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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction May 1987

By Orson Scott Card

Replay, Ken Grimwood (Arbor House, cloth, $17.95)

Jeff Winston has a heart attack and dies, leaving behind a failing marriage and a tired career. So why does he find himself back in 1963, in college, in his own youthful body, with all his memories of the next twenty years intact?

What would you do? Jeff makes a quick fortune gambling on sure things; this time the 1970s and 1980s are filled with the glamour and disappointment of wealth. Until he dies again. And again wakes up in 1963.

And again, and again, replays of his past life, each time wiser than the time before, each time surprised by new joy, new pain. Children he raised and then lost, lovers who don't want him the second time around. Desperately lonely with all his knowledge that he cannot share, he searches for others caught in the same endless loop of lifetimes. And finds some.

Grimwood's style is clear, penetrating. He leads us through Jeff Winston's lives with great skill, never lingering too long with any one experience, never moving so rapidly that we cannot taste the flavor of each passage through the decades.

Replay is Pilgrim's Progress for our time, a stern yet affectionate portrait of the lives we lead. When I finished it, I felt I had been moving with the hidden rhythm of life, that I had seen more clearly, that I had loved more deeply than is ever possible in one short passage of years.

Don't look here for heroes with blasters or magic swords. Replay isn't bigger than life. Instead it shows how large our small lives really are.

Arsian, M. J. Engh (Arbor House, cloth, $16.95)

You want to know how an editor shows courage? It isn't by saving babies from burning buildings. Editorial courage is when you tell the publisher that you want to reprint, as a hardcover, a science fiction novel by somebody that nobody ever heard of, a novel that came out as a paperback original nearly a decade ago -- and flopped.

That's the kind of proposal that can get an editor permanently labeled as crazy.

But that's exactly what David Hartwell did at Arbor House, with Mary Jane Engh's Arslan. And David Hartwell isn't crazy. Because this book, which has been languishing in the grey reaches of the Land of Out-of-Print for all these years, is without question one of the finest works of fiction of our generation.

Arslan has conquered the world; nobody quite knows how. He comes into a small Illinois town, takes all the children hostage, and commits selected acts of public rape and murder to break the will of the people. Arslan forces the grade school principal, Franklin Bond, to turn the community in his name, as he deliberately dismantles all trade, all industry, all of modern life. Yet this is only the beginning of his terrible plan for mankind.

What makes this book so brilliant, so terrible in its truth, is that Arslan is not the villain but the hero. Engh knows our terrible secret: humanity's clandestine love affair with absolute power, how we worship even as we rebel. Some readers will hate this book for precisely that reason; Engh exposes a side of human nature that we would like to deny.

But we can't deny it. Hitler was real; so was Stalin. Yet in the four decades since these towering figures left the world stage, we still have not begun to explain them or understand why, as hideous as they were, great nations loved and followed them. Except in the pages of Arslan.

That's how important I believe Arslan is. Yet because it was a "category" book with a military cover, because it had no hype when it first appeared, almost nobody knew about it. Hartwell knew. Algis Budrys knew, when he praised this book a few years ago in these very pages. Now I've told you again, and the book is there for you to buy. So buy it. Read it.

I don't promise that you'll enjoy it. It isn't always fun to have your eyes opened.

But maybe that's how a reader shows courage.

Agent of Byzantium, Harry Turtledove (Contemporary Books, cloth, $15.95)

Harry Turtledove is a historian, and the Byzantine Empire is his specialty. Harry Turtledove is also a very talented science fiction writer, with a gift for finding a way to present a fascinating idea through strong, believable characters.

So when Turtledove writes about an alternate history in which Mohammed never founded Islam and Byzantium never fell, he never falters. His protagonist, Basil Argyros, is the consummate bureaucrat in the imperial bureaucracy whose twists and turns made "byzantine" the English word for awesome complexity. Argyros becomes the agent who deals with several dire threats to the empire; we, as modern readers, realize that what he is really doing is bringing the Renaissance and an industrial and scientific revolution to Byzantium.

Turtledove could have been content with his clever ideas, which are good enough for most writers of idea-oriented science fiction -- but he is not. Over the course of the book Argyros becomes a powerful figure as he faces change and loss with courage and resourcefulness. After a while you realize that this book is not "about" the discovery of the telescope, vaccination, or the printing press; it is about human response to change.

We who read sf magazines should take a special delight in this book; we've been watching Turtledove since he debuted a couple of years ago with remarkable maturity in his storytelling. Book readers are only now discovering what we've seen all along. (This feeling of smug superiority is only one of the rewards of reading sf magazines, but it's one of my favorites.)

The True Game Series, Sheri S. Tepper (Peter's books: King's Blood Four, Necromancer Nine, Wizard's Eleven; Mavin's books: The Song of Mavin Manyshaped, The Flight of Mavin Manyshaped, The Search of Mavin Manyshaped (Ace, $2.75 - $2.95 ea.); Jinian's books: Jinian Footseer, Dervish Daughter, Jinian Star-Eye (Tor, $2.95 ea.)

This looks for all the world like the standard fantasy series, complete with a gaming motif. "Ah," says the jaded reader, "another Dungeons and Dragons rehash."

Wrong, says this equally jaded reviewer. Tepper is something special and so is this series. It starts out feeling like fantasy, sure enough, with an aristocracy of Gamesmen who use startling powers in their wars and feuds.

But soon enough we realize that this is not fantasy at all. It is science fiction, set on a world settled by human beings many centuries before; and beneath the True Game is a contest even deeper, between the native inhabitants of the planet and the human interlopers. It leads to a powerful, illuminating conclusion that lifts this story out of the ranks of grunting blood-and-thunder adventure and into the heady realm of thoughtful, entertaining science fiction.

Tepper isn't perfect. There are flaws ranging from the trivial -- her characters throw up a bit too often -- to the substantial -- the structure of the series is awkward, with the second trilogy (Mavin's books) being a flashback from the first (Peter's books). But the story is well worth the occasional inconvenience, and it marks Tepper as a writer to watch.

The Best of F & SF Novels of 1986

In alphabetical order (by title), the novels that stood out as the best of the best I read.

Robert Charles Wilson, A Hidden Place (Bantam). Two frail aliens are trapped in Depression-era small-town America, where they must depend on alienated humans to save them. Wilson's exquisitely written first novel takes an unblinking look at how we try to own the people we love.

Leigh Kennedy, The Journal of Nicholas the American (Atlantic Monthly Press). Kennedy's first novel is the compelling story of a young man who has inherited his family's sensitivity to other people's pain, and is nearly destroyed by the desperate need of a dying woman.

Mike Resnick, Santiago (Tor). If you want, you can read this as a wonderful rip-roaring space opera/western/detective/mystery/spy novel. But it's also a carefully layered examination of the tension between individuality and responsibility, between legend and reality.

Pamela Sargent, The Shore of Women (Crown). Birana is exiled from the peaceful, high-tech city of women for her mother's crime; Arvil is the man assigned by the "gods" to murder her. Their saga may be one of the great novels of science fiction.

Terry Bisson, Talking Man (Arbor House). It's hard to believe that the same book can take you through the Mississippi Canyon, the burning of Denver, and an auto race across the dry Arctic basin; but Bisson brings off his story of a Kentucky junkyard wizard with panache.

The Honor Roll: Stephen R. Boyett, Architect of Sleep (Ace): a fragmentary visit to an America ruled by raccoons. Michael P. Kube-McDowell, Enigma (Berkley): cosmic sci-fi at its best. Isaac Asimov, Foundation and Earth (Doubleday): all talk, no action -- but Asimov's talk is action. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (Houghton Mifflin): a dark if-this-goes-on story of Fundamentalist America. James Morrow, This Is The Way the World Ends (Henry Holt): a bittersweet comedy that assigns the blame for World War III. Megan Lindholm, Wizard of the Pigeons (Ace): magic among Seattle street people.

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