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
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.