Sime~Gen Inc. Presents
"The Stranger Among Us "
Once A Hero by Michael A. Stackpole (Bantam Spectra, 1994).
The Unknown Soldier by Mickey Zucker Reichert (DAW, 1994).
A Whisper of Time by Paula E. Downing (Del Rey SF, 1994).
Changing Fate by Elisabeth Waters (DAW, 1994).
These four books are about a theme which is the backbone of the science fiction field: being a stranger in a strange land. I believe this is because the readers and writers who are all readers, too feel themselves to be different, in one way or another, from those around them.
"Different Is Dead" is one of the key maxims of our society, and one which is most especially difficult for science fiction/fantasy fans to learn. Most of us have an affinity for the "different" or "the unknown" that makes it difficult to understand why mainstream society reacts with aversion to the aberrant or eccentric.
Conformism, socialization and "adjustment" are the goals of the society. People who dress differently, worship differently or mate differently are a threat to the bodypolitic. Membership in a society confers a sense of safety from the threat of having to deal with outsiders.
In the study of astrology, we learn how each and every one of us has the same inventory of elements in our personality circuits but emphasis, availability and manifestation vary markedly, not just by the natal chart itself but by the pastlife experiences of the soul energizing that chart. And so every last one of us is "different" and "strange" to all others.
That is one reason the study of astrology is important in the forging of a magician. It alters your attitude not only toward yourself but toward others, most especially those who are "different" who are Strangers Among Us.
The four books listed above explore, in different settings and using different artistic approaches, what it would be like to be really different. Not chipontheshoulder nonconformist different, but fundamentally displaced.
Once A Hero is about being displaced in time. It is a fantasy quest novel and the background for the story is a series of wars between the races of a fantasy world. Elves and the Reithrese are remnants of the first races created by the gods; humans and others are younger races. And there is the fairly standard set of injustices that spark the wars.
This nice, standard, familiar nondifferent background lulls the reader into acceptance with the subliminal feeling of security that one gets when things are familiar. Stackpole layers story on top of this nice standard background, story about the relationships forged across race boundaries and across time itself.
There is a main human character, a man born under the prophecy that he would be a Hero. And there is a main elf character, his sidekick and friend. The trust forged on the battlefield as they fight injustice together eventually leads to the heroic deeds that change history.
Centuries later, the elf still lives but the human is mortally wounded and entombed. He is in a magical stasis cast by elven magic. The elf who dares to release that stasis will have only seconds to heal the mortal wound or the human hero will die.
Most of the book is about what it took to win such a magical act as that stasis from the elven community, and the currenttime circumstances that make it worth the risk to attempt to revive the human hero.
This human hero is the narrator of the story, and tells us what happened centuries ago that is generating and culminating in the affairs of today. And the end of the book shows how, after a Hero's job is done, the hero is inevitably a fundamentally displaced person, a "stranger among us," someone who can never be looked upon as a member of mainstream society. Stackpole's hero deals with that situation - heroically. And the book, unlike many books of this type, ends where it should end.
This is a book that shows clearly how it is that the affairs of great nations revolve around and depend on personal relationships among individuals. As you all know, that is one of my personally favorite themes, so it's not surprising I like this book. However, what I think I liked best about it was the depiction of the elves. I believed Stackpole's elves! I haven't believed elves this way since Tolkien! The book is magic.
The Unknown Soldier has a contemporary, realworld setting. This is the world you live in and commute to work in, and breathe the smog in, and pay your credit card bills in. The displaced, the Stranger Among Us is a time traveler from the future. It's a variation on the Terminator movies (which oddly enough, as antiviolence as I am, I do recommend because they are arguments about violence). Frankly, I like Reichert's variation better. The hero is a flesh and blood human being who arrives in our time with amnesia and wounds enough to put him in the hospital.
The bulk of the book is a continuous chase scene, something like the movie Starman (which I also recommend), only in this case the people chasing the soldier are also from the future.
So The Unknown Soldier combines the touch of one of my favorite writers Reichert with the elements of two movies I liked, and establishes during the searingly realistic action a relationship I can believe in between the bewildered and confused soldier from the future and the human woman who is a doctor puzzled over his case.
In literature, there have been many writers who have explored the feeling of being a Stranger Among Us using the point of view character who has amnesia and a dangerous past pursuing him like demons out of hell. There have even been a few who have done it with time travelers.
There is nothing very original in The Unknown Soldier and it isn't really very science fiction since the timetravel theory is never explained or explored, and the mechanism that generates the climax doesn't depend on your understanding of the timetravel theory or the hero's inventing some novel application of that theory. This book is just as much a pure fantasy as Terminator and Starman. What's good about it is the characters and their evolving attitudes toward the situation, their coping mechanisms, and their ultimate karma and how they accept what they cannot change, change what they can, and distinguish between those things.
This isn't a book that explores new territory or breaks new ground. It is a last word on the subject. Yes, it's that good. This book belongs to the library of classics one keeps on a special shelf the shelf that has the very first book about a theme and the last book that perfects that theme. I liked the characters so much, I want a sequel!
A Whisper of Time takes us into the point of view of a young girl of the first species which humanity discovers out among the stars. It is a first contact novel to place on the shelf where you keep C. J. Cherryh's Cuckoo's Egg.
This Stranger Among Us is found in some alien ruins abandoned long ago, and presumably is being studied by her species as humanity is studying ruins found among the stars. She is taken to a secluded scientific research station and raised there by an archaeologist. And she is the centerpiece of the careers of a number of researchers.
As hard as she tries, though, she can't really relate to the human way of looking at things.
Paula E. Downing has done a magnificent job of depicting the place of archetypes in psychology and philosophy. A Whisper Of Time is science fiction because the plot, the story and the resolution of the problem all depend on the reader's ability to grasp the concept of archetypes and to stretch mentally to understand the operation of a different set of them. In other words, the technical element in the story generates the plot. A lot of readers have no patience with this type of book. But this one is worth the extra effort simply because, as with C. J. Cherryh's books, it puts you in the mental frame of the outsider, the alien, the stranger.
I have only one warning. I found the ending singularly unsatisfying. It is extremely realistic, however, because it peters out the way events in reality usually do. This book needs a sequel of a different sort than The Unknown Soldier. The Unknown Soldier sequel would have to deal with other incursions from the future that is, as in the typical horror story, the menace would have to come alive again and the same characters would have to use what they've learned to deal with another manifestation of it.
A Whisper of Time would need a sequel that occurs decades or centuries later, showing the ultimate significance of the ending as it occurred. It would deal with the effects of these events on the lives of others.
These are two different lessons of being a stranger when you have been befriended by a member of a society, you owe something to that society if not that friend, and the even more mystical lesson that the hard knocks you take and the loneliness you endure may not be any sort of divine punishment or karmic backlash for misdeeds in a past life. The pain you endure as a displaced person may accrue to the benefit of those as yet unborn, and of societies as yet unborn. The significance of your life may not have anything at all to do with you. It may be your gift to the future.
A recent Deep Space Nine episode titled "Crossover" dealt with that concept as we got a glimpse of the mirror universe that Kirk, McCoy and Uhura were translated into by the transporter accident in the classic Trek episode, "Mirror Mirror." In this DS9 episode we saw the results of Kirk's words to that mirror Spock, results that took a century to mature, results that were more profound than any lesson Kirk seemed to learn from the events.
Elisabeth Waters deals with the Stranger Among Us busily changing history also, but Waters' stranger is born and bred to the land and history line that she changes.
Changing Fate takes place in an anonymous fantasy land of small kingdoms, castles and conquering armies. But that's all background. The story is about a young man and a young woman who are twins. The young man doesn't seem to have any practical talents. He's a musician who lives in his own private fantasy land of bardic tales of great heros. The young woman is a skilled manager of castle and kingdom, but she has a problem. Unknown to anyone but her brother, she is a shapechanger.
When their castle&kingdom is conquered and their father killed, they end up alone in the wilderness, refugees. By chance, they encounter another fugitive and become involved in the affairs of a kingdom where the magical rite of the Year King is the central practice. (The Year King is the consort of the reigning monarch, and must die at the appointed time, a sacrifice to ensure fertility.)
When the twin brother is taken as Year King, the young woman has a king sized management problem on her hands. She solves her problem with judicious applications of practical skills and magical talent. One sideeffect of her solution is that her own fate changes drastically.
It is not her purpose to save herself. It happens as a sideeffect.
Waters demonstrates a firm grasp of this essential karmic principle, a principle of magic, too.
This book is part of the Stranger Among Us grouping because it shows how when a stranger comes into a community, the stranger must adjust and the community must adjust. When two communities exchange strangers, both communities adjust.
This is a small book and on the surface just an innocuous good read. But taken together with the others mentioned above, it may be seen as a deceptively simple book, not a simple book.
So, these four books discuss the effect of being fundamentally displaced, the karmic significance of the exercise of being a Stranger either Among Us or Among Them. Being fundamentally displaced is not a variant on belligerent rejection of society or a refusal to conform to the local rules. A person who views himself or herself as fundamentally displaced must learn to view himself or herself as an adventurer passing through an interesting, but foreign, land, and must make the effort to be a gracious guest in that foreign land.
I believe that sf/f is especially popular with students of the occult because even a small understanding of The Great Art can produce a psychological sensation akin to any one of the four types of displacement these books discuss. Once the first initiations are assimilated, one must learn to begin viewing oneself as a guest in a world made by and for others.
The initiatory path leads up and away from that world, but the first fifty or sixty flights of that stairway lead through that world.
Books for review in this column should be sent to Jacqueline Lichtenberg, POB 290, Monsey, N.Y. 10952.
Find these titles by using copy/paste (in MSIE use right mouse button to get the copy/paste menue to work inside text boxes) to insert them in the search slot below -- then click Book Search and you will find the page where you can discover more about that book, or even order it if you want to. To find books by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, such as the new Biblical Tarot series, search "Jacqueline Lichtenberg" below.
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Reviewed by Jacqueline Lichtenberg