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"Writings of Passage"
Books Reviewed:
Michael Swanwick.  Stations in the Tide.  New York: William Morrow and Company, 1991.  207 pp.  $18.95.

Frederik Pohl.  The Gateway Trip: Tales and Vignettes of the Heechee.  New York: Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 1990.  241 pp.  $22.95.

Anne McCaffrey.  Pegasus in Flight.  New York: Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 1990.  290 pp.  $19.95.

Allan Steele.  Clarke County, Space.  Paperback.  New York: Ace Books, 1990.  231 pp.  $4.50.

 

The first major science fiction novel of 1991 has arrived: Michael Swanwick's Stations in the Tide (William Morrow & Co.: $18.95; 207 pp.). Starfaring humans have colonized an earthlike alien world which is periodically submerged by massive flooding. At these times, indigenous creatures have evolved the ability to quickly transform from terrestrial to aquatic forms, but the settlers must move to higher ground. During an evacuation, an official from Technology Transfer—called simply "the bureaucrat"—arrives to investigate a charismatic magician who seems to be trafficking in forbidden technology.

On this bare framework, Swanwick weaves a rich tapestry. Wealthy people create robotic duplicates of themselves called "Surrogates" who perform their routine business and are then destroyed. A beautiful witch with glowing tattoos casts her spells and hints that the mysterious extinct people who originally inhabited this world are still alive, hiding deep in the forests.  Bureaucrats prowl through the bewildering corridors of a massive structure in space called the Puzzle Palace, where they may encounter and talk to a Surrogate whose sole purpose is to spread gossip.

To me, one thread in the tapestry stands out: like any bureaucrat, Swanwick's hero carries a briefcase. However, his "briefcase" happens to be an intelligent robot who can carry on a conversation, instantly construct any needed piece of machinery, and, if lost, sprout gangly legs and walk back to its owner. At the end of the novel, the bureaucrat decides to set the briefcase free, so that it can move to the bottom of the ocean and construct numerous duplicates of itself for company. Thus, the bureaucrat fathers a civilization of briefcases.

*   *   *   *   *

Of course, this is one of many things in the novel that will send literary critics rushing to their word processors; and there's nothing wrong with an author layering his story with Deeper Meanings for those who want to look for them. But Swanwick needs to be more accommodating to readers who just want to read a good story. To be blunt, even attentive readers will often be baffled by this novel, unable to figure out exactly what is going on.  Their confusion is unnecessary: none of Swanwick's literary games would be spoiled if he included more passages of lucid explanation. And if Swanwick does not provide more help to readers stumbling through his beautiful but foggy prose, this immensely talented writer will never win the wider audience that he deserves.

Frederik Pohl's 1976 novel Gateway presented a fascinating future world: early space explorers discover a hollowed-out asteroid filled with spaceships built by vanished aliens called the Heechee.  The spaceships still work, but no one can predict exactly which far corner of the galaxy they will travel to.  So anxious explorers must enter the spaceships and speed to unknown destinations, hoping to find more information about the Heechee—and to stay alive in the process.

In three sequels to Gateway, Pohl's mysteries were supplanted by prosaic explanations, his attentions shifted to other concerns, and his hero became an insufferable bore. Unable to move his saga forward, Pohl has decided to go back and tell the whole story over again in The Gateway Trip: Tales and Vignettes of the Heechee (Del Rey/Ballantine: $22.95; 241 pp.).

As an omniscient narrator, Pohl summarizes the major events in previous novels, without naming their characters, and adds numerous anecdotes involving others who had memorable encounters with Heechee spaceships and technology. None of this is dull; indeed, background information is often the most interesting part of science fiction. But most of the book does lack the immediacy of true fiction, with well-developed characters and locales, and the suspicion emerges that Pohl is simply recycling leftover materials that never found their way into other Heechee novels.

Still, there is one genuine story in this book, and it's definitely worth reading. "The Merchants of Venus" takes place before the beginning of Gateway, when the asteroid had not yet been discovered, and the focus of inquiry was the tunnels built by the Heechee on the planet Venus. A prospector who desperately needs cash for a life-saving operation teams up with a duplicitous millionaire and his naļve mistress to look for unexplored tunnels that might contain valuable Heechee artifacts. Here, Pohl manages to recapture the sense of suspense and excitement that made Gateway so memorable; and one wishes there were other stories like it in this book.

Since her recent Dragon novels have revealed a dragging imagination indeed, Anne McCaffrey has wisely launched a new series of novels featuring "Talents," people with immense psychic powers, who assist in the exploration and conquest of space. By far the best of these is Pegasus in Flight (Del Rey/Ballantine: $19.95; 290 pp.).

The woman in charge of Earth's burgeoning team of Talents is ordered to recruit over a hundred Kinetics—people who can move objects by sheer thought—to help construct a large space platform. At the same time, she must develop and train two new Talents: a boy with an amazing ability to draw power from electricity to teleport himself and other objects, and a girl with an uncanny aptitude for learning languages and communicating. Together, these Talents confront the challenge of breaking up an unsavory kidnapping ring.

The most interesting scenes in this novel take place in the Linears—gigantic buildings that house the millions of people inhabiting the expanded megapolis of "Jerhattan" (Jersey-to-Manhattan, one supposes). The wretched existence of the many poor people struggling to eke out a living in these labyrinthine structures is vividly described, and McCaffrey might have lingered longer in this unique environment.

McCaffrey's overall strength—or weakness—as a writer is that she imbues the content of science fiction with the atmosphere of fantasy.  That is, as her Talents perform more and more astounding feats, their powers seem like nothing more than a type of magic; and the convuluted struggles between the chief Talent and the tyrannical woman in charge of building the space platform recall fairy tales about virtuous heroines battling witches and evil stepmothers. This is not the mood one expects in science fiction; but, one might argue, it is a genre that should be open to the unexpected.

Readers who want their science fiction more down to Earth—so to speak—might venture into the netherworld of science fiction paperbacks, where they will discover an occasional gem like Allan Steele's Clarke County, Space (Ace Books: $4.50; 231 pp.). The year is 2049, and residents of the first space habitat, Clarke County, are growing restive under the control of Earth bureaucracies. Complicating matters: the abused mistress of a Mafia chieftain has fled to the habitat; a determined assassin has arrived to find and kill her; and a zealot who believes his cult's leader is the reincarnated Elvis Presley—who died for your sins—has obtained control of an orbiting nuclear warhead, which he plans to use to destroy the space habitat.

Steele is often compared to Robert A. Heinlein, and they share one trait: the ability to combine gruff, no-nonsense adventure with traces of religious mysticism. Here, the sheriff tracking down the assassin is an American Indian who periodically enters a trance to talk to the trickster god, Coyote; the computer in charge of the habitat mysteriously develops self-awareness and starts to assist the nascent rebellion; the assassin likes to imagine himself a new Golem, cold and implacable; and for comic relief, there are descriptions of the beliefs and rituals of the Church of the Living Elvis. (Though it rather ruins the fun to make the group's leader a cynical con man; a more interesting character would be a new Elvis who really believes in his own divinity.)

The problem with the comparison to Heinlein is that Steele seems to believe in it himself; thus, his previous novel opened with a quotation from Heinlein's "Delilah and the Space Rigger," and this novel's device of a self-aware computer helping in a space colony's revolt against Earth is a direct steal from The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.  Observing this ambition, I must respond: I've read Heinlein all my life, and sorry, Allan, but you're no Robert A. Heinlein.

To be specific: Heinlein always had the amazing ability to convincingly evoke an alien environment with a few scattered details and asides, but Steele simply doesn't have the knack.  As a result, the space habitat featured in the opening chapters of The Cat Who Walked through Walls remains much more vivid than Clarke County. And while Heinlein's quirky libertarianism inspired a lot of sorry rhetoric in his later novels, that philosophy did provide an ideal framework for adventures involving confident, self-reliant protagonists who achieve success against all odds. Steele is less sure in his beliefs, and his characters tend to be well-meaning bumblers, full of human frailties. This stance may be more Politically Correct, but it does mean that Steele is forced to rely on awkward coincidences and deux ex machinas to achieve his happy endings.

If not being as good as Robert A. Heinlein is a crime, then almost all science fiction writers are guilty; and the point of this comparison is not to criticize Steele, but to point out that he needs to work more on developing his own voice and less on evoking Heinlein's voice. We already have a Robert A. Heinlein; what science fiction needs today is an Allan Steele.

All these novels depict humanity triumphantly exploring and inhabiting space; but they also provide the people doing so with extraordinary assistance in the forms of advanced artificial intelligences, aliens and their technology, powerful psychic Talents, and helpful intervention from the future. Perhaps writers, observing the continuing travails of America's space program, have concluded that we will never succeed in conquering space without a deux ex machina or two—a dispiriting thought from a traditionally optimistic genre.


Originally written for The Los Angeles Times in 1991, but unpublished until posted here in 2007.

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