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
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!
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
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.