Sime~Gen Inc. Presents

Recommended Books

February, 1995

"Real Science Fiction/Fantasy"


The World Wreckers by Marion Zimmer Bradley (DAW Science Fiction, 1994). Reprint from an oft-reprinted 1971 title.

Siduri's Net, The Cloudships of Orion by P. K. McAllister (Roc Science Fiction, Nov. 1994).

Tripoint by C. J. Cherryh (Warner Books, hc, 1994).

Fossil by Hal Clement (DAW Science Fiction, Nov. 1993).

Legend of the Duelist by Rutledge Etheridge (ACE Science Fiction, July 1993). The First Duelist by Rutledge Etheridge (ACE Science Fiction, June 1994).

Hero by Daniel R. Kerns (ACE Science Fiction, October 1993) and Border Dispute by Daniel R. Kerns (ACE April 1994).

The Vampire Legacy: Bitter Blood by Karen E. Taylor (Zebra Horror). (Sequel to Blood Secrets)

In the January issue, I discussed how it seems the fiction delivery system is broken — and how it is reassembling itself on the astral plane and will soon remanifest in a new form.

In this on-line age where cyberspace has become the closest analogue to the astral plane, we find that sf/f bulletin boards, sigs, and on-line live conferences with authors and even TV producers are affecting what is delivered by the system and what is not. Fan objections to rumors about a movie script ended up causing last minute rewrites. Fans of Highlander and Forever Knight — and many other shows besides Trek — are getting advance information on cast changes and the behind-the-scenes reasons for them and register their complaints directly with the producers. Fans trade information on episodes lost in the chaos of syndication — aired in some cities, not in others.

This on-line phenomenon is beginning to provide a direct feedback loop from the consumer to the producer of the fiction vectored by the fiction delivery system. But as yet, fewer than thirty percent of us have access to Internet either directly or via one of the ramps or gateways provided for a monthly fee by the online services. This is too small a number to be significant to television — or even a book publisher, unless computer buffs are your core audience.

In sf/f a very large segment of the consumership is indeed computer literate and on-line, so this field is leading the way in reconstructing the fiction delivery system.

On-line communication is so fast and furious it's hard to discern an underlying pattern, especially if you are in the middle of it. Going on-line is like moving into a house when the carpenters have barely got the frame up and the plumbers and electricians haven't even come to look the job over yet.

The people who are living their lives on-line, especially in the sf/f sigs, don't see themselves as plumbers and electricians laying the service conduits for a home to shelter and nourish their grandchildren with good fiction. But I think that's what's happening. Cyberspace is the closest manifestation in the material world to the astral plane. On the astral, you think of a place and you're there. In Cyberspace, you invoke a macro and you're there. You communicate in disembodied form. And there is a set ritual for backing out and signing off.

When I was growing up in the fifties, discarnate communication was vectored by the sf/f magazines, in the professionally published magazine letter columns and editorials, and in the fanzines. At that time, the endless debate revolved around the definition of sf. The results of that debate have shaped the sf/f field for the last thirty years.

This most recent recession has completely broken the grip that the fifties definition of the field has had on publishing. But as yet, no new definition has emerged. Editors no longer know how to pick books that will sell well. Publishers no longer know which books to promote. Nobody understands what's happening in publishing — except that the general consensus is that the midlist is dead.

I discussed the death of the midlist several columns ago and noted that most of the books I review here are typical midlist books. When I started this column two years ago, I was awash in books suitable for review here. Today, I am hard pressed to find anything at all like them on the market.

So I must work out my own new definition for our field. I began this column two years ago with a series of articles defining the new genre I see emerging, calling it Intimate Adventure. I/A turns up across all genres, in mysteries, westerns, romances, action, in every category. So when I discuss a new definition of sf/f, I'm not talking specifically about Intimate Adventure, although I include it within sf/f.

In the fifties, the conclusion of the debate was summed up in two statements: "All fiction is fantasy!" and "If I like it, it's sf." These are useful statements for artists, but not for editors. Editors decided that if it had spaceships and/or aliens from outer space, it was sf. If it had blatant supernatural elements, it was fantasy.

Then came Marion Zimmer Bradley with the Darkover novels. This was a group of novels (not a series!) with a science fiction premise, so they had to be published as sf. But the stories were about ESP, so it was fantasy. Drove the purists crazy.

The book I've highlighted this month, The World Wreckers, is a reprint of the book that drove me to make personal contact with the woman I had worshipped from afar for at least a decade. And that contact changed my life.

I recommend this book with a caveat. It's got the most explicit sex scene between a human and a nonhuman published to that date (1971) in the professional press. MZB had developed the gender-shifting nonhumans for her Darkover series long before Ursula LeGuin won the Hugo and the Nebula for Left Hand of Darkness which includes a gender-shifting human race. The Darkover background also included all the necessary hints for close readers to conclude that MZB's gender-shifters really are genetically related to humans, too, but in another way.

In Left Hand of Darkness, the dramatically necessary sex scene is shied away from by the author. MZB dealt with that matter in exquisite detail in The World Wreckers. And it's tasteful and elegant, too. Left Hand of Darkness is sociological sf. World Wreckers is about inducing ecological disaster for economic reasons. Listen up folks. MZB wrote about inter-species sex relations and ecology in 1971. Think about that very carefully in the context of defining this field we all love.

World Wreckers is "hard sf" in that it's about ecology, but it has no long, detailed instructions on how to wreck an ecology. The author has created an imaginary ecology on this faraway world and describes the actions of the hired thugs who set forest fires and trap animals and so forth until the fabric of renewal is torn almost beyond repair. But the author never lectures, never attempts to teach us how to do it. It is assumed any reader interested in the subject knows perfectly well how and why it works.

In real "hard sf" the author inserts long, abstract, instructional segments on the science behind the story and gives little or no characterization with minimal character motivation and never any hint of interpersonal relationships between characters. Characters may have sex, even once a chapter, but they never make love. The plot is not carried forward by pillow talk but by science lecture.

Contrary to what you might think, these books can be a lot of fun to read if the science under discussion is one you love. The author's job is to demonstrate that he/she knows as much or more about the real-world science than you do, and then to launch you into a rapturous flight of imagination beyond the bounds of the possible. To set you dreaming in the place on the astral where Einstein and Dirac got their marvelous inspirations.

A prime example of this hard-sf genre is Siduri's Net by P. K. McAllister. But like MZB's Darkover, which mixes real sf with fantasy, Siduri's Net mixes hard-sf with sociological sf.

The hard sf is about using "solar sail" type devices to collect useful atoms from the effluent of stars and nebulae. The ships that do this are manned by humans from various backgrounds, owner-operators who have their families with children aboard — a new kind of gypsy. McAllister's main character is a Romany gypsy whose family is aboard. She does both the sociology of projecting the Romany tribal cohesion into the space age and the hard science of particle-mining with equal, erudite precision. I'd have had more fun reading this if there had been a few C. J. Cherryh-type aliens around.

Tripoint, the C. J. Cherryh title now available in hardcover does not, alas, give us any of her fabulously interesting aliens and their strange societies. This one is in the same universe as Downbelow Station but focuses on human families torn by the time-dilation effects of jumping around space. It gives us the viewpoint of a child who was the product of a rape. The mother chose not to abort the child but to have and raise him as a tool of revenge. There are no vast political ramifications to the galaxy as a whole at stake here. This one is about the fate of two families traveling space.

It wouldn't be sf at all if the time-dilation effects didn't complicate these people's lives. Tripoint is not even sociological sf (which Cherryh does superlatively). It is up close and personal, the story of real human beings coping with the direct results of technology on their personal lives.

Back to the definitions of sf that have held this field in thrall since the fifties. Robert Heinlein's type of sf follows one of the definitions that came out of that early debate — sf is any story about the effect of technology on people. That was the definition Gene Roddenberry used to generate Star Trek. Cherryh has produced a perfect example of it in Tripoint.

Hard sf in the vein of the great masters who shaped our field is still being published. One of the greatest of them all is Hal Clement who has written a novel in the universe designed by Isaac Asimov as a sharable universe.

Fossil is pure Clement playing his favorite game — figure out how the apparently impossible might be true. And he plays the game especially well in this tribute to Asimov. As many of you may know, Asimov also popularized the sf-mystery, and Clement has chosen here to present us with a mystery that would have tickled Isaac's sense of humor.

Literary scholars will no doubt write many contrast/compare papers on MZB and Clement using Wreckers and Fossil as texts. MZB writes about an impossible ecology on a cold and forbidding world and gives us the most poignant love story culminating in the hottest sf sex scene in print — up to 1971. Clement, in 1993, answers with a book set on a world so cold ammonia is frozen in the ice — lots of it. They are looking for fossil records by drilling holes in a glacier. To go down into the hole where the pressure is impossible to imagine, the two human scientists (husband and wife, no less) spend three-quarters of the book in pressure suits they can never take off because their breathing has been converted so they breathe a pressure liquid.

This is good, solid science, but even at the end we are robbed of the sex scene. However, artistically, this is correct. Clement has "symbolically" as the academics say, depicted the essence of 50's sf which was called "neck-up storytelling". Today's "hard sf" is derived from this kind of totally cerebral storytelling that excludes sociology (considered a soft science) and most especially relationships. Fossil is an important book for those re-engineering the fiction delivery system to read.

Defining another edge of sf/f we have something called "military sf." The pair of books by Rudledge Etheridge are an interesting example of this type of sf. But here again, we get a mixture and overlap of sub-types of sf — Etheridge has taken a fragment from E. E. Smith (the perfector of space opera) with his broad historical span beneath his plot, and used the Great Man theory of history to support a sociological thesis that has a Libertarian flavor of elitism.

All of this wraps neatly around a group of characters who actually relate to each other. There is the elder mentor and the young man who is his student. There are crosscurrents of love affairs. There is trust and betrayal. All sorts of ordinary human doings result in some extraordinary changes in the course of human history — most especially the colonization of the stars. Earth's masses, who are against colonization as an expensive waste, are seen as the villains of the piece.

Very old-fashioned socio-politics wrapped in 90's guise still makes for a good read if you want an intellectual challenge.

Now we come to confession time. I haven't been completely straight with you in previous columns. Both the Kerns titles, Hero and Border Dispute, were given brief descriptions in the Honorable Mention sections of previous columns. What I did not tell you is that I wrote them and therefore couldn't review them. These two books represent my own attempt at military sf in the more traditional action/adventure sub-category of sf. Both books revolve around a "buddy relationship" that develops between a human and an alien during combat against an outside force that threatens both their homes.

I have personal, moral objections to the assumption that winning a war solves a problem, so I played the Hal Clement "game" and found a philosophically legitimate reason to have a rousing good time killing people. I developed these two species of aliens at considerable depth, then set a human colonized planet in the midst of it all, and let them fight it out. The result was sold as military sf, the publisher specifically requesting that I not reveal that I had written these books — because they are most definitely not Lichtenberg titles.

It seems now there will be no more Kerns titles since both military sf and the rest of the midlist is utterly dead. No one is buying this type of book anymore.

So what's next?

The 1994 World Science Fiction Convention Program book carries an ad announcing a new imprint from Harper Paperbacks called HarperPrism (run together as one word with a capitol letter in the middle). It's subtitled "The best in speculative fiction and nonfiction."

Speculative sf includes a type of sf I haven't mentioned here — the serious attempt to predict the future. Such books are generally set in the near future and attempt to extrapolate where trends now visible will lead us.

Back in the fifties, one of the definitions of sf went like this: To be sf, a story has to say "What if . . .?" or "If only . . ." or "If this goes on . . ." The best sf does all three simultaneously. Speculative SF speculates on what will happen if this goes on.

The fifties novels about atomic war and the genetic mutations of the aftermath are examples of "If this goes on." More recently, novels about what would happen if a giant meteor crashed into the earth — or how we might fail to prevent the strike because our space program has been gutted for economic reasons — have done the same.

All the definitions touched on above still do not define the ever-changing field of sf/f, and I've left out many subcategories of note. The advent of adult fantasy mostly in the seventies changed the market. The advent of TV tie-ins — mostly spearheaded by the success of the ST novelizations and then original novels — changed everything yet again. Today the only sure sellers Manhattan publishers can depend on are TV tie-ins.

Personally, I explain the utter confusion about a definition of sf (both in the fifties and now) with a single hypothesis. What if the attempts to define sf as a genre have failed because sf is not a genre?

Gene Roddenberry billed Star Trek as "Wagon Train to the Stars." (Wagon Train was a popular Western genre TV show at the time he was trying to sell Star Trek — and at that time there was no adult sf on TV and there never had been.) And that's exactly what Star Trek was — a western in space.

My twenty-seven-year-old daughter has told me four or five times in the last two weeks how very, very, very much she absolutely loves and adores the three Sharon Green books I reviewed in the November '94 column, Silver Princess, Golden Knight and The Hidden Realms and Dark Mirror, Dark Dreams, which are fantasies because they are set in a "magic is real" universe.

But they are sf because they involve alternate universe time-travel. Except that they are really romance because they're about torrid love affairs. But actually they're not romance because the two couples involved are settled and committed to an ongoing, established relationship. Well, they are adventure because the principals don't get to stay home. They're political novels because they're about the governing of kingdoms.

Well, no, actually, they're feminist novels because they've got strong female characters who won't let themselves be pushed around. On the other hand, the men don't take all that well to being pushed around, either. (Sigh.) Sharon Green writes a rip-roaring good Intimate Adventure making it clear that the problem isn't solved by killing the people who are trying to kill the protagonists. Killing people tends to make things worse, not better.

Though the swordwork and combat descriptions are absolutely authentic, these aren't military fantasy. The magick is absolutely correct from theory to application, but it's not occult fantasy.

So what is it? I claim Sharon Green and Marion Zimmer Bradley are writing real sf. Not sf/f, but just plain sf which covers all these sub-divisions.

I claim that sf is not a genre at all, which is why nobody, editor or writer or reviewer or critic, has yet come up with anything even vaguely resembling an operational definition. No solid definition of "real sf" has ever been formulated because people have been regarding sf as a subset of Literature when in fact sf is the set that contains all sets, including Literature.

Sf is not an category. It's not a genre. It doesn't have rules that require certain elements and exclude others as all the other genres have.

Sf includes within it all other genres and every other sort of literature from the earliest shamanistic traditional storytellings to the modern Hollywood fantasy of the old west. Aliens from outer space and UFOs and ESP and spaceships that do impossible things like go to the moon, and vampires and werewolves and witches and ramscoops and nuclear war belong in sf not because those are the elements that make a story sf but because those elements are specifically excluded from the genre-formulas of subdivisions of sf such as the mainstream best seller genre.

Real sf is your on-ramp to the astral superhighway.

Honorable Mention this month goes to Bitter Blood by Karen E. Taylor. I recommended the first in this series some months ago. The vampire here is a woman, Dierdre Griffin, and in this novel she faces what she ran from in the first novel — having to convert her human lover, Detective Mitch Greer, to vampirism to save his life. It's billed as "horror" but the true nature of this beast is left as an exercise for the student.

Books for review in this column should be sent to Jacqueline Lichtenberg, POB 290, Monsey, N.Y. 10952.



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