Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction June 1990
By Orson Scott Card
Uncle Orson's favorite F&SF Books for 1989 (in alphabetical order by title):
Cyberbooks, Ben Bova (TOR)
Comedy gets no respect, and satire closes out of town -- but as far as I'm
concerned, this satire is on-stage for a long run. Bova is in fine form with a
hilariously nasty look at the future -- and the present -- of the publishing
industry. And behind the satire you can see that Bova knows and cares deeply
about the people who make books.
Imago, Octavia Butler (Warner)
Butler caps the series that began with Dawn and Adulthood Rites with this
story of human beings struggling for species identity in the face of a genetic
challenge from ruthless-yet-compassionate aliens. Which is more important, asks
Butler, what we were or what we are becoming?
Nemesis, Isaac Asimov (Doubleday/Foundation)
One of the great writers of science fiction at the peak of his form. Asimov
doesn't neglect interesting scientific ideas in this story of a reclusive space colony
that discovers an inhabited planet, but in this as with his other recent novels he
has turned to serious explorations of ethics and metaphysics that deserve more
than mere bestsellerdom.
On My Way to Paradise, Dave Wolverton (Bantam)
The best first novel I've ever read; I believe this book marks the beginning
of the career of a writer who will be both popular and influential. This story of a
Latin American doctor caught up in interplanetary warfare is also a breakthrough
in opening science fiction to other cultures.
Tourists, Lisa Goldstein (Simon & Schuster)
Brilliant strangeness mingles with a lucid view of the human soul in a story
that still returns to me in my dreams. A tortured American family is caught up
in an ancient struggle between rival groups in a magical mideast-city. It's a
gripping read, and yet it has the depth and vision that makes it one of the great
American novels of the 1980s.
Uncle Orson's Favorite YA Books of 1989 (in alphabetical order by title):
Eva, Peter Dickinson (Delacorte)
Not for the timid is Dickinson's unsparing look at an adolescent girl
caught in the body of a chimp, struggling to survive in a world where humanity
has rejected nature, and now nature is rejecting humanity. Dickinson is one
writer who regularly proves that some of the best adult science fiction is
marketed for teenagers.
The Golden Thread, Suzy McKee Charnas (Bantam)
The third in Charna's series about a girl gifted with wizardly power in
contemporary Manhattan, this may be the best. The characters are real, and the
struggle between good and evil transcends the usual cliches. Charnas is
especially good at suffusing everyday cityscapes with magic, danger, and
The Jedera Adventure, Lloyd Alexander (Dutton)
The Vesper Holly series began as a lark, with little to bite into but much
to enjoy. The fun is still there, but with this book Alexander -- perhaps
inadvertently -- has struck deeper chords. True, the young bluestocking heroine
has come to this Arab land just to return a library book, but the absurd premise
leads to grand romance by the end.
The Boat of a Million Years, Poul Anderson (TOR, cloth, 470 pp, $19.95)
The scope of the idea is breathtakingly audacious: A novel that shows us
human history through the eyes of the few individuals who were there to see it
all. A handful of genetic oddities, these people can be killed -- but if nature
takes its course, they heal too fast, reject disease too easily, regenerate too
thoroughly ever to die on their own.
Because it's Anderson writing this novel, it is a fine thing to read. The
pace never relents, and as the characters struggle to deal with societies as varied
as newly-Moslem Palestine, the Ukraine under the Golden Horde, and the
American West, each episode is fascinating. The characters all come together in
our own time, led by Hanno, a Phoenician who has caught a vision of what,
together, these immortals might become. And when study of their genes leads to
immortality for all of humanity, it is only natural that these last relics of a
society in which survival was a struggle are the ones who turn outward and sail a
starship out to greet another species for the first time.
I expect to see this novel on the final ballot for every award in the field;
but even though I enjoyed it very much, I must confess to a few regrets. First, it
seems to me that most of the episodes center around the same scene: an
immortal hemming and hawing as he or she confesses what he is to another
immortal. Sometimes I think this scene was repeated at the expense of far more
powerful scenes we never see. We always seem to catch the characters after they
have already buried a spouse or two. Only once do we get even a glimmer of the
mixed pain and relief of a character discovering for the first time that he must be
immune to death, while all the people he loves die around him. Perhaps it's
wrong to charge a book for what the author doesn't do, but in this case I think
such scenes were surely obligatory, and the book is weaker for the lack of them.
Second, I think that during the contemporary and future chapters, the
book gets distracted from what made it work so well up to then. While
Anderson carefully avoids coming down finally in any political position, there's
a bit too much competent-man authoritarianism (Heinlein is specifically referred
to in the only completely embarrassing scene in the novel) for me to avoid
concluding that the author has some sympathy for that position. That's not a
flaw because I disagree with the politics -- it's a flaw because I found it hard to
believe that people who've seen everything for hundreds or thousands of years
can't come up with anything better. Even beyond political questions, however,
it is plain that the author is trapped in the concerns of the science fiction
community. Of course all authors are trapped in their own time -- but this book
absolutely required that its author do a better job of disguising the fact.
To most readers, though, these reservations of mine will seem to be mere
quibbling, and perhaps so. Indeed, I think they are not so much flaws in the
book as opportunities that Anderson missed. The result is that, while this great
literary project has been well attempted, it has not been fully accomplished. But
I'd rather see a writer fall a little short of a Great Work than fail abysmally at a
trivial one, which is by far the more common failing in literature.
The Divide, Robert Charles Wilson (Doubleday/Foundation, cloth, 249 pp,
Wilson's stories have a deceptive sort of quietness about them. You think
you're reading a character study -- a fascinating one -- and then all of a sudden
you find yourself gripping the book with sweating fingers, turning the pages
vigorously as you plunge forward, eager to find out what happens next, tense
with the jeopardy of people you've come to know and care about. At the end,
with its quiet fade, you feel that you've lived through something far more real
than any overt action-adventure tale, with characters you understood better than
the people living in the same house with you.
At heart, The Divide is actually a hoary old sf situation: A "mad doctor"
in the 1950s, by muddling the growth hormones in a developing embryo, created
a child whose intelligence and neural quickness far surpassed that of any normal
human beings. But then the doctor's project loses its funding and government
support, and the child is fostered out to a family that is unprepared to deal with
his uncanny skills and powers.
Where Wilson departs from cliche is in his structure, which is intricate but
perfect. We deal with John's childhood only in flashback, we meet him and
know him first as a man who has coped with his alienation by creating a
secondary personality, Benjamin, who is perfectly normal and kind and
compassionate -- the opposite of John, who is disdainful of mere humans, and
desperately lonely for their love and respect. We see each of these personalities
through the eyes of the women who love him. Benjamin's lover is Amelia, a
French-Canadian waitress who finds in him -- even with his multiple personality
episodes -- the stability that she despaired of ever finding in her rootless life.
John's lover is a young scientist who comes at first to study him, then to love
him, and finally to try to save him from the neural breakdown that seems the
most likely outcome of the experiment that produced him.
There is also Amelia's brother, Roch, who, as a victim of fetal alcohol
syndrome, is as much a product of intrauterine meddling as John. Though Roch
is violent and as slow-minded as John is quick, he and John are twins in their
feeling of isolation among normal people. "But a human being raised by apes
isn't a superior ape," muses John. "In all the qualities that matter to apes, he's
not much of an ape at all." What saves John from being a brilliant version of
Roch is Benjamin, a personality that he thinks he invented as a disguise, but
which might in fact have been his true soul after all.
Robert Charles Wilson is a fine storyteller and an equally talented writer,
the sheer pleasure of his language is echoed in the clarity of his thought. His
speculations on the nature of intelligence are as fascinating as his exploration of
character. All in all, Wilson is the best example I've seen of a writer who is
using the techniques and tropes of science fiction to produce significant literary
accomplishments. He is not alone in making the attempt, but he has precious
little company in having succeeded at it.
Castleview, Gene Wolfe (TOR, cloth, 400 pp, $19.95)
I began this novel full of hope, for when Wolfe writes in a contemporary
setting he seems not to indulge in the sort of obscurity that has so marred my
pleasure in reading Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete. And for many pages
my hopes were fully justified. The novel begins with a family moving into a
house in the country, whose current residents are leaving because of the death of
their husband and father. There are promises of a budding romance between the
teenagers of the two families. There's also a dash of magic in the fleeting visions
of a castle that have been seen often enough to have given the town its name
Alas, the strangeness comes on so quickly that the human story is almost
completely lost; and, while other readers may be able to sort their way through
the Arthurian references to arrive at some coherent picture of what happened, I
was left clueless. I wasn't sure which character represented which Arthurian
figure; I had no notion of how and where the magical and real worlds met; and,
above all, I couldn't even venture a guess as to why anybody did anything they
ended up doing, and therefore couldn't even tell if I was supposed to be pleased
or horrified at how things turned out. All in all, one of the most disappointing
books I've ever read.
But in a way, such a review is hardly fair. I was disappointed precisely
because the book began so well, and because I have received so much joy from
other books by Wolfe. His genius is undoubted, and so I am left to speculate
that brighter or more careful readers than I might find this book eminently
satisfying. For me, though, it remains a kind of platonic ideal of a book: a thing
of beauty that is nevertheless utterly beyond my comprehension.