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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 31, 2003

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Writing Reviews, Initiate Brother, and Freedom

For several years I wrote a regular book review column for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (aka F&SF), in which I called attention to books that I thought were worth reading.

I wrote almost exclusively positive reviews for the very good reason that the cruelest review is silence.

This is because readers, as they browse in the bookstore, don't remember much of the content of a review. Instead, they notice a book on the shelf and, if the title has been made familiar -- whether in a rave review or a butchery job -- they'll pick it up and say, silently or aloud, "Hmmm. I've heard something about this one."

I also avoid writing really nasty reviews -- most of the time -- because I have had several occasions to discover my own fallibility. For instance, as a callow newcomer to the field of science fiction back in the late 1970s, I reviewed a new book by a writer I had much admired. I had been deeply disappointed by the thinness of the story, the almost perfunctory characterization.

So I wrote a clever little hatchet job that made me sound oh so superior to this older writer.

The editor of the review magazine published the review. But he also wrote me a note, saying that I was probably right about the novel -- but it was, after all, a young adult novel, and the author was a very old man who had never been well rewarded, financially, and perhaps he had lost some of his powers as a writer but it would be a shame if he could no longer make a living in his old age.

I looked again at the book and realized that I had judged it unfairly. As a young adult novel, the thinness was not important compared to the energy and excitement of the story.

And this was one of the great writers of the field, the author of books that had meant a great deal to me in my early teens. How shameful for a young upstart like me to take a cleaver to his reputation, when I owed him more than I could repay.

I vowed then and there that I would not review a book unless I saw some virtue in it. I have only violated that rule with books and movies that have received so much acclaim that my review will make no difference, except perhaps to offer some comfort to those who find the same flaws as I do. Thus I have no feelings of guilt about taking after movies like The Hours and About Schmidt, or books like The Collections.

But unpretentious books that don't appeal to me are not targets of my wrath, first of all because there is no point in giving attention to books that might best be left alone, and second because I might be quite wrong and misread a book that is better than I gave it credit for.

Often the worst thing I can say about a book is that I am simply not in the natural audience for it. And that says more about me than about the book, doesn't it?

So there I was, for all those years, writing generally nice reviews for F&SF about books I admired to one degree or another, until something quite awful happened.

I burned out on science fiction.

Today I'm unlikely to burn out because my column title allows me to review anything at all. If I'm tired of talking about one thing, I'll review something else.

But in the pages of F&SF, it really wasn't a good thing when I started reviewing more mystery novels than sci-fi or fantasy books.

And so I not only resigned from the column (to be replaced by the inimitable and admirable Charles de Lint, so that no one missed me a bit), I also stopped reading science fiction at all.

For more than ten years, I read only a couple of sci-fi novels out of dozens that were sent to me for cover quotes. (I don't give cover quotes for books I haven't read, and I don't lie -- though some publishers choose to use only a portion of the blurb I sent them.)

I found with most of the books I was sent that within a few pages I was saying, "Oh, no, he's doing one of these and why did he choose to do that when he could have done this?"

In other words, I was like a tailor who can't see the suit for the seams. I had become a truly terrible reader of science fiction.

So except for a handful of atypical books -- Jack Whyte's Arthurian novels, for instance, and anything by Dave Wolverton -- I was away from the field completely. I didn't attend conventions, I quietly dropped out of the Science Fiction Writers of America ... I was gone.

And all my opinions about most authors were based on their works prior to the 1990s.

In the past few years, however, I have been drawn back into the field through another path -- the new trend of fantasies that are written with the accuracy and depth of good science fiction.

One of the writers I recently discovered that way, Sean Russell, I have recently reviewed here. But I had put off reading his first fantasy series, the two-volume The Initiate Brother and Gatherer of Clouds.

I avoided them first because everyone told me that they were by far Russell's best books. I always hate it when writers' early works are reputed to be their best, and so I make it a point to read the later works -- usually to discover that the later books are, in fact, better.

The other reason I avoided them was because they were about a Japanese Buddhist monk who is good at martial arts.

Nothing puts me to sleep faster than books and movies that get all mystical and religious about fancy ways of kicking and punching people. I had to overcome an enormous aversion in order to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I only read Shogun because I already trusted Clavell as the author of King Rat.

But when I finished all of Russell's other books, I found myself, for the first time in my life, unable to read anything by anyone else. I had been so taken by his storytelling that, despite my irritation with his inability to conjugate lay and lie, every other fiction book I picked up seemed pale and shallow by comparison.

I turned to nonfiction, of course -- my usual cure -- but eventually I succumbed to the inevitable and picked up the Buddhist kick-boxing fantasy, as I had categorized it in my mind.

Wrong! So, so wrong.

Russell has created an imaginary land where Japanese names are imposed on a Chinese landscape and a mixed Japanese-Chinese culture; and while the pseudo-Buddhist "Botahist" monastic orders are very important in the story, it is not really about the religion. Rather it is the quintessential imaginary kingdom story, in which we are caught up in great events, with fascinating characters who impose their will on history even as history shapes their lives, often in tragic ways.

The two books, combined, are about 1200 pages of extraordinarily rich storytelling. There is considerably more action and intrigue in this work than in Sean Russell's later novels -- hence the assertion by some readers that this first opus is his best. The later works are more ambitious and take on harder projects which, even when successful, have more limited audience appeal.

But this first work, too, is ambitious. The delights are too many to list; let me point out only my favorite. One of Russell's motifs is that we are shown a key decision from the point of view of the person making the choice. We know exactly why the decision was made. Then we switch to someone else's viewpoint and watch them completely misinterpret the other person's motives, almost always in the direction of suspecting them of having a darker and cleverer purpose.

So even the characters we admire most are constantly misjudging other people. And yet somehow things work out, so that by the end most of the characters have ended in a way befitting their actions and choices along the way.

And, best of all, while conjuring up a world as lush as Tolkien's Middle Earth, Russell manages to end his book, not with something as arbitrary as casting a magical ring into a sea of molten rock, but rather with something far more like the real world, as a great invasion dashes against the rock of human nature.

Now, having plunged wholeheartedly into the best of contemporary fantasy, I dared to pick up science fiction again.

I happened to be sitting in the Greensboro airport, waiting for a flight, when I noticed that the young man sitting next to me was reading what looked to be a sci-fi novel.

Because I hate people who interrupt my reading to ask me what I'm reading -- as if quietly reading a book were a plea to converse with strangers; as if their lives would somehow be changed by knowing, right this minute, what book it is that I prefer to their conversation -- I waited, reading my own magazines, until he set down the book himself to take a stretch.

Then I pounced.

The book he was reading was Freedom's Choice, by Anne McCaffrey.

I knew McCaffrey as the author of the perennially popular Pern novels, in which science-fictionally-explained dragons figure prominently. I also knew her as one of the kindest, most generous people in the field of science fiction, always welcoming to new writers.

The young man's review was excellent. The series had been pushed on him by friends, but he was happy they had gotten him to read it.

So in the Atlanta airport, I was happy to find the first book in the series, Freedom's Landing, and I can affirm that this is indeed a fascinating and enjoyable series. Freedom's Choice is second, followed by Freedom's Challenge and Freedom's Ransom.

The premise is that our contemporary world is suddenly visited by a race of devastatingly powerful aliens, the Catteni, who announce their arrival by scooping up the entire population of fifty cities around the world. Their captives are taken into slavery -- and the rest of Earth is put under Catteni rule.

All that is background; the story actually begins when a group of human slaves already in service on another planet are rounded up and dumped onto an unsettled world. Apparently this is the way Catteni colonize new planets -- they keep dumping slaves there and, when the some of them have managed to survive and subdue the place, they come in and start to govern.

So the story is about the resourceful way that humans organize themselves to make the best of the world they've found.

Thus far we're in Heinlein territory. McCaffrey's spin is that her main point of view character gets involved with the one Catteni who has been stranded on this new world with a bunch of humans and other enslaved aliens, and manages to save his life. With his inside knowledge, the humans learn that the Catteni are themselves slaves to a vile race of overlords who use the Catteni to do their dirty work.

The planet they have been dumped onto is also not what it seemed -- apparently it is a farming planet used by a distant race of beings technologically superior even to the Catteni and their rulers. So the human colonists begin the dangerous game of trying to get this distant race of Farmers to intervene to help free humans --and all the other enslaved species -- from the overlords.

But why am I telling you all this? Science fiction plots always sound vaguely dumb when you tell them simply like this, because what makes them work is the wealth of detail that surrounds them. Because by definition you're writing something contrary to reality, it's going to sound bizarre; but when you unfold the story bit by bit, it is perfectly believable.

Anyway, I'm back to reading science fiction now and then, and I'm delighted to tell you that despite her gathering years, Anne McCaffrey remains one of sci-fi's best storytellers, and the Freedom series are the kind of story that got me reading science fiction in the first place.

(For parents, however, you need to be aware that while there is nothing explicit and the language is mostly quite clean, there is a degree of candor about adult activities that may make you give these books something of a PG-13 rating.)

*

For those who are dying to try Fiji Water, which is the best bottled water in America, you can find it now at Fresh Market in Greensboro. It's also showing up all over America. The square bottle doesn't fit easily inside cupholders in cars -- but then, when you drop them on their side, they don't roll away.


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