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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 supernatural beauty.

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, $19.95)

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 Castleview.

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.

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