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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 protagonist.

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 well.

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 Right.

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.


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