Roundup: Science Fiction and Fantasy

(Blaine Franger - Uppercut Images/Alamy)
Reviewed by Edward Champion
Sunday, October 12, 2008

AN EVIL GUEST By Gene Wolfe | Tor. 304 pp. $25.95

Gene Wolfe is the kind of clever writer who doesn't need to point out how whip-smart he is. But his work often requires a reread to unravel his narrative riddles. Wolfe's latest novel is a three-ring cavalcade about a rising starlet pining for adventure and lucre, an enigmatic professor named Gideon Chase who may or may not be as judgmental as his biblical namesake, and a chilly billionaire hiding behind a few names.

An Evil Guest takes place about a century from now, with cars transformed into intergalactic hoppers and cancer cured, but the novel's fast-talking feel is more Dashiell Hammett than John C. Wright. One of Wolfe's more amusing ideas is that the future isn't that drastically different from the present. Computer printouts, landline telephones and analog photographs are still around (although French toast has replaced pancakes in the restaurant franchise of choice). Chase, an apt name in light of recent financial developments, has been recruited by the government to restore the national economy by taking out William Reis, who is purportedly consorting with aliens. Chase recruits others to his cause, but his motivations shift with each appearance.

Unfortunately, when Wolfe abandons this intriguing character in the last 75 pages, the book loses its momentum. But the enticing mix of mystery, wordplay and ethical inquiry proves that the old man still has it.

DOGS By Nancy Kress | Tachyon. 280 pp. Paperback, $14.95

The prolific Nancy Kress has turned out a fey thriller that involves cutesy canines ripping an assembled cast of characters to shreds. The cause of all this frenetic flesh-tearing is a rapidly mutating virus of terrorist origins. But Kress tweaks the Cujo/ Andromeda Strain formula by making her protagonist, Tessa Sanderson, both an ex-FBI agent fond of meditation and the widow of a kind-hearted Arabic man. Kress's male characters are often more inept than her female ones, whether clueless truckers, gun-toting National Guardsmen or Tessa's ex-boss, an easily fooled bureaucrat who lacks the knack and know-how to work the small-town beat. FEMA is as disastrous and face-saving as ever, going well beyond the Katrina contretemps to exploit "this mutated virus, or whatever it was, to counterbalance their dismal performance in last year's California earthquake." And an executive order to kill all the dogs raises an interesting moral question about personal attachment to pets.

But there are leaps in logic. We're expected to believe that an ex-FBI agent can steal a passport and fly across the Atlantic without being stopped, and then shake off pursuing agents by simply entering a nightclub. Nevertheless, Kress has a flair for punchy melodrama, and she balances enough subplots to keep her book even-keeling at a satisfying clip.

CRAZY LOVE By Leslie What | Wordcraft of Oregon. Paperback, 200 pp. $13.95

Leslie What's wild and risk-taking fantasy tales have been largely overlooked, but her latest short story collection offers a great opportunity for wider attention. "Babies" is a blistering allegory of motherhood that fuses together bug exterminators, marital problems and obsessive solicitude in 13 pitch-perfect pages. The story's heroine carries the "extra weight" and protective quality of human pregnancy, while mothering cockroaches that "always came to her side whenever the bugman sprayed the landlord's kitchen." "Paper Mates" is a clever story in which paperwork quite literally reproduces like rabbits. What's stories, like Ray Bradbury's and Richard Matheson's, rely on high concepts to carry the narratives forward, but her prose works best when it is concise. Nearly every tale offers an unexpected surprise, but never feels too gimmicky. This is a universe in which one should never underestimate a woman in a ratty gorilla suit, even if her ability to "speak" with gorillas may very well be her only means of communication.

THE ANT KING AND OTHER STORIES By Benjamin Rosenbaum | Small Beer. 228 pp. Paperback, $16

Benjamin Rosenbaum is a fierce talent whose knack for genre mash-ups is represented well, if spottily, in this debut short story collection. The title story is an exuberant knockout: a dot-com parable featuring life-altering role-playing games, gumballs that provide existential succor, and rumination over whether or not "Wile E. Coyote is the only figure of any integrity in twentieth-century literature." "Start the Clock," which depicts a world segregated by age, recalls the geriatric insanity of Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron." Rosenbaum has the audacity to channel Italo Calvino in "Other Cities," an inventive but mostly tedious series on mythical metropolises.

But the startling "Red Leather Tassels" atones for the collection's filler material. The story begins with a captain of industry losing his shoes, continues with the businessman being lifted into the air by a flock of pigeons, and concludes with an adulterous affair between the robber baron's wife and a woodpecker. It's a testament to Rosenbaum's talent that such an unusual premise offers an unexpectedly touching conclusion. ยท

Edward Champion is a New York writer. He runs the website, and produces the literary podcast The Bat Segundo Show.

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