Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction October/November 1991
By Orson Scott Card
A Bridge of Years, Robert Charles Wilson (Doubleday/Foundation, cloth, 333 pp,
Some books have sizzle, and some books have class. Some even have sizzle
and class, but that's almost a matter of dumb luck, because when authors try for
sizzle, their books almost never have class, and when they try for class, it's pretty
rare for their books to end up spitting hot.
Robert Charles Wilson doesn't seem to try for either, but A Bridge of Years
has both, and it's hard to imagine what kind of reader who has had any
experience of life at all could read this book without realizing that in it there is
beauty, and in it there is truth.
There are times when I wonder whether Robert Charles Wilson even has
to try. Maybe what he does is as easy to him as breathing. Certainly he never
makes us see the trouble he goes to in creating stories like this. The tale begins
sharply, with the murder of a gentle keeper of a time station by a technosoldier
from some dark future. But instead of going on with that story, Wilson moves us
to the much quieter story of Tom Winter, whose brother, Tony, has brought him
to this small Seattle-area town to help him recover from the devastating collapse
of his marriage and his career. Here Tom finds himself surrounded by decent
people, mostly, or at least people who want to be decent; here he also finds
himself the new owner of an isolated house that seems to clean itself.
He leaves dirty dishes on the table, and in the morning they're spotlessly
clean. He tries to video-tape to see what's happening during the night, but
promptly at 3:45 a.m. all the lights go out, and when they come back on the
room is clean. There are several neat, polished holes in the basement
foundation, and he starts dreaming that strange metallic bugs are leaving the
house during the night, streaming out into the woods behind the yard.
All the time he's trying to deal with these events, he's also trying to please
his older brother by holding down a job at his automobile dealership, but he just
can't stand to make a living by squeezing the last dime out of people who don't
have that many dimes to start with. He's a lot more comfortable with the real
estate agent who sold him the house, a man he remembers from his growing-up
years as a real trouble-making kid who threw rocks at cars. The personality that
once made trouble is now more akin to Tom Winter's own than his brother is.
At times it feels like a mainstream character study (but a good one!); at
times it feels like a ghost story, which in a sense it is, though the ghost is quite
resurrectable; but what it finally becomes is a love story, not about romance, but
about healing, about coming to terms with solitude, about finding your own life
instead of trying to act out other people's scripts for you.
All the sizzle you could ever hope for is here, and all the class. What
drives them both is a storyteller of astonishing compassion and understanding,
whose characters matter to us because they are as complicated and contradictory
and hungry and frightened as the people we know best -- and because they are
also as generous and forgiving and brave as we wish we were, as we try to be, as
we hope that, in our best moments, we already are.
Sorcerer's Son, Phyllis Eisenstein (UK, Grafton, cloth, 379 pp, £12.95; US: NAL,
Sorcerer's Son was not one of the heavily hyped books of 1989, the year it
came out. The reader who brought it to my attention couldn't even remember
seeing it reviewed anywhere. Yet it has found an audience that has kept it
quietly, steadily selling copies ever since then -- a remarkable feat in an era
when most books go out of print from the moment the first printing ships.
Why? I don't remember this book being heavily hyped; even if it was, it
isn't the kind of story that will appeal to the kind of reader that readily responds
to hype. You won't want to read this book because it's hip or because it
promises you a thrill ride; on the contrary, the book begins quietly and never,
ever rants, and as for hipness, well, that sort of thing just seems silly in the
context of Sorcerer's Son.
I get the feeling that Phyllis Eisenstein wasn't trying for any particular
effect at all -- I think she was just trying to tell a story that she believed in and
cared about. But along about page 10, you realize that this time you've actually
opened a medievalish fantasy that isn't warmed over Tolkien and isn't
Candlelight Romances in 14th century drag. This tale of a spider-tending web-weaving sorceress and her son who is determined to discover his father and
become like him is mythic in its vision and yet intimate in every scene, in every
sentence. The magics of this world are dangerous and personal, with some
powers drawn from enslaved demons and others coming from a tender affection
for fellow creatures. The magic of this book is drawn from a wonderfully rich
imagination and a compassionate understanding of the hungers of the soul.
Eisenstein never struts or shows off. She doesn't try to flash some fantasy
fireworks in your eyes to make sure you notice that there's something special
going on. You don't suspect that there's something magnificent going on until
you're deeply inside it -- until young Cray's demon father, determined to
discourage the boy from seeking him any further, stages evidence of his own
death; and even then, it sneaks up on you that this book does, in fact, come
down to saving the world. It's just that the world that needs saving isn't our
world, it's the strange, invisible, and sometimes hilarious world of the demons.
The NAL paperback is still available -- but this book is worth the trip to a
specialty store or the inquiry to a mail order house to get the British hardcover.
Brainstorm, Steven M. Krauzer (Bantam Spectra, paper, 344 pp, $4.99)
I can't figure out how some decisions get made in the world of publishing.
I see so many dreary, phony, and stupid novels get published in hardcover with
all the bestseller hype in the world, and then I see a novel like Brainstorm --
which, for all its flaws, is as fast-moving and hard-hitting a slick contemporary
adventure as anything as anything I've seen -- get released as a paperback
original. I mean, I'm sure the folks at Bantam feel that their paperback originals
are better than most people's hardcovers, but let's all admit right now that you
know and I know that when a publisher with a hardcover line chooses to put a
book out in paper only, they don't think they've got the next Stephen King
between those covers.
As long as I'm mentioning Stephen King's name, why not go ahead and
compare this book with Firestarter? A psionically gifted child in jeopardy from
an evil government agency that wants to do things with that marvelous little
brain, nice people who get caught up in the events, one of whom turns out to
have psi powers, too; and finally a confrontation with a psychotic "enforcer"
that the government thought it controlled but who actually has his own agenda.
For all I know, Krauzer might have been studying Firestarter when he started
working on outlining this book -- his first published novel. If so, he learned
most of the right lessons -- and brought something of his own to the tale.
What he brought was an off-kilter ironic vision that has his psionic
fugitive kid supporting himself across America by "influencing" people to let him
into poker games, where -- not too surprisingly -- he makes a few bucks now and
then. And when the kid -- David McKay -- is taken in for a while by a kind-hearted waitress named Sherrilyn, he discovered that he's reached puberty in the
most embarrassing possible way -- by intruding his first erotic dream into poor
unsuspecting Sherrilyn's mind. Middle-aged women don't always react kindly to
living inside the adolescent male mind.
Brainstorm is funny when it's supposed to be funny, and it's tense where
it's supposed to be tense, and it's scary where it's supposed to be scary. The only
place it doesn't measure up is in the science fiction. Admittedly, psionics in
fiction is always black-box pseudo-science anyway (very much as it is in real life),
bur Krauzer expects us to buy a laughable sort of magic brain surgery that can --
through really clever knife work, I suppose -- give people such specific brain
alterations that they will be loyal to one particular master. Puh-leeeze. Didn't
we stop writing that sort of thing in 1940?
But there are worse clunkers in most other near-future sci-fi adventures
that weren't written by Michael Critchton, and what Krauzer does well he does
so well that I can promise you a wonderful time. I picked up this book just to
sample it, just to see if I should give it away or keep it to read later; it was at a
time when I was deeply involved in writing a novel of my own in order to meet
an urgent deadline, and I did not have time to read someone else's novel. I
knew in three pages that I'd review it, and I set it aside for later reading. The
next night at three a.m. I found myself reading the last page, knowing that
whatever it is that makes somebody a top-flight irresistible commercial fiction
writer, Krauzer's got it and so he's going to be one and hey, here's a bargain, you
can get his first terrific page-turner at paper-back prices.