Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction April 1990
By Orson Scott Card
Nemesis, Isaac Asimov (Doubleday/Foundation, cloth, 364 pp, $18.95)
I wish Asimov's gift for clarity could be distilled into a serum and injected
directly into the blood of all who purport to be storytellers in the English
language today. For style alone -- a style seemingly plain, yet clear as glass --
Nemesis is a pleasure to read. Anyone who wishes to have a short course in
writing could do far worse than to analyze the way that Asimov presents ideas to
his audience in such a way that each idea has been perfectly prepared for; so that
even as it surprises us, we already understand the context so well that we grasp
the new information instantly.
This style, which works so well in Asimov's non-fiction, is at its best when
he uses it to tell stories. Like most science fiction, the story of Nemesis takes
place on two levels. First, there is the cosmic story: A dwarf star is approaching
our solar system from the south, where it has long been hidden behind a cloud of
dust. The leaders of Rotor, an artificial habitat whose people regard themselves
as far superior to the Earth-bound masses, decide to use their new hyper-assisted
drive to make the two-year voyage at near lightspeed. In order to avoid being
followed, they tell no one of this new star, Nemesis, or of the danger it poses to
all life on Earth.
Second, there is the personal story: Marlene, the daughter of the
astronomer who discovered Nemesis, has grown up on Rotor within sight of
Nemesis. She has the peculiar ability to discern, from subtle clues in outward
behavior, what people are really thinking or intending; they think she is reading
minds, but in fact she is reading behavior. This naturally isolates her from most
other people, but that's fine with her. All she really wants is to get to the
surface of an Earthlike moon that orbits Nemesis's large satellite.
In second-rate fiction, the cosmic and personal stories are irrelevant to
each other -- we get "characters" solely to be witnesses of the cool stuff that
happens on a cosmic level, or we get "ideas" thrown in only to make standard
adventure or character stories seem like science fiction. In the best sf -- like
Nemesis -- the two stories absolutely depend on each other. Resolutions of the
problems posed by Nemesis depends on Marlene and her family, resolutions of
Marlene's needs, and the needs of her parents, absolutely depend on the ideas
and discoveries in the cosmic story.
Nemesis can be read without reference to any of Asimov's other works --
though it doesn't take much mental exercise to connect this story with the later
Robots and Foundation series, and see how it explains or foreshadows key events
in the other books.
Asimov is only getting better as he gets older -- a heartening thing for us
younger writers to realize, as we move into middle age, for it means we aren't all
doomed to follow the downward spiral that so many other grand old coots of the
field have marked out for us. Nemesis may be his best novel ever, which means
it is almost certainly one of the finest novels in science fiction. If it isn't on the
Hugo or Nebula ballot, it will be because the fans and writers who vote on these
things have forgotten that a writer doesn't have to be new to be brilliant.
Remember that J.S. Bach was considered a bit old-fashioned in his time, too.
Cyberbooks, Ben Bova (TOR, cloth, 283 pp, $17.95)
Carl Lewis has invented the ideal way to read a book: An inexpensive
hand-held computer with a first-rate electronic display. It's no larger than a
paperback book and no heavier, and once you own one, you can download book
after book or buy tiny books-on-disks for a fraction of the cost of the old books-on-paper.
The trouble is, the publishing industry can't decide whether to embrace or
destroy his invention. The whole distribution network realizes that there is a
threat to their normal way of doing things; in vain does Lewis assure them that
for every jobber, wholesaler, and salesman who loses his job, there'll be a new
job opened up by the cyberbooks technology.
On the other hand, there are plenty of conniving bastards and bitches in
the book biz who see that an idea like this can't be suppressed for long -- and
they want to be collecting the cyberbook profits when they start rolling in.
There's even an occasional altruist, like the editor who falls in love with Lewis
-- even as she hopes to use the clout she'll get from having discovered him to
publish a manuscript that she believes may be the greatest novel ever written.
The author of that manuscript, in the meantime, has been so badly hurt by
the publisher's long silence that he loses his home, his job, and, finally, as
depression gives way to derangement, his mind. The novel ends with a
showdown in a room full of would-be killers, wrapping up as complex a screwball
comedy plot as we've seen in science fiction. Because the novel is funny, it
probably won't show up on the award ballots -- but it deserves to show up on
your shelves, because you won't read a funnier, more intelligent, more biting,
and more pertinent satire for many years to come. And if you're a writer or
would-be writer, you ought to read Cyberbooks for educational purposes. It
represents a picture of the present-day publishing industry that is only slightly
exaggerated. It really is as insane and self-defeating a business as Bova depicts.
Because the author is Bova, you can count on the ideas in Cyberbooks
being worth examining. Why aren't we publishing more of our books
electronically, saving forests or trees and by-passing the idiocies of publishing
and marketing that stifle so much of our best fiction? So far costs are still too
high. But what a marvelous future that will be, when a bunch of writers can
band together and publish their novels in encrypted form, collection 90%
instead of 10% of the fees, even as readers pay less than half the price they do
today. At present, though, you have to pay for expensive connect-time or long-distance charges to download a book. Still, I want it on record that my novel
Ender's Game may have been the first novel published in electronic format prior
to its print publication. It was online and downloadable on Delphi back in early
1984, almost as soon as I finished writing it, and nearly a year before it came out
in print. Anyone know of an earlier one?