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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction February 1993

By Orson Scott Card

Brain Child, George Turner (Avon, paper, 411 pp, $4.99)

I'm a little late coming out of the gate on this one. Turner, an Australian writer, published this one in '91, and I didn't notice it until the paperback came out. At first glance, it seems to be just another one of those old breeding-for-genius stories, where a secret government experiment to create supergeniuses through genetic manipulation has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

And, in fact, that's what it is. Only Turner, unlike most who have written in this little subgenre, has decided to put flesh and blood actors on his stage instead of marionettes. While the storyline has something of a mystery and quest structure to it, in fact the fascination comes from meeting the quirky but absolutely believable people moving through a genuinely convincing future.

The hero-narrator, David Chance, grew up as an orphan in a state-run institution. He is working as a journalist when he gets a letter from a man claiming to be his father. It isn't exactly the father an orphan dreams of, either -- his new dad is one of a group of four extraordinarily intelligent scientific minds who were produced in a genetic experiment years before, and, to say the least, his father is even less aware of how a proper father should act than David himself.

And papa has an agenda. He wants David to do some research for him -- research that ends up leaving a trail of corpses. There were four groups of experimental babies born in at the same time: David's father's group, which became mathematical and technological geniuses; a group that has become artistic geniuses; a group that died shortly after birth; and another group, the one so brilliant that no one understood them. That last group is the mystery: Why did they kill themselves? And what is the hidden legacy that one of them left behind?

Turner has written a dandy mystery as David tracks down people who knew the experimental kids; you get all the car chases and spy-like goings-on you might want; and as science fiction the story is interesting and offers a fascinating exploration of what genuine genius might actually be like, in all its fascinating and unpleasant details. All the characters are interesting, well-created individuals who are both believable and endlessly surprising. And the writing, which could have been affectedly stylish since the narrator is supposed to be a wordsmith, is restrained and clear enough to be a contribution to the story, rarely a distraction. While you don't become emotionally involved in anybody's personal dilemmas, the puzzles, the action, and the unraveling story of the past grip you all the way to the eminently satisfying and yet surprising climax.

Turner even brings off a tour-de-force scene in which the narrator is trapped within a work of art created by one of the experimental artist geniuses. The sort of thing, where the writer sets himself the task of showing the reader in detail an imaginary work of genius usually is disastrous -- I think at once of the supposed genius phase of the hero of Disch's Camp Concentration, the only weak link in an otherwise brilliant novel, and the far more ludicrous "artistic genius" of the second act of Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, where we find out that the artistic successor to Seurat has created as his masterpiece a laser show even more boring than the one at Stone Mountain, Georgia. Where others of great talent have failed, Turner succeeds, and for me that was the high point of a book what many startling and effective scenes.

Just a word about the Australians of the novel. Science fiction has long had as one of its givens that the near future will either be dominated by the United States -- if it isn't, its failure to dominate must be explained. British writers often do this by going out of their way to include a passage that sneers a bit (or a lot) at Americans, so that when their stories are set in a future that does not include a dominant U.S. we get a feeling that we're reading a kind of wish-fulfillment fiction. Turner, on the other hand, never makes a big deal about the fact that the novel take place in Australia, and never registers even the faintest surprise that such astonishing scientific achievements would take place in Australia. There's a lot of satire on government (based on a dead-on understanding of how politics and power work in a "democracy"), but never a hint of an attitude of apology or explanation. Turner has not cocked his eye at an American audience and helped "explain" the hard bits; America is so irrelevant to the milieu of his story that it never comes up. No references to consulting American scientists or anyone else outside Australia; no explanations about how Australia fits into the world picture at large.

In fact, one could even say that Turner is completely Australian-centered that the rest of the world might not even exist as far as the story is concerned -- Australia is world enough to contain this tale. I point this out not as a flaw in the book, and not as praise of it either. I did find it jarring now and then, and found myself wondering where America fit in Turner's vision of the future -- did the whole North American continent sink into the sea? But even as I had those thoughts, I also realized that this is precisely how most American science fiction for many decades has seemed to non-U.S. readers. It is simply taken for granted that anything that matters in the world of the future will be American. So it's a deliciously sharp experience to read a novel that seems to have exactly that level of naive arrogance, only centered in a different country. Whether Turner did this deliberately or merely happens to be a blindly australocentric writer I cannot guess and do not care. Along with the wonderful feast of a novel Turner has written, American readers get the extra pleasure of having the tables turned.

Fag Hag, Robert Rodi (Dutton, cloth, 296 pp, $20)

Anyone who has ever moved along the borders of the homosexual community (which means, in my case, anyone who has been actively involved in theatre) has probably run into the phenomenon of women who seem endlessly fascinated with men who are simply not fascinated back. While "fag hag" is a cruel and contemptuous slang term for such women, it is also memorable, and when I saw the hot maroon title on a vivid green background on the jacket of this book, the words leapt out at me as, no doubt, the cover designer meant them to do. It brought back memories of my bafflement in college days.

Examining the book in the bookstore, it became clear that this was a book that could be just as cruel as its title. The author is clearly identified as gay, and the storyline clearly puts the heterosexual women in the role of "bad guy," as Natalie cannot bring herself to accept the fact that this time her friend (and fixation), Peter, has found genuine love instead of just another fling. She has lost him, or at least lost possession of him, and she can't bear it; so she sets out to win him back, and if she can't do that, well, she'll find some way to keep him from leaving her, even if it involves the teensiest bit of violence and coercion.

Now, I well know, as I held the book in my hands, that stories written from inside a minority community often have serious problems reaching people from outside that community. I've seen the phenomenon often enough with fiction by and about Mormons. Most Mormon writers, when writing for the mainstream audience about their own people, tend either to try to explain to the outsider how wonderful it is to be Mormon or to complain about all their grievances with the Mormon community in hopes of making the reader as angry about Mormons as the writer is. Both approaches usually leave the non-Mormon reader baffled, since he basically has no stake in the community and really doesn't care. The result has been that in the New York publishing business it is widely known that "Mormon books don't sell."

Of course, Mormon books of exactly the type I've described do sell -- within the Mormon community itself. And the same thing is true of gay fiction. It sells within its own community, but fiction by and about gays aimed at the general audience often falls into the same errors: either trying to show how wonderful (or tragically noble) it is to be gay, or "doing a number" on negative types within the gay community. In neither case is the mainstream audience likely to be terribly interested.

But this book seemed different. For one thing, the author was daring enough to tell the story, not from the point of view of the victimized Peter, but from the point of view of Natalie herself. For another thing, right from the start Peter was shown as being beautiful but shallow. If this was a gimmick Rodi used to overcome the assumption of most straight readers that a story about a gay by a gay would be worshipful, well, the gimmick worked.

I bought the book. I started reading. And I soon realized that I was in the hands of a masterful storyteller who was trying to do with gay society what I have tried to do with Mormon society in those few stories I've written that are set within it: To tell a truthful, entertaining story about fascinating characters in a strange but real milieu without ever asking the reader either to approve or disapprove of the community the characters belong to.

I hope I've been even partially as successful as Rodi was with this book. It is a comic novel, of course, and much is sharpened for comic effect. Rodi's presentation of some flamboyantly bitchy or effeminate characters is funny, yes, but never at the cost of reality or understanding. Nobody is saintly, and nobody is evil -- not even Natalie, not even when she's doing the most cruel things to hold onto the man she "loves." There is the ring of truth in everything Rodi does, if only because he never leaves a stereotype unsubverted, never lets us evade the consequences of an act of cruelty, and always forces us to see how even the most insane behavior looks from the point of view of the person who did it.

By talking so seriously, of course, I have probably led you to miss the most important fact about this book: It's funny. It's good. I don't have the same moral worldview as the author, of course, but then I often don't. What matters to me -- and the reason why I'm reviewing this book in a column that (yes, I remembered) is supposedly devoted to science fiction and fantasy -- is that Rodi, with his first novel, has done a marvelous job of introducing readers into an unfamiliar society, giving depth and detail and attitude until you feel that you've lived there. Of course, Rodi has the advantage that those in our field who write about made-up societies never have: He has lived there. Robert Forward didn't have that luxury as he wrote Dragon's Egg, for instance, and if he ever had visited the surface of a neuron star I doubt he'd have felt like writing when he got back. But that doesn't change the fact that much of science fiction is written about passages across the borderlines of strange lands. Just as Clavell's Shogun is widely regarded as an ideal of world-creation, I think Rodi's Fag Hag can also serve as a useful exemplar of community-creation.

But hey, you don't have to think of it as medicine or anything. You can switch off your brain at the beginning of the book and Rodi will give you several hours of wonderful dumb fun. There aren't enough books that can do that, either.

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