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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction August 1987

By Orson Scott Card

The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace (Viking Penguin, cloth/paper, 467 pp. $7.95).

Wallace's first novel, The Broom of the System, falls into that area where literary fiction and science fiction seamlessly meet. Call it absurdism, existential comedy, or alternate reality, it contains some of the best and liveliest storytelling in the English language. R.A. Lafferty and Samuel Beckett, Rudy Rucker and, now, David Foster Wallace: the audience for these brilliant writers must discard all expectation from the start.

Broom is set in 1990 in Cleveland, perched on the edge of the Great Ohio Desert -- the G.O.D., as it is called. Lenore Beadsman, scion of the founding family of a giant baby food corporation, works as a $4-per-hour switchboard operator for the publishing company Frequent & Vigorous; Rick Vigorous, her boss, is also her insanely jealous lover, getting information about her from the unethical psychiatrist they both visit.

Lenore's great-grandmother, who must live in a room heated to 98.6 in order to maintain her body temperature, has disappeared from her old-folk's home, taking a score of residents and staff with her. Beyond that the plot gets complicated.

It also gets funny. The humor is sophomoric sometimes -- for instance, an operator named Judith Prietht and a repairman named Peter Abbott. Sometimes it is satirical, as with the plastic adult-size highway-legal cars made by Mattel, and the town in the shape of Jayne Mansfield's nude profile, with zoning laws requiring realistic colors, making it a favorite landing approach route with airline pilots.

The humor often achieves true brilliance, however, the kind of incisive wit that is too funny to be summed up, as with the unforgettable scene in a restaurant as the spectacularly obese Bombardini orders dinner, or the scene in Lenore's apartment where her parrot echoes all the words her roommate said in preparing to dump a boyfriend.

Wallace's incipient MFA gives him license to bore, but he rarely uses it.

What he does is shake loose all expectations of form. The story is written in dialogue, in monologue, as a diary entry, in present tense, in past tense, as a clipping from a paper -- every imaginable voice and form seems to be in this book. Yet Wallace makes it all come together as a unified vision of inspired madness. This is Wallace's first novel. God help us all when he gets some practice.

Sandkings, George R.R. Martin, adapted by Doug Moench, Pat Broderick, & Neal McPheeters (DC, 8.5 X 11 paper, 48 pp, all color, $5.95).

I'm not a comics fan, few "graphic novels" capture my attention, and none have come close to duplicating, for me, the power of film or theatre or written fiction.

Add to that attitude the fact that I regard George R.R. Martin's novelette "Sandkings" as a science fiction classic, one that created unforgettable images, and you can understanding that I worried about what would happen to it in the process of adaptation to graphic novel form. How could any artist hope to match what I conjured up in my own mind while reading Martin's words?

Well, no artist could, not even a genius, and the team that produced this book are not geniuses. But the DC Comics version of Sandkings made a believer out of me, anyway. Because even though the art was not perfect, the story still carried its original force, and while some of my own images were lost, this version helped strengthen other scenes that had not had as much power in the text version.

Leave aside the question of whether the project was worth doing at all. (Why is it worth adapting fiction for the movies, either, except that some people respond more to one medium than another?) It is enough to say that this adaption is faithfully and competently done: the story lived, with the clarity and power of Martin's writing intact.

Empery, Michael P. Kube-McDowell (Berkeley, paper, 325 pp)

Emprise, Michael P. Kube-McDowell (Berkeley, paper)

Enigma, Michael P. Kube-McDowell (Berkeley, paper)

Michael P. Kube-McDowell is emerging as the finest new writer of cosmic science fiction in twenty years. Macrohistory is almost impossibly difficult to write; few have the audacity to attempt it, and fewer still the vision and skill to bring it off. Kube- McDowell has it all.

Empery is the final volume in a trilogy -- a true trilogy, not a single continuous work cut up in three parts (like Lord of the Rings), or a series that temporarily has only three installments in print (remember when Berkeley was hyping the "Dune Trilogy"?).

In the first volume, Emprise, the human race becomes unified in order to send out a ship to greet the first known alien race -- only to discover that the "aliens" are also human, and consider themselves a colony from Earth.

In the second volume, Enigma, Merritt Thackery meets Gabriel, one of a race of energy-beings called the D'Shanna, who takes him to the "spindle" at the heart of the fabric of space-time; there he sees that an ice-age technological culture on Earth colonized other worlds 70,000 years ago -- and then was destroyed by an extraordinarily powerful alien species, the Mizari. The Mizari are still there, and humanity is about to provoke exactly the same destruction.

In the third volume, Empery, some humans maneuver to make a preemptive attack on the Mizari, as an ancient and withered Merritt Thackery arrives again at the spindle to discover the true nature of the Mizari and the futility of any attack on them.

That is what these books are about on a macro-level. But Kube-McDowell has not let the macro-story defeat the micro-events. The individual human beings in all three books are believable and fascinating; the social tensions, the community life, the cultures, all are real. Even the "villains" are fully justified -- no one is purely evil, for all have clear, even reasonable (or at least understandable) motives for what they do.

In short, this is fiction that satisfies as much at the story level a it does at the idea level. The Newsday cover quote that compares Kube-McDowell with Arthur C. Clarke at his best is, for once, the plain truth, not hype at all. This does not mean that Kube-McDowell in any way imitates Clarke; rather it means that Kube-McDowell is able to bring cosmic ideas and human stories together in a way previously achieved only by Clarke and a handful of other clear-minded visionaries.

What astonishes me is that this trilogy is Kube-McDowell's first book-length work. In the future, we can expect to see him produce even deeper, richer novels -- certainly avoiding such missteps as the implausible "fission blanket" and the rather clumsy plot device of having people stumble toward war because of misunderstanding, then avoid it at the last minute as a result of near-miraculous offstage maneuvering.

One of Kube-McDowell's strengths is a skill I have seen in few other fiction writers -- the ability to deal with human beings as political animals. Most writers, confronted by a political situation, either give us empty and tedious formal meetings, or reduce politics to personal squabbles, avoiding political issues entirely. Kube-McDowell performs the miracle. He gives us political meetings that are believable, tense and involving, yet he never tries to "juice it up" with foolish theatrics. Instead he prepares us so carefully for these political climaxes that we see all the subtle interplays without the author intruding to point them out.

This trilogy -- called, irrelevantly, The Trigon Disunity (I prefer to think of them as "Kube-McDowell's E books") -- is not a perfect work of fiction; this is not Kube-McDowell's Helliconia or Book of the New Sun. But it's a powerful work, a fundamental work; it signals the revivification of a kind of science fiction that for a time was on the wane. Let the cyberpunks have their flash and dazzle; let the literati diddle with allusion, angst, and assonance. Kube-McDowell reminds us that the substance of fiction is in the story, not the performance. Admire the work of the redecorators, yes, but meanwhile Kube-McDowell is strengthening the foundation of science fiction; it will count for more in the long run.

The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester (Franklin Watts, cloth, 197 pp, $15.95).

It has been said that one of the great strengths of science fiction, as a genre, is that its entire history is still in print, and new readers can live through every movement in its turn. I certainly followed that pattern -- I read Merritt's The Fact in the Abyss before discovering the "golden age" work of Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke; then I read Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthologies, which led me to Delany and LeGuin; since then I've had only to keep up with current work.

One of the problems of science fiction, however, is that with so many works emerging in recent years, it's almost impossible, if you're "keeping up," to go back and fill in gaps in your reading. That, too, I have experienced -- I didn't read any Philip K. Dick until his posthumously published novel Radio Free Albemuth last year, for instance; there are other important sf writers whose work I have never read at all.

Like Alfred Bester, I know his name and nothing else. So when the beautifully-published Franklin Watts hardcover reprint of The Stars My Destination arrived at my home, I sighed and told myself that with so many new books to read and review, I couldn't possibly spend the time to read something old.

I'm glad I didn't listen to me.

I picked it up. I started reading about Gully Foyle, sole survivor of his spaceship's wreck, as he vows revenge on the ship that could have rescued him and turned away. In Bester's strange and fully-realized future, I saw Foyle at first disfigured, then reshaped into a human being worthy of admiration; I saw his visions of himself aflame, and then watched him live out the vision, and from his personal crucible pour out a new human order of trust and hope and dire risk.

And as I read, I discovered what many other readers for thirty years have known, ever since this novel first appeared in the pages of Galaxy. The Stars My Destination will never be an old book. It is as new today as it was in 1956. I was five years old then, and so I missed it on the first round, and many of you reading this magazine are even younger than I. But I assure you that this book is more vigorous and fresh than most "new" books you'll see this year. And it's important enough, true enough, to be worth spending the paltry sixteen bucks to have it permanently on your shelves.

" 'You're insane, man. You've handed a loaded gun to children.'

" 'Stop treating them like children and they'll stop behaving like children. . . . Explain the loaded gun to them. Bring it all out into the open. . . . No more secrets from now on. . . . No more telling the children what's best for them to know. . . . Let 'em all grow up. It's about time.'

" 'Christ, he is insane.'"

Yeah, maybe. A glorious insanity. Folks, read this book. And if you possibly can, buy this book to reward the publisher for bringing The Stars My Destiny back to us in such a bright and lasting form.

Golden Days, Carolyn See (McGraw-Hill, cloth, 196 pp, $15.95).

Carolyn See is a mainstream novelist, so of course Golden Days does not reflect the latest scientific findings about the effects of nuclear holocaust. Indeed, there are moments in the book when it crosses the border into fantasy, as the security-obsessed narrator becomes involved with Lion Boyce, whose typical California self-enhancement "seminars" actually seem to work.

Yet such genre issues are unimportant here. What See is telling us is a tale of human hope and its ability to transcend rational despair.

The narrator emerges from a dismal past into a surprisingly joyful present -- loving her children, content with her lover, in touch with a wonderful lunatic friend, and financially secure.

Then comes the holocaust. All her "self-enhancement" magic can't restore the terrible burns, the sickness, the deaths, the loss. Yet in a joyful moment after years of bare survival, the narrator discovers that even in their loneliness on this once-crowded earth, there is a nobility to their lives. Lion Boyce's over-enthusiastic words come naturally to her lips; she becomes the storyteller, the firestarter, even, perhaps, the inspired con artist of the new age.

For the narrator the holocaust becomes a genuine Rapture, because only a certain kind of person was able to survive: "the wackos, the ones who used their belief systems . . . the ones who relinquished control, who took it as it came." See's clear and lovely style leads us into a book that truly earns its last four sentences.

"But I say there was a race of hardy laughers, mystics, crazies, who knew their real homes, or who had been drawn to this gold coast for years, and they lived through the destroying light, and on, into Light ages.

"You can believe who you want to. But I'm telling you, don't believe those other guys.

"Believe me."

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