• April 20, 2012

A trio of new Science Fiction novels and a book of non-fiction essays on NASA and the future of space travel are reviewed in this round up.

From the safety of your favorite reading chair, escape to the wildly funny sci-fi world of Sam Leith’s Coincidence Engine or the chaotic and terrifying sci fi Demi-Monde created by Rod Rees. If you prefer a gothic mystery, welcome to pre-World War II Budapest Noir and “the seedier side of a city rife with forced prostitution, organized gangs and a violent underground fight scene.” But if you would rather face the ultimate frontier with an astrophysicist, fly to Space Chronicles for some nonfiction grounding in outer space

The Coincidence Engine: A Novel
by Sam Leith
Crown Publishers
288 pp.

Would you believe a 737 jet could appear out of nowhere ― created by a hurricane out of junkyard trash? That is only the start of strange occurrences plaguing the world. Coincidence or something more sinister? It’s up to the Directorate of the Extremely Improbable (DEI), an organization so secret some of its own agents don’t know they’re members, to find out. Red Queen, the DEI’s leader, believes that an insane mathematician has created a coincidence engine, a device that distorts reality, allowing the peculiar to happen. The longer it operates, the more powerful and unpredictable it will become. As strange events blossom, the DEI sends two agents to track down Alex Smart, a Ph.D. student believed to be carrying the device across country. It’s a race against to time to catch up with Alex before a pair of arms dealers do. The story is a wild ride, with the humor coming fast and furious and the characters gloriously eccentric. But the chaos of the story may leave some readers struggling to believe it all could happen, coincidence or not.
~Linda Adams

The Demi-Monde: Winter
By Rod Rees
William Morrow
528 pp.

First of four scheduled releases, The Demi-Monde: Winter introduces readers to a world of mayhem and mischief, a world with no morals. The first page provides four definitions of what Demi-Monde means, with each definition contradicting the others. This confusion continues throughout, usually more bewildering than effective. Narrative and characters move from the Demi-Monde to the real world and back, creating a distorted version of both, as if each were being viewed through a thick pane of frosted glass. The Demi-Monde is a computer simulated reality, much like the Matrix, but with far more violence and such psychotic personages from history as Nazi butcher Reinhard Heydrich and Stalin’s executioner Lavrentiy Beria. When the main character gets trapped in this computer reality (as the walls between the simulation and the real world begin to dissolve), the plot picks up the pace. The U.S. president’s daughter becomes ensnared in the simulation, her only hope a young jazz singer. Eighteen-year-old Ella not only must find a way to enter the world without drawing too much attention to herself, but also must find the president’s daughter and get both out safely before the walls separating the two worlds collapse. The disturbing meshing of boundaries between reality and simulations is intriguing, but not enough to compensate for the bedlam.
~Fatima Azam

Budapest Noir
by Vilmos Kondor
304 pp.

Ignoring the injunctions of his boss and the police, crime reporter Zsigmond Gordon investigates the death of a beautiful young Jewish prostitute in pre-World War II Budapest, a death many in the political establishment seem happy to ignore. His efforts take him into the seedier side of a city rife with forced prostitution, organized gangs and a violent underground fight scene. With help from his artistic sweetheart Krisztina and his grandfather Mór — an entertainingly frustrated cook — Gordon uncovers a web of bigotry and lechery that involves some of the most powerful men in Hungary. In the end, he must struggle against forces pressing their nation into ever closer ties with Hitler and Mussolini, no matter what the cost. Budapest Noir’s descriptions and atmosphere are so evocative that they can legitimately be called gothic. The characters are flavorful and richly rendered. A delightful translation by Paul Olchváry has your internal voice reading in a thick Eastern European accent by the second chapter. Thoroughly researched, the period detail and authenticity are remarkable, ranging from tiny observations about car models and current fashion trends to the nuances of Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös’s state funeral. In less capable hands, these details could become a distraction. But here the esoterica are so tightly woven into the plot that they propel readers even deeper into the dark, labyrinthine world of 1936 Budapest. Budapest Noir should appeal to fans of noir, hardboiled, general mysteries, or gothics. Vilmos Kondor has three other books in his native Hungarian starring Zsigmond Gordon. We can only hope they find a willing translator sooner rather than later.
~Geoffrey Marsh

Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier
by Neil DeGrasse Tyson
240 pp.

Space Chronicles: Facing The Ultimate Frontier is basically a compendium of articles, speeches and interviews generated over 15 years by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist with a knack for being understood by laymen, a trait that might be unique in the known universe and one to be cherished. DeGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, is undoubtedly familiar to those who watch certain cable TV shows devoted to science. He is a facile, often humorous, writer and commentator who can hold his own with Steven Colbert, on whose show he has appeared many times. Because it is incredibly expensive, space exploration has always been at the mercy of earthbound politics. America won the race to the moon during the Cold War because we decided to overlook the rather dubious past of “our” German rocket scientists, who were then competing with “their” German rocket scientists. (One wag famously noted that Wernher von Braun’s film biography, “I Aim at the Stars,” could just as easily been titled “I Aim at the Stars, But Sometimes Hit London”). DeGrasse Tyson naturally laments the current lack of interest and support for space exploration but also honestly details the challenges humankind faces in overcoming the difficulties that venturing much beyond the moon and Mars would entail. This is a thin volume, and not much new ground is broken. It feels rushed. A Prologue and Epilogue attempt to bring some of DeGrasse Tyson’s former ruminations up to date. Perhaps a fifth of the book is devoted to Appendices that serve no purpose but to flesh out the book. Not that Space Chronicles is without many pleasures. Chapters on aliens, killer asteroids and the problems inherent in exceeding the speed of light (when a teenager isn’t driving) are fascinating. The author’s hilarious paean to the “Star Trek” television show is terrific. DeGrasse Tyson was voted “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive” by People magazine in 2000. It’s a title that’s probably not too difficult to keep. He may be fighting off star-struck fans, but one hopes he will take the time to write an original book not dependent upon past work. He has the style and talent.
~Lawrence De Maria

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