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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction December 1990

By Orson Scott Card

Golden Fleece, Robert J. Sawyer (Warner/Questar, paper, 250 pp, $4.95)

The colony ship Argo is completely controlled by a computer named Jason, who is a good deal smarter than he needs to be. In fact, he has so much spare time that he has found a hobby -- trying to decode the binary message received from aliens only three months before the Argo took flight. After all, he was taking his ship and his people out into space; it was important to know who else was out there. So important, in fact, that the artificial-intelligence computers that first detected the message decided to keep its existence a secret from human beings until after the Argo left -- so that the scientists aboard the ship wouldn't be tempted to stay home and work on the message from space.

Now, though, Jason has started killing. Not randomly, though; he kills only those who are coming too close to finding out a secret that he is determined to keep. Golden Fleece centers around the efforts of an engineer named Aaron to solve the mystery of the death of Diana, the ex-wife whose contract he recently neglected to renew. Jason has all the advantages. Not only does he control all the ship's systems, but also he has complete access to the neural-net simulations of all the crew. That means he knows every painful little memory in Aaron's mind. He knows how his opponent thinks. Aaron doesn't have much of a chance to solve the mystery, and if he does solve it, he has even less chance of going on living.

What Sawyer sets up in the Golden Fleece is a damn good science fiction mystery. What he delivers is much more. Yes, the mystery is resolved to our perfect satisfaction. But more important, Sawyer gives us something far more rare in this age of the quotidian hero: a genuine tragedy. It is no accident that he invokes Greek myth in the title of the book. Sawyer is willing to play on the same field as Aeschylus and Euripides, and he proves himself equal to the task. Jason is, in my opinion, the deepest computer character in all of science fiction, which takes nothing away from HAL and MYCROFT. And Aaron is, in my opinion, one of the most well-drawn, fallible, human detectives I've encountered in mystery fiction -- in a league with, say, Rendells's Inspector Wexford. And because Sawyer is clearly not setting up a detective series, Aaron is able to go through genuine self-discovery and transformation during the course of the novel.

Golden Fleece has, in its 250 pages, more than most novels twice its length. Tragedy. Mystery. Character. Since Sawyer is a long-time writer about hi-tech subjects, it has a completely believable milieu. And can he write? Yes -- with near-Asimovian clarity, with energy and drive, with such grace that his writing becomes invisible as the story comes to life in your mind.

This is a book you won't want to miss. It won't be a snob hit -- it's too accessible and exciting for the li-fi types to take it to their bosoms. Instead, it's the kind of book that you might as well buy two copies of in the first place -- one to read and keep, and one to shove at your friends, saying, "Read this! Now!"

I say you won't want to miss this book, but there's a very good chance that you will. This is Sawyer's first novel, after all, and his short fiction has appeared only in Amazing (which is like being published) and in Canadian publications, so you probably haven't heard of him. Worse yet, Golden Fleece is scheduled as a December book from Warner/Questar, and it isn't their lead title (the lead is number five in some dragon series). In case you didn't notice, the December time slot is the kiss of death in science fiction -- books published then are routinely ignored for awards; there's not even time for the title to float upward on the Nebula recommendations and attract attention that way. Warner isn't giving it much push as a secondary book; the cover is fairly ordinary hi-tech stuff; there's no commercial hype to alert you to the fact that this book is something special; you'll have about a month to pick it up before it gets swept off the shelves to make way for the January books.

All you get is this review -- and any other reviews that might come out. But that's our job, isn't it? To find the good ones and tell you about them.

How good is Golden Fleece? A friend of mine -- an English professor -- used to ask, whenever he saw me, "Why are you still writing that spaceship stuff?" Now I can answer: Because this is possible.

The King, Donald Barthelme (Harper & Row, cloth, 158 pp, $16.95)

For many years, Donald Barthelme wrote the most astonishing and viciously funny stories, playing fast and loose with literary figures in American letters. His reality games brought much of his work squarely within the realm of science fiction and fantasy, though few of his stories ever attracted much notice within the genre community.

Now Donald Barthelme is dead, but even in death he follows what seems to be a burgeoning science fiction tradition: publication of the posthumous novel. The King is, as we might have expected, a slightly insane Arthurian fantasy set during World War II. He handles the idea, not as the average writer in our genre might have handled it -- elaborate explanations of how Arthur got to the England of 1939. Arthur's marveling at the techno-wonders of the era, and the obligatory scene of Arthur tilting with Hitler, spear to spear -- but rather as Barthelme's readers might have come to expect. There are no explanations. Arthur, Guinevere, Sir Kay, Lancelot, and Mordred all act out their timeless story with the particular setting of World War II almost as an annoyance to them. Arthur regards Winston Churchill with condescending tolerance. And in the meantime, the Red Knight (a Communist) and the Black Knight (a black, of course), provide us with a third layer of reality -- the modern, post-Cold War sensibility.

Throughout the story we watch as the Black Knight almost inadvertently puts together all the pieces of a particularly un-holy grail; the atomic bomb. Only once King Arthur has the bomb in his hands -- has the power to destroy his enemies so easily, so completely -- he shows the difference between the imaginary age of chivalry and our own time. He declines to use it. There are things you don't do, if you're a true knight.

But what is Donald Barthelme saying? Never anything as simple as "No Nukes." Because King Arthur, you'll recall, ends up dead, and all his dreams shattered. For all his reality games, Barthelme's fiction has always dealt with the real world, and in the real world you sometimes have to face the choice between surviving, but only by becoming something a good deal uglier than you ever thought you were, or staying pure and being destroyed yourself. In this marvelous and deceptively light book, Barthelme accomplishes effortlessly what James Morrow, for instance, labors so painfully and fruitfully to do. He makes us laugh at our own price and at our own shame, without ever seeming to exclude himself from his own bittersweet ridicule.

Loom, Brian Moriarty (Animated computer fantasy, Lucasfilm Games, $49.95)

Viable storytelling forms and genres never begin with the artistic elite of an established form. They begin with the common people, and with the artists who serve them. The commercial artists. The "hacks."

The literari of Shakespeare's day wrote poems; if you wanted prestige you wrote an epic. Plays, however, were for writers who wanted to make a buck. Yet it was there, in the commercial ferment of vulgar, democratic art that Elizabethan dramatists moved from Gammer Gurton's Needle to King Lear in a generation or two. All the while, however, the literary hardly seemed to notice the change; drama was a second-rate art, a place where one might dabble for money, but never a medium for serious poetry.

The same thing happened with the movies. A mere amusement was first seized upon by social reformers to make cheap, quick anti-capitalist statements; then it was co-opted by the capitalists to promote the status quo. Established writers (and actors, for that matter), thought of "going Hollywood" as slumming, if you did it once; selling out, if you made a career of it. Yet within a generation or two we had films that live in the public imagination as almost no literary works of the period do: Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, It Happened One Night, It's a Wonderful Life, The Wizard of Oz. The literary sneered for at least another generation, even as classics were being created under their noses.

Need I point out other cases? Television: We are in its golden age right now, even as the literari curl their lips and utter snide observations. Animation: Disney's vision didn't become reality until Snow White, and even now a mere "cartoon" can hardly be taken seriously as art; yet the audience, the Folk, demos, the Great Unwashed have taken the great works of animation to their hearts.

And what about the genre of science fiction, cutting across all the media in which it is presented? We've gone from Buck Rogers to Blade Runner, from Doc Smith and Edgar Rice Borroughs to Bruce Sterling and Octavia Butler, all in a generation or two.

All this is prelude. I'm here today to announce the coming-of-age of another storytelling medium: The computer game. As with the movies, videogames began as amusements, right down to the coin slot in the arcade machine. As with the movies, computer games were at first the domain of technical aficionados -- programmers ruled.

And when programmers ruled, we got a lot of games that were long on programming tricks, but short on storytelling. The designers of the original text and video adventures games pulled out every cliche in the stories they read and loved most: science fiction and fantasy. It's partly because of the alternate-world nature of computer storytelling, but mostly because of the techno-nerd (read "sf reader") society in which computer programmers lived that science fiction and fantasy still dominate the stories that are told in the bits and bytes of computer games.

And just as the first sci-fi movies represented the most cliche-ridden sort of science fiction, so also do most computer games consist of really cool screen representations of every dumb-as-your-thumb sci-fi and fantasy idea stoned from Bester or Tolkien and beaten into the ground by derivative hacks.

In short, while the games, as games and as programs, might have been great fun, as stories they remained pretty lame . . . until now.

Brian Moriarty isn't Shakespeare (yet), and Loom isn't Lear. To stretch the analogy, it's more likely that Moriarty is Marlowe, and Loom is Doctor Faustus. The point is that before this game, there was only hope and pretention to indicate the artistic possibilities of computer games as a storytelling medium. Now that Loom exists, computer games have to be taken seriously. We now know that it's possible for a computer game to tell an original fantasy story, and to give us images and experiences we could get in no other medium.

Loom is the story of Bobbin, a young boy who grew up as an orphan in the Guild of Weavers. His world has fragmented itself into many guilds, each completely isolated from the others, and within their isolation they have developed their crafts to have great magical power. The weavers' distaff has evolved into a musical instrument, on which spells or "drafts" are cast by plucking strings in simple melodies. More important, the great loom in the center of the Weavers' island holds together the fabric of the universe, and it's beginning to come apart. In fact, Bobbin's birth was the first disturbance that signaled the unraveling of the loom.

The weavers can't mend their own loom; nor do they have the will to destroy it and unlink it from the universe. Instead they transform themselves into swans and fly off into another place, beyond the reach of the Loom, leaving Bobbin as the sole user of Weaver magic in the world. The rest of the story of Loom is his quest, moving from guild to guild, until he confronts Chaos and destroys the Loom.

For those who care about innovation, Moriarty has developed an almost wordless interface with the game. Using a mouse, you simply show the character where to go and then use the distaff to play the drafts that you learn during the game in order to cast spells. In other words, the mechanics of game playing don't get between you and the story; very quickly the whole process of playing becomes invisible, intuitive, just as you don't think about paragraphing, kerning, leading, or typefaces while reading a well-designed book. The puzzles are simple and you're helped by the story itself (no clue book is needed), so you experience it as a story, not as an obstacle course. Your character never dies because you made a mistake. And Lucasfilm Games has the best computer animation in the games business, bar none, and in only gets better from game to game.

Most important to me, though, is the fact the Moriarty has told a story that I haven't seen before. Oh, the broad outlines of the story are familiar enough -- fantasy is the rawest exposure of myth, and so repetitiveness is inescapable -- but there isn't a breath of warmed-over Tolkien in the world of this game. (Nor is there much recycled Disney, the other main source for animated games.) Moriarty has created a different fantasy milieu, a new magic system, and characters with more charm and individuality than I've ever seen in a computer game.

In fact, Loom passed its real test. Geoffrey (12 -- an experience computer gamer) and Emily (9 -- not a gamer at all) both played the game with ease. And as they played, what pulled them onward was not the desire to win, but rather an eagerness to find out what happens next. In other words, they received the game as a story. Except that unlike any storytelling medium, they got to be a part of the unfolding of the tale; the course of the story was somewhat different as each of them played.

Dedicated gamers may object to the fact that gameplay is definitely subservient to the story, but you read this magazine because you love stories, and so what's a minus for them will be a plus for you. I'm not saying that you ought to run out and pay $3,000 for a VGA-graphics system with an Ad-Lib sound board, though if you already have such a machine I do recommend you buy this game and play it.

One personal note: My name shows up in the credits for Loom. Lest you think I'm reviewing my own work -- a practice often indulged in but beneath contempt -- I must tell you that my name is there only because Moriarty is generous to a fault. My "contribution" consisted of having said,"Hey, that's neat," several times during a screening of the nearly-finished game. In part because of what I saw at the screening, I have since come to work with Lucasfilm Games as a consultant on future animated games, but I don't participate in their profits. Let my current involvement with Lucasfilm stand as proof that I mean what I say. The storytelling potential of computer games is so strong that I'm willing to invest a great deal of time in working with this new form.

With Loom, computer gaming does not become "as good as" fiction. They each offer different experiences that can't be directly compared. Memory limitations decree that a book's worth of story still can't be told through an animated game. Rather, Loom proves that some stories can be told better through the computer game than is possible through any other medium. Give us a generation, and we may well be rich with classes. But as Pamela and Crusoe and Tom Jones were to the novel, so will Loom be to the computer game. And we who love fantasy and science fiction can be glad that Brian Moriarty chose to tell our kind of story through his new medium.

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