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August 2001
 
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Books
by James Sallis

Mars Crossing, by Geoffrey A. Landis, Tor, December 2000, $24.95.

Ceres Storm, by David Herter, Tor, November 2000, $22.95.

The Ill-Made Mute, by Cecilia Dart-Thornton, Warner Books, May 2001, $24.95.

Fools Errant, by Matthew Hughes, Warner Books, March 2001, $6.99.

Ordinary Horror, by David Searcy, Viking, February 2001, $24.95.

The Hell Screens, by Alvin Lu, Four Walls Eight Windows, December 2000, $22.00.

The world of fantastic fiction exists as a dozen or so city-states scattered about the landscape. Independent, isolate, each largely boasting its own language and customs, they're sometimes at war, other times at querulous peace, barbarians forever at one border, forces of a greater civilization at another.

A truism to say that discussion is limited by the language we have available to us (even if in doing so we are paraphrasing Wittgenstein), but one of the difficulties resides in vocabulary. However good we are at coloring, if we don't have lines, we can't stay inside them. In a genre encompassing heroic fantasy, extrapolative futuristic fiction, space opera, mimetic stories with just a touch of strange, ghost tales, horror, magic realism, and freewheeling whimsy, baby and bathwater may start looking much the same. As Augustine said of time: I know well enough what it is, provided nobody asks me.

I say tomato, you say speculative fiction.

Whatever it is we're talking about, we know where to find it in the bookstores. It's right over there, by the children's section and self-help books. The grownups are eating at the big table.

Our old friend Karl Marx, as he blew dust off long-unread volumes at the British Library and went down on knees to play horse for his daughter, never imagined he might be writing about publishing, but he was right: capitalism leads inevitably to centralization and monopoly. No one contests that popular literature is market-driven. In the past, however, publishers at least claimed that best sellers allowed them leeway to bring out works of merit they realized would have a limited audience, an argument that seems now to have gone the way of passenger pigeons and Edsels.

Do those market forces leading to centralization and monopoly also press the work itself towards an essential sameness, seeking always the familiar, the brand name, comforting tastes—the safe?

What, in a world of ever-fewer publishers, a world in which many books go out of print within months, in which series and massive trilogies seem the norm, a world in which three avatars of Star Trek occupy the TV screen like so many Lucille Ball vehicles, has become of science fiction, of fantastic literature as a whole?

The idea here is simple enough: read through a representative sample of first novels to see what the crop might have to tell us about the current state of the art. What the genre has come to, where it might be going. First novels notoriously fail to get noticed, shunted onto side tracks to wait for engines that never arrive. Yet what, in a genre so given (as it claims) to innovation, invention, and newness, could be more important than new writers, fresh voices, novel visions?

One editor of a major sf line, queried for this column, responded: We have no first novels coming up which, I guess, says something about the state of things. Meanwhile a small army of self-publishing authors flew over, dropping e-mails with a penchant for terms like gut-wrenching, in your face, heart-pounding. Soon I sat surrounded by novels in which Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft take to the road to fight evil; novels which derive not from other books but from TV shows like Babylon 5; revisionist versions of Frankenstein; gaily bedight epics of interstellar war or mock-Medieval intrigue. Had I, like Dante, come to myself in a dark wood where the way was lost? The Dutchman and I sat long over the campfire cradling bowls of warm mead in cupped hands, talking.

On the desk before me now: the first novel of a man well known in the science fiction community, having won several awards for short stories; a far-future tale immensely promising yet so difficult and marginally commercial that its editor has to be congratulated; the initial volume of a trilogy from a remarkably accomplished Australian fantasist; a wonderful, off-the-wall comic fantasy; a novel of suburban hell reminiscent of Matheson and Beaumont; an extraordinary novel of ghosts and liminal existence by a young Chinese-American.

*     *     *

Geoffrey A. Landis, NASA scientist and recipient of Nebula and Hugo awards for stories like "A Walk in the Sun" and "Ripples in the Dirac Sea," now debuts with his first novel, Mars Crossing. What he's given us is an edge-of-the-seat adventure story on the order of Beryl Bainbridge's The Birthday Boys" or Into Thin Air, the account of 1996's Mount Everest disaster. A hastily mounted third expedition to Mars—two previous missions have lost all hands—goes almost immediately awry. One crew member is dead, the fuel supply built up over the years by the Dulcinea is lost, rendering the Don Quijote useless, and the expeditioners's only chance is a desperate one: to strike out for the Martian North Pole, where, just possibly, the first expedition's ship may prove still fueled and flightworthy.

There's a wonderful demythologization at work here. The first Mars expedition succumbs to athlete's foot, which, lacking the natural bacteria to keep it in check, grows wildly in clothes, air filters, circuit boards. Or this: "Space exploration conjures up in the imagination an image of endless horizons, infinite vistas of space. The reality, however, is quite different. . . . The cabin of the Don Quijote could best be described as a prison cell, but with less of a view." Landis never lets us forget that technology is no less fragile than the human beings who shrug it on like a protective shell.

He tells his story cleanly, stacking up charged scenes and ever mounting challenges in chapters for the most part brief, with quick cuts from character to character and scene to scene. This is diverting at first, nervous-making, but with time the reader acclimates. The same is true of sometimes ponderous forebodings and clumsy narrative strategies. (At one point the captain thinks to himself: "As commander, the other five crewmembers depended on him to get the mission done safely and bring them back home. He had better get working." A sentence in shoes too big—as unwieldy as it is agrammatical.)

While certainly interesting enough, Landis's characters never quite come alive or register quite true. His approach is reductive, so that too often they're rendered as little more than their quirks: this one out for revenge, this one living a lie, this one . . . I found myself longing to know what they were eating. And to hear from one of them just how badly those suits stank.

Ceres Storm by David Herter is a different beast. Herter goes for high stakes, hauling the pole way up before he jumps, setting himself the all but impossible goal of depicting a futuristic, alien society wholly from within. No discursive passages, no editorialization: you move through the story, perceive the events of the story, as a participant. The kind of thing Cordwainer Smith, Jack Vance, and Gene Wolfe do so well and few others attempt.

Young Daric, apparently one of several clones of Darius who long ago ruled a vast interstellar empire, has grown up in the hinterlands of Mars. Sent on a mysterious chore to a city overseen by the KayTee Clan, Daric is given a drink that engenders in him a drive to save Mars from the storms that (perhaps spawned by Darius himself) ravaged much of the inner solar system. Short upon this revelation follow voyages to Earth, to an inhabited asteriod, to Triton and to Pluto's moon Charon as Daric, bewildered, given equivocal guidance by a small legion of artificial intelligences and twilight beings, pursues his destiny.

The novel makes few concessions to the reader, and initially proves difficult going. Orientation comes slowly; even at book's end many mysteries remain. What at first seems magic is technology, we understand that, but what are weeforms? century roses? shades? And who or what are those ghostly Eidolons?

One supposes that future volumes may resolve much of this. Still, while wondering, one would hate to lose that strangeness, that magic—yes, that wonder.

*     *     *

Quite early on in The Ill-Made Mute we come across the line "Between the mortar of daily drudgery and the pestle of pain, life went grinding on," appropriate words for a fantasy novel in which the physical world is almost unbearably real. This is a generously conceived, gorgeously written novel, recalling to mind the wonder we encountered upon first reading books such as Tolkien's or Mervyn Peake's, boasting a depth and acuity of texture seldom encountered. Think of all those films of medieval life, how poorly they represent quotidian life, the smells, the damp of those castles, the meat gone rotten and circled by flies but still eaten. Cecilia Dart-Thornton skirts none of that. Even its vocabulary signals the novel's earnest; on a single page I encountered demesnes, panniers, flavescent, niveous.

The pace of the novel, too, is extraordinary, with reversals, surprises, new quests and new estimations of central characters tumbling over one another like madcap acrobats on virtually every page. People fall from turrets, great windships heave in over the tops of trees, pirates strike, treasures come to light, alliances are formed and broken, evil, changeling creatures roam the world outside, nothing is ever as it seems.

The Ill-Made Mute, we're told, is the opening volume of a trilogy, something I'd ordinarily deprecate. But the Celtic, twilight, utterly other world created here is so rich and strange, it has to go on. And it well might go on to become—the potential is manifest—one of the great fantasies.

Fools Errant is of another stripe, a novel that in many ways returns to fantasy's origins. Again, as in Ceres Storm, we find a young man sent out into a largely unknown world on a mysterious errand. And as in The Ill-Made Mute, we encounter a multitude of wonders. The book's a marvelous picaresque, bringing to mind in its political aspects Swift, in its voice Twain, in its satirical aspect Stanislaw Lem's Ion Tichy tales, and perhaps most of all, in its gentle humor and humanity, Fritz Leiber.

"On the whole, I would prefer ignorance."

"I will inform the world of your preference," said Gaskarth, "but I doubt it will lead to any significant improvements in your lot."

Matthew Hughes dips his ladle deep into the age-old stuff of folk- and tall tales and brings up a surprising long drink of cool, tasty water. Again and again, as with Westlake and De Vries, I laughed aloud while reading. This is a fine, funny novel, a faultless and amazing debut.

*     *     *

Just as we look to trailers for a clue to the nature of new movies, so do we peruse blurbs for estimations of books we're about to crack. David Searcy's first novel Ordinary Horror boasts a single blurb, beautifully centered on the back of its jacket. The blurb is from Russell Hoban, a fantasist little known, I suspect, among general readers, though dear to the hearts of many. Check out Pilgermann, for instance.

Searcy's novel comes not from a niche publisher like Tor or Warner but wrapped in a mantle of literary cachet from Viking. He's staked out the claim left behind by the great John Collier. American life is hardly what it seems; there's forever something walking beside the day besides the day. Seventy-year-old widower Frank Delabano defends the garden of his tract home with mail-ordered bromeliads. And they work. Magnificently. But then neighborhood pets begin to come up missing, unidentifiable animals are found as road kill, hordes of cicadas and grackles invade his yard. And a most peculiar smell starts up in the 'hood.

There's not a single misstep in this elegant, small book. Fine evocations of suburbia, of the small rips and tears behind which another world waits to enter our own, of the long frontier stretching between outer and inner. Does all this actually occur, or is it only Frank's loneliness and loss remaking the world in its image? Writers like Matheson and Beaumont pioneered this frontier. And the beat goes on.

Not many novels of the fantastic carry endorsements from avant-garde writers like Carole Maso, but then, with Alvin Lu's The Hell Screens, we're talking Four Walls Eight Windows, a publisher who started out serving up fine contemporary European literature no one else cared about and who has in recent years turned to giving us some of the finest alternative work available. Four Walls Eight Windows seems to have taken a blood oath to stand aside, apart and—unlike many others—not to be ignored. So here we get just what we'd expect: the unexpected.

Horror collects in the crawlspaces between categories considered mutually exclusive: the living and dead, the human and animal, dreams and reality. And that's the very venue in which The Hell Screens takes place, as Chinese-American Cheng-Ming prowls the streets, alleyways, and shadowy back halls of Taipei searching for a rapist-killer who has become something of a symbol of civilization and finding a netherworld of spirits impersonating and usurping the living. Lost somewhere between past and present, borders of self fallen, perception and imagination no longer distinguishable, his very sight co-opted, Cheng-Ming moves uneasily between realms. This is an ambitious, uneven, sometimes brilliant novel that goes about its business with admirable singlemindedness.

Six novels of varying countenance and stride, then, boding well for the continued vitality of fantastic fiction and reminding us that our selves are the locks into which the many keys of art fit, to open the sky.

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