An Ecology of the Dead

Greg Bear's admirably spooky new novel, Dead Lines (Ballantine, $24.95), is dedicated to a long list of horror writers, from J. S. Le Fanu to Stephen King. But because Bear is by instinct and heritage a science fiction writer, his take on the supernatural involves a technological angle. Positing a revolutionary new kind of communications device that shatters the barriers between this life and the afterlife, he further elaborates a whole dire ecosystem of unleashed ghosts. Although this might have led to cerebral aridity, the approach instead steeps the text in a visceral chill, where rationality bolsters terror rather than undermining the dread.

At age 58, Peter Russell is a rather pathetic figure. An impoverished, faded film director, photographer and writer, Russell subsists by running errands for an aged rich producer, Joseph Benoliel, and Joseph's young wife, Michelle. Scarred by the two-year-old unsolved murder of one of his daughters, divorced, losing his famous playboy's touch with women, Russell suffers a further blow when news of the death of his best friend, Phil Richards, reaches him. Setting off to tend to Richards's estate, Russell will encounter the first of many specters allowed to cross over to our mortal plane by a new cell phone called Trans -- the "dead lines" of the title. Over the course of several days, these ghosts reveal harsh new truths about the murder of Russell's daughter, culminating in a life-or-death battle for his soul.

Riffing on Hollywood as a producer of "ghosts" and on Silicon Valley's indifference to anything other than market share, Bear employs that quintessential Californian mystic, Philip K. Dick, as a touchstone between metaphysical realms ("Phil Richards" is a fairly transparent alteration of Dick's name). More curiously, I believe that Russell also is modeled on a real-life counterpart: the less well-known William Rotsler, an sf figure whose biography overlaps with Russell's.

Bear has managed to imbue the sunny Californian clime with all the dank existential misery of the creepiest British graveyard.

Eye Candy That Melts in Your Hand

Forrest J. Ackerman's Worlds of Tomorrow: The Amazing Universe of Science Fiction Art, written with Brad Linaweaver (Collectors, $39.95) presents this reviewer with an excruciating dilemma. Lovingly laid-out, crisply reproduced, seldom-seen imagery of the fantastic struts its gorgeous, garish stuff in a coffee-table tome, while consorting with a lamebrain text and lack of structure. How does one endorse the book's virtues while lambasting its sins? Is it possible to give a simultaneous thumbs-up and thumbs-down? In the end, any endorsement of this volume must be a qualified one.

Nearly 90 years old, Ackerman has been a fan of science fiction since before the term was invented. Having experienced health troubles last year and been forced to sell much of his famous sf art collection, he has made a welcome rebound with this volume. But age and illness have magnified all of his signature gosh-wowness to the point of self-parody. His contributions to the written portion of the book are rife with non sequiturs and repetitiveness. Co-author Brad Linaweaver, a Boomer, is somewhat more intelligible and informative. (The authors' ages are relevant, providing a possible explanation as to why they chose to end their survey of illustrations arbitrarily with the 1950s.) But even so, what is one to make of such Linaweaver sentences as these?: "Never mind all the experts who assured us that man would never go to the moon. Their litany that continued until the Cold War finally forced them to shut up and the dream was realized in 1969." Not to mention factual errors, such as identifying the brothers Earl and Otto Binder, who hid behind the pseudonym Eando Binder, as "husband and wife."

But most shocking of all the sins of omission in this volume is its failure to credit the artists. Lack of an index is forgivable. But failure to give a single painterly attribution in a book where image is king is just inexplicably lame. Anyone who admires this artwork will have to turn to some of Collectors Press's other, more carefully produced books and do some detective work to track down the pulp geniuses behind these canvases.

Out of Aegypt

Kage Baker has attained an impressive and well-deserved reputation based on her stories and novels of the Company, time-traveling gadabouts. Her latest story collection, Mother Aegypt (Night Shade; paperback, $27) exhibits her sure hand in the crafting of fantasy as well. Two stories -- "How They Tried to Talk Indian Tony Down" and "Pueblo" -- are indeed science fiction, the latter radiating a charming pastoralist-meets-ET vibe. But the other 11 pieces range over the wider map of the irrationally unreal. The first three stories -- "Leaving His Cares Behind," "The Briscian Saint" and "Desolation Rose" -- linked by their common otherworldly setting, are wry and affecting narratives in the manner of James Branch Cabell or Lord Dunsany. Several tales make fine use of a child's point-of-view, most notably "What the Tyger Told Her," which achieves an understated terror that Shirley Jackson or Roald Dahl might have envied. Baker is at home in modern settings -- "The Summer People" -- or in past milieus, such as the World War II-vintage "Her Father's Eyes." She also blends tragedy and comedy expertly, especially in the title story, which is something of a "sorcerer's apprentice" myth in its depiction of a buffoonish fat man hired by an immortal prophetess.

He "tore down a piece of the sky -- a corner, with no stars -- for a cloak of invisibility," says Baker of one protagonist. We could justifiably say that Baker has similarly mantled herself in the heavens.

The Love of a Good Mudwoman

In her accomplished debut novel, Firethorn (Scribner, $25), Sarah Micklem eschews the overused Tolkien fantasy template and harks back to an older strain of fantastical romance typically found in the works of William Morris and H. Rider Haggard. From Morris, she derives a quasi-Arthurian milieu of knights in a landscape of wild woods and scattered pockets of civilization, tinged throughout with folk magic. From Haggard she borrows an air of cosmic fatalism and predestination. The resulting mix is fresh and affecting.

Our heroine is an orphan ironically named Luck, for her superstitiously revered red hair. Raised under brutal conditions, Luck is a "mudperson," one of the serfs who serve the Bloods, this particular world's elite. Cast adrift by the death of her patron, Luck spends a rough year alone in the forest refining her knowledge of curative herbs. Tasting the rare berries of the Firethorn tree, she undergoes a mystical experience that elevates her sensibilities to a new plateau, causing her to adopt the name of the tree as her own. Afterward, she falls in love with a Blood warrior named Sire Galan, who takes her as his mistress. But Firethorn's presence in the Marchfield, an encampment of knights, proves disruptive to the whole society, and a series of traumatic events threatens to derail both the happiness of the lovers and the whole social apparatus of the Bloods.

Choosing to narrate in the first-person, Micklem instantly establishes a strong, confident, sensitive voice for her protagonist. As Firethorn navigates the fault lines of her world, the reader is simultaneously educated in the intricate ways of this fully imagined society. Micklem's prose is stately yet sprightly, rife with gorgeous descriptions of landscapes and palpable emotions. And her feminist and political subtexts are mature and resonant, never egregious. *

Paul Di Filippo's "Beyond the Farthest Precinct," a sequel to Alan Moore's graphic novel "Top Ten," will be published next year.