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SCIENCE FICTION

MOONFALL, by Jack McDevitt (HarperPrism, $24).

McDevitt takes direct aim at the near-future disaster story in this frenzied novel of destruction from above, meeting all of the reader's expectations and then some.

In 2024, a giant comet is discovered heading toward the moon, which it may shatter, sending lunar shards raining down on Earth. A heroic vice-president, Charlie Haskell, becomes the point man in a series of crises that involve everything from evacuating a busy moon base before the comet hits, to steering away the huge fragments of the shattered moon that threaten to destroy Life As We Know It on Earth. The vice-president also must deal with a variety of political crises, including his own accession to power when the overly confident president dies in the cataclysm that he had promised Americans wouldn't be that serious.

McDevitts pace is breath-taking, his descriptions vividly real, and his plot and science perfectly worked out. The vice-president and those around him are memorable, indeed, as they battle not only with the coming destruction, but also with themselves. Haskell's struggle with ambition and morality, for example, is crucial to driving the plot forward. Moonfall knows when to take itself seriously, and when not to.

MISSISSIPPI BLUES, by Kathleeen Ann Goonan (Tor, $25.95).

Lakeland resident Goonan's novel takes itself much more seriously than Moonfall. A sequel to the well-received Queen City Jazz, a New York Times Notable Book, Goonan's new novel follows a band of travelers on a riverboat from post-apocalyptic Cincinnati to the nearly mythical Norleans.

Civilization has crumbled in the wake of a series of nanotech and information wars, leaving behind scattered pockets of humanity and a number of city-states, many of them run by powerful computer systems that use nanotechnology to control their populations.

Verity and Blaze, the Tom and Huck of this picaresque river voyage, board a nanotech-built riverboat, the American Queen, and lead a large group of people down river through a series of adventures that range from the perilously real to the delightfully surreal.

Like Queen City Jazz, this is an ambitious work and a story of broad scope. Goonan's technology allows her to fill the novel with thoughtful, fascinating characters, including a very appropriate pair of artificially created Mark Twains who don't much like each other, and a wide variety of blues musicians of similar construction. The novel is also populated with a boatload of other creations, most of them threatening, but an important few helpful at crucial moments.

Goonan uses this large cast to good effect, smoothly blending the comfortable and very American literary confines of riverboat travel with a dazzling assortment of science-fiction elements.

The novel's charms will be all the more apparent to readers comfortable enough with the blues to sing along with songs like Midnight Special, appreciate the civilizing importance of a Fender Stratocaster, and happily think of the blues as something that might save us all.

Rick Wilber 's Science Fiction column appears occasionally.

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