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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction May 1992

By Orson Scott Card

Sarah Canary, Karen Joy Fowler (Henry Hold & Co., cloth, 290 pp, $21.95)

Karen Joy Fowler has long been one of our premier writers of sf short stories, but her first novel would be hard to label as science fiction and fantasy by any of the standard rules. Which is fine -- Fowler has always had the ability to write language and manipulate symbols in a way that warms the cockles of the academic heart. And even in Sarah Canary, which breathes not a hint of Fowler's science fiction roots anywhere in the jacket copy, there is a pervading aura of strangeness that is -- while never, strictly speaking, fantasy -- nevertheless phantastic.

The story begins with, and generally centers around, a youngish Chinese man named Chin, an immigrant to America in the years just after the Civil War, who has found the dream to be something of a nightmare. Still, it is one that he can live with, can make sense of, until the most incredibly ugly woman he has ever seen shows up at the edge of the camp where he's working in western Washington, and Chin, somehow, becomes the one who must lead her to the insane asylum she must have escaped from.

She won't talk -- at least, not in a way that makes any sense -- and when he tries to use force to silence her meaningless babble in order to keep them safe, he finds (or does he?) that she is not as defenseless as she seemed. In fact, he quickly winds up in jail, where his only escape route is to become the executioner of an Indian whose fellow tribesmen wouldn't take kindly to it if an Anglo did the deed. And almost at once Chin has to kidnap Sarah Canary from the insane asylum, for she is clearly safer in the real world than in that mad place.

Because this is a mainstream novel, of course, it is dripping with symbols and contemporary social commentary. It skirts the borders of doctrinaire feminism without quite becoming predictable, and, of course, it also has long stretches where you wonder what in the world is actually going on and why you are reading it and whether anything will ever be clear. This is, of course, the means whereby the academic-literary community knows that the author is one of their own. But Fowler was herself a storyteller before she "got it" politically and academically, and so the story does get somewhere, it does make sense, and it does reward you, ultimately, for caring about her characters. She is not faking strangeness by being deliberately obscure, she is doing the real thing; and, as she has always done with science fiction, she is subverting the tradition she is writing in even as she satisfied its expectations.

Sarah Canary is not a "fun read." But it is a remarkable story all the same, with unforgettable experiences in it and an alien viewpoint that is just as satisfying when the alien is a Chinese looking at America as when it's a creature with an odd number of appendages looking at humanity. And Fowler's irrepressible sense of humor shows up often in these pages, sometime as satire and sometimes, I think, as sheer delight.

I recently got a letter from an irate fan who informed me he had destroyed a book of mine because it put memories and ideas in his mind that he could not stop thinking about, and he loathed that -- after all, he said, science fiction was for escape and, apparently, nothing else. (Chillingly, he added that he hoped destroying the book would be "enough" -- and you wonder why authors get unlisted numbers.) Well, I can't imagine what he'd do if he ever read Sarah Canary, but I'm sure we'd read about in the papers. Let me promise you: Fowler will put images in your mind that you can't forget, and her version of 19th-century America may well reshape the lense through which you view this nation from now on.

King of the Dead, R.A. MacAvoy (Morrow, cloth, 286 pp, $19.00)

When the first volume of this trilogy came out, I wrote of it that if she kept up "this level of storytelling, then MacAvoy will have added a new literary work to a shelf that is still not overcrowded: The Lord of the Rings, The Book of the New Sun, The Once and Future King, Helliconia." In one sense, this second volume shows that she has kept up exactly the same level of storytelling; in the sense I intended, however, that is exactly the reason why she has not.

Lest I be accused of having committed paradox at an innocent author's expense, let me explain. What makes Great Works great is a continuing sense of enlargement throughout the work. All of the books cited above begin with a small and personal story, but by the end are the story of a larger world. The tales are still woven with the threads of individual lives, but those lives enlarge with the fabric they create. Their greatness is as much from the greatness of the whole as from individual largeness.

The first volume, Lens of the World, had a small and personal beginning which grew to take place on a much larger stage by the end of the book.

The characters were still real and compelling as individuals, but they also had become interwoven with great events, with powerful tribes and nations, with jealous and intricate families. This, along with the brilliance of the storytelling and the wisdom of the storyteller, promised that we had a Great Work in progress here.

My disappointment with King of the Dead, then, is only relative. This book is at exactly the same level as the end of Lense of the World. Alas, it barely rises above that level. One might fear that the limit of MacAvoy's ambition, if not of her vision, has already been reached. Unless the third volume vaults ahead, refusing to be as modest as the second one, my initial assessment will turn out to have been overgrand.

But that is my problem, not MacAvoy's. She didn't tell me to assume too much about her intentions; all she did was write a fine volume that stirred me and many other readers, both in mind and heart. And I'm glad to tell you that King of the Dead is every bit as stirring; it is quite absurd of me to be saying, "Oh, too bad, this book is only just as good as its excellent predecessor." Most of the time when writers create a conflicted love between two characters, as between Nazhuret (the title character) and Arlin (his dangerous lady who prefers to pass through the world being taken for a man), the resolution of their love is the end of all that was interesting about them. MacAvoy, however, manages to make them continually fascinating -- a study in marriage (formal or not) between heroes. Most of the time when writers develop characters who have nearly superhuman ability, they have to keep inventing supernatural obstacles for them to overcome (e.g., kryptonite). MacAvoy, however, has left them sensible of their human limitations -- they are heroes, not gods -- and the dangers that beset them are as real as the possibility of failure.

The one weakness in this book, considered only for itself, is the out-of-a-hat nick-of-time ending where the heroes' teacher, Powl, slips back into the story right at the end to bring about a pat resolution whose most interesting scenes all took place offstage. Indeed, MacAvoy comes perilously close to the infuriating ending of Stephen King's The Stand, in which, after billions of pages in which we cared very much about the struggles of some fascinating characters, all their struggles end up completely meaningless because the problem is solved effortlessly by the Finger of God. I sincerely hope that MacAvoy will not resort to having Powl pull all the irons out of the fire at the last minute again. I also hope the "bad guys" never again turn out to be an obscure group of malicious rebels whom we never met or even heard of with any certainty until they were exposed within fifteen page of the end.

Quibbling, all of this, compared to the overall effect of the tale. The encounter with the dangerous nomads of the desert land between nations; the portentous earthquake just as they meet the enemy king; the journey through the temple of the foreign religion; the marvelous machines made by the king's brilliant slave -- this is the level of creation that makes MacAvoy one of our most imaginative and well-beloved fantasists.

And a further word to those of you who shrink from reading a "second volume" of a series: I deliberately do not re-read previous volumes when I pick up sequels to review them, precisely because I want to be able to report on how well the new volume stands alone. King of the Dead does very well indeed by this standard, and while you will want to read Lens of the World eventually, I'm sure, this book is completely self-contained. Perhaps the Lens of the World trilogy will not end up being a Great Work after all; perhaps it will end up being merely a brilliant one. No one will need to shed any tears over that, I think.

Stranger Suns, George Zebrowski (Bantam Spectra, paper, 310 pp, $4.50)

Zebrowski is not what you'd call a character man. His characters have memories the way businessmen have ties, and most of the time you could take the dialogue out of one character's mouth, put it in another's, and it wouldn't make a speck of difference. Which is fine -- they mostly exist to explain things to each other, anyway.

Nor is Zebrowski what you'd call a storyteller, if by "story" you mean events that logically flow from one to another in such a way that you want very much to find out what happens next. It doesn't take long before you realize that "what happens next" is whatever it takes to get us to Zebrowski's next Nifty Concept.

But those concepts: Zebrowski gets ideas the way my lawn gets chickweed: think and fast and going every which way. Reading Stranger Suns is like sitting down in the parlor with H.G. Wells on speed. If your average good solid hard-sf novel has, say five Nifty Concepts, and a Bruce Sterling novel has, say, a hundred of them, then Zebrowski's going to have five hundred that you notice, and he's going to refer back to other ideas in other novels (his own or not) with tag lines and code words as if you and he had already been talking for six hours before you picked up his book so you could be expected to know what he means.

Which can be frustrating, of course, if you can't let go of our ordinary fictional expectations. If you can, though, this is an exhilarating roller-coaster ride over the whole carnival of cosmic sci-fi. You're hanging upside down over everything . . . the blood may be rushing to your head, but you can see it all.

Of course, you may notice that I haven't recounted much of what actually happens in this book. That's because to do so with any degree of precision would take exactly as long as the book. But here's a glimmer: A tachyon detector in space, perhaps the last "pure science" project an impoverished Earth is going to support for a long time, does find tachyons -- but they emanate, not from space, but from the Antarctic. One page later, you find yourself at the excavation in the ice, and in a couple more pages this huge artifact is discovered and four scientists -- not the ones anyone would have chosen for such a role -- are trapped inside when it takes off into space. There are no controls in the spaceship, and they visit a bunch of places and speculate a lot before they've pretty much thought up everything about how the ship works and why they've been visiting these places. They bury one of the guys on the bare desert world where he bought the farm, and you get the idea that Zebrowski expects you to be kind of touched when a chapter ends this way:

"Juan looked at Lena, then at Malachi as they knelt under the low branches, wishing that Magnus might have perished through some mistake of his own, not by chance. 'Magnus,' he said, 'we'll do it for you -- everything you might have wanted to learn. We'll try to understand as you would have.'"

Then they get back to Earth, dig their way out of an under-the-jungle transmat station, and find Magnus quite alive -- in this version of Earth he wasn't with them in the starship. So not only do we have two kinds of interstellar flight, but also we have alternate universes and doorways leading into a billion possible places . . . and we're not yet a third of the way through the book. Sometimes things happen so fast you want to laugh, as if you were watching a speeded-up tape of Dan Quayle or Ted Kennedy doing an interview.

But even as the characters magically come up with instantly-certain explanations for the most far-fetched ideas, you can't help but love it. The sheer rhythm, the fleeting wave-forms in this turbulent stream of intelligence give music to it, and you soon find your own mind dancing along. Not for one moment do you get the idea that Zebrowski is talking down to you; rather he expects you to keep up with him, and if you don't, well, that's not his problem. He's made it as clear as he can and he's not going to explain it twice just for you. And if you stay with him to the end, there's no vast clear understanding of everything -- the flow just calms down and finally stops. But the ride! Such a treacherous river, and you with nothing but the tiny little rubber raft of your own mind to keep you afloat . . .

For a lot of you, this will seem to be a killer review. I've described a book that you would truly loathe. But a good number of you may read this review and think, Here's science fiction as it ought to be. Forget all that art stuff and all that story stuff and all that people stuff and let me see a thousand different views of how the universe works at every level! And please, let it be intelligently written, with energy and passion instead of that bloodless more-scholarly-than-thou stuff in the science journals!

Well, if that's your take on what I've described, be assured: You are George Zebrowski's natural audience, and Stranger Suns is the book you've been waiting for.

Bad: Or, the Dumbing of America, Paul Fussell (Summit, cloth, 201 pp, $19.00)

A couple of years ago I read and enjoyed Fussell's book Class. It was written with a sneer, but it also had a lot of perceptive observations, and it wasn't until near the end that Fussell revealed his own class, the one he admired most because he and all his friends are in it: The class of academics who are thoroughly but tattily within the middle class, while having such a lofty opinion of themselves that they have nothing but contempt for their own class and a sort of pathetic adulation for the things that only the rich can afford but rarely have the sense to acquire. A class poisoned by envy and resentful of its own impotence in the large scheme of things -- the class that, with some blessed exceptions, is teaching literature to the college students of America and, where possible, enduing their students with that same contempt for all things American about America and democratic about democracy. In short, the one social group I have ever encountered that is utterly without generosity of spirit.

I have spent many fruitless hours in the company of people like Paul Fussell, naively arguing with them until I discovered that there is no point in it -- they never listen in order to understand your point of view, they only listen like high school debaters, until they can catch you in what seems to be a contradiction, or until you say something that they can make seem ridiculous enough that you will, cowed, accept their view of Everything.

In Class, that particular view consumed only one smug little chapter toward the end; in Bad, it consumes the entire book. It take a few chapters before you realize that Fussell really does hate everything, and with equal scorn. He is a bigot of the worst sort -- the kind that fancies itself to be quite urbane and sophisticated. And through all of this, he radiates his fond belief that he, unlike the rest of us, talks about ideas instead of people, substance instead of ephemera. He has not noticed -- perhaps is incapable of noticing -- that what he thinks are ideas almost never rise above the level of attitudes, and all his attitudes seem to come out of a jar of rat poison. Surely his heart, like almost every human heart, has had moments of tenderness, of reverence, of fear, of awe, of uncertainty. But he would rather die than let anyone see him so . . . common.

He is the epitome of the terrified snob critic that William Goldman described in his book The Season -- the critic who can't bear to admit that he likes anything, lest someone with a yet-more-polished sneer look down his nose at him and say, in feigned astonishment, "So that's what you like?"

Nevertheless, I recommend this book very highly. To any of you who have been embarrassed or hurt or confused when someone of supposed intellectual standing dismissed the entire genre of science fiction as being worthless, stupid, bad, I offer Fussell's new book as a thorough guide into the kind of mind that reaches such sweepingly ignorant conclusions and then propounds them as gospel. Bad is the testament of those of whom Pope wrote, "A little learning is a dangerous thing." A healthy dose of it should inoculate you against taking these people seriously ever again.

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