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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction May 1991

By Orson Scott Card

Carve the Sky, Alexander Jablokov (Morrow, cloth, 288 pp, $18.95)

The stupidest of stories are often those about artists and art. This is because such novels are almost invariably the naive outpourings of immature writers who are still quite impressed at their own lofty status as artists. They create stories in which artists are tortured, tragic souls whose outpourings are the most important things ever to happen in the history of the human race. These stories only appeal to people who wish they were artists, or artists who are deeply in love with themselves.

I know about such stories. I've read many, started reading more, and even wrote a couple.

With that out of the way, let me tell you about Carve the Sky. This is Alexander Jablokov's first novel. He has been known as an extraordinarily talented, interesting writer since his short fiction first started appearing back in the late 70s. But he has not been widely known, because his publications, however excellent, have been so brief and so infrequent.

If you had told me that Jablokov's first novel was about art connoisseurs tracking down some strange, beautiful, anomalous sculptures by a dead genius, I would have winced, "knowing" that Jablokov, like so many others, had succumbed to the narcissistic impulse.

I would have been dead wrong. Carve the Sky is actually a gripping mystery, with all the action and danger of a thriller. It is also a gallery of fascinating characters, all believable and easily distinguished from each other (a rare thing!). And, as in all his work, Jablokov's writing is both clear and scintillating. His style almost never calls attention to itself, and yet again and again the reader is granted that frisson of recognition that something powerful and true has been stated so perfectly that it is as if it had never been spoken before.

Let me also indulge my personal tastes: I don't really enjoy reading stories that make me dwell in bleak and cynical worlds where characters all act from the basest or most pathetic of motives -- yet an unfortunate proportion of fiction with literary pretensions seems to be set in such worlds. Despite the fact that Carve the Sky has its full share of the bleaker aspects of humanity, Jablokov has nevertheless charged his novel with the life and vigor that come when characters are driven at least as often by love and hope, by loyalty and gratitude and admiration, as they are by hate and despair, by resentment and vengeance and contempt.

Jablokov's future universe is well invented and fascinating, especially the art. Most "future art" stories start from the assumption that audience-repelling non-representational art is not only permanent, but permanently "new" and "revolutionary." Jablokov actually understands what art history shows. This, too, shall pass. There is no reason to think that two hundred years from now, the canon of great artists of the past will particularly resemble our current canon. And Jablokov writes so intelligently about his invented, nonexistent art and artists that the art history in Carve the Sky, both real and invented, feels seamless, completely of a piece. And that, my friends, is one of the hardest things science fiction writers ever attempt -- to place their future histories into the balance with real history. Most fail. In fact, until reading this novel, I might have been tempted to say that all who attempt it fail, or at least succeed imperfectly. (And don't throw Heinlein's Future History at me -- it was one of the silliest and shallowest of futures, even before real history overtook it.)

I'm still studying this book to determine how Jablokov brought it off. I think his technique is akin to scientific black-boxing -- you never describe the art piece itself in great detail, and you never try to evoke a response from the reader to a direct apprehensive of the art. At the same time, Jablokov is very careful to create attitudes-toward-art in his characters that differ from each other and from attitudes in our own time, not just at a superficial level (remember that absurd laser "art" bit that destroyed the second act of Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George?) but at fundamental levels, so that art feels like a wholly new experience throughout Carve the Sky.

But my own interest in Jablokov's technique should not distract you from his real achievement. You don't have to think seriously about these questions unless you want to. Carve the Sky can be read as sumptuous hard sf or hard-boiled detective fiction, as a literary tour-de-force or a serious examination of a community of characters, and it's hard to imagine an intelligent reader who will not be satisfied -- nay, delighted. Write down the title and author, and be prepared to special-order it, Morrow's marketing of hardcover sf being sometimes only a step and a half above shredding the unbound signatures. This book is something special.

Just a Dream, Chris Van Allsburg (Houghton-Mifflin, picture boo, $17.95)

On Christmas Eve, Peter Collington (Knopf/Borzoi, picture book, $14.95)

Old Mother West Wind, Thornton W. Burgess, illustrated by Michael Hague (Henry Hold, picture book, $18.95)

Chris Van Allsburg is a genius, an author-artist of compelling vision and stunning originality. Previous books of his -- most notably The Mysteries of Harris Burdick and The Garden of Abdul Gasazi -- have set parents and children imagining the most marvelous stories.

Unfortunately, with Just a Dream, Van Allsburg falls prey to Preachment Syndrome. His audience has hitherto loved him for his subtlety and the freedom he gives them, but Van Allsburg does not trust us to continue to imagine for ourselves. Now he must bludgeon us to make sure we Think Correct Thoughts while reading his book. Never before have his illustrations counted for so little, relying for their meaning on the most quotidian of text; never before has he shown himself to be such a shallow thinker. Having jumped on the environmentalist bandwagon, he confesses with every page that he has no understanding of the science of ecology, only a full knowledge of the most puerile of party-line environmentalism. For instance, cutting down trees is not, per se, the problem -- monocultures, erosion, and irresponsible deforestation are -- and human life would be difficult indeed if we concluded that all tree-cutting was bad. Yet that is what his book implies.

Why oh why, asked the reviewer plaintively, do creative geniuses so often come to believe that because they understand something, they understand everything? Van Allsburg would have nothing but contempt for a scientist who published illustrations showing as much ignorance of artistic technique as Van Allsburg's book shows of his ignorance of science. And why oh why, whined this reviewer for the umptieth time, do storytellers constantly forget that their work is most truthful and persuasive when the messages are intuitively and unconsciously created and received? Tell a good story well, and you will also succeed as a preacher; tell stories in order to preach, and you will fail as a preacher and storyteller.

In contrast to Van Allsburg at his worst is a new (to me, at least) illustrator/storyteller named Peter Collington whose completely wordless picture book On Christmas Eve is a delight. Dedicated "to chimneyless children everywhere," the book tells exactly how Santa Claus gets that last-minute letter and delivers presents to a home without a hearth. With charm, wit, imagination, and a deft style that combines primitivesque drawing with often subtle texture and color, this is the illustrator's art at its finest. Give yourself a present by searching out this book now, no matter when this column appears -- and I suspect many of you will be ordering up copies of this book to give next Christmas.

Collington's book bids to be a classic; Thornton W. Burgess's animal stories are time-tested classics already. I grew up with these books, which, to my view, are the finest of the talking animal stories that really are for young children (Felix Salten's Bambi is much too disturbing to be read to most six-year-olds). Because I came to Burgess first, I never could stomach the icky sweetness of Beatrix Potter. (Potter-lovers, please don't write to me -- I agree with you in advance that this opinion reveals my utter worthlessness as a critic and as a human being, but it's the opinion I have, and I must bear it manfully.) As for The Wind in the Willows, it seemed to me that the characters had been purged of all their animalness, which never happens with Burgess's creatures.

Those of you who, like me, have fond memories of Reddy Fox, Bowser the Hound, Johnny Chuck, and Billy Mink will feel yourselves right at home in Old Mother West Wind -- all the more because of Michael Hague's faithful, real-seeming illustrations. Hague's drawing technique is sometimes not up to his composition and his palette, but the overall effect is so rich and pleasing that small flaws are easily forgiven. As for you who have never known Burgess, I cannot guess whether his works can reach yet another generation of adults, but I would be surprised if they did not delight the children of the 90s as much as they did us who grew up in the 40s and 50s.

The Best of the Best I Read

I don't pretend to have read every sf and fantasy book published -- but I have picked up a whole lot of them and read a page or even a chapter. Of those that I found interesting enough to continue reading to the end, I liked many of them enough to review them in print; and of those, I do have my favorites. Looking back with some months' perspective, let me remind you of my favorites.

Fantasy. In a year that saw Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer, Tom de Haven's Walker of Worlds, and R.A. McAvoy's Lens of the World, it was very hard indeed to set these aside in favor of any book. But Charles de Lint's masterwork, The Little Country, must stand as the finest novel of fantasy in 1990. All these books still live in my memory; but where the Kushner suffered a bit from its brevity and the de Haven and the McAvoy were the opening volumes of series, The Little Country is complete in itself. De Lint's career can no longer be described as promising; he has fulfilled his promise; he has arrived.

Science Fiction. Rudy Rucker's The Hollow Earth was wonderful fun, Robert Charles Wilson's The Divide was quietly brilliant and disturbing, and Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park shows a proven master at the top of his form; but I must give the nod to the new guy, Robert Sawyer, whose first novel, Golden Fleece, is a tightly plotted mystery, terrific sensawunda sci-fi, and thriller with a character worth believing in and caring about. What will Sawyer do for an encore? This is one case where I wouldn't mind seeing a sequel -- and real soon now, too.

Young Adult. I wish I saw more of these books to choose from -- Young Adult editors are still oblivious to the fact that many of you who read this column are eager to find new YA fantasy and science fiction to buy as gifts (or -- if you're like me -- for yourself!). Where almost every adult sf and fantasy book arrived unbidden at my doorstep, I have to search out the YA titles myself, which is at best a hit-and-miss operation. Still, I am not at all dissatisfied with my favorite of the year, Lynne Reid Banks's The Fairy Rebel, a perverse little romp with a puckish punk fairy who finds that the only way to survive herself is to overthrow the tyrannical queen.

Picture Books. An easy choice this year, though as always there were many beautiful entries. Peter Collington's On Christmas Eve is not just a Christmas book -- it's a loving fantasy that stretches the illustrator's art.

Computer Games. In a year that saw Starflight II and Star Control, both wonderful games that give you a chance to play in space as you never have before, I still must point out some brilliant fantasy story games from the company I'm associated with, Lucasfilm Games. Brian Moriarty's Loom is a groundbreaking medieval fantasy that frustrates die-hard gamers but welcomes story-lovers who don't thrive on frustration -- especially kids and women, long-excluded from the try-not-to-die puzzle games that have dominated this genre. Ron Gilbert's Monkey Island is more traditional as a game, but his Caribbean ghost story is the first computer game I've ever played that made me laugh out loud. I hope you'll forgive my touting products of a company that I'm involved with. I don't praise their games because I work with them; I work with them because Lucasfilm is creating games that excite me with their storytelling possibilities.

Still, it is only one possible direction, and I suspect that a great many computer gamers will agree with my choice for sf/fantasy game-of-the-year: Accolade's Star Control, by Fred Ford, Paul Reiche III, and a whole slew of other people. This game may be the ultimate space-batter simulation, and if you have ever been thrilled by military space stories, this game will make it all come real to you. The science fiction of it is richly inventive, the design and programming are adroit and stylish, and the visuals are stunning.

(Even here I can't escape from possible charges of bias. It wasn't until I was looking up credit-line information, after naming Star Control as my favorite sf-fantasy computer game of 1990, that I discovered that the credit page ends with the statement: "Inspired by the Works of Fiction of Orson Scott Card, Larry Niven, Andre Norton, David Brin, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Vance, Alan Dean Foster, Keith Laumer, A.E. Van Vogt, E.E. "Doc" Smith, Joe Haldeman, Dan Simmons, Fred Saberhagen and 100 worthy others." The sheer flattery of being placed on such a list is certainly enough to turn the head of the most modest of writers, which I have never claimed to be. But let's look at it this way: Unlike the creator of Star Wars, these gamewrights had the grace to give credit to the dreamers whose dreams they are bringing to life for us. That they include my name on the list should not distract from the fact that they printed the list at all.)

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