Judging a book by its cover, as the old saw goes, is always a risky business. Still, one would hope that the design of a book would at least provide a vague hint of its genre. The pastoral farm scene on its cover makes Julia and the Dream Maker look like a new Jane Smiley novel or perhaps the latest bodice-ripper by romance maven Nora Roberts.

In fact, it is science fiction by first-time novelist P.J. Fischer, a Salem native who now makes his living on Wall Street. And as SF goes, Fischer's small-press debut is at least as competent as 90 percent of the stuff now being peddled by mainstream SF publishers.

Sure, Fischer could use a better book designer and maybe an editor to help pace the story and polish his prose, but Julia delivers the goods. In the novel, a gifted biochemistry student is placed on trial in a near-future America for violating federal mutant laws, which prohibit the genetic engineering of new species. Between scenes set in a virtual courtroom, in which the hero is represented by a computer-generated defense attorney, the novel flashes back to the unauthorized science project that started all the trouble.

Fischer's premise is a whopper, that life on Earth can be expressed as a series of mathematical equations that, if let loose in the data-rich web of cyberspace, will mutate in marvelous, unpredictable ways. The novel lags in the middle as the project "evolves," but what starts out as a moneymaking scheme to create a holographic rabbit that performs party tricks winds up giving birth to an alternate world.

The mysterious Julia of the title does not appear until the last 50 pages, and it will probably take the next novel in the series (expected later this year) to discern whether Fischer's vision is stretching the reader's noodle or merely noodling.

julia and the dream maker

by P.J. Fischer(Traitor Dachshund Books, 290 pages, $13.95)