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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction June 1987

By Orson Scott Card

The Man Who Pulled Down the Sky, John Banes (Isaac Asimov Presents, Congdon & Weed, cloth, 288 pp, $15.95)

Most hard sf-writers are so much in love with their ideas that they hardly need characters at all, except as they're needed to explain new theories and machinery to each other -- and to the reader. Often the result is novels that feel like offspring of an affair between Scientific American and Popular Mechanics. But I can prove it doesn't have to be that way.

John Banes is my proof. He first caught my eye as a writer of short fiction with strong, thoughtful, passionate near-future stories. Now his novel The Man Who Pulled Down the Sky, in the new "Isaac Asimov Presents" series, will bring his work to a wider audience, and not a moment too soon!

No doubt about it, John Banes is a hard-sf writer -- ideas play the starring role in all his works I've read so far. The first couple of chapters of this novel, after a rip-snorting prologue about storming a stronghold on the asteroid Eros, consist mostly of people discussing economic theory together. But it's interesting economic theory, and a refreshing change from the technophilic and militaristic stuff that has recently come to dominate hard sf.

Still, if economics were all this novel had to offer, I wouldn't be recommending it to you. Banes is a storyteller. As Saul, his main character, comes down from space to try to foment revolution among the oppressed people of Earth, Banes carries us away by giving the sweep of history a deftly personal touch the way Heinlein used to do it. In fact, you could call this book a fine reprise of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, as modified by the experience, in space and on Earth, of the last two decades. This will certainly be one of the best hard-sf novels of the year, and Banes is a writer to watch.

Becoming Alien, Rebecca Ore (Tor, paper, 320 pp, price app. $3.95)

At first glance, this novel seems to be a collection of cliches. Tom, a teenager on a dirt-poor Virginia chicken farm, happens to witness a crash of an alien ship and rescues the lone alien survivor, whom he christens (as we cringe) "Alph." Later, Tom is taken from Earth to become a genuine "space cadet" -- that's the word Ore uses -- among aliens straight out of the Star Wars bar: aliens descended from birds, bears, apes, and even marsupial bats. Haven't we seen this all too many times before?

Maybe. But now we get to see it done right.

Rebecca Ore is an accomplished poet, writing with the jagged colloquial language of the southwest Virginia hills. The story feels truthful, from Tom's brother's pathetically ambitious drug operation to Tom's kidnapping on a hostile planet. The alien languages are absolutely real and right; by the time you finish this book, you'll feel like English is a foreign tongue. This is not a comic novel, but the frequent humor is never strained and often made me laugh out loud.

Above all, the characters are unforgettable, the sort of aliens Dickens would have invented had he written science fiction. Tom's closest companions, Granite Grit, Rhyodolite, and Cadmium, who bring new meaning to the term "space cadet"; his enemy and sponsor, the randy and ambitious Black Amber,the near-human Calcite, who can't cope with life among aliens; the fatherly old bear named Tesseract; Edwir Hargun, a diplomat caught on the cusp of trust and war; and the disgusting yet formidable Rector of the Academy, a grey old bird named Karriaagzh.

As the title promises, this is a novel about what it means to be alien. Tom doesn't like his life of perpetual species isolation in space, but he accepts it. Ore is uncompromisingly honest; Tom is a hero, but never bigger than life. Yet Ore makes life itself seem such a magnificent venture that Becoming Alien is still vivid and alive in my mind.

The Shore of Women, Pamela Sargent (Crown, cloth, 469 pp, $16.95)

Let me tell you my idea of the perfect science fiction novel.

It must deal with an important idea -- not just a "neat" or "clever" idea, but a subject of vital importance to humanity.

It must be good Romance -- fascinating characters who overcome great obstacles to change the world they live in.

It must be believable. The writer need not convince me that events will occur as the novel suggests; but the writer must convince me that they could.

It must be well-written, with clarity and elegance and power.

How many perfect science fiction novels have I ever read. Not many. They are at most three or four such works in a decade.

Pamela Sargent's The Short of Women is one of the few perfect novels of the 1980s. Her story of a women exiled from a safe high-tech city of women, the man ordered by the gods to kill her, and their search for a place of safety is powerful, beautiful, and true.

Sargent creates enough complex, convincing, layered societies and strong, believable characters to keep a dozen lesser novelists stocked up for years; out of self-defense, other sf writers might consider enacting sumptuary laws to keep writers with so much intelligent imagination from displaying it so ostentatiously.

Enough said. This book will say the rest for itself. If The Shore of Women doesn't win the 1987 Hugo, it'll be because too many Hugo voters were too cheap to buy it in hardcover.

Divine Endurance, Gwyneth Jones (Arbor House, cloth)

Cho is a little girl, but not precisely human. She does not begin to understand her powers, and the Cat named Divine Endurance, who is not precisely a cat, either, is about to tell her who she really is.

Then her twin brother is captured, her garden kingdom is about to be destroyed, and she must leave. She wanders south from her birthplace in northern China to the Malay peninsula, one of the last places where civilization endures, and finds herself caught up in a labyrinth of intrigue.

As one expects in grand fantasy, Cho is the key to saving the world from her twin; what one does not expect is the lush and startling world of southeast Asia, so carefully depicted as it might be in some distant future. The air of decay is palpable, as is the frustration of those few characters who try to arrest the world's disease before the patient dies.

Jones is not fully in control here; there are times when the storyline becomes muddied, for Jones seems to have an aversion to telling the reader what her characters are up to. Yet despite the unclarity, Divine Endurance is a remarkable book, if only because it opens the door on a world we have not seen in a hundred stories before.

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