Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction September 1987
By Orson Scott Card
The Watchers of Space, Nancy Etchemendy (Avon/Camelot, paper, 124 pp,
The Crystal City, Nancy Etchemendy (Avon/Camelot, paper, 173 pp, $2.50).
Nancy Etchemendy's fine short stories for adults have recently appeared in
the pages of this magazine -- but I met her before the first of them was
published. She was the small, deceptively young-looking woman at Clarion in
1982 who had somehow earned the nickname "space cadet" and yet relaxed in
the evening with a cigar and a bottle of something decisively alcoholic. In short,
she was as unforgettable in person as she is in print.
So at Christmastime, when I saw two of her young-adult novels in B.
Dolphin Ltd., Greensboro's children's bookstore, I bought them for my children.
For my children, mind you -- not for me.
Last week my oldest, Geoffrey, finally tore himself away from Encyclopedia
Brown long enough to start reading his Christmas books. The Watchers of Space
kept him up way past him bedtime. The Crystal City did the same the next
night. He came to me with wide and weary eyes at midnight, saying, "Dad,
you've got to read these books. I just couldn't stop reading them."
So, yes, I did have to read them. And because of Geoffrey, I read them
with new eyes -- with the child's vision that I once brought to Norton's Catseye
and Galactic Derelict, to Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy and Tunnel in the Sky.
The Watchers of Space is the story of a young brother and sister who save
their doomed generation-ship by making contact with the Watchers; in the
process they learn that the strength of humanity is not that we are good or evil,
but that we are creators. The Crystal City takes place on their new world, where
they meet an alien race, terrifying in form but loving in character and brilliant in
mind; now their challenge is to stop short-sighted humans from provoking a
terrible war with them.
Because I read these books within a day of Michael Kube-McDowell's
Empery, I recognized that Etchemendy's children's books deal with almost
exactly the same basic plot movements and moral questions as Kube-McDowell's
far more weighty trilogy. And as I talked to my son about them, I learned that
these issues had not escaped him. Speaking to naive and wide-eyed readers,
Etchemendy had done what all good storytellers do: she had stretched the moral
universe of her audience. I'm not sure whether Geoffrey or I enjoyed the novels
It's good to remember that there are still people writing strong, truthful
science fiction stories that are simple and clear enough for children to grasp
them. Etchemendy's work is no less "serious" when she writes to children than
when she writes to magic-seeking grown-ups like ourselves. So sure, buy these
books for any bright young kinds you know. But read them yourself first. It
won't hurt you to spend an hour as a bedazzled ten-year-old again.
L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future vol. III, Algis Budrys, ed. (Bridge,
paper, 429 pp. $4.50).
The first two Writers of the Future books were good sf anthologies by any
standard -- some bad stories, many fair stories, and some very fine work. Since I
had had low expectations for a series of anthologies consisting entirely of work
by previously unpublished authors, I was pleasantly surprised.
This latest volume, however, is not just good, it is important. It contains
the debuts of many talented writes, some of whom will certainly be among the
most important sf writers of the 90s.
Dave Wolverton, whose "On My Way to Paradise" is a brilliant story of a
struggle for survival and a vain quest for trust, set in a believable, fascinating
Latin American future.
Martha Soukup, whose "Living in the Jungle" is a fascinating dark comedy
about a woman who tries to set up housekeeping in the last surviving forest in
Carolyn Ives Gilman, whose "The Language of the Sea" is an exciting tale
of a sea-going utopia invaded by gung-ho survival types.
M. Shayne Bell, whose gripping "Jacob's Ladder" is only a hint of even
stronger work to come.
Tawn Stokes, with her unforgettable vision of humans living on
reservations under the care of giant sentient roaches, in "No Pets."
Paul May, whose haunting "Resonance Ritual" did not win a quarterly
price in the contest -- her will-deserved inclusion here explains why the
anthology needed its editor, instead of relying solely on the contest judges.
J.R. Dunn, Eric M. Heideman, Mary Catherine McDaniel -- I wish I had
space to tell you about all the fine new writers and their excellent stories.
The Writers of the Future contest has come of age. It is plain that some of
the most talented new sf writers are deliberately holding back on work that could
clearly be published somewhere else, just so it can be entered in this contest. As
a result, they get some terrific prize money --and you can have the pleasure of
reading one of the year's best anthologies.
Land of Dreams, James P. Blaylock (Arbor House, cloth, 242 pp, $15.95).
People kept telling me what a good writer James Blaylock was. They
pointed to his World Fantasy Award-winning story "Paper Dragons" back in
1985; they urged me to read his novel Homunculus in 1986.
And I tried, I really did. I read "Paper Dragons" from beginning to end,
more than once, and hated every minute of it. It wasn't a story. It was just
language. I tried reading Homunculus and could never get more than five pages
into it without getting distracted into doing something more exciting, like
counting lintballs on the couch.
Reading Blaylock at that point was like listening to a singer vocalize.
Beautiful voice, but there was neither melody nor lyric. It was all sound. All
performance, with no sense or structure.
But a friend sent me Land of Dreams and told me, "This one's different.
This time Blaylock is writing about something."
Folks, I'm here to tell you that its true. Land of Dreams is a wonderful real-life fantasy, the story of a California town passing through a periodic "solstice," a
time when a phantom train brings a strange and dangerous circus to town, when
a mouse-sized man and a giant shoe are both sighted, when crabs migrate along
the shore and the ghost of a lovely old woman in the attic of the orphanage
dispatches a girl to carry clothing to her long lost husband, who is due to
reappear, stark naked, at the river's edge.
All this quiet madness flows around Jack Portland, whose mother and
father died under mysterious circumstances many years before. Jack plays
straight man to the most bizarre and wonderful cast of characters since Richard
Grant's Saraband of Lost Time or Gene R. Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.
The writing style is still slow and, sometimes, overdetailed and
overfigured. But the story is so strong that it can sustain Blaylock's elaborate
performance. I hope this is a permanent change and not an aberration in
Blaylock's writing. If it is, he won't just be a "writer's writer, " anymore. He'll
be a "reader's writer," and that is by far the higher calling.
Station Gehenna, Andrew Weiner ("Isaac Asimov Presents," Congdon & Weed,
Andrew Weiner's quietly devastating short fiction has been a refreshing
and illuminating gift to the field of science fiction for many years now, ever
since his first story in Ellison's Again Dangerous Visions; readers of this magazine
may remember his "Station Gehenna from April 1982. Now, with his first
novel, he proves that what he does so well at shorter lengths he can do even
better with he has elbow room.
Station Gehenna is structured as a mystery. Lewin, the narrator, is an
undercover psychologist for Spooner Corporation, investigating a suicide in the
terraforming station on planet Gehenna. He finds that the five surviving crew
members are not exactly stable, and one of them almost certainly helped the
Worse, the narrator begins having strange dreams -- and then waking
hallucinations -- of a giant walking in the mists of this almost lifeless plant. Is
he crazy? Is there really a killer on the station? Are they caught up in a web of
high-level corporation intrigue? Or is the planet simply a place where human
beings cannot live?
Like the best contemporary mystery writers, Weiner gives us a "Detective"
who is not always right, not always strong, and not always good. But Lewin is
right enough, strong enough, and good enough that we care about what happens
to him. The result is a gripping, believable story that has the fascination of the
best mysteries and the wonderment of the best science fiction.