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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.