Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction September 1991
By Orson Scott Card
Guess What? Mem Fox, ill. Vivienne Goodman (HBJ/Gulliver, HBJ ed., cloth,
28 pp, children's picture book, $13.95)
When I grew up, witches were black silhouettes that got pinned to the
bulletin boards in school during Halloween season. We all knew there was no
such thing as a witch really. Lately, people who actually believe in witches (i.e.,
Christian fundamentalists) have taken to getting very upset about using witch
icons in the schools, and so outside of adult fantasy and a few daring YA novels,
I haven't seen much about witches in years.
So imagine my delight when I saw Mem Fox's and Vivienne Goodman's
gorgeous children's picture book, Guess What? The text is scant -- as you expect
in a picture book -- but it has a strong attitude right from the first page. "Far
away from here lives a crazy lady called Daisy O'Grady." The narrator then
takes us through a guessing game about the nature of this strange woman -- a
playful gamelike reading experience.
But the real joy of the book is in the marvelously hyperrealistic art. Every
illustration is lush with detail, and the style puts me in mind of a demented
Norman Rockwell. And as fantasy, the author and illustrator don't back off
from the fantasy or try to "normalize" witches (she's not just the lady next door!);
yet they do humanize her and put the fun back into the whole idea. If you have
a kid and a sense of humor and a fondness for the old "safe" witch of our
childhood, this book will put you back in second grade again!
Beauty, Sheri S. Tepper (Doubleday/Foundation, cloth, 412 pp)
I very much enjoyed Sheri S. Tepper's debut in our field, the True Games
series and Marianne, the Mague and the Manticore. Her more recent novels,
however, seemed to be moving in a direction that didn't interest me much; I
started reading each of them, then set it aside and never quite got around to it
again. This is no sign that a book isn't excellent, of course, only a sign that
whatever its faults or virtues, I'm simply not in the audience for it, and so, of
course, I don't review it.
When Beauty arrived at my house, I almost set it aside from the start, but
instead I opened it and discovered that this novel seems to have Tepper's old
magic back in place. I was engaged in the story at once and, with only an
occasional lull, cared very much what would happen next all the way through.
The title may well put you in mind of Robin McKinley's Beauty some
dozen years ago, and like that novel, Tepper's is a retelling of an old fairytale --
not "Beauty and the Beast" this time, but "Sleeping Beauty." Well, to be
precise, it includes a retelling of that tale, along with a half dozen others! For
Tepper's Beauty is a romp through a sort of meta-fairy tale, in which our hero, a
girl whose name is Beauty, learns that she is half-fairy in parentage but all too
human in the pathways of her life.
As with Tepper's True Game books, Beauty plays fast and loose with the
boundary between science fiction and fantasy -- a practice that I heartily
approve of. For instance, Beauty is drawn at one point into the near future of
the "real" world, where she sees the miserable last days of the human race on
Earth. She also visits our immediate future -- the next ten years or so -- in
which she sees our own culture and even attends an American college for a
Here is where the deepest -- no, I'll go out on a limb and say the only --
weakness in the novel comes in. Tepper is making a powerful point in her story
about the purpose of life and the responsibility we have toward maintaining, not
the illusion or the delusion of beauty in the world, but rather the reality of it.
The story itself contains this point intrinsically and effectively, but Tepper does
not trust us to get it. Instead, far too often, she abandons the narrative and in
thinly disguised essays gives us what I can only describe as totally ineffective
bombast. She reserves some of her harshest rhetoric for attacks on Christian
fundamentalists, for instance, supposedly because of their arrogance in
condemning people who believe differently from them -- and yet she
demonstrates in those very perorations exactly the same condemnatory, arrogant,
anti-compassionate traits that she deplores in them.
She's hardly alone in this. I recently read The Conquest of Paradise:
Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, by Kirkpatrick Sale (Knopf), in
which Sale spends a great deal of effort sneering at other historians and
biographers of Columbus, and even more effort attacking Columbus himself for
having been so stupid as to judge the native Americans by the cultural standards
of 15th century Europe. Of course, Sale is himself committing exactly the sin he
condemns in Columbus -- judging someone's actions, not by the standards of the
culture he lived in, but by the standards of what is viewed as correct in Sale's
Spare us from the smugness of people who cannot conceive that those who
disagree with them might actually be decent and worthy human beings, or at
least have some small shred of goodness in their hearts!
The worst irony, for me, in facing this flaw in Tepper's otherwise excellent
novel is that with only the most minor of exceptions, I agree with her views
completely! I don't loathe her preachments because I disagree with them -- I
loathe them because they are so mean-spirited and so inappropriate to the
character of Beauty as she is otherwise revealed in this book. To me, at least, it
feels as if the author repeatedly takes her wonderful vivid narrator by the
shoulders, muscles her out of the way, and screams at the reader. It feels, in
short, like being chewed out for something I didn't do. I've never liked that.
Clearly I feel strongly about this; so you should believe me when I tell you
that this story is so good -- so truthful, so entertaining, so moving -- that it
overcomes even the curse of metastasized political correctness. When she isn't
in her pulpit, Tepper is a wise and compassionate narrator, and when it comes to
spinning a yarn that you don't even want to stop reading, there are few better
spinners than she is. If at times you prick yourself on the spindle, well . . . I can
guarantee you, at least you won't fall asleep!
The Sky Lords, John Brosnan (St. Martin's, cloth, 318 pp, $18.95)
If you're one of those contrary people -- like me -- who wish for an
intelligent sf adventure novel, one with intriguingly eccentric yet believable
characters, moving through a deeply imagined milieu, with a story so gripping
that it has you turning pages faster than light, then have I got a book for you.
Best of all, while John Brosnan's The Sky Lords is the first of at least two more
books, and possibly more, this volume has an ending. All the major threads that
were woven throughout the book are resolved, one way or another, by the end.
Yet there's certainly room for more stories in volumes yet to come.
Our hero, Jan, is a young warrior in a village that is a remnant of a larger
feminist state in an America that broke up centuries before. Though all her
people have been genetically enhanced (or, in the case of males, tamed), they
now reject the "science of men" and worship a sort of nature goddess. A bad
harvest and the constant struggle with horrible fungi left over from the long-past
gene wars have put them on the edge of destruction, and now the Sky Lord is
coming -- a huge lighter-than-air floating city that demands an annual tribute of
foodstuffs that this year will put them over the edge into famine. Some want to
try to reason with Lord Pangborn; others, led by Jan's mother, Melissa, want to
use manscience to rebel against him.
In the course of this novel, like any good Heinlein adventure hero, Jan
finds herself cast hither and yon by the events of the story, and along the way
she meets colorful characters -- most notably Milo, a slave in the skyship who
nevertheless has remarkable talents that save Jan's life more than once. Having
been raised in a culture where "true love" is only possible between women, Jan
resists his advances at first out of prejudice; later, she has ample reason not to
long for his amorous companionship. Their relationship remains sexually
charged -- as is the whole book, actually -- and when it ends, brutally and
permanently, it is almost a relief to the reader.
The book is far from perfect. Though Brosnan is an experienced writer of
nonfiction, this is his first novel, and he repeatedly makes the very amateurish
mistake of leading up to a pivotal scene, then skipping past it to leave us
wondering what happened -- until he grudgingly fills in the information with
flashbacks. This makes the book much weaker and flabbier than it should have
been, and it is invariably a sign that the writer knows that the scene he's
skipping will be very difficult to write well. Experienced writers learn that this
means it is all the more important to write it directly and openly; novices tend to
skip the hard scene because they don't trust themselves to do it properly. They
might be right, of course -- but that's no consolation to the reader, who is so
frequently deprived of the best scenes. (The only exception I can think of is
Irving's Garp, where the outcome of the car accident in the driveway is withheld
for one long, excruciating, unbearable chapter -- but Irving knew when, how,
and why to break the rules, and Brosnan definitely does not.)
There's also just a touch of the main flaw I remember from David Palmer's
Emergence year ago -- just a bit too much reliance on fortunate accident for the
hero's survival. But these are forgivable flaws, especially when they occur in a
novel that is otherwise so very enjoyable.
Serpent Catch, Dave Wolverton (Bantam/Spectra, paper, 416 pp, $4.99)
I raved about Dave Wolverton's first novel, On My Way to Paradise, and
I've got to warn you: Apparently I'm a full-fledged member of Wolverton's
"ideal audience," because I'm hard-pressed to tell you anything negative about
his second. He touches the themes I care most about, yes, but more important
yet, this man can create characters and dilemmas, worlds and societies that come
alive for me and become an indelible part of my memory. I suppose that if you
aren't as deeply touched by these things you may wonder why Card gets so
excited about Wolverton's books, and like any reviewer I must remain aware
that there may be others who disagree with my assessment. But dammitall, folks,
in my humble opinion Serpent Catch is a masterwork of the first rank.
On a world that was meant to be a sort of planetwide zoo, with one
continent devoted to dinosaurs and another to pre-ice age monster-size
mammals, several intelligent races have been forced by alien prison wardens to
live out their lives with no hope of the advances that science and high
technology can bring. The intelligent species are dominated by Homo sapiens
and Homo neanderthalensis, and the central dilemma and the great strength of
Wolverton's novel is the relationship between the emotional, non-linear
neanderthals -- the Pwi -- and the rational but power-loving Humans. It may
bother some readers for a while that the Pwi seem remarkably rational for such
an "emotional" people, but fairly late in the story we learn that this is because
there is no such thing as a "pure" Pwi or a "pure" human anymore -- for reasons
that make perfect sense within the tale.
At the start of the story we find that the world is on the brink of disaster.
The mechanisms that the designers of the "zoo" establish to keep the dinosaurs
on their own continent are breaking down; in the meantime, the slave-owning
kingdom of Craal is on the march, determined to take control of the last free
peoples in the world. Our heros are not trying to stop the Craal -- that would be
far beyond their power. But they are trying to do something that seems almost as
impossible -- to steal infant water serpents from under the noses of the Craal and
"seed" them in the ocean near their home, where they can resume their work of
killing any dinosaurs who try to cross the ocean barrier.
In many ways, this science fiction novel feels like the best sort of fantasy
quest, with a team of intrepid travelers, led at times by an immortal god-figure,
discovering wonders and facing grave dangers along the way. It is also
profoundly concerned with the way humans are controlled by -- but sometimes
transcend -- their desires, and a good number of the male characters spend a
considerable portion of the quest thinking almost exclusively about sex, which
makes this the more realistic of quest novels!
By the end, without being beaten over the head about it, you will have
been brought face to face with some of the greatest questions in literature: The
nature of freedom, the meaning of human life, how power in human society is
acquired and used. Yet you barely have to notice that the philosophical issues
are under discussion, for this story grips you tightly and holds you through every
page. It's hard to imagine that you would like many -- certainly not most -- of
the characters; but you will understand them and, therefore, love them, even the
most unlovable of them, even the ones whose actions you think are hopelessly,
irredeemably wrong. That may be what I like best about Wolverton's work,
even as I fail completely to understand how he does it: Wolverton does not
require you to agree with his opinion in order to care about and believe his
world, his people, and his tale.