Death Star designs. With this knowledge in hand, he gathers Rogue Squadron to work on a plan to defeat Isard -- only to be captured at the hands of the enemy…

To say the least, this novel will be confusing for readers who have not read the original four X-Wing books. Stackpole is very careful to set up the necessary details, but I can't imagine that someone reading this book without knowing the X-Wing series would enjoy it nearly as much as I did.

The dogfights that we've all come to love from the X-Wing series have returned in full explosive style. A few AT-ATs are thrown in for good measure, and it's a delight to see the alien race of the Noghri handled by someone other than Timothy Zahn.

My major problem with Isard's Revenge is that Stackpole seems unable to let go of his old antagonist. At the end of The Bacta War, Ysanne Isard was killed -- yet, by something that can only be described as authorial manipulation, she is now alive again. This thrusts the reader into a struggle that has already been resolved. I was disappointed that Stackpole felt he had to rework my imagination.

Don't read Isard's Revenge expecting a masterful continuation of the Rogue Squadron story. If, however, you're willing to suspend your disbelief and go along with what the author says, you'll likely be pleasantly surprised.

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