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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction March 1991

By Orson Scott Card

Isaac's Universe: Volume One: The Diplomacy Guild, Martin H. Greenberg, ed. (Avon, paper 258 pp, $3.95); stories by Robert Silverberg, David Brin, Robert Sheckley, Poul Anderson, Harry Turtledove; introduction by Isaac Asimov

Many years from now, humans have joined space-faring society. Each of the species that has achieved starflight has its own particular needs, and since they rarely overlap, there's no reason for serious conflict. Except that an ancient race, far more advanced than any of the current group, has left behind some really extraordinary artifacts, and since those are a limited resource, which any or all of the races might be able to use, it is around those artifacts that competition arises.

Best of all, most of the ancient artifacts are massive, incomprehensible and inert -- until one of them decides, for reasons of its own, that it's time to boogie. Then the writers get to do all that sense-of-wonder stuff that we all loved when we first picked up on science fiction with Galactic Derelict and The Time Traders back in seventh grade or whenever.

In other words, this is old-time science fiction by the guys who know how it's done. Don't expect the kind of masterpieces that Harlan Ellison's Medea project inspired -- that was a one-of-a-kind event. Instead, you should open Isaac's Universe expecting the old-time religion, the 1950s tent meeting kind of sci-fi that we cut our teeth on.

Inevitably, the writers all homed in on the strongest aspect of their shared future. The alien artifacts. Therefore, the stories can feel a bit repetitive Representatives of several different races gather around an incomprehensible alien artifact, each one uncertain what the others know or what they're going to do; then they have (sometimes) adventures or (usually) conversations until Something Really Big Happens.

All the stories are good reading. Oh, Brin indulges in some gratuitous characterizations -- you know, the way he does when he remembers that he's supposed to create characters, but he doesn't understand yet that the characterization is supposed to have some relationship to the events of the story. And Anderson keeps trying to juice up emotions that his story just hasn't earned. But those are old habits that we've long since learned to overlook. The Silverberg is a perfectly polished artifact, as we have learned to expect from him; and perhaps it isn't a surprise that the newest of the writers, and perhaps the least science-oriented, turns in the tale with the most fire in it. Harry Turtledove's "Island of the Gods" not only has the best and clearest idea of any of the stories in the book, it also has interesting characters which, while they remain fairly obvious, actually make choices that change the outcome of the story.

The series promises to be a good one. I just hope that later writers don't keep repeating the same pattern, or our senses may give out from an overload of quotidian wonder.

The Little Country, Charles de Lint (Morrow, cloth, 544 pp, $22.95).

Janey Little is a musician. She tours and records, playing folk music -- not fake-folk, but the real thing, the songs that have magic in them because they were first sung by the people who still know how to touch that other world. When she loses her lover and fellow-performer all at once -- the same man, unfortunately -- she goes home to her grandfather's old Cornish village, when she discovers something hidden in a trunk of his It's a book by her grandfather's old chum, Dunthorn, one of her favorite authors. Only she's never heard of this book. Not a surprise, really -- it was published in an edition of one copy.

So she starts to read the story of a young girl who gets herself turned small by a witch, and then has to enlist the help of her friends in defeating the witch and getting free of the spell and perhaps finding happiness and saving the world in the process. The trouble is, whenever the book is opened, it attracts the attention of some extremely dangerous people -- members of a secret order of string-pullers who like to think of all the world as their own puppet show, and really resent it when other people don't cooperate and dance on cue.

Usually when somebody writes a book within a book, one level is really good and the other is just something to fill up pages till you get back to the good part again. In The Little Country, de Lint has achieved almost perfect balance, making both stories equally compelling, making them intricately interconnected, but never playing the cheap trick of literally bringing both casts of characters together at the end. He walks so many tightropes all at once that you'd think he would fall off one of them -- but he never does.

I've gone on record saying that Charles de Lint is the best of the post-King contemporary fantasists, the one with the clearest vision of the possibilities of magic in a modern setting. None of this splatter stuff. De Lint isn't interested in making you puke. He is interested in making you grip the pages till your hands lock in place, or turn them so fast you accidentally tear them out. De Line is second to no one in his ability to depict evil -- genuine, heartstopping believable evil that you begin to think you might have met once, and not all that long ago, either.

More important, though, de Lint is a true believer in the immanence of magic. Not that he buys into the hexes and positions stuff; rather he believes in something like a literalized interpretation of Jung, where the secret collective dreamworld is as real as the public yet isolated realities that we drone through during the hours when we think we're awake. He uses music as a point of entry into the magic. There's a danger for him there, as a writer, that someday he'll depend too much on evoking the innate magic of music and not enough on the story itself; but in The Little Country he never goes over the edge into preciousness or self-indulgence.

How best to sum it up? The Little Country isn't just about singers. This book sings.

This Boy's Life: A Memoir, Robias Wolff (Harper/Perennial Library, paper 288 pp, $8.95).

Most memoirs suffer from the fact that the present writer, being older and wiser, is constantly intruding into the narrative, reminding us that of course he's much wiser now. Wolff doesn't do that. He shows you the boy he was -- the moral blindness, the selfishness, the fear that kept him from stopping the worst parts of his life when they were still stoppable. He paints an unsparing portrait of a boy whose mother is repeatedly victimized by her bad judgement of and hunger for men; he shows each step he takes to try to make his way in the world; and finally, at the end of the narrative, we watch the boy cross a moral threshold that too few humans ever cross. Yet he does it without even being aware, at the time, of what he has achieved. Most of us had idyllic childhoods compared to this; most of us, as children, would not have been much attracted to this boy; but it is impossible to read this book without loving the boy, because we have lived inside him through all the crucial moments of his self-creation.

Not science fiction. Heck, not even fiction. Just a fine, fine book.

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