Hindu gods, ravished princesses, the Martian constitution and dragons Canadian-style figure in this batch of fantastical books

Mayhem Masala

Shiva 3000 by Jan Lars Jensen (Harcourt Brace, $24) proceeds with panache and assurance through a landscape that seems at first familiar, then steadily becomes less so. The first novel from a young writer who has been publishing interesting short stories for the past few years, Shiva 3000 is set in an India where the Hindu gods appear to be physical presences in the everyday world. Early hints that this is not quite the case (at least one of the gods seems to be partly mechanical), plus the strangely indeterminate era, draw the reader into a story that is soon racing forward on several fronts.

Rakesh, a young Hindu of middling caste, moves determinedly through a landscape that has been devastated by acts of "divine will" carried out by roving gods. The Jagannath (a large wooden statue of Vishnu that is wheeled about in a large cart) has rolled into a city and destroyed it; the Baboon Warrior, a newer deity that seems to resist some of the older gods' excesses, is awarded a medal at the Royal Palace and ravishes a princess on the spot. None of this troubles Rakesh, whose dharma impels him on a mission that everyone finds ridiculous but that seems to enjoy a form of divine sanction.

Jenson's sly and colorful tale is told with intelligence, vigor and wit (a vicious battle between urban factions climaxes in both sides firing powdered spices into each other's ranks, causing the protagonist, his eyes streaming with tumeric, to flee "the savory riot of Jaipur" on his imperturbable camel), and while the succession of wondrous events sometimes threatens to sate, the reader does have a clear sense that the author knows where he is going. If Shiva 3000 is perhaps over-reliant on its admittedly ingenious plot, Jensen demonstrates sufficient skill and zest to suggest that his next book may shake off this common first-novel syndrome and do something truly nimble.

Red Hot and Blue

Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy of novels about the physical and political transformation of Mars was one of the finest extended works of science fiction to appear in the '90s, and The Martians (Bantam, $24.95) comes as a pendant, or perhaps a series of grace notes, to that monumental work. Set mostly in the decades following Blue Mars, these 30 stories do not complete the sequence but rather stand as a series of afterthoughts, meditations or variations on a theme. The variations are interesting: Some stories are set in an alternate universe, where the mission to establish a permanent settlement on Mars was canceled and human history carved a different course. Others present previously told stories from a different viewpoint, or expand upon something dramatized only briefly in the trilogy. Some, with titles such as "The Way the Land Spoke to Us" and "Four Teleological Trails," are brief prose passages describing a changing landscape or a moment of insight during a hike through Martian terrain.

This sounds like a grab bag, but several common themes serve to unify the sequence. Two characters who meet in the early story "Exploring Fossil Canyon" cross paths again, at long intervals, over the next 200 years; the search for fossils of indigenous Martian life continues over decades; and, as the book goes on, references to colder winters sound an increasing ominous note.

Though Robinson's stories seem to protrude at all angles (one section simply produces the Martian Constitution drafted in Blue Mars while the next offers annotations), they do hold together. The last sections become increasingly personal, as Robinson himself emerges -- in a fictional self-presentation that should probably not be taken literally -- to bid farewell to his grand project. (The penultimate section, "If Wang Wei Lived on Mars and Other Poems," begins with poems that seem to have been written by a lifelong Martian, then segues into Robinson's own voice.) This is a difficult trick to pull off, and the combination of mundane mysticism and playful self-deprecation didn't really work for me. But no one familiar with Robinson's trilogy can read through these final, valedictory stories without feeling moved.

Workers of Other Worlds, Unite

Ken MacLeod's The Cassini Division (Tor, $22.95) also deals with the political implications of humanity's expansion into space and the development of advanced self-replicating technologies. American writers of hard sf routinely assure us that though such technologies offer short-term dangers (which make for exciting story lines), they will eventually benefit everyone at the expense of nobody. In such stories, the settlement of space inevitably involves the establishment of colonies on other planets, which will flourish through self-reliance and homesteading before coming into a conflict with Earth that will follow the model of the American Revolution.

MacLeod, a Scottish writer who has not been published in the United States before, isn't interested in such pieties. The plot of The Cassini Division has to do with an aggressive civilization of self-evolving post-humans, which a socialist human government must deal with even while re-establishing contact with a pack of unregenerate capitalists who disappeared through a stargate decades earlier; it's sufficiently complicated as early as page one that the reader suspects it was launched one or two books earlier. Parts of it clunk pretty audibly, but I enjoyed MacLeod's exploration of the odd corners of his universe, including his vivid evocations of life in space habitats: "With the instinctive biophilia of all space settlers, people had brought fast-growing plants whose leaves and tendrils were already spreading across the nutrient-rich insulation. A coffee machine had been set up, and cleany-crawlies -- those cockroaches of cleanliness -- were burrowing into the inevitable drifts of discarded plastic cups."

MacLeod's narrative voice -- his protagonist is a militant socialist with many decades of campaigning under her belt -- is caustic and opinionated, which allows the author to attain a good mix between action and commentary. MacLeod also gives her ideological opponents their own chance to speak, and declines the easy expedient of making them sound like idiots. The Cassini Division isn't a perfectly assured work, but it isn't a timid one either, and its willingness to confront big issues is very appealing. One looks forward to U.S. publication of the sequel -- and maybe the prequel as well.

New Frontiers

Tesseracts 8: New Canadian Speculative Writing, edited by John Clute and Candas Jane Dorsey (Books Collective, 214-21 10405 Japser Ave., Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T5J 3S2; $23.95 Canadian, paperback $9.95 Canadian; add $3 for postage) is the latest in a long-running anthology of Canadian science fiction and sf poetry that is far too little-known in this country. Canadian sf writers are widely published in the United States (Jan Lars Jensen is one), and an anthology devoted to their work would seem to start off with several strikes against it, such as the competition for good stories from the better-paying American magazines. Nonetheless, Tesseracts has consistently published good work, including translations from Quebec writers, who have much more trouble getting published in this country.

None of the authors in this volume is well-known here -- a plus unless it's Big Names you're looking for. Several of the stories could have appeared with no difficulty in the commercial American magazines: Karl Schroeder's "The Dragon of Pripyat" is a well-told tale of exploration and intrigue at the site of a post-Chernobyl reactor disaster, while David Nickle's "Extispicy" deploys a clever conceit to create an understated but grim horror story.

More interesting are the stories (most of them by women) that abjure conventional plot dynamic in favor of vivid evocations of transformed or imaginary landscapes, usually described by a narrative consciousness that is itself being transformed as it moves through them. Sally McBride's "Speaking Sea" dramatizes a woman's awareness that her husband, along with much of the world she knows, has changed irretrievably into something that may lie beyond the limits of comprehension. Sara Simmons's "The Edge of the World," the only story in the collection that has the trappings of genre fantasy, sends its ship captain on a voyage past the limits of her known world. Clute remarks in his foreword on the recurrent images of the sea in these stories, and the condition of solitude that the protagonists seem to inhabit. It is a reminder that Canadian sf is not identical to American sf, which makes volumes like this one valuable.

Gregory Feeley frequently writes about science fiction for Book World.