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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction July 1988

By Orson Scott Card

Starfire, Paul Preuss (TOR, Cloth, 310 pp, $17.95).

The plot sounds like a standard Analog story of hardware in crisis: A bunch of astronauts finally get launched, despite bureaucratic meddling, on the first operational voyage of a reusable interplanetary shuttle, the Starfire. Their first objective is to visit an anomalous asteroid. They are just leaving when a solar flare, combined with some computer program foul-ups, doom them to destruction -- unless they can, with tools at hand, find a way to get around the sun and hurl themselves back toward Earth without burning up or running out of fuel.

I usually sum up such a plot this way: A mixed crew with a really neat new machine gets into a really dangerous situation and by trying really hard and being really brave and saying, "I think I can, I think I can," they just barely make it.

The difference here is that Paul Preuss is writing the story. The result is that the writing is clear and energetic, the science is believable and never dull, and, above all, the characters are real.

They aren't just individually real -- these characters are real together. Preuss understands that human beings are not integers, existing in isolation; instead we are the sums, quotients, products, and roots of ever-shifting equations. When you think you have a character pegged, that's the moment Preuss will surprise you, will show that the character was more -- or less, or other -- than you supposed.

A couple of years ago, Preuss's Human Error was a marvelous extrapolation on bio-engineering. With Starfire, he has taken hold of a moribund sci-fi cliche and breathed new life into it. True, there were moments where the novel felt old-fashioned and heavy-handed, times when the special effects department tried a little to hard to dazzle the reader, but the fact remains that Preuss has done the impossible -- he has written a terrific novel about the near future of the American space program.

He has also done something more important than that. Preuss has dared to tell a story of true heroism, of human beings at their noblest. There is a brief moment at the climax of the book where one character has made a decision to die in order to save the others -- and lies about it, so no one can argue against the decision. Everyone knows it's a lie, but in silence they all accept the sacrifice, knowing that without it none of them would get home.

Instead of wallowing in guilt or angst or sentimentality, Preuss presents us with unadorned love and nobility and asks that we admire it, honor it, believe in it -- but also take it for granted as just one more natural but irrational outcome of the human equation.

This is not an unforgettable classic -- there is too much familiar ground here for that. But Starfire is a true story, true in the way that only the best fiction can be true, and I heartily recommend it.

The Tommyknockers, Stephen King (Putnam, Cloth, 558 pp, $19.95).

I regularly make myself obnoxious in gatherings of literature professors by pointing out that a hundred years from now, when people wish to read the quintessential literature of our times, the fiction that defined and recorded the last twentieth century, the names of Bellow, Updike, Barthelme, Didion, and Beattie will all have to struggle for sunlight under the sprawling shadow of Stephen King. Some literateurs, hearing this, have gagged at the thought, but none who were sober have seriously tried to disagree. What Dickens was in his time, and Twain in his, King is to our time -- and I applaud it. He has seen with a true eye, and written with a clear and honest voice, and done it with such force that America -- or at least that portion of America that reads -- has sat up and paid attention. Has cared in a way that neither Harold Robbins nor Saul Bellow has ever made them care.

Furthermore, I believe that King's best work has been, not his horror stories, but his science fiction. While The Stand is ultimately religious fiction, its near-future setting and the bio-engineering source of the world-wrecking plague that begins the book put it plainly within our genre. And The Dead Zone, so far his finest novel, belongs to that wide current within sci-fi of stories about precognition and trying to change the future.

Nevertheless, not even Dickens or Twain produced great work every time. Great and prolific writers all have experiments that fail -- Faulkner certainly did, though his failures are generally required reading in college English classes, while Twain's miserable Tom Sawyer, Detective is mercifully left to languish in well-deserved obscurity.

Such, I hope, will be the fate of The Tommyknockers. The tale is a weary one. A buried flying saucer is uncovered in the village of Haven, Maine, and eventually possesses the souls of its inhabitants, directing them to carry out its own purposes. A handful of people remain somewhat independent and finally manage to end the town's enthrallment.

It's a measure of King's talent that the hoary plot still makes quite a readable book, and the characters are interesting and well-drawn, but I couldn't shake off the feeling that this was King writing in his sleep. This was King doing what he already does so well that he can do it without even really caring much about the story.

Well, for this reader at least, he's wrong. There was something missing from this book. Passion. Belief. Maybe King actually felt both as he wrote the book, but this time it never got from the keyboard to the thirty-five sixteen-page signatures that made up this heavy, but lightweight, book.

Faces, Leigh Kennedy (Atlantic Monthly Press, Cloth, 152 pp, $15.95).

Leigh Kennedy's first novel, The Journal of Nicholas the American, was one of the best novels of 1986. It was a book about an empath. But I couldn't help thinking that it was also a book by an empath. I remember thinking as I read it, How did she learn to tell about this? How did she know how it feels?

Now her publisher has paid her the rich compliment of publishing a collection of her short stories, even though, as everyone knows, short story collections don't sell.

Well, let's make an exception in this case, shall we? Kennedy tells stories on the very fringes of science fiction, in that speculative area that never uses gadgets, just carries present reality a little farther, explores present love and loss and pain and makes you live inside someone else's soul for a brief while.

Three of the stories in Faces appeared in Asimov's back in 1983; others were in a fanzine, a horror anthology, and a literary magazine. But some are published here for the first time.

"The Fisherman" is about a man who finds the body of a murdered child in a lake. Does her ghost haunt him? Is there a monster? No, Kennedy feels no need to juice the story up with fantasy. There's horror enough in what finding the girl means to him. No one ever knows who she was. But he knows who she could have been, if only he'd been willing to have children when his wife so badly wanted to. I didn't need a ghost to feel haunted.

"Petit Mal" is an exquisite tale of a boy who begins having short seizures that cut out brief sections of events around him, so he views the rest of the world in time-lapse, days seeming to pass in hours, his family fading around him. Painful as it is to see the cost of this intermittent short-circuit in his brain, anguish comes only when his "time travel" finally ends.

This year, Pat Murphy's "Rachel in Love," the story of a girl's mind put into the body of an ape, will certainly win the Hugo and Nebula. But I urge you also to read Leigh Kennedy's story "Her Furry Face," which is the dark side of that bright and hopeful coin -- the story of a man who, unable to deal with people, tries to treat his Pinocchio, a sentient orangutan named Annie, as a woman. Kennedy somehow knows how this man feels when he realizes that he has committed an unforgivable sin. Some stories are almost too true to bear.

Usually you'll hear me ranting about how we need more sense of wonder in science fiction. Well, I'm right. But Leigh Kennedy's Faces reminded me of how vital it also is to reach for her exquisite sense of truth.

A Different Flesh, Harry Turtledove (Congdon & Weed, Isaac Asimov Presents, Cloth, $16.95).

When Columbus came to the New World, he found, not "Indians," but primitive ape-men that were soon dubbed "sims." Unable to learn human speech or conceptualize at a human level, the sims could still learn to make tools, could still be trained to do reliable work. Could still, in other worlds, be made slaves.

Harry Turtledove's alternate American history A Different Flesh is a series of compelling stories about each stage in the development of human-sim relations. Turtledove pastiches several traditional story forms, from Indian-capture tales to Samuel Pepy's diary. More important, though, he shows in clear relief the struggle for human beings to recognize kinship with a sentient but inferior species.

In some ways, the existence of sims helps humans treat each other better -- with sims around for contrast, it's easier for 19th-century Americans to recognize that blacks are human, for instance. But serious questions are raised in the final story, "Freedom," when 1980s sims are deliberately infected with AIDS, leading to the development of a drug that controls but does not cure the disease.

I keenly felt the anguish of the sims-rights activists who kidnap an AIDS-infected sim, only to realize that it is impossible for them to give him true freedom. This was made all the more powerful by Turtledove's decision to write several passages from the sim's point of view. It's tough to write from a subhuman character's point of view without sentimentalizing and anthropomorphizing until the true differences between species are erased.

Turtledove never falls into that trap, not even in the story of Henry Quick, a trapper in the Rocky Mountains. When his leg is broken in a struggle with a bear, his life is saved by a tribe of sims, leading through several natural steps to his becoming a "Squawman." Even though we join Quick in feeling real affection for the sim female who becomes his mate, Turtledove never once even hints that the sims have any hope of becoming humans.

His message is more difficult than that. He insists that, even knowing that the sims will never be fully human, they must be allowed to keep their natural dignity; that their lives, even as subhumans, are made sacred by the intelligence they do have.

What is most disturbing about A Different Flesh is how little Turtledove had to change American history in order to tell this story. Our treatment of Indians and blacks throughout history scarcely differed from the treatment accorded sims in this book. And if the American people in Turtledove's alternate history could learn respect for another species, why was it so hard for us to learn the same lesson in regard to fellow Homosapiens?

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