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
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
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
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,
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
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
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?