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Fantasy & Science
Fiction Index
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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction March 1993

By Orson Scott Card


Out of the Ordinary, Annie Dalton (Harper Trophy, paper, 273 pp, $3.95)

Molly is a young teenager limping along through the greyness of life in the just-above-poverty level that seems to be the predominant social class in England in recent years. Her younger brother escapes by living inside his science fiction computer games; her mother is either gone at work or exhausted from work, leaving Molly, not as a hopelessly overworked Cinderella, but certainly as the caretaker of the house, with plenty of responsibility and little freedom or prospect of change.

And change is what she longs for. So she lives on daydreams until the day that one such daydream prompts her to write down a whimsical "position-wanted" ad: "Capable resourceful girl, good with children and animals. Can cook plain food. Quests undertaken. Lost things found. Enchantments broken. Danger no deterrent. Very reliable." Having written it, though, she realizes with bitterness that reality will never match the dream, and burns the paper.

As you can guess, of course, somebody receives the message anyway (a conscious nod to Mary Poppins, I'm sure, just as there's a nod to A Christmas Carol when three strange visitors make unusual entrances) and Molly finds herself entrusted with the care of a small wordless boy with a gift for music who seems to be the target of some ruthless would-be abductors from another world. Keeping him safe isn't easy, and she finds and learns to rely on friends. But still it's her own wit and courage (and her own mistakes) that drive the book.

In some ways the book is traditional young adult adventure fiction, and these days it's hardly a twist when the protagonist is a girl. Yet Dalton manages to work the traditional clay into some new shapes, without ever having to raise her protagonist out of her bleak working class environment. This is not a book in which the reader can fantasize about someone suddenly discovering his or her true noble or royal identity. Molly is at the end in basically the same situation she was in at the beginning -- except that now she has tasted some genuine excitement and accomplished something a lot more meaningful than the housework, and that makes all the difference.

A minor thing, but worth mentioning, is the fact that Dalton repeatedly shows that Molly loathes science fiction. It happens often enough, and with such dark loathing, that I think I can be forgiven for supposing that Dalton is using her viewpoint character to express her own attitudes. The obsessiveness of this desire to put down another genre is not one of the virtues of this otherwise admirable young adult novel -- I'm always puzzled by writers who seem to feel threatened by the popularity of fiction that they happen not to enjoy personally. But given how often I've sat in SFWA meetings and listened to utterly pinheaded diatribes by hard-sf writers about how fantasy is "polluting" science fiction, I suppose it's only right to have to listen to a few equally bigoted and ignorant snipings from the other side. It certainly doesn't stop this book from being a pleasure to read, and I daresay that fantasy readers who actively detest science fiction will read those same passages with malicious delight.


The Perfect Murder, Jack Hitt, with Lawrence Block, Sara Caudwell, Tony Hillerman, Peter Lovesey, and Donald E. Westlake (Harper, paper, 243 pp, $4.99)

This book certainly isn't a mystery novel -- it doesn't even have a plot, properly speaking. In fact, it's not a novel at all, it's a . . . it's an artifact yes, that's the ticket . . .

Jack Hitt, an editor at Harper's magazine, launched the project by writing to each of the five noted mystery writers listed above. He wrote, not as Jack Hitt, of course, but rather as an arrogant and obnoxiously erudite man who had determined to murder his wife and will gladly pay an obscene sum of money for a foolproof plot to kill her in such a way that he will definitely get away with it. If the plot can also contrive to frame his wife's lover, so much the better; and, of course, he would prefer it if the murder could be arranged in such a way that his wife will know why it is she's dying -- though no one else will. These last features, though, are optional. The main thing is to have her dead, keep her money, and stay out of jail.

The five writers all come up with fascinating (though generally outrageous) murder plots that he can use. Only then does he let the writers know that it was not an exclusive assignment (though I assume, of course, that in the real world Jack Hitt actually informed the writers all along), and he asks each of them to critique the others' murder plots and persuade him why he should choose their plot.

It's delicious fun, especially when reading the snide attacks the writers make on each others work. Of course, everyone is posing, so one can assume that the more vicious the personal remarks, the better friends the writers actually are. Lots of good fun. There are only two problems with this book: First, Jack Hitt just isn't as good a writer as the others -- he obviously has not mastered the art of making a narrator both repulsive and fascinating at the same time. Therefore the sections written by the purported "murderer" are tedious and annoying to read -- you keep hoping that one of the writers will tell him that they have contacted his wife and are providing her with plots to kill him. The second problem is that with the plots laid bare like this, without the trappings of character and milieu, and without the suspense of the detective uncovering clues until the puzzle is solved, it becomes apparent how ludicrous most mystery plots are. All of them are long on theatricality and short on believability, and it made me suspicious of all the other mystery novels I had read -- was I being fooled all along?

Yes, I was. But it's still good fun, and if reading this book takes away a little of the luster of a good mystery, I can assure you that the effect is only temporary.


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