Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction March 1992
By Orson Scott Card
Mars, Ben Bova (Bantam, cloth, 502 pp, $20.00)
Good old-fashioned idea-oriented hard sf never needed characterization --
characters only existed in order to discover ideas or figure out solutions to
problems. The outcome of the story never depended on a character trait more
complicated than wit and pluck, and so time spent developing character subtleties
would have been wasted. This was not a flaw in hard science fiction -- it was
simply the nature of the beast.
But ever since the New Wave in the sixties, hard science fiction writers
have been criticized for precisely that non-flaw. This is because so many new
writers and critics, having been indoctrinated by the academic-literary
establishment with the tenet that there is only one kind of good writing, were
ardent proponents of the idea that no story that lacked characterization could be
good. (Never mind that so many stories that have characterization are wretched;
never mind that our whole genre is founded on stories utterly lacking in
characterization, and yet nevertheless this literature created an audience and a
community and has endured rather well for sixty years.)
The result was that many hard sf writers -- like Adam and Eve, who never
knew they were naked until somebody pointed it out to them -- became convinced
that if they were ever to be "good" writers they must "characterize."
Unfortunately, neither they nor their busybody critics understood what
characterization was and what it was for. The result was a tedious array of hard sf
stories that were interrupted for meaningless sex scenes or explorations of the
character's feelings, which would have been fine except that they had nothing
whatsoever to do with the flow of events in the story.
I won't list the hard-sf writers whose works have been marred by this
tendency, first because the list consists of pretty much all of them, and second
because they are more sinned against than sinning. Let us simply say that these
perfunctory attempts at characterization, far from improving hard science fiction,
made it an embarrassment.
Yet, having said this, I must also point out that when characterization is
used properly -- that is, when the exploration of character is necessary in order to
understand why things happen the way they do in the story -- the entire process is
greatly enriched. It doesn't become better "hard sf," but it becomes a fuller
experience for the reader and brings more readers into the audience for the story.
(The same enrichment process works in reverse, too. Whatever his intention,
Bruce Sterling's Harder SF Movement of the mid-80s had the effect of inducing
the writerly types to invest some effort in developing decent, intelligent ideas for
their character- or style-oriented science fiction.) In other words, while
characterization is not necessary for a hard-sf story and can be detrimental when it
is not meaningfully connected to the events of the tale, a hard-sf story that is also
a good character story can bring the values of both kinds of fiction to a wider
audience. That, I think, is a Good Thing.
So, with that long preamble, let me tell you now about a Good Thing. In
fact, one of the best things we've ever seen from the hard-sf ghetto.
Ben Bova has written a mars novel. Indeed, I may even go out on a limb
and say that Ben Bova has written the Mars novel. By hard-sf standards, one
would expect the novel to be excellent no matter what -- no one knows the
current space program and what is likely to take place in the first Mars visit better
than Bova. If that were all this novel was, then I could recommend it to the hard-sf audience and leave it at that.
But Mars is a lot more than just the definitive hard-sf extrapolation of the
first human visit to Mars.
It is also -- it is primarily -- a wonderful character story about the people
who form the tiny community that first explores the surface of Mars, and the
people back on Earth whose decisions will decide what and how much they
So if, like me, you're one of those readers whose eyes glaze over when you
hear a book praised for its "technical accuracy" and "thorough exploration of
state-of-the-art science," let me assure you: You won't even notice the science
stuff except as essential and clearly-explained aspects of the people's lives.
And such people! Joanna Brumado, who is along on the voyage partly as a
biologist, but mostly (or so people assume) because she is the daughter of the deft
Brazilian politician who has maneuvered for forty years to bring the Mars
expedition to pass; Edith Elgin, an utterly believable on-air reporter for a cable
news network, who is passionately in love with one of the astronauts -- and quite
willing to exploit her relationship with him to get the scoop of her career; the
nasty, self-serving Austrian geologist who manages to provoke the rest of the
crew-in-training to such a degree that they would rather be dropped from the
voyage themselves than have to be confined in a spacecraft with him for a year-and-a-half round trip; the British medical officer whose cynical wit is only one of
the lubricants he uses to help him get through an experience that terrifies him; the
Russian pilot who is in command of the landing team and is determined that it will
succeed by strictly following all the rules to the letter; the American vice-president
who would gladly scuttle the whole expedition if that would give her some
advantage in her maneuvering for her party's presidential nomination; the Chinese
expedition commander, who will never set foot on Mars himself, and yet must
take responsibility for sorting out the prickly and difficult personalities on the
surface of Mars; the Israeli scientist who decided that one of her roles on the
mission is to ease the sexual tension of all the males -- except the Russians,
whom she loathes beyond reason.
Above all, this is the story of Jamie Waterman, a half-Navaho geologist
who gets on the expedition as a last-minute replacement and then manages to
antagonize just about everybody, even as he turns the whole expedition toward
meeting his own agenda. He never means to cause trouble. He just gets
enthusiastic sometimes . . .
Of course there are the standard sci-fi story questions: Do they find life?
Will they live through the physically dangerous events? And I promise you that
your sensawunda will be will be well and thoroughly tickled without ever
sacrificing plausibility. Mars succeeds as scientific exploration, as an adventure
story, as a mythic tale. But at every turn in the story, it absolutely depends on who
these people are and how they function together as a community -- and that,
folks, is sufficiently rare in our little genre that it makes this book extraordinary.
I guess what I'm saying is -- this is what hard-sf can be at its best. Not just
a fiction of ideas or milieu, but also a fiction of character and of grand events.
There is no standard by which Mars is not an excellent book -- except, perhaps, to
those who insist on a flamboyant style before fiction is considered "art." By that
standard, Bova's prose is too liquid, too clear; its asimovian purity never calls
attention to itself. Of course, I think that's the highest praise one can give to a
writer's style, but then I'm reviewing for F&SF, not the New York Times.
For many years Ben Bova was the dominant editor in the science fiction
field, first with Analog and then with Omni. I'm far from being the only writer he
discovered, and his impact as an editor is still being felt many years later. In the
minds of many in the field he remains an editor first, a writer second -- this
despite his many dozens of novels and short stories, and despite the fact that it has
been more years since he left editing than the whole careers of several award-winning young writers.
Mars is the novel that will establish Bova once and for all as a writer of
premier science fiction. It is possible that Mars makes Bova the best of the hard-science-fiction writers. It is certain that Mars makes Bova one of the best science
fiction writers of any kind. And you who nominate for awards -- you cannot
make an intelligent judgment of the science fiction of 1992 without having read
As for the rest of us, we won't read Mars because it's a pivotal book in
Bova's career or because it's one of the important novels of the year. We'll read
this honking big book because this kind of story is the reason science fiction exists
in the first place.
After the King: Stories in Honor of J.R.R. Tolkien, Martin H. Greenberg, ed.
(TOR, cloth, 456 pp, $24.95)
Martin Harry Greenberg is the quintessential science fiction anthologist --
embodying the tradition of service to the field that has marked the best members
of our community from the start. You never see him promoting himself, and he
willingly effaces his own role behind the names of more famous fiction writers.
But working steadily behind the scenes, he has caused dozens and dozens of
original and reprint anthologies to come into existence, providing avenues for
short fiction to reach a wider audience -- and, along the way, getting many a
writer to produce a wonderful short story or novelet or novella that would never
otherwise have existed. (I know from experience -- I've collaborated with him on
several anthologies, and for other anthologies he has squeezed two stories out of
me that are among those I'm most proud of in my career.)
In recent years, Greenberg has put together three festschrift anthologies.
The first two, Foundation's Friends and October's Friends were in honor of,
respectively, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. For both of these previous
anthologies, other authors were permitted to set stories in the honored author's
private universes. With After the King, there was not quite the same freedom, in
large part, I suspect, because the author was not alive to give his permission, and
Tolkien's family is (quite properly, I think) very protective of his works and
worlds. Thus you won't be reading stories about Aragorn or Samwise after the
end of Lord of the Rings. But what you can read are excellent fantasy stories by
some of the finest writers in the field, written in honor of the man whose work
created the audience for today's commercial genre of fantasy.
And, in case you haven't noticed it, let me point out that excellent high
fantasy short fiction is rare as dragon's teeth these days. There are a few good
outlets for blood-and-thunder sword-and-sorcery, and lots of places where you can
find urban fantasy and contemporary horror. But in between fairy tales by Jane
Yolen you can go a long time without seeing high fantasy in the Tolkien tradition
in the magazines and original anthologies. Instead, high fantasy seems to have
become almost exclusively a novel-centered genre. There are good reasons for
that, of course -- for one thing, it can take a lot of pages to create a convincing
But After the King will remind you of something Tolkien himself proved
with Smith of Wooten Major, Leaf by Niggle, and Farmer Giles of Ham -- you
can sometimes say as much in a few pages of fantasy as in a thousand.
So it is you can revel in Charles de Lint's wistful "Conjure Man," in which
a young woman of our time gets caught up in the projects of a street person who
was once one of the giants in the earth, the tale affirming the importance of
Tolkien's work in our world in a way that no mere essay ever could.
Or try John Brenner's "In the Season of the Dressing of the Wells," a
powerful story of a young Englishman recovering from the injuries, both physical
and spiritual, that he suffered in World War I; he finds his salvation in helping his
local village do proper homage to the ancient gods of the island, despite the
interference of his vindictively Christian aunt.
Or journey along with four women who have been sent forth by their queen
in search of the harper whom she loves. In Patricia McKillip's "The Fellowship of
the Dragon," the women are sent because the queen can't trust the jealous men of
the court not to kill the harper themselves when they find him. But the women,
too, can have agendas of their own in a tale as surprising and wryly truthful as we
have come to expect from McKillip.
Or look at "The Naga," by Peter S. Beagle, than whom there is no better
fantasist alive. The layered structure of a tale within a tale within a tale harks back
to an earlier era of storytelling, but the story is a timeless myth of true love and
true marriage -- it is possible to write operatic stories even in our cynical age.
And, of course, there is (there must be) a story by Jane Yolen, one of the
best of her darkish fairy tales, in which a boy is born to be "Winter's King" and
spends his childhood searching for the place where he belongs, even as the normal
world of men and women thinks it knows exactly who and what he is.
Yolen also wrote the introduction to the anthology; you'll find other fine
tales by Donaldson, Pratchett, Silverberg, Scarborough, and Andersons (not Hans,
but Poul and Karen), Turtledove, McKiernan, Bull, Haber, Resnick, Malzberg,
Benford, and Tarr. And when you're through with these tales, you may just
decide to pull out your old copy of Lord of the Rings and read again the work that
started it all for this generation of fantasists.
Flying in Place, Susan Palwick (TOR, cloth, 192 pp, $16.95)
Susan Palwick has been, till now, a short story writer of surpassing
excellence -- it seems that the shorter her tale, the better it is. I first came to
know her with her poem "The Neighbor's Wife," which packed into a few lines
more story, more character, more myth than most writers can fit into a novella.
But that's no guarantee that Palwick can handle herself at novel length, and
in fact at the start of Flying in Place there is cause for concern, as the story
focuses with relentless single-mindedness on a single aspect of the teenage
narrator's life: her father's continuing sexual abuse and her flight-of-fancy escape
from it in an imaginary ability to leave her body and fly. While it is true that
sexual abuse is so terrible an experience that all the rest of the victim's life seems
to take shape around it, that very singularity can make reading a story about it
quite unpleasant without adding any illumination. A good novelist can balance
the central core of the story with many digressions that enrich the world of the tale
and provide the reader with balance and insight and perspective beyond the essay-like central theme. For the first chapter or so, however, it seemed that Palwick
was writing, not as a novelist, but as a short story writer, and therefore there would
be no remission: we would be pounded with the theme until we were driven
entirely out of the tale.
To my relief, however, it is not terribly far into the book before Palwick thenovelist claws her way to the surface and elbows Palwick the short story writer
aside. The result is that the narrator finally leads us into a wider world in which
not everything is the servant of a single motif. Thus we are able to receive Plying
in Place as a bittersweet novel of a dead sister who returns to give our narrator the
tools she need to break her family out of the poisonous pattern that is consuming
them all. Along the way we meet a wonderful neighbor family whose chaotic
happiness is a refuge for the narrator; an aunt whose existence the narrator never
knew of, and yet who holds a secret that might help to save her; and, above all, we
meet the dead sister, whose flights with the narrator through time and space are far
more than mere escape.
If, by the end, there is any flaw remaining, it is in the character of the
abusive father. Monsters are very hard to write plausibly -- for every Arslan there
are a thousand Simon Legrees, and the father in Palwick's tale, while he is
believable enough along the way, suddenly becomes a tool of the plot near the
climax, when, after spending years manipulating people brilliantly through lies
and guilt, he suddenly turns stupid and violent. Perhaps it happens that way in
real life, but we had little preparation for the idea that this was possible in his
character, and so it felt like the ending of so many almost-good movies, when
powerful character relationships are suddenly reduced to violent confrontations.
Never mind my nit-picking. I wish my first novel had had no more serious
flaws than these; the rest of the story is so beautifully handled that I doubt many
readers will be troubled by these minor issues. Instead Flying in Place is a
wonderful debut for a writer who has proved she can write well in long forms as
well as short ones -- may it be the first of many novels from Palwick, each one
better than the ones before.