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Dreaming in Smoke by Tricia Sullivan (Millennium, £9.99, 290 pages, trade paperback; published 6 July 1998. Mass market paperback, £5.99, 290 pages, published 26 August 1999.)

This is overall an excellent book. It is well done in its concept, structure and execution, the last of which Sullivan completes with a style that includes both lyricism and sharp, thoughtful insight. These features combine to completely overshadow any small worldbuilding niggles concerned with the scenario which might otherwise distract you on a first reading.

The story is set on the planet T'Nane, a hostile yet fascinating environment, in which the protagonists are stranded; the ecosystem has changed during the time lapse between original reports and the arrival of the colonists and Earth is no longer politically minded to help when the new arrivals find they cannot survive unassisted in the biosphere. The colonists have formed a social community which lives in tiny units maintained by an all-encompassing AI, Ganesh, and it's the breakdown of this AI and of its intense and personal relationships with them which sets the ball rolling.

Sullivan uses an awkward and charming bohemian heroine to focus the drama of this very intellectual thought experiment into a thrilling story as the AI collapses and the humans are forced out into the bizarre Wilds - a sea of micro-organic lifeforms. She has put a lot of imagination and scientific What Ifs into the book, but in such a way that you don't have to belabour your brain to get through them. The action and her contemplation of how human biology and human minds could interact not only with machines but also with colonies of alien biology is one and the same, without giving the reader a sense of characters acting out a forced plot. Her fusion of the human drama, the theories of mind and the scientific elements flows naturally and mingles in a highly satisfying balance, like good cooking. And I do like the idea of such a compelling story being jolted into motion by a recording of Miles Davis...

There are a few questions I was left with by the end of the book, mostly relating to matters of how the colony was set up and why it was organised the way it was and etc but these are not terribly important except to members of the SF Pedants Club and I'm not going to mention them here since they don't detract from the enjoyment of the book and are not particularly relevant to the story. I'd recommend this as reading to anyone with an eye to 'edge of human' stories or who wants a science fiction read that contains a blend of hard and soft science and the speedy edge of a good thriller. There are moments when you might wish someone would give the heroine a jump start into responsibility but her ornery character amid a sea of dedicated intellects and creative masterminds is also a refreshing change.

Review by Justina Robson.

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© Justina Robson 5 September 1998