Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction October 1990
By Orson Scott Card
Second Contact, Mike Resnick (TOR, cloth, 288 pp, $17.95)
Mike Resnick has done major, substantial work during his career. He has
also done wonderfully mindless fluff. This book is somewhere in between. It
isn't going to change your life, but you're probably going to have a good time
reading it. It's a sure thing that Resnick had a good time writing it.
The story begins with a lawyer who is forced to take on the case of a
spaceship commander who cold-bloodedly murdered two of his crew members.
There's no doubt that he did it, and the lawyer is expected to plead his client
guilty but crazy. Instead, he finds himself believing his client's story that the two
guys he killed were actually aliens in disguise, coming to Earth to resume a
conflict they had lost the first time around.
What follows is a fairly standard find-the-truth-before-they-kill-me thriller,
but the truth he discovers at the end is interesting, maybe even surprising, and
the adventures along the way are, well adventurous. Resnick can do this sort of
thing in his sleep, and it works. Maybe I could have put it down unfinished, but
I didn't think to try.
I didn't ask the book to be War and Peace, so I wasn't disappointed when
it turned out not to be. I was a bit disappointed, though, that Resnick seemed
content to end the book with the lawyer buying into the system that had been
trying to kill him. Not that this is implausible per se; but he seemed awfully
callous about the innocent bystanders who got blown up in one of the failed
attempts to kill the hero. Since the killing of innocents was not essential to the
plot, and since the complete disregard of their deaths made a moral mockery of
the ending, I wish Resnick had noticed this flaw and performed some corrective
surgery. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth. And that definitely isn't the
result Resnick meant to achieve.
Freemaster, Kris Jensen (DAW, paper, 285 pp, $4.95)
This is the kind of book that made me a science fiction reader when I was
in junior high. The situation is traditional: A human trade representative is
trying to work out a treaty with an alien community, while an illegal spy from a
ruthless corporation is trying to subvert the process and supplant her, no matter
how many aliens might have to die along the way.
Jensen is a clear, clean writer -- the story is told with vigor, and unless you
are determined not to connect with the book, it provides interesting ideas,
emotional climaxes, plenty of suspense, and the vision of strangeness that all
speculative literature must supply.
So why does it remind me of books I read as a kid? Not because Jensen is
deliberately writing adolescent literature -- that is certainly not the case. I think
it's because the book is so traditional that, while it never descended into cliche,
it also never surprised me. I suppose after reading a few thousand sf stories and
novels over the years, I've become too jaded to read such a traditional piece with
real excitement. Enjoyment, yes, but my fingers didn't exactly sweat as I turned
That's my problem, not the book's. A more naive reader -- an adolescent,
or someone else who's new to the genre -- won't have the shadows of a thousand
similar tales constantly intruding as he reads. The alien pattern of reproduction
will seem to such a reader to be marvelously fresh and exciting and new. The
outcome of the struggle for the soul of a world won't seem such a foregone
conclusion to that reader. And, in fact, Jensen is a good enough writer that I did
enjoy all these elements.
I guess this is all just a way to get around to saying: I think that for many
readers, Freemaster will be a wonderful book. For some readers, it might even be
that treasured book that first opened to them the world of science fiction.
You're not going to see it on any award ballots, because awards are generally
voted by people who have read too much for this book to blow them away. I
might even be the only reviewer in a major magazine to mention it.
And that's a shame. Because I daresay that, given a chance, Freemaster
might actually give more pleasure to more people than a lot of the books that
will be the toast of the sf in-crowd this year.
Maybe you're as jaded as I am. But I'll bet you know somebody who isn't.
Maybe a teenage girl or boy -- your own kid, a niece or nephew, a grandchild, a
neighbor, a student -- who you think might have that inner spark that would
make them part of the natural audience for speculative fiction. The old
Heinlein or Norton juveniles might be a bit too old-fashioned for this particular
kid. So what book do you give?
This one would do. It would do very well.