Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction September 1988
By Orson Scott Card
Unicorn Mountain, Michael Bishop (Arbor House, cloth, 352 pp, $17.95)
At first glance, Unicorn Mountain seems to be a novel about AIDS, and my
immediate response was to shudder -- what, Michael Bishop, bastion of integrity
in speculative fiction, writing a trendy novel?
There was much to feed my fears in the early part of the book. When
Libby Quarrels, a middle-aged Colorado rancher, suddenly arrives in Atlanta to
bring her ex-cousin-in-law -- advertising artist, homosexual, and Person-With-AIDS Bo Gavin -- home to Colorado to die, I nearly gagged on the officious
sweetness of it all.
Bishop seemed to realize this, the antics and banter of these two are more
than a little forced, as if Bishop were grimly determined to make them endearing
in spite of it all. They intellectualize about their own actions and attitudes as if
the author had given them all a quick lecture on subtext. Libby suffers from
relentless ideological correctness, and everyone has the nasty habit of thinking
thoughts that just happen to explicate Bishop's carefully knotted and utterly
obvious macrame of symbols. This is a novel in which you have to be brain-dead
or a frequent reader of Douglas Adams novels not to get the message.
Sooner than I expected, though, these problems faded into the
background, and when Bishop lets us pay attention to the story, it's wonderful.
Not only do Libby and Bo become genuinely likeable, they are merely two of the
many delicious characters in this book.
My favorites were among the Indians: D'Lo, who blows her own head off
with a shotgun and then haunts people until they do what she wants; Sam
Coldpony, whose marriage to D'Lo broke up early but still forms the spine of his
life; Paisley, their daughter, who struggles to find her magical way in the world
despite her parents; and unforgettable minor characters like drunken Helbert
Barnes and cigar-store shaman DeWayne Sky and his prickly wife Lanna Sue.
They are richly human and full of sensible magic -- not at all like the hokey
Castaneda Indians that have bored us in fiction since the drugged-out hippies
invented them in 1967.
There are also unicorns, which Bishop manages to cleanse of the symbolic
barnacles they have acquired over the years in order to make them something
new. He also gives them a new name -- kartajans -- which looms in this book
like the mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Bishop's kartajans come
to our world not to heal us, but to be healed; they transform us, not by their
perfection, but by the compassion they demand of us.
The triumph of this, Bishop's most artistically whole and successful novel
to date, is that he set out to do something that is nearly impossible in fiction:
He wrote a novel about constructing a tribe, making a single entity out of dozens
of divergent and conflicting personalities. To do it, he had to bring us to know
and understand and care about more fully-created characters than most writers
produce in a career.
By the end of Unicorn Mountain, you will know how to be in a tribe. You
will have learned to take responsibility for all others, to have respect for them
even when they piss you off. You will feel as if Bishop has included you in his
made-up family, wrapped you in the Godsheet, and taken you home at last to
your true love, who has forgiven you for everything.
Swordspoint, Ellen Kushner (Arbor House, cloth, 269 pp, $15.95)
It is the epitome of the decadent civilized life. The city-state is ruled by a
council of nobles, whose choices are limited by law and tradition. Quarrels are
settled by dueling, but to avoid excessive bloodshed among the nobility, the
actual duel can be fought by hired swordsmen. If a noble's surrogate is pinked --
or, in serious quarrels, killed -- then his opponent's honor is satisfied, and the
lord himself is safe.
St. Vier is the best swordsman in the city -- as he must be, in a
swashbuckling imaginary-kingdom fantasy like this one. And, as the best, he
naturally gets caught up in the intricate plots of the lords who are struggling for
dominance. What matters to him, however, is his private life, which is focused
on his lover, Alec, an enigmatic young man with a death wish. Homosexuality
in this society is taken to be as normal as adultery, and the relationship between
St. Vier and Alec is fascinating, quickly winning the reader's sympathy.
The novel begins with two unfortunate pages of excessively self-indulgent
writing. If you like vague descriptions of unremarkable scenes in which nothing
is happening except a writer trying to wow us with her prose, then you'll be
delighted with this opening. Otherwise, start at the top of page three. Kushner
never struts like that again. Instead, she draws you through the story with such
lucid, powerful writing that you come to trust her completely -- and she doesn't
let you down.
Oh, there's room for a sequel or two: Swordspoint ends with a potential
rival practicing his swordsmanship in a far-off country, so we know that there has
to be a later volume in which he faces St. Vier, and there is plenty of room in
this world for more plots and intrigues. But Swordspoint is self-contained. It
ends, and deliciously, too, with Alec's unmasking and the downfall of a
dangerously clever lord.
In fact, so sure is Kushner's hand that as I closed the book (with its perfect
cover by Tom Canty) it was hard to remember that this same Ellen Kushner has
been a junior editor, an earnest young aspirant. I kept thinking I had been in
the company of a masterly writer, whom I could trust absolutely. It's the kind of
trust that only a special kind of writer earns: the writer who has so fully realized
the story's world and characters, who has such perfect command of language and
structure that the story never falters.
The flawed beginning is the only sign in Swordspoint that Kushner is
young. If it weren't for that lapse, the rest of us writers would have to get
together and kill her at once, so we wouldn't have to go through the rest of our
careers being compared to her.
I don't usually quote from books I review, but this time I can't resist.
Kushner, as an editor, has no doubt longed to write spectacularly nasty rejection
slips for a handful of truly bad manuscripts. She indulges herself here, with St.
Vier's response to a letter he received, offering him a job:
"Thank you for your kind offers. We have enjoyed reading them even
more than you intended. Unfortunately, the job in question does not really suit
our current needs. We wish you luck with it elsewhere. (Your future letters will
be returned unopened.)"
It is a testament to Kushner's skill that this little literary in-joke is a key
plot point; a kidnapping, a murder, and a capital trial result directly from the
sending of this rejection. Even when Kushner is kidding, she means it. Watch
this woman -- she's going to be one of the great ones.
Prelude to Foundation, Isaac Asimov (Foundation Books/Doubleday, cloth, 402
Isaac Asimov keeps tampering with his own oeuvre, as if he didn't trust his
robot stories and novels and the Foundation trilogy to stand the test of time.
Why in the world did he feel the need to connect these two completely
His motive doesn't matter. What counts is that Asimov's genius and
integrity forbid him to make a botch even of as bad an idea as this one. I never
wanted to read about Hari Seldon's arrival on Trantor and the beginning of his
career, any more than I wanted to know what happened after the close of the
Foundation trilogy. But, just like Foundation and Earth, Prelude to Foundation is a
vital, idea-rich story that asks -- and proposes answers to -- some of the knottiest
problems in ethical philosophy.
I promise that you'll find in this book what Asimov has always given us
before: mystery, wit, adventure, and ideas. I also promise that Prelude will feel
vaguely old-fashioned -- Asimov's style and voice were set long before Bester
and Ellison and LeGuin. But just because we have Mozart and Beethoven and
Satie doesn't mean we should value Bach a minim less; and if, like Bach,
Asimov is writing his best works in a time when they are already artistically out
of fashion, we can also be sure that, like Bach, Asimov will transcend fashion to
be remembered as one of the greatest in his field -- partly because of, and not at
all in spite of, his most recent fiction.
So dive into this book and meet Asimov's usual assortment of
unforgettable heroes: Hari Seldon; his lovely and deadly bodyguard, history
professor Dors Venabili; a street kid named Raych; the guru of the Trantorian
underground, Mother Rittah; a bald pervert named Raindrop Forty-Three; a self-taught mathematician, Yugo Amaryl, struggling to rise out of his untouchable
caste; and Rashelle, who modestly aspires to be absolute dictator of only a
handful of worlds.
You'll also explore Trantor, which Asimov has made almost as marvelous
(and even more plausible) than Niven's Ringworld; you'll find out what became
of the elitists of Aurora and all their robots; and, above all, you'll read the
"hand-on-thigh story" and discover how psycho-history was finally made
Prelude is going to be a bestseller. It deserves to be.
Barking Dogs, Terence M. Green (St. Martin's, cloth, 214 pp, $15.95)
I wanted to like Barking Dogs better than I did. I suppose I was expecting
to read the Terence Green of Ashland, Kentucky and his other fine and subtle
recent works of speculative fiction. Instead, this book is an expansion of a much
more traditional science fiction story, a gadget story about a Toronto cop who
buys a "barking dog" -- a portable and perfect lie detector that allows you to
evaluate the honesty of anyone you see or hear, even on television.
Mitch, the cop, uses his new device to begin a spate of vigilante killings,
Mitch's way of getting revenge on the criminals who killed his good friend and
partner Mario. The difference between Mitch and real-life vigilantes of the
lynch-mob variety is that Mitch knows, absolutely, that the people he executes
The action scenes are excellent, the tension strong. There are only a
couple of weaknesses. First, I can't believe that if a perfect lie detector were
easily available, it would not have become widespread almost immediately. And
because Mitch's relationship with Mario consists only of pretty lame tough-guy
banter, which we see only in flashback, I never really came to sympathize with
Still, this slight book is a pretty good cop novel, and because Green is
such an honest and perceptive writer, the book transcends its material. It's also
Green's first novel, and if his novels progress as his stories have, we can look for
truly fine books by Terence Green in the near future.