Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction January 1992
By Orson Scott Card
Great Work of Time, John Crowley (Bantam/Spectra, paper, 136 pp, $3.99)
John Crowley has already dealt with the circularity of time in his
extraordinary novel Aegypt, but with Great Work of Time, he proves that he still
has much that is powerful and new to say on the subject. As befits a novel whose
point is that causality can run in both directions along time's path, Great Work of
Time is often confusing and self-contradictory, but it is not meaningless to say that
its confusion is always clear and its self-contradiction always makes perfect sense.
This novella first appeared in Crowley's collection Novelties, and in that
incarnation won the World Fantasy Award; for many of you, however, this
paperback edition may be your first glimpse of the tale. I promise you many
delights and mysteries within it. It is almost impossible to speak of beginnings
and endings, but I can say that among the centers around which the story moves
The assassination of African colonizer Cecil Rhodes at a time when his will
leaves his vast fortune to a secret society whose purpose is to protect the British
Empire's view of Right;
The discovery of time travel and the utter unpredictability of the
consequences of changing the past (an old theme in science fiction, yes, but no old
theme stays old in Crowley's hands);
The sad old yearning of the class-ridden British to belong to something
strong and fine, to be part of a true aristocracy.
Indeed, one of the things that will strike American readers most sharply in
this book is the utter unimportance of the United States in this tale. Science
fiction has long reassured us that even in futures in which America is shown in
decline, it is still important to discuss that decline, and the sense of loss is painful
indeed; but in Great Work of Time, North America is barely worth mentioning.
Amid all its other strangeness, this may seem to some to be the strangest thing of
all. Not that Crowley ignores America -- indeed, he begins by saying he will
speak "in an American sort of voice (for we are all Americans now, aren't we?)."
But every event and attitude in the story from then on denies that bitter
declaration. It is a song of the old Empire and Crowley is singing, and he feels no
obligation to shudder visibly at the thought of imperialism even as he spells out
exactly why any British empire was doomed (and yet glorious) from the start, thus
making this slim volume a peculiar sort of Decline and Fall.
Mind of My Mind, Octavia Butler (Gollancz, paper, 221 pp, £3.99); Patternmaster
(Avon, paper, 160 pp, out of print); Survivor (Signet, paper, 187 pp, out of print)
It's odd, I know, to review novels that are out of print or available only in
British editions. But Octavia Butler is far too important a novelist -- and these
books are far too powerful -- to be languishing out of print in the United States.
While it's true that her Xenogenesis books (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago)
are more satisfying as hard science fiction, and show how much power her
storytelling has gained in the years of her career, the fact remains that these are
wonderful, inventive novels that deserve to be read. They are even worth hunting
down from mail order and speciality stores until such time as a U.S. publisher gets
on the stick and reissues them.
Those of you who have read Wild Seed, Butler's brilliant novel about Doro,
the immortal who lives through the centuries by leaping from body to body as
each one dies, and Emma, the shape-changing woman who learns to accommodate
him and still find a measure of freedom and respect under his rule, know exactly
what Butler is able to do with the "psi" theme that is so easily overdone. Indeed,
from the copyright dates on the other novels in this series, one can suppose that
she developed this future history during the late sixties or early seventies, when
Zenna Henderson and other writers had brought psi stories to a position of
temporary dominance in the field, rather the way that cyberpunk brought us a
temporary oversupply of stories about computer-brain interfaces and criminal jet-sets.
But because she is Octavia Butler, her psi stories -- even the earliest of
them -- have something special. In many ways, Patternmaster, which is the
earliest of the Wild Seed books in copyright and the latest in storyline, is more
magic romance than hard science fiction, as she follows the younger son of the
Patternmaster on his quest to win free of his vicious older brother as he positions
himself to succeed their father in control of the network of psionically gifted
masters of the civilized world. Yet even in this early novel we can see Butler's
keen sense of truth at work, making characters more real than they ever needed to
be for this sort of tale. More important, we already can see her touching on the
issues of freedom and slavery, power and responsibility that have made all her
writings such vibrant studies of the ethics of power and submission. Butler
understands as so few other writers do (least of all the libertarians) that some
freedom must always be surrendered in order to retain any power to act at all. Her
characters are faced with devastatingly difficult choices, and often take the less
honorable but more practical choice of surviving in a world where they cannot act
on their real preferences.
Survivor is another early work, in some ways only peripherally connected to
Patternmaster and Wild Seed, but again dealing with a character who has to
surrender some of her personal choices in order to stay alive long enough to have
hope of a final victory. An outcast, she is taken in by missionaries who are
leaving an Earth ravaged by war between psis and "clayarks." On another planet
they are determined to maintain the purity of the human species, but instead find
themselves being used as tools in a struggle between two rival bands of aliens.
Only Alanna realizes that they have chosen the wrong side in this struggle, and
will surely be destroyed.
Mind of My Mind is the immediate sequel to Wild Seed, and for those of us
who loved that story (I even used it as my example of how science fiction
exposition is handled in my book on writing sf and fantasy), it is a very satisfying
continuation, though I was devastated at the rather callous way she concluded the
final struggle between Doro and Mary, the first Patternmaster, and was also
disappointed at how little use Butler made of Emma, whom I truly came to love in
Wild Seed. But those are standard sequel-quibbles -- that the author was too
heartless with characters who loomed so large in earlier books! The new
characters in Mind of My Mind are just as alive as any in Wild Seed, and Butler's
exploration of people who are used to power and suddenly find themselves under
someone else's control is clear-headed and brutally unsentimental. As always in
Butler's best work, we're never quite sure whom to root for, for when it comes to
power, no one who has it is pure, and yet it is easy to lose sympathy or interest in
those who lack it. You are never quite sure where Butler herself stands on any of
these moral issues, as she keeps subverting every moral position you suspect she
has taken, until you finally realize that she has no "position" at all, except to
observe. This is how power works, and how decent people try to control it, and
how inevitably they fall short of their aspirations.
I look forward to hearing of all these books' being back in print. If you
haven't read Butler, you don't yet understand how rich the possibilities of science
fiction can be. And the more you read her work, the better you understand how
science fiction is the genre of literature best suited to teach us about the real world.