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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction August 1992

By Orson Scott Card


More Shapes than One, Fred Chappell (St. Martin's cloth, 208 pp, $17.95)

Fred Chappell is an odd hybrid indeed -- a literary writer who manages to win prizes like the Bollingen and the French Academy's Best Foreign Novel award, and yet does not feel obliged to conceal in any way his love for science fiction and fantasy. Indeed, he teaches a course in it, and far from the normal academic practice of praising only those books which least resemble sf and most resemble academic-literary fiction, he understands and loves sf for what it is and what it does best.

Which is either the cause of or caused by the fact that most of his fiction is suffused with the immanence of magic. When he's writing about the life of southern country folk, this can be taken as the attitude of the characters themselves. But in this story collection, More Shapes than One, we are face to face with the wonderful fantasy that doesn't pretend to be anything else. And because Chappell is secure in his own credentials as a literary writer, he doesn't waste any effort trying to prove to us how artsy he is, the way sf writers with literary pretensions so often do. He just has a story to tell and he tells it. It's a voice like you've never heard before, except now and then when there's a hint of an echo of a good translation of a Latin American magic realist.

In fact, that's not a bad comparison, Chappell's fantasies and magic realism. Like the Latin Americans, Chappell has a tendency to think that just showing us the arresting strangeness of the idea is enough, where a science fiction writer would generally know that the strange idea is only the starting point for the story. However, there's only a few of Chappell's stories that go nowhere; most go farther than you'd ever imagine. Indeed, the best surprise in the book is that you don't have to have literary pretensions to enjoy it. Chappell isn't writing to the professors and their acolytes -- he's writing to folks like us, who just want a good story full of wonder and truth where you care what comes of it all.

I've got my favorites, of course. The strange ancient book that sucks the life out of any book that's put near it on the shelf. The woman who dies in joy when the owners of the human race at least come back to check up on their property. The frontiersman who doesn't hold much with the woman trade and winds up freeing a string of them who were being led off to market. The dream that got substantial and is blocking traffic on a rural highway until a deputy sheriff licks his pencil tip and writes a poem to put the dream to rest. The strange plant that a sailor sent to Linnaeus, which thrives briefly in his laboratory, only to be forgotten.

Not every story is explicitly fantastic or science fictional. But they all have at least a slantwise connection with our literature of the strange. For instance, "Ladies from Lapland" may be realistic enough, but it is nevertheless a story about the collision of alien races, first with love and then in gathering distaste. Not every story is successful, either -- in one tale he gets sort of carried away with gimmicks, but at least it's short. I won't tell you you'll love every story in the book. But I will say that when you're done with the whole thing you'll be glad to have that book on your shelf, and even gladder to have Fred Chappell's sweet and searing stories in your memory.


A. Merrit, The Face in the Abyss (Donald M. Grant, P.O. Box 187, Hampton Falls, NJ 03844, cloth, 286 pp, color and b&w ill. by Ned Dameron, trade #30, artist-signed edition $60); The Aeneid of Virgil (Donald M. Grant [see above], cloth, 308 pp, color and b&w ill by Luis Ferreira)

A. Merrit's The Face in the Abyss may be the first sf novel I read, back when I was too young to know anything more than that I couldn't wait to turn to the next page and find out what happened next. Since it's older than science fiction itself, as a category, Merrit didn't keep any kind of distinction between sf and fantasy, and maybe that's part of the reason why I never cared much for the distinction myself, and have a hard time comprehending what some people get so upset about when they whine that fantasy is polluting science fiction or vice versa, as if one of them was diseased and the other one was pure. Heck, folks, both sides have the same disease already, and I for one am glad to be infected.

This luscious edition by Donald M. Grant is too heavy to read in bed, unless you don't mind a three-inch declivity in your chest, but it's a wonderful way to experience the tale even if you have to sit up at the table to read it. And sometimes Dameron's illustrations owe a bit too much to Kelly Freas and sometimes not enough. But if you love books as artifacts and not just for the words they contain, this one is beautiful indeed.

I'm considerably happier with Ferreira's work in illustrating The Aeneid -- no hint of the pulp tradition here! -- and this book is, if anything, even more delicious. I only wish I loved the poem itself. It always felt too derivative to me, just another expression of Roman envy of the great works of the Greeks. I think the difference may be that Homer (or whoever, don't write to me about this) believed in the gods he sang of, while Virgil was more sophisticated. Homer never read Plato, you see, and Virgil did; being educated has killed more storytellers. Anyway, I never caught the sense from the Aeneid that it was believed in. Rather it always seemed more like somebody manipulating tropes from somebody else's story. Like Sword of Shannara compared to Lord of the Rings. The spark of life just isn't there.

Of course, I don't speak Latin, either. In this case, though, I don't think there's anything wrong with the translation. Perhaps it lacks energy, but is there such a thing as energetic Virgil? What it has is smoothness and fluidity, and a simple plainness that makes it possible to read the poem aloud and have it understood. So, keeping in mind that I'm not a Virgilian, you must realize that it's high praise indeed when I report to you that I reread far more of the poem than I intended. If you already love The Aeneid or have wanted to give it a try, this is certainly the loveliest form in which I've ever seen the poem presented.


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