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