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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction June 1992

By Orson Scott Card

And the Angels Sing, Kate Wilhelm (St. Martin's, cloth, 320 pp, $19.95)

Kate Wilhelm's voice as a writer is not loud; she rarely distracts you from the story by forcing you to pay attention to the storyteller. Neither are her characters the intrusive, larger-than-life figures that so dominate our field. They are quiet people, everyday people, but their pain is as deep, their puzzles as obscure, their despair as devastating as anything experienced by the figures of grand Romantic fiction.

For instance: Eddie, the reclusive, arrogant newspaper editor who, in a fit of inconvenient compassion, picked up a rain-soaked waif, only to discover that it was not the troubled girl from town he thought it was, but rather a stranger, an alien; he learns the great secret of love among humans, that our emotions follow our devotion, even when the one we love gives us nothing measurable in return ("And the Angels Sing").

Or Cory, the dim-witted girl who gets a job with a nurseryman named Whitman and discovers that she has a gift, a wisdom with plants, to make them thrive; somehow this very competence in a person who seems otherwise helpless draws the worst out of a particular kind of man, the best out of another kind ("The Dragon Seed").

Or Beth, who finally gives up her wandering life when it's time to put her daughter, Lissie, in school for the first time, just as her husband decides the next trip should be to the wilds of Alaska; Beth goes home, to her mother's judgment and hostility, but soon finds that what she and Lissie brought with them is more dangerous than what lurks in the old Louisville neighborhood ("The Loiterer").

Or Judson, the mathematician who is caught up in a philosophical battle over whether time is slowing down or speeding up, and who never notices that it is his wife, Millie, who truly understand time -- no, he will let the debate consume him even though it amounts to nothing in the end ("Oh Homo; O Femina; O Tempora").

Not every story is equally strong, of course. While "The Great Doors of Silence" is an emotionally powerful and frustrating story of the cyclical nature of child abuse, it nevertheless adds little to our understanding of the phenomenon beyond what we learn from case studies, and "The Day of the Sharks," the one never-before-published story in the collection, is one of those stories where the characters seem to be aware of the metaphorical values of their own actions instead of leaving that as a secret between storyteller and audience. But even at her weakest moment, Wilhelm is nevertheless one of our strongest writers; to say that not all her stories are as good as her best is not really even criticism is it?

Not only is this collection a worthy one in its own right, but it is also a great lesson in what the stories do not do: Wilhelm needs no tricks, no cheats, no hipper-than-thou flash and dazzle to do her work. She is not an illusionist, manipulating us with tricks and mirrors. Instead she is the real thing: Wilhelm has the magic that so many others pretend to have.

"Forward the Foundation," Isaac Asimov (Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine Nov 91, $3.95)

This review probably should not exist at all. I'm reviewing a work in progress -- what has appeared so far in only a novella that comprises perhaps a fifth of what the final text will be. Furthermore, the novella appeared (logically enough) in the magazine that bears the author's name, which is in direct competition with this magazine (although Asimov has also been a columnist here for longer than most humans have been alive). Yet when I finished reading the novella, I thought it worth saying a few words about the latest work of the greatest living master of science fiction.

One way of looking at this book (and other recent Asimov novels) is to wonder if Asimov has lost his creative edge and therefore must return to the scene of past triumphs to rake over the coals and try to breathe some new life out of a combination of the Foundation and Robot books.

But if you look at what Asimov is actually doing, you realize that, far from losing his creative edge, he has honed it. Far from trying to repeat past triumphs, in some senses he is actually undoing them. For in "Forward the Foundation," he seems to be denying the fundamental premise underlying the earliest of the Foundation novellas and, by extension, all of Campbellian science fiction.

The Foundation series is built on the premise that in the far future a mathematician named Hari Seldon has invented a science called psychohistory (to be distinguished from the degenerate form of psychobabble biography that uses the same name in our own time) in which human group behavior has been quantified to a degree where quite accurate predictions of major events can be made with a reasonable degree of certainty. Seldon's psychohistory becomes, then, a kind of religion, with the people under the Foundation's sway coming to trust that Seldon's plans for them will all work out well and give them a marvelous destiny.

In simple terms, this is a fictional manifestation of the devout faith in science that marked the hard sf of the Campbellian era and that still is a strong strain running through science fiction today.

In "Forward the Foundation," however, Asimov seems to be contradicting that faith in the knowability of human behavior. It may be, of course, that by the end of the finished novel, Hari Seldon will in fact develop a true science of psychohistory and the rest of the books will be fully affirmed. But in this first novella, at least, Hari Seldon has no reliable mathematics of psychohistory, and yet makes exactly the kind of deft interventions in Imperial history that he would do later on under the guise of psychohistory. The implication is obvious: Hari Seldon doesn't need psychohistory. It is conceivable that this novel will end with the conclusion that Seldon's psychohistory is a smokescreen -- that it is never developed at all, and that he uses it only to have greater influence over the events to come.

Whether psychohistory turns out to be real or not in the course of the novel, however, what matters in the oeuvre of Isaac Asimov is, perhaps, this one sentence from the novella: "Intuition is the art, peculiar to the human mind, of working out the correct answer from data which is, in itself, incomplete, or even perhaps misleading." By combining Robot and Foundation, Asimov has put himself in the position of having to explain why R. Daneel Olivaw is not in fact God; or, in the larger sense, why humans will always be better than their machines. And here is where Asimov gives us his testament of humanism: It is the human mind that has the closest thing to godlike powers that we will ever see, and there is not among our talents the skill to make a machine that is as powerful in kind as the best of human minds.

When you combine this with the serious questions raised in Foundation and Earth, in which Asimov showed how dehumanizing would be a society in which all individuals suppressed their individual wills for the happiness of all, you begin to understand exactly how and why Asimov has returned to these old stomping grounds. The original concept for the foundation stories came from John W. Campbell, and Asimov has recorded elsewhere his original reluctance to keep writing Foundation stories. Why? Because he did not believe in their basic premise -- the knowability of human behavior. In Asimov's fundamental worldview, the human mind is the knower, not the known. And these recent books exist in order to undo, or at least recast, the meaning of that first trilogy to bring it in line with Asimov's true worldview. What he once did in reliance on Campbell and Gibbon, he must now re-do in light of his own deepest beliefs about human nature and the nature of reality.

That makes these books a noble project, in my view, even when I don't agree with Asimov's worldview myself. Asimov isn't chasing money or fame (he has those), and his mental and artistic powers are undiminished by time. What he is pursing now in these last fictions is Truth, with whatever clarity he can bring to such a quest. Asimov's health has been none too good of late. His friends worry because, of course, his passing would mean a great loss to them. But I believe Asimov will keep his old machine running no matter what it takes, at least long enough to put the ending on the great fictional work of his life, which is still unfinished. And if he doesn't, I'll really be annoyed, because I want to know how it all comes out. There have been many writers in the world with a reputation for greatness and wisdom, but I daresay there has never been one who could surpass Asimov's sheer breadth of learning and piercing clarity of vision. This doesn't guarantee that everything he writes will be of surpassing importance and transcendent worth -- but when Asimov writes there is always the chance that it might be, and of how many other writers can such a thing be said?

The Cat with the Tulip Face, A.R. Morlan (Short Story Paperback #29, Pulphouse Publishing, Box 1227, Eugene OR 97440, paper, 48 pp, $1.95); The Dark Country, Dennis Etchinson (SSP #21); Journey to the Goat Star, Brian W. Aldiss (SSP #22); I Remember, I Remember, Mary Caraker (SSP #24)

Just when you think that Pulphouse has already done every weird thing you can imagine a publisher to do and made money on it, they come up with something even stranger. And this one is odd indeed. They're publishing short stories as standalone books. Short ones -- 48 pages, about the size of a note card, typeset on a laser printer without enhancement technology so you can see the deformation of the characters but who cares? They have to do it inexpensively if they're going to make a profit, and I hope they do, because there's something wonderful about picking up a book that you can finish in twenty minutes. And it really does feel like each story is a book. It changes the experience of reading it. It's not the same as reading the same story in a magazine or anthology. There's a sense of completeness. Like having a drumroll before you start and fanfare at the end.

What about the quality of the actual stories? Well, it various from good in a weird way to just plain good, at least with the stories I've read so far. Some are reprints -- for instance, Dennis Etchinson's The Dark Country is a reprint of his 1981 World-Fantasy-Award-winning short story, along with a new afterword that is fascinating. The story is, as Etchinson points out, not even remotely fantasy (yet with that frisson of strangeness that qualifies it all the same), but it is moody and powerful.

The Aldiss story, Journey to the Goat Star, is absurdism in full flower. You're never altogether sure which of the possible interpretations of the story is "true" -- is there (or was there) an actual space fight? Are there aliens? Is the psychotherapist Frazer the same person as the mugging victim Frayser? Did the intruder go out and get in the same car with Gray, who is either a therapy patient or a starship captain? Yet along the way, this story is delicious in its madness, its playful language, its self-conscious convoluted philosophy.

Mary Caraker's I Remember, I Remember is a more traditional sf story. Alissa is wakened from cold sleep upon arriving at the planet of destination -- but, because of an oxygen-flow malfunction, she has to have her memories restored from an older recording. Something's wrong, though, as she gets on with her life on this new world. Is it her? Or is it her brother's wife? Or, nothing at all? A terrific little mystery story that would have done any of the regular sf magazines proud.

Like the Caraker and the Aldiss, A.R. Morlan's story appears in print for the first time in the Short Story Paperback edition. The Cat with the Tulip Face is a prequel to Morlan's novel The Amulet which I have not read -- but I still enjoyed it. I admit that for a long while I thought that it was going to be one of those feel-good cat stories that you can't enjoy unless you love cats so much you don't mind their hairs in the fruit salad. But Morlan takes a nasty little twist at the end that makes you cringe a little at the self-righteousness of people who presume to know what's "best" for animals (we can castrate them, but we'd never use them for experiments, for that would be cruel!). I'm not sure Morlan meant this story to be as morally ambiguous as I took it to be, but that's not my problem. Who else is doing stories for this series? In the latest batch there are also stories by David Brin, Lewis Shiner, Karen Joy Fowler, David J. Schow, Jane Yolen, and Brian Stableford. If you know any of those names, you know that this is an eclectic collection -- every kind of taste is going to be tickled at least now and then, and this is an almost painless way of getting a chance to try writers that you're a bit leery of, or that you simply have never heard of before.

If you aren't already getting these books, I urge you to contact Pulphouse and give the series a try. It really is a wonderful way to get to know short fiction all over again. It also makes me wish that I had an original short story instead of a reprint to offer them for publication . . . maybe I'll hunker down and write something. I like the idea of a short story coming to life for the first time in this format.

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