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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.