washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Sunday Sections > Book World

Science Fiction and Fantasy

Dark new worlds and multiple layers of reality drive these tales from the stars.

By Bill Sheehan
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page BW13

Future Past

In recent years, Jack McDevitt has produced a remarkable series of interstellar adventure novels (Chindi, Omega, Deepsix) that has established him as perhaps the best pure storyteller working in the field today. McDevitt's latest, Polaris (Ace, $24.95), can only enhance his reputation. A cleverly constructed mystery set against a rigorously developed future history, Polaris offers both a high-adrenaline narrative and a complex meditation on some thorny ethical dilemmas.

The book's central event takes place some 60 years before the primary narrative begins. The eponymous survey ship Polaris is about to return home after completing a scientific mission in a remote section of the galaxy. Moments after announcing its imminent departure, the ship falls silent. A rescue team eventually arrives to find the Polaris drifting in space. Its crew, which consists of a pilot and six VIP passengers, has disappeared. The mystery of their disappearance becomes, in time, the stuff of myth and the source of endless speculation.

Decades later, Chase Kolpath and Alex Benedict (last seen in A Talent for War) find themselves enmeshed, both personally and professionally, in the ongoing history of the Polaris. Dealers in antiquities and assorted alien collectibles, they attend an exhibit containing artifacts found on board the deserted ship. When an explosion disrupts the exhibit and destroys most of the artifacts, the two initiate a belated investigation into the history of the ship and its celebrated passengers. As the investigation proceeds, accompanied by a series of sophisticated murder attempts, it becomes clear that the mystery of the Polaris conceals a larger mystery, one with vital consequences for the rapidly proliferating human species.

Polaris is an exemplary merger of mystery and science fiction. As always, McDevitt handles the scientific and human details with equal authority, and he excels at placing his protagonists in deadly situations requiring ingenious -- and convoluted -- solutions. McDevitt's informed reflections on issues such as life extension, population control, personality reconstruction and the power that the past continues to exert on the human imagination enhance the narrative pleasures. It all adds up to an intelligent, provocative entertainment by a man who brings energy, style and a fresh perspective to everything he writes.

The Alien Future

Caitlin R. Kiernan's short novel, The Dry Salvages (Subterranean, $25), explores some traditional science fiction motifs, bringing an intense, Gothic sensibility to bear on essentially familiar material. Kiernan's narrator is Audrey Cather, an old woman living in the decaying city of Paris on the eve of the 24th century. The story takes the form of a memoir in which Audrey recalls the defining event of her life: a catastrophic journey to the remote star system of Gliese, where evidence of an advanced alien technology has recently come to light.

The allusive narrative, which takes its title from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, begins with a scene (deliberately reminiscent of Ridley Scott's "Alien") in which the crew members of the starship Montelius are awakened from interstellar sleep by the artificially intelligent robots that run the ship. They have reached their destination -- the glowing red moon of Peros -- to find themselves faced with a series of mysteries. In short order, they learn that the members of an earlier expedition to Peros have died, disappeared or gone insane, while the normally subservient AIs have taken control of the mission. In a state of growing panic, Audrey and her human (or nearly human) companions descend to the moon's surface, where they follow in their predecessors' footsteps to a sinister pool where an enigmatic presence awaits them, altering the very stuff of reality and radically affecting everyone who encounters it.

The Dry Salvages is filled, in typical Kiernan fashion, with both pain and wonder -- although pain, in this case, predominates. At bottom, the book is a horror story in which the horror itself remains formless and indistinct, a manifestation, ultimately, of chaos, insanity and despair. Kiernan's vision is so unrelievedly grim that it might not be sustainable at novel length. At 120 pages, however, it retains its capacity to unnerve and disturb, investing the materials of traditional space opera with a bleak, claustrophobic power.


K.J. Bishop is a young, extremely gifted Australian writer whose first novel, The Etched City (Bantam; paperback, $14), has won numerous awards and stirred up considerable interest in sf/fantasy circles. It is now available in an affordable mass-market edition, so American readers will finally have a chance to judge the book for themselves.

{grv}The Etched City takes place in a baroque, often violent world that is at once familiar and deeply strange. The two principal characters are Raule, a displaced physician, and Gwynn, an itinerant mercenary. These two, once comrades on the losing side of a protracted civil war, meet again at a critical moment in both their lives and travel together to the lush, decadent city of Ashamoil, where very different destinies await them.

Raule resumes doctoring among the city's disenfranchised poor. Gwynn joins the cadre of Elm, a corrupt dealer in slaves and arms. Whether or not they consciously realize it, both are in search of "mystery and alteration," qualities Ashamoil offers them in abundance. Gwynn in particular comes under the sway of mysterious, transforming forces. Chief among them are "the Rev," a whiskey priest who once performed miracles and now searches desperately for redemption, and Beth, an artist/magician whose work both reflects and shapes the bizarre realities around her.

The Etched City is a philosophical novel and a surrealist tour-de-force filled with beautiful, sometimes harrowing imagery. Bishop's characters struggle to find their way through a dreamlike, increasingly malleable world. Along the way, they encounter unexpected dangers and confront complex questions of faith, conscience, loyalty and love. The result is an immensely assured first novel in which the main elements -- prose, setting, characterization, ideas -- come together in a stylish, persuasive whole. K.J. Bishop is an important new voice in contemporary fantasy, and her potential seems virtually limitless. It will be interesting and instructive -- to see where she goes from here.

Mysteries of the Heart

M. John Harrison has been one of England's best-kept secrets for more than 30 years, but he has yet to make a significant impact on this side of the Atlantic. With the simultaneous publication of two novels -- each memorable, each very different from the other -- that situation may finally change.

Light (Bantam; paperback, $16) is a genre-bending novel that combines wide-screen sf and contemporary psychological drama to astonishing effect. One narrative thread takes place in 1999 and centers on Michael Kearney, a mathematician -- and, for reasons too complex to describe here, a serial murderer -- who is working toward a breakthrough in the wide-open field of quantum physics. Other threads take place hundreds of years later, in the future that Kearney's experiments helped make possible. These latter sections feature a "K-ship" pilot named Seria Mau Genlicher, whose body has merged with the central nervous system of her ship, and Ed Chianese, a former deep-space pilot turned prophet-in-training. These three distinct storylines converge in a vast cosmic mystery whose focal point is the unexplored -- perhaps unexplorable -- region called the Kefahuchi Tract. Light is a grand, sometimes grim drama whose driving theme is the limitless possibility implicit in the universe around us. Though sometime too convoluted for its own good, it is a thoroughly imagined, frequently beautiful novel that rings vital new changes on some time-honored sf themes.

The Course of the Heart (Night Shade, $25) is, on the surface, a different sort of book that shares a number of Light's thematic concerns. The novel begins as a riff on Arthur Machen's "The Great God Pan," in which an experiment aimed at piercing the veil of the visible world leads to disastrous results. In Harrison's version, three Cambridge students, led by a sinister magician named Yaxley, conduct a metaphysical experiment of their own, one that leaves them vulnerable to nameless occult forces and alters their lives forever.

The narrative traces the disordered, often chaotic nature of those altered lives and presents a powerful portrait of ordinary people making their way through a fallen world, driven by forces they can neither understand nor control. Woven through this primary narrative is an ongoing account of the search for "the Coeur," a country of the heart in which all things are possible and which serves as an antidote to "the bitter world" of pain, grief and unresolved longing. Like most of Harrison's work, The Course of the Heart makes large demands and offers large, unexpected pleasures. Its appearance in America is a welcome, long overdue event. Don't let it pass you by. •

Bill Sheehan is the author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree," a critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, and the editor of the recent anthology "Night Visions 11."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company