The Portable Universe 12

originally published in The Elkhart Truth
April 6, 1984

Playful is perhaps the best word for Jack L. Chalker’s new fantasy “The River of Dancing Gods” (Del Rey $2.95 paper), a book that succeeds on two seemingly incompatible levels: as a traditional heroic fantasy and as an affectionate but thorough send-up of the sub-genre.

Yes, there’s a barabarian warrior. His name is Joe, and he’s a truck driver from Texas. Yes, there’s a magic sword forged by the dwarve kings — which sword Joe promptly dubs Irving. The alternate world to which Joe and his hitchhiker are diverted runs on magical, rather than natural, law — except that the laws are being written by a committee of bureaucrats and are as easy to master as the tax code.

The effect is not unlike reading Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” and the Harvard Lampoon’s “Bored of the Rings”at the same time. Chalker’s gentle good humor and deft plotting makes this struggle between Good and Evil for control of Creation well worth your time.

Don’t let your attention wander while reading “The Anubis Gates” by Tim Powers (Ace $2.95 paper). This hairy time-travel novel zips along like a time-lapse film of a 3-dimensional chess game, and no, you cannot have a scorecard to keep track of the good guys and bad guys. Most of the action takes place in England between the early 1800s and the late 1600s (no, that’s not backwards), but you can count on seeing the temples of Egypt and the inside of a BMW as well.

I’ve been ducking the challenge of summarizing the plot. Let’s just say that 20th Century scholar Brendan Doyle’s love of 19th Century poets puts him in the doghouse of the last and nastiest of the ancient Egyptian sorcerers. For the rest you’ll have to go to Powers, who never loses control in this impressive first novel.

There’s a respectable book hiding behind a pretty awful title in Edward Llewellyn’s “Salvage and Destroy” (DAW $2.95 paper). The Cluster systems are populated by a variety of sentients, including the descendants of human children plucked from Earth during the Age of Exploration. When Cluster humans learn that Earth stands on the brink of nuclear oblivion, they demand that a second mission to Earth be mounted to salvage its culture.

From my perspective, the book is marred by an excess of human chauvinism: the “barely civilized” humans master technology faster than any other species, brawl better than any other species, are the only species not plagued by space sickness, etc.. But if that element doesn’t bother you, you’ll find the rest diverting.

“SPACE TRUCKERS! HIGHBALLING THE SKYWAY BETWEEN THE STARS!” When I saw that blurb on the cover of John DeChancie’s “Starrigger” along with art showing a `57 Chevy and a futuristic semi rig, I kept hearing a Muppet-like voice crying “Truckers in sppaaace!…” But when you get past the cover, ah, viva la difference!

The Skyway, an artifact of some unknown space-going civilization, links star systems via portals placed on the surfaces of various planets (ours is on Pluto). Some 60 species use the Skyway and the known portions spread over a goodly part of the galaxy, but its true extent is a mystery and there is a plethora of “potluck” portals connected to parts unknown. When the rumor gets out that starrigger Jake has a complete map of the Skyway, he finds himself pursued by a variety of ruthless types eager to separate him from something he doesn’t even know he has. “Starrigger” is a delicious mix of action and inventiveness by a writer worth watching.

Whether it is the sheer volume of his output or the fact that he is strongly identified with no single book, Robert Silverberg’s contribution to modern fiction has been consistently undervalued. This is especially true of the novels he wrote between 1968 and 1975, of which “Dying Inside” (Bantam $2.50 paper) is arguably the most brilliant.

“Dying Inside” tells the story of David Selig’s struggle to cope with the fading of his telepathic power. His ability to look inside the minds of those around him has been both a selfishly used gift and an unrealized curse. Only when the voices start to fall silent does he recognize just what his telepathy has meant to him. “Dying Inside” has depth, breadth, and shattering power, and is not to be missed.

There were a lot of things to like in “Superluminal” by Vonda McIntyre (Houghton-Mifflin $12.95 cloth): the isolation of the surgically altered humans who pilot ships between the stars, the humanity of the genetically altered humans who live in Earth’s seas with their cetacean friends, the awe when the crew of a lost starship find themselves looking down on the entire disc of the Galaxy. But for some reason this tale of a star-crossed (literally!) love affair between a new Pilot and a lower-caste Crewman never caught fire for me, and even McIntyre’s many fans may want to wait for the paperback.

–Michael P. Kube-McDowell is a member of the Truth staff and the author of the SF novel “Emprise” (Berkley).

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