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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 pp, $18.95)

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 unrelated series.

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 practical.

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 are guilty.

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 Mitch's crusade.

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.

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