Freaking Out

RIBOFUNK, Paul Di Filippo's collection of linked stories dating from 1989, (Four Walls Eight Windows. $20), concerns itself with how human bodies, minds and lifestyles might be affected by burgeoning biotechnologies. The portmanteau title suggests a melding of RNA ("ribo," as in ribonucleic acid) with soul music "funk," and Di Filippo's style is a surprisingly successful fictional approximation of just such an unholy marriage. Here is a description of the title character from "Blankie":

"The Blankie was approximately as big as a large bath towel. Its glycoprotein-glycolipid paradermal surface was colored a delicate pastel blue and resembled in texture antique eggcrate bedding foam. Except that the individual nubbings of the Blankie were much more closely spaced, and in the shallow dimples of the Blankie gleamed a subtle organic sheen like a piece of raw liver."

Di Filippo, previously the author of the well received Steampunk Trilogy, employs a playful ironic sensibility in the midst of his lowdown imagery. In "One Night in Television City," a cocky kid named Dez is conned into scaling an immense building. Our cyberpunkish hero is led on by Turbo, a Body Artist who suspects Dez of messing with his girl, Chuckie. Turbo's plan is to maroon his rival on top of a tower overlooking Television City. For Turbo, getting back down to the ground shouldn't be difficult; his implants enable him to climb like a monkey: "While he was thinking, Turbo made all the muscles in his torso move around like snakes under his skin."

Turbo is the least of the freakish mutations in this book. Di Filippo imagines creatures cloned from human and animal genes, who serve their masters in a seemingly endless variety of functions, including sex. There's a sapient river, first cousin to Lem's sentient planet Solaris. There is the cigarette-smoking "Peter Rabbit," who rescues his human-animal friends from the evil McGregor. There are the Protein Police, outlaw gene splicers, and aquatic semihumans who clean up toxic spills. And there is my personal favorite, "Little Worker," whose wolverine genes save her unworthy master's hide in a life-threatening, bloody situation. This story contrives to be both touching and ironic, no mean feat for any writer, much less one who has created such a complex and richly detailed future. While the caveat must be added that Di Filippo's prose, particularly his dialogue, is sometimes a bit thick with bio-punk jargon, the patient reader will be nevertheless well pleased with Ribofunk.

King of Clones

KATHLEEN ANN GOONAN'S second novel is every bit as good as Queen City Jazz, her celebrated first. The Bones of Time (Tor, $23.95) are the remains of King Kamehameha, Hawaii's greatest monarch. Not only have clones been created from Kamehameha's eponymous bones, but the secret of time travel resides in their marrow as well. The two main characters function independently: Cen is a mathematician who has had the bad luck to fall in love with a woman from the distant past and who feverishly attempts to master time travel so that he can be with her; his counterpart Linda saves the life of King Kamehameha's last surviving clone. The bones are, naturally enough, the device by which Goonan brings the pair together, in a complex and engrossing narrative. Set in the year 2034, the action moves painlessly from Oahu to Asia, Goonan's careful prose delineating a painstakingly created future:

"In the center of the shelves, on a low table jutting out with a yellow pillow in front of it, was a holo field. It manifested Tibetan characters, which flowed in and out of existence smoothly and swiftly. A variety of systems, such as the one she had purchased for Akamu in Hong Kong lay scattered about, and even several of the faddish ergs that could be easily molded and remolded for the user's comfort."

The Bones of Time is deliberately paced, character-oriented science fiction, and Goonan's depiction of Hawaii 40 years from now is highly intriguing. One can well understand why her work has already earned plaudits from the likes of William Gibson and Lucius Shepard.

Destination: Moon

WHICH brings us to that past master of science fiction intrigue, Allen Steele. His latest, The Tranquility Alternative (Ace, $21.95) is hard sf at its best. Commander Gene Parnell leads America's final mission to the moon, his purpose, now that the Cold War has ended, to fire ICBMs from Tranquillity Base into the sun. Parnell's unconventional crew is made up of a resentful lesbian astronaut, an obnoxious computer nerd, and two stuffy Germans. The Germans represent a firm, Koenig Selenen (roughly translated as Moon King), that has purchased Tranquillity Base and the attendant nuclear launch site, Teal Falcon. At least one spy is aboard. Other characters with nefarious plans for the nuclear warheads -- menacingly pointed at Earth's eastern hemisphere -- have come along for the ride, too.

Resonating with this heady mix is Parnell's personal history as a pioneering astronaut in the '60s, now participating in the end of America's space program. Excerpts from news reports and history books fill us in further on Steele's alternate universe -- one in which Isaac Asimov is a science reporter for the Boston Globe and Jimi Hendrix performs with a symphony orchestra. Take, for example, this meeting of the minds from 1950:

"Sen. Nixon: I've only had a chance to skim your report, General, and it's quite impressive. So is the estimation of the costs involved. Ten billion dollars is a considerable amount of money.'

"Dr. Von Braun: This is only an approximation, Mr. Senator, but it includes costs for building three ferry rockets and the space station. It's also a long-range program spread over the next ten years, with completion of the space station -- the Space Wheel, we call it -- scheduled for 1960 . . .' "

Steele manages to give us the space program -- as it was imagined in the '50s -- gone wrong, as well as a crackerjack Heinleinian plot and a lesson in the value of tolerance. The Tranquillity Alternative sets us up for a dandy climax on the moon, featuring lots of action, unpredictable plot twists, and a believable alternate history of the post-World War II half-century leading up to the present, all neatly wired with the motivations and actions of well-drawn characters.

Another Time

Great Science Fiction Stories of Alternate History (Citadel Twilight, Paperback, $14.95), compiled by Martin Greenberg, opens with a workmanlike novella by Robert Silverberg: "Lion Time in Timbuctoo" is a sequel to Silverberg's novel The Gate of Worlds, set in an Africa that never was. Howard Waldrop's "Ike at the Mike" is a wonderful reminiscence by Sen. Elvis Presley about the night he saw the great jazz man Dwight D. Eisenhower perform, and how it almost inspired Presley to become a musician instead of a politician. "Over There" by Mike Resnick posits an unfamiliar version of the First World War. Larry Niven's classic "All the Myriad Ways" deftly explores the concept of timelines, "branching and branching, a megauniverse of universes, millions more every minute . . . The universe split every time someone made a decision. Split, so that every decision ever made could go both ways. Every choice made by every man, woman and child on Earth was reversed in the universe next door. It was enough to confuse any citizen." Other outstanding stories are by Fritz Leiber (the classic "Catch That Zeppelin"), Greg Bear, Harry Turtledove, and Barry Malzberg. This superior volume concludes with the extraordinary World War II-era novelette "The Lucky Strike," by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Another anthology of interest to the serious science fiction reader, as well as to the aspiring writer, is Paragons (St. Martin's, $24.95), edited by Robin Wilson, the notable editor who founded the Clarion Writer's Workshop, now a venerable institution. Each story in this useful, as well as enjoyable, book is followed by an essay on how it was written. The list of authors includes Nancy Kress, James Patrick Kelly, Greg Bear, Pat Murphy, Kim Stanley Robinson, Lucius Shephard, Karen Joy Fowler, Bruce Sterling, Joe Haldeman, John Kessel, Pat Cadigan and Howard Waldrop. Several of these tales have won the Nebula Award, and others have been finalists. Murphy's "Rachel in Love" is the sentimental account of a chimp with human intelligence; Cadigan's hard- edged "Pretty Boy Crossover" proved back in the '80s that a woman could write cyberpunk with the best of 'em. The underrated James Patrick Kelly's "Monsters" is a frightening, thought-provoking piece, while "Buddha Nostril Bird" is a typically wry confection from John Kessel. The essays themselves discuss plot, character, setting, point of view and style in often refreshing end incisive ways. Still, it's the brilliant fiction that really makes Paragons work.

Tim Sullivan's new novel is "Naked in Outer Space."