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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction January 1988

By Orson Scott Card

Christmas Ghosts, Kathryn Cramer & David G. Hartwell, eds. (Arbor House, Cloth, 284 pp, $17.95)

When I first read Louisa May Alcott's Little Men, I was startled that the 19th-century characters regarded the telling of ghost stories as a natural thing to do on Christmas Eve. It certainly wasn't part of my family's Christmas traditions.

And I, for one, am sorry the custom has been lost. Because ghost stories, though scary, have an aura of mystery and awe completely lacking in the Halloween horror that has supplanted them. The ghost story always contains the promise that if you can only find out why the ghost appears, its purpose can be satisfied, the haunting ended.

Cramer and Hartwell have done a wonderful job of resurrecting the old tradition in their anthology Christmas Ghosts. Though there was never a requirement that ghost stories told at Christmas had to be about Christmas, the editors helped us renew the old connection by selecting only ghost stories with a Christmas setting.

But don't imagine that means these are all sentimental little Christmas charmers! Oh, the first story in the book is calculated to bring tears to the eyes of any reader not made of stone, but the other stories range from the comic (Dickins's "The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton" and John Kendrick Bangs's "The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall") to the chilling (Ramsey Campbell's "Calling Card" and Elizabeth Walter's "Christmas Night"). And it is impossible to classify Dickens's stream-of-consciousness essay "A Christmas Tree," except to say that it is in itself a small anthology of ghost stories.

Have yourself a 19th-century Christmas -- buy this book and read a story or two aloud on Christmas Eve. If you have impressionable children, however, choose carefully which ones you read, or I promise that you'll never get the kids to sleep till dawn.

The Folk of the Air, Peter S. Beagle (Ballantine/Del Rey, cloth, 330 pp, $16.95)

The Folk of the Air isn't a wise and witty medieval fantasy like The Last Unicorn. Nor is it a slow and intellectual ghost story like A Fine and Private Place. But then, those two books aren't much like each other, either. Peter S. Beagle is not a writer who stutters or repeats himself. When he tells a story, he's done with it, and then after a while he tells another that has nothing whatever to do with the first.

Except for this. If Beagle tells it, it's a damn fine story.

The Folk of the Air begins as Farrell arrives in his old hometown of Avicenna, California. The hitch-hiker he picked up in Pima tries to rob him; Farrell contrives not to be robbed, in an outrageously funny action scene. Nor does Beagle deny the promise of the first chapter. There is plenty of action, along with wonderful characters and all the rich possibilities of a magical fantasy set within the contradictory world of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

Farrell, an itinerant lutenist who has managed to avoid anything remotely like commitment in his life, has come home looking for permanence, though he doesn't know it. He stays with his childhood friend Ben, who is living with a strange old woman named Sia. An old lover of Farrell's, Julie, introduces him to the SCA -- no, pardon me, the "League for Archaic Pleasures," where a self-centered young lass named Aiffe is rather too deeply involved in her persona as a witch.

But that's all right. Dangerous as she is, Aiffe is holding onto something too big for her, and as Farrell gets more deeply involved in this fervently, deliberately mad society, he begins to find out who a lot of people really are -- including himself.

What I can't believe is that nobody else has produced a major fantasy novel actually set within the Society for Creative Anachronism. Half the fantasy writers in America today have an SCA identity and attend revels from time to time. (Heck, I even declaim ribald poetry in the persona of the lascivious Friar Orison.) But the rest of us will have to curse our lost opportunity and delight in Beagle's book.

The Movement of Mountains, Michael Blumlein (St. Martin's, Cloth, 289 pp, $17.95)

I met Michael Blumlein at the Sycamore Hill Writers Workshop and read two stories of his: "The Brains of Rats," from the British SF magazine Interzone (the story has since been nominated for the World Fantasy Award), and his workshop story. Both were profoundly original, but not easy reading. Cold and austere in tone, his language cut like a scalpel to find the hot beating heart of the story.

So I starting reading Blumlein's first book, unsure whether I could enjoy his voice at novel length -- and was delighted. The Movement of Mountains is as powerful as his short fiction but nowhere near as complexly structured or coldly written.

The narrator is a future doctor named Jules, a man whose life is dominated by his gluttony, he leaves a bleak and plague-threatened future Earth to follow his lover, Jessica, to the only planet where mutacillin, a self-adapting anti-bacterial fungus, can be grown. Jessica is trying to synthesize the active agent in mutacillin; Jules will care for the humans living there -- and for the Domers, the giants who actually do the work of harvesting mutacillin.

The Domers bear a disturbing similarity to Jules. they are made from altered human genes, physically huge to do the work, immensely fat to endure the bitter cold of the mutacillin caves. They are cloned and grown, not born, and their bodies break down after five years of unrelenting, murderously hard work. There are other physical differences, some of them planned, some of them sheer carelessness of design; all of them are explained in painful, clinical detail.

What gradually becomes obvious is that the Domers are also human, despite the best efforts of the system to teach them otherwise. Jules finds himself drawn to them, fascinated by them, until finally he becomes one of them, in aspiration if not in form.

Blumlein uses his own experience as a practicing doctor to make the medical details absolutely convincing. The Domers themselves are unforgettable. And Jules, as he writes the book in the form of long letters to his brother, is at once repulsive and fascinating as a human being.

True, there are problems in the book. For one thing, the clinically graphic sex, beginning with the first scene in the book, is off-putting and disturbing. It is also important to the story. You may be offended -- I was -- but that is part of the flavor of this novel; you are meant to devour it compulsively, even when it tastes nasty. The grammatical slips are especially painful when surrounded by such elegant prose. And Blumlein is at his best at the beginning setting up the situation, creating the milieu and the characters; at the end, when action takes over, he races through far too much plot, far too quickly, and finally reduces his story to a silly save-the-world-through-brotherhood-and-true-communication riff.

Never mind. Flaws and all, this is a marvelous first novel, and Blumlein, while I doubt he'll soon be a popular writer, is already an important one, because he brings such a strong voice and relentlessly truthful vision to our field.

The Future Focus Book of Lists II: The Sequel, Roger Reynolds, ed. (Future Focus Science Fiction Specialties, 1301 Bernard Avenue, Findlay, OH 45840; Paper, 8.5 x 11; 90 pp, $7.00 includes postage)

Some of the lists are phenomenally, wonderfully dumb. Some are serious -- maybe even intelligent. There are signs that at least some of the contributions to this magazine-format book own more to David Letterman than to David Wallechinsky in their idea of what makes a good top-ten list -- like Marion Zimmer Bradley's "The Ten Least Edifying Lists Which Could Be Made" and Michael P. Kube-McDowell's "Ten Lists I Could Have Turned In But Didn't."

In short, I had a lot of fun reading this. I didn't even mind, not a bit, not for a second, that James Gunn didn't include any of my books in his listing of "A Basic Science Fiction Library." (After all, Barry Longyear's list of "The Ten Stupidest Movies Ever Made" consists entirely of Enemy Mine; if he can be self-effacing, I can pretend to have no ego, too.)

All proceeds from sales of this book, after costs have been repaid, go to the Polly Freas Memorial Fund. There aren't many publications around that let you enjoy yourself and feel noble at the same time.

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