Completely different aspects of speculative fiction are represented in three excellent new books on the shelves this month.

Starting with the closest to home, Jonathan Carroll's The Wooden Sea is another wonderfully offbeat story from the author of The Land of Laughs.

Frannie McCabe is the police chief of Crane's View, a small town on the Hudson just north of New York City. When McCabe was a teenager he was a troublemaker that everyone, including his own family, expected to end up in jail or somewhere worse. Instead he is one of the happiest men you could meet. He has all the things he could want: a loving wife, her daughter, friends, a good job, a diner that's a home away from home, and a motorbike that's loud enough to wake the dead.

Everything starts to change when someone drops off an old, tired, three-legged dog at the police station. McCabe's life is suddenly no longer his own. There are changes, intrusions. People he has known all his life suddenly act differently. The worrisome part is that these people include himself.

Carroll takes us on side trips to other parts of McCabe's life first the future, then the past. McCabe's 17-year-old self turns up, all spit, anger and violence. It is Carroll's skillful handling of the details that carries us with him as he explores how identity and relationships change over time.

It's saying a lot, but this is one of Carroll's best so far.

In the smaller space of the short story, Arthur C. Clarke often explored similar themes. There are more than 100 stories in the treasure chest that is The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke. From his earliest works to a recent collaboration with Stephen Baxter, this really does seem to be all of Clarke's short fiction.

Somehow over the years I had forgotten Clarke's ever-present touches of humor. There is a very British edge, particularly in the quiet and rather quirky sense of fun especially apparent in those stories set in the fictional London pub, The White Hart.

Generally the stories deal with events on a cosmic scale, but they are always seen from a very human perspective. From the immensely influential "The Sentinel," basis for the book and film 2001: A Space Odyssey, to the story that blew my mind at around age 12, "The Nine Billion Names of God," Clarke has always been a writer who inspires readers and writers alike. This is a collection you'll go be going back to for years.

At the galaxy-spanning end of the scale is Stephen Baxter's Manifold: Space.

This is space opera of the grandest order and one of the technical difficulties of writing this type of science fiction is how to provide a cohesive narrative over the time frame necessary to tell the story. Perhaps the most popular device is to engineer a character's journey through what some scientists call Deep Time. In this companion to, and alternate history of, the author's earlier Manifold: Time, astronaut Reid Malenfant stumbles upon an alien artifact far beyond the edge of the solar system that he suspects may be a teleportation device. He is alone, far from the teeming billions of Earth, with a decision to make. He does not hesitate; he sails through the mysterious gate into the unknowable.

Malenfant's amazing story is only one of half a dozen stories entwined to give a future history of our next 8000 years.

Baxter does not lose his focus during the long journey. He is exploring not only our possible futures, our survival, but the possibilities of survival of intelligence itself. Baxter examines familiar dilemmas, such as this one: if we are not the only intelligent race, why have we not heard from any others? His very readable answers are horribly, intriguingly, logical and frightening.

Gavin J. Grant writes from Brooklyn, New York.

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