Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction February 1990
By Orson Scott Card
Buying Time, Joe Haldeman (Morrow, cloth, 300 pp, $18.95)
I'm getting old. I picked up Buying Time and thought, Wow, a new book
by one of the grand old men of the field.
Then I remembered something. Joe Haldeman's Forever Way hit the
science fiction field back in the 70s the way William Gibson's Neuromancer did
in the 80s. I remember clearly that Forever War won the Hugo and Nebula the
same year I wrote my first science fiction story and mailed it off. This guy's only
been publishing science fiction a couple of years longer than me. And I think of
him as a grand old man!
Well, he is, in the best sense of the term. When he entered the field, he
transformed it; all of science fiction is different today because he wrote. That
accounts for the term grand. As for old, well, let's fact it -- Haldeman isn't new
anymore. Even though Buying Time has the same truth and energy and heat that
made Forever War such a pivotal book, a few years have passed. Haldeman is no
longer writing in the age of Haldeman -- he's now writing Haldeman novels in a
time when Sterling and Kessel, Butler and Wolfe, Sargent and Gibson have
already changed the face of science fiction a half dozen times over.
It happens to everybody. Harlan Ellison persists in writing Harlan Ellison
stories even though it's no longer the 60s. Isaac Asimov still writes like Isaac
Asimov even though his style stopped being new before I was born. And
someday Sterling and Kessel and such are going to be the grand old coots whose
work seems vaguely old-fashioned because so many new voices have re-created
So once I got over the impression that I was reading a kind of period
piece, I was able to receive this novel for what it is -- a first-rate action-adventure novel that revolves around really fascinating scientific ideas with
heavy mythic overtones. Dallas and Marie are immortals, which means they
have undergone the Stileman treatment, a complete body makeover that
rejuvenates you for another ten or twenty years of life. But the Stileman
treatment is controlled by a foundation that puts severe limits on the people who
The first limit is economic -- the price of the treatment is everything you
own, as long as you own at least a million bucks. This keeps the wealth from
concentrating in the hands of a few people who live forever; it also keeps most
people from ever getting the treatment in the first place.
The other limit is natural -- the treatment only lasts for a few years, and
then you either do it again (at the cost of another million-plus) or die very
The story begins when Dallas is invited to join a secret group of immortals
who are conspiring to run the world. Then there seems to be an even smaller,
more secret group within that one. There's also some question about whether
the Stileman treatment actually keeps you alive as long as they thought; and
then some question about whether it might be able to keep you alive longer than
anybody imagined possible.
Within a couple of chapters, Dallas and Marie have seen a good friend's
head blown off, Dallas has had to blow away a hit-woman sent to kill him, and
now the two of them are off in space trying to figure out who's running the
Stileman foundation and why they're so eager to see Dallas and Marie dead.
This is the kind of story that can only be told in print. You could never
make a movie of this -- it would take the first hour just explaining what's going
on. But once you understand it, the story takes on the kind of headlong
inevitability that comes from the best sort of fast-paced movie thriller. Unless
Proust is your idea of a really exciting writer, you're going to enjoy this book.
So I must be some sort of ingrate to look this gift horse in the mouth.
(Be warned -- in a vague way I'm about to give away the ending, so you
may want to put off finishing this review until after you've read the book.)
This is where that redolence of a bygone era comes in. Back in the mid-70s, this novel would have taken sf a quantum leap forward -- as Haldeman's
fiction of that era did. But today, we've been trained to expect a little more.
What would have felt like fascinating characterization in 1975 feels a bit thin
and cardboardy now -- cool sex just isn't enough to define a romantic
And the ending where the villain just happens to let the heroes be alone
with him and the heroes just happen to say all the right things and have all the
right powers to take him out -- well, we bought it then, but do we buy it,
Probably we do; my skepticism only came after I was through reading it.
Good story, thought I at the time, but did Haldeman have to settle for that old
chestnut where the hero has a gun pointed at him but manages to tough it out
until he has a chance to get the upper hand? Things like that don't happen in
the real world.
Such were my thoughts, I being the wise man who knows how the world
works. A few days later there was a coup attempt in Panama, and the story
coming out right now is that the coup leader stood there with a gun pointing at
Noriega, but Noriega managed to tough it out until he had a chance to get the
upper hand. Haldeman was right on the money. Things like that do happen in
the real world.
That's the danger of falling in with new vogues in storytelling.
Haldeman's old-fashioned hero story doesn't feel realistic because in the "real
world" we know that the bad guy blows the good guy's head off without
discussion. But then we realize that the "real world" is fiction, too; it's the
version of reality that we've all agreed to believe this year, and this consensus
reality is no more complete today than it was ten or twenty or fifty years ago.
The new story describes part of the truth, but not the whole truth. The old
stories describe part of the truth, too.
Which is why I'm glad that as each generation of sf writers passes into old-coot-hood, they still keep writing and publishing. All the old stories are still
alive because of that; and if we just keep reading them, we'll come round to the
point where the old stories are new again. Sometimes we'll even notice that
they were powerful and true all along.
Octavia Butler, Wild Seed (Popular Library/Questar, paper, 279 pp, $3.95); Dawn
(Questar, 248 pp, $3.95); Adulthood Rites (Questar, 277 pp, $4.95); Imago
(Warner, cloth, 264 pp, $19.95)
I can't read everything, right? So there are bound to be books I miss -- and
even award-winning authors whose works I have never sampled. Octavia Butler
was one such. I was aware of her growing stature in the field, but whenever I
noticed something of hers it always seemed to be the middle book of a series, and
I thought, Next time.
Recently, however, I began to suspect that calling myself a science fiction
critic without having read anything by Octavia Butler bordered on the
fraudulent. For one thing, I shared a platform with her at a symposium at BYU
and found her to be witty, wise, and deeply familiar with exactly the areas of
science that most interest me.
For another thing, an increasing number of readers, writers, and students
were telling me, "Of course, Octavia Butler already did that" whenever I came
up with a bright new idea; and then, whenever I confessed to now knowing her
work, they would look at me with surprise and pity.
Finally it became clear to me that it was time to plunge in and read. The
book recommended as a starting point was Wild Seed, a recent reprint of a book
from half a decade ago. Within three pages I knew that not only was I a damned
fool for not reading Butler's work all along, but also I was going to use passages
from Wild Seed in my forthcoming book on writing science fiction and fantasy --
as a perfect example of how to handle exposition of a complex milieu without
slowing down the tale. And as soon as I finished Wild Seed, exhilarated and
satisfied, I immersed myself in the trilogy Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago.
Wild Seed, like the other three, deals with human genetics, but where the
trilogy is a rigorously science fictional post-holocaust novel about aliens who
retrieve humanity from self-ruin, Wild Seed feels much more like a fantasy. The
main characters of Wild Seed are people whose genetic oddities make them
virtual gods -- Anyanwu, whose ability to heal and to change shapes at will has
made her almost immortal, and Doro, whose one-of-a-kind mutation is not so
Doro, you see, can't die. His body can, but his life essence -- his soul, his
identity -- immediately leaps into someone else's body and takes control, in
effect killing them. Since this process is involuntary, he has no choice -- he
can't even kill himself; but Butler complicates things even more by making it so
that possessing a new body is the sweetest pleasure of Doro's life. He not only
can't help murdering people, he also can't help enjoying it.
It is a measure of Butler's considerable prowess as a storyteller that she
succeeds in making Doro, not exactly likeable, but at least intelligible, even
sympathetic, though of course we are as eager as Anyanwu for her to get away
from him and his fascinating and unspeakable breeding program. Butler is telling
us a mythic story of semi-divine heroes; yet she is also telling us a romantic tale
of tragic love and a realistic extrapolation of a twisted society of people with
bizarre, uncontainable powers.
After Wild Seed, the trilogy was a startling change of pace. When Lilith
awakens inside an alien ship, it is a struggle even to endure the presence of the
Oankali. Yet because she is a resourceful woman -- and, above all, a survivor --
she adapts and even comes to love and, reluctantly, serve the saviors and masters
The result is that other humans regard Lilith as a judas goat -- not
surprising, since she regards herself that way. For the Oankali life cycle involves
discovering alien species like us and genetically meddling with them, creating a
new species that combines the best features of both. Unfortunately, at the end
of it all, Earth will be left as bare as rock, and the old human race will be gone.
The Oankali refuse to regard this as a tragedy. After all, we already set
ourselves on the road to extermination without any help from the Oankali.
Indeed, they have found that self-destructive war is an inevitable contradiction
within our genes. Humanity, as it is, will always destroy itself. From the
Oankali point of view, it is a merciful act for them to allow no more old-style
humans to be born. Thus Lilith is helping smooth the way for the obliteration
Yet there are compensations, and as we move through the three volumes,
each one unfolding the next phase in the Oankali plan and the human response
to it. the moral complexity is almost overwhelming. For one thing, there is
undeniable beauty and joy in the Oankali way; the new species they are creating
is one that ought to exist, arguably a most-improved version of humanity. The
Oankali themselves as we come to understand them, are a graceful and
compassionate people. And while we have much sympathy for the defiant and
violent remnants of the untainted human race, we are also more than a little
embarrassed by their folly and, too often, their cruelty.
What Octavia Butler has wrought is the sort of story science fiction exists
to tell. We never understand humanity better than when we see ourselves
through alien eyes. Furthermore, Butler doesn't retreat from the implications of
the idea that human behavior is genetically preprogrammed. Love in these
books is clearly shown to be an irresistible physiological event -- and yet it loses
none of its power, none of its passion. Butler seems to be saying that if, in fact,
heredity is destiny, then so be it -- there is still something noble about human
life even when it's conceived as a byproduct of the struggle of chromosomes to
I don't always agree with Butler, but she cares about many of the issues
that matter most to me. both in science and in ethics, and writes about them
with irresistible power. She certainly deserves the place she has won at the
forefront of writers of speculative fiction -- as many of you no doubt discovered
long before I did.
My only quarrel with the trilogy is that she neglects several stories that I
wanted her to pursue. Indeed, I hope that the label trilogy is wrong -- I hope
that there's another volume, perhaps set on Mars, perhaps in the time when the
Oankali rise up from the depleted Earth and return to the stars. Each book's tale
was exquisitely complete, yet I finished Imago hungry for a story that would take
us to the very end of everything.