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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

Metallic Love, by Tanith Lee, Bantam Spectra, 2005, $6.99.
Old Man's War, by John Scalzi, Tor Books, 2005, $23.95.
Bad Magic, by Stephan Zielinski, Tor Books, 2004, $23.95.

BOOKS, FOR me, are like physical places. They occupy the space in my mind that in others are occupied by cities, or great cathedrals, or vast, flat plains that extend in green for as far as the eye can see in all directions. There are some books that are like a Wal-Mart, and some, like a Swiss Chalet—but there are some that are like a secret garden, a hidden place, hallowed by words and the ghost of the first reactions they invoked.

The Silver Metal Lover, possibly my favorite of Tanith Lee's many, many novels, was first published in 1981. I have a copy of the edition I first read, with its faded yellow spine, its odd depiction of a silver man, its densely packed type and yellowed pages. If books are a type of geography, the terrain of this particular novel has always been—since I first emerged from its pages, weeping—a familiar one that never fails to move me.

And any attempt to return there that isn't shuffling the same pages, stopping over the same phrases, is always fraught with both a joyful anticipation and a keen sense of dread, because as a reader, I've seen many landscapes scarred or altered by things that were done there later. But curiosity being what it is, I took the risk and opened the pages of a different novel, remembering the dismantled Silver and his lost young Jane.

If you haven't read The Silver Metal Lover, you should. If you can't, it's not entirely necessary—because Loren, the young orphan raised by religious fanatics in Lee's second novel of a future in which robotics can capture perfection, has. Left to the orphanage by a mother of ill-repute, she has none of the advantages of Lee's previous heroine, and her life among the poor and the disadvantaged has produced a girl without the startling naiveté and insecurity of Jane.

But disadvantaged, street-smart, world-weary Loren and cozened, controlled, and spoiled Jane have several things in common: they're adolescents, they're isolated, and they believe in love. Loren learned about love when she read Jane's book. Jane learned about love when she met Silver, one of the first generation of too-perfect robots. Loren has always dreamed of meeting Silver.

META corporation, for reasons known only to its owner, has decided to try again. Although the first models of the early robots were recalled and destroyed, technology has advanced, and META, realizing its first mistake, has made certain that its second generation won't suffer the same fate. These robots can't be better than humans because they simply can't be compared to them; they're faster, stronger, more gloriously beautiful; they can change shape, literally changing into dragons, among other things. They've been programmed to please.

And of course they need to be beta-tested.

Loren knows this; she sees Silver in a commercial in a house she's cleaning, and she knows who he is. She manages to make her way, blindly, to where he will first be publicly displayed—in a performance that makes clear how very little robots and humans have in common.

But this Silver—this isn't Jane's Silver. He's called Verlis. He has all the same memories that Silver had; he looks the same; META wanted to give him these things because something about Silver was different, and they want to know what it was.

Loren doesn't want to know, at least not at first; there's a bitter disbelief in her first encounter with the robot, a crushing loss of belief in the hope of love, that only the young can know. But there's also the attraction, the overriding desire, the being in love, that only the young can know so entirely, and as she learns the truth about Verlis, she remembers that not all angels are found in heaven.

This is a darker book than Silver Metal Lover, in part because Jane was so painfully vulnerable, so entirely honest, in ways that Loren can't be, and in part because Silver isn't Silver either; reborn and renamed, what he retains and what he rejects are entwined: If Loren is smarter than Jane in the ways of the world, Verlis is less wise, more mercurial, and vastly less comprehensible.

It's hard to say more without giving away important parts of the plot, and this, too, is different; the plot and its twists matter more. But if this book is entirely different, it's certainly not a failure, and reading it doesn't destroy what was there before; it is not a kind book, but it's not without power and even hope.

*     *     *

John Scalzi is familiar in a different way. I've never read his fiction, but on the internet, I always read "The Whatever," a blog of longstanding in which Scalzi airs his somewhat direct opinions, some of which clash with mine, and many of which don't. He has a very down-to-earth sense of humor, an endearing hubris, an adorable daughter, and a way with words that is almost entirely without poetry, and never without both humor and truth.

Reading Old Man's War presents, therefore, far less risk than Tanith Lee's novel to this reader. Reading his fiction takes nothing away from reading his opinion pieces, and if I'm not moved or amused by it, I lose nothing. From a vantage of having nothing to lose, Old Man's War was more than a pleasant surprise.

John Perry is a seventy-five-year-old man, living on the quarantined planet of Earth. Widowed for almost a decade, he's about to fulfill a promise and join the foreign legion. Well, okay, not exactly the foreign legion—ten years ago, both he and his wife signed up for the CDF, the Colonial Defense Forces who protect Earth's fledgling colonies from the depredations of aliens that obviously never watched Star Trek. Perry and his wife aren't exactly warmongers; they signed up for practical reasons: only the CDF has the technology necessary to rejuvenate the elderly. They wanted to be young again, and there was only one way to do it: serve ten years in the CDF.

There's no way home; you sign your papers, and you promise never to return to Earth again. When your time of service is up, you can relocate to one of the colonies, but the planet of your birth is strictly forbidden you. Without his wife, Perry doesn't feel that much attachment to home, and he embarks on the path of the warrior. More or less.

There's much about this book that's familiar; it's a very old-fashioned sf novel, of a sort I haven't seen in a while. There's not a thing in it that I would call cutting-edge, and there's a certain sense of nostalgia that creeps in when reading the in-dialogue expositions that explain the physics and biology of Scalzi's odd universe; it's probably the least adroitly handled part of the book, but still, nostalgia has its value. And being seventy-five years of age, at least in terms of experience, does make a sizable difference in how you react; there's a lot less insecurity, and a lot less angst. (Thank god.)

There's definitely Scalzi humor laced throughout it, which is to be expected; less expected, a genuine sense of regret, loss, and almost veneration for things that are taken for granted in our daily lives: husbands, wives, friendships. In fact, I would say that in a very, very understated way, Scalzi manages to be completely honest, and his wise-cracking Perry is vulnerable in an unapologetic way.

This book made me laugh out loud several times; it made me smile, it made me wince in recognition, and in the end, I left it feeling happier for the experience. I wanted it to be longer. I really did.

*     *     *

Stephan Zielinski is another first novelist, but unlike the first two books, his novel traverses familiar terrain—in this case San Francisco and environs—and makes it strange. Very, very strange. It's hard to call this a contemporary fantasy…although it is. It's hard to call it anything that isn't its own.

First warning: This book is written entirely in present tense, which some people may find jarring. Second warning: There's no exposition. There's no real concession to the engineering mindset. If you have to know how everything works in order to make yourself at home, you're never quite going to feel comfortable in this book. Third warning: In the same way Zielinski makes no nods to the ponderous, he makes no nod to the familiar; if you have to be able to point at a character and describe him in a few succinct words (other than "crazy"), you're not going to find a lot to grab hold of here. He doesn't sit still long enough.

Despite all of that, if you start this book, there's a very good chance you'll be sucked in regardless of whether or not you need the struts. So what do you need to know? There's bad magic in the world, but it doesn't generally affect people who can't see it. Seeing it involves the use of the third eye, which isn't impossible—but what you can see can also see you, and that makes things tricky if you're one of what passes for good guys.

Al Rider is a young man with a penchant for magic, an ability to use it—in the odd ways that Zielinski encapsulates magic—and a great desire to show off. His friends—the bickering, almost antisocial crew who often gather at his mess of a home—are part of an organization, a cell in the Opposition that monitors the bad magic, and tries to contain it. Most of the members of cells like this don't last long, and with good reason.

Whitlomb had the pleasure of teaching Al Rider at Miskatonic U; he's the professorial elder statesman of the group. Maggie-Sue makes the word antisocial look cozy; she's an elementalist who gets dragged into what passes for the real world by a short dead man, also part of the team. Chloe Lee is a girl with a great third-eye and no discernable ability to protect herself from what she sees; Kristof Arbeiter is a cyclist with a penchant for fighting and shooting; Creedon Theibaud might as well be the psycho Invisible Man. Max Sturgeon is the almost-mundane who's theoretically their leader, and doesn't believe half of their babble, because he's mostly sane.

In all, it's like a geek parade with power thrown into the mix, and the mix shines. Particularly when the going gets tough, dead dogs appear, and cultists—of the less friendly but more crazy variety—are threatening to do a lot more damage than a group of argumentative crazy people want to see happen to their dirty, deranged city.

There's an edge to Zielinski's writing, his spare use of words, his often cutting dialogue and his almost repulsive but nonetheless compelling characters that makes one sit up and take notice. His take-no-prisoners approach demands attention; his black insider humor, his panache, and his sheer breakneck speed reward that attention.

Pay it.

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