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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction February 1991

By Orson Scott Card

Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, Sissela Bok (Vintage, paper, 326 pp, $7.95)

Nixon: The Triumph of A Politician, 1962-1972, Stephen E. Ambrose (Simon & Schuster, cloth, 736 pp, $24.95)

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent, Robert A. Caro (Knopf, cloth,, 506 pp, $24.95)

In the Shadow of the Dome: Chronicles of a Capitol Hill Aide, Mark Bisnow (Morrow, 319 pp, $20.95)

Writers in Hollywood, 1915-1951, Ian Hamilton (Harper & Row, cloth, 326 pp, $25.00)

The Ages of Gaia, James Lovelock (Norton/Bantam New Age, paper, 252 pp, $10.95)

Ice Time: Climate, Science, and Life on Earth, Thomas Levenson (Harper & Row/Perennial Library, paper, 242 pp, $9.95)

Science fiction and fantasy are only a small part of my reading, as I assume they are only a small part of yours. This column, of course, is devoted to that small part -- but now and then, with our Esteemed Editor's kind tolerance, I do like to point out some excellent non-genre books that I believe may hold interest for you.

Sissela Bok's Lying is that rare thing in these days: a completely accessible treatment of a serious philosophical issue. The issue of lying is much in the air these days -- for instance, the absurd statements that George Bush was lying when he pledged "no new taxes," as if people had forgotten the crucial distinction between a broken promise and a lie. Lying is often treated in contemporary American public discourse as the worst crime a politician can commit ("I don't mind that Gary Hart slept around, just that he lied about it"); at least the press treats it that way perhaps because telling untruths is the particular sin of which the press most often finds itself both victim and perpetrator -- it weighs heavy on their minds. And yet I daresay not one of us goes through a single day without telling at least one whopper, or at least stretching the truth a tad. Bok's book, even though it reaches no definite answers (how could it?), nevertheless clarifies the question marvelously well. It's also a pleasure to read; you do not have to have studied philosophy to understand it.

The matter of lying brings us, of course to three books about American politics. Care's Means of Ascent and Ambrose's The Triumph of a Politician deal with Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, two of the three most personally corrupt presidents in this country (and Warren Harding is not the other). It happens that Johnson has been blessed -- or cursed -- with a much more talented biographer than Nixon. Both writers are trying to be fair, and making no excuses, while Ambrose seems at times to flail about, trying to prove his liberal credentials by uttering prig little moral judgments on Nixon, "balancing" them with occasional excuses or explanations or mitigations. The result is that, while Caro leaves us with a picture of Lyndon Johnson as a moral monster, he also reveals him as a man of heroic proportion of his appetite for power. Johnson's achievements as well as his flaws are comprehended; Ambrose, on the other hand, reveals Nixon to be rather a moral dwarf, and Nixon remains an enigma, condemned but not well explained.

Regardless of the two biographies' relative merits, however, both books (and the previous volumes to each series, Caro's The Path to Power and Ambrose's Nixon: The Education of a Politician) have immeasurable value in their exploration of American politics in the middle of the twentieth century. This is particularly interesting, I think, to science fiction readers and writers, for if there's one area where science fiction writers have generally proven themselves to be almost childishly ignorant, it is politics and government. Far too often the novels and stories in our field show politicians holding meetings that would never be held, saying words that would never be spoken, and making decisions for reasons that would be laughed out of any serious discussion in Washington. Far too often, as sf and contemporary fantasy writers try to show us a "dangerous politician" they show no comprehension of how real dangerous politicians actually get, keep, and use power. And that very ignorance is, in itself, dangerous; I wish sf writers would take half as much care with their representation of politics as with their science. Despite their best efforts, no science fiction writer has yet come up with a character who approaches the abysmal toadiness of the of the ultimate backstabbing sycophant who emerges under the name of Kissinger in Ambrose's book. It may be a shocking idea, but it is possible to refer back to reality in order to bring greater truth into our fiction.

With that goal in mind, let us ban forever the stupid depictions of congressmen that disgrace almost every story that uses such a character by requiring all sf writers to read Bisnow's In the Shadow of the Dome before we'll read any work of theirs in which they attempt to show the workings of the American government. Those with no understanding keep depicting congressmen in meetings that are never held, or showing floor debates or committee hearings as a significant part of the decision-making process. Those with a little understanding go to the opposite extreme, painting congressmen as universally stupid, venal, ignorant puppets doing whatever the polls tell them must be done. The trust is somewhat else entirely -- and perhaps even more disturbing. Each congressman is at the head of a rather large fact-finding decision-making organization, whose membership is in constant flux and whose processes can sometimes be coopted by very junior aides. Bisnow's book is forthright and honest -- so honest that he often reveals his own moral compromises with the system that he has come to love rather too well. Admittedly, reading these books will spoil a great deal of science fiction for you; it will make you realize how easily government in the American democracy has slipped from the control of the people and into the hands of those who, for good or ill, covet power.

Compared to what politicians can do, writers can seem like pretty small potatoes. And nowhere do writers feel smaller than in Hollywood, where everybody but the author seems able to take credit for a successful film. (Quick -- name the directors of E.T., Poltergeist, Alien, Aliens, and The Empire Strikes Back. Now name the screenwriters.) Writers have discovered that the only way they can get control -- and credit -- is to become directors as well as screenwriters. And yet this one simple fact remains: Directors, actors, editors, and producers have often made excellent screenplays into very bad movies, but no one, ever, has made a bad screenplay into a good movie.

Ian Hamilton's Writers in Hollywood chronicles the woeful path of movie writers, from their obscure beginnings as scenarists, through the pretentious period of the thirties, to the writers post-war humiliation at the hands of Congress and the industry. Hamilton's book is anecdotal and fun. He also reveals himself to have the same view of the writers' art that has poisoned American letters in recent years. He despises the writers who actually wrote movies that the common people loved, and treats with slavish respect the antics of such film incompetents as William Faulkner. But Hamilton's personal attitudes are only additional symptoms of the disease called Hollywood, so well-chronicled in this book. And those who are familiar with the progress of the genre of science fiction, from a despised minor genre to a feared and loathed (by literateurs) major one, will find many striking parallels, from the almost pathological hunger for respect to the desperate self-destruction of some of its practitioners, along with the constant reminder that no matter how impossible it all seems, the new art can be and often is both excellent and important. Think of this book as accidental anthropology, and you'll enjoy it twice as much.

James Lovelock is well known to many of you; I am probably one of the last in the field to come to his work, though I am no less excited for having come so late to the intellectual feast he offers. His concept of all Earthborne systems, organic and inorganic, forming one organism called Gaia is one of those breakthroughs that is not so much a discovery as a new angle of view. As Shirley Strum said in Almost Human, "Once there is a new model, scientists can look in the same places they have looked for decades and make new discoveries." Gaia is such a new model, and The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth is the best book to read as an introduction.

Of course, new models are always slow to win acceptance; again quoting Strum, "It is often difficult for a scientists to switch paradigms -- in the course of a lifetime to change his or ideas. Only when the adherents of the old model actually die does the new come fully into its own." And Lovelock's Gaia is further handicapped by the way it has been adopted by many in the New-Age lunatic fringe, who seize upon the idea of Gaia and then get all mystical about it, treating it as a religion rather than a valid scientific model.

But valid it clearly is -- obvious, indeed, once one has thought of it -- and it is already having some influence. Perhaps the most important thing the Gaia hypothesis can accomplish is to awaken specialists to the crying need for interdisciplinary fertilization -- much the same thing that the Chaos idea is doing. We have spent the last century carefully subdividing science into ever-small subdivisions, forgetting that details only acquire meaning in context. If Lovelock accomplishes nothing else, it will be a noble achievement indeed if he only gets a significant number of scientists to raise their heads out of their own narrow discipline and discover the vast surrounding context. Evolution, for instance, ceases to be a meaningless series of accidents and becomes, instead, the internal regulatory system that allows Gaia to adapt to changes in its environment -- increasing heat from the sun, for instance, or diminishing heat from the Earth's core, or gradual losses or increases in various ambient substance.

Best of all, Lovelock has written his book to be accessible to all intelligent readers, deliberately eschewing the jargon of any particular discipline. To some narrow-minded scientists and philosophers, of course, this means that Lovelock's work isn't rigorous, and therefore isn't serious. But to those who judge ideas by their merits and uses, Lovelock's approach is exactly right. Jargon narrows the audience for any writing; Lovelock's ideas, if they have any value, must be offered to all the scientific community at once. Lovelock has easily attracted disciples, of course -- but he doesn't want them. They would have as deadly and stultifying an effect as Freud's and Skinner's disciples have had in the field of psychology. What he wants are gaialogists -- scientists who take an interdisciplinary, systemic approach to their studies of life and Earth. A microbiologists, a geologist, a climatologist, a botanist, an ecologist -- all could, and perhaps must, become gaialogists as well in order to achieve truly significant work in their own disciplines.

For an application of the gaialogical viewpoint to another science that had long been handicapped by its isolation, you can profitably read Thomas Levenson's Ice Time. Not only is it an excellent treatment of the current state of climatology, the book includes examples of how narrowness of vision can hamper science at every turn, with wonderful discoveries languishing until someone arrives who can put all the evidence together and draw out a coherent picture. Where Lovelock is an original thinker, a philosopher, Levenson is a reporter and commentator; yet there's a need for both, if we who are not experts in particular fields are to comprehend them. And what Levenson chronicles is the specific application of Lovelock's vision -- along with a sense of how important the emergent understanding will be to our future. Storytelling -- the invention and sharing of hypotheses and theories -- is every bit as important to science as the gathering of data, and Lovelock and Levenson are both excellent storytellers.

These seven books should be joined by an eighth, Shirley C. Strum's Almost Human, from which I have quoted. But Strum's book is so excellent, both as a science book and as a science-fiction-like story, that I want to review it at greater length. So -- again with our Esteemed Editor's kind forbearance -- I'll review it later along with some terrific science fiction and fantasy that is already piled shockingly high beside my bed. . . .

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