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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction July 1989

By Orson Scott Card

Ivory, Mike Resnick (Tor, cloth, 374 pp, $17.95)

Mike Resnick is almost single-handedly keeping the romantic tradition alive in space.

A couple of years ago, Mike Resnick's Santiago took us both forward and back in time: forward to a galaxy-spinning civilization where both the dreamers and dregs of society are drawn to two frontiers, one toward the galactic rim, the other core-ward to the settled worlds; and at the same time, back to the grand old tradition of pulp adventure-and-wonder stories. Not space opera, not "Doc" Smith, because Resnick doesn't try to dazzle us with world-hopping starships and bombs that can blow up planets. Rather he reaches for an even older and truer tradition, like stories of A. Merritt and H. Rider Haggard, where the heros really are touched by a divine spark. where legends reach mythic proportion while the participants in the story are still alive.

I love this stuff, and nobody's doing it better today than Mike Resnick.

Ivory is a cycle of stories -- of ambition and greed, of weakness and tenderness, of love and betrayal -- all bound up with two massive tusks of the Kilimanjaro Elephant, which are passed from owner to owner through thousands of years of human history until at last a member of the Maasai tribe restores the tusks to their proper resting place on the shoulder of the great African mountain. We learn of these stories as they are uncovered by a computer detective, searching the archives of the galaxy in order to satisfy his mysterious client, the last of the Maasai.

Of course, this episodic structure can be a barrier -- just as you get fascinated with one set of characters, the story is over and you have to start again. But this is not a mere collection of tales; they work together to give you a sense of the vastness of time and space -- and, more important, the changeability of changelessness, the transparency and mystery of human beings.

The Quick, Burt Cole (Morrow, cloth, 307 pp, $17.95)

The cover blurb on The Quick asserts that it will "remind readers of M.J. Engh's Arslan and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now." Right. The way that hamburger reminds me of my wife's most excellent eye-of-round roast. They've both got beef in 'em, don't they?

But the author isn't responsible for the cover blurbs -- those are written by people who want to sell these copies of this book this week, not people with an eye to helping the author's career. Overpromising hurts the author in the long run, as readers learn to associate disappointment with the author's name.

The Quick is not a monumental work. It's merely a promising work -- but that ain't bad, as long as you don't expect more.

Burt Cole has written military and adventure novels, and that experience shows up in The Quick -- this guy knows his guns, and he believes in the super-soldier mystique. He also has the super-soldier's contempt for the chain of command. But in The Quick he subverts his own genre in interesting ways, and even though the ending left me thinking, "Is that all?" it was sure a lot of fun getting there.

The best part of the book is the beginning, where we live for a time with the landless Bajau people, who live in tiny boats, sailing, fishing, trading from island to island in the western Pacific. We meet Tcham An, an American-born pirate in the Philippines, whose brilliance and ruthlessness are, at first, believable. And throughout the book there are flashes of that same brilliance -- Cole can create characters who come alive in the reader's memory.

Unfortunately, the story is marred and then destroyed by hopelessly unbelievable political and social situations. This isn't the first sf novel to reveal the author's complete ignorance of the way power and community work on every level -- but just because most sf writers share the same abysmal flaw doesn't make it any less a flaw. By the end, when the author needs us to be right with him, it's hard to keep from laughing at the impossible childishness of it. I mean, this stuff is as silly as the secret revolution in Heinlein's Revolt in 2100 (or whatever year it was).

On my tote board, then, the metaphysical story works, the military story works, the allegory of national self-inflicted torture works. Only the science fiction story fails as a plausible future. Three out of four ain't bad. And since it's compulsively readable (except for the misbegotten "dream" chapter near the end), it works well enough for me to recommend it as a pleasurable read with some very fine parts.

Besides, if you've been reading science fiction for very long, you've no doubt been inoculated against silliness already.

City: Rediscovering The Center, William H. Whyte (Doubleday, cloth, $24.95)

You think you know what it's like to live in a city? Unpleasantly crowded, hurried, dirty -- right? William Whyte led an anthropological expedition into that most dangerous jungle, Downtown, and came back to report that it is a wonderful place to live and work and hang around.

This book isn't science fiction. But it does what much science fiction attempts to do -- it takes us into an alien world and helps us understand how it works. The fact that the alien world is one you've visited often doesn't change a thing -- you'll see it with new eyes before you're through. And there are so many wonderful stories and vignettes along the way -- Whyte is a storyteller, as the best cultural anthropologists tend to be -- that it gives a pleasure not unlike what we get from the best science fiction.

There Are Doors, Gene Wolfe (Tor, cloth, 313 pp, $17.95)

I got Gene Wolfe's new novel in galleys, and meant to read it right away. Then the actual book arrived, and it, too, sat for two months before I finally picked it up. I couldn't understand my own reluctance, since Wolfe is, in my estimation, one of the finest living American writers. Finally I realized that I was avoiding it because of its contemporary setting. It reminded me too much of Wolfe's comic novel Free Live Free.

I liked Free Live Free. If anyone else had written it, I probably wouldn't have been disappointed. But Wolfe's other novels have all been so substantial that reading Free Live Free felt like chewing on air. And that's what I expected of There Are Doors.

OK, so now I'm wearing my dunce cap and sitting in the corner. There Are Doors is different from anything else Wolfe has ever done. This is a romance, a love story. The narrator's lover leaves him a note, in which she breaks off their relationship -- and tells him to watch out for "doors." After being so close to her, he's in danger of accidentally passing through a doorway into another world. Her world, which is very much like ours except for a little change -- after a man has sexual intercourse, he dies; his mate's body stores and uses up his sperm through the rest of her life.

Wolfe does what good science fiction writers do. He carefully works out the way our society would be different if that little change were made. But that's far from being what the story is about. On one level, the story is about madness and sanity. We learn early on that the narrator has been a mental patient; immediately we begin to wonder if anything we've seen through his eyes is reliable. On another level, the story is about devotion -- the devotion of a fellow door-crasher named North to his gung-ho patriotic ideals, for instance; the devotion of the narrator to his lost love; the devotion of a robot doll to its owner. On still another level, Wolfe is showing us how we create ourselves in terms of other people; the narrator scarcely can be said to have existed before his love for Lara gave him a soul.

It's nice to read science fiction that has as many echoes of Pasternak as of Asimov. But the overall tone here is romantic, not literary -- and if you've been paying attention to anything I've said here over the past couple of years, you know I mean that as fervent praise. In my experience, only Robert Charles Wilson has been able to create this same kind of dreamy passion.

Wolfe is still Wolfe, of course. He does not deign to nudge us and let us know which details are important. If he says something once, however obliquely, we are expected to notice and remember. The result is that the story can be quite confusing early on, until you realize that the tiny piece of evidence on page 7 is all you're even going to get on the question of the narrator's previous mental illness until near the very end of the book. But don't let the early confusion worry you. Wolfe does not let a single word of his narrative go to waste. Every detail matters, somewhere along the line; every question will be answered.

Don't let Gene Wolfe's reputation as a "literary" writer put you off. He has earned that reputation the honest way -- not by making his audience feel stupid, not by disdaining the notion of entertainment, bur rather by telling good stories beautifully. While There Are Doors does not attempt to plow up secrets of the cosmos in the mode of Wolfe's more operatic works, it may well be Wolfe's most perfect story.

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