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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction September 1990

By Orson Scott Card

Chronicles of the King's Tramp, Book 1: Walker of Worlds, Tom de Haven (Doubleday/Foundation, cloth, 288 pp, $19.95)

I'll admit that one of the reasons I started reading the galleys of this book as not a nice one. I read in the author's bio that de Haven was a double-dipper in the well of literary sinecures: He was not only a creative writing teacher, but also a three-time sucker at the public teat, with two NEA fellowships and a New Jersey writing fellowship. This naturally made me skeptical, first because I always wonder about people who try to get tax money to support their hobbies, and second because I had, against my will, invested a certain percentage of my tax money in his career. I wanted to see if I was getting my money's worth.

Another reason I wanted to read this book was slightly better. Because along with his certified antsy-fartsy credentials, de Haven had also written episodes for a syndicated cartoon series and the script for the graphic novel of Neuromancer. This promised that de Haven's book probably wouldn't be another one of those turgid novels that makes you long for a terminal disease so you don't have to finish it. There was hope that this guy would even have a story to tell, a rare thing indeed among the fiction writers I've known who apply for NEA money.

Then I started reading, and within a few pages all my skepticism was gone. This story is strange in all the best ways. There's plenty of dark magic and gore for those of you who weaned on Conan or Lovecraft. Yet there's also a healthy dose of wonder and mystery, for those whose bent is more toward Macdonald's Phantastes or Peake's Gormenghast. And if what you really hope for is intelligent, lively contemporary fantasy, with a 120-proof story and quirky characters, Walker of Worlds is a beakerful.

It doesn't end. It's the first book in a series, and it doesn't pretend otherwise. But folks, believe me, this book does begin, and that's something. It starts with a dog who has suddenly become intelligent. He's just beginning to reconcile his doghood with his manwit when the Mage of Four, Mage of Luck -- the story's official Bad Guy, whose face is covered with writhing slugs -- gives the order for his little life to be snuffed out. But not before he's had a conversation with a spider.

From there things get wonderfully weird, from an amnesiac former writer living in a box in New York's Central Park to a hedonistic, murderous rich kid with a soul-sucking father-in-law. Almost everybody ends up in a hospital room with two unexpected exits, one of which isn't fatal. And through it all creeps a severed hand with a private agenda that doesn't include giving alms to the poor.

Can de Haven write well? Sure. Writing well is how you get public money torn from the pockets of people with honest jobs. What matters more to me is that de Haven actually has something to write, a story to tell, a world to create. Put your little hand in his, and he will take you someplace.

Uncle Orson says: Don't wait for the whole series to be published. This guy's visions are worth putting into your head right now.

The Hollow Earth: The Narrative of Mason Algiers Reynolds of Virginia, Rudy Rucker (Morrow, cloth, 288 pp, $17,95)

Rucker has set out to create a thrilling-wonder sci-fi novel, with a more-than-slightly-insane Edgar Allen Poe at off-center stage and slavery-era Virginia as the Act One scenery. And he has succeeded. The narrator, Mason Algiers Reynolds, a white boy from the Ruckerville area of Piedmont Virginia, finds himself being hunted down for murder after he tries to recover his money from a thieving whore; it's only natural he should end up downriver in Richmond on the verge of a slave revolt. Never anything but a perfectly reasonable young man, Mason still manages to get himself caught up in a balloon voyage to the south-polar-entry hole into the hollow Earth.

In the tradition of the best mad-scientist writers of sci-fi, Rucker's nonsense physics sounds just plausible enough that you wish it were true. I suspect, in fact, that this book exists primarily so Rucker can show us new twists on both the hollow-Earth and counter-Earth traditions.

But the strength of the book is the people. Even though you know Rucker is playing for laughs, you can't help but get caught up in Mason's pluckiness in the face of perverse bad luck, and Rucker's Poe is the most endearing repulsive character I can recall having met in fiction. Even though the inside-the-Earth stuff was terrific, it still felt like something of a let-down after Rucker's wonderful evocation of antebellum Southern culture. Rucker knows the South, and you can tell he even kind of likes the folks there, even as he shows every ugly wart and chafing sore on the body politic. At times I almost wish he had just forgotten about all that hollow Earth stuff and spent the whole novel in Virginia.

But don't get me wrong: that isn't because the hollow Earth stuff isn't great. I can think of some writers who'd gladly live for a month in a crate with a dead person -- if they could only have one-tenth of the neat ideas Rucker plays with inside the hollow Earth. Can Rucker help it if, even when he's only playing, his southern characters and countryside end up with so much bright trust in them that they put all his wonderful lies to shame?

Distant Signals, Andrew Weiner (Porcepic/Tesseract, Victoria, Canada, paper, 236 pp.)

When it comes to publishing, it seems like the only reason Canada hasn't been swallowed up by the U.S. is because Britain is biting down just as hard from the other side. Somewhere between the two slavering maws, however, a tiny homegrown publishing industry manages to survive, and Andrew Weiner, a Canadian who also happens to be one of the finest writers of English-language science fiction around these days, is one of those courageous, self-sacrificing souls who actually dares to have some of his books published in Canada first.

Having your first publication in Canada is, in fact, somewhat better for your career than having your first publication in, say, Guyana. It is actually conceivable that you can go to your U.S. or U.K. bookstore and arrange for them to order a copy. And I hope you will. Because Distant Signals is a wonderful collection of some of the most beautiful, intelligent, moving stories you're likely to read before you die and see what D.H. Lawrence and Robert Penn Warren have been writing lately.

One of the stories in this collection, "The Man Who Was Lucky," appeared in this magazine back in June of '88. Two of the stories are new. The rest have appeared here and there, making their quiet way into the minds of their readers. Weiner's ideas are as good as anybody's -- an alien who joins a human encounter group in order to study us better and ends up going native; "unproductive" people struggling to find meaning in their lives during a global economic "pause"; the time-twisting of "Klein's Machine"; the strange world of "The News from D Street," where only the graffiti artists glimpse the truth and when one person comes into the city, somebody else has to go out.

My favorite, though, is "Distant Signals" itself. There's something sweetly ironic about the idea that somewhere there exists an audience for every work by every artist, however cynical or desperate or careless he might have been at the time of its creation. A consolation prize for artists who are still waiting for recognition: if people don't like your stuff, maybe somebody else will.

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