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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction November 1987

By Orson Scott Card

Ash Wednesday, Chet Williamson (Tor, cloth, 372 pp, $16.95)

You wake up early in the morning because all the dogs in town are barking their heads off, and the fire station siren is going full blast. Out the window you see some dim blue lights; after you watch for a while you realize that they're human beings, naked, just standing there.

And in your living room there's another just like them, the ghost of an old black man. He must have been lynched long ago on the spot where your house was built, and there he stands, frozen in the moment of his death. All through town, all the dead are there, and all who ever lived there and died far away -- a child who fell down stairs and died of a broken neck, a car crash victim in the tortured moment when he went through the windshield.

Chet Williamson has created a dark fantasy novel that isn't about monsters that go "boo" or gore that makes you gag. It's about people who are visited and changed by the cruel past. While the local minister and out-of-town scientists struggle to find explanations for the events, the ghosts shatter the lives of some, heal the lives of others. In particular the story concerns Jim Callender, who drove the schoolbus in which is own son died -- though the accident was not his fault, guilt has consumed his life -- and Brad Meyers, who lost his humanity in Vietnam and the son he loved in the same schoolbus crash.

We are never told exactly why the ghosts appeared, but we know the reason, all the same. Confronted by their dead, the people of Merridale come face to face with the past, and judge themselves. That is the source of all the horror in this tale -- it is frightening and it is real.

It is a genre that spawns imitation Stephen King almost as fast as King himself produces the real thing. Chet Williamson has done something powerful and new. You will be haunted by this book.

The Ragged Astronauts, Bob Shaw (First American edition: Baen Books, cloth 310 pp, $15.95; English edition: Victor Gollencz Ltd., 1986)

The people of Land are long accustomed to dodging the ptertha, purple globes that contain a deadly powder. They drift on wind currents, but seem to have a rudimentary intelligence as they zero in on their human targets. And now the ptertha are getting worse -- their poison is more far-reaching, their tactics harder to avoid. There is also a shortage of brakka, the tree from which all machinery, tools, and fuel are derived in this metalless world. And looming over everything is the sister planet Overland, so close that Land and Overland share a common atmosphere.

The story follows half-brothers Toller and Lain, born into the Guild of Philosophers, as they deal with the king, the crown prince, Toller's real father, Lain's austere wife, and the drunken leader of their decaying guild. I'm not telling secrets when I promise you a balloon-and-rocket voyage from one world to another, with the sense of wonder and plausible technical detail that proclaims the story to be the best sort of science fiction. I also promise you characters who grow and change and writing that is clear and flowing -- which proclaims the story to be the best sort of fiction, period.

The Ragged Astronauts is what an 18th-century hard-sf novel might have been, if Swift or Defoe had paid more attention to Newton. There are marvels enough to make you feel like you're discovering science fiction for the first time. Yet the story is also high romance, and I came to love and admire the people of this book as they faced the terrors of the end of their world. Shaw writes with an extraordinary combination of intelligence, clarity, and compassion.

The characters' story is complete in this volume -- but I hope The Ragged Astronauts is merely the first of a series, for when I came to the last page, I hated to leave the marvelous place where Shaw had taken me, which is what all fiction writers strive for and yet so few of us achieve. My applause, Mr. Shaw. Now get busy and write the damn sequel, please.

(The Hugo voters seem to agree with my assessment of the book -- word just reached me that The Ragged Astronauts is a finalist for the 1987 Hugo. It already won the British SFA prize. It does credit to both awards.)

Misery, Stephen King (Viking, cloth, 310 pp, $18.95)

Bestselling novelist Paul Sheldon was driving drunk through a snowstorm in the Colorado mountains when he wrecked his car. He wakes up to find that his life has been saved by a woman named Annie Wilkes, who declares herself to be his biggest fan. His legs are shattered, he has become addicted to the illegal painkillers she has given him, Annie has a bit of a temper, and, worst of all, she really doesn't like the way he killed off Misery Chastain at the end of his fourth Misery book.

It's a first-rate Stephen King novel. If this book doesn't keep you up all night it's because you weren't paying attention. There isn't a speck of fantasy here, yet Annie Wilkes earns a place among the most extraordinary and believable monsters of all of literature.

But this novel is important for more than its undeniable entertainment value. In Misery, King utters a cry from the heart. As Paul Sheldon writes his fifth Misery novel, distracted from and yet focused on his work by fear and agony, he nevertheless comes to realize that he was wrong to despise his own bestselling work, wrong to let sneering critics seduce him into thinking that if he were really good, he'd write more of his hollow and self indulgent literary novels. It was his bestselling work that had integrity after all, the other stuff that was sham.

King is right, of course. The most pernicious hackwork is the backwork that is praised as art in the New York Times Book Review; while King himself, who gets little respect among the self-appointed arbiters of taste, is the foremost fictional chronicler of America in our time. He writes about real people, and he writes to real people, with the result that King is exactly as good as millions of readers think he is.

Sure he has weaknesses; sure he has some habits that after a while can drive you crazy. So did Charles Dickens, the Stephen King of the 1880s. For instance, where Dickens indulged in unconscionable coincidence, King almost always squeezes one last bit of phony suspense out of his books after the real story is over; Misery is no exception, and it was particularly obnoxious this time, since the rest of the novel had been so real. But such flaws are trivial in comparison with the moral power and unforgettable vision of his best work. Beside his tales, the academic-literary fiction so in fashion in college English departments looks like the pale shadow of storytelling.

Inevitably, the arbiters of literary fashion will mock his attempt at explaining the integrity of his kind of storytelling. But what does that matter? They might hurt King's feelings. They might reassure some deservedly insecure academic-literary writers. But they can't change one simple fact: King is telling America what to believe and what to care about, and America is listening. How many other story tellers can claim as much?

Jaguar Hunter, Lucius Shepard (Arkham House, cloth, 404 pp, $21.95)

The Planet On The Table, Kim Stanley Robinson (Tor, cloth, 241 00, $14.95)

You who read this magazine should be familiar with both these writers, and have probably read many of the stories in both these collections. The Robinson stories all appeared originally in Terry Cart's Universe, Damon Knight's Orbit, or here; and you got first look at Shepard's brilliant "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule," his award-nominated "The Jaguar Hunter," and "Salvador," plus a couple of others that are not so strong.

While Shepard is capable of dazzling brilliance, he is also capable of occasionally weak, scattershot storytelling. Yet even when a story of his is not really successful, I never feel cheated for having read it. Because Shepard is never shaming. Even if he doesn't really know how to tell it, he always tells a story that he really cares about. And when the technique is as good as the story, which is usually the case, there is nobody better. Thus Shepard is the best new short-fiction writer of the eighties, the way John Varley was the best of the seventies and Harlan Ellison the best of the sixties. Come to think of it, one such writer every ten years ain't doing too bad, for a humble little commercial publishing category like sci-fi.

Robinson, on the other hand, seems to want to keep at a distance from his own stories. His language is precise and exquisitely crafted, and his stories flow with intelligence. This is a storyteller with a mercilessly clear vision of the world. This is a writer in control of his work.

Perhaps too much control. "Don't care about my characters," he seems to be saying. "Instead notice my techniques, my ideas, my allusions, my symbolic structures." His fiction always seems to be precriticized, with painfully obvious attention to academic critical values, leaving you cold just when you want the story to get hot. The result is that even if you end up caring deeply about his characters, you wonder if the author isn't just a little bit embarrassed at the thought of the reader actually getting emotionally involved. That would be so naive, so -- so unliterary.

And yet Robinson does want you to care, and his more recent stories finally get past the barrier of his own language to be the sort of tale that might well change a reader's life. Unfortunately, none of those recent stories are in this collection. So while there is much to admire and to think about in Planet on the Table, there is little to love.

Both Shepard and Robinson are very talented, and the praise they've both received is well-deserved. You can't understand 1980s science fiction without knowing their work, and these are both collections well worth owning in hardcover. But Shepard seems to know instinctively what too many writers learn only after years of frustration, or never learn at all. Great storytelling requires great stories and great writing, substance and style in balance.

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