Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction August 1991
By Orson Scott Card
Russian Spring, Norman Spinrad (Bantam, cloth, 660 pp)
Every now and then, being a novelist myself really gets in the way of my
role as a reviewer. For instance, a reviewer is supposed to rejoice upon reading
what is almost certain to be the book of the year. But what if that reviewer is
also a novelist who harbored fond hopes of his own novel making a few waves?
Never mind -- I grit my teeth and smile and tell you what many others will
doubtless be saying before the year is out. Norman Spinrad has gone and written
the novel that shows us all what the best of 90s science fiction can be.
Jerry Reed is an American who grew up dreaming of space -- a science
fiction cliche, indeed, but made charmingly real in the first chapter of Norman
Spinrad's Russian Spring. Jerry goes into the American space program the way
other kids go in to the family business. But something goes awry. The civilian
space program has been derailed, and he finds himself working to develop a space
transport for the military. Not that he hates the military, particularly -- it just
has nothing to do with his dream of going into space himself.
That is when the space agency of a fully united Europe tries to seduce him
into joining their program to develop a civilian space bus to carry people from
low orbit out to geo-synchronous orbit -- and beyond. They sweeten the offer
with a lavish all-expenses visit to Paris, where Jerry meets the novel's other
Sonya Gagarin has no noble principles, or at least none that she has
detected. She left her lover and her supposed commitment to a foreign-service
career the moment that the Soviet Union's foreign holding company, Red Star,
offered her a high-paying job in Brussels. It was everything she'd dreamed of --
money, freedom, fun -- but she is vaguely ashamed of herself for her lack of a
higher dream. Thus when she and Jerry Reed have a rather comic and sexy
encounter, she is attracted to the fact that he would do almost anything for the
chance to get into space.
An old friend of Jerry's once told him, You can walk on water, but you have
to give up everything else to do it. Gradually Jerry finds out that it's true, as he is
forced to give up his passport, his homeland, his citizenship, and, for a time, his
family and his self-respect, all for the dream of going into space. And yet when
the time comes for the final push, he finds that not only can he go into space,
but in a sense he can take all of America with him, and Russia and Europe as
It's no accident that this novel is the first major new work of Spinrad's to
appear since his move to Paris. His love for that fabled city is plain, and not just
in the perhaps-overdone guided tour of the city that we get in some of the early
chapters. For Spinrad has clearly wrestled, as his male protagonist wrestles, with
the contradiction between a genuine love for his native land and a seething rage
at what that nation is becoming. Neither Spinrad nor Jerry Reed has rejected
America -- indeed, no one knows as well as an expatriate does what love and
longing for one's country really means. Yet decent citizens cannot let that love-of-the-motherland supersede their public conscience. "Public conscience" is a
clumsy term, I know, but I had to coin it because it's a virtue that desperately
needs a name, if only to point out that many people seem to have a serious
shortage of it. Folks whose private consciences are scrupulous to a fine degree --
they'd spend a 29-cent stamp to repay a 10-cent debt -- nevertheless feel no
sense of personal responsibility for their nation's wrongdoing on the grand scale.
Spinrad has no shortage of public conscience, and in a sense public
conscience can be seen as the overarching theme of Russian Spring. Most of the
time, most of the characters act, as most people do, out of self-interest. Yet now
and then a nobler dream turns this women or that man onto a slightly different
course. And we see, as the novel unfolds, how the world can be made a decent
place by just those flashes of decency.
This is easily Spinrad's most readable book. Except for a few brief lapses
into travel writing, every moment of the novel matters. His writing is finely
tuned, but you are never forced to admire his style; instead, you feel that you are
living inside the characters, inside the world of this book, with his language as
your utterly trustworthy but invisible guide. And within a very few pages you
care about these people, and keep on caring about them, more and more, until at
the end -- unless you are a great deal more hard-hearted than this jaded reader --
you will have to stop reading to blink away tears of sorrow and tears of joy. This
is not a dispassionate, "aesthetic" novel. Nor, however, is it a grab-your-balls
action thriller. Nothing in this novel requires you to become momentarily
stupid in order to enjoy it. And there is much about it that might have the
power to make you this much wiser, that much more compassionate.
One of the great pleasures of reading this book is that Spinrad actually
understands global politics -- not just the situation now, but the principles by
which nations move, so that his future history feels absolutely true. I had
thought only Bruce Sterling knew how to pull off that trick. Furthermore,
Spinrad understands political machinations and bureaucratic systems well
enough to show the brilliance and nobility possible within them, as well as the
stupidity and slime. I had thought only Jack McDevitt knew how to do that.
Alas, the book is not perfect (or at least, not perfect for me). Besides the
overconcern with Parisian menus, I was also disappointed at the way he used sex
early on in the relationship with Jerry and Sonya. I wasn't offended, I just
thought it got kind of silly when Jerry's mind is made up to stay in Paris because
Sonya is willing to go all the way with fellatio. It reminded me of the ludicrous
way Irving Wallace handled sex in his early-70s pot-boiler The Word, in which
reading the miraculous fifth gospel gave everybody really good orgasms. I
laughed, but it was only a brief lapse and easily overlooked.
Much more disappointing was the brief passage in which Spinrad
recapitulates the history of the United States since 1960 His grasp of geopolitics
had been so sophisticated and subtle up to then that I could hardly believe it
when I found his "analysis" to be the most puerile sort of black-and-white good-guys-vs.-bad-guys paranoid-conspiracy theory. The CIA killed Kennedy so he
couldn't prevent the Vietnam War . . . right. Again, though, Spinrad quickly
gets off this knee-jerk 70s-liberal kick and back to the future history that grew
out of intelligent analysis instead of anger.
Indeed, though the characters are memorable and the story powerful, what
may be Spinrad's most remarkable achievement is the development of a fully
realized future history. He actually takes us, virtually step by step, from where
we are today to where we could be a generation from now, and he does it so well
that I -- who up to now have found precious few future histories that were any
better than laughable -- found myself nodding and saying, Could be, could be.
Current events will catch up with him, but not as quickly as you might expect:
For instance, there's no mention of the Gulf War in Russian Spring, and indeed,
the novel might have been written entirely before that war took place -- and yet
the Gulf War is exactly the kind of thing that Spinrad's future America could do,
and if we let our euphoria at victory lead us to become global bullies, his vision
of a morally and economically bankrupt America may be far more accurate than
any of us would wish.
Showing global events is one of the hardest things to do in science fiction,
and most sf writers fail miserably; I wince as I read their depictions of
government meetings that could never happen and political leaders who would
never survive for a moment in the real world of politics. Spinrad's characters,
on the other hand -- even the most extravagant ones, like his weird-but-wonderful American vice-president, Wolfowitz (where is this guy when I want to
vote for him?) -- might very well chart their strange course through the real
world of politics. In short, Spinrad almost never offends history. And that
alone would make this novel a textbook in How It's Done When You Do It
I've gone on at great length about Russian Spring, but I assure you that the
review you're reading is the edited-down version. I kept making marginal notes
about things I wanted to mention in this review, and I've touched on very few of
them, and yet I've already used up space I should have devoted to three or four
books, according to my original mandate. But heck, Norman Spinrad's Russian
Spring is worth three or four ordinary books, and if you're smart enough to buy it
in hardcover it'll cost as much, too.
If this novel isn't on the Hugo and Nebula ballots next year, the voters
should slap themselves silly. But who cares? It's far more important that Russian
Spring end up in your memory, helping shape your view of the world Because
we're all going to live through the next few decades together, and I'd rather do it
with people who've seen the future through Spinrad's jaundiced eyes.
But don't read it out of a sense of duty. Read it because it's as good and
strong a story as you're likely to find this year. Read it because Norman Spinrad,
of all people, actually leads up to a climactic scene where you get the lyrics of
"God Bless America" absolutely straight, complete with the lump in your throat
and the tear in your eye. Read it because despite all the pain and suffering, both
public and private, in Russian Spring it will leave you full of hope and joy.
Science Fiction: The Early Years, Everett F. Bleiler (Kent State University Press,
cloth, 998 pp, $75.00)
Most of you aren't about to spring for seventy-five bucks for any book, let
alone a heavy reference tome like this, but I'll tell you, folks, if you're lucky
enough to live near a library that does buy it, go in and give yourself a treat.
Bleiler's goal was to catalogue and synopsize all the science fiction published
before Hugo Gernsback created the field as a commercial genre.
The project is more than a little wacko from the start, of course, if only
because there were no clearly defined genre lines back then, so that Bleiler
constantly had to decide whether to include a book or not based on criteria that
would have been meaningless to the authors at the time. But he had to draw a
line somewhere. And I'm glad this book exists. It's wonderful fun to browse
through it and read Bleiler's brief plot summaries, which often include his
entertainingly barbed critical commentary. Books this heavy usually don't feel
so, well, personal.
I can't tell you how accurate or complete the book is, except that with
those rare entries when I already knew the work he was writing about, he never
missed. But as a guided tour to the era when all our field's cliches were still the
cat's pajamas, I can't imagine a more pleasurable thousand pages than these.