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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction November 1990

By Orson Scott Card

Fire, Alan Rodgers (Bantam paper, 525 pp)

Alan Rodgers was the editor of the excellent magazine Night City, the pure-horror spin-off of Twilight Zone. The magazine was an artistic success and might have succeeded financially if its publisher had cared to put some real effort behind it. In the meantime, though, Rodgers made a strong contribution to the field of horror fiction -- and when his magazine was killed, he responded, not by looking for another editorial job, but by plunging into his own writing.

The results are now in: it was a good career move. Alan Rodgers isn't an editor who writes, he is writer to used to edit. Bantam seems to be behind his latest novel, Fire, in a big way -- slick-covered advance reading copies, for instance, and a promise of a half-million-copy print run.

For once the hype is well-applied. The book clearly has what it takes to be a commercial success. More important to you, of course, is the fact that the book is better than it needs to be -- so good, in fact, that it transcends its genre. It is no more a "horror novel" than say, Stephen King's The Stand -- and the book bears comparison with that landmark novel in other ways, too.

Fire is a novel of apocalypse -- literally. We've seen a lot of novels and movies that try to make the dark prophecies of St. John's Revelation come true in the modern world, but most of them merely exploit the obvious devices and miss the real power of the scriptural story. (Think of The Omen and you'll know exactly when I mean.) Rodgers, on the other hand, has a deep understanding of what the apocalyptic story is about, and also seems to understand how religious fanaticism works.

Fire begins in a research lab, where a scientist named Bonner has used gene-splicing -- and more brutal procedures -- to create the beast of apocalypse. In the same lab, Luke Munsen has been trying to create a bacterium that decodes and restores DNA of dead creatures so that tissues from fossils can be grown and studied. To Luke's surprise, the bacterium he ends up with can do a great deal more than grow tissues. In fact, it is so powerful that once it is loosed in the world it brings about a literal Resurrection Day: the graves open, and the dead come up again into the world.

For a long way into the book, it seems to be pure science fiction, but that is not what Rodgers is about. He has no particular fear of genre boundaries, and uses whatever devices seem appropriate in order to tell a deep, compelling story. There is an inescapable element of mysticism woven into the plot, but it is, if such a thing were possible, a kind of clear-headed mysticism where everything makes sense. Best of all, the characters are real, not just stereotypes running through their obligatory paces in a disaster novel. They aren't merely "interesting." They're truthful and funny and beautiful by turns, and their pain is exquisite and real.

Rodgers also avoids the story-telling mistake that ruined the ending of The Stand for me. King relied on good Calvinist theology when his novel ended with all the struggles of human characters amounting to nothing, so that only the finger of God could save the world from the Walking Man. However, I, for one, found that to be infuriating. If God was going to solve everything all by himself, why did I spend so much time reading seven billion pages about the suffering and accomplishments of the human characters? Rodgers' ending, by contrast -- though there is an element of divine and that will annoy diehard agnostics -- arises from the choices and actions of the good and semi-good people whose lives we have been following.

This is not one of those cheap bloody post-King horror novels in which the writer tries to stimulate your gag reflex at every opportunity. This is a real story, full of life in the midst of death, magnanimity in the midst of cruelty, creation in the midst of devastation. Those other guys know horror. Rodgers knows humanity.

If there's any justice in this world, then half a million copies of this book won't be enough.

The Fairy Rebel, Lynne Reid Banks (Doubleday, cloth, 125 pp, $12.95)

Do children read or hear stories about fairies and elves anymore? There was an overwhelming movement among pinheaded educators back in the 1950s and 1960s to remove all fantasy from children's literature, at least in the schools, and for a time it seemed that book publishers largely went along -- after all, why publish a children's book that no school library is going to buy?

But the pendulum is swinging back. Even the most theory-ridden children's educators are beginning to notice the fact that children -- like everyone else -- won't read if they don't enjoy the books they're given (it will take another fifty years for college professors to notice this, of course). And many children do love stories that are filled with magical, impossible things.

Such a book is The Fairy Rebel by Lynne Reid Banks. The author of The Indian in the Cupboard, Banks spins a wonderful story that covers two generations in only a few pages, and that plunges us into a revolution of fairies trying to get free of oppression of an Orwellian fairy queen. Some of what happens is funny, some is scary, and I suspect the story would be as successful if read aloud to a four-year-old as it is when a ten-year-old -- or fifteen-year-old -- reads it alone.

I wonder, though, if today's American children will catch the humor that arises from Bank's subversion of the fairy-tale genre. I suspect most will not, but then, the story is good enough that, like most good satires, it will probably help revive the very conventions that it satirizes. American boys are more likely to be put off by the word fairy itself, which is used here with out apology. That alone probably assures an almost all-female readership, and that's a shame -- half the audience that would enjoy the wonderful book will be cut off because a redolent old word has been coopted as a term of denigration and ridicule.

But maybe, even as fairies are making a comeback in literature, the gay rights movement will succeed in stopping people from using the world fairy (among others) as a term of abuse. You can do your part in both endeavors by reading this book alone or handing it to the children that you know. Once they've seen thumb-sized Tiki defiantly wearing blue jeans and her boyfriend Wijie gorging himself on buttered toast, the world fairy might be rooted firmly enough with a positive meaning that they'll resent and resist its use in negative ways.

And in the meantime, they'll have read a story with far more power than its length and humor might suggest.

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