Reviewed by Joe Mayhew, who writes about science fiction for Absolute Magnitude.

The Babies Are Beasts In Maximum Light by Nancy Kress (Tor, $22.95), three first-person narrators tell the story: Shanna Walders, a clueless teenaged girl; Cameron Atuli, a homosexual ballet dancer; and Nick Clementi, an aging medical scientist who advises Congress on crisis control. Happily, Kress gives her characters a complex inner spark of humanity that keeps them from being mere caricatures. This novel is about a very serious sexual problem -- endocrine failure due to synthetic environmental pollution. "Atlanta had rain, sheets of it, slabs of it. Before I could help myself, I started ticking off all the synthetic, windborne disrupters that were probably coming down with each drop. Hexaclorobenzene, kelthane, ocotchlorostyrene, the alkyl phenols . . . " Because of the severe drop in fertility there are fewer children in the world. Some rich would-be parents will do anything to acquire a child of their own. Therefore entrepreneurs have been hard at work to provide child substitutes, despite legal or moral inconveniences. Vivifacture, the making of human spare parts, has become a reality, and someone has devised a way to graft human hands and faces onto chimpanzees to provide "babies." They actually (sort of) look more like humans than do the dogs and cats some people have been pushing around in strollers. Kress's villains are not diabolical conspirators but willfully ignorant hypocrites, shortsighted and greedy dunderheads, the well-intentioned half-baked -- in short, us. But we are also the heroes whose generosity, honesty and energy could turn our lemming tribe away from the polluted waters ahead. This is a wry book which will delight the thoughtful reader. Healing Wounded Gladiators In The Hand of Prophecy by Severna Park (Avon, $14), Frenna, a "Jatahn" (favored one), is the slave of Olney, a veterinarian stationed on an outpost of the Emirate. She has been given a virus that will keep her from growing older for 20 years and then will kill her -- very painfully. She escapes from her abusive master during an invasion panic; the Faraqui, evil slavers, are returning to claim their old turf. Frenna is soon captured by Rasha, a Faraqui, whose pheromones overpower her. Frenna's family used to be owned by his, and they had been bred to serve them in every way. He soon gives her to a friend who runs a TV death-circus on another planet. She must serve as a medic for the wounded gladiators, dispensing the mercy-killer "Thanas" to those who are seized in their final horrifying "failure." But Frenna has seen one slave recover from "failure," and she has been given three "slap-pack" syringes containing the cure, which can only be given as the slave's death is at hand. The cure is a cancer that cleans up after Thanas. This cancer, though serious, is curable. Meanwhile, a woman named Troah (which means "the Hand of Prophecy," commonly used in the context of hopeless despair) claims to have a mystical cure and manipulates and dominates her fellow slaves. Troah's tattooed hand seems to be the channel of extraordinary powers. Frenna soon becomes masochistically bound up with Troah, as well as with one of the best of the female gladiators, Hallie. The Hand of Prophecy is at times gross, perverse and compulsive -- a very dark book, indeed. The Twin Suns Also Rise Seventeen-year-old Felicitas, the protagonist of Scott Mackay's Outpost (Tor, $24.95), "couldn't remember murdering anyone, couldn't remember a trial or sentencing, or who, exactly, she had killed. As Felicitas looked up at the twin suns, her memory felt nearly blank, with only enough of it to tell her that most of it was missing. But the image persisted, and if most of the details of her life were forgotten, she at least remembered this one thing: the identification tag stapled through her victim's ear." Felicitas is in a deteriorating prison, watched over by alien robots that have started to fail. Until recently, her nights have been spent attached to brain-numbing dreamphones that take her back to the crime over and over again. But somehow she is getting memories back. There are dreams of Lungo Muso, one of the "Old Ones" or "Uominilupi," wolf-men who built the prison (most of the characters have Italian names and salt their speech with Italian terms, though they are essentially English speakers). The prison is divided between the "Dead," who are completely absorbed by their dreamphones, and the "Superstiti," who have been able to awaken and are struggling to escape over the walls by means of a ladder built from parts of the dying robots. As Felicitas joins them, she becomes aware that she can "hear" things that even the other Superstiti cannot, and has a unique affinity for the devices and weapons of the "Old Ones." But the "New Ones" are coming. Lungo Muso shows her, and others, visions of total destruction of the planet, wrought by these time-traveling creatures. Some of the zombie-like Dead have been implanted with mind-controlling robot-spiders by the New Ones. They disrupt the escape and capture and convert (or eat) some of Felicitas's friends. Still, some of the Superstiti manage to escape, pursued by the implanted Dead. Mackay somewhat overuses the tension-building devices of having his heroine dither and fumble about when early action might have paid off, or isolating her when he needs her to be vulnerable, but he has managed nonetheless to put together a fast-paced action adventure. Martial Arts Steven Barnes's Iron Shadows (Tor, $24.95) opens with a "Mission Impossible" style rescue of a little girl from her abducting non-custodial gangster father. Leading the rescue team are blonde martial artist Porsche "Cat" Juvell, her ex-husband, Jax Carpenter, and her tech-wizard, wheelchair-bound brother Tyler. The action is vivid, violent and well-paced from the start. "Jax came in hooking to McGee's body. He landed solidly to the short ribs, evoking a gratifying gasp in response. A muffled reverse punch grazed Jax's cheek, snapping his head around. He saw stars, but never stopped. You never ever stop once you get them going . . . " The super-detectives' next big job is to rescue Kolla, sister of mega-rich Dr. Maxwell Sinclair, from the Golden Sun sex-power cult's glitzy leaders Joy and Tomo, "the Twins." So far, we're in the apparent present, complete with brand-names and California values, but when the Twins fire-walk at a Long Beach University football stadium rally, we wonder where Barnes is taking us. Is this going to be horror, science fiction, or what? Barnes holds his cards close to his vest, carefully revealing only what will whet our curiosity, while he plays a strong hand of martial arts mysticism, male-bashing, cult-seminar sex and powers-beyond-belief stunts. He takes us in close to Joy and Tomo, the half-Japanese, half-black, separated Siamese twins born to an atomic bomb victim who sold her diseased body to stay alive during the U.S. occupation. "Were the children infected?" "No. Strange about that woman . . . Carrying enough germs and viruses to kill a dozen people . . ." Who are the "Iron Shadows" that terrorize some of Golden Sun's faithful and murder its ex-members? Even though the book begins in medias res before flashing back to tell how it got there, Barnes keeps his reader guessing and interested. Body and Soul on Ice Cryonics is still in its infancy when Dr. Benjamin Franklin Smith decides to invest his future in it. He has the money; he wants to be resurrected in a future capable of overcoming age and disease. Naturally, when he "dies," his family wants an autopsy and challenges his will. So far The First Immortal, by James L. Halperin (Del Rey, $24.95) feels like a mainstream courtroom drama. Up to the trial, Halperin has focused rather convincingly on Dr. Smith's troubled relationship with his family. However, once Smith has been safely put on cryonic ice, the character of the book changes to one of brave new optimism. While the doctor sleeps on, the world strides boldly into a glittering utopia, and, as he hoped, technology arrives in time to resurrect him (sufficient funds rather than personal merit being his savior). At the end of this novel come seven pages enthusing about cryonics, with a bibliography, hopeful possibilities and encouragement. The author says in the introduction that his book "might well be the most thoroughly researched and scrutinized novel ever written about our potential for biological immortality." The publisher says that The First Immortal is "soon to be a Television Mini-series." Will the sponsors be cryonic-vault companies?