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Book Review: Phytosphere by Scott Mackay

* Genre: Science Fiction, Apocalyptic Fiction
* ISBN: 0451461584
* ISBN-13: 9780451461582
* Format: Mass Market Paperback, 376pp
* Publisher: Penguin Group (ROC)
* Pub. Date: June 2007

Scott Mackay likes to write about the intersection of different cultures, about the way that when two alien ways of thinking meet, good can happen, but more often one or another culture is warped from its comfortable position. In the first novel of his I read, Tides, two species of intelligent beings encountered one another on an alien world. In Phytosphere, Mackay continues to write about the intersections of cultures, but this time much closer to home.

Mankind has made it to the inner planets. Mercury, Mars and the Moon have all been settled and, if not tamed, at least pose little threat anymore. But then an interstellar alien race arrives seeking to immigrate to the fair planet all humans originate from, Earth. When it is found that humanity and their alien visitors cannot reach an accord that would allow the Tarsalans to emigrate, they respond by placing a shroud � the phytosphere – over the earth. Doing so causes the planet to cool and plants to die. The fate of earth rests in the hands of two scientist brothers. One, an acknowledged genius and political animal is trapped on earth, but has all the resources of humanity at his command. The other, a former alcoholic trapped on the moon with scant resources and separated from his family. Each brother works to end the plight of the phytosphere and in so doing learns a lot about the value of success, family, and honor.

Mackay continues to astound in his writing. What seems like a simple (even simplistic) plot at the outset turns into something much greater. Phytosphere is a look at the human condition, particularly our ability to choose right and wrong. Mackay�s writing is meticulous, never wasting words and always keeping the action and introspection at the right levels. Phytosphere is an action-adventure story, but it also asks provocative questions about the human psyche and interpersonal relationships.

Phytosphere is almost two books in one. The first, which follows events on earth, is a doomsday scenario reminiscent of Pat Frank�s Alas Babylon that evokes the emptiness and loneliness of Richard Matheson�s I am Legend. The second book is a near space exploration novel something much like John Varley or Ben Bova might write. Mackay then weaves these two together to create a story that causes the reader to get wrapped up in the story.

And the science of his story is quite interesting. Mackay again uses oceanography, as in Tides but in this case, he makes a connection between astronomy, physics, and oceanography, that results in a final solution that is plausible while still full of adventure.

Neil and Gerry Thorndike are flawed men, capable of great things. One suffers from a physiological problem, resulting in an inability to trust himself. The other, an inordinate pride in himself that is soon broken by the events surrounding him. And Glenda, Gerry�s wife becomes the true heroine of the hour, as she alone and without her husband, manages to save his family from the banditry and lawlessness brought on by eternal night under the phytosphere.

This novel was not as enjoyable as Tides. In part, that is due to the recent glut in science fiction movies and books of apocalyptic fiction either new or revived. Scott Mackay�s novel, for all that it is a good one, is likely to be lost in the shuffle. It is also in part due to the fact that the novel does seem to be two separate novels. Yes, they are interwoven expertly, but even though we identify with Glenda and Gerry as people, I think Phytosphere fails to makes us care for them as a couple. The same for Neil and Gerry. Although individually their stories are poignant and powerful, the brotherly connection is only partly illuminated, making the final few scenes resonate with less power. They are still gut wrenching and will keep your eyes peering at the pages to be sure; they just don�t have quite the emotional punch they could have.

But that is simply this reviewers reaction, if I had said nothing, it probably would have passed unnoticed by you the reader. If you like reading stories of humanity�s triumph over doomsday scenarios but that do it with a personal touch, so that we get wrapped up in the survival of the characters just as much as the survival of the species, than Phytosphere is a novel you will enjoy very much.

If you have not yet read any Scott Mackay, I suggest you do so as fast as you can. His stories are superb. The only other 21st century science fiction writer I have enjoyed reading this much is Orson Scott Card, and while comparing Mackay�s novels to his would be unfair and a bit of a false comparison, I can say with certainty that in his own way Mackay�s novels are as much about the human condition as Card�s. You absolutely must read Scott Mackay�s science fiction novels.

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