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Fantasy & Science
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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction July 1992

By Orson Scott Card


Martian Memorandum (Access PC-compatible); Rise of the Dragon (Sierra/Dynamix, PC-compatible); Circuit's Edge (Infocom, PC-compatible)

Since cyberpunk first became a buzzword, it has been almost inevitable that a first-rate computer game ought to emerge from the shared milieu of all those stories that had the same look and feel as William Gibson's Neuromancer. Unfortunately, the earliest efforts were feeble indeed. Apparently what we were waiting for was a large enough installed base of computers with VGA-level graphics and decent-quality sound boards for it to be commercially viable to develop a game for top-end systems like that.

And with these three games, Martian Memorandum, Rise of the Dragon, and Circuit's Edge, we have three markedly different approaches that all work, at least after a fashion. If you want to have an interactive experience that at least approaches the imaginative experience of reading the best cyberpunk, one of these games may do the job for you.

All three of these games do a decent job of guiding you through a mystery story with a bluesy Raymond Chandleresque tone; you'll leave a few corpses behind you and encounter women in various stages of deshabille and pliability. All three games have a tough-guy ethic that includes an unfortunate tendency to think of all women as sex objects and all men as rivals -- but that's part of the package, I suppose. (Only Circuit's Edge and Rise of the Dragon carry a warning to parents, but I suggest that parents may want to think twice before turning loose a teenage kid to have his or her view of the relationship between the sexes influenced by any of these games -- and frankly, I found Martian Memorandum, the warningless game, to be the most troublesome in this regard, though not half so troubling as Access's earlier game in this genre, Crime Wave.)

Circuit's Edge is the one that asserts a point of origin -- the title screens declare it to be based on characters and situations in the works of George Alec Effinger. This means, for those who have been living under a rock, that the game attempts to recreate the milieu of When Gravity Fails, a sort of decadent sin-filled high-tech lowlife quarter in the midst of a "pious" Islamic city. The gamewrights chose a visual design strategy reminiscent of the Ultima series, but with startlingly good three-dimensional movement. As a game, it won my admiration; as cyberpunk, or even as Effinger-punk, it simply didn't have the right feel.

Rise of the Dragon has a rather arty, impressionistic visual style that I found at once intriguing and distancing. You are never able to forget that you're looking at art; yet the art itself creates a kind of moodiness that goes well with the story. The game is smoothly playable and the mystery story you help enact is a good one.

My kids' favorite, though, and in most ways mine, too, is Martian Memorandum. Here the visual strategy is to use snatches of video-taped scenes by live actors, and then have them speak, and the result is stunning realism -- especially because the game uses Realsound technology that tweaks the built-in squawker of the PC to make quite credible speech. The writing is pretty good, the game is easy and intuitive to play, the built-in hint system works well for those who, like me, don't want to spend hours solving every puzzle, and the arcade sequences are enough to satisfy anybody who likes to stop the story and blow some bad guys away (i.e., Swarznegger fans) -- though even then you can skip the arcade-action sequences if, like me, you're getting old and can't compete with games designed for the synapses of teenage kids.

The drawback to using videotaped actors, however, is that they aren't always very good -- as more and more computer game (especially with the advent of multimedia) start using videotape this way, gamewrights are going to find they get a competitive edge if they bring in good professional actors instead of casting their friends.

All these games give you a different take on the cyberpunk experience. But, if you only have enough cash for one of them, I'm afraid I have to give the nod to Martian Memorandum, with the suggestion that if you are going to give it to a thirteen-year-old to play, you might mention that this game isn't the best possible model of male-female relationships.

(I really hate it when a game or a story pushes my buttons and makes me sound politically correct. Especially when it's a game that otherwise has so much going for it. But my job is to report on what I thought of the experience, not to make decisions for you. . . .)


New Life for the Dead, Alan Rodgers (Wildside Press, 37 Fillmore St., Newark, NJ 07105, $29.50 for numbered edition, incl. postage, cloth, 134 pp)

Good horror stories are hard to find. This is partly because horror stories, good and bad, are hard to find. This isn't really surprising -- the fact that the science fiction short story market is still thriving (though shrinking) is an aberration. Americans who read at all tend to want novels.

And yet some really fine short horror fiction does get printed -- in small press magazines, in anthologies. For a short time there was even a newsstand magazine, Night Cry, devoted to horror -- and, from all accounts I've heard, it paid its own way; when it folded, it was because the parent company went down. On its own, Night Cry would have been a success. Certainly from the quality of the thing, it deserved to be a success.

Alan Rodgers was the editor who created Night Cry. When it went belly up, he turned around and instead of buying fine horror fiction, he began producing it. Now John and Kim Betancourt of Wildside Press have brought out a signed-and-limited edition of New Life for the Dead, which collets all of Rogers's fiction to date.

Which isn't all that much, to tell the truth. Only five stories, plus seven poems. (I'm not in love with the poems. Maybe it was the fact that in "Prometheus's Declaration of Love for the Vulture" the word Caucasus (the mountains) was replaced with Caucuses (gatherings of politicians). Perhaps there is some hidden symbolic meaning in this, which I, being ignorant, utterly missed. Anyway, I just lost heart for the poems after that.) A short collection.

But a fine one. The first story, the Bram Stoker Award-winning "The Boy Who Came Back from the Dead," is quirky in the extreme, and yet there's a homelike feeling to it. Sort of a sick twist on Dandelion Wine. The kid died, smashed like a bug on the front of his car, but some aliens came by and saw him lying there in his grave bored out of his mind but not really unhappy and they revived him. He scrabbled up out of his grave and went on home and found out that his family wasn't as happy to see him as he would have hoped. Oh, they were OK about it, all except Mom. And his teacher -- she didn't take it well at all. A terrific story with bittersweet justice in the ending.

Indeed, that sense of bittersweet justice may be Rodgers's trademark, though I doubt he intends it consciously. I figure he doesn't feel like his story's done until we see how it comes out, how things get sort of smoothed by the end, even though you don't really like all that the smoothing entails. In the story "Penny Lombard and the Heart Ken Found," it's not as if Rodgers ever explains why the heart was alive, and why Ken found it. But you know that the life of it was somehow tied up with Penny Lombard's having come of age, having gone ripe, and her wanting to do something about it. And when Rodgers is done with the tale, it's smoothed out real nice, except for maybe a couple of little bumps that stick in your throat and make you kind of sad.

The thing about Rodgers is, he takes the horror -- and it's horrible, all right -- and turns it into the light just a little differently than you'd ever expect, and from this angle you realize it's more tragic than horrid, more beautiful than hideous. Like "Frankenstein Goes Home." The composite monster was made out of several dead bodies, and those dead bodies once had a life, didn't they? And families? And loves, and memories, and hopes, and dreams?

Rodgers's stories can be off-putting at the beginning -- he has a way of asking us to swallow just a little too much all at once. By the end it doesn't feel like too much, but at the beginning we tend to say, Dead people lying there in their grave, talking to each other, and aliens who can revive them? A woman who can revive dead babies as zombies for a while and the possession of the revived body by something else? ("Emma's Daughter"). Just swallow hard; it'll go down well enough eventually.

And well worth the effort. Rodgers isn't one of those horror writers whose stories have no effect beyond making you gag. Indeed, his grue quotient is pretty low. What he offers instead is a teaspoonful of absurdity dissolved in a quart of ordinary life, and ah, the difference that teaspoonful can make.


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