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Forays into the world of science fiction and fantasy

Nebula Awards Twenty: SFWA's Choices for the Best in Science Fiction 1984, edited by George Zebrowski. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 384 pp. $8.95, paper. ``Nebula 20'' offers 13 of the best stories of 1984, chosen by the Science Fiction Writers of America and prefaced by Algis Budrys's critical appraisal. The selections are all prize nominees, but not all winners either of the Nebula, or of my own unreserved admiration.

Readers who appreciate the taut storytelling of Octavia Butler's ``Bloodchild,'' John Varley's ``Press Enter,'' and Fred Pohl's ``The Greening of Bed-Stuy'' are not likely to be equally enthralled by the elusive cerebral shadings of Zebrowski, Bishop, and Wolfe.

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Editor/contributor George Zebrowski includes nominees some readers may consider more ``arty'' than art, but nevertheless, ``Nebula 20'' is a collection guaranteed to give you something to argue about, and a gift to make your friends eager to sample more of the varied entrees on the ever-growing science fiction menu. Heart of the Comet, by Gregory Benford and David Brinn. New York: Bantam. 480 pp. $17.95.

Writing as a team for the first time, Gregory Benford and David Brin have crafted a microcosm of Earth's peoples and prejudices. Combining scientific speculation with fast-forward action, they explore the emotional and political orientation of men and women who wield world-shaping technologies.

``Orthos'' (human beings who have not benefited from genetic engineering) and ``Percells'' (humans who have) are trapped together in Halley's cold heart, on a 70-year trip around the solar system to a rendezvous with life or death -- death at their own hands or by fungi that come on like green and purple people-eaters. Factions fight each other and alien-life forms with everything from bio-engineered computers to fists -- a vivid historical inventory of human violence and tool use.

``Heart of the Comet'' has more plot twists than Halley's ice has cracks, but moments of emotional power and truth outweigh the hollow parts. Despite the fact that it gives you more information than you may want on how to carve a space habitat out of a comet, it is a perfect big book for a long voyage anywhere. The Last Rainbow, by Parke Godwin. New York: Bantam. 359 pp. $7.95.

Parke Godwin's foray into the Arthurian (``Firelord'' and ``Beloved Exile'') has inevitably led to more about the Prydn, the tribe of elusive and much feared goddess-worshiping nomads (``faerie'' to early Britons). In Godwin's incantatory vision, the little people are both human and divine -- as we all are.

The Prydn are heedless, attractive children of God, which is, of course, what seduces Padrec as both priest and man, as well as the susceptible reader. He joins them as beloved husband of a tribal queen, experiences life from their dark and diminutive perspective, and leaves both the joy and pain he shared with them to become St. Patrick.

Despite the pitfalls of such material, this is a moving and loving tribute to our lost and imaginary innocence, and a painful, often illuminating examination of what faith means. It should appeal to those who like reading St. Augustine as well as those addicted to the whole barrow-strewn, bloody history of the British Isles as it went from matriarchy to patriarchy, and from paganism to Christianity. Warrior Woman, by Marion Zimmer Bradley. New York: Daw. 205 pp. $3.50.

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If you like the work of Marion Zimmer Bradley, ``Warrior Woman'' is a book to miss; if you do not know her work at all, don't start with this one.

A beautiful victim of rape and kidnap, suffering from shock and loss of memory, and (not surprisingly) repulsed by men, retains nothing but her ferocious ability to kill in hand-to-hand combat. She becomes a slave gladiator in a culture steeped in blood lust that trains fighters for the pleasure and excitement of the arena kill.

There are no characters -- just stereotypes of the abused and the abuser, in fancy dress, and straight out of a comic book.

As a fan of the Darkover books, the Free Amazon stories, and ``Hawkmistress,'' this reviewer chooses to believe that this shallow pseudo-potboiler is either a reclaimed product of Bradley's harried and hungry youth or something hastily tossed off to fulfill a contract she wanted to dishonor.

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