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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.