A stroll into the science-fiction section of any bookstore often reveals an overwhelming onslaught of visual stimuli: shelves drooping with heavily thumbed paperbacks; titillating, surreal dust-jacket-depictions of pulsing nebulas and slimy extraterrestrials. With such variety, how is one to differentiate between silly UFO pulps and compelling novels? What, exactly, makes a good science fiction book?

What defines great SF (the preferred truncation, by the way), more than any other variable, is a guileless transcendence of genre. Of all this last century's standout works—Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1984—it can be safely said that above anything else, they are great works of fiction. Additionally, where most novels can only draw from humanity's past experiences to construct their storylines, SF books plough from another, arguably richer field: the future. This gives them a hell of an advantage when it comes to elucidating the triumphs and pitfalls of our particular race of carbon-based life forms.

A Grey Moon over China (Black Heron Press, 465 pages, $25.95) is a novel that extrapolates today's political climate into a far-from-utopian future. In doing so, the novel accomplishes what remonstrative newspaper headlines and economics professors dream of—it allows us, quite viscerally, to understand the consequences of our actions. Grey Moon's author, Portland transplant and futuristic Renaissance man Thomas A. Day, doesn't lack tech chops; when he's not penning hard-boiled SF epics, he's a forensic-software and intellectual-property analyst. His time spent pondering the high-tech comes across brilliantly in this portrayal of a scientifically advanced Earth wracked with wars over the control of dwindling oil reserves. Eduardo Torres, the novel's narrator, is an erstwhile street orphan who exchanges a powerful quantum-energy battery, the potential saving grace of mankind, for a ticket off the planet. Torres and his colleagues leave Earth's uncompromising, seemingly irrelevant violence to seek refuge in the stars. What they discover—or, rather, fail to—is that they have escaped nothing at all.

Its complex narrative clocking in at an impressive 465 pages, Grey Moon points a stout, oft-Machiavellian finger in the direction we, as a human race, are going. It is not a prediction—it never claims to be—but an imagined possible reality, an alternate future history that we may need to act quickly to avoid. At the same time, it remains optimistic; the same sweeping brush that paints humanity in the war paint and grime of a post-apocalyptic energy crisis also reveals our propensity for greatness and capacity to act selflessly in the name of love. Not to mention our eventual industriousness in galaxy-wide construction projects, torus-shaped hyperspace wormholes and intelligent drone robots. CLAIRE EVANS.

Thomas A. Day reads from

Grey Moon Over China

Thursday, March 8 at Twenty-Third Avenue Books, 1015 NW 23rd Ave., 224-5097. 7 pm. Free.