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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction May 1990

By Orson Scott Card


I'm not the guy who writes the critical essays in this magazine, but I thought I'd give this a shot. A few weeks ago, I was asked to write a one-shot column of sf reviews for the L.A. Times As a lead-in, I wrote an essay about the place of science fiction in contemporary literature. It was cut for publication -- omitting all the parts that would be most offensive to people committed to the academic-literary view of American literature. So, I'd like to offer the unexpurgated version here. Consider it to be a Manifesto of Democratic Art.

When it comes to the storytelling arts, America is a country that can't make up its mind whether it's glad or ashamed to be a democracy. On the one hand, we produce art that is in demand throughout the world. Our films, our television shows, and our popular fiction are irresistible competition for homegrown arts in almost every other nation. Nobody knows how to talk to -- and for -- the common man better than the American popular artist.

On the other hand, we're never really sure that our enormously successful art is really "good." We persist in measuring our popular literature against the more difficult, subtle, allusive, elitist "serious" literature of Europe, and instead of recognizing that our popular art is merely trying to do something different, we keep coming to the conclusion that it is second-rate. After all, nothing can be "art" that is clear and powerful and simple enough for millions of people to understand and love it -- can it?

As a result, we Americans persist in giving the most respect to the kind of literature that is least enjoyed by the wide audience, even as we -- and the rest of the world -- give the bulk of our time and money to the films, the TV shows, and the prose fiction that actually tells stories that anyone can understand.

Science fiction, as an American-born genre, bears the scars of this long struggle. It came to life in the pulp magazines of the 1930s, which gives it unassailable credentials as a democratic art. Despised even by the college English departments that have been forced to offer undergraduate courses in that spaceship stuff, science fiction persists in being the literature-of-choice among the best and brightest American adolescents, and retains a wide following among the adult reading public. Yet almost universally, those who read it and write it feel an almost pathological need to duck their heads and confess that science fiction isn't really "literature."

The academic-literary establishment claims that their kind of storytelling is superior to all others because it is more subtle, because it offers greater insights about human life. One might wonder, however, if a "greater insight" has in fact been "offered" when it is not stated plainly, but instead is encoded so that only those trained in the Mysteries of Literature can decipher it. And, too often, we who are so trained discover that the "insight" is puerile, quotidian, or extravagantly dumb. Clearly it is no longer the supposed "insight" that the academic-literary establishment writes and reads for, but rather the process of encoding itself; the reward is not the discovery of truth, but rather the reassuring knowledge that the literary reader knows a secret code that lesser mortals will never learn.

In short, a fair part of the study of literature has come to resemble the bestowing of Captain Marvel decoder rings, and the process of reading literary fiction has come to resemble the process of working one's way through an issue of Games Magazine. It's very hard work, and not everyone can do it, but when it's done, what do you have except a bunch of meaningless marks on paper? Yet they have the effrontery to call this "serious literature." Do they think the rest of us are only kidding?

We in the speculative fiction community have another term for what they do. We call it "li-fi."

It may take a writer with a subtle mind to discover a fresh insight into human life and society. But isn't it then the writer's responsibility to reveal this insight in his fiction as clearly as possible, so that this newly-discovered truth is available to as many readers as possible? And if this truth matters, shouldn't it be presented in such a way as to have the most powerful impact on the reader's mind and emotions?

The plain storyteller does not necessarily have better ideas, but without question his ideas are the ones that will have the most powerful influence over the greatest number of people. Thus the "subtle" writers of the academic-literary establishment go off and play polo, their feet never touching the ground, while they abandon the football field to those of us who are willing to get down in the mud.

Science fiction is simply one of the ways in which the American need for plain storytelling surfaced after being nearly drowned in the flood of Modernism early in this century. As Eliotesque literary elitism spread like a social disease through the then-new academic-literary community of America, infecting everyone who lay down with this most deft of literary seducers, the American hunger for plain, honest storytelling had to surface somewhere. And where it surfaced was in the literature of starships and aliens. transforming it into today's literature of imagined counterrealities.


The Elephant Talks To God, Dale Estey, ill. Angela Webb O'Hara (Goose Lane Editions, 248 Brunswick St. Fredericton, NB Canada E3B 1G9, paper, 61 pp, $9.95)

The King's Fountain, Lloyd Alexander, ill. Ezra Jack Keats (Dutton/Unicorn, paper, 32 pp, $3.95)

Fables are almost a lost art. Or, rather, the fable has been relegated to children's literature, so that adults rarely see the best of these jewel-like stories. Here are a couple, though, that are well worth your attention -- even if you pretend that you're buying them for a child.

Dale Estey's The Elephant Talks to God is, first and foremost, a witty, satirical book about the relationship between mortals and an immortal creator. Some inner clues make it clear that Estey is a Catholic and the story was first written shortly after a rapid succession of popes back when John-Paul I died a month after beginning his reign, and there is a wholly gratuitous dig at Jehovah's Witnesses, but these flaws aside, the book is charming without cloying, and I enjoyed it enormously. We can see again why Aesop chose to tell his fables from the point of view of animals rather than human beings -- the very animalness of the hero helps clarify the vital issues involved, as the story separates the incidental details of individual life from the more general verities. In other words, fables use animals the way science fiction uses aliens, to explain human behavior by putting it in a strange context.

Just to give you a taste of this particular fable, here's a snatch of dialogue when the elephant expresses dissatisfaction with one of God's answers:

"That's not up to me," said God, and the cloud started moving away.

"That's it?" asked the elephant. "It's not up to you?"

"Sorry," said God.

"That's not very profound," shouted the elephant at the disappearing cloud.

"You're only an elephant," answered God.

Another fable is Lloyd Alexander's The King's Fountain, first published in 1971, but now reissued with bold illustrations by Ezra Jack Keats. It's a simple story of a poor man who realizes that the fountain the king is having built will deprive the city below of its drinking water. He tries to bet businessmen and scholars and men of physical strength to speak to the king, but is finally forced to face the king himself. There the king is as fearsome and unreasonable as one would expect kings to be -- until he finally understands the impossibility of arguing with the poor man and the uselessness of killing him, and begins to listen.

In the context of recent events in Eastern Europe, The King's Fountain takes on added power. It also shows that the fable is still a viable way to tell wonderful, true stories -- even if they do end up being sold only to children. Who knows? The children may grow up understanding things a bit better than their much-more-sophisticated parents.


Children of the Wind, Kate Wilhelm (St. Martin's, cloth, 263 pp, $16.95)

Four of these five novellas -- "The Gorgon Field," "A Brother to Dragons, a Companion of Owls," "The Blue Ladies," and "The Girl Who Fell into the Sky" -- have been published before, though a couple appeared in places where relatively few of you probably had a chance to see them. For me, though, the prize of this collection is the title story, which appears in this book for the first time.

Wilhelm's greatest excellence is in her understanding of the way people are able to live together, experience the same events, and yet remain utter strangers to each other. Her fiction, at its best, takes us into the alien mind of another human being and gives us a clear understanding of the way he or she sees the world. "Children of the Wind" gives us two perspectives, the father and mother of two remarkable twin boys.

The father, Robert, is a children's book editor; the mother, June, is an illustrator of children's books. If anyone should understand children, they should -- yet each seems to view their sons' behavior through lenses distorted by their own personal needs. June, depressed and lonely, persists in seeing the boys as a sort of enemy-in-duplicate, interpreting their scrapes and mischief as malicious and sinister. Robert, hungry for joy, persists in seeing them as innocent, puckish youths whose pranks and pratfalls are the result of a rambunctious joie-de-vivre.

Even at the end, the question of which of them was right is never answered. Everything can always be explained either way. Wilhelm's point, I think, is that we never know -- and we can't be sure whether to be relieved or appalled that the parent who will deal with these strange boys throughout the rest of their lives is the one who thinks the worst of them.

The whole book is a pleasure even when it causes pain, and I recommend it highly. Novellas are long enough that, particularly in the hands of a master like Wilhelm, they have the same sort of impact as a novel; the result is that you're getting something like five books in one. A bargain in hardcover.


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