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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 been exposed?

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.


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