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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction September 1987

By Orson Scott Card

The Watchers of Space, Nancy Etchemendy (Avon/Camelot, paper, 124 pp, $2.50)

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 more.

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 the world.

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, cloth)

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 suicide along.

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.

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