Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction August 1989
By Orson Scott Card
On My Way to Paradise, Dave Wolverton (Bantam, December 1989)
Angelo is a decent man, a pharmacist serving his impoverished, war-torn
community in Panama. Then a woman comes into his life -- a powerful
dreamer, a fugitive from the most dangerous man on Earth -- and Angelo's world
collapses. His best friend is killed. Angelo himself commits murder. He is
forced off the planet and into training as a mercenary soldier, where he finds
himself becoming a hardened killer. It is a terrible change, he feels his very soul
dying within him. Was he always a murderer in disguise, his seeming kindness
and altruism merely a mask he was able to wear because his inner evil had never
The answer to that question is that heart of one of the deepest and most
powerful science fiction novels ever written. Wolverton's characters all have
their own answers to questions of ethics, their own justification for their
behavior. Yet such is Wolverton's artistry that the discussion of ethics never
takes over the story; on the contrary, the storytelling is so deft that the
discussions are action, in the best Asimovian tradition.
Do you want to read a brilliant military novel in the tradition of
Haldeman's Forever War? Then watch as Angelo and his fellow mercenaries are
brutally and efficiently trained by the Samurais of the planet Baker to take part
in their genocidal war. These are not the innocent children I depicted in
Ender's Game, either. These are adults, with their own painful pasts that get
acted out in agonizingly realistic simulated battles.
Do you want to read a serious extrapolative novel, in which the future of
Earth is driven by the rivalry between fading Japan and rising China for cultural
domination, in which cyborging, brain transplants, and genetically-altered
chimeras bring new wonders and new horrors to humanity; in which new
machines and artificial intelligences blur the boundary between tool and user?
Wolverton's world creation is superb, surpassed in my experience only by Bruce
Sterling, the master of extrapolation himself.
Do you want to read a novel of character? Then watch these people in
flux -- cyborgized, rejuvenated, crippled, genetically altered; dehumanized as
refugees, Samurais, mercenaries, machines. Yet despite all these deformations,
they are still human -- even the chimeras who are forced by their genes to bond
with Angelo because of his chance resemblance to another man. Even though
they know their devotion to him is involuntary, they still feel that devotion and
act upon it; and because Angelo is a decent man, their willingness to sacrifice for
him becomes a terrible burden even as it saves his life.
Do you want to read a grand adventure, with great wars, worlds to win,
civilizations to conquer or save? Do you want to see the madness of grand, noble
sacrifices? A mutiny sparked by uttering the single, near-magical word Pizarro?
An unrequited love that transcends betrayal, mutilation, even death?
Do you want a perverse but moving romance between a gentle old man
and a harsh, victimized chimera, the only female commander among the
mercenaries? Friendship and enmity, community and loneliness, guilt and
redemption, suffering and joy -- they're all here.
What's most astonishing is that Wolverton seems to be such a nice man.
A great big huggable teddy bear of a guy, with a soft voice and a sweet smile.
How could he write such a cruel and magnificent story? Then you learn that he
spent a while as a guard at the Utah State Prison, and you imagine him carrying
a billyclub and telling you -- softly, with a smile -- to get in line, and it occurs
to you that maybe his gentleness is an act of will, that despite his kindness he
knows exactly how terrible the human soul can be.
I hesitate to tell you that this is Dave Wolverton's first novel. The book
is so mature in its sensibility, so strong in its artistry, so deep in its invention
that most of us who write fiction would be proud to have such a novel as a
culmination, not the beginning of our career. Many fine works that have won
Hugos and Nebulas pale beside this book.
Though Wolverton won the grand price in the second Writers of the
Future competition for a novelet that became the first two chapters of On My
Way to Paradise, his is hardly a household name. The book may even be hard to
find -- first novels rarely leap off the shelves. So I'm publishing this review
early, before the book comes out. Write down the name. Pester your bookstore
to order it. Buy it the minute it comes in. Read it at once. I promise you that
you will be pressing copies on your friends, urging them to read it.
I believe that this novel will be remembered as the first book by the finest
science fiction writer of the 1990s. I suspect that we may someday look back on
On My Way to Paradise as the first stirring of one of the great American writers
of our time. I know for a fact, however, that people who read science fiction
because they want an exhilarating combination of intelligence and adventure
will love every page of this book.