Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction December 1987
By Orson Scott Card
Moscow 2042, Vladimir Voinovich (Harcourt, Brace, Javonovich, cloth, 424 pp,
Science fiction has many fathers (few of them willing to legitimize their
offspring, alas). One of the proudest of them is the tradition of extravagant social
satire. Long before there was such a thing as science fiction, Thomas More and
Jonathan Swift and many others set their ruthless, truthful satires in futures or
faraway lands or alternate histories; today it is almost impossible to write that kind
of satire without belonging, to some degree, within the realm of science fiction.
Ours may be a bastard genre, but we do have firm possession of our turf.
In Moscow 2042, Vladimir Voinovich takes on all of contemporary Russian
society with no less bravura than Swift. An emigre himself, Voinovich obviously
has painful truths to tell about life in the Soviet Union and the contradictions
within it. Yet, like any true satirist, he remains at heart a member of the
community whose correction he calls for. He is a Russian, writing to and about
Russians; it is our privilege to overhear his witty, funny, dead-on story. A science
fiction story, I hasten to add.
The narrator, Vitaly Nikitich, is a Russian emigre writer of novels who
happens to take a trip into the future -- he books passage on a time-travel
airplane that takes him to Moscow in 2040, where he finds that he is the hero of
the Communist utopia. As we might expect, things aren't all they seem to be, but
then, Voinovich isn't trying to surprise us with the news that Communism is
sustained by repression and hypocrisy. What makes this book funny and true is
the way human beings adapt to live within the system, all pretending to each
other that it works.
Nor does Voinovich spare those on this side of the Iron Curtain. In
particular, he snipes at Solzhenitsyn, an arrogant exiled Russian who is more
czarist than democrat. Yet Sim Simych turns out to have a kind of magnificence
in his folly. As does Voinovich.
And, just as Voinovich carefully denies that Simych is Solzhenitsyn by
referring to Solzhenitsyn himself within the book, he also denies that this book is
science fiction. He is deliberately misleading us. He uses all of the tools of
science fiction -- uses them well -- so that when he deliberately wraps up his
characters in time-travel paradoxes, one gets the feeling that he sins, not through
ignorance, but by delicious design.
Action-adventure this is not. Wonderful satirical SF it is, in the tradition
of Swift -- and Pohl & Kornbluth.
Strange Toys, Patricia Geary (Bantam Spectra, paper, 248 pp, $3.50)
I don't regard it is a requirements that horror stories shock me or make me
throw up; usually, I'd rather they didn't. What I ask of horror is that it fill me
with anxiety and dread, then resolve my tension by the end of tale.
Unfortunately, because shocking people and grossing them out are easy,
there are far more storytellers who achieve those effects than there are who
manage the subtleties of character and language and event that create the general
anxiety and the deep and unforgettable dread that mark the true masters of the
Now, if you're perfectly happy with the screwdriver-through-the-eyeball
school of horror writing, ignore this review. Patricia Geary is not for you.
(Harlan Ellison's September column took care of your arcane needs, anyway.)
But if, like me, you long for stories that make you deeply uneasy, not
because of some dim fog of evil or some gross nightmare monster but rather
because of the power of real people to hurt and disturb each other, then have I got
a book for you.
Patricia Geary's Strange Toys is about a girl named Pet and her relationship
with her fat sister June (who always calls her fat), their elaborate imaginary life
with their toys, and the equally imaginary life of their odd parents, Stan and
Linwood. It is not, however, the eccentricities of these people that won me over
-- it is their absolute believability.
Most important to the book, though she barely appears in it, is Pet's
dangerous oldest sister Deane, who has created a life of dark magic that now, in
her absence, works powerfully in Pet's life. Eventually it sucks the whole family
out of their home and puts them on a long journey without any destination they
might have hoped for. Pet uses the journey as an attempt to master the same
forces Deane has learned to use; she finds that she expected too much of them, yet
also never learned to believe in them enough.
You will love these people; they will break your heart. And if Geary seems
uncertain at the end of the novel what the whole thing was about after all; if she
seems unwilling to tell us plainly what happened in the final scenes; well, I say let's
forgive her for that -- she is writer-in-residence in an English department, after
all, so she can't come out and just tell us what happened, can she? If just anybody
can understand a book, it can't be art, right?
Strange Toys is good enough along the way that we can forgive the frayed
ending and hope that in future books she will carry her clear and quirky vision
right through to the end.
Aegypt, John Crowley (Bantam Spectra, cloth, 390 pp, $22.95)
I read John Crowley's The Deep in 1977, I think. I'd never heard of him;
there was a quote on the cover from LeGuin or Ellison that drew me to pick it up
and buy it. It was a marvelous, difficult, strange fantasy novel that seemed to have
a linear thread that kept getting lost. I learned more about the possibilities of
writing from that book than from any other science fiction book I've ever read.
Then, not many years later, his third novel, Engine Summer, became what is, in my
mind, one of the great novels of science fiction. Never mind that it never won a
Hugo or Nebula -- I have it on good authority that those awards only go to "sci-fi" writers these days anyway. Crowley is simply a brilliant original. Even
spectacularly boring books like Little, Big don't diminish my admiration for him --
even in failure he towers over many lesser writers.
His latest novel, Aegypt, is a spectacular success -- precisely because, by any
standard definition, it's a lousy novel. That is, it doesn't have a beginning and
middle and end. It follows several plot threads at once, all of them interesting,
but all of them eventually left untied, never fully resolved. It's as if the book goes
around in circles, and sometime during the ride, the author hops off the merry-go-round and says, "There. That's what it was all about."
And that is what Aegypt is all about. Another way of looking at history, at
time, at human life. The idea of circular journeys that we insist, in our modern
arrogance, on seeing as linear journeys. Life is a cycle of circles of wheels, working
an intricate Ptolemaic pattern across the sky, say the characters in Aegypt, and
Crowley proceeds to write a novel that exactly mirrors what the characters
In short, Crowley seriously proposes (or almost seriously -- it is fiction, after
all) that much, perhaps most of human history is completely out of the reach of
our linear methods of storytelling -- and then proves his case by producing a story
that is a genuine artifact of his magical Aegypt.
I know, I haven't told you a thing about the story. I'm not going to, either.
I'm just going to tell you that this is fiction of ideas in the best sense -- the
characters are people to whom ideas and understanding matter, who have
thoughts and conversations worth hearing, and who move through lives that seem
ordinary and yet touch on deep strangeness at many surprising points. Crowley
has seen the possibilities of science fiction and used them to create a world we
haven't seen before. I urge you to live in that world for a while. It is the only
world in which this sentence from the end of the book is not a tautology.
"Continuously, unnoticeably, at the rate of one second per second, the
world turned from what it had been and into what it was to be."
Isaac Asimov's Robot City: Book I: Odyssey, Michael P. Kube-McDowell (Ace,
paper, 211 pp, $2.95)
There seems to be a spate of books these days in which young writers set
aside some of their own imagination and write novels set in the fictional universe
of a much more famous author. The theory is, I suppose, that the young writers
thereby reach readers who otherwise would never hear of them. Not only that,
but the value of the Famous Author's name as a commercial commodity can bring
in a few more bucks without him having to write a few more books.
Everybody gets paid, nobody loses, so what's the harm? You could even call
it a kind of literary surrogate motherhood.
You could also call it the literary equivalent of statutory rape. But since so
many people are doing it, it's got to be OK, right?
Harold Robbins has his line of "Harold Robbins presents" books. A friend
of mine wrote a couple of them. They paid him good money. More than I got for
my first few novels. At that point in my career, would I have said no? Maybe.
Maybe not. But, besides the cash, it wasn't any help to his career. He's got a
terrific, original mainstream book with excellent commercial potential that still
goes begging after several years. And the money he got for the Robbins books is
Now it's happening in science fiction, too. For instance, Tor books is
bringing out their "Crossroads Adventure" series, with Jody Lynn Nye's
Dragonharper "in the world of Anne McCaffrey's Pern," Matt Costello's Revolt on
Majipoor "in the world of Robert Silverberg's Majipoor," and Neil Randall's Storm
of Dust "in the world of David Drake's Dragon Lord."
Maybe they're wonderful books. Maybe you'll love them and be grateful
that the combination of intellects produced such marvelous literature. But I don't
want to read them.
I never wanted to read Robert Heinlein's Lensman novel, either.
Fortunately, he never wrote it. Instead, it wrote Tunnel in the Sky and "All You
Zombies." Maybe he could have made more money writing Doc Smith's novels
back then. But thank God he wrote Robert Heinlein's novels instead. Because if
Robert Heinlein hadn't written them, nobody else would have written them,
either. The time these young writers spend writing somebody else's books is time
they don't spend writing their own.
So I cringed when I saw Michael P. Kube-McDonald's name on another
loaned-world novel, the first book of Isaac Asimov's Robot City. What is the
author of Emprise and Empery doing renting out his talent? For that matter, what
is the author of Foundation and "Robot Dreams" doing renting out his name and
With horrid fascination I opened the book and started to read. I expected
to hate the book. I wanted to hate it.
Dammit, folks, I couldn't. It was a good read. I have to be honest -- Kube-McDonald can write, and the story held me all the way.
So -- talent wins the joust with cynical hackery?
No, not quite. There are at least three plot-holes that kill the plausibility of
1. One character goes six weeks without food, eats one big meal, and then
walks around like nothing happened.
2. Aliens who have met almost no humans for some reason adopted human
"Standard" as their shipboard patois.
3. And the biggest dumbness of all: The main character keeps getting to
the verge of a decisive scene, and then suddenly we skip to the next chapter where
he's just waking up and has to go around trying to find out what happened while
he was asleep. Three times, folks.
Kube-McDonald makes a one-sentence stab at dismissing all these
problems, but that doesn't even come close to solving them. I can't help but think
that if Kube-McDonald were writing a book that was truly his own, he wouldn't
let such gaping idiocies get past him. Certainly if Asimov thought of the book as
his, he'd never settle for this. But in fact neither of them has invested his soul in
the book, and it shows. Not in bad writing, but in carelessness.
Yet. Despite all my distaste for the whole enterprise, despite the obvious,
painful flaws, despite the pointless illustrations at the end of the book, despite the
infuriating wait-for-the-sequel ending, I couldn't put it down. It held me. It may
have made me stupider in the process, but I read it from cover to cover and
enjoyed it until I started thinking again. If that's a recommendation, go for it.
In case the writing bug has bit you, you might enjoy Janet and Isaac
Asimov's How to Enjoy Writing (Walker, cloth, 155 pp, $15.95). An
unpretentious combination of Janet and Isaac Asimov's essays and the words of
other writers on the writing life, this is exactly the sort of relaxed, charming book
you'd expect from the dedication: "To the versatile English language -- the best
tool a writer ever had."
The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars, Stephen Brust (Ace, cloth, 210 pp, $16.95)
This novel is beautifully packaged -- a small hardcover, with one of Tom
Canty's loveliest fantasy women gracefully framed on the jacket. And the book's
heading promises this is the first in "A Series of Fantasy Novels Retelling Classic
Tales." Since Brust is one of our foremost young fantasists, I came to this book
expecting a superb novelization of a classic fairy tale.
So at first I was disappointed -- even annoyed. The fairy tale is retold only
in fragments, as the second to last section of each chapter. Most of the book is
instead a story of a group of contemporary artists working together in a studio
whose future, after three years, is now in jeopardy. I cringed as Brust seemed to be
heading toward the same kind of "sensitive artist" hogwash that has long been the
mass delusion of the artsy-fartsy literary set. I almost didn't go on to chapter two.
But I did go on. And while there is perhaps more angst and self-examination than I normally believe in or care about in fiction, the contemporary
story held up rather well -- it was worth reading, and while I never found any
direct connection between the fairy tale and the contemporary story, the
juxtaposition was emotionally effective, as both stories clarified into tales about
What I enjoyed most, though, was Brust's ruminations on art. Far from the
"we artists are a rare and delicate breed" attitude I had feared, Brust took a
practical look at what art is for and how it works. I found his ideas illuminating,
his characters believable and likeable, and the fairy tale well-told. But since his
mini-essays on art are perhaps the strongest part of the book, if that particular
topic is not interesting to you, you may not care for this volume.
In any event, I still look forward to future installments of this series, in the
hope that they actually will be "novels retelling classic tales."