Brian A Hopkins, Wrinkles at Twilight (Lone Wolf Publications, 2000)
Steve Beai, Dark Rhythms (Lone Wolf Publications, 2002)

Technology has brought us a long way in the past 20 years. Cell phones are replacing land lines, and instant messaging, in some cases, has replaced spoken conversation altogether. Personal data assistants have replaced notebooks. CDs have replaced, for the most part, records and tapes.

But will "e-books" read on a monitor ever replace the old-fashioned kind that require page turning? Will microchips, circuitry and LCDs ever replace cardboard, paper and ink? Will the smells of plastic and over-heated processors ever replace the smells of binding glue and musty paper?

Ye gods, I certainly hope not.

Still, there's no sense in being a Luddite, and testing out the new is one of the best things we can do.

And that's exactly what Brian A. Hopkins and Steve Beai did with Wrinkles at Twilight and Dark Rhythms, two books on CD-ROM that display the text via PDF. Each "book" — both collections of short stories — also adds some illustrations and even some sound effects. The purist can print them out and read 'em on 81/2 x 11 sheets, but that seems to defeat the point, doesn't it?

Though it's nice for the novelty, I can't say I was a fan. Perhaps it's because I stare at a computer screen for eight hours at work, and then several more hours when I get home and sit down to write. The last thing I want to do is stare at a screen again when I want to relax and read a book.

There were compatibility issues, too. While I can read a traditional book anywhere, I had trouble getting some computers to "read" these properly. My older Mac (a 1998 G3) flat out refused to recognize the discs. My older PC had trouble "seeing" all the stories — some wouldn't show up at all, giving me an error message when I clicked on them in the index. Luckily, I have a newer PC, and that rendered the bits and bytes in near-perfect form. (I still had to download two font sets to get some of the stories to show up properly, however). And yes, I know that some older CD drives won't recognize CD-R and CD-RW discs. Which brings me to another complaint: If you're going to charge $15 for a CD, at least get "true" CDs made. Tests have shown that, over time, CD-Rs and CD-RWs deteriorate more quickly than their counterparts, which are made with real metal, not laser-sensitive ink, pressed between the plastic. Thankfully, I don't pay for review materials.

Both CDs had some of the stories in Real Audio as well as "printed" formats. And while it was a nice idea, I wasn't crazy about listening to the audio versions of Beai's and Hopkins' stories. The recording quality on either wasn't very good, and ... well, let's just say the readings could have been better.

Still, most of the stories in both "books" stood up well. Hopkins and Beai are both competent, prolific writers who know how to craft a story and hook a reader. I won't say there weren't a few clunkers in each collection, but I will say these guys are on their way to excellence.

While Wrinkles at Twilight was centered mainly on sci-fi stories, Hopkins did not pen himself into one genre. One of my favorite stories from this fair-sized collection (21 stories) was a contemporary fantasy piece, "The Promised Hour," a tale of a modern-day whale hunter whose conscience catches up with him. "Promised Hour" delves into a world of magic and dream. It's a story that's as exciting as it is moving, as powerful as it is disturbing.

"Ivory in the Blood" was another pleasant surprise. It's a tale of the last dragon slayer, and the last dragon, and what happens when they meet. I'd tell you the ending, but then . . . well, I'd have to slay you.

In the sci-fi vein, "Halcyon's Song" was my favorite. A story in the tradition of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot collection, it examines the possibility of artificial intelligence taking on very human-like qualities. In this take on an oft-explored tale, the AI is implanted in — and connected to — a man's brain. It's a system designed to let the man, a musician, create music by plugging directly into a bank of synthesizers. The AI — nicknamed "J.S." — turns out to be much more than a tool. J.S. turns into the man's closest friend. But what happens to the machine when the man dies?

"Wrinkles at Twilight," the title tale, is about a woman's singular obsession with saving a dolphin after a plague wipes out most of humanity. A well-written yarn, it's not just an examination of what someone will do to live, but to also preserve a thing of beauty. It's also an examination, for better or worse, of what being human really means.

At the other side of the spectrum, however, was "A Thousand Doors." I found the story — in short, about two people who travel from death to rebirth — confusing at first, then nothing beyond mundane. It had potential, but left me feeling like I'd been cheated out of what could have been a better tale.

Dark Rhythms revolves around a singular theme: horror. It's not, however, horror in the classic sense — the monsters here all have very human connections.

There's the horror of killing in "The Scatterbrains," the horror of dying in "She Likes the Lights," the horror of losing a loved one in "Falling."

One of the best in this shorter collection (13 stories) is "Lundy's Lunch," a Hitchcockian-style story of a bitter man who lets his hatred of his ex-wife and her boyfriend get the best of him. But in a twist, he finds that revenge truly is a dish best served cold.

"The Mordant Theory of Bricklaying" is another tale with a twist, one that will ensure you never look at a barn wall — or its builder — the same way again.

I wasn't a fan of "The Roach" or "The Virgin Method," one a story of the consequences of drugs, the other about a man whose love life gets the best of him. Both stories were based on good ideas, but I think the mechanics of each needed more work before either saw print. These two stories left me wondering why they were included in the collection.

While both e-books were entertaining, trading paper in for a cyber-edition that adds some not-so-hot audio and a few pictures is, to me, not worth giving up good old print. Still, like their authors, these "e" editions showed a lot of potential. With some better sound effects (including better readers, or actors, for the real audio versions) and more carefully selected pictures (some of the pics of the authors, and their "haunts," left me feeling like I was looking at a neighbor's vacation scrapbook), books on disc will make a great addition to - — but not a replacement for — volumes done the old-fashioned way: ink and paper.

[Patrick O'Donnell]

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