In Sci-Fi, a Changing of the Guard

ISAAC ASIMOV and Robert Heinlein are gone. Arthur C. Clarke, last of science fiction's grand triumvirate, uses collaborators to write his novels and has seen publication of his authorized biography. The day has finally come: Science fiction is entering the Post-Grandmaster Age.

Rest assured that the future of futuristic literature lies in capable hands. Anyone perusing the bookstores this spring will find a cornucopia of excellent reading from which to choose.

The genre's publishing event of the year is Asimov's swan song - the final volume of that cornerstone of science fiction's canon, the "Foundation" series. Inspired by Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," the youthful Asimov imagined a future galactic empire comprising 25 million worlds. The premise of the series raised an intriguing question: What if a new science - psychohistory - could be developed to predict the course of the empire and to forestall its impending fall?

In this last volume of the series, "Forward the Foundation," Asimov tells the story of psychohistory's inventor, Hari Seldon, a figure of ancient legend in the series's previous installments. There are some surprising twists, as Asimov manages to link the "Foundation" universe to his popular robot series. And although, true to form, Asimov leans rather heavily on dialogue to carry the story, we are privileged to learn something more of Seldon, whom Asimov regards as his alter ego - intellectually vigorou s, witty, vulnerable, and deeply concerned about the fate of his fallible species. In the end, is it Hari Seldon or Isaac Asimov who "died with the future he created unfolding all around him"?

David Brin, winner of the Nebula and Hugo Awards, should contend for this year's honors with "Glory Season." The tale of a matriarchal society where sexual patterns have been genetically calibrated to the seasons and where daughters are the clones of their mothers, this is imaginative artistry of a high order. Brin skates over some thin socio-political ice as he examines the role of men in an overpopulated world, but his expertise in biology turns "Glory Season" into a considered and nuanced speculation rather than a stale battle-of-the-sexes tract. Brin's prose echoes the influence of Asimov, Frank Herbert, and Aldous Huxley. If the plotting is not always brisk, it is only because his world is so painstakingly drawn and is splashed with such radiant and varied hues.

Two authors who will never run out of ideas are Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. With "The Mote in God's Eye," published in 1974, they set a standard by which all such collaborations will be judged. "The Gripping Hand" is the sequel to that classic, and anyone who enjoys their special brand of sophisticated space opera will devour it without regard for table manners.

This story unfolds 25 years after the Empire of Man first vanquished the Moties - an inscrutable, hyper-reproductive alien race - and quarantined them within their own solar system. Now the Moties have found a way to break out. Will galactic warfare result? Niven and Pournelle treat readers to a tour de force of alien contact that goes beyond the xenophobia that characterizes so many lesser close-encounter novels.

For a little xenophobia, you don't have to look farther than planet Earth. In Ben Bova's new novel called "Triumph," the time is World War II, and the enemy is the United States' ally, the Soviet Union. What if Winston Churchill, recognizing the threat to the new world order posed by Joseph Stalin, slipped the Soviet dictator a radioactive Mickey Finn?

In a daring assassination called Operation Broadsword, an Allied mole in the Kremlin plants a chip of plutonium in Stalin's desk, and the course of history is forever changed: Stalin is buried along with his paranoia, Patton takes Berlin, Yalta is scrapped, and the new regime in Moscow, led by moderates, never sees fit to erect the Iron Curtain. Pax Americana ensues, and we all live happily ever after.

Some fine storytelling excuses Bova - a hardliner's hardliner, whatever that means today - for this wish-fulfillment fantasy, which sometimes borders on the pedantic. He raises some questions that are particularly interesting to contemplate as a one-time superpower dissolves.

One of the year's most promising debuts is Patricia Anthony's "Cold Allies." Set in the middle future, with a united Arab army invading the beleaguered West, "Cold Allies" tells the story of an alien race's intervention that changes the course of the conflict. Anthony out-Clancys Tom Clancy in her stark depictions of combat. Yet she still brushes her characters (on both sides of the front) in true-to-life color.

No roundup would be complete without mention of the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's latest annual collection of its favorite fiction of the year, "Nebula Awards 27." Edited by James Morrow, a Nebula winner himself, this volume reprints the winners of the 1991 prizes - excerpts from Michael Swanwick's "Stations of the Tide" (best novel); "Beggars in Spain" by Nancy Kress (best novella); "Guide Dog" by Mike Conner (best novelette); and "Ma Qui" by Alan Brennert (best short story) - as well

as other Nebula finalists.

Morrow does not forget that April 1992 saw the departure of the great Isaac Asimov. The book includes eulogies by Arthur C. Clarke, George Zebrowski, and Harlan Ellison. It also contains Asimov's own final message.

"I have had a long and happy life," he writes. "And so farewell ... to the gentle readers who have been so uniformly kind to me. They have kept me alive to the wonders of science...." As he did his readers - to the wonders of science fiction.

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