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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction October 1987

By Orson Scott Card

Memory Wire, Robert Charles Wilson (Bantam, paper, 256 pp, $3.50)

Robert Charles Wilson's first novel, A Hidden Place, was an intense, beautiful novel of aliens trapped in America during the Great Depression. There Wilson (whose excellent short stories have appeared in this magazine) proved that at novel length, he is even better, as writer and storyteller, than he is at shorter lengths.

Memory Wire, set in the near future, starts out colder than A Hidden Place, primarily because the main characters, Keller, Byron, and Teresa, are not wholly connected with the people around them; they are at a distance from other human beings, including the reader. (Isolation and the search for connection has been a major theme in all of Wilson's work.) As they journey to Brazil to make an illegal purchase of an oneirolith, an alien "dreaming stone," they are plunged into a dark and terrifying world of exploitation, torture, murder; a world full of people who have lost their memories -- some struggling to regain them, and therefore their identities; others running to escape them, so they can hold on to some semblance of sanity.

All this sounds very literary, doesn't it? Of course it does, because Memory Wise is a profound and beautiful work of art. But it's also a tense thriller, as the characters are stalked by a terrifyingly believable villain, and, in the end, it is completely satisfying -- no, it is exalting -- as the main characters struggle to save their lives and their humanity.

Read this book for sheer entertainment, and you'll be delighted. You will also, perhaps without realizing it, be changed. With this story in your memory, you can't help but be more alert to your own past and to the people around you. Wilson has a healing touch. Using the bitter medicine of pity and fear, he makes his readers whole.

Pennterra, Judith Moffett (Congdon & Weed, "Isaac Asimov Presents," cloth, 304 pp)

The first humans to land on Pennterra are a group of Quaker scientists; they quickly learn, to their dismay, that Pennterra is inhabited by the Hrossa, sentient creatures who have clear ideas about where and how humans must live -- if they are to live at all. Being Quakers, committed to peace and harmony, the first humans accept the severe restrictions, and even learn to get along with the empathic Hrossa -- until the coming of the second colony ship, whose people have no intention of accepting any limitations.

I would be disingenuous if I did not notice some obvious similarities between Pennterra and the most recent novel to win the Nebula award. In both, a small, religiously uniform colony lives on an alien world with sentient life. The humans are severely restricted in the area where they live and in their contact with alien lifeforms, and there is the threat of human destruction. The ecosystem is surprisingly uniform, and the aliens' life cycle, as it is discovered, causes profound differences between human and alien thought. Above all, both books are thematically involved with empathy, community, bonding, species identity, and religion.

The clear similarity of these two novels has nothing to do with the quality of either -- both books bring together elements that have long traditions in the field -- but to my mind, the close coincidence of theme and motif between writers who had never met or read each other's work suggests that these are issues and stories whose time has come in the field of science fiction. I read Moffett's novel with wonderment and delight, but at the familiar and the new: she has brought many startling insights, a voice never before heard in this place.

Moffett is an accomplished mainstream poet, critic, and translator, whose first science fiction story, "Surviving," won a well-deserved spot on the 1986 Nebula ballot. Moffett is not "dabbling" in sf, however; she handles all the genre techniques with skill, and with great respect for her material and her audience; she deals with ideas with intelligence and passion. Nor does she suffer from literary pretentiousness; she tells a powerful tale with clarity, simplicity, and an unconcealable love for her fellow-being. Far from being an "outsider" to science fiction. Moffett is plainly one of those rare souls whose empathy and compassion transcend all human boundaries; neither she nor her best-loved characters are truly alien anywhere.

Moffett deals explicitly with human and alien sexual mores -- but does it so tastefully that I believe adult readers will find, as I do, that this is one of the best aspects of the book. No coyness or prurience or exaggeratedly clinical distance for her.

The book is not perfect; the pace is slow, and so little happens at first, while she is setting the stage, that I grew somewhat impatient. But the details she offers are all necessary, and I can assure you that the pace becomes anything but slow by the end.

Her notion of a sentient planet is never fully explained, yet perhaps it should not be, since the planet actually seems to stand for the deepest theme in the book: the kind of God worth worshipping. Without ever getting into religious mysticism or tedious theology, Pennterra is nevertheless about the nature of God in relation to humankind. Moffett and I don't always see eye to eye but I learned much from her about an issue I think science fiction is uniquely suited to deal with.

This is storytelling of the best sort. The people and events of Pennterra will be part of me forever. Precious few writers have the vision and skill Moffett has, to write a story so ennobling and unforgettable. Welcome to science fiction, Judith Moffett: we are all enriched by your coming.

The Illyrian Adventure, Lloyd Alexander (Dell, paper, 132 pp, $2.50)

Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, based on the Welsh Mabinogion, are already classics of young adult fantasy. In recent years, he has turned his talents to writing "imaginary kingdom" stories -- historical novels that take place in kingdoms that never existed, like the classic Graustark.

I loved Alexander's recent 18th-century trilogy, Westmark, The Beggar Queen, and The Kestrel (also available from Dell), a grand romantic romp through a nation in the process of democratic revolution.

Now, with The Illyrian Adventure, Alexander begins an open-ended series of adventure books with a delightful pair of characters: the narrator, Brinton Garrett, a staid, unadventurous researcher; and the orphaned daughter of a friend of his, a cocky, intuitive, and domineering teenager names Miss Vesper Holly, who has an astonishing capacity of getting her own way.

In search of evidence to vindicate her late father's theories about the nations of Illyria, Vesper leads Uncle Brinton to an adventure involving ancient rituals, lost giant chess pieces, political intrigues, underground tombs, and revolutionaries in disguise. It is the stuff that dreams are made of. I wish I had had this book when I was twelve. I was delighted to read it even now when I'm old.

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