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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction April 1988

By Orson Scott Card

Welcome to Moonbase, Ben Bova (Ballantine, Trade Paper, 255 pp, $9.95)

Here it is -- the book that should win the Hugo for the best non-fiction book of 1987. I'm astonished that no one thought of doing this before; but I'm glad they didn't, since I can't imagine anyone doing it better than Ben Bova.

Welcome to Moonbase is a document from the future -- the actual handbook that will be handed to newcomers who have just arrived, preparing them to get along in the lunar colony.

Bova is America's foremost advocate of space exploration, and in this book he makes his case for building a moonbase by showing what it would be like if we already had it. Best of all, it doesn't feel like propaganda. It feels like reality. It isn't all technospeak, either. You get the rules for sports like linear football and 3-D basketball -- as well as human-powered flight and the Kilroyesque activities of the First Footprints Club.

Now that it exists, I can't imagine any serious science fiction writer attempting to depict lunar life without this book in hand. Nor can I imagine a long-time science fiction reader who would not be intrigued and entertained by browsing through it. I only wish we could require that no Congressman be allowed to vote on the space legislation until he's read Welcome to Moonbase.

On Stranger Tides, Tim Powers (Ace, Cloth, 325 pp, $16.95)

One of my favorite books in my early ears was Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood. Later I came to love other seafaring stories -- the Hornblower books, Nordhoff's and Hall's Bounty trilogy -- but the swashbuckling tale of the innocent Irish doctor who ended up living a life of piracy in the Caribbean is still magical to me. No other novel has conjured up that same romantic fire in my imagination that comes from the mixture of the freedom of the sea, the camaraderie of lost and hunted men, and the swift brutal danger of broadside, grapple, and boarding on the open sea.

Until now. Tim Powers is the apostle of gonzo history, and On Stranger Tides is as good as story-telling ever gets. He has found a way to bring together powerful Indian magic, black vodun, a British scientist driven mad with grief over his wife's death, and Blackbeard himself, determined to live forever. Opposing them all is John Chandagnac, a one-time puppeteer who has come to the Caribbean to confront the uncle who cheated John's father out of his rightful inheritance. Captured by pirates, John finds himself rechristened Jack Shandy; he also finds that his old skill as a puppeteer can save his life.

I wish I could give a balanced review by pointing out the flaws in this book. But I didn't find any. Powers writes in a clean, elegant style that illuminates without slowing down the tale. The story promises marvels and horrors, and delivers them all. You'll love the characters, you'll stay awake all night reading it, and when you finally do sleep, you'll find this story playing through your dreams.

Buy it in hardcover. You'll want it to have a permanent place on your shelves. I can't wait for my kids to get old enough for me to give them this book -- it will do for them what Captain Blood did for me.

True Jaguar, Warren Norwood (Bantam Spectra, paper, 336 pp, $3.95)

A few years ago, a few fantasy writers noticed that standard medieval fantasies were getting boring. They all seemed to take place in the same generic setting. Sir Percy All-Purpose sallies forth with a mixed-species questing party to destroy the Dread Wizard Standarre de Cliche living in No-Name Castle. All the elves are tall and beautiful (thanks, Tolkien!), and all the women are strong-hewed, with thick and dangerous swords (hi there, Bella!)

Some solved the problem by making it all into a joke, thus creating the subgenre of Lite Fantasy, in which the story is still composed of cliches, but the author nudges you with his elbow to let you know you're supposed to laugh.

Others dug in, did their research, and tried to make the medieval setting real and fresh again. Well, not fresh -- usually a dose of reality included the heady scent of unwashed bodies and the pleasures of a slog through mid-avenue sewage. But it works.

Still others decided that if the medieval European setting was stale, why not move somewhere else? Often the results were like painting a new diorama and then having the same actors go through the same old story in front of it. But sometimes the results have been dazzling. I think of Megan Lindholm's Wizard of the Pigeons, which takes place on the streets of modern Seattle, or Terry Bisson's Talking Man, starring a Tennessee junkyard wizard, or Tim Power's Caribbean pirate fantasy On Stranger Tides.

Now let me tell you about a novel whose setting is even more marvelously strange: Warren Norwood's True Jaguar. The narrator is a New Mexico Amerindian who always thought his name was Jesus O'Hara Martinez -- or, well, J. Martin O'Hara, when he had to work among Anglos. But his life goes to hell when a tough little Maya names Reyes informs him that he's a son of True Jaguar, and his mission in life is to go into the underworld, defeat the Lords of Xibalba, and thereby destroy a comet that is on a collision course with Earth.

Norwood's story is brash and believable and strange even while it's still taking place on the surface, in our "reasonable world, where O'Hara's only enemies are paranoid U.S. security forces." It only gets better when the tale goes underground.

But the real miracle of this book is that when Norwood used Meso-American myth he did not anglicize it. The myths don't follow sensible and familiar European patterns. There's a quest going on, but nobody has even the teeniest idea what they have to do to win. No ring to throw into the cracks of doom. Just a river of blood and a river of pus to cross, and a houseful of animated knives on the other side. O'Hara and his companions don't know anything except that the Lords of Xibalba aren't actually gods (what a comfort), and there's a hope that maybe if they can get them to play basketball instead of Mayan deathball, the mortals might live long enough to figure out how to stop the comet.

It sounds like a story where anything can happen -- which usually means that you don't care what happens. But I did care. I liked these people. And for the first time in I don't know how long, a fantasy novel surprised me, again and again, and yet ended up feeling absolutely right.

All you lackwit fantasists who would have a stroke if an original idea accidently lodged in your brain -- yes, you, the ones who are still using those tatty little stage sets left over from major productions by Tolkien and Mallory -- hear this. Warren Norwood's got a brand new original fantasy world you can trace or xerox or graft from. Heck, if you've got any talent at all, you can shoplift enough material from True Jaguar to keep you in trilogies for a decade.

A Mask For The General, Lisa Goldstein (Bantam Spectra, Cloth, 208 pp, $14.95)

It's a common theme in science fiction, but one that is rarely done well: America in the near future is ruled by a dictator, and the hero of the story becomes part of a revolutionary underground. Most writers, from Revolt in 2100 to the movie Red Dawn, have a naive view of this situation: the dictator's forces are invariably inept, corrupt, or riddled with revolutionary sympathizers; the revolutionary underground invariably has such a widespread network, with such loyal participants, that the revolution has about as much trouble succeeding as a new McDonald's franchise near a university.

Lisa Goldstein's A Mask For The General does it right. The underground doesn't have a master plan or an intricate network; mostly they're just young, poor, and disaffected. Far from being inept, the authorities press these people as hard as the general public will tolerate -- for Goldstein recognizes the truth that dictatorships depend on the consent, open or tacit, of the majority of their citizens.

Mary has run away from a small town to live in the East Bay area of California, where she immediately falls in with legendary maskmaker Layla. This society's equivalent of punk is the wearing of masks in public. Layla's masks are especially chosen for each person who will wear one; she dreams of the person's true animal soul, and makes a mask accordingly. Mary at first wants to be her apprentice, but then is frightened by her visits to the dream world where animal souls are revealed. She rejects maskmaking and turns to more dangerous and direct revolution.

Layla, however, consults with the other maskmakers, who together form a kind of wizards' guild. But their magic is not the stuff of Dungeons and Dragons. Layla carefully makes a mask for the dictator, called the General, and delivers it to a police station, where she is arrested and the mask seized. But against all odds, the mask begins to make its way toward the general.

We are never told what will happen when the general puts it on. But Goldstein's novel so fully explores the difference between our mask -- our public personna -- and the truth of our soul, that we can easily guess. For Layla's masks are not masks at all; to put on her mask is really to take off the mask a person normally wears. The General's power depends on most Americans seeing him as a stern benefactor, once the jackal mask goes on his face, the complacent people will see him for what he really is, and he will become as doomed as Batista, Marcos, and Somoza were, their support vanishing until almost any wind could blow them away.

Goldstein's characters are real; you will care about then even when their frailties lead them to make mistakes. Her writing is vivid and clear. This novel does not have the largeness and energy of Romance -- it's too individual for that. It is not a bolt of lightning. Instead, it's a candle in a long-dark place. It doesn't blind you, it enlightens.

The Last Film of Emile Vico, Thomas Gavin (Viking, Cloth, 403 pp, $17.95)

This one isn't science fiction. It isn't fantasy. I shouldn't be reviewing it. It just happens to be a wonderful novel, and I want to tell you about it, because I know that there are some of you, at least, who care more about finding a wonderful story than about the genre label above the shelves at WaldenBooks.

The Last Film of Emile Vico is narrated by Farley, Vico's longtime friend and cameraman. Vico, a genius actor-director-screenwriter in the 1930s, has suddenly disappeared. The police suspect foul play -- and they suspect Farley. The trouble is that Farley has, since childhood, shared his body when an unpredictable second personality he calls Spyhawk, and Farley has good reason to suspect that Spyhawk knows more about Vico's disappearance than he's telling. If Spyhawk is guilty of something, Farley obviously wants to be the first to know.

Living with Farley as narrator is an extraordinary experience. He sees the world with a cinematographer's eyes: the story doesn't stop for descriptions, it is built out of them, marvelous camera angles that have intricate and powerful meanings. There are echoes of the mood of tight madness in Robe-Griller's Jalousie; you walk through stage sets and rainy streets in black and white, the light slanting like steel beams and pooling like oil on the ground.

Gavin is that rare creature, a literary writer who isn't trying to dazzle us with his prose. Instead, he tells a grand, passionate story using clear language that is true to the character, language that never calls attention to itself, that never pulls you out of the story, that never reminds you that there is an author playing puppeteer behind the black curtain. The result is that the story's illusion is perfectly created. If I have some minor quarrels with Gavin -- like his decision to end the story without an unequivocal confrontation between Farley and Vico -- it doesn't change the fact that Gavin is an astonishingly good storyteller.

And for those of you who insist that there must be something science-fictional about your leisure reading, I'm delighted to inform you that few science fiction writers have created a world as real and yet as alien as the 1930s Hollywood of The Last Film of Emile Vico.

Polyphemus, Michael Shea (Arkham House Publishers, Sauk City, WI 52583; Cloth, 245 pp, $16.95)

I hardly need to introduce you to the works of Michael Shea. Almost every story in this fine collection first appeared in the pages of F&SF. "Uncle Tuggs," "The Angels of Death," "The Autopsy," and, especially, "The Extra" (from last May's F&SF) are standouts. Published by Arkham House, with their normal care and quality, this collection is worth special-ordering.

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