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POD' a solid sci-fi effort

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Wallenfels impresses with powerful debut novel

It's always exciting to pick up an author's debut book. The sense of potential informs the experience with a high level of excitement. This first book could be the start of a wonderful writer/reader relationship. Of course, it could also be a complete dud. It's a Schrdinger's cat dilemma; an experiment in quantum literature. It's a situation where you simply can't know whether the book is good or bad until you open it and see for yourself.

In the case of 'POD' (Ace, $7.99), the debut offering from author Stephen Wallenfels, you'll be glad you turned to page one.

The aliens descended from the sky at 5 a.m. (PST), taking the entire world by surprise. They announced their presence with an ear-shattering shriek, and their round black ships dominate the skies. Any human being caught outside immediately vanishes in a flash of blue light. What survivors remained were trapped in their homes trapped without any way of communicating with the outside world. Everyone remaining in this new world is forced to come to terms with what's happening on an individual basis.

'POD' alternates between two storylines. Josh is trapped at home in Washington state. He and his father try their best to deal with the madness outside while also striving not to spend too much time agonizing over the unknown fate of Josh's mother. Meanwhile, Megs is stranded alone in the parking garage of a Los Angeles hotel where she tries to keep safe while she awaits her mother's return a return that may never take place.

Each of these two young people Josh is 16, while Megs is just 12 is forced to deal with a world that has been completely turned upside down, though each deals with very different circumstances. Josh experiences the more intimate aspects of societal breakdown as he deals with the various difficult and conflicting decisions being made by his father. Meanwhile, Megs is confronted with a much broader (and darker) look at the very worst that human nature has to offer as she tries to steer clear of the looters and other sinister characters who have seized control of the hotel.

While the 'alien invasion' premise is one of the oldest sci-fi tropes of them all, Wallenfels offers the reader an interesting new take. The temptation with stories like these is to overexplain where did the invaders come from, why are they here, what do they want but Wallenfels never succumbs, choosing instead to treat the situation with a high degree of realism. It may seem counterintuitive, using a term like 'realism' when dealing with science fiction, but Josh and Megs both deal with the invasion in ways that seem very true. It grounds the story in reality despite its many fantastic elements.

The conceit of dueling first-person narratives works particularly well. The two different perspectives with regards to the same event created a storytelling depth that would have otherwise been out of reach. Josh's experience is on a micro level, revolving almost exclusively around himself and his father. On the other hand, Megs is confronted with the near-instant breakdown of society on a much grander scale as the power-hungry seize control. Taken together, the two divergent tales paint a full and fascinating picture of a world at the mercy of an unknown foe.

'POD' is what you want science fiction to be; it is well-written and original, populated by fully realized characters with distinct voices. Wallenfels has created a work that is both wide-ranging and intimate; even in its quieter moments, it is infused with an urgency that makes it difficult to turn the pages fast enough. This book would be a worthwhile effort by any author, but for a first-timer, it's particularly impressive.

No fuss, no muss just well-executed science fiction. We can look forward to hearing more from Mr. Wallenfels.

Last modified on Friday, 27 April 2012 08:47

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