- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 13, 2002

It may be presumptuous to assert that imagination makes possible the impossible, but there is no doubt it helps to narrow the gap between the two. With her "I" wide open, Laura Mixon flirts with the brink of possibility in her new novel, Burning the Ice (Tor, $25.95, 544 pages).
Cast at the close of the 21st century, a small colony of humans struggle to hang onto the frozen edge of existence 50 light years from Earth. They are the descendants of a group of renegades who fled Earth in the stolen starship Exodus more than a century earlier. Dumped on the surface by the ship's crew, the small band of castaways are left to their fate while the starship continues its journey, purportedly to a distant star system. For better or worse, "Brimstone," a marginally habitable iceball of a planet, is their new home.
Members of the Brimstone community are vat-grown clones. All are born as twins or triplets except for Manda CarliPablo. Manda's vat-mate died before birth, leaving her as the colony's only singleton. Lacking siblings has made Manda a lonely and angry young woman. And anger fuels her obsession with exploring the planet in search of life that, like herself, is alien to the colony.
The hope of the early pioneers is to terraform the icy world, making it if not similar to Earth, at least survivable. Key to success is their effort to penetrate the ice and tap into suspected geothermal fissures that they hope will provide the energy they desperately need to power their frigid colony. But results have proved elusive. Frequent earthquakes threaten their habitat, making even survival a dubious prospect.
Manda's self-appointed mission yields in short order two breathtaking discoveries: Exodus has not departed after all, but remains in orbit. Also, there is something alive at the bottom of Brimstone's ocean. Make that three discoveries: Manda finds a friend, Jim LuisMichael. A free spirit in his own right, Jim encourages her to pursue her obsessions when everyone else stands in her way. Together, they explore the icy deep and achieve first contact with sentient beings.
At that moment high in orbit above Brimstone, Exodus commences an attack on its erstwhile shipmates. With that, heretofore unknown schemes from the past are exposed, casting further doubt on the colony's future.
When is the future not in doubt? Still, humanity never ceases to peer into its darkness, trying to make out the shape of what will be. The attraction of science fiction is that it attempts to illuminate the future by tiptoeing up to the chasm between the believable and unbelievable, without falling over the edge. In "Burning the Ice," Laura Mixon succeeds in doing just that.

Terraforming the depths of space is all well and good, but John Barnes prefers first to spruce up our own backyard Mars. His new story, The Sky So Big and Black (Tor, $24.95, 315 pages), takes on that chore.
Set in the near future, Mr. Barnes tells the tale of planetary pioneers who shun the crowds of Martian cities in favor of land wide-open and red, and sky, well, so big and black.
Terpsichore "Teri" Murray, like any Earth-free teenager, loves growing up on the red planet. Teri's father is an eco-prospector, surveying the Martian surface for natural resources. While he wants her in school with other kids her age, Teri wants nothing more than to don her ecosuit and roam the wilderness with her father. And she wants nothing to do with Earthlings, all of whom have fallen under the control of a mind-infiltrating artificial intelligence called the "One True." More repulsive still are the "froyks," humans bio-engineered to survive on the planet without the need for survival suits.
Teri convinces her father to let her accompany him on his next prospecting trip. He agrees if she will shepherd a group of younger children back from the hinterlands to school in Wells City. Her escort duties are routine until an immense solar flare fries the communications equipment, leaving Teri and the band of children to fend for themselves. She discovers, like many adventurers before her, that one's response to the unexpected can make the difference between life and death.
Why another Mars novel? As science progresses, interest in the red planet will likely grow. Expect sci-fi writers like Mr. Barnes to crank out books about Mars until historians begin to write theirs.

There will be no jaunts over the surface of Jupiter, however unless one can trade feet for fins. So says Timothy Zahn in his novel about exploration of the Jovian giant, Manta's Gift (Tor, $24.95, 432 pages).
Set in the not-too-distant future, Mr. Zahn proffers a fantastic tale about a man who makes that swap. Matt Raimey is a college student tragically left a quadriplegic by a skiing accident. Awakening in a hospital, he can scarcely comprehend his fate: a lifetime of immobility spent staring at the ceiling. Fate, however, has different plans for him.
Twenty years earlier, planetary explorer Jakob Faraday discovered the existence of huge, intelligent creatures swimming through the super-dense atmosphere of Jupiter. In fact, he was nearly captured by the creatures, resembling gigantic manta rays, when they severed the tether connecting his manned probe to the main ship orbiting overhead.
Now, Faraday has been tasked by the Five Hundred, Earth's ruling body, to establish a rapport with the animals, the "Qanska." That's where Matt Raimey comes in. Rather than languish in paralysis, he agrees to Faraday's proposition: to become an intermediary between humans and the Jovian creatures. He is inserted into the womb of a female Qanska and reborn as a hybrid being, with human mind and Qanskan body. A new creature, he takes a new name "Manta."
Earth has much to gain if the relationship between species proceeds swimmingly. But Manta and his new Qanskan mates have much to lose if it doesn't. In "Manta's Gift" Mr. Zahn offers rapt reading as he unwraps his tale.

Frank Perley is articles editor for the Commentary section of The Washington Times.

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