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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction January 1989

By Orson Scott Card

How many of your friends or family members know you well enough to choose a vacation for you?

"Merry Christmas, and here's some tickets for a Bahamas cruise."

"Thank you very much, but I burn easily and I get seasick and I'd go crazy cooped up on a little boat and besides, I love the snow in winter."

"Well, excuse me for trying to please you."

Now imagine if they not only gave you the tickets, but also chose the entire itinerary, complete with every person you'd meet, every sight you'd see, every adventure you'd have, even the thoughts you'd think. Maybe, just maybe, they would have chosen the perfect vacation for you. Probably not.

Yet isn't that what we do when we give someone a novel?

Giving science fiction or fantasy as a gift is even trickier when you're dealing with young people. You can make even more mistakes -- like giving them a book that's too young or too old. Yet it's still worth a try. For one thing, it's a cheaper experiment than giving someone a cruise. For another, the worlds you open up for a kid can change his or her life in a way that no vacation in the real world ever could.

You already have your private list of favorite adult books, if you're buying gifts for a kid who's reading at that level. But you may not be familiar with some of the latest young-adult fantasy and science fiction. So here are some quick reviews that might help you.

First, though, let me remind you of a name that I've mentioned several times this year. William Sleator. I won't review his books again. I'll just assure you that any of his novels will be a fine introduction to science fiction for kids in those years of discovery -- bright 9-year-olds and imaginative 14-year-olds alike.

Alan Mendelsohn, The Boy from Mars, Daniel M. Pinkwater (Dutton, cloth, 248 pp, $14.95)

This book was thrust on me in the dealers room of the World Fantasy Convention in Nashville. All I said was, "I try to keep up with young adult science fiction," and suddenly five or six people were saying, "Have you read Alan Mendelsohn?" I hadn't then; now I have.

Standard young adult opening: The narrator, Leonard Neeble, is a nerd who just moved into a new high school where he suffers as class goat. Then he meets Alan Mendelsohn, also a new kid -- but Mendelsohn doesn't take all the crap lying down.

What makes this book stand head and shoulders above all the other books that begin like that is the fact that Daniel Pinkwater (the same one who does commentaries for NPR) has the most beautifully perverse worldview I've ever seen. He writes like a demented cherub who thinks he's the angel of death, slicing up all his characters even as he makes you love them.

And the deeper you get into the book, the more rules change, until you're living in a full-blown absurdist fantasy universe -- the kind of bright absurdism where you know the world is ruled by petty fascists but you can't stop laughing. Find a copy for the kid you love best. Then wrap it fast, don't read it yourself, or it will end up on your shelves and the kid will get some safe, tame, domesticated book instead.

Alien Child, Pamela Sargent (Harper & Row, cloth, 246 pp, $13.95)

I'm a stodgy, morally-conservative parent who doesn't approve of young adult fiction where kids discover it's O.K. to get laid as long as you're really in love and use a condom. Nor do I think fiction is the place to teach the facts of life. So believe me when I tell you that Pamela Sargent's garden-of-eden novel Alien Child deals intelligently with sex, and does it with such taste and restraint that I have few qualms about giving it to a ten-year-old. But you might have more qualms than I, so be warned.

Nita is a human child being raised by aliens. She sees no other humans except the computer personalities that answer every question except the ones that matter most. Then one day she sees another human child, and learns that he has been living all these years in the same place. Why didn't her alien "parents" tell her? How did she come to life? Are there other human survivors somewhere on earth?

Finding the answers to these questions makes Alien Child a fascinating mystery and adventure story, but the heart of the book is the exploration of what it means to be human. For Nita has always experienced herself through the eyes of a kind but irretrievably alien mind, and discovering Sven means rediscovering herself, and together reinventing the human race.

Sargent's most recent adult novel, The Shore of Women, was a rare creature, a perfect book. Sargent does not lower her standards when she writes young adult fiction. Like the best of young adult writers, her artistic standards remain as high as ever, while her standards of clarity and concision actually rise. Sometimes I wished she could afford to linger more; at the end I wished the story had been longer. But the intelligence and resourcefulness she showed in Shore of Women are undiminished in Alien Child.

The Changes: vol 1, The Devil's Children; vol 2, Heartsease, vol 3, The Weathermonger, Peter Dickinson (Dell, Laurel-Leaf Fantasy, paper 1988 reprint of work dating from the 1960s and 1970s, paper 187 pp, 236 pp, 190 pp, $2.95 ea.)

I picked up these books because of the gorgeous Dillon cover art and because I thought Peter Dickinson's story "Flight" was not only the best thing in Robin McKinley's anthology Imaginary Lands (Ace, 1985), but one of the most powerful stories I'd ever read.

A sudden and terrible change has come over contemporary Britain, thrusting the people back into the dark ages. All their machines still work -- but now, at the sound of an engine running or the sight of a vehicle moving, people are overcome by terror and rage. Anyone caught using a machine is killed.

Yet many British refugees discover that if they can only cross the channel, their loathing of machinery disappears, and they can live normal lives again. And non-natives of Britain are unaffected by the madness that has overcome the others.

The Devil's Children tells of a girl who gets involved with a group of Sikhs, who run a grave risk of being slaughtered because of the inadvertent use of a machine; they use her spells of madness, as a bellwether, to warn them when some perfectly normal action puts them in danger.

Heartsease is the story of two kids whose humanity overcomes their loathing of machines. Finding that a "witch" -- a spy from more normal lands -- is not dead after all, they save his life and risk everything trying to get him to safety.

In The Weathermonger, an expedition is mounted to find the source of the madness and extinguish it.

The stories are compelling adventure. They are also a truthful examination of how both good and evil communities are created out of chaos. Dickinson writes so well, and his milieu is so real, that at times I found these books unbearably dark; I had to set them aside awhile before I could go on.

But this will not be a drawback for most "young adults." Tragedy and bleakness are the stuff of romantic adolescence, and these stories are so rich with it that I believe they have the power to transform -- to be the kind of seminal tale that turns a bright child into a reader forever.

Up from Jericho Tel, E.L. Konigsburg (Dell/Yearling, trade paper, 178 pp, $2.95)

E.L. Konigsburg is one of the great writers of modern young adult fiction, and while many of her stories tease us by showing us the dark, mysterious borderlands of fantasy, Up from Jericho Tel is the first time she has plunged right into the supernatural.

The only trouble is that when the two kids in this book find themselves meeting with a supernatural visitor from the grave, it turns out to be Tallulah Bankhead. I'm not exactly a teenager anymore, and I worked many years in theatre, where legends of the marvelous Tallulah abound -- yet even I felt that Konigsburg was invoking her character in a way that suggested that she assumed that her audience already knew Tallulah Bankhead's mannerisms and eccentricities and blinding talent, and loved them. Is there any teenager in America who has ever heard of this actress?

Never mind. By the end of this book they will have heard of her, and perhaps that's part of Konigsburg's agenda in writing it. Stage actors live on only in legend -- their work is unrecorded in print or film (T.B. gave a fine performance in Lifeboat, but I don't think she made any other movies). So Jericho Tel may give her legend another generation or two of life.

Much more important is the tale itself. T.B. sends the kids on mad quests, eventually leading them to solve the mystery of what happened to the Regina Stone, which Tallulah always had with her, but which disappeared after she died. They solve the mystery -- and resolve a few things about themselves along the way. A fun book -- and a book that bridges the genre boundaries between contemporary YA fiction and YA sf and fantasy.

Charon's Ark, Rick Gauger (Ballantine/Del Rey, paper, 375 pp, $3.50)

There's nothing on this book to suggest that it's a "young adult" novel -- so it makes the perfect gift for a teenager who wouldn't be caught dead reading a "children's book," yet who will appreciate a story in which high school adolescents are thrust into real-world life-and-death situations.

The beginning is so high-concept I can already hear the cameras rolling. Some kids from an obscure American high school are selected to visit an equally obscure island nation in the Pacific. On the way, their airliner is seized by a UFO -- the wings are sheared off and the plane is drawn up into the belly of the alien craft.

From there, though, Gauger really gets creative. The aliens aren't really all-powerful. Their spaceship is on its last legs, and if the kids don't behave -- and, in true Rambo fashion, they don't -- they run a real risk of trashing the whole ship. They end up on an artificial moon of Pluto, where they are faced with a murderous alien culture in the last throes of decline -- and a computer personality that makes Stalin look benign.

As you might expect, the class geek saves the day -- but not at all in the way you expect, so that Gauger at once fulfills cliches and subverts them. The story dances between the funny and the tragic, but the result is an astonishingly good first novel. Like the best of the Heinlein young-adult novels, this story doesn't just reflect the lives of adolescents, it shows them how to rise out of that madness and make a place for themselves in the world of adults. Watch for Gauger's name on future books. This is a storyteller who delivers.

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