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)
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:
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