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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction December 1988

By Orson Scott Card

Islands in the Net, Bruce Sterling (Arbor House/Morrow, Cloth, 338 pp, $18.95)

I think there's a good chance Bruce Sterling will someday be remembered for having contributed as much to science fiction as, say, John W. Campbell, Alfred Bester, or even -- Sterling certainly has the wit, the skill, and the splendid arrogance -- Robert Heinlein.

Like Campbell, Sterling is an ideologue, and while I like his ideology a good deal more than I liked Campbell's, there is always the danger that a successful ideologue will narrow, not broaden, the possibilities within science fiction. That danger seemed particularly acute a few years ago, when "cyberpunk," an often-stupid trivializing of Sterling's philosophy, led to a series of shallow stories set in almost identical counter culture futures that were about as believable as the latest fantasy trilogy set among the shadows of Middle Earth.

While Sterling himself produced few "cyberpunk" stories, he seemed complacent enough about the co-opting of his movement by the unimaginative. In the meantime, his own novel, Schismatrix, remained a cult favorite among those to whom ideas are everything, and a deadly unreadable book to those of us who actually prefer to have stories in our fiction.

Now here is Islands in the Net, in which Sterling finally does a brilliant sf instead of talking about it. As we have come to expect from Sterling, the book is so thick with ideas that lesser writers could make whole careers out of stealing them. But we're used to Sterling being more intelligent and creative than anybody else writing today.

The surprises come from what else he has done -- levels of achievement only hinted at in the best of his short fiction.

Surprise 1: The story is terrific action-adventure science fiction. People that we care deeply about are in grave danger. They make choices that change their lives and the world. As the plot twists and turns, we are endlessly surprised -- and invariably satisfied.

Surprise 2: The novel isn't just politically aware -- it's politically mature. Sterling understands how tentative power is, how fragile communities are. He also doesn't stack the deck by giving all the good ideas to one ideological group. There is some truth and goodness in almost every movement, as well as some weakness or corruption or self-deception. There is never a clear-cut victory, never a defeat from which there is no hope of recovery. In short, his book feels like true history, something I have never found in any other near-future science fiction.

Surprise 3: Islands in the Net is also brilliant romance, both in the love-story sense and in the sense of a mythically true story. The tale begins with a married couple celebrating their first child -- rich with overtones of Sterling's own recent experience with replicating his genetic material. But as they get caught up in political events, they are subjected to pressures that pull them apart.

We follow the woman, Laura, for she is the one who is out to change the world. We watch as she seems to be defeated, even destroyed. Then we see her salvage her true self -- and some vital truth -- from the ruins of defeat. Yet the price she pays is not trivial. Like Job, she has lost everything; unlike Job, she doesn't get it back. But she has seen, if not the face of God, then the faces of Good and Evil, not childishly drawn with white and black hats, but rather with the surprisingly ugly and beautiful faces that both sides wear in the real world.

Bruce Sterling would be important anyway for what he says about science fiction. He will now be important also for the science fiction he has written. His influence will now be experiential, not just ideological. Any writer who reads Islands in the Net will have a new, clearer standard of what science fiction ought to -- must -- be.

But even if you don't care diddly-squat about what's "important" to sf, you should read this book for the sheer wonderful fun of it. With the exception of a few slow places rather early on, Islands in the Net is a first-rate political thriller. If it were marketed like a Clancy or a Ludlum, it would make Sterling rich. Instead, he gave the book to us -- and therefore makes us richer.

The Grey Horse, R.A. MacAvoy (Bantam Spectra, Paper, 247 pp, $4.95)

This is not a "horse novel." You don't have to love horses to love this book. Nor is it a "Celtic fantasy" -- one of those books where the author starts out assuming you love anything Irish or Welsh or Scottish, and if you don't, you can go to hell.

What The Grey Horse is, my friends, is wonderful. Set in the latter years of the Irish struggle against England, its main characters are involved in some political incidents, yes -- but that isn't the whole story. And the tale is built around a pookah, a fairy horse that changes into a man whenever he feels like it -- but that isn't the whole story. And there is an unworthy son who tries to destroy his father, and a touching tale of an English overlord who wants to prove himself to be a true Irishman; and the story of a young boy coming of age through mastering horsemanship; and the rivalry between a strong but over-large bastard woman and her beautiful, legitimate, and shallow younger sister; and the story of a priest who can't balance the opposing calls of Church and nationalism; and the tale of a mad stallion that lives only to win races even if it destroys himself -- but none of these, alone, is the whole story.

Because MacAvoy has actually peopled her world. Every character who shows up in this book is real and whole, with his own past, her own driving needs. And MacAvoy artfully juggles all the stories so that we care deeply how each one comes out, and though few of them end in a standard romantic fashion, all the tales turn out in a way that is true and right. This is the kind of book that ends with a sweet melancholy that makes you feel glad to be alive; that makes you wish you didn't have to leave the world of the book, or bid farewell to these people you know and like so well.

Here is an astonishing fact: R.A. MacAvoy is the author of the Damiano trilogy and Tea with the Black Dragon and Twisting the Rope and The Book of Kells, all of them fine and influential contributions to contemporary fantasy -- yet she has never been given a hardcover edition, even though Bantam's sf/fantasy line regularly gives hardcover publications to far less substantial novels than these. Never mind that such a repeated slight will surely drive MacAvoy to a publisher that recognizes her worth -- that's Bantam's problem. What annoys me is that I want to own The Grey Horse in hardcover. I want it on my shelf forever. I want my children to grow into this book. And some pinhead at Bantam decided the answer was no before I even asked.

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