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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction May 1989

By Orson Scott Card

Nayan Chanda, Brother Enemy: The War after the War: A History of Indochina since the Fall of Saigon (Macmillan/Collier, trade paper, 479 pp, $12.95).

Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America, trans. Richard Howard (Harper & Row, cloth, 274 pp, $17.95).

Romance of the Three Kingdoms, KOEL, computer game

Every now and then I point out to you a book that isn't sf or fantasy, just because I think it might appeal to the kind of people who like fiction that makes you think, that makes you reinterpret the world you live in.

Nayan Chanda's Brother Enemy is fascinating contemporary history by a first-rate journalist. Chanda, as a reporter for Far Eastern Economic Review, had the kind of access available only to journalists who come to oriental stories without looking -- or acting -- American. But this book transcends its story.

By the end of the book, you see clearly that we Americans weren't the only ones who acted out our fantasy version of the world in Southeast Asia. The Russians, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Cambodians -- all of them took some of their most dangerous and outrageous steps because they believed that other people would act certain ways. The other people never cooperated. Every act was misinterpreted or overinterpreted by the other side, so that the pinheaded bureaucratic conflicts of Brzezinski and Vance are not the result of a unique American stupidity, but rather the way that all governments seem to make their decisions. The trouble is that every one of these decisions killed people.

Chanda shows us how unfathomably alien we human beings can be to each other. Tzvetan Todorov, a Bulgarian expatriate writing history and literary criticism in Paris, makes this theme even clearer in The Conquest of America. Using the stories of Columbus and Cortes as a springboard, Todorov explores in marvelously clear philosophical terms that whole idea of how two alien cultures interact. As I read this book, I found Todorov again and again making explicit ideas about alienness only touched on in the best and most insightful science fiction.

While Cortes was busy trying to understand the Mexicans in order to exploit their weaknesses and conquer them (itself a revolutionary concept among the Spanish), Montezuma and the Mexicans were busy trying to understand, not the Spaniards, but rather what the gods meant by sending them. In practical terms, this guaranteed the Spanish conquest; but in spiritual and philosophical terms, neither culture proved to be "superior" to the other.

If the philosophical issues raised by science fiction about aliens are as interesting to you as the stories themselves, these two books will delight you as they did me. They're also fascinating history, not the least because they weren't written by Americans, with American assumptions. I read them in alternation over the past couple of weeks, and I feel like my world has grown larger because of it.

By coincidence, through the same weeks I was playing the computer game Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Already a hit in Japan, where it was created, this game is a vivid simulation of the world and events of China after the fall of the Second Han dynasty, beginning in 189 A.D. No, there's no sf or fantasy element -- but because this brilliantly designed and programmed game was created by Japanese gamewrights and takes place in ancient China, it is an experience of immersion in an alien world. Yet it is a world that is recognizably like the one Chanda describes in Brother Enemy, with cultural assumptions very different from our own; and learning to master the play of the game requires, on a very small scale, some of the cultural reinterpretation that Todorov so brilliantly describes The Conquest of America.

Robert Cormier, Fade (Delacorte, cloth, 310 pp, $15.95).

Cormier is one of those writers caught up in the contradictions of the genrification of American publishing. Because his protagonists are children, his books are all published as young adult novels. But because he is a brilliant writer with a dark and terrible vision, his books are so disturbing that I'd think twice before turning them over to the average child. In case you've been living on the moon, this is the author of I Am the Cheese, a book so complex that I've used it to teach all principles of literary structure, and The Chocolate War, a disturbing look at how fascism can arise in an activity so seemingly benign as selling chocolates to raise money for the local high school.

Fade is something new for Cormier, however. First, he is mining his own experiences growing up as a French Canadian -- a "Canuck" -- in Massachusetts. I believe storytellers often do their best work when they write about they own community, the group that gave them their root identity.

Second, Fade is Cormier's first venture into fantasy. Paul, the hero, has long been intrigued by a family picture in which his uncle Adelard does not appear -- even though everyone swears that he was there when the picture was snapped. Then he discovers that he, too, has Adelard's ability to fade, to become invisible at will.

Fading, though, is a two-edged sword. Paul can humiliate the local bully, but he also discovers secrets about friends and neighbors that make it impossible for him to like them anymore. And as the fading starts to become involuntary, it finally distorts his whole life, cutting off many of his fondest dreams.

Because this is a Cormier novel, if refuses to stay simple. Halfway through, the narrative suddenly stops, and we realize that we have been reading on unpublished manuscript by a famous -- but dead -- author named Paul Renault. But as his cousin and his agent discover, there is more truth to the story than they'd like to admit. And the second half of the manuscript brings us face to face with the most terrible possibilities of fading.

It is unfortunate that this exquisite novel is somewhat marred by a stock horror ending -- the sort of silliness we saw in Stephen King's Christine, for instance, in which we start hearing news reports about portentous events that suggest that the whole thing is beginning all over again. Please, folks, let's give that one a rest, can't we? But in this case, the flaw is easily forgotten. What haunts us is the character of Paul, whose discovery of his own sexuality and adulthood coincides with his piercing of other people's facades of respectability.

And, as with all good fantasy, Fade is clearly true. Young adolescents are in fact as invisible and rarely-considered as children; yet they are old enough to understand the events swirling around them. This gives them a terrible power, and if they are not wise or good, they can destroy people with it. I'm not sure this novel is for teenagers at all. It must just be for adults, to help us understand these invisible people growing up in our houses.

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