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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction Summer 1993

By Orson Scott Card

Jumper, Steven Gold, (TOR, Aug 93, cloth, 320 pp, $18.95)

I don't know about you, but I've been waiting for Steven Gould's first novel for a long time. And I'm happy to report that Gould blithely jumps into the deep end of Robert Heinlein's pool and not only stays afloat, but splashes around for 320 wonderful pages.

When Davy's father is about to whip him again for the hundredth time, Davy just can't take it anymore. But instead of lashing out at his father, he simply . . . moves. He finds himself in the smalltown public library that has long served him as a mental refuge. Now it's a physical refuge as well.

How did he get there? He soon learns that he can go anywhere that he can see, and anywhere that he can visualize clearly from memory. It allows him to run away from home. But as a seventeen-year-old with no identification that he can use, Davy finds himself forced into a moral quagmire. He has to steal to live. He has to lie. And yet he wants to be honest and decent.

He also wants to find his mother, who fled long ago, but he loses her as soon as he finds her, and soon is caught up in a an attempt to avenge her. He also falls in love with an "older" woman -- a college student -- and managers to complicate her life almost as much as he has complicated his own.

Gould is keenly aware that he is treading on familiar ground, in terms of the sf device of jumping or jaunting, and he acknowledges his debt to other writers quite clearly. But Gould proves once again that in the hands of a wonderful, perceptive writer, there is no such thing as an old idea. What sets Jumper apart from other novels that dip back into the well of the masters is that Gould brings his own keen empathy and rigorous intelligence to the story, exploring what the ability to "jump" means in the life of this particular young man. It is not the idea but the character of Davy that emerges as the most powerful force in the story.

This novel can work as a young adult novel, because of its seventeen-year-old protagonist; and while Davy's coming of age includes a downright cheerful first-sex experience, I can't think of a secondary-school librarian who wouldn't want to have this book in the library -- and I suspect you'll soon be offering it to every bright kid who shows up looking for a great science fiction book.

Having said that, though, I must also say that Gould did not write a book that is only or even particularly for adolescents. Without making a big brouhaha about it, Gould has also fashioned Davy into a true modern hero, and the moral issues he grapples with are important and real. When you have extraordinary abilities, what is it right for you to do with them? There is a point near the end of the book when Davy brings his abusive father, a vicious terrorist, and a self-righteous government agent together on a hidden island, and while the scene is funny, it is also anguished as he confronts the different faces of evil and recognizes how inadequate he is to judge any of them.

Is this the Major Book of the Year? No, it isn't even in the running for that; Gould wasn't trying to write the Great Science Fiction Novel. But this is a book that you won't want to miss. It reminded me of why I first came to love science fiction, and yet I didn't have to be twelve again to have a great time reading it. And when you close the book, eminently satisfied with the yarn that Gould has spun, your only disappointment will be that, because this is his first novel, you can't rush out and get another.

Ruler of the Sky: A Novel of Genghis Khan, Pamela Sargent (Crown, 93, cloth, 703 pp, $25)

Over the years, I've come to expect a great deal from Pamela Sargent. Her worlds are deeply and thoroughly imagined -- she is one of the very few science fiction writers who measure up to the "Shogun standard" of world creation. (You remember when you first read Shogun: Clavell had created medieval Japan so richly and completely that by the end of the book, you felt as though you could speak Japanese.) Her characters are fascinating and believable, and even the ones you don't like as people are still wonderful to read about. Sargent is also profoundly honest, never bending the societies and characters she writes about to fill any deliberate political agenda.

When I saw Ruler of the Sky in the bookstore, I was at once delighted and dismayed. Delighted because I find Genghis Khan fascinating and couldn't wait to see what Sargent had done with him, dismayed because this book weights more than some notebook computers and I didn't have time.

Well, I made the time -- or, rather, Sargent ripped the time out of my life with both hands and made me like it. She made the brilliant decision to explore Temujin, the boy who grew up to unite his violent and quarrelsome people and lead them to uproot half the nations of the world, from the point of view of the women in his life. Viewed myopically, from a modern feminist perspective, these women would all be victims. But Sargent is not nearsighted and does not have to see the past through the lens of present attitudes. While she does not glamorize the brutality of Mongol life, she makes it clear that even with the cruel limits on women's lives in that society, the women could still be happy, could still wield power, could still live fascinating lives.

Sargent also treats the Mongol culture with respect. Not for a moment does she make me wish I lived in that culture, of course. But she views it from the inside, and judges the characters on their own terms. As you read this novel you become, temporarily, a Mongol, and understand clearly that right and wrong, good and evil, wear different faces here, and what would be a hideous crime among us can sometimes be a simple fact of life, or even something to be proud of. Like the best fiction of the strange, Ruler of the Sky destroys prejudice and moral smugness.

There is no need for me to summarize this novel; obviously, it follows the outline of Temujin's life. Nor will I apologize for reviewing a historical novel in a science fiction magazine. Like Shogun, Ruler of the Sky offers exactly what many of us hope for in the best science fiction -- a fully realized alien world in which we can gain a new perspective on what it means to be human. Sargent proves once again that the best science fiction writers, using the most important techniques of science fiction, can write with surpassing excellence in other genres. (And if you just can't stand the thought of reading something that doesn't have a spaceship on the cover, here's a secret: You can just pretend that the horses are spaceships and the yurts are orbiting habitants, and it instantly turns into a really good space opera.)

As for the writing, the 703 pages fly by. Suddenly you look up and your family is older and the furniture has been rearranged and your in-laws are visiting and you had no idea because you've been living in steppe and desert, forest and mountain, and for a time you lost track of your old, unreal life.

The Elementals, Morgan Llywelyn (TOR, June 93, cloth, 304 pp, $21.95)

This novel is really four novellas, each interesting in its own right, all linked together by a common theme and by hints of a common lineage.

The first novella is a flood story; rising waters have drowned the old lands, and a band of rugged survivors, most of them women because their menfolk died defending their ark, must reestablish human life in a new land. A woman named Kesair emerges as the leader, not because she wanted power, but because no one else had the initiative to act when action was required. She has to deal with the envy of the men, and not all her actions are wise. Furthermore, she finds herself hearing the voice of the sea, like an ancient forgotten god who has stirred and forced forgetful humans to respect its power even if they don't know its name.

Deliberately, in the first novella, Llywelyn leaves us unsure whether these people are in our future or in our distant past. Her point is that time moves in cycles, and that no matter how powerful we think we are, the earth is stronger yet; and in every story, there is someone who remembers that the elemental powers of earth are alive and irresistibly strong, even if most humans adopt the blithe arrogance of assuming that what we do truly matters, and will last.

The second novella is set on Crete just before the great volcanic eruption that brought down the Minoan culture. The third is in New England at a time when the Indians were still a recent memory. The fourth is in our near future, with the Indians again reclaiming the land.

Never does Llywelyn neglect her storytelling in order to make her point. Each novella is compelling, and as each came to an end I found myself wishing that she had lingered and told more; and yet the headlong rush through time and across the generations is part of the effect she was trying for, and it works.

This is fantasy at its best. The societies and characters are real, the magic does not take over the story, but rather underlies it like a living foundation that every now and then shrugs, shaking all that is built upon it. This is the first of Llywelyn's fiction that I have read; I was astonished and faintly embarrassed that somebody this good could have escaped my attention for so long. Perhaps it's because her work is so clearly identified as Celtic, and I thought I knew what Celtic fantasy was all about and didn't need to read more. Well, slap me with a fish, my friends -- once again my prejudices have kept me from a fine, fine writer for far too long. Reading The Elementals was, for me, a wonderful introduction to Llywelyn's work. Go thou and do likewise.

Ring of Swords, Eleanor Arnason (TOR, Aug 93, cloth, 384 p, $21.95)

Arnason has been around for years. I remember being favorably impressed with her first novel, and she has attracted attention with other works now and then, most especially her recent A Woman of the Iron People.

Ring of Swords is space fiction of the first rank. Arnason has created a fascinating alien species, the hwarhath, who saved themselves from their males' unrelenting hunger for violence and domination by turning their aggression outward. The sexes no longer live together, and heterosexuality is regarded as a deep perversion. The females rule at home, but on other worlds and in deep space, the hwar males are always in search of a worthy opponent that will fight according to their delicately balances rules. Unfortunately, while humans match them in aggression, we don't fight fair. And therefore we must be destroyed.

Two characters dominate this novel, both equally fascinating and well-created. Anna is a scientist studying a water-dwelling species that may or may not prove to be sentient; it happens, though, that her research is taking place on the same world where the final negotiations between humans and hwarhath are taking place. Quite against her will, she is caught up in the negotiations. She is also brought into the life of the other main character of the novel, a human names Nicholas who, captured long before by the hwarhath, new serves them as an interpreter and adviser. He is, in short, a renegade.

If it is true that whoever you truly understand, you will inevitably love -- even if you oppose them -- then you will love Anna and Nicholas both, and the hwarhath characters we meet, as well. This is a political novel, caught up in the delicate negotiations between and within the two rival species; but all is filtered through the personal visions and attitudes of these characters, so that even if you think you don't like political novels, you will like this one. So thoroughly does Arnason create the political and social context that the account of a negotiating session can have more tension and excitement in it than any car chase I've ever seen. Even as the characters struggle to work out their personal loves and fears and ambitions, so also the two species seem to have no common ground, no hope of a solution short of xenocidal war. But the solution, when it comes, is not a cheat, but rather a natural outgrowth of the nature of human and hwarhath alike.

In the end, Ring of Swords has become an optimistic yet bittersweet story that lingered with me for days after I finished reading it. The story has the thematic weight and the literary mastery to be in contention as one of the best science fiction novels of the year. After so many years of suffering through endless retreads of the bleak cyberpunk future or the old competent-man storyline, it is a delight to dwell for a time with a vision that seems sui generis, taking up whatever science fiction tropes are useful but turning them to new ends. Arnason is one of those splendid writers who is always herself, even as she is genuinely One Of Us.

Path of the Hero, Dave Wolverton (Bantam/Spectra, April 93, paper, 419 pp, $5.99)

It's a shame when a powerful original work of science fiction is killed by the publisher's art department, but that's what is apparently happening with Dave Wolverton's third -- and best so far -- novel. Not that the cover art is bad. It's just dark and drab and there is nothing about the presentation to suggest that this is a special book.

To which the obvious answer is that not all books can have "special" treatment. If every book published had embossed or cut-out covers or white backgrounds, or bold, clear art, then these techniques would become passé and nothing would stand out from the crowd.

That makes sense, of course. I'm just baffled by the decision to make this book blend in with all the midlist and marginal books published at the same time. (The editor is already saying, "We don't publish any marginal books, and this cover is excellent." But editors have to say that; it helps even more if they mean it. But it doesn't change the fact that Path of the Hero has been made invisible on the shelves.)

Special treatment costs more, and editors have to pick very carefully which ones to spend that extra effort on. I cannot fathom their choices, just as I have no clue why such seminal works as Ben Bova's Mars and Norman Spinrad's Russian Spring managed to make it through the award season without mention by the Nebula voters. Apparently somebody somewhere decides who's hot from month to month, and I can tell you, whoever it is doesn't consult with me.

You want to know what I think is hot? How about a novel in which a writer takes a now-ancient science fiction motif -- the revival of Neanderthal man -- and makes something astonishingly powerful and fresh out of it? While Path of the Hero is as rip-snorting an adventure as you could hope to find -- a world at war, alliance of many sentient creatures coming together in a last-ditch effort to win their freedom from a slave-based empire, characters you know and care about finding love and meaning in the midst of death and chaos -- it is also a profoundly philosophical work.

In Wolverton's world of Anee (previously visited in Serpent Catch, a prequel which you do not have to read in order to enjoy Path), terraformers from Earth created a vast zoo in which they restored the flora and fauna of the Jurassic, Miocene, and Pliocene on three separate continents. Several sentient and near-sentient species of proto-humans were included, and when the alien Eridani from another star system effectively ended all human starflight, these ancient people and Homo sapiens were forced to make the best of things on the surface of the Earth.

Now, long after, two dangers face Anee. The slavers are making their final bid for world domination, wiping out the last strongholds of freedom; and the descendants of the original paleobiologists are now mindlessly setting out to destroy sentient life because it is endangering the environment. And the best hope of stopping both is a man named Tull, who is half human and half Neanderthal -- or, as they call themselves, Pwi.

For me, what lifts this book out of the first rank of quest-adventures and onto another plane entirely is Wolveton's creation of the Pwi, a people who are as loving and spiritual as Homo sapiens is angry and rational. The Pwi have much greater strength, but also much more compassion, and in the process of this book we learn that the Neanderthals were not defeated in their contest with Homo sapiens. Rather they made a tactical decision, to bide their time until a future that could truly belong to them, the kind of world on which they could happily live. This book is about the struggle to make Anee that world.

So if you want an extraordinary novel of ideas that coexist quite easily with a powerful story of adventure and character, go look among the bland bluish covers of midlist science fiction books, down near the bottom of the shelf of the last sf rack, where the works of Wolverton are alphabetically fated to reside. Pick up Path of the Hero. You won't soon forget this book.

Rainbow Man, M.J. Engh (TOR, May 93, cloth, 253 pp, $17.95)

Just in case Mary Jane Engh's gentle demeanor and pinafore name suggest to you that there will be something meek about her fiction, let me remind you that this is the author of one of the most brutal -- and brilliant -- novels of our generation, Arslan.

Brutal this book, Rainbow Man, is not. But it is still a hard-edged, philosophically complex book, with characters who are caught up in a society that in the search for moral purity has achieved something far more monstrous and dangerous than even they imagine. If there were not so many real-world analogues, one might dismiss Engh's vision as being too dark and peculiar to matter. But we live in a time when extremely Correct people of both the Left and the Right insist on demonizing their opponents, until almost any behavior to oppose them is justified. "Anti-life baby-killers!" screams one side, and the other side screams back, "Fascist misogynists!" All opponents of the Right are quick-fitted with convenient labels like "satanist" and "secular humanist"; the Left bedecks its opponents with off-the-rack epithets like "homophobe," "genocide," and "racist," both sides blithely disregarding the actual arguments of those opponents -- for who needs to take seriously the ideas of satanist homophobic secular genocidal humanist racist anti-life fascist misogynist baby-killers? It is this matter of labels and dehumanization that Engh deals with deftly and unforgettably in Rainbow Man.

Liss, the hero of Rainbow Man, begins with the momentous step of leaving her starship, knowing that she is making an irrevocable break with the past. She always has the option of leaving Bimran, the planet she has adopted as her home -- but she'd like to make a go of it.

Immediately, though, she runs into a problem. Because she had herself sterilized on board ship long before, Bimran's immigration officials immediately categorized her as a man instead of a woman. Their definition is ruthlessly simple: If you are an adult and you can bear children, you are a female; if you are an adult and cannot bear children, you are a man.

However, this means that any sexual relationship Liss might become involved in with a genuine male would be classed as homosexuality; it hardly needs pointing out that this would have dire consequences -- not for Liss, since she's an offworlder, but for whatever citizen of Bimran was so perverted as to love her.

And who is it who does fall in love with Liss? The very man who, as an agent of the powerful authorities, is responsible for tracking her and neutralizing any cultural influence she might have.

What complicates things further is that Bimran's religion has abolished the concept of an afterlife in heaven or hell. On the contrary, Bimran provides heaven or hell in this life. People of extraordinary virtue are given a life of continual pleasure through direct stimulation of the brain, while people of extraordinary sinfulness are kept alive as long as possible to endure unending torment (the echo of Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is, I'm sure, deliberate). Both are on display for the edification of true believers.

Though the book moves deliberately and conversationally, it culminates in violent action and ends with a love story made tragic by faith. I'm not sure whether it is a flaw in the book or merely one of Engh's philosophical points that in the end, what makes it impossible for Liss to live on Bimran is not the religious system itself but the fact that the powers-that-be are themselves violating it. So often those who would attack organized religion in the fiction "cheat" by revealing all religious systems to be hypocritical; but I suspect that Engh's point is that, dreadful as this system might be, it worked as stably as any other until the hypocritical exploitation began. Liss might not have left if they had not changed the rules. Just one of many things that Engh left me pondering when the novel was done.

No one will ever accuse Engh of being a "fun read." But I can also assure you that few writers have used the tropes of science fiction with such powerful results, and while Rainbow Man is not the timeless classic that Arslan is and will remain, one can hardly expect an author to achieve monumental results every time out of the gate. There are many talented writers in our field, but far more rare are those that we can call wise.

The Tower Room, Adèle Geras (Harcourt Brace Javonovich, 1992 [UK 1990], cloth, young adult, 150 pp, $15.95)

I very much approve of updating fairy tales, retelling them with fresh vision. But it's disappointing when, along with the retelling, the author feels it necessary to strip away the magic.

This young adult novel sets the story of Rapunzel in a girls school in England, where the orphaned heroine is only figuratively kept in a tower by a headmistress who is also her guardian. While the novel is slow going at first, the tension does build as the young heroine falls in love, only to find that the headmistress has very strong reasons for making sure the young man does not get up the tower.

This is not a bad book; it is, in fact, rather a good book, though perhaps overburdened with writerliness. But Geras and her publishers made a grave mistake by emphasizing this story's root in the tale of Rapunzel. For with every similarity, every reminder, the reader cannot help but feel how much magic is missing from this version. There is nothing wrong with realism, of course. But it is wise for a writer to remember that when realism is openly compared with fantasy, it almost always comes out looking a little dingy and gray by contrast. In The Tower Room, alas, I found that the story as told was simply not strong enough to survive the comparison that it forced upon us. No doubt many readers won't feel that way; perhaps the natural audience for such an assertively magicless book is the sort of person who thinks children should be forbidden to read fairy tales or believe in Santa Claus.

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