Title: "Half the Day Is Night"Author: Maureen F...

BOOK BRIEFS

January 15, 1995|By F. BRETT COX Title: "The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog: Access to Tools and Ideas for the Twenty-First Century" Editor: Howard Rheingold Publisher: Harper and Point Foundation Length, price: 384 pages, $30

Title: "Half the Day Is Night"

Author: Maureen F. McHugh

Publisher: Tor

Length, price: 352 pages, $21.95

Maureen F. McHugh's second novel is set in the 21st-century city of Caribe, a self-contained underwater community beneath the Caribbean. David Dai, a French-speaking Asian traumatized by his recent mercenary activities in South Africa, takes what he thinks is a routine security job as bodyguard to Mayla Ling, a prominent banker. As Mayla's business activities place her and David in increasing danger, the nightmares of David's South African experiences resurface, causing him to leave his job and go into hiding. By the time he and Mayla are reunited, events beyond their control have revealed to both of them more than they want to know about what are, both literally and figuratively, the lower levels of Caribe society.

As in her first novel, the award-winning "China Mountain Zhang," Ms. McHugh shows how her future society works through close focus on the day-to-day details of her characters' lives, which are described in prose as clear and elegantly functional as plate glass. The novel's thriller plot, replete with drug trafficking and terrorist bombings, often seems at odds with the author's deliberate, even contemplative, character development. Nonetheless, the claustrophobic environment of Caribe -- where everything is recycled, under tons of pressure -- is an apt metaphor for the characters' circumstantial and psychological entrapment. Ms. McHugh's ability to portray this exotic environment through depictions of its everyday use, her willingness to let her characters live their everyday lives, and her impressive abilities as a prose stylist make "Half the Day Is Night" a rewarding reading experience and a worthy successor to her acclaimed first novel.

I remember well when the first Whole Earth Catalog came out in 1968. It was about the time that one began hearing about "getting back to the land," and that quirky, fiercely independent publication told earnest suburbanites how to farm by windmill and build their own outhouses.

Well, times have changed, and many former readers of the Whole Earth Catalog now flip through the pages of the Land's End or L. L. Bean catalogs. But the Whole Earth Catalog has adapted as well. According to editor Howard Rheingold, this sixth edition can show readers, among other things, "how to equip your own digital audio studio, distribute your own media; how to turn a desktop computer into a television editing console; how to publish a zine, build a pirate radio station, set up a village satellite uplink, organize a street-theater troupe."

If the catalog's scope has changed, its aggressively leftist stance has have not. Products are touted for their sensitivity to the environment, and readers are encouraged to take positions of moral responsibility in many areas. Politics aside, you have to like a publication that on one page tells how to design "total recycling systems," then on another lists addresses for how-to sex videos. See if L. L. Bean can do that.

TIM WARREN

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