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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction February 1988

By Orson Scott Card


The Secret Ascension, Michael Bishop (TOR, Cloth, 339 pp, $16.95)

After weeks of thought, I am still of two minds about this book, and so I must give it two reviews -- both truthful, yet maddeningly opposite.

Review #1: Bishop's own title for this novel is Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas. I have little patience with literary homage, and the four-page prologue was as bad a piece of silly author worship as I've ever seen. But that worshipful tone disappears the moment the story actually begins, and I urge you simply to skip the section called "Prelude." It really isn't part of the book.

The Secret Ascension is set in an alternative version of the 1980s, one in which there was no Watergate and Richard Milrose (not Milhouse) Nixon managed to impose a kind of fascism on America during four terms in office.

Bishop's greatest strength has always been his ability to create characters who are believable and believably good people. His knack does not let him down here. We first explore this darker version of our world through the eyes of Cal and Lia Pickford. Cal is a former Colorado cowboy now working in a pet store in Atlanta. He has two secrets: one is his collection of samizdata manuscripts of the banned science fiction novels of noted mainstream writer Philip K. Dick; the other, which he keeps even from himself, is the terrible way his parents died.

Lia, his wife, is a therapist trying to establish a practice. She came to Atlanta, uprooting them from a decently happy life in Colorado, to be near her aging, dying parents. This is the kind of character Bishop excels with: good people who are willing to make quiet sacrifices for others, to take responsibility for them.

Weaving among the living characters in Bishop's wonderful version of Philip K. Dick himself, dead but still quite busy trying to save the world. Bishop makes Dick the most funny yet endearing angel since Clarence in It's a Wonderful Life.

More than any other Bishop novel I've read, The Secret Ascension excels as a story. There is a tension and danger from beginning to end. Perhaps this is a product of the justified paranoia Bishop deliberately borrows from Dick; or perhaps it is because this novel is more visceral, less cerebral than Bishop's earlier works. Whatever the source of the change, it marks, I believe, an important threshold in the writing of Michael Bishop. He has heretofore been a writer's writer, creating beautiful stories that somehow never achieved the level of intensity to make impassioned readers pass tattered paperbacks from hand to hand. This time, however, the climax is not just an inward epiphany for a character; the audience does not have to read the story thoughtfully. In The Secret Ascension, the world changes in wonderful strange ways, and the audience can read the book passionately, with sweating fingers, eager to see what happens next, yet reluctant to leave the present moment.

Imagine: A writer who is already one of the best, taking risks and finding ways to be better. A damn fine book, boys and girls.

Review #2: Every literary generation has its cheap villains, stereo-typed characters that will make the audience boo and hiss the moment they appear onstage. It was the greedy banker in the 19th-century melodrama; in 1970s science fiction, it was the Big Nasty Corporation; and right now, the most common cheap villain is a Falwellian or Bakkeroid TV preacher.

But I don't think there's any surer sign of authorial laziness or smugness than taking potshots at Richard Nixon. He's the easy anti-icon of our time, the man you can hate without having to explain why.

Bishop's hallmark in earlier works has been his refusal to create one-dimensional villains. He insists on empathizing with the bad guys, so that even when we know that what they're doing is wrong, perhaps evil, we can still understand how they justify their actions to themselves.

However, Bishop's version of Nixon is, not a character, but a caricature. It excuses nothing to say that Bishop is creating an alternate history, or making a political point, or "just writing fiction." The character is Nixon, Bishop makes a monster out of him, and it turns his otherwise fine novel into an exercise in falsehood.

What if a conservative had written a novel set in 1945, with Franklin Roosevelt, at the beginning of his fourth term, having established a horrible, repressive Communist dictatorship in the United States, murdering farmers in the American midwest the way Stalin starved and slaughtered the kulaks of the Ukraine? Would we not call such a book a cheap, mean-spirited political hatchet job?

And if the book ended with a repulsive scene in which Roosevelt was revealed to be, not human at all, but a wheelchair-bound monster, Satan himself, would we not dismiss the author of that book as a dishonest, unprincipled demagogue?

Yet to Roosevelt's enemies he seemed every bit as dangerous as Nixon seemed to his. Roosevelt actually did run for four terms; he really did try to pack the Supreme Court. But no author, however earnest his political beliefs, could write a story about FDR so devoid of intelligence and compassion without forfeiting at least some of the respect of his peers.

The difference is, so many of Bishop's peers agree with him in his hatred of Richard Nixon that few will take him to task. Those who do will certainly be accused of liking Nixon (just as those who opposed McCarthy were accused of being pro-Communist). But as far as I can see, pinheadedness of the Left is not better than pinheadedness of the Right. It's the same disease -- the refusal to believe that your opponent might be reasonable, temperate, unselfish, sincere. Yet when you refuse to admit that your enemy is even human, then it strikes me that you, not your enemy, are the dangerous one.

Most frustrating of all -- the reason why I'm mentioning this at all, instead of simply ignoring the book -- is the fact that Michael Bishop knows better. And in this novel he could have done better. He could have provided some sort of illumination, as he does in every other work of his I've read: a compassionate explanation of the human heart. There is nothing in the first two-thirds of the book that would stop Bishop from enlightening us, not until page 286, where he begins his downhill slide into cheapness by using the hoariest cliche of all -- to show us that his villain is really bad, he has Nixon planning to start an unprovoked nuclear war.

Too many stupid stories have used the stock character of the madman who wants to blow up the planet. This pseudo-menace might still have a place in Saturday morning cartoons, but not in a book by Michael Bishop. And it is indecent of him to suggest that Richard Nixon -- who is, after all, a real human being, not a fictional construct -- would ever desire the destruction of the world. How would Bishop feel if someone put him in a story and accused him of wanting such a thing? The poetic license Bishop was issued at birth gives him the right to say what he pleases; but I don't think it's right to use the right to deny another human being's humanity, even in the supposedly harmless realm of fiction.

Irreconciliation: Because this book is wonderfully well made, those who believe in art for art's sake and deny that stories should be judged on moral grounds will delight in The Secret Ascension. So will those who hate Nixon beyond reason. But those who believe that it is the moral dimension of stories that makes them worth selling and hearing in the first place will be uncomfortable with a book that perpetrates the literary equivalent of a lynching.


Analog Presents: "Thunder and Roses" by Theodore Sturgeon; "Rockabye Baby" by S.C. Sykes, Bob Sessions, reader (Listen For Pleasure, Inc., 25 Mallard Road, Don Mills, Ontario, Canada M3B 1S4; 2 audiocassettes; $14.95)

Since I'm commuting four hours a week this fall through a radio-barren stretch of North Carolina, I thought it was a golden opportunity to listen to books and stories on cassette. This selection of two stories from Analog caught my eye, mainly because, though "Rockabye Baby" was one of the best stories of 1985, it is also a very static, cerebral story -- not at all one that ought to work well read aloud.

I was right and I was wrong. "Rockabye Baby" is a terrific story no matter what, but the action and attitude of "Thunder and Roses" make it clear how much better an action story works when read aloud. Unfortunately, "Thunder and Roses" is so deeply tied to the 1950s that it has lost its immediacy; there are constant reminders that, although some of the political issues are still alive, the characters were created to live in a world we have long since left behind us.

Still, it delivers a strong message about acting for the good of humanity instead of for national pride; and "Rockabye Baby" is still a searing story of a man forced to choose between keeping his memories or remaining a quadriplegic. Bob Sessions does a good job of reading, though he sometimes uses funny voices as a substitute for dramatic interpretation of characters.

I'm a great believer in oral storytelling. The strengths of those productions encourage me about possibilities, and the flaws point out all the more clearly how far storytellers have moved from oral language in their written stories.


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