Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction February 1989
By Orson Scott Card
Crazy Time, Kate Wilhelm (St. Martin's, cloth, 248 pp, $16.95)
I love the old screwball comedy films of the black-and-white era: His Girl
Friday, Bringing Up Baby, Arsenic and Old Lace. I love the wittily satiric comedies
of Hepburn and Tracy. I love the character comedy of Jack Lemon and Walter
Matthau. What I don't love is most of the pathetic attempts at comedy in
science fiction and fantasy.
You see, most comedy -- as opposed to satire -- in our genre is written by
and for eight-year-olds. Credibility of character or a situation is blithely tossed
away for the sake of a dumb joke. Authors seem to break up laughing over their
own humor -- they think they're a lot funnier than I ever think they are.
The essence of good comedy is that it is truthful, that the audience cares
what happens. Sure, the characters are exaggerated, even weird -- but we also
like them, want them to succeed. Their weirdness is not in itself a joke, but
rather the source of problems. The characters' attitude toward those problems --
Donald Duck's rage, Cary Grant's pretended nonchalance, Katharine Hepburn's
pluck -- that's where the humor comes from. In other words, good comedy isn't
all laughter -- the audience must be emotionally involved enough to say, "Oh,
no!" when something goes wrong for the character. Only when the character
tries to deal with the problem does the laughter begin.
I submit that Kate Wilhelm's Crazy Time is the first sf screwball comedy
that actually works. That Wilhelm is the first writer I've seen who can write
very funny eccentric characters with weird dilemmas who are, nonetheless,
absolutely truthful. Furthermore, its very truthfulness makes Crazy Time first-rate science fiction.
Sure, it all depends on a genius kid breaking into an experimental
computer and designing a "death" ray that actually works -- but that's not what
the story's about. Instead, we follow the adventures of an eccentric young artist
who suddenly finds himself dispersed throughout the known universe by the
death ray. He only gradually learns to reassemble himself -- without clothing,
unfortunately -- near a strikingly beautiful woman he has never actually met
Do they fall in love? Do they outwit the paranoid government guy who's
out to destroy them? Can he convince her that he really exists and that she isn't
going crazy? Comedy plots sound so dumb when you summarize them. Then
again, so do most science fiction plots. Enough to say that unless your sense of
humor can't deal with anything less sophisticated than Ulysses -- or more
sophisticated than the Three Stooges -- you will love Crazy Time.
Bio of an Ogre, Piers Anthony (Ace, cloth, 297 pp, $17.98)
Sometimes this book is Piers Anthony's memoir; sometimes it is his
apologia; sometimes it is his confession. He never makes up his mind. He never
If one thing comes clear in Bio of an Ogre, it is the fact that Piers Anthony
has not lived his life to please other people. But then, people have not exactly
lived their lives to please him, either. He has no distance from himself -- he
labors even harder to vindicate his own actions when he is partly in the wrong
than he does when he is clearly in the right.
Yet such absolute honesty-without-perspective about who he believes he is
-- that's what makes this book worth reading. This is not one of those plastic
autobiographies in which famous people try to make themselves look good. Nor
is this a kiss-and-tell book, in which celebs try to elevate themselves by belittling
the people around them. Piers Anthony instead reveals himself to be exactly the
kind of person that is at once the bane and the raison d'etre of science fiction:
He insists on seeing the world through his own eyes, and not as someone else has
told him to see it. At times this annoys other people. At times he is dead
wrong. But there is no possibility of genius without peculiarity of vision.
No doubt his chapters on squabbles within our little world of sci-fi will get
most of the attention. That's a shame. Because most of the book is about other
things, which matter far more. I wish I could read such candid, self-revealing
"bios" by a lot of other figures I admire. But few of them have the guts to do it.
Chaos: Making a New Science, James Gleick (Viking, cloth, 354 pp, $19.95)
Chaos isn't science fiction. Instead, it's contemporary history -- how a few
practicing scientists managed to lift their eyes out of the chasm of their own
discipline and get a broader perspective, one that lets them realize that a whole
bunch of different branches of science were all facing similar questions which
might actually have similar answers. The trouble was, they couldn't get anybody
outside their own discipline to pay the slightest attention to them -- except for a
few oddballs that nobody listened to anyway.
The actual science they discovered is fascinating in its own right, but the
overall message of the book transcends even the excitement of discovering
regularity within chaos: This book affirms that when something is true,
eventually it will become known, despite the best efforts of entrenched
ignorance to slap it down. And ideas espoused only by the academically
untouchable can eventually become the keys to unlock the answers to questions
that the establishment was too myopic even to ask. I loved the book as science.
I loved it as a story. So will you.
(I also saw in it some ray of hope that maybe such things might happen in
the field of literary criticism. Maybe someday, if enough of us literary outcasts
make enough noise, people will notice that the best of late-twentieth-century
American literature is appearing here, in sf and fantasy, the literature of the