Spaceships, gunfights and believable characters, too.
TERRITORYBy Emma Bull Tor. 318 pp. $24.95
Modern fantasy is hard to define, especially when genre writers as diverse as Tim Powers, Neil Gaiman and Emma Bull are hip-deep in it. Bull's Territory lacks the malevolent poetry of Powers's best and the trenchant wit of Gaiman's latest, but her version of the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, an iconic 1881 incident in Tombstone, Ariz., is no less modern or fantastic than the worlds that these better known fantasists create. The book takes the bare facts of the shoot-out and speculates that its causes were more supernatural than reality-based.
Territory opens with a horse ambling into town with a nearly dead man slouched on its back. Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp blaze into the picture, followed shortly by a mysterious stranger and a Chinese physician. Once a widowed newspaper reporter makes her way onto the stage, you know you're in the hands of a master storyteller who is performing gorgeous alchemy on what we know to be true.
Reality shifts like desert sand here. "You can't always tell the truth of a thing by looking," one character says, "no matter how clear you can see it." The same can be said of Bull's light but smart touch, which keeps the reader alert with rich period details that ring true and equally rich fabrications that subvert expectations.
Sadly, it doesn't all come together in the end. Too many loose threads aren't woven in, and the book lacks a satisfying conclusion. The jacket copy makes no mention of this being the first of two books; however, Bull has stated as much in interviews. Trying to pass a duology off as a stand-alone novel could get a man shot in the West that Bull writes about.
HURRICANE MOONBy Alexis Glynn Latner Pyr. 399 pp. Paperback, $15
Science fiction writers often find the footing difficult once they stray outside of math and engineering and into the squishier sciences that attempt to map how people behave. Yet Alexis Glynn Latner jumps into this quicksand fearlessly. Hurricane Moon is a compelling work that creates believable worlds informed by hard science but populated with credible characters who aren't just mouthpieces for technological wizardry.
The novel's start is a rocky one. Catharin Gault, a doctor preparing for an interstellar journey to find a new world to settle, is thrown a curve ball during the days before blastoff. Instead of driving the plot forward, this plot device stalls the momentum while Latner works in reams of exposition. Once she get the team into space, though, all of Latner's narrative engines come on line.
In many ways, Hurricane Moon is anti-science and technology. Gee-whiz gadgets aren't much help for many of the problems that these astronauts face; in fact, technology is usually what gets them into trouble. As one of the ship's builders tells Catharin, "Plans are good, training better yet, but not if they blind you and bind you in the face of the unexpected."
Latner couples the sentiment with an equally weighty humanist philosophy while she weaves a complex story about how alien a new world can be. Mixed with these highbrow thoughts is some good old action as the planet does its best to kill inattentive settlers. By the end of the book, both the science and the spirit are joined in a union that is strong and dynamic. Hurricane Moon, despite a few structural missteps, is a resonant achievement.
THE ACCIDENTAL TIME MACHINEBy Joe Haldeman Ace. 278 pp. $23.95
Joe Haldeman can spin one heck of a yarn. At least two of his past works -- The Forever War and Forever Peace-- are classics in the genre and have won Hugo and Nebula awards. Clearly, Haldeman knows what he's doing, which is why The Accidental Time Machine feels so very, very wrong, almost as if a time traveler snuck into Haldeman's office and replaced the original manuscript with a substandard revision.
Time Machine revolves around MIT physics grad student Matt Fuller, who discovers one day that he can make a specialized piece of equipment disappear when he pushes its reset button. Hypothetically, the time machine could be a great discovery. But, naturally, there are problems. One: The time machine takes him only into the future, which limits its applications. Two: The machine travels further and further into the future with each trip -- millions of years by the book's end. Third: Fuller uses the time machine to run from his problems, becoming a stunted adolescent saved by a deus ex machina rather than his own derring-do.
The book's shallowness becomes even more clear with the arrival of Martha, the teacher's assistant whom Fuller picks up in a future in which Jesus Christ rules the Northeast (one of Haldeman's weak stabs at satire). With Martha, Haldeman may have been aiming for an homage to the smart, buxom babes who populate Robert Heinlein's best, but she ultimately serves only as a pneumatic plaything.
In its defense, Time Machine does posit an interesting idea about what our futures could look like -- what would happen if eBay ruled the West Coast, for example. It's also a great mash note to MIT, whose campus Haldeman reveres. But as a novel with characters who are more than 2-D cutouts, Time Machine fails to deliver.