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

By Orson Scott Card


The Singers of Time, Frederik Pohl & Jack Williamson (Doubleday/Foundation, Cloth/Trade Paper, 384 pp, $21.95/$10.95)

Science fiction has been noted in the past for many inspired collaborations, in which the combination of two fine writers results in fiction that is excellent and yet different from both writers' solo work. One thinks immediately of Kornbluth & Pohl and Niven & Pournelle.

That tradition has been dissipated in recent years by a different kind of "collaboration," in which a big name pro writes an outline and an eager young writer "fleshes it out" (i.e., writes the novel). Cynical readers are learning that the second name on the book, the one that they've never heard of, is the real author. Cynical reviewers, like me, claim that neither name is the "author," since neither writer takes real responsibility for the book. Computers could write books with more soul than some of these wretched little assemblages of words on paper.

Do I even need to tell you that The Singers of Time belongs in that former, grand tradition, not the squalid modern one? Pohl and Williamson are both writers of great integrity, and what they have wrought together is a fine novel worthy of either of them working alone. Instead of neither taking responsibility for the finished work, both do.

The idea is a good one, even if it does have a somewhat timeworn feel to it. Aliens have taken over Earth, enslaving us with kindness; humans have reacted like primitive cultures that eagerly subsume themselves in the "higher" culture that gives them such marvelous goodies. But some humans remember the moral dimensions of life; some, too, remember the almost-lost sciences that once allowed us to inch our way starward, instead of taking giant leaps on someone else's shoulders.

Bad enough that we buy the aliens' half-truth that the taurs, a species of semi-intelligent slaves, really don't mind being slaughtered for food. What's worse is that we use their system of plug-in "learning" in which we essentially allow our bodies to be taken over by temporary mental implants, so that we do perfect work -- but have no memory of doing it or understanding of what it was we did. Yet when the crisis comes -- when the alien mother planet disappears -- they must turn to the few humans who remember how to think and learn in order to solve their problem and bring their race back from the brink of destruction.

How it all happens is one of the most wonderful space opera romps I've read in a long time. And because Pohl and Williamson are of the old guard, they don't do it with tongue in cheek, the way Rudy Rucker and Richard Lupoff have (delightfully) done it in recent years. They play it straight. Their heart is in it.

There are drawbacks. The characters seem childish -- that is, they feel only one thing at a time. With no complexity of motive, once a character has been given his attitude-of-the-hour he acts it out with relentless determination. And the emotions they feel are usually pretty silly -- intelligent people arguing about ideas and discoveries as if they were children in a softball game arguing whether the guy was safe or out. But then, the heroes and gods of the Iliad are childish, too. And character does not amount to nothing in the story; at times it is important indeed.

A worshipful attitude toward "lost human science" is one of the most troubling things about golden-age sf, and The Singers of Time certainly has that view of the scientist as godling, of science itself as the nirvana-like apprehension of Truth. Well, I'm sorry, but that mythical view of science is as boneheadedly wrong as the mystical view of art that seeps like osteoporosis through literary fiction. Real science works exactly like government bureaucracy, complete with infighting, inertia, exploitation, careerism, and irresponsible insularity. Genius is routinely ground up and spit out, unless it conforms to certain norms or happens to catch on like a fad. The mystical view of scientists and of science is deceptive and harmful, both for scientists and non-scientists, and this book has a serious case of science worship.

But -- these flaws are endemic to the sf tradition out of which this book arises. It is a book of a kind, and one of the best of that kind. Excellent ideas are well explored in the story. I especially like their starships, which because they travel at lightspeed, are all waves and therefore can pass through almost any amount of interstellar radiation unharmed. A nice idea which I intend to steal frequently.

If you look for fiction that shows awareness of all that has happened in science fiction in the last thirty years -- echoes of Ellison, LeGuin, Varley, Sterling, Willis, Fowler, or Gibson -- forget this book. Science fiction might as well have frozen with Blish. But hey, folks -- Blish was terrific, and so, for that matter, were -- are -- Pohl and Williamson. If you like that old-time sci-fi -- and I do, in spite of my best literary pretensions -- then this book's for you.


SimEarth (Maxis, 1991, computer game for IBM & MacIntosh)

Here is the science fiction fan's ultimate computer game. You have a planet, and it's your job to manipulate the environment until it's favorable to sentient life, and then nurture the growing civilizations until they're ready to go forth and colonize other star systems. You can start with Aquaria, a watery planet without landforms, and use volcanos and continental drift to create the dry platforms of life; you can start with pre-Cambrian Earth, or Earth at the dawn of humankind; or you can opt to terraform Mars or Venus, a difficult project at best. The program will also generate random planets, or will let you play games with James Lovelock's hypothetical Daisyworld, to see how evolution responds to environmental change -- and changes the environment in the process.

The manual is thick but well worth exploring because it helps you understand the processes you're working with on the screen. Anybody who plays at the advanced levels and successfully terraforms a planet or brings a sentient species to interstellar flight deserves college credit; and yet the game is never for a moment dull. This is computer game design at its best -- the computer does all the work and you get to make all the interesting decisions. It's also legitimate computer simulation of reality, every bit up to the standard set by Maxis's previous hit, SimCity.

If you don't already own a computer, find a store that has SimEarth as a demo and play it for a while. You may discover that a home computer is a necessity after all.


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