Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction October/November 1992
By Orson Scott Card
No Deeper Sea, Alexander Jablokov (Morrow/AvoNova, cloth, 368 pp, $22.00)
Jablokov's first novel, Carve the Sky, was brilliant and mature. No Deeper
Sea, however, bears the earmarks of being either an early work, refurbished and
updated (to fit the new world situation), or a hurried recent work. Why does it
seem so? Because so much of the story is skipped over and left undeveloped;
because it lacks the maturity and richness of Carve the Sky.
So, his second novel (or maybe an earlier novel that happened to be
published second) isn't a masterpiece. Is it good?
Let's say this: I've seen a lot of sentimental claptrap about dolphins and
whales and how intelligent and beautiful they are, but Jablokov hasn't a trace of
sentimentality toward delphine, orcan, or cetacean cultures. In fact, he has the
best sf ideas I've seen about what kind of culture, lore, society, and thought might
actually be going on with these alien species, as well as a great sense-of-wonder
account of the time when dolphins first talked to men, and why they stopped, and
why they start again.
If this novel were nothing but the story of the dolphins and the rather
interesting people who speak to them, exploit them, and finally (after a fashion)
free them, then I would be raving about this book the way I raved about Carve the
Unfortunately, Jablokov has kitchen-sinked this one a bit, by having the
culmination of the novel be a voyage to Jupiter, where a cyborgized right whale
has something to do with making contact (vaguely) with the Jovian aliens. While
Jablokov introduced the idea of Jovian aliens early on in the book and does a
mechanically correct job of keeping the idea alive, the fact is that it still feels as
though it's grafted on. Furthermore, where his writing about dolphins was clear,
his narrative gets murky once we get to Jupiter, and he seems to think we not only
know more but care more than in fact we do.
In short, the thing doesn't hang together; the whole is less than the sum of
its parts. But the parts are so fine, some of them! There are scenes that you must
see: The prison-camp passages; the ocean war near the Aleutians; the moment
when a beleaguered, tortured dolphin finally speaks to human beings once again;
the moment in a razored cage, nearly underwater, when the hero sets the dolphins
free. These are so powerful and true that even if Jablokov did not pull them
together well, you owe it to yourself to bring these ideas and images, these people
and these tales, into your memory.
This is an ambitious novel; to do it properly, Jablokov needed twice the
pages and, I daresay, twice the experience at novel-making. But one of the nice
things about our genre -- and one of the dangerous things, for writers -- is that
our education as storytellers often takes place in public, with everybody watching.
Now we know that Jablokov is one of those writers who sometimes bites off more
than he can chew. That means he's worth paying attention to, even when, in part
at least, he fails. Why? Because there are such bright flashes even in the failures;
and because he will not always fail.
The White Mists of Power, Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Penguin/NAL/Roc, paper, 302
So Rusch is now the editor of this magazine. That doesn't change the fact
that before that happy day she was a much-published short story writer who won
the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer. I happen to think that is a very
prescient award, and I would have read Rusch's first novel even if she were not
the editor of F&SF. And, having read it, I would have reviewed it, because I try to
tell you about every book I read that will reward you for having read it, and The
White Mists of Power definitely qualifies.
Besides, do you think that I'd compromise my integrity in order to suck up
to the editor of a magazine that pays me only a hundred bucks a month? I'm not
sure that my integrity is unassailable, but I can promise you that my price is a hell
of a lot higher than that.
So here is the review I would have written whether Rusch was editing this
I'm not a fan of fantasy stories that express magical power in terms of
"mists" or "fogs." Nor am I really thrilled with prologues in which we see
enigmatic and portentous scenes that probably won't make sense for about two
hundred pages. Nor do I get all goo-goo-eyed the way some people do at the mere
mention of a bard; indeed, I'm quite sick of bards in fiction and have resolved that
the next time I do a medieval story, every bard that shows up at the castle gates
will be driven off with stones and jeers.
The White Mists of Power has a bard. It has a portentous prologue that
makes no sense until you've read on for two hundred pages. It has misty magic.
Which just goes to show you how much my rules are worth, when a masterful
writer is a work. Because Rusch is a masterful writer; this story did manage to
overcome all the strikes against it in this biased reader's mind; and in the end I
couldn't wait to tell you about this book because Rusch has not only done better
than she needed to in order to get a fantasy novel published in the current market,
she has actually done well.
It's a land where the nobility spend their time trying to steal each other's
land through marriage, murder, or other political maneuvers, while politely
ignoring each other's fetishes -- like Lord Dakin's habit of setting his enemies
free in a swamp, to be hunted down and torn to pieces by his dogs. That's what
Dakin attempts with Byron, a bard who is reputed to be a murderer of an innocent
young lady some ten years before, and who has definitely had some involvement
with revolutionary movements among the common folk. But out in the woods,
Byron's life is saved by a talentless young magician named Seymour who works
the first really successful spell of his life in order to do it.
The story proceeds from there as a grand adventure -- encounters in inns
and castles, strange conspiracies. And as the story proceeds, we keep waiting for
the story of Byron and Seymour to link up with the story of Adric, the king's son,
who has been stranded deliberately in the city, where of course no one believes
that he is who he is. And I promise you that the stories do link up, though so late
in the story that you begin to wonder whether this is only volume one of a series,
because there's no possible way that with so few pages left the author can make
these two stories come together. But she does, oh yes, and quite deftly -- and no,
I will not tell you how.
Working with the threads of cliché, Rusch spins a story that is fresh and
surprising. She also creates strong heroes. Not deep characters, for they are not
needed in event-driven Romance. Rather the character of these men and women is
revealed by what they do -- and what they do is deft and subtle at least as often as
it is brutal and direct.
Some editors, when they write, make you wish they had spent more time
editing. But when this novel came together, it made me wish that Rusch were not
spending so much time editing. A writer only grows by writing, and as good as
Rusch is now, with this first novel, I don't think it's fair that it will take us twenty
years to see just how good she would have been in ten years if only she had
Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede, Bradley Denton (Morrow, cloth, 357
Never mind that this novel is funny and satirical without ever losing the
human touch, that the characters can be absurd without our ever ceasing to believe
in them or care about them, that Denton's plot, silly as it is, has a strong integrity
that holds the satire together as well as Vonnegut at his best. Never mind that this
novel works even if you don't give a rat's ass for Buddy Holly or fifties
rock'n'roll. You should read Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede because
it's some of the best damn writing I've ever seen in our field. I started reading this
book at a science fiction convention in Austin and couldn't put it down till I
finished it; at a panel the next day, to prove a point, I opened the book at random
and read the first paragraph that caught my eye and it was brilliant. Even the filler
paragraphs, even the expository lumps are a model of lucidity and attitude and
revelation of character.
So: Buy this book. Borrow this book. Heck, steal this book -- that's the
only way the author is sure of getting his royalties anyway. Denton is already one
of our best writers and he's only just started and he looks so achingly young that
he's probably going to outlive us all and just get better all the time and even
though that makes me want to puke with envy I still have to tell you that if you
don't read this book now, you'll slap yourself silly later, when you think of all the
years you missed seeing the world through Denton's eyes.