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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction May 1993

By Orson Scott Card

The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujam, Robert Kanigel (Pocket/Washington Square Press, trade paper, 438 pp, $12)

It is a measure of Kanigel's achievement as a scientific biographer that I, who never got past high school geometry (that's right, I have no clue what a cosine is), had no trouble understanding or at least grasping the importance of the mathematical achievements of Ramanujam; more important, though, is the fact that Kanigel brought the man to life in a story that is moving without trying to deify the man.

Ramanujam was born in southern India in the latter part of the 19th century, a time when the Indian education system was geared toward training clerks for the British colonial regime. Yet some of his teachers and some of the leading intellectuals of southern India were able to recognize that Ramanujam, as nonconformist and obnoxious as he could sometimes be, might well be a mathematical genius instead of the crank that most assumed he was. A fervent letter from Ramanujam finally met fertile ground in the hands of a brilliant English mathematician, C. H. Hardy, who, despite Ramanujam's self-invented notation and his ignorance of -- or disdain for -- rigorous proofs, recognized almost immediately what Ramanujam was.

And so Hardy -- by way of Trinity College -- reached out to India and plucked Ramanujam out of obscurity. The result was a body of work so innovative and so daunting that only now are some of the proofs finally being found for Ramanujam's ideas. On a scientific level, bringing Ramanujam to England was a triumph. On a personal level, though, it was a disaster of cultural clashes and unbearable climatic changes. The Indian climate killed many a European; what is forgotten is that in the age before antibiotics and central heating, northern Europe could be just as deadly to those used to warmer climes. England recognized Ramanujam and made him a player on the world stage in an era when most Europeans assumed that mathematics was a European show; England also gave him tuberculosis and sent him home, lonely and dying, to a family that had already been torn apart by reactions to his fame and prosperity.

In the end, I was left with a feeling reminiscent of Grey's Elegy: Ramanujam's path to mathematics itself and to making contact with the rest of the mathematical world seems so unlikely, so dependent upon chance and accidents of character, that one wonders how many mute inglorious Ramanujams there may be who live and die in obscurity, neither known nor knowing what they might accomplish.

The biography is thick; Kanigel's skill is such that it never felt long; and, at the end, I only wished that it had been longer. I wished, I think, for the novel, for the author who could get inside Ramanujam and tell us all that could only be hinted at or hidden by the documentary evidence. But that is not biography. All that biography can do, Kanigel did, and did well.

October Moon, Michael Scott (O'Brien Press, 20 Victoria Road, Dublin 6, Ireland, ISBN 0-86278-300-3, paper, 159 pp, 3.99)

It happened that I was fortunate enough to be present when Scott's newest young adult novel was launched at the Irish national convention this past October. I was impressed that Scott, whose work is widely published both in America and Britain, had made the bold decision to launch his new book with an Irish publisher; it reminded me of similarly bold acts by some noted Canadian writers. I also took an immediate liking to Scott himself, a man of musical speech, unflappable charm, and incisive wit.

All of that combined to put October Moon into my hands and get me to open the first page. From there, though, what pulled me on was a compelling story, not really of horror, but of dread. Rachel Stone, an American girl, is brought to Ireland by her father, who has bought a horse farm there. Even before they arrive, however, they are beset by problems. Someone is burning down buildings on the farm. And after she gets there, to her chagrin Rachel finds that the local police are convinced that she herself is carrying out (or making up) the acts of sabotage and harassment that dog her and her family.

Needless to say, the threats are quite real, tied up with a local clan that is under an ancient curse and sees a chance to win free of it -- at the expense of Rachel's family. Scott is a master of the naturally unfolding mystery, and the tension never lets up as he takes Rachel -- and us -- deeper into the darkness. In the peculiar genre of young adult horror, which must satisfy both the grisly instincts of teenagers and the fastidious tastes of the adults who buy for YA library collections (or complain to school boards about them!) Scott treads the fine line gracefully. In short, the kids won't be disappointed, and the adults won't be upset. Wish I understood how he did it.

One minor point is worth pointing out, though. In creating an American girl, Scott nevertheless has her say things no American girl would say: for instance, "half six" instead of "half-past six." Since the book is being published in the British Isles, where such Britishisms excite no comment, no harm is done; but it served me as a reminder of the fact that no matter how careful or well educated you are in someone else's culture, you will get it wrong, somewhere, somehow. No doubt British readers chuckle over the American depiction of Englishmen, too -- when they're not gritting their teeth! It's a good thing we sci-fi writers don't ever have to face people from the alien or future races we invent. We don't, do we?

Ganwold's Child, Diann Thornley (Synapse Press [order copies by sending check/money order for $7.95 {includes $1.00 postage and handling} to Synapse Press, PO Box 284, Xenia, OH 45385] paper, 437 pp, $6.95)

The awful cover of this book makes it look self-published, though it was not; and at the end of the book the note from the publisher makes it plain that he thinks that going straight from the author's world processing files to typeset copy without ever hitting paper till the end is somehow remarkable -- but that's been going on for years, with much better results, I might add, than the obvious 300 dpi laser printer type in this book.

My first thought on receiving a review copy, especially since I was somewhat acquainted with the author, was a sense of sadness that Thornley had lost faith in her own novel and had given up on the mainline sf publishers. Assuming that the book had been rejected by all the regular editors, I put off reading it, fearing that it would be one of those awful experiences where I eventually had to find some nice way of telling a friend how much I "enjoyed" reading their book.

My mistake.

While Ganwold's Child is definitely a first novel, in the sense that the author is not yet comfortable with the amount of room in the novel form, and therefore elides a great deal of the sort of information that provides depth of character and a more graspable pace, it is nevertheless a very good first novel. In most ways it seems to fall within that sf subgenre that can only be called "military bildungsroman" in which a youngster plunges into a demanding military environment and is forced to find out just how good he is. But Thornley subverts and transforms that subgenre at every turn. Far from being a sudden genius at flying space fighters, for instance, the hero, Tristan, finds it difficult indeed, particularly because of cultural and educational barriers caused by his upbringing among a tribe of relatively primitive aliens.

The story is also one of the child discovering his true identity -- unknown to him, his father is a great military leader who did not know that his wife and child survived a disastrous battle in space. An enemy finds Tristan and holds him hostage, and much of the plot concerns Tristan's escape and his attempt to save his mother from the same enemy -- and also from a wasting disease that threatens to kill her.

But the strength of the book is in Thornley's focus on the alien society and the way that it causes Tristan to see the world differently from other humans -- even as he also sees the world differently from the Ganan. The Ganan friend who accompanies him on his journey is a constant source of strength and self-control for him, and yet he is also something of an albatross, keeping Tristan from fully assimilating to human culture. Reading the novel, I found myself torn between wanting Tristan to assimilate -- and wanting him never to lose some of the strange yet ennobling folkways of the Ganan.

It you make the effort to order this book from the publisher -- about the only way to lay hands on it unless you frequent some bookstores in Dayton -- you'll find that Thornley's first novel has a bit of raggedness here and there. A way of suddenly putting minor characters in center stage by writing from their viewpoint. Front-loading the book with a lot of technical jargon. A tendency to use military-speak as if we lay people were expected to understand it.

But as you read on, you'll realize that the flaws are minor compared to the strength of the story and the storyteller. Perhaps, when a mainline sf publisher recognizes the value of this author and this book and reprints it for the mass market, we'll see a bit of revision -- not much is really needed. And as for that military-speak, the fact that unlike most writers who toss that stuff in for fake authenticity, Thornley was career military and she uses that language because that's the way military people express their military ideas economically. This novel is exemplary for showing how the effective military mind really works -- you'll find no romantic military nonsense here.

Don't judge this book by its cover. If there's any justice, those who seek out copies of this book now, in its 500-copy (yes, that's five hundred) first edition, will have a collector's item when Thornley hits her stride and emerges as an important voice within the sf field. But don't buy it for financial speculation. Buy it because you're gong to read it. It's worth the extra effort that laying hands on it will take.

Dragon's Milk, Susan Fletcher (Atheneum, cloth, 242 pp, Alladin, paper)

I admit, I'm enough of a diehard sf reader that the idea of an egg-laying reptile nursing its young was annoying. But what am I asking for after all, these dragons spew fire and their young float when they sleep. I should quibble over them also producing milk? If you buy the idea of dragons at all, it's ludicrous to argue that they can't have mammalian traits!

What matters here is that working within a traditional framework, Fletcher has crafted a sweet but tough story of an ugly ducking of a girl who, in order to save a beloved youngster, goes into the den of a dragon to get its healing milk. To save her life, she strikes a tough bargain with the dragon: she'll babysit the dragon's young while the dragon is off getting meat to keep its strength. In exchange, she gets the milk -- but she must return and do it again.

Young Kaeldra finds herself becoming quite devoted to her young charges, and soon she must protect them from their only real enemy -- human dragon hunters. After all, the people in the area are losing a remarkable number of sheep, not just to the mother dragon, but also to the youngsters are they grow up. These flocks are their life -- they're supposed to sit back and let themselves be impoverished because dragons get so gosh-darned hungry?

Among the hunters, Kaeldra finds unexpected but unpredictable allies, and eventually what began as an almost domestic story becomes a story of war with large-scale issues involved. And so what at first looked like it could easily become a fantasy version of The Babysitter's Club turned out to be another in a long tradition of Atheneum young adult fantasies that are then marketed in paper as adult fantasy. While Fletcher is not Patricia McKillip (one of the early beneficiaries of this publishing practice) and Dragon's Milk is not The Throme of the Erril of Sherrill, that hardly counts against either the author or the book. Fletcher is herself, and develops her own angles to explore in a story that finds new life in the old dragon lore.

New Worlds, David Garnett, ed. (Victor Gollancz/VGSF, 14 Henriette St., London WC2E 8QJ, UK, trade paper 267 pp, 4.99)

This is not so much a review as a notice: New Worlds is back, not as a magazine, but as an anthology. The fact that you are reading this magazine suggests you have some interest in short fiction, and that being the case I thought you'd want to know. Many of you will remember that back in the 1960s, New Worlds was the journal of the New Wave. You remember the New Wave -- it really was what Cyberpunk only wished to be, a complete rethinking and reinvention of science fiction, even as the traditional modes continued to co-exist, however uneasily, with the dangerous new stuff. Many of us know the New Wave only in its American translation: Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthologies.

In reviving an expired radical magazine there is a real danger that the result will be, not radical, but nostalgic, and certainly the introductory material is full of self-congratulations and griping about how people didn't live up to their old vision. A bit of the attitude that with this anthology, they'll get people Back On Track. One remembers 94-year-old Communists demanding that these careless youngsters stick with the Revolution.

Still, the fiction I have read to this point usually transcends the ain't-we-cool editorial tone. The literary tricks are, as to be expected, the same old tricks that have long since lost their trickiness. But the stories are powerful, if you can see through the ideological haze well enough to find them. Obviously Garnett has lost nothing of his touch as a perceptive editor, and the book is well worth buying.

It's also fun to see reprinted near the end of the book a copy of Gollancz's letter of rejection for Garnett's own first novel, later published in the U.S. Much of the irony is, of course, that Gollancz is the publisher of the present volume. The fact of reprinting the letter can speak equally with ease of present smugness and of old pain that will not die however much it might fade. In some ways it is a summary of the book.

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