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
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
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
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
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
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.