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SCIENCE FICTION

MOCKINGBIRD, by Sean Stewart (Ace Books, $21.95).

Sean Stewart's new novel contributes nicely to his critical reputation as a stylish, quirky writer to watch. Here, he blends typically Texan ambition with a dash of New Orleans magic as his novel follows the personal and professional struggles of Houston accountant Antoinette Beauchamp.

Beauchamp finds herself the unhappy replacement host for several spirits, called Riders, who once occupied the body of her recently departed mother, a woman who could see the future, read minds, perform miracles and raise the dead, even if the raised dead was only a rather large frog named Geronimo.

Accompanied by the Riders, Beauchamp must deal with an unappreciative oil speculator, a flighty sister whose boyfriend dabbles in magic, a vacillating stock market and her own personal goals of becoming pregnant and then finding both a husband and a new job before the baby is born.

This novel's plot serves mostly as a stage for the warmly engaging personality of Beauchamp as she handles her problems and slowly comes to the realization thatwe are all mockingbirds. We are all a hundred different selves. True enough, and all of our various selves should all be so lucky as to know someone like Antoinette Beauchamp.

COSM, by Gregory Benford (Avon Books, $23).

Benford, a noted physicist/novelist, this time offers his readers an inside look at the competitive world of science research. Young physicist Alicia Butterworth finds herself at the center of a storm of controversy as, god-like, she creates a strange basketball-sized sphere _ the cosm _ that she eventually comes to realize is a pocket universe developing rapidly from its own Big Bang toward some unknown, and perhaps quite dangerous, future.

Professional envy from her peers, a predictably frenzied media scramble and a deftly handled love affair complicate Butterworth's life as she struggles to understand her creation and its implications.

The novel's great strength lies in its interior look at the world of cutting-edge science, with its moments of high drama contrasted with the mundane realities of a college researcher who must advise students and teach her large lecture class while a short distance away the new universe she created grows deadly.

Readers will learn more than they thought they cared to of quantum tunneling, curved space-time and the symmetry principles of a 23-dimensional space. But, Benford's ability to spin likable, believable characters and an accessible, understandable plot out of the dense, complex possibilities of near-future science is impressive, indeed. This is hard science fiction at its best

A SONG OF STONE, by Iain M. Banks (Simon and Schuster, $23).

British writer Banks has built an enviable career as a novelist who moves freely back and forth between mainstream literary novels and _ writing as Iain M. Banks _ far-flung science-fiction extravaganzas. Here he combines the style and setting of both sides of his writing career, taking readers into a dark, near-future where society's collapse offers death and opportunity in equal parts to those who struggle to survive.

A darkly debauched narrator, once a wealthy aristocrat but reduced by civil war to the commonality of day-to-day existence, relates the story of marauding mercenaries who take over his castle home. The ensuing struggles between captives and keepers explore sex, violence and power through the lens of a science-fiction setting that offers Banks ample room to display his gifts for building characters, plots and settings that are highly inventive and, as here, often deeply disturbing.

Rick Wilbur's science fiction column appears occasionally.

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