Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction March 1988
By Orson Scott Card
The Urth of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe (Tor, Cloth, 384 pp, $17.95)
Severian has been autarch of all Urth -- a tale recounted in Wolfe's
brilliant four-volume epic The Book of the New Sun. Now he has gone into space
to try to bring the New Sun to replace the dying sun of Urth. To accomplish
this, he must pass a terrible test, in which he is judged by those who have most
reason to hate him. And if he succeeds, then in the process of saving Urth by
giving it a new star, he will cause such terrible floods and devastation that
civilization will be destroyed.
It is a cruel choice to make -- but Severian was born to make it, and in
this book, Wolfe takes him to the edge of divinity. Along the way, Wolfe shows
us wonders in the best tradition of science fiction.
The ship Severian rides on, which passes in and out of time on voyages
between stars, masts protruding in all directions, and a labyrinth of passages and
holds below. On deck, people wear necklaces that hold an atmosphere around
them; a wonderful sense of freedom, the opposite of the usual tin-can
claustrophobic images of space travel. Wolfe makes the old miracles of starflight
seem new again -- weightlessness, reentry, hyperspace, all under other names, are
captured and revivified as if no one had ever used such devices before.
The ship is ruled by a demigod, and a civil war rages between the crew and
"apports," animals and peoples who are somehow sucked into the ship from
other worlds. One of these is Zak, a chameleon creature who becomes physically
whatever its most dangerous predator is -- in Zak's case, man. We meet a
woman of a race that speaks by silencing all unwanted ambient sounds, literally
cutting away all noises that are not part of their message. And in the process of
the story we have the stuff of high romance, unmasking transformation, shape-changing, self-meeting, crossing of water, the journey to the land of the dead,
the visit to paradise -- every archetype that feels inevitable and important to
human beings is made real in this book.
Above all these, though, is the wonder of Wolfe's deep understanding of
the complex motivations of human souls, and his unflinching search for God:
the Increate, who loves and needs man, whose purpose draws but does not drive
us -- a God to be searched for, to be emulated, and, having been found, well
worth the search. Not, in fact, omnipotent, but all-loving, which gives him all
the power that can be had. And the universe of this book is a cycle of universe,
each with its own Conciliator, its own New Sun, each giving birth to the one
after. I find myself believing in these people, in their God, in that cycle of
universes; to me, Wolfe's words verge on scripture. Like a fifth testament, this
book can be read as Christian allegory; but it never preaches. It can be admired
as art; you can live the people and watch, rapt, as the romance of the plain tale
If there is a flaw in this book, it is the contradiction all Wolfe's work has:
his details are so apt, his scenes so rich and complete, that in his intense focus
on the moment it is easy to lose the overall thread of the story. I find myself
immersed in the now of the book, but often confused about the connection
between now and all other moments in the book. Yet I don't know how it
would be possible to maintain that thread without sacrificing some of the
richness of its reality. So I suggest that to read this book, you simply place
yourself in Wolfe's hands and trust him to lead you to a fitting end, even if you
are occasionally lost along the way.
If you have not read The Book of the New Sun, I believe The Urth of the
New Sun will still be satisfying. If you have read the earlier work, you will find
this sequel astonishing as it transforms and fulfills the earlier books. Few writers
dare to attempt a Great Work; Wolfe attempts it and succeeds.
Great Sky River, Gregory Benford (Bantam Spectra, Cloth, 336 pp, $17.95)
It's one of the most powerful traditions in science fiction: the story of the
human colonists on a faraway planet who, after countless generations, are now
trapped on a hostile world without hope of escape. But, as we might expect,
Gregory Benford takes the traditional story and makes it fresh and real.
As humans moved toward the galactic core, they ran into the Mechs, self-replicating and highly adaptive intelligent machines. They are transforming the
planet Snowglade into their kind of world -- a cold, dry desert. For a long time,
human kinship groups survived in Citadels -- Rook, King, Knight, Bishop,
Pawn. But in the Calamity, they were driven out, the Citadel was destroyed,
and now the Mantis, a dangerous and aggressive new Mech, is hunting them
Benford knows that in long warfare, enemies come to resemble each other
more and more. It is certainly true here: humans have juiced themselves up
with so many electronic parts that they feel almost helpless when they are forced
to work without them. They even use electronics to preserve their lives --
memories and personality are pulled out of dying men and women and then
placed in the brains of their living kin, where as "aspects" they continue to be
part of the life of the community. This is only the beginning of Benford's rich
invention; the society, the tools, the characters in this story are exactly right.
So instead of being disappointed that the story ends as such stories always
end, I was delighted; the book is so good that we can even overlook Benford's
sophomoric use of silly sex as a climactic moment late in the book. Less easy to
forgive is his use of the cliche that it's our sense of humor that makes us human,
that keeps the inorganic Mechs from fully understanding us. Please, that was old
in the 1950s, and it was dumb the first time it was used; someone as intelligent
as Benford could surely discover something deeper and truer than that to
distinguish between humans and machine intelligence.
But never mind; you only have to grit your teeth a couple of times, and
the rest of the book is so good you'll probably end up putting Great Sky River on
your Hugo Award nominating ballot anyway. I know I will. This is the perfect
marriage of hard-sf and space opera; may a hundred other sf writers read this
book and see how it's done.
When the Changewinds Blow, Jack L. Chalker (Ace, Paper, 239 pp, $3.50)
From some of my friends with rather literary tastes I kept hearing Jack
Chalker's name invoked as the epitome of the hack sci-fi writer, the guy who can
churn out four or five mindless novels a year. The most vehement of them
declared Chalker to be an irredeemably bad stylist, the kind of writer who makes
Edger Rice Burroughs look like William Faulkner.
But when I talked to Chalker, I heard him talk about stories he tells with
the kind of intensity and integrity that I have come to recognize as the root of all
powerful storytelling. Judging from his intentions, at least, Chalker is as serious
about his art as any of the writers who get a lot more literary respect. And I
knew many sf readers who thought of Chalker as the second coming of Heinlein.
I had never read any of Chalker's work. Now I have.
The first sentence was grammatically wrong. Not slightly wrong, but
flamingly wrong. As a former copy editor, I find that kind of thing intolerable.
On the first page, the awkwardness of style had me cringing enough to work up a
sweat. I almost closed the book, figuring that Chalker's critics are right.
But I kept reading. And kept reading. And discovered that, while the
language problems never completely went away, I soon stopped caring about
them. Because Chalker knows how to tell a story.
Charley Sharkin and her best friend Sam -- both girls with boys' names --
are fairly normal suburban high school kids, till Sam finds herself caught in a war
on another world, where she has an analogue who wants her dead. An "ally"
whose own motives are rather dubious helps them by disguising them as each
other -- which makes Charley rather uncertain about things, since it makes her
the prime target.
Along with a swashbuckling adventure plot, Chalker gives us some deeply
disturbing variations on one of the most basic of archetypes -- disguise and
transformation. I have been told it is a frequent event in a Chalker novel to
have a character change sexes, but since I've only read the one book of his, it
certainly was not a cliche to me. Furthermore, Chalker, a man who (like me)
knows the pain of a constant war with adiposity, took the personally daring step
of having one of his characters, in true lotus-eatery style, become contentedly
and obnoxiously fat. Chalker deals truthfully with self-loathing and the search
for purpose and identity. And yet he never forgets the reader's hunger for a story
that is clear and important and true. In short, the deep themes of good art are
there, but without sacrificing the plain tale that allows unsophisticated readers to
live in the author's world.
On the basis of one book, I can't tell you whether Chalker is a great writer
or not. I can tell you that he's a damn fine storyteller, and When the
Changewinds Blow is a good start on what promises to be an enjoyable and
important work of fantasy. Chalker still needs to let a copy editor make some
suggestions, and then follow a few of them -- it would only make his work
better, just as good copy editors help me and every other writer I know. But the
awkwardness of language is only skin deep; when it comes to the tale itself,
Chalker is a master.