Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction July 1987
By Orson Scott Card
Tales From the Planet Earth, Frederik Pohl and Elizabeth Anne Hull, eds. (St.
Martins, cloth, 269 pp, $15.95).
Aliens are visiting Earth. Not in person, since the lightspeed limit makes
physical interstellar travel impossible. Instead, the aliens of many different races
are inhabiting the bodies of human beings, wearing them like reluctant puppets,
and using them to accomplish their various purposes on Earth -- which range
from experimenting to trade to revolution.
It's a fair premise for a shared-world anthology, but this one has an added
feature. Every writer represents a different country. Of 18 stories, 9 are
translated from other languages -- Bulgarian, Chinese, German, Italian,
Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish. Only five were by authors whose native
language is English.
This is the first anthology to come from the World SF movement, an
active effort to bring together science fiction writers of many nations and
languages in order to influence each other and redefine each national literature
in light of what writers are doing elsewhere.
I expected this book to be an oddity, a sampler, a work whose chief virtue
was not that it was good, but that it existed at all.
I was taken by surprise. Brian W. Aldiss's "Infestation (English), Tetsu
Yano's "The Legend of the Paper Spaceship" (Japan), Carlos M. Federici's "In
the Blink of an Eye" (Uruguay), Joseph Nesvadba's "The Divided Carla"
(Czechoslovakia), and Somtow Sucharitkul's "Fiddling for Water Buffaloes"
(Thailand) are among the finest stories of the year. Others, though flawed, have
moments of real brilliance or power. Sam J. Lundwall's "Time Everlasting"
(Sweden), Janusz A. Zajdel's "Particularly Difficult Territory " (Poland), Jon
Bing's "The Owl of Bear Island" (Norway), Ye Yonglie's "The Thursday Events"
Every writer set his tale in his own country. There is thus a double
alienness about many of the stories -- not only the alienness of the people
possessed, but also the alienness (to the American reader) of the "normal"
behavior of the society around them.
It is unfortunate that the book is organized so that some of the weakest
stories come early. Yet even the failed stories will open your eyes. Consider it a
world tour of science fiction; it will make you more appreciative of the best of
America sf -- and more impatient with sameness, the repetitiveness, the
insularity that so often afflicts us.
Time Out of Mind, John R. Maxim (Houghton-Miffin, cloth, Tor, paper, 511 pp,
Stephen King took horror stories out of the gothic mansion and put them
in McDonald's where they belong. It's nice to see John R. Maxim do a similar
favor for ghost stories.
The haunting in Time Out of Mind is not the apparition-on-the-stairway
and strange-noise-in-the-basement we're too, too familiar with. Instead Jonathan
Corbin finds himself momentarily possessed. Usually in snowstorms, when the
reality of modern Manhattan is blanked out. Corbin walks down streets that are
obviously from New York in the 1890s and does things that he can hardly
believe he's doing -- like pushing a woman into a snowbank and holding her
there until she's dead.
Is he going crazy? He and his lover, Gwen Leamas, both think so at first,
but Corbin's "hallucinations" produce too much accurate detail from old New
York. With would-be murderers stalking them in the 1980s, Gwen and Jonathan
unfold a mystery involving Corbin's own ancestors and a misplaced inheritance.
Horror is not at the heart of this story at all. Love is, and mystery, and a
longing for justice. And don't expect any of the standard styles we're used to in
urban fantasy. Maxim owns little or nothing to such practitioners of urban
horror as King, Grant, Koontz, or (shudder) Barker. Maxim's dedication to Irwin
Shaw says all that needs saying.
The book is long, and it reads slowly. It is meant to be lived through, not
devoured; even so, we are sometimes told more than we want to know. Yet by
the end both mystery and romance are satisfyingly, touchingly resolved, and
Maxim has proved that the ghost story can be vivid and powerful without ever
having a monster jump out and say boo.
The Warrior Who Carried Life, Geoff Ryman (Allen & Unwin, [UK];
Bantam/Spectra [US], paper, 198 pp, $2.95).
Geoffrey Ryman tells stories that are so original they confuse you, so
painful you can hardly bear to read them, so beautiful and true that you can
never forget them. His novelet "O Happy Day!" in the 1986 anthology Interzone
was, I thought, the best novelet of last year. And The Warrior Who Carried Life
proves that he can devastate the reader at any length.
Cara and her family, the squires of an agricultural village, are mutilated by
the army of the Galu. Their cause seems hopeless until Cara, acting out the
faded rituals of the village women, suddenly brings the ritual magic to life. She
is given one year to live as another creature, in another shape. But instead of
becoming an animal, as in the other women's more ordinary hallucinations, she
becomes an even more alien beast -- a man. No, a knight in full armor, armor
that lives, that serves her like a part of herself.
She learns, however, that her hated enemy cannot be killed in hate.
Being murdered is the way Galu reproduces, with three identical Galu's rising
from the corpse. Galu afflicts her family worse then ever, torturing them with a
sentient worm that slowly eats them, speaking through their mouths with their
Grim? Oh, yes.
Yet also noble. This is high fantasy, elegantly -- even poetically --
written. Sweetness is rare in Ryman's world, but it's all the more delicious when
it comes. The violence is not random, it is the price of peace. And light -- there
is new illumination at every turn, as he destroys and remakes the creation myth
of the Garden of Eden. Ryman understands what fantasy is for, and even though
the pace is often slow, the language dense, Ryman rewards us well for staying to
hear his tale.
Under the Wheel: Alien Stars Vol. III, Elizabeth Mitchell, ed. (Baen Books, paper,
272 pp, $2.95).
Each volume in Mitchell's Alien Stars series consists of three novellas,
loosely tied to a single theme. The novella is the orphan child of publishing.
Too short to be a book, too long for most magazines, it is still the length of some
of the best recent works of science fiction. Think of John Varley's "Persistence
of Vision" and "Press Enter," for instance, or Lucius Shepard's R&R -- what
would you cut to make them shorter, or add to lengthen them? You don't mess
Alas, not all novellas are perfect. Still, Alien Stars is a worthy
undertaking, and Under the Wheel, third in the series, is largely successful.
Starting with the theme of "totalitarianism," Gregory Benford, John M. Ford,
and Nancy Springer produced stories that are utterly different -- yet epitomize
their own approaches to storytelling.
In "As Big as the Ritz," Benford boldly attempts to create a plausible
version of the authoritarian utopia he had previously deplored. He proposes that
only by dehumanizing the members of such a society can it survive; yet that very
process makes its members incompetent to succeed the authoritarian founder.
The new leader must be brought in from outside. The ideas are fascinating; the
plot and characters, unfortunately, are not.
Springer's "Chance" suffers from the opposite problem. It is a dark fantasy
about a lordling who becomes a tyrant when at last he has power; the tale is told
from the point of view of the people who loved him most, deserved most from
him, and therefore suffered most at his hands. It's an above-average fantasy, but
as a serious examination of tyranny it's pretty thin.
The jewel of the book is John M. Ford's "Fugue State," which may be
Ford's best work ever. It is built around the idea that reality is whatever we all
agree to remember. Three separate stories unfold, one after the other; each
setting is completely unlike the others, and yet characters with the same names
go through events that eventually converge into a single, devastating revelation
at the end. Ford is one of the best contemporary writers of sf, and here he is
writing at the peak -- so far -- if his form.