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What's New?
Orson Scott Card Interview
By Howard Mittelmark


Having done the unprecedented once, winning both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards for Best Science Fiction Novel in two consecutive years (for Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead) Orson Scott Card probably hasn't surprised his many readers by breaking new ground again. With The Tales of Alvin Maker, a multi-volume epic set in 19th century America, Card is pioneering a new frontier in fantasy. In a genre glutted with Tolkien-derived, quasi-medieval, sword-and-sorcery novels, Card's series about an alternate New World in which folk magic works is getting a good response.

Although most science fiction writers eventually try their hand at fantasy (even Robert Heinlein wrote Magic, Inc. and Glory Road), few are quite so successful as Card's been at both. "Hatrack River," the novella that forms the first five chapters of Seventh Son, the first novel in the Alvin Maker series, won a World Fantasy Award.

Card maintains that switching genres wasn't a difficult thing for him. He believes that, ultimately, the difference between the two genres is largely on the surface. "Half joking, I was writing to Ben (Bova) about this very subject, and I said, look, fantasy has trees, and science fiction has rivets. That's it, that's all the difference there is, the difference of feel, perception.

"... I could have written Songmaster (a sort of Star Wars galactic empire novel, Ed.) as fantasy and set it in Europe in 1312. It would have worked identically. I wouldn't have had to change anything but the word spaceship."

Further, Card's never written exclusively to a science fiction audience. "I make a deliberate effort in all my work never to be accessible only to science fiction readers. So it's no great strain to me to shift voices outside the genre because I've never really written within it."

Despite his inclusivist stance, Card acknowledges qualities unique to science fiction, where you hold things in abeyance, where you're willing to leave everything tentative so that further information can allow you to revise all that went before. That is simply not present in mainstream readers. He writes to both sets of readers, "I try to write in such a way that there is a superficial story always, that can be received without penetrating any deeper, and enjoyed. At the same time, those that are willing to pass through the different levels of revision, will receive, I think, a much richer story."

This is especially true of the Alvin Maker series. There's something particularly vibrant about the society Card's created in these novels, a colorful weave of history and imagination, anchored by a subtext concerned with morality, community and responsibility. At times, when reading about Card's America, one not only gets the feeling that this is how America might have developed, one suspects that this is how America should have developed. When we finish reading, the world we return to is a little smaller.

Part of the reason for this is simply Card's ability to create real characters in real communities. A Mormon whose faith and its values have profoundly influenced his worldview, Card puts much weight on this aspect of fiction. "The fantasy that I like best is the fantasy that creates fully developed communities with real characters in them, and the science fiction I like best does that, and, in fact, the mainstream fiction I like best does that." Needless to say, Card doesthat, too.

But another reason Card's been able to breathe life into this milieu is the intense research he has done and his identification with America's past. "I love history, I love American history. I feel it is my community, my epic. When I read American history, it's the story of us, as opposed to the story of them. When I read Polish history, 'they' seem interesting to me, but when I read American history, it's what we did."

The result is a setting that comes across as the real thing. In this America, people have "knacks," magical abilities, and Card's based almost all these knacks on the real old magic of the American frontier. Dowsing, the laying on of hands, and hexes were all part of daily life in the 19th century, and people's belief in such things make them as real a presence as they are in Card's alternate America.

When we read about them in Card's novels, there doesn't seem anything more jarring about the local dowser, whose knack is finding water, than there is about the local innkeeper, whose knack is to make people feel at home. It seems right that Reds (Native Americans) derive powers for the "green music" they hear, the constant song of the land.

There's something very special about The Tales of Alvin Maker. Card has found a version of American history that has been waiting to be told, and somehow, he's telling a truer story than the one we've known.

[Published in Inside Books, January 1989. Reprinted with permission.]


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