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Fantasy & Science
Fiction Index
Index of Titles
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About This Area
1987
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1988
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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction August 1988

By Orson Scott Card


William Sleator, The Boy Who Reversed Himself (Dutton, Cloth, 167 pp, $12.95); Singularity (Dutton, Cloth, 170 pp, $12.95); Into the Dream (Scholastic/Apple, Paper, 154 pp, $2.50); Interstellar Pig (Bantam/Starfire, paper, 196 pp, $2.95); Blackbriar (Scholastic/Point, paper, 217 pp, $2.25)

To say that science fiction is the literature of adolescence does not demean the field, it is high praise. Adolescent readers are passing through a time when their conception of reality and their role within it are in flux. Everything is negotiable, everything is possible, and greatness is within their grasp. Whoever writes the literature of adolescence is creating the casual and moral universe of a generation. It isn't a trivial matter.

So it was no accident that many early science fiction novels first found hardcover publication as "juvenile fiction" -- the category we now call "young adult." The books did have a special appeal to adolescents. It was in my junior high library that I read science fiction classics like Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky and Citizen of the Galaxy and Andre Norton's The Time Traders, Galactic Derelict, Catseye, The Stars Are Ours, and Starborn.

Yet all these novels bear rereading even by adults. Long before Louise Fitzhugh, E.L. Konigsburg, and Judy Blume began writing "serious" young adult fiction, science fiction writers were demanding that their young readers cope with serious stories and real-life dilemmas. The readers of Tunnel in the Sky didn't have to deal with as much heavy symbolism as the readers of Lord of the Flies -- but I read them both in seventh grade, and have reread both of them since, and while Golding's novel lends itself more readily to academic-literary decoding, what I cared about then -- and still care about most today -- is the story. What happens and why. And on that score, both novels were truthful, powerful, and important to me as I made sense of the world around me, as I decided what it meant to be a good human being.

The writer who can speak to intelligent, passionate children has the best and most important audience in the world.

Which brings me, at last, to William Sleator. Chances are that you don't know his name. You've never seen a story of his in the genre magazine. You've never seen a book of his in the paperback section labeled Sci-Fi. Yet five, ten, fifteen years from now we're going to have an astonishing number of hot young writers in the field to whom the name "William Sleator" will be spoken with the same affection that many of us used to reserve for "Robert Heinlein" or "Andre Norton."

His writing is clean and clear. His narrative style is honed to a find edge, so that almost nothing is included that isn't an integral part of the story -- what the characters do and why they do it. He explains scientific principles with clarity and simplicity, and makes their marvels seem to be just around the corner from the lives of contemporary teenagers.

Above all, his insight into characters is wise and truthful and unsentimental. His good characters often do things for reasons they're ashamed of, his antagonists are never irredeemably evil. At the end of a Sleator novel, you know more about yourself and the world around you. You've also read a hell of an entertaining tale.

Briefly, now, five Sleator books: Singularity is the story of twin brothers who, during a summer tending their late uncle's home, discover that the old man built a shed to enclose a singularity, a place where time flows much faster then normal. The "younger" twin, feeling dominated by his stronger twin, sneaks to the shed one night and lives a full year in complete isolation -- overnight. He emerges the next morning inches taller and, more importantly, much wiser. What makes this novel a masterpiece is the fact that Sleator doesn't gloss over the year of isolation -- we experience it with the narrator, so that we pass through his transformation with him. I can't recommend this novel highly enough -- it's on my list of best all-time works of science fiction.

Into the Dream, an earlier work, is the tale of a boy and a girl who, though they dislike each other at school, are drawn together by the fact that they both have the same dream. To their astonishment, they discover that the dream is a memory, and that the urgent sense of danger that accompanies it is coming from still another character who was present at the scene -- one whose memories are all in black and white. Into the Dream turns into a thriller of sorts; it also shows the "heros" serving, finally, a subordinate role as they help a still younger character discover his own potential.

In The Boy Who Reversed Himself, the narrator is an exploitative, selfish kid in high school who gradually learns about real friendship and commitment from the geeky boy who just moved in next door -- Omar, who passes into the fourth dimension at will. There's only one side effect -- he comes back completely reversed. The narrator quickly learns how disconcerting that can be. Most food tastes terrible to her. Catsup, however, becomes an intoxicant. She doesn't realize how serious a business it is to travel from one dimension to another until it's almost too late -- but eventually she gets her act together. Besides creating a fine character story. Sleator manages to deal with interdimensional travel so clearly that it is actually possible to understand the experience of having to deal with ana and kana, as well as up and down, forward and back, left and right.

Interstellar Pig is not a companion volume to Jane Yolen's Commander Toad series of children's space adventures. Instead, it's the tale of a teenager trapped into a summer on the beach by his thoughtless parents, only to get into serious trouble when he starts playing the board game called "Interstellar Pig" with the strange trio of jet-setters who move into the cottage next door. The game that becomes real is an ancient fictional tradition which can easily become a cliche -- but Sleator expects you to guess very quickly that the game is real. The story is really about Barney's desperate effort to discover the true rules of the game so that he can win it -- or at least avoid losing. Some regard this as Sleator's best work to date -- it's certainly his most popular.

Blackbriar was Sleator's first novel, a ghost story in a strange old house in England. With secret passages, ancient rituals, and long-lost corpses, it's frightening enough to satisfy those who like to lie awake at night breathing hard and staring at the ceiling. It also shows that from the start of his career, Sleator was concerned with painful relationships between family members, and the struggle to heal love that has become diseased.

All these books have passed the acid test. My nine-year-old son, Geoffrey, has become so intensely involved in the novels that he couldn't sleep; and I, about as jaded a science fiction reader as you could hope to meet, also found the novels fresh and true.

So every now and then, sidle over into the young adult section of the bookstore or library and take a look at the science fiction that will help create the next generation, not just of science fiction readers and writers, but of the next generation of Americans as well.


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