[Short] Book Reviews: Samuel R. Delany and Howard V. Chaykin’s Empire (1978), Kate Wilhelm’s City of Cain(1974), Charles Sheffield’s Sight of Proteus(1978)

My “to review” pile is growing and my memory of them is fading… hence short—far less analytical—reviews.

1. City of Cain, Kate Wilhelm (1974)

(Uncredited cover for the 1978 edition)

3.5/5 (Good)

Kate Wilhelm’s City of Cain (1974) is a moody, streamlined, and psychologically heavy near-future SF thriller. Peter Roos returns from the Vietnam War a scarred man both mentally and physically. After a technical error on a helicopter, a missile it was carrying explodes killing half the crew and sending shrapnel into Roos’ body. Back in the US, Roos engages in a long path of recovery from the resulting amnesia and trauma.

He stays in the house of his brother and US senator, Ed Roos, a man he used to worship: “Peter stared at his favorite person on earth once, who still was, he supposed, was strange to him. The unfamiliarity with what should have been familiar made him uneasy” (14). Senator Roos, who seems to have lost a lot his passion for political change, is a member of a committee on “Deep Earth Defense Facilities” (27), a nebulous plan (at least what the public knows), to place military facilities underground to protect them from Soviet attack. Post-injury, Roos slowly realizes that he seems to share the dreams of those around him: “he couldn’t have heard her whisper. Hallucinations, then. Audio hallucinations?” (42). And soon he learns the dark secrets of his brother’s government project. And his brother knows he knows. And powerful forces are out to get him!

Wilhelm’s 1970s short stories take far greater risks than the majority of her novels. City of Cain treads, with some success, somewhat standard post-Vietnam war paranoia/political thriller ground. However, Wilhelm is adept at creating the psychological tension that propels the story forward through powerful images and dreams of subterranean cities, of increasing mechanization, of mind control… Peter is also a highly sympathetic character, dealing with his intense trauma, struggling to chart out new paths in his life, interacting with a family that loves him but tires of his presence in their house…

The end is all too neat, but the ride is an intense one.

Check out the following Kate Wilhelm reviews:

The Downstairs Room and Other Speculative Fiction(1968)

Margaret and I(1971)

(Uncredited cover for the 1982 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1975 edition)

2. Empire, Samuel R. Delany and Howard V. Chaykin (1978)

(Chaykin’s cover for the 1st edition)

Collated rating: 3.5/5 (Good)

Art: 4.5/5 (Very Good) + Story: 2.5/5 (Bad)

If you enjoy more experimental comic books/graphic novels, then Samuel R. Delany and Howard V. Chaykin’s flawed Empire (1978) might be for you. If you enjoy Delany’s fiction, I can’t solidly recommend it for the story itself. Empire (1978) is an epic adventure across fantastic worlds pulsating with visual flare, a half-hearted attempt to incorporate information theory, and, unfortunately, a dull and repetitive plot.

The art, on the whole, is fantastic. First, the verticality adopted by Chaykin provides visually fascinating pages and action sequences. See below for one of the more striking examples. However, mixed in there are moments that are visually murky. For example, when the adventurers arrive on a water planet, instead of clear(er) water, the water appears to be made of mud, obfuscating details and identifying traits of the characters. It is hard to tell the underwater sequences are even underwater. I won’t provide the images for the climax sequences (spoilers!), but they use both pages of the book and are filled with color and dynamism.

Despite Chaykin’s top-notch art, I struggled to get involved in the story. This took longer for me to read than a standard SF novel…  Empire tells of revolution and resistance to a galactic empire. It frequently falls into the following pattern, main character is ambushed on water planet, on ice planet, on desert planet…. Clearly Delany wanted to tell a sophisticated story, the galactic empire controls its planets via control of information, but reverts to repetitive  action scenes.

For more images [here]

2. Sight of Proteus, Charles Sheffield (1978)

(Clyde Caldwell’s cover for the 1978 edition)

3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)

Charles Sheffield’s fix-up novel Sight of Proteus (1979) posits a hard science (biofeedback and chemo-therapy induced shape-shifting) mystery. In an overpopulated future, humankind has ventured into space. On Earth, agencies control Form Change, the biofeedback process by which humans can change their appearance. Many forms are illegal and dangerous, Behrooz Wolf and John Larsen track them down. Divided into three sections, Sheffield tells the story of an illegal Form Change and a far larger Form Change conspiracy!

The main scientific conceit and the moral ramifications it introduces of a more malleable definition of humanity are fascinating. However, the main characters are interchangeable–the reader wouldn’t notice if the dialogue and mannerisms were switched randomly in the narrative. They are simply ciphers to advance the plot. Sheffield refuses, or is unable to, evoke any wonder of locale — be it Old City (where the illegal forms reside) or the Pleasure Dome under the ice of Antarctica. His descriptions remain functional and bland.

Recommended only for fans of 70s hard-sf.

For plot details, scientific analysis, and far more specifics check out James Davis Nicoll’s review.

(Uncredited cover for the 1981 edition)

(Germano Bonazzi’s cover for the 1986 Italian edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1980 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1988 edition)

For more reviews consult the INDEX

13 thoughts on “[Short] Book Reviews: Samuel R. Delany and Howard V. Chaykin’s Empire (1978), Kate Wilhelm’s City of Cain(1974), Charles Sheffield’s Sight of Proteus(1978)

  1. Hi

    Well, your reading experience seemed mixed but there were some great covers for Sight of Proteus I really liked the Bonazzi cover and the Uncredited cover for the 1981 edition. Clyde Caldwell’s was not bad either. I suspect I have read this but retained nothing, I did read a bit of Sheffield but nothing except the shape-shifting rings any kind of bell.

    All the best

    • I’m a huge fan of the creepy Germano Bonazzi’s cover for the 1986 edition of Sight of Proteus as well. And Caldwell’s matches the feel of the novel as well… I am not super enthusiastic about tracking down more of his novels after this one — although I did buy a copy of his collection Vectors.

      Which has a fantastic cover….

  2. Hi! Responding from Twitter. Loved this set of reviews and will be following this site.

    I haven’t read The Einstein Intersection in a few years but I think I still have my copy of it somewhere and may give it another chance. All I remember is loving the style but ultimately hating the content. My taste is always changing though so why not try again!

    • Thank you for visiting!

      I love comments on my site as it allows a more serious conversation (in my view) than twitter. I use twitter primarily for sexy covers and birthdays. hah.

      If you’re curious in what I look for in SF — take peek at my relatively recent article on the topic.


      I understand completely that other readers come into SF with a different expectations and fascinations.

      The Einstein Intersection was odd for sure — the autobiographical fragments of his voyage in the Mediterranean combined with the mythological story line — it was a fascinating combo.

      What are some of your favorite SF novels/authors?

      • There are too many to list in any coherent way but some that immediately come to mind are: Anne McCaffrey’s “Crystal Singer” trilogy, Blish’s “Midsummer Century”, Tevin’s “Man Who Fell To Earth”, Moorcock’s “Behold The Man” (barely sci-fi but so good).

        Of course some more obvious classics like Neuromancer, The City And The Stars, Three Stigmata, and Canticle For Leibowitz come to mind.

        It’s really the gift that keeps on giving haha!

        • Lots of good stuff on that list! I haven’t read any McCaffrey other than her Pern (even the crappy novels after the threat of thread is eliminated and dragons are now useless) and Catteni Sequences. At one point (in my late teens — so a tad more than a decade ago) I read more broadly in chronological scope — now, I’m quite wedded to the 1950s-70s/early 80s.

          I’ve read and reviewed quite a few Blosh novels and short stories on this site — I own but haven’t read Midsummer Century. I’ve read and reviewed the novella version of Moorcock’s Behold the Novel (it’s SF!) but not the extended novel version.

          I’ve read all the classics you list. Have you read any of Miller’s short stories? They can be fantastic. Those in The View from the Stars come to mind: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2013/09/30/book-review-the-view-from-the-stars-walter-m-miller-jr-1965/

          You probably have found it already, but I’ve organized all the SF I’ve read since I started the site, a tad less than a decade ago, in a list. It’s not all I’ve read in this period but all I’ve gotten around to reading. https://sciencefictionruminations.com/science-fiction-book-reviews-by-author/

      • Also I read the article you linked and one thing that I agree with and relate to more than anything is “Fuck Prediction”. It’s fun to see authors visions of the future but I could not care less if they turrn our to be accurate and typically enjoy the story more if they are way off the mark!

        • In tandem, there’s a type of SF reader who obsesses over the technological details and whether or not the “science” is right or derived from what we currently know…. that’s not me. I guess it’s the liberal arts background approaching SF, and someone who took science for non-majors in college…. hah.

  3. If you read the letters section of any issue of Analog, it is constantly filled with letters by writers who will constantly argue about whether or not FTL travel, or something, would work as described in a certain story. These people are constantly missing the point, and that is, if FTL travel of ANY KIND described in ANY story worked, we’d be using it by now.

    • Often defenses of the book’s science strategically overlook major scientific discoveries that haven’t been made. So yeah, large portions of the book are based in current science for logical extrapolations from current science, but that whole bit about generation ship space travel to other planets, well, we’ll conveniently ignore the complete lack of tech for that… selective assessment of scientific “merit.”

  4. I love/like all of the covers, except for the 1975 edition of the House of Cain, and the 1980 edition of Sight Of Proteus, which are perfunctory and unimaginative. If I read your review right, then House of Cain sounds like any number of the late sixties and the seventies type of psychic type based thrillers that were pretty common. They ran the gamut of thrillers, mysteries, sf, horror and romance, and were all over the cinema and television, before the fad died out. They made for more interesting reading than the erotic vampire romance comedies (ugh!) of today.

    • I don’t know why people find the ugly yellow Gollancz editions appealing… Thank goodness I don’t own one!

      I might have been rather harsh with House of Cain — it’s quite evocative (the visions of underground cities, the paranoia, etc(, but oh so tidy in the end…

      • Wilhelm’s books like this made me more aware of how there really were selfish human monsters in the world. And I liked the nuance with the ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend.

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