The Portable Universe 7

Originally published in The Elkhart Truth, August 12, 1983

Horror novels are not usually a part of my reading diet, and everything I know about the Scottish legends of selkies I learned from a Judy Collins song. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Charles Sheffield and David Bischoff’s lengthy novel “The Selkie” (Signet, $3.50 paper). Though the book is being marketed as mainstream horror, the authors insist it’s science fiction. They’re right, in that they offer a genetic explanation for the man-creatures from the sea-tide caves of Scotland.

But readers will be more concerned with the fate of Mary Willis, an unfulfilled wife and frustrated writer who finds herself living in Scotland while her engineer husband works en a power plant project. How is it that handyman Jamie McPherson so easily makes his lover? The blissful hypnotic state she enters is caused by the intimate selkie touch. What does McPherson want of her? Nothing more than that she bear him a son–a son who will take to the sea.

I missed Michael McCollum’s first novel last year, but his second, “Life Probe” (Del Rey, $2.95 pap-er) shows a control and maturity uncommon in a new writer. This first contact novel tells of the arrival in our solar system of a robot spacecraft from across the Galaxy. Like thousands of others sent out by the Makers, it is seeking a way to travel faster than light (FTL).

The plan is simple: search for intelligent life (humans barely qualify). If they’ve solved the FTL puzzle, bring them back to teach the Makers. If they haven’t, teach them and journey on, leaving behind another intelligence ready to tackle the problem. But Probe needs human help to continue its quest–and humans are apparently both unteachable and dangerously unpredictable.

David J. Lake’s “Warlords of Luna” (DAW, $2.50 paper) has all the earmarks of mind candy — a cover featuring a scantily clad woman and a sword-wielding warrior, lots of proper nouns beginning with x and z — you get the picture. But things move along briskly, and there’s enough intrigue and other-worldly culture on this planet of city-states apd canals (much like Burroughs’ Mars) to keep you going to the end.

The shocking power of atomic weapons led to many an earnest after-the-bomb story in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It’s in that context that Edmond Hamilton’s reissued 1951 novel “City At World’s End” (Del Rey, $2.75 paper) must be read, because by any other yardstick it’s naive and unconvincing.

A secret research laboratory has made Middletown a target in a surprise attack, and a “super-atomic” (that is, hydrogen) bomb is exploded shove the city. But instead of destroying the town, it’s thrown millions of years into the future to a dying Earth dotted with empty domed cities, where its “just folks” residents must cope with a revolution in their way of life and a meddling interstellar government as well.

John Varley’s 1977 short story “Air Raid” was an audacious ac-count of the mid-air rescue of the passengers of a plane about to crash. The rescuers are from a diseased and polluted future; they not only rescue but kidnap the passengers, leaving behind simulacra so no crash investigator suspects what has happened. In Varley’s new novel “Millenium” (Berkley, $6.95 trade paper) the story grows into a diverting time travel tale, with insights into who the rescuers are and what lies ahead for the rescued.

In 1979, “Dune” creator Frank Herbert and poet Bill Ransom collaborated on “The Jesus Incident,” in which a sentient starship insists on being worshiped by the colonists aboard. Many of the colonists end up abandoned on the water-covered planet Pandora, the setting for the duo’s new novel “The Lazarus Effect” (Putnam, $15.95 cloth). I hadn’t read the earlier book, but that was no obstacle to my enjoying this tale of Ship’s sea-living progeny struggling to reclaim the land and some semblance of normal human life.

If you’ve ever finished a book of speculative fiction and thought to yourself, “What kind of people can write rich things?” you’ll want to read Charles Platt’s “Dream Makers Volume II (Berkley, $6.95 trade paper). Contained therein are delightful (often intimate) interviews with nearly 30 noted SF figures, including Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson, Andre Norton and James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon). Though you may find the intrusion of Platt’s own tastes and personality annoying, the book offers a glimpse into the workings of the imaginative mind equaled only by its 1980 precursor.

Michael Kube-McDowell is a member of the Truth staff.