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SCIENCE FICTION IN BRIEF : DEATH QUALIFIED: A Mystery of Chaos by Kate Wilhelm (St. Martin's Press: $22.95; 448 pp.).

June 30, 1991|Sherry Gershon Gottlieb; Gottlieb owned A Change of Hobbit speculative\f7 - fiction bookstore \f7 until its recent demise. Her book, "Hell No, We Won't\f7 Go: Resisting the Draft During the \f7 Vietnam War," is a July release from Viking. and \f7

Kate Wilhelm's engrossing new novel defies categorization. A courtroom drama, mystery and science-fiction thriller, its philosophy is perhaps best summarized by this comment from one of its characters: "Nothing's isolated, nothing. It's all connected."

Lucas Kendricks escapes from a scientific-research project where he has been imprisoned for seven years under heavy sedation. The moment he returns home to Oregon, one step ahead of mysterious pursuers in search of missing computer disks, he is killed. His wife, Nell, is charged with the murder. Barbara Holloway, a lawyer who is "death qualified"--licensed to defend clients accused of capital crimes--is drawn reluctantly into Nell's case. But nothing is as clear-cut as it seems, and reality shifts regularly and subtly.

A master of characterization, Wilhelm crafts multidimensional personalities whose strengths and weaknesses are revealed gradually and tantalizingly. All of Wilhelm's women, whether hero or villain, are independent and self-sufficient; the men often are appealingly non-sexist. Her narrative painlessly teaches us the rudiments of chaos theory, the butterfly effect and other discoveries integral to its challenging climax--a climax that leaves the reader hungering for another Wilhelm novel.

Sensitive, thought-provoking and involving, "Death Qualified" is an unqualified success.

THE DARK BEYOND THE STARS by Frank M. Robinson (Tor Books: $19.95; 416 pp.) .

Thirty-five years after writing his classic superman novel "The Power," Frank M. Robinson (co-author of "The Glass Inferno") returns to science fiction with this generation-ship masterpiece.

Earth's only interstellar exploration spaceship, the Astron, has served 2,000 years and 100 generations under the firm hand of nearly immortal Capt. Michael Kusaka, who has been programmed not to return to Earth until he finds evidence of other life in the universe. After exploring 1,500 planets without finding a single living cell, the 300 descendants of the original crew believe that "the only life in the universe is what's inside this ship and in that thin green layer of scum covering the Earth." Kusaka, however, won't return home. Obsessed with the gambler's conviction that victory is close at hand, he is determined to take the deteriorating ship through the Dark--a journey of a thousand generations--to another arm of the galaxy.

Sparrow is a 17-year-old "tech assistant" with amnesia--he remembers nothing prior to a near-fatal accident during a planetary exploration--but somehow he is the key to a mutiny that may have been going on for generations . . . and someone is trying to kill him.

Robinson's novel offers a liberal vision of Utopia: In the ship, affection is open; sex in any combination is accepted; competition is extinct; life is revered; many are incapable of violence, and there seems to be a mutation toward empathy, if not telepathy. While the Astron's crew may be the only life in the universe, they may no longer be the kind of human life that left Earth millennia before.

Sparrow observes that "the heart . . . is a poor thing to think with." But it is an excellent thing to write with, and Robinson has composed "The Dark Beyond the Stars" with a lot of heart. Do not miss this novel.

THEY THIRST by Robert R. McCammon (Dark Harvest: $22.95; 450 pp. , illustrations by Wendy and Charles Lang).

A welcome resurrection of an epic vampire novel, "They Thirst" covers a week in Los Angeles, a location that is as much a part of the story as are the characters. The city that values youth above all, and where "most of the major studios in Hollywood overlook a cemetery," is the perfect setting for vampire-king Conrad Vulkan, forever 17 years old, to launch his attempted takeover of the world. Voluntarily enlisting in his army are outlaw bikers, Barrio gang members and a serial killer on the loose. It isn't long before the vampires number in the hundreds of thousands and it is too late for humans to mount an organized defense: "When darkness fell, the dinner bell would start ringing again." It is up to a few brave survivors--a police detective who knows of vampires from his youth in Hungary, a television comedian, a Hispanic priest, an 11-year-old horror film fan, a reporter for a "bucket of blood tabloid"--to stop the takeover by finding Vulkan's headquarters in a Houdini-like castle in the Hollywood Hills.

The tension is strong; McCammon skillfully draws us into his fearsome novel as the odds shift in favor of the bloodcurdling terrors that stalk the streets of Los Angeles. During the daytime, the vampires keep the humans at bay by sweeping an unsparing sandstorm down from the Mojave. The spectacular climax, uniquely Californian, plays to a long-held regional fear with incredible and sensational effect.

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