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Fantasy & Science
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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction April 1991

By Orson Scott Card


Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton (Knopf, cloth, 413 pp, $19.95)

This is a novel about a promotor who assembles the best available scientists to cobble together bits of DNA from here and there, in order to grow a batch of authentic dinosaurs. With the idea of out-Disneying Disney, he puts the most dangerous animals ever to live on this planet in a theme park, where he has everything completely under control. But . . . but . . . does he?

It's by the author of The Andromeda Strain and all those other sci-thrillers. So you know the routine. Lots of realistic detail, building slowly but surely until we reach a point where suddenly all hell breaks loose. Then terrific action, tension till your fingernails bleed, characters you care about, science you believe in, the kinds of serious questions about the ethics of science that Jeremy Rifkin would raise if he only had a brain, and when it ends you're exhausted and satisfied and just the teensiest bit smarter than you would have been if you hadn't read it.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you're right, it's just the same old thing that Crichton always does. His own personal formula. He could do this in his sleep.

There are plenty of other novelists around who repeat their private formulas with book after book, so that by page ten you know pretty much everything that's going to happen by the end. For instance, Vonnegut. Updike. Krantz. Michener. Etc.

The difference between Crichton and them others is that even when you can see him reaching inside you and pulling all the same old levers and pushing all the same old buttons, it still works. So yes, there wasn't a single thing that happened in this entire novel that I didn't see coming from the start. I don't care. It's still great reading, it'll make a great movie, and I especially liked his invention of gloriously strange yet believable dinosaur behavior.

Uncle Orson predicts Crichton will, as usual, be ignored at award time, because we're so used to him doing stuff like this and besides, he isn't One of Us. But I sure wish some dyed-in-the-wool sci-fi writers (or even the artsies and the flashies who are trying to turn sf into warmed-over Woolf or Wolfe1, or Wolfe2, or Burroughs -- W., not E.R.) would at least make an effort to learn maybe a teaspoonful of craft from Crichton so that now and then one of their pages would be this much fun to turn.

Just because Crichton makes it look easy doesn't mean that it isn't worth doing. Because of his craft, Crichton will probably have more influence over more readers -- and we're not talking dumb ones, either -- than any five genre insiders.

So -- no Hugos for you, Crichton. You'll have to make do with the feeble satisfaction of knowing you have reshaped the world just a little bit. (And all that nasty money.)


A Heroine of the World, Tanith Lee (DAW, paper, 448 pp, $4.50)

I'm trying to figure out why I didn't read A Heroine of the World when it first came out in the summer of '89. Lee is a writer I've admired ever since I read her perfect story "Red as Blood," which remains, in my opinion, the best-ever twisted adaptation of an old fairy tale. Perhaps I sometimes shy away from reading Lee simply because of the tremendous emotional investment that all her works, short or long, demand of the reader.

Lee's language is powerful, evocative; her voice sounds as though it comes from several centuries ago, out of an era when eloquence was as natural as breathing. There are never any phony archaisms -- none of that "forsooth" stuff, none of the warped syntax like "Fair she was and tall." (That sort of writing always makes me want to describe low characters in the same fashion: "Fishbelly white he was, and fat" . . . "Liquored-up he was; yea, verily shit-faced.") Unlike most fantasists who wish they could write magnificently and even pretend to be writing magnificently (I once knew of a writer who actually thought he could do authentic Elizabethan dialogue by lifting whole phrases and sentences from Shakespeare), Tanith Lee can actually do it, and so naturally that you begin to wonder why nobody else seems to remember what real English sounds like.

Bur A Heroine of the World isn't a masterpiece because of Tanith Lee's language. It's a masterpiece because she knows how to write powerful stories that strike at the root of love and sex and death, which, in case you haven't noticed, is the center of all the tales that stand the test of time. You know what I mean: the kind of story where, at the end, you don't think "good read" or "neat idea"; instead you sit there staring blindly into space, utterly spent from having really lived a life that was worth living. Fiction realer than reality, truer than truth, and more beautiful than beauty.

What is the story of A Heroine of the World? Synopsis here is akin to mutilation, but I'll give you the drift. A girl is at the brink of womanhood in a city that thinks of a war as a game; when her mother goes off to watch her father play at war, she loses them both. Her icy aunt kills herself rather than submit to even the most considerate of enemy occupations; our young heroine finds herself the half-willing mistress of a high-ranking enemy. In the midst of her powerlessness, however, she discovers that she, too, has power. She saves one man with a stroke of a pen, she kills another, with perhaps a bit more effort. She passes from marriage into wealthy widowhood, only semi-fraudulently maintained, then gives it all away to one man because she can't escape from her love for another. Through it all the gods tease her with hints that they just might be looking out for her.

But I have to stop; writing this synopsis has become too painful, as I remember what it felt like to live through these events and realize that I'm not conveying even a fraction of their power.

The only dissatisfying thing about A Heroine of the World is that at the end, one is left with the distinct impression that the story has only just begun. But well begun is half done, I've heard; if a sequel is coming, let it come quickly; and if is isn't, then I can attest to you, this is one of those books that leaves you wishing for more. Wishing you never had to leave a place of such nobility and grace, of such horror and helplessness; a place of gods and heroes, sadly lacking in the real world.


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