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Fantasy & Science
Fiction Index
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About This Area
1987
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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction May 1988

By Orson Scott Card


Neverness, David Zindell (Donald I. Fine, cloth, $18.95)

David Zindell's first novel, Neverness, is set in the same future as his compelling story "Shanidar," which was the standout of the first Writers of the Future anthology. But the novel bears the same relation to the novelet that a ten-lane interstate bears to a country road.

This is, at first glance, a space-opera future, set in a city without telephones, where the major mode of land transportation is ice skates, while members of the Pilots' Guild pop in and out of windows in the manifold, finding intricate pathways between stars. In true Romantic fashion the pilots embark on quests, answering the call of the Timekeeper. In five hundred or so pages we live through rivalry between father and son, incest, intrigue, murder, resurrection, unmasking, and conversations between gods who once were humans and humans who will soon be gods. There is a starfaring race that goes about devouring stars, and another that left a vital message for mankind before going off to live in a black hole. I can't remember reading a better Romance in all of science fiction.

But Zindell doesn't do just one thing. This novel does everything. The characters are not the one-dimensional role-fillers that are usually all that Romance requires. They change and grow, they become real. The grand events unfold through their utterly believable behavior in a fully-invented milieu.

It is also excellent hard science fiction, with serious treatment of difficult mathematical and genetic questions. Have you wondered what all the "extra" or "junk" genes in our DNA are for? Can space be folded so that every star is near every other star? Pilots meld with their ship's computers and then maneuver through the stars by constructing mathematical proofs that the movement they need to make is possible.

Ideas splash out of Zindell's mind and flow across the pages of this book -- yet the action doesn't stop for them. Rather the ideas pick up the story and sweep it along. Ultimately, the story is about the search for the meaning, the purpose, the secret of life. Zindell has the audacity to answer that great question. And it is in his daring to answer it that this book becomes, not just a brilliant novel, but a strong and serious view of human potential.

There are obvious echoes of Gene Wolfe in Neverness. Zindell has picked up some of Wolfe's stylistic quirks -- lists of arcane and archaic words, for instance ("eschatologists, cetics, akashica, horologes . . . scryers, holists, historians, remembrancers, ecologists, programmers, neologicians, and cantors" -- all of which are used in the story; Zindell does not list in vain.) It is daring to invite comparison with Wolfe, and sometimes a bit embarrassing. For instance, when Zindell lists all the different kinds of bars in one district of the city of Neverness, he ends the list by saying, "Somewhere -- and why not? -- there is a bar for those wishing to talk about what is occurring in all the other bars." Such anticlimax -- such an obvious punchline. Wolfe would surely have done a double-twist, like "A bar for those who believe there are no bars, and another for those who believe there are bars, but do not believe anyone has ever seen one."

But that is early in the book. Zindell soon becomes himself strongly enough that the reader no longer compares him with Wolfe or anyone else. Or rather, while I recognized that Zindell could not match Wolfe at Wolfe's best games, he had some strengths Wolfe doesn't have -- for instance, Zindell's individual episodes, powerful as they are, never obscure the main thread of the story, and while his narrator is self-conscious, he remains fundamentally innocent. He remains young, so that the narrative is always vigorous, and the narrator doesn't surprise us so much as he joins us in being surprised all over again by what happens in the tale.

Like all the best science fiction writers, Zindell came up with concepts and cultural patterns that required the coinage of words. Cark: To alter a human structure at a genetic level, so you permanently change the physical form. Slel: To take DNA from someone against his will, to create avatars of him, or perhaps children. Fenester: To pass through "window" after "window" in the manifold -- a verb that science fiction has long needed. Zindell has helped develop our collective language, which is a model of our collective mind.

I wish I had written this book. Not because I admire it (though obviously I do). My feelings are beyond mere jealousy. I wish I had written it because as I read it I heard Zindell say things I had tried to say in many of my own works, but never did, not this clearly, not this fully. I wish I had written it because it is the truth, earned truth, truth that grows out of a story that is at once grand and small, brilliant and dark, simple and intricate. I wish I had written it because a storyteller never truly knows a story until he has told it. I have read Zindell's book, and I want to know what he knew that allowed him to tell this tale. I want to tell it myself someday.


Robert Silverberg's World of Wonder, Robert Silverberg (Warner, cloth, 368 pp, $17.95)

When a writer's been around as long, has contributed as many outstanding works, to the field, and is such an all-around decent human being as Robert Silverberg, he acquires a semi-prophetic stature. While the rest of us can babble at will about what makes for good science fiction, in articles and columns like this one, Silverberg has both the authority and the intelligence to attempt a definitive book.

This remarkable volume seems at first glance to be an anthology -- Silverberg's best-ever list of science fiction stories. And, while one can quibble with some choices, you won't find many anthologies whose stories are as relentlessly good as these.

But following each story is a Silverberg essay, which flows smoothly from memoir to literary criticism. He talks about the writer, with illuminating and entertaining stories; then he talks about the story itself, unfolding it brilliantly so that we can understand at least something of what makes the story work.

One of the best things about the science fiction genre is that writers and readers together are still developing the critical theory and language to explain what our stories are for and how they work. At this writing, I'm halfway through teaching a course in writing and another course in the science fiction short story. I wish I had had this book to use as the basic text for both courses.

But don't be misled by that comment. Not for a moment does Robert Silverberg's Worlds of Wonder feel like a textbook. It's more like sitting down with a good friend whose information conversation sparkles, whose wisdom pierces you, whose intelligence makes you smarter just by listening.

Sure, you've probably read most of these stories before. But you've never read them with Robert Silverberg. This makes all the difference.


Starflight, Greg Johnson, Alex Kercso, Bob Gonsalves, T.C. Lee, Rod McConnell (Electronic Arts, Binary Systems, IBM compatibles, color not required; $49.95)

Exodus: Ultima III, Richard Garriott & Charles Beuche (Origin Systems, Inc; Apple, Commodore, IBM, MacIntosh; $49.95)

Bard's Tale, Michael Cranford (Electronic Arts, Interplay Production; Apple, Commodore, IBM; $39.95)

This isn't a game review column, but sometimes a computer game moves into the realm of science fiction and fantasy storytelling. I think it's worth pointing out that some computer games are now capable of giving the player an experience somewhat like fiction. The gamewright creates an interesting perilous world through which the player moves; the play, in turn, becomes the protagonist, the hero, improvising the events of the story. Thus gamewright and player become collaborators, co-authors of what can, in the best games, be a strong and fascinating fictional experience.

Starflight is the first science fiction computer game that actually gives you something of the experience of roaming through the galaxy. You visit solar systems and examine planets to see which are suitable for colonization. You land on the planets, mine for valuable minerals, and explore ruins of ancient civilizations, all the while coping with the local fauna. As you voyage, you encounter various races of aliens, and try to make friends with them so you can learn the secrets of the ancients. Eventually, you must visit a strange crystal planet which is causing widespread stellar instability, threatening all life; to stop it, you must make contact with the strangest species of all. I have found this game obsessively fascinating - and the graphics and player interface are superb.

Exodus: Ultima III is one of a long line of computerized Dungeons-and-Dragons spin-offs. Several things make it stand out above the rest: All the idiotic tedium of calculating strength and hit points and such are handled completely by the computer, while the player has simple real-time control over the player's battling. The game does not consist of battling endless moronic monsters - you have to converse with local citizens in various towns in order to find valuable clues. There are dungeons -- deeply-layered mazes in which you obtain gold, yes, but also arcane marks burned into your skin that allow you to pass into higher levels of play. You must find your way into hidden lands, whose entrances can be startlingly obvious, once you know where they are. Above all, you are free to explore at will, with no set order of solving puzzles until you reach the final objective in the most dangerous dungeon of all. The result is that Exodus is a wonderful fantasy adventure.

Bard's Tale exists, I suppose, to show us just how deadly a game can be when the gamewright thinks like a programmer instead of thinking like a storyteller. Obsessed with the possibilities of dazzling graphics, the gamewrights give us lovely pictures -- but all the action of the game takes place offscreen, with words, not pictures, reporting back the results. The graphics are more dazzling at first than Exodus's, but the player soon tires of the same pictures over and over. During the set-up phase of the game, there is a maddening melody that you can't turn off -- I was ready to tear the game disk in half by the time I finally got into the game. All in all, it's a triumph of programming -- and a failure as a game and as a story. Which, I suppose, makes it a failure as a program, too.


The Woman Who Is the Midnight Wind, Terence M. Green (Pottersfield Press, RR2, Porters Lake, Nova Scotia, B0J 2S0, Canada; trade paper, 137 pp.)

Terence M. Green is such a quiet writer that it's quite possible to overlook him for a while, possible not to realize that a string of extraordinarily good stories over the last few years have had the same byline.

But the stories have a cumulative effect. As you finish reading one, while the glow is still with you, you remember having experienced somewhere else that undercurrent of achingly sweet lost love, that deep anxiety that wounds but does not kill. And when you reach back in memory -- or burrow through the stacks of magazines until you find the issue, the story, and the author's name -- it is, of course, Terence Green.

As a reader of this magazine, you do doubt remember "Barking Dogs" (May 1984), "Till Death Do Us Part" (Dec. 1981), or surely, "Point Zero" (May 1986), all fine stories. Best of the lot, to me, is the story "Ashland Kentucky," about a man's bittersweet journey to uncover the mystery of his own family's past. There are other stories that have never before appeared in the United States, or only in relatively obscure anthologies.

As is so often the case, I suspect Green will not significantly widen his public until his first novel appears. Certainly this Canadian collection, which you will have to work to obtain, won't soon burden him with the annoyance of excessive fame. Yet for every short story writer, the first book-length collection is a milestone; and if you, as I do, regard short stories and novelets as the heart of science fiction, the place where the genre invents itself, Terence Green's first collection is a milestone for all of us.


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