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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction April 1993

By Orson Scott Card

The Thief of Always: A Fable, Clive Barker (HarperCollins, cloth, 240 pp, $20; special limited edition, $100)

Harvey Swick is bored, and wishes something would happen. Of course something does happen: a strange fellow named Rictus invites Harvey to come visit a marvelous house. And when Harvey gets there, the house really is straight from a child's dream. Each day recapitulates a year: Springtime in the morning, summer at noon, Halloween in the evening, and Christmas every night. The food is astonishingly good, and there are some good friends to play with.

But of course all is not what it seems. For instance, where are the owners of all the discarded items of children's clothing lying around? What is wrong with the strange sick-looking lake just down the hill from the house? Why can't they find the way off the grounds? And when Harvey and his best friend start getting magical help for the Halloween "pranks" they pull on each other, things quickly get out of hand.

It's a bad sign when a children's book begins with a child whose sole defining attribute is that he is bored. And when I kept thinking "of course" with each new plot turning, I fared that this cliched and ineffective opening meant that Barker was making the common mistake of thinking that when you're writing a children's book you don't have to be as inventive or careful or perceptive as you do when writing for adults; the truth is the opposite, that children are a much more demanding audience and they can see when an adult writer is faking it.

And Barker is faking it, as far as the character of Harvey Swick is concerned. Later in the book it becomes quite clear that to achieve what he needs to achieve, Harvey must be a very unusual person. Yet Barker gives us no clue, at the beginning or elsewhere, of any preexisting attribute, thought, experience, goal, memory, or attitude of Harvey's except that he was bored. He springs from nowhere, his character consists only of what he does in the story itself.

As one of Gilda Radner's characters used to say, "Never mind." This is not a character story, after all, it's Romance, and so it's acceptable for Harvey to be no more than what he does. The story of his story isn't the Nice Kid Who Saves Everybody, after all. As one would expect of a Barker tale, the story revolves around a genuinely marvelous evil being and his equally fascinating cohorts. The basic storyline could be viewed as a series of cliches; but it could just as easily be seen as a retelling of powerful universal myths, and by the end that is just how I came to see it. Just as with The Great and Secret Show, Barker's inventive milieu and eccentric characters more than make up for predictable storylines and neon moral reasoning. The story works, and you will not soon forget the memories that Barker puts into your mind.

I only wish that Barker had not labeled this book, on the cover or in his own mind, as "A Fable." The story did not need to have more stuff happen in it, but it did cry out for the main character to be more deeply individuated, and his reconciliation with his family is so evocative that I only wished I had actually known the characters well. Yet my very frustration that the book was not more is proof, to me anyway, that what the book already is, is enough to be noteworthy.

Civilization, Sid Meier (Microprose Software, about $50);

The Official Guide to Sid Meier's Civilization, Keith Ferrell (Compute Books, 233 pp, packaged with special "collector's edition" of game);

Civilization, or Rome on 640K a Day, Johnny L. Wilson & Alan Emrich (Primis, 374 pp, $18.95)

It was in order to play this game that computers were invented. All the other uses of a computer are just to provide you with a public excuse for all the money you spent to buy the machine.

You think I'm joking. You think I'm exaggerating. But if you, as I, are one of those who is an absolute devotee of "sweep-of-time" stories -- Asimov's Foundation, Aldiss's Helliconia, for instance -- the game of Civilization is in many ways the ultimate experience. No, the game can't match the detailed stories with their unforgettable characters. But the game can put you inside a millennia-long history where your own choices and efforts will give shape to human life.

It's a world that never existed before (though there is an option to play on Earth), and you start in 4000 B.C. with a tribe of nomads. You settle down, form a city, and then begin expanding. As you found more cities, you might build wonders of the world like the Pyramids or the Hanging Gardens (each of which has useful effects on the play of the game), or you could send out explorers or armies to discover or conquer other rising civilizations. Along the way you work to increase your knowledge, starting with the invention of the wheel or the alphabet and moving on, eventually, to gunpowder or philosophy, mass production or nuclear fusion.

The game is definitely science fiction -- for instance, one of the ways to win is to build and launch a spaceship that will colonize another world before your rivals can get there. It can also be played as a no-holds-barred wargame. More than almost any other game I've played, this one reflects your choices, your character, and each time you play it you can make it different. At my house there are several dedicated civiacs (players of Civilization), and just as many winning styles. Some concentrate on rapid expansion and conquest, often conquering this entire world before the 15th century A.D.; others carefully build up a civilization to a fever-pitch of productivity, only developing military enough to defend against aggressive rivals, while sending out spies to learn what they can from other civilizations. It is a measure of Sid Meier's game design skill that both strategies work very well.

Civilization is also a powerful teaching tool; you not only get to play through the sweep of history, you also get some useful insights about how history works. Of course, to make the game playable, Meier had to simplify. Religion seems to be the "opiate of the masses" (though, despite Marx's flippancy, religion -- especially state-sponsored religion -- has had a powerful unifying effect on people, allowing communities to pull together in times of hardship or challenge). A belching smokestack sums up pollution, yet it's a recycling center and mass transit, neither of which deals with smokestacks, which are used to prevent pollution from causing global warming and wrecking your civilization.

There are ideological issues, too. Meier clearly believes in the potential of nuclear power, and while the cost of using nuclear weapons is high -- too high, in fact, and we have all learned not to use them if we want a decent score -- the game does allow you to use them, sparingly, without ending the world, though an all-out nuclear exchange essentially puts the whole world back into, if not the stone age, then a pretty tough struggle to survive.

But setting aside quibbles -- or even serious ideological arguments -- the fact is that when you play Civilization you do get a genuine experience in the interrelatedness of various nations and cultures across time. Most important to me is the fact that, even as you are given the standard image of unending progress in science and technology, each new discovery arising out of those that came before, the fundamental human nature never changes one bit. Legions may have been replaced by armored knights and then by tanks, but they're still trying to blast you to bits. And in governments that are responsible to the people, the need to keep the people happy can often hamstring you, making it difficult to conduct a "sensible" foreign policy; yet autocratic governments, while more "efficient," ended up presiding over far less productive citizens and eventually cannot compete against the democracies (unless, of course, they crushed the democracies militarily first). These are lessons that would be useful indeed to company managers or school administrators who cannot conceive of the benefits of dealing democratically with their unruly, ill-disciplined, feisty, creative employees or children, and then wonder why their "efficient" management gets such sluggish results.

But you won't be playing Civilization for the lessons, you'll be playing it for experience. The game is complicated, till you get the feel of it, and the manual leaves out a lot of helpful information. I recommend that you lay hands on either of the two books listed in the heading of this review. The Ferrell book (yes, he is the editor of Omni), is bundled with special recent editions of the game -- it will say so on the box. The Wilson & Emrich volume can be purchased in stores and is the most conveniently organized, though the Ferrell is a more enjoyable straight-through introduction.

I only wish that the gamewright had built into the game a way to customize the names of your rivals, their empires, and their cities -- it can get tedious (and confusing, when you play one game after another) to have the same German, French, Egyptian, Chinese, Zulu, Aztec, or Babylonian cities again and again. Feeling somewhat bold, I used Norton's Diskedit to break into my copy of the game and rename some of the nations, somewhat satirically, I must confess, so that now I play against King Zookeeper of the Mammals, with cities like Elephant, Hippo, and Mouse; or Anatomy of the Bodyparts, with cities named Stomach, Elbow, and Toe; or Scribe of the Authors, with cities like Homer, Shakespeare, and Goethe. But most people probably don't need such childish amusements.

I must warn you. Civilization will be compulsive for people who, like me, hunger for the sweep-of-time experience. Literary works like Helliconia and Foundation are few and far between. You can find yourself brooding about your game even when you're not playing it, just the way some books keep intruding into your thoughts even when you're not actually reading them. But the sense of satisfaction when you emerge unscathed at the end of six thousand years of history, with your people in possession of the secrets of the universe and with a colony on another world, cannot be had through any other means. Not even in the real world, for the great secret virtue of this game is that you get to see the process through from beginning to end, a privilege that most great leaders of history have been denied.

The Harvest, Robert Charles Wilson (Bantam, cloth and trade paper, 395 pp, $22.50 and $11)

Perhaps because Stephen King's The Stand was such a powerful experience, it looms large enough in memory that when another author shows a world in which most people suddenly die and the handful of survivors must make some kind of life for themselves, it is almost impossible not to compare it to The Stand. The comparison is usually unfair -- one of King's three best works (the other two being in my opinion, of course, The Dead Zone and Misery), The Stand overpowers most wannabes.

But Wilson is not a King wannabe, and The Harvest hold its own.

Where King killed off most people with a runaway disease, what happens in The Harvest is voluntary. Alien spaceships appear and, without explanation, put strange installations in major cities around the world. This in itself has an intimidating effect, but so far we are on traditional sf ground.

It is when the aliens invade human dreams and offer us perfect immortality, no strings attached, with only the minor price of losing our corruptible physical bodies, that the story takes its strange turning. Most people accept, and thereby enter into a kind of platonic heaven, they become contemplative, disconnecting from physical reality. They fade. A few linger, to taste the last bits of untasted human experience. But even they will go.

What then of those who said no to alien dreams? Who are these human beings who turn down eternal life and absolute communion with their fellow beings? Let's just say that not all of them are nice, and yet, in the effort to reinvent civilizations from the ground up, they don't do too badly.

The Harvest in some ways is just as overtly religious and allegorical as The Stand. But here the finger of God does not come down and destroy the bad guys in the final contest between good and evil. Rather the well-intentioned god-figure of this novel -- the aliens -- has a tough time figuring out human beings, and blunders a little. And what the survivors salvage, they salvage for themselves. They all have the air of the people in the neighborhood of Mount St. Helen's who refused to leave and are now no more than hollow spots in ten feet of ash -- for some reason, death was less fearful to them than change. Yet there's a kind of unintelligible nobility in that, and Wilson makes it, in the end, intelligible.

Of course The Harvest has Wilson's incomparable writing. Of course the characters are deeply and intelligently and compassionately explored. And there are images that you will never forget, of used-up discarded bodies, of giant mushrooms striding the highways of America, of the storm to end all storms as the aliens readjust the Earth. It all combines into a graceful and brilliant whole.

Wilson owes nothing to King in this novel, rather he went back to King's source -- the idea of the rapture, of the end of the world -- and put his own incomparable spin on it. The Harvest casts too much light of its own to stand for even a moment in the shadow of any other book. If anything, the shadow is cast the other way.

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