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SCIENCE FICTION

By Frances Deutsch Louis / August 7, 1987



After the Zap, by Michael Armstrong. New York: Questar/Popular Library. 246 pp. $2.95. Armstrong's ironically apt ``Zap'' removes - with random intensity and selectivity - memories, literacy, and chunks of ratiocination, leaving people with intact bodies but scrambled brains; they know not what they have done. Blanked-out citizens get ``readers'' to scan any written material they have on them so they can name themselves things like Levi, Nike, and Big Mac. The narrator (who sounds just like Holden Caulfield) reads from his ID that his name is Holmes Weatherby Eye, Eye, Eye (III) - but has no idea who that person was.

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Along with a crew of fuzzy-minded wildos in motley, Holmes, trying to find his past, rides a ``nuker'' blimp north to the People's Republic of Alaska, where Punk Pseudo-Eskimos raise sled dogs that can jump into hyperspace - the canines' gift from this very special ``Zap.'' This satiric and often funny scenario of what some fools did with their bombs (and should do with them) intimates that there is more of the zapped kingdom to come. Dawn, by Octavia Butler. New York: Warner Books. 264 pp. $15.95.

The best science fiction writers are always trying to prepare humanity for the unthinkable and the unthought of - a sort of prophylaxis for our inherent xenophobia. In her award-winning novella ``Bloodchild,'' Butler made us face not only the unimaginably alien, but our liaison with it. ``Dawn'' is only a shadow of that superb and strange tale of an unspeakable alliance. A few human beings are rescued from an earth that their own careless aggression nearly destroyed. Lilith - the other Eve - must help her fellow survivors reclaim their planet after long sleeps during which both they and their home world were helped by extraterrestrial rescuers to heal.

The easy part of her task is to train the remnant band to go home, not as conquering technological heroes, but as primitives in a hostile wilderness; the hard part is keeping everybody sane despite the unbearable knowledge that they have been irrevocably conjoined with another species and will never again be simply ``human'' - but a symbiotic mix of two mutually repulsive kinds of life. The power of Butler's astonishing imagination is vitiated by a slow-motion flatness that may result from the strain of serial novelization - a condition readers must come to expect as long as publishers pay more for quantity than quality. Pirates of the Thunder, by Jack L. Chalker. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine Books. 306 pp. $3.50.

Seriesmaster Chalker clones ``escape'' fiction that is hard to escape - there is so much of it. In ``Pirates of the Thunder,'' cybernetic China, the interfaced girl, is linked to a sentient renegade spaceship and teamed with rebels trying to beat the system - the Master System, that is - a gigabit computer that runs the whole intergalactic shebang. Raven, Cloud Dancer, Silent Woman, and Hawk, Dr. Frankenstein (Clayben) and his monster (Koll), a pair of idiot-savant lock pickers, a perhaps traitorous Arnold called Nagy - and many an oddball more - go after high-tech parodies of Tolkien's rings: a matching set of microchips that will end the slavery of man to machine - or maybe just begin it. ``Lords of the Middle Dark, Book I'' of this ``Rings of the Master'' series, was imaginatively and adventurously good, and this second volume isn't all bad - just talky and turgid. Perhaps some day Chalker will recapture the reflexive funning and punning of ``The River of Dancing Gods'' with a magic sword called Irving and a gremlin bridge bristling with the memorable notice ``Stop: Pay Troll.''