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Reviews of L. Warren Douglas's Books

A Plague of Change

Del Rey, September 1992
Carolyn Cushman, Locus, November 1992

With a wealth of sf ideas, A Plague of Changes[sic] by L. Warren Douglas is a veritable kitchen sink of a novel - only slightly clogged by some rather thick lumps of pulpish exposition. In the beginning, it seems as if every twist in plot leads to more exposition. As the novel progresses, the plot gets a chance to break through, and what exposition remains gets more alien and more poetic - verging at times on incomprehensibility. A brilliant young space cadet and heir to a puritanical colony planet, Bass Cannon gets uppity with his friends; they ambush and "sell" him to a departing spaceship captain. To get control of his life back, Bass agrees to work for the alien Psatla, a strange race with the inborn ability to do genetic engineering through their own biological processes, but no mechanical ability whatsoever.

The story wanders into potentially controversial areas, in particular the assumption that to overcome their irrationally violent tendencies humans must overcome their biology - and that genetic alteration to that effect (without human consent) might be desirable. The protagonist questions this idea, at first, but as the novel gets into the grittier side of human instincts - the need for a boss-male, the role of sex, the artificiality of morality - the need for change becomes a foregone conclusion. It doesn't help that humanity appears doomed, with Earth gone totally decadent and desperate colony planets giving birth to pirates, slavery, and ultimately war.

With so many elements to discuss, the characters take second place to ideas. The protagonist Bass is innocent, genius and obnoxious punk, a combination that works, but isn't particularly deep or likeable. More interesting are the Psatla, with their complex culture and biology. This first novel is somewhat short on action, but long on thought; Douglas is a very promising new writer, if he can only rein in his tendency to tell all in lumps, and to preach.

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Bright Islands in a Dark Sea

Del Rey, July 1993
Carolyn Cushman, Locus, July 1993

L. Warren Douglas' second novel is a striking change from his first. Both are sf, but where the first was set in an intergalactic culture, Bright Islands in a Dark Sea is set on a far-future Earth that has regressed in many ways back to a near medieval level. (Both books have aliens made up of multiple beings, and both feature enjoyable sexual compulsion. Some authors just have these little obsessions .... ) Earth's ice caps have melted; North America has an inland sea, and millions of humans have been removed by aliens to new planets, never to return. Much of what used to be the U.S. is now controlled by a repressive church that worships the alien saviors as gods, and gets a good deal of mileage because humans are biologically incapable of flying spaceships. However, a pair of scholars have dug up a spaceship in a peat bog, and in the remains of the control room lie the perfectly preserved bodies of the human crew. In their efforts to suppress this knowledge, the church manages to kill one of the scholars, but his student Yan Bando saves some of his master's notes and goes on the run. With no place to go, Yan decides to follow up his master's other obsession, witches rumored to live in a far country. He discovers the church is even more interested in witches, who themselves may just have something to do with spaceflight.

Yan's adventures are highly entertaining and full of action, and this future Earth is equally entertaining. The atmosphere is medieval, with witches and a powerful church resisting science. Yet, some machines are still used, even though the underlying principles are never understood, and it's amusing to see which machines survive, and why. The idea that women hold some ancient, forbidden knowledge is certainly not new, but the knowledge in this case is anything but ancient a cute twist on an old cliche.

The novel ends when Yan Bando finally meets the witches' elders - the end of the immediate quest, but not the search for space, and there is definitely room for a sequel. Whether one is planned or not, this is an exciting adventure in a divertingly strange future, one that should appeal equally to fans of sf and fantasy adventure.

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The Arbiter Tales

This review by Tom Easton appeared in Analog (March 1996), and it covered both the promised series, and the novel Stepwater, the first Arbiter Tale, so it is broken up here into two parts. Below is the more general part of the review, which provides a good background description of the series. Tom Eastman had access to the original "Author's Introduction," promising seven novels, which was cut from the published books.

The thrust of the Author's Introduction was that Douglas's intention was to write seven novels tied together with a common theme: Arbiter John Minder's quest. Each novel's protagonist would be of a different race (with unique attitudes and problems,) and each book's central conflict would involve a dispute between variant groups -- ideally one based in deep-seated differences in innate behavior, biological demands, or culture.

Each novel is set in the same time frame: the action in all seven would run concurrently, not sequentially, so while Barc Doresh struggles with flooding on Stepwater, Slith Wrasselty is manipulating people, soil chemistries, and the Arbiter on Phyre, Tep Inutkak is puzzling out conflicting archaeological records on Glaice, and... Douglas promised that every Arbiter Tale would stand independent of the rest, and that they would not ever become a "series" in the usual sense. - LWD

L. Warren Douglas has created an intriguing future for his new series. He posits that we will pass through a period when corporations will use genetic engineering to exploit people quite dreadfully - adding the genes of bears to humans, for instance, so that workers will hibernate during the off season and the corporations won't have to feed them. The result will be seven variants of the familiar old-human line of humanity - bearlike bors, elfin wends, otterish mantees, nomadic fards, sulfurous tarbeks, polar ikuts. Each is adapted to a particular environment - bors to mountain caves, fards to deserts, mantees to water.

Despite tremendous physical differences, the variants are capable of mating with each other Since hybrid offspring revert to the old-human form, there is a powerful tendency to look down on the old-human type as an impure, corrupted consequence of unnatural perversion. Yet at the same time, because those long-gone genetic engineers wanted to bind old-humans and their creations close together, each variant responds more strongly to the old-human sexual pheromones than to its own, and old-humans turn on to the variants, too.

Millennia later, humans of all kinds are spread among the stars. The thousands of worlds of the Xarafeille Stream are overseen by the old-human Arbiter, John Minder XXIII. He does not rule; he keeps the peace by manipulation and negotiation; only when that fails may he call upon a hidden space fleet and planets full of old-style warriors; awareness of that possibility helps him in his quieter maneuverings. That is, like Teddy Roosevelt, he speaks softly and carries a big stick; the United Nations and NATO have surely convinced us in recent years that speaking loudly and carrying a swizzle stick do not work very well.

However, in order to grasp his particular big stick, he needs seven data blocks full of Arbiter history. Alas, when his father died and he inherited the Arbiter's mantle, the data blocks proved to be missing, snaffled by his archeologist elder brother. Now both brother and data blocks have vanished. And if the word gets out that he has nothing to back his Arbiting, the worlds of humanity must surely descend into chaos. No wonder that generations of Minders have kept as a seat an ancient barrel - a genuine powder keg!

Fortunately, there are copies of the data blocks. They are scattered on several worlds, squirreled away where no one may suspect what they are. If he can just lay hands on them....

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ROC, October 1995

Tom Eastman's review in Analog (March 1996) continues with a synopsis of Stepwater:

Douglas promises us not a trilogy (though ROC has contracted only for that many), but a seven-book series, and then no more. The first is Stepwater, in which bors and mantees nearly start a war. The tale begins when Barc, heir to the bors domain of Margal Steep, beds Girelf, heiress to the local mantee throng, which resides in the river that runs beneath the hollowed out mountain that is Margal Steep and has the rights to the shore for about a mile from the water's edge. This is disaster, for a bors imprints upon his first mate, and when Barc imprints upon Girelf, he ruins his future - or so he and all his kin believe. Threatened with a brainscrubbing to straighten out his imprinting, he flees and becomes a notorious pervert, not only bedding females of every variant on Stepwater (including - Gasp! - old-humans), but setting up a firm of very successful and lucrative brothels.

Meanwhile, back at Margal Steep, the mantees are building their dam higher and higher The water is rising, the shoreline pushing outward, the lower tunnels of the bors home flooding, the walls and ceilings crumbling. Indeed, the day comes when the ceiling caves in on the present rulers, and Barc, pervert or no, willing or no, is compelled to return. Being a conscientious fellow, he obeys the call and tries to find ways to save Margal Steep. But the mantees refuse to negotiate unless he can somehow persuade Girelf to accept her own responsibilities as heiress, and she will not. An attempt to destroy the dam fails miserably.

And when Barc seeks the Arbiter's consul half the world away, he is sent on a long space voyage only to learn that he must somehow infiltrate the wendish archives and purloin a mysterious data cube. It's not quite that simple, for Barc must run back and forth a few times before he gets that far, but that's the thrust of the matter, and it's no accident that his sexual history plays a vital role in his final success.

A word of warning for those who might object: This one's a bit raunchy. However, it's a very entertaining tale based on an interesting setup and blessed with a number of believable characters. The flaws are two: First, toward the end events accelerate so much the reader feels Douglas is surely skipping over whole chapters (perhaps he had to edit down a too-long manuscript). Second, the Arbiter seems a little too much in charge of serendipity; this might be acceptable if the Arbiter had to deal with only one or two worlds, but Douglas's very premise is that John Minder XXIII must oversee thousands of worlds; this strains credibility.

Still, I'm looking forward to the next entries in this series, for the first two of which ROC provides a glimpse in the form of brief excerpts.

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Another Stepwater Review

A brief review of Stepwater in Jerry Hewett's online newsletter for Jack Vance's fans and collectors has had an amazing impact on the Arbiter Tales' acceptance by the community of Vance's admirers:
SUBJ: L. Warren Douglas

Commit this guy's name to memory.

Find these two books before they go out of print: _Stepwater_ and _The Wells of Phyre_, both out as paperback originals from ROC SF. Buy extra copies for friends that have borrowed, read, and re-read your entire Vance collection.

Gregg Parmentier recommended these novels -- the first two volumes in a projected (?) seven volume series by L. Warren Douglas -- a couple of months ago, but I hadn't been able to find them until this past weekend. I started (and finished) reading _Stepwater_ last night, and will probably blow everything off this afternoon so that I can read _The Wells of Phyre_ (and get to bed at a decent hour:-). The third volume in the Arbiter series, _Glaice_, should be on the shelves soon... the sooner, the better, as far as I'm concerned!

Douglas is a Vance fan (the first book is dedicated to "Jack Vance, for setting the standard I aim for. Jack, when I finish writing a novel, the first thing I do is reread one of yours, and ask myself if I'm getting any closer.") and one hell of a talented writer. He has managed to capture Jack's essence and style in _Stepwater_ without losing his own unique voice and vision; _Stepwater_ is built upon a Vanceian foundation, but it is not a carbon copy or clone of anything Vance has done before.

Trust me (and Gregg ;-). You *don't* want to miss these books. Buy them, and move them up to the top of your reading pile!

Jerry H.

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Booklist , December 15, 1996
On a world of ice and freezing water, the Inutkak must claim their home. The Inutkak are one of the genetically engineered races, descended from old Earth stock, who have been sent to other planets to spread human dominion. Tep and his fellows must engage in a fierce struggle against the malevolent climate of their assigned planet and also against those who don't consider them human enough to warrant any consideration of their rights. In this situation, Douglas gives us a well-crafted,
exciting, multidimensional conflict in which nothing is exactly as it seems. His most exciting achievement is to make the legal part of the Inutkak's struggle every bit as exciting as their tremendous battle with the elements. Eventually, Douglas' conception of the Arbiter, a civilized society's substitute for warfare, raises his yarn above the level of everyday space opera and makes it
an intelligent, fast-moving undertaking.

Dennis Winters
Copyright? 1996, American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Simply Human

L. Warren Douglas, Simply Human (Baen 0671-57882-0, $6.99, 412pp,
pb) August 2000. Cover by John Monteleone.

Far-future scholars use computers to analyze myths found on thousands of human-settled worlds, find the common elements, and come up with the root version of the tale of the sorcerer Achibol and his apprentice Benadek - but what they come up with is an unexpected postholocaust tale, not of a sorcerer, but of a cyborg on Earth with a mission to save the human gene pool from pollution and genetic manipulation, a mission gone terribly wrong after thousands of years, in which a "simplified" humanity has barely kept civilization going at a level that makes Achibol's forgotten technology seem like magic. Achibol and Benadek travel across country on a series of pretty standard adventures as they try to get humanity back on track, but the theme of what it means to be human is expanded with some unusual explorations of the biochemical nature of memory. The segments following the far-future researchers are more quirkily intriguing, set in a culture of shapeshifters who nonetheless enjoy an all-too-familiar form of academic in-fighting set off by highly controversial revelations about humanity and its forgotten origins on Earth.
Carolyn Cushman, Locus, November 2000

Simply Human by L. Warren Douglas
The world is going to hell. The ecosystem is shot. Humanity is doomed to extinction.
What can we do? Simple: We simplify the human genome and make it four-fold redundant (and none-too intelligent). When the Earth is healed, we'll re-populate it with pure-humans again. Two thousand years later .... The Earth has been "healed" for a
thousand years. Still, the "simples" are predominant. Where are all the pure-humans? Where did The Plan go wrong? Achibol,
two-thousand-plus-year-old-pure-human-cyborg, sorcerer-charlatan, and guardian of sorts, is doing everything he can to rectify the situation. But what can one man do? Especially when that one man is being hunted by a force that seeks to thwart his every effort. Perhaps he'll need a little pure-human help. Untold eons in our future .... All of the above is being written
by biocybernetic computers, biocybes, using the myths of a thousand worlds to compile the tale -- a tale told to an evolved
humanity for which a one-world theory for the genesis of Mankind is considered very close to heresy. Simply Human is a simply fascinating and entertaining story; very enjoyable and highly recommended. Baen Paperback Original, $6.99. - PMH, Mysterious Galaxy, Oct. 2000

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