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
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
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
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.