Sci-Fi Novels - Various Authors

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Returning to the Garden: A Novel About Mars by Steven McCullough

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Returning to the Garden is McCullough’s first foray into the world of science fiction writing. As a first effort, I’d say this isn’t a bad attempt, but there is still plenty of room for improvement. The novel has some noticeable flaws, but the author has created a rather interesting story and seemingly taken great pains to present accurate scientific and historical data. The basic premise revolves around mysterious events taking place during one of the recent Mars expeditions. The main character, Ian McCall, runs afoul of some sinister government agencies when he begins to question the reasons for a cover-up. While seeking his own answers, he unwittingly involves Abby Perkins, an intelligent young researcher known for her translation expertise. Pretty soon the chase is on and our well-meaning heroes are running for their lives and a chance to save all mankind.

Fans of The X-Files or other mainstream science fiction vehicles will recognize some of the plot lines and devices. McCullough has written a credible, albeit familiar, thriller. The writing is a bit stilted and some of the escapes are way too convenient, but I liked his characters and their idealism. My biggest complaint about this novel was the very abrupt, cliffhanger ending. The author promises that a sequel is forthcoming, but I couldn’t help feeling manipulated. While I realize that sequels and serial novels are becoming more and more the norm in the science fiction field, there are more subtle and satisfying ways to lead into the next novel. Unfortunately, McCullough might just as well have ended this one with the phrase "To be continued…"

Reviewed by Diane

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A Thousand Words for Stranger by Julie E. Czerneda

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The premise of this book seemed interesting, but I think that C. S. Friedman handled it better in her novel, This Alien Shore. The similarities are readily apparent — a young woman, prompted by involuntary impulses in her mind, flees for her life on a dark and dreary planet. This time, the main character is a young woman named Sira, who may or may not be Human. She has no memory whatsoever of anything beyond the present moment, but is driven to link up with a space captain named Morgan and avoid the interplanetary authorities searching for her.

One of the problems I had with this novel was that the action seems to jump around somewhat aimlessly. There are a variety of characters, but none of them are particularly well developed aside from Sira. Even Morgan remains fairly mysterious for most of the novel. It’s difficult to find the connection between the various characters, although it is fairly obvious that their activities are somehow related. Most of the novel degenerates into a sci-fi chase scene with a number of nondescript planets as the backdrop, populated by a multitude of strange aliens, with poorly defined villains putting in random appearances.

Despite my criticism, I wouldn’t say that this was a terrible book. It shows promise and there are some interesting plot twists. It may help to know that this is Czerneda’s first effort. I’m hopeful that the author’s future efforts will build upon the promise shown here as she returns to the universe she has created.

Reviewed by Diane

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Vigilant by James Alan Gardner

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Faye Smallwood is an unusual S/F heroine. She is certainly strong and feisty, which are not unusual heroine traits, but she is also cocky, smart alecky, rebellious, troubled, reckless and neurotic. I liked her a lot! The story begins on a Fringe World, Demoth, populated by two species — Humans and Ooloms. When plague strikes the planet it stirs long term repercussions and touches Faye in ways that will take years to understand. Affecting only the Ooloms, the Humans are forced to stand by helplessly, futilely tending the ill and searching frantically for a cure. The plague hits while Faye is still an impressionable teenager. While caring for the plague victims in her father’s hospital, Faye bonds with Zillif, one of the doomed Ooloms and a member of the Vigil, an organization officially sanctioned to act as a government watchdog. A series of personal crises hit Faye in sledgehammer succession, forever changing her attitude and outlook on life. When Faye finally begins to pull out of her juvenile delinquent-like existence, she finds that she is still drawn to the ideals of the Vigil and applies immediately. She soon finds out that the fun is just beginning. Ambushed by robotic murderers, pursued by sinister members of the Outward Fleet, haunted by mysterious visions of peacock tails and befriended by a former explorer, now Admiral, named Festina Ramos, Faye is quickly involved in events which threaten the well-being of every person on Demoth.

Gardner tells Faye’s tale in the first person voice. Speaking directly to the reader, Faye’s attitude, fears, hopes and dreams come through loud and clear. Unflinchingly honest, Faye’s commentary about the action, as well as her asides to the reader, are right on target. Gardner has written a well-plotted novel and created a very strong character. This woman has personality! His other characters are also distinct individuals and they each play a part in moving the plot along. I thought this story was refreshingly different and thoroughly enjoyable.

For those who care, Gardner has written two earlier novels set in this universe. His first novel, Expendable, introduced Festina Ramos to his audience and Vigilant is actually a very loosely related sequel. I’m looking forward to finding out whether his earlier novels are anything like this one.

Reviewed by Diane

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Second Messenger: A Visionary Novel by Gale O. Connell and Kitty R. Connell

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I can’t help it, the whole time I was reading this, it just seemed like that old Beatles’ song, All You Need Is Love, should’ve been playing in the background. This was definitely a feel good, New Age sort of novel, sort of a saccharine-enriched version of Heinlein’s classic, Stranger in a Strange Land.

God puts in a cameo appearance in the prologue but then the action quickly shifts to the 22nd century. Mankind has evidently missed the boat and taken a wrong turn in their scheduled development. Rather than being a happy, carefree utopia, the world is gray and bureaucratic and ruled by a predominantly military-minded government. One man, Dr. Phil Morrison, takes it upon himself to rectify the situation. His solution? To create a biomech named REL (Remote Emissary of Life) and send him backward in time to thwart the military machines at a crucial juncture. Most of the action takes place in 1999, where REL is sent to replace a key individual who died an untimely death. In no time at all he becomes involved with a woman, has an encounter with the local police, and manages to antagonize a psychotic, fundamentalist preacher. The authors also attempt to create some intrigue back (ahead?) in the 22nd century with lots of political maneuvering and plotting going on, but I found the activity surrounding REL to be more interesting.

The Connells manage to tie together crystals, herbs, New Age mysticism, time travel, the internet and doomsday prophecies. REL is a portrayed as a cross between Michael Valentine Smith (of Heinlein’s novel) and Jesus Christ. I didn’t find this to be offensive, although some of it seemed a bit trite. Quite honestly, I didn’t expect to like this novel, but I was surprised. Some may find it to be a bit hokey, but by the end, I really did get drawn into the whole "good vibrations" theme.

Reviewed by Diane

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