Science fiction authors cleverly tweak history and the present

Fast, smart, fun and flashy: Cory Doctorow's "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" (Tor, $22.95) is all of the above. Even when science fiction is based on solid predictions, it can demonstrate the pinwheeling pyrotechnics of a first-class fireworks display.

A longtime observer of life online, Doctorow depicts a cashless economy based on the constant, automatic tracking of public reputations by a nameless online utility. Referred to as "The Bitchun Society" (a la President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society"), the dominant lifestyle confers immortality (of a sort) on all participants. All one has to do is periodically record one's brain patterns — to be imprinted on force-grown clones in the event of an unwanted death. (No charge for this service; there's no charge for anything, as long as one maintains a high enough reputation.) It's that trick that allows hero Jules to investigate his own murder.

In this future, Death is not necessarily fatal, but it's annoying to lose the memory of a few days' experiences. And in Jules' absence, the Disney World "Hall of Presidents" ride he's dedicated all his waking hours to preserving in an artistically pristine, mechanical state has been taken over by a group who ruined it with virtual bells and whistles.

That Doctorow is able to make readers understand and even sympathize with Jules' far-out plight shows that he's got as firm a grip on human verities as on the twists and turns a technologically driven society might take.

With well-tuned irony, "Jennifer Government" (Doubleday, $21.95) portrays a not too distant future in which events have led us to take a totally different direction. Money talks, as they say, and in this scenario, it's dominating the conversation.

Corporations run the schools and provide competing police forces. They hire private armies to fight their financial wars with real bombs and guns. Students and employees take their companies' names as their own, stark symbolic proof of corporate control. No longer authorized to collect taxes, the pitiful remains of nation states must charge directly for the few services they still provide. Want your daughter's murder solved? Better sell your house and hope the funds you raise don't run out before the culprit is caught.

That's what Jim GE (after General Electric) and Mary Shell, parents of Haley McDonald, do when she's gunned down at the local mall. Detective Jennifer Government suspects the killing was part of a publicity stunt promoting Nike's new shoe. With the help of failed stockbroker Buy Mitsui, she solves the murder, foils a related plot to put an end to the last vestige of representative democracy on Earth, and rescues her own daughter from deranged kidnapping VP John Nike, who also happens to be the girl's father.

Australian author Max Barry's swiftly intercut storylines and deftly humorous extrapolations of current trends make this novel, his second, as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. A recent news story about small towns unable to purchase their own police cars and forced to rely on corporate sponsorship shows how easily this fiction could become fact. "Jennifer Government's" a worthy update of Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth's classic "The Space Merchants" — just as funny, much meaner and a lot closer to coming true.

Though it asks the same question as science fiction does ("What if ... ?"), the related genre of alternate history answers itself by rearranging the past rather than predicting the future. Often the results are every bit as enlightening.

Steven Barnes' "Zulu Heart" (Warner, $24.95) is part of a series set in a world where medieval European civilization never fully recovered from the Black Death. As a result, half of North America is colonized by the Ethiopian and Egyptian empires. Whites are enslaved by blacks, with Irish, Germans and Greeks the most popular victims.

In "Zulu Heart," Barnes returns to the protagonists of the series' previous book, "Lion's Blood." Slave Aidan O'Dere has been freed to homestead on "Bilalistan's" frontier, somewhere near our modern state of Kansas. Kai ibn Rashid , pampered son of a plantation owner, is an orphan now, and lord of his father's vast estate. Already married to the Empress of Ethiopia's niece, he must enter a second marriage with a Zulu princess, a politically perilous move during increasing talk of a war between the North and the South.

There's lots of room for all sorts of enjoyment here, from re-charting the path of scientific discovery to expanding the scope of obscure traditional cultures. Barnes' enormous intellectual zest informs his entire creation. You can read "Zulu Heart" as a stand-alone, but you'll most likely go looking for "Lion's Blood" as soon as you've finished.

Nisi Shawl's column on science fiction will appear quarterly in The Seattle Times books pages.