|Books That Cure What Ails You|
Crystal Rain by Tobias S. Buckell
Tor, 2006, $24.95
Humanity came to Nanagada via a wormhole centuries ago and populated it with a mélange
of cultures. Colonists built a great society, but it fell in a terrible war that resulted in the
loss of centuries of technological advancement and the destruction of the wormhole, cutting
the Nanagadan's off from Earth. Now, centuries later, people speak reverently of the "old-fathers"the original settlers and masters of the ancient and forgotten technologies.
Two alien races, thought of as gods, manipulate humanity into doing their will. On the
eastern side of the Wicked High Mountains, the Caribbean peoples worship the Loa; the
ferocious Azteca to the west are ruled by the Teotl, and the Teotl demand blood.
A man named John deBrun washed up on the shores of a town called Brungstun twenty-seven years ago with no memory of who he was or how he got there. He knows he's
different, however; he doesn't look or sound like the natives, who are of Caribbean-descentnot to mention that he has a hook instead of a left hand. Though tormented by his amnesia, he stayed in Brungstun and made a new life for himself; he settled down with a
wife and had a child. But his peaceful new life comes to an end when an airship crashes
into a large mango tree behind his house, and the pilot bears an ominous warning: the Azteca are coming.
deBrun gets his family to safety, but is himself captured by the Azteca, and is dragged away
to a clearing, where he and several local warriors known as mongoose-men are to be
sacrificed to the Teotl. deBrun watches helplessly as the other prisoners are executed, and
is resigned to his fate as he's dragged to the sacrificial stone. Just when he thinks all hope
is lost, he's saved by an Azteca called Oaxyctl who is a spy working for the mongoose-men,
teaching them about the Azteca and their ways. Although deBrun is grateful to Oaxyctl for
saving his life, he's not sure that he can trust himand with good reason. Oaxyctl didn't
stumble upon deBrun by chance; he was sent on a mission to retrieve information about the
Ma Wi Jung, an ancient artifact of the old-fathersinformation which supposedly only deBrun
possesses. But with no other options, deBrun travels to Capitol City with Oaxyctl in the
hopes of joining the fight against the Azteca, whom he can only assume capture and made
slaves or sacrifices of his wife and son.
Meanwhile, a man from deBrun's past comes looking for him, who is also after the Ma Wi
Jung, though with a different agenda in mind. This man, Pepper, knows more about deBrun
than deBrun himself knows, and like Oaxyctl, his motives and true nature are not easily
identified. When deBrun and he finally meet, deBrun is anxious to ask the man questions
about his past, but like Oaxyctl, he doesn't know if he can trust him. And with the fate of
his people seemingly being in his hands, he must tread carefully.
Things come to a head when deBrun mounts an expedition to the frigid north to retrieve the
Ma Wi Jung. The Loa, who had retreated to underground temples of Capitol City for years,
return and claim that the artifact can be used as a weapon, and it seems to be the
Nanagadan's only hope against the Azteca hordes. But retrieving the artifact won't be as
easy; the journey will be arduous and through hostile terrain, and not everyone on the
expedition wants deBrun to succeed.
Nanagada is full of rich, cultural heritage, from the authentic Caribbean dialects the
characters speak in, to the vividly-depicted bloodthirsty Azteca society, Buckell has created
a world that feels very real and unique. And though it is a hard trick to pull off, he makes
the development of this from-the-ashes society seem logical and believable. It's gratifying
to see a futuristic SF novel that's not entirely peopled with white men and/or revolves
around a society which is American-based.
While the cultural diversity of Crystal Rain is one of the things that makes it most distinct,
that's only the starting point, for this novel has much to praise. The characters are all well-drawn and engaging; deBrun in particular is a compelling and memorable hero, with the
mysterious Pepper serving as an intriguing and savage counterpoint. The aliens are
similarly complex and impressive, and along with the Azteca, make for a terrifying and
It's hard to believe that Crystal Rain is a first novel. It's so polished and tightly-plotted,
with such original and human characters, it seems like the work of a veteran writer. Also,
the prose is finely-honed, and Buckell keeps the story moving along at a breakneck pace.
Of course, it's not entirely surprising that the book is so good; Buckell has published a
number of excellent short stories over the years, was nominated for the John W. Campbell
Award for Best New Writer, and was a Writers of the Future winner.
Crystal Rain is fresh and innovative, with enough action, adventure, and gosh-wow sense of
wonder to keep any reader frantically turning the pages: an exciting, first-rate debut.
The first third of the novel and related short fiction are available as a free downloads at Crystal-Rain.com.
The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg
Del Rey, 2006 (re-issue), $12.95
SFWA Grandmaster Robert Silverberg, winner of four Hugos and five Nebulas, certainly
needs no introduction. But while most genre fans are aware of Silverberg's science fiction
and fantasy contributions to the field, how many are aware of this brilliant contemporary
horror novelone that rivals the best of horror masters Stephen King and Peter Straub? This
novel has been in various stages of Hollywood development since the '70s, and until very
recently was slated to finally be coming to the silver screen, courtesy of legendary Exorcist
director William Friedkin, but a shakeup at the studio has nixed those plans once again. But
thanks to the mere possibility of a movie, Del Rey has reissued the long-out-of-print classic,
making it available to a whole new generation of readers.
Eli Steinfeld, a student of early medieval philology, discovers an ancient manuscript during
the course of his studies. This manuscript, known as The Book of Skulls, tells of a ritual
which, if performed properly, grants immortality. The trouble is, the ritual requires four
people to participate, and only two of the four will become immortal, while the other two
must die. Despite this macabre caveat, Eli tells his three college roommates Ned, Oliver,
and Timothy of The Book and convinces them to take a road trip across the country to the
obscure temple in Arizona where the ritual must be performed. So they set off, none of
them sure they entirely believe in the ritual at all, and when they arrive, none of them are
prepared for the rigors they must endure.
Told from the first person viewpoints of each of the four roommates in a breathless, stream
of consciousness style, the narrative paints an intimate portrait of the four protagonists,
plumbing the depths of each one's soul, right down to their deepest, darkest secrets. The
pacing is brisk and relentless, keeping the reader frantically turning the pages until all is
revealed…which leads up to an ending that is both extraordinarily grim and yet
Simply put: a must-read masterwork of horror.
Primal Tears by Kelpie Wilson
North Atlantic Books, 2005, $13.95
Sarah Carrigan is a school teacher in Bethel Bay, Oregon. Or at least she was, until she's
fired for teaching the "ungodly lies" about evolution to her class; the school's bible-thumping principal uses budget cutbacks as an excuse to get rid of her. Infuriated but
powerless to do anything about it, Sarah retreats to her home at Savage Ranch and sinks
into a bit of depression. She's wanted to have a baby for quite a long time, but her husband
Kevin is against the idea of having their own child when there are so many orphaned
children in need of parents; the two decided on adoption, but that didn't take away Sarah's
yearning to give birth. Teaching at the school helped fulfill some of Sarah's want to mother,
but now that her job is gone, she feels a void.
All that changes when a friend of hers tells her about a new procedure being done in a
nearby research facility which studies bonobos, or Pan paniscusa type of chimpanzee that is
humanity's closest ape relative. Because bonobos are an endangered species, the scientists
at the research facility are also involved in a bonobo conservation programthey breed
bonobos in captivity in the hopes of keeping the species alive. They're breeding the
bonobos as fast as they can, but it's not fast enoughthere are only approximately 1,000
bonobos living in the wild. To accelerate their conservation efforts, the scientists have
launched a bonobo surrogate mother program, in which human women are implanted with
bonobo embryos then carry the babies to term. Sarah is initially surprised by this, but
quickly warms to the idea; it seems to be a perfect fit for she and Kevinit allows her to
experience childbirth while not adding another human child to the already overpopulated
world. After talking it over, she and Kevin agree that she'll carry the bonobo child, and then
adopt a baby to raise themselves.
But things don't go exactly as planned. Sarah becomes pregnant, but not with a bonobo
child; instead, she finds herself carrying a human-bonobo hybrid. The embryo was
somehow not fertilized properly, which resulted in viable bonobo sperm being inserted into
Sarah's uterus along with the embryo.
The scientists at the research facility declare that the fetus must be aborted, but Sarah
recoils from the idea. She's not just carrying the baby of two anonymous bonobosit's her
own child. Sarah cannot be swayed to reconsider, so she carries the baby to term and gives
The child is fairly human in appearance, with an exaggerated brow ridge, a wide and flat
nose, and fine, downy hair on her arms, legs, back, and buttocks. Sarah and Kevin name
her Sage, and decide to raise her as their own.
As Sage grows up, it's very clear that she's different from other children; her mother tells
her and others that she has "Fletcher's Syndrome," a fictional disease used to deflect
attention from the child's abnormalities. But she's different not only in appearance; she
also has trouble reading and writing, though she learns to speak fluent English and is
otherwise a smart and healthy child.
But when a local hate group, the Kristian Kommand, learns of Sage's existence, they get a
right-wing congressman (of an "American Morals Committee") to authorize a federal agent-raid on the Carrigan residence, prompting Sage and her family to flee into the wilderness.
After returning to civilization for a medical problem, Sarah and Kevin get captured and
arrested, but Sage manages to get herself free and escapes into the wild.
In the wild, cut off from everyone and everything she ever knew, Sage scavenges food,
shelter, and clothing from the various unoccupied cabins located throughout the forest and
manages to survive, and continues to do so for over two years. Eventually, Sage stumbles
across a group of forest preservationists who take up residence in the forest to prevent the
trees from being cut down. In this group is one of her childhood friends, Carver. Carver
introduces her to the group and Sage soon becomes one of them. While there, with the
Tree Nation activists, Sage begins exploring her sexuality in earnest, and making new
friends and lovers.
Sage stays with Tree Nation until her parents, after learning she was still alive, arrange for a
wealthy activist to set up a place where Sage can be kept safe. Once back in civilization,
Sage, her parents, and a group of businessmen determine how best to plan Sage's future.
Sage wants to launch a crusade to save the bonobos, but that will take much money and
effort, and there are people who don't want to see her succeed. Meanwhile, scientists
studying Sage's unique biology determine that her hybrid pheromones might have a
beneficial effect on regular humans, and if it can be harnessed, it might just change the way
the world works.
Though barely science-fictionalit's not a huge leap to imagine that bonobo DNA and human
DNA really are compatiblePrimal Tears truly feels like science fiction in ways other than the
science; it's very forward-looking, is extremely socially-conscious, and looks for a way to a
better future while highlighting some of the things that are holding us back in the now.
This is Wilson's first novel, but she writes with a steady and assured hand, with well-crafted
prose and natural-sounding dialogue. Primal Tears covers a wide variety of contentious
topics, from wildlife conservation to environmentalism to feminism; it is a bit didactic at
times, and Wilson certainly has an agenda, but Primal Tears a good story first, and the
fusion of message and narrative comes together nicely.
Sage is a memorable and original charactera sort of nature girl (in more ways than one).
Some of the scenes involving her communing with bears in the forest and interacting with
her genetic father at the bonobo conservatory are among the most touching in the book.
Although she is not fully human, Wilson makes it feel like she is. Likewise, the supporting
cast is similarly well-rounded; this, along with the novel's vivid Pacific Northwest setting,
combine to make Sage's world feel very real, and makes the future depicted here seem very
This is a book that deals with serious issues and is unwavering in all of its explorations.
Top-notch near-future ecological speculation.
The Door into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein
Read by Patrick Lawlor
Blackstone Audio, 2006, $29.95, 7 hours, MP3-CD (unabridged)
Also available in cassette and CD from Blackstone Audio (for purchase or rental)
A recent Wall Street Journal article, "A Cold Calculus Leads Cryonauts To Put Assets on Ice,"
describes how people planning to be cryonically preserved have used estate planners to
create "revival trusts"trusts that keep your money safe and accrue interest while your
frozen body awaits reanimation. The article doesn't mention The Door into Summer, but it
certainly sounds as if these cryonauts have read Heinlein's classic.
In the novel, electronics engineer and brilliant inventor Dan Davis is down on his luckhe
had a successful business, but his partner betrayed him and his girlfriend left him (for the
partner). Dan tries to drown his sorrows with alcohol, and his drunken line of reasoning
leads him to a cryonics facility. He signs up for "the long sleep," and is set to come back the
next day to undergo the procedure. He figures the future has got to be better than this;
plus, with the modest sum of money he's got now, interest might turn his savings into some
But when Dan sobers up, he decides against the long sleep and goes to confront his greedy
partner Miles and former-fiancée Belle. But when he arrives, things get out of hand,
resulting in Belle drugging Dan. With him in his drugged and malleable condition, Miles and
Belle conspire to get Dan into the long sleep after all.
Dan wakes up in 2000 as a penniless, obsolete engineer. Belle and Dan didn't set up any
estate planning for him, so all Dan has to start his new life with is the standard few bucks
the facility gives to sleepers. Undeterred by this setback, Dan is determined to take
revenge on Belle and Miles, and to get back some of what's rightfully his. After exploring
his new future and figuring out exactly happened during his sleep, Dan eventually discovers
that time travel has been invented during his slumber, which enables him to go back in time
to try and make things right.
Some audiobook narrators are just plain bad, and some are just a bad fit for a particular
audiobook. Narrator Patrick Lawlor is a great fit for The Door into Summer, but my first
experience him was his narration of Creepers by David Morrellwhich was a bad fit. For that
book, his cartoonish voices were all wrong, as Creepers is supposed to be a prosaic haunted
house talethe mood should have been dark and serious rather than…Scooby Doo. But in
The Door into Summer, Lawlor's shtick works excessively wellhis jovial and enthusiastic
narration is ideal for this pulpy (and somewhat cartoonish) tale.
The Door into Summer is much beloved by genre fans, and is often cited as readers' favorite
Heinlein novel. I can't say the sameto me, his best work is The Moon is a Harsh Mistressbut The Door into Summer is a fun and elaborately-plotted temporal tale that mostly makes
up for its lack of verisimilitude with its earnest attempt at speculation about the future and
the intricate mechanics of its time travel.
Though I can't say I loved the novel, it is a fun read, and I can recommend the audiobook
version without reservation.