Sime~Gen Inc. Presents

Recommended Books

August, 1995

"Beam Me Up, Scotty, There's No Intelligent Life Down Here "


The Heirs of Hammerfell by Marion Zimmer Bradley (DAW Books, pb, Sept. 1990).

Medicine Show by Jody Lynn Nye (Ace Science Fiction, pb August 1994).

Murder at the Galactic Writer's Society by Janet Asimov (DAW sf, 1995).

The Sword of Maiden's Tears by Rosemary Edghill (DAW fantasy, Oct. 1994).

Woman Without a Shadow by Karen Haber (DAW, pb March 1995).

Seance For A Vampire by Fred Saberhagen (Tor hc June 1994).

A Matter of Taste by Fred Saberhagen (Tor hc July 1990).

Since I began reading sf/f in maybe 1952, one of the main concerns of sf readers and writers has been the definition of "intelligent." One defining trait that held sway for a long time was "tool user." Sf writers have disproved that one with stories about dolphins, whales, crystalline entities, energy beings, Hortas, nanites who are tools and live inside computers, etc. etc. However, there is something to be said for the "tool user" distinction.

Without tools, weak, underendowed humans would never have prevailed in the dominance race on this planet. The first toolmakers, the first technologists of our world, must have seemed like magicians to their contemporaries.

To paraphrase a famous quote, any science sufficiently advanced can seem like magic. But why should it seem so? When we don't understand how a person applies their will to produce a result, why does it seem like "magic" — something supernatural — something beyond the reach of us ordinary folk?

The concepts "Unknown" and "Mysterious" are not equivalent. Science regards a tool that produces a predetermined but "impossible" result as a "black box" and the scientist reacts with curiosity, hypothesizes about the inner workings of the box, then devises experiments to test the hypothesis about what's in the black box and how it works and why. It's just an intriguing puzzle to be solved, not a mystery. It's Unknown - but probably knowable, at least eventually — maybe.

It is possible for humans to think like that, to feel like that, to react like scientists. Or at least to seem to do so. Even the most pragmatic scientist, however, can have a breaking point — can meet up with an Unknown that is in fact "Mysterious."

So what's the difference? Well, the difference between Mysterious and Unknown is the difference between magick and science, between fantasy and science fiction, between alchemy and chemistry, between the computer program you're running and its datafiles you've created and saved with it.

To find out something Unknown, you simply locate the information and download it into your brain. To penetrate a Mystery, you patch your operating system that runs your brain. (When we speak of the study of magick being dangerous to the nonititiate, we are talking about what happens when a newbie messes with his operating system and wipes his file allocation table. An experienced user has a rescue disk and knows how to use it. No problem.)

To penetrate an Unknown, you download data, but you remain the same person with the same agenda in life. You just have more to work with to gain power over your environment.

To find out something Mysterious, you must first become someone new, someone you have never been before. When you have become the who that you must be in order to gain access to this Mystery, then the Mystery becomes just an Unknown which you can locate and download into your brain. But after you've assimilated this Mystery, you may change again in some fundamental way which will reveal the existence of further Mysteries. This sequence of penetrating the veils of Mystery is called The Path. Penetrating the Unknown is called Education. The Path gains you control over your inner self. Education gains you control over your environment.

The genre which was called sf in the fifties has bifurcated into sf and fantasy. As a general rule of thumb, sf today consists of stories about gaining control of environment. Stories labeled fantasy are usually about gaining control of Self. Then there's the whole gray area in between where I dwell, read and write — the area where both the Unknown and the Mysterious create complex problems for a hapless protagonist who is tested to destruction by the Lords of Karma and then reborn from spiritual ashes. The commercial marketplace, being profit-driven, doesn't like gray areas.

For the last few columns, I've been discussing the tricks writers use to produce illusion and to seduce readers into their artificial worlds. And here we come to yet another trick, a trick writers use on both the reader and the publisher to lull them into a sense of familiar security.

A writer of fantasy or sf must induce the reader to suspend disbelief. One important element in carrying off this trick is to provide something familiar for the reader to recognize. One method of doing this is to create an object which one of the characters uses as a tool, and then to separate the tool user from that tool. The tool user then has the problem of retrieving the tool in order to solve the problem, or to prevent others from using said tool to create disasters.

Using this "plot device," a writer can draw both scientist and magician into the invented world. This makes the protagonist's problem seem familiar because both scientist and magician are tool users. Keeping in mind that any given reader can be in "scientist" or "magician" mood, or half-way between when he/she picks up a novel, the writer uses a common denominator that can ensnare either or both.

Scientists easily understand what would happen if Evil Geniuses (terrorists) stole a nuclear submarine. That's why Hunt For Red October was so popular — everyone understands stolen tools, and the threat of tools with real destructive power inside them is comprehensible regardless of education or path level.

And so when we try to write Fantasy novels about magical tools, in order to sell enough copies to make a living, we have to use what everyone easily understands — a tool which can be stolen and used by another, or without which the magician can't function to solve a problem.

As I have been careful to point out in prior columns regarding novels by practicing occultists portraying a character using a magickal tool, the reader of a novel should not rely on information about magick contained in novels, even if the novelist is him/herself an expert in that field. All novels are magickal tools which can induce initiation in a reader. They can help you gain mastery over yourself, but they're worthless when it comes to gaining mastery over your environment.

In the real world, education in magickal principles is required before initiation and afterward. A ceremonial initiation is an emotional experience, like the three-tissue ending to a novel, which leaves you with a whole new identity — sometimes requiring a new name. One is initiated into mysteries and educated about facts.

To the scientifically conditioned mind, the idea that you can't know something because you aren't who you need to be to know it, smacks of elitism. "Elitism" carries a semantic loading that implies that only a very small number of very special and superior people can know or do this wondrous thing, and underneath that semantic loading is the unconscious assumption that people can only be who they are right now and they have no choice about who they are.

But that isn't the way that real magick works in the real world. Magick isn't elitist. There's nothing special about a magician. And certainly nothing superior. Anybody can be anything they choose to be, if they're willing to work, sweat, cry, and pay karma. Sometimes it takes a few lifetimes, but you can get there exactly the way you got here. Whoever you are, you have chosen to be. Once you understand that, you have the power to choose otherwise.

A scientist confronted with The Unknown does what's necessary to get to know it. A magician confronted with a Mystery does what's necessary to penetrate it. Anyone can be a scientist. Anyone can be a magician. The more intelligence you have, the faster you can get good at either discipline, but even if you learn slowly, you can still learn if you want to. You have to decide whether to train and use the talents you already have, or to develop new ones.

In the real world, a magician's magickal tools must be made by the magician. They're useless to anyone who might steal them, and deprived of a tool, the magician would simply make another. Some tools are quite a fuss to create, but a Master of the Craft can always find a quick and simple work-around in an emergency. That's the true delight of working with an adept. It is amazing what can be accomplished with a styrofoam cup, a ballpoint pen and a packet of table salt from McDonald's.

All of the novels recommended this month discuss themes centered on the relationship between the tool, the master user, and Mysteries/ Unknowns entwined through his/her karma.

Which brings us to Marion Zimmer Bradley's 1989 Darkover novel, The Heirs of Hammerfell. I've raved enough about the Darkover series in previous columns, and given all Marion's work a blanket recommendation. Even her most innocuous-seeming books are indispensable experiences.

Darkover is not, strictly speaking, a "series." It is a group of novels set in the same universe. They occur in various historical periods of a planet with a native, psychically sensitive species. The planet, Darkover, has been accidentally colonized by humans. The humans and the natives interbreed, producing psychically gifted humans who develop a psychic method of genetic manipulation — that produces some truly odd individuals.

The Darkover novels stand in that gray area between science fiction and fantasy, and so do the tools of Darkover. The psychic tools are "matrix crystals" and it takes not only genetic talent but a lifetime dedication to master the use of this tool. A complex technology is built on matrix science, and that technology is used for warfare and atrocities that eventually destroy most of that technological base. The Darkovans born after that war have less of the genetic talent, but they still preserve and re-invent large amounts of matrix science.

Hammerfell falls early in the history of this world and involves the aristocrats of these psychically talented genetic strains, and their political warfare with each other.

More on the side of pure science fiction, we have Jody Lynn Nye's Ace novel, Medicine Show. This, like Marion Zimmer Bradley's books, is a stand-alone within a series or universe of stories. This is an "open form" mystery, much like an episode of Colombo where you know who did what and then you watch the clever main characters figure it out. But this is not a murder mystery. It's a scientific Unknown for them to puzzle out.

The main character, Dr. Shona Taylor, is a sort of interstellar mercenary physician solving medical mysteries in various ecological environments for a fee.

The problem and resolution, with all its complications and consequences exists entirely external to the characters' identities. They have strong emotional ties and relationships, strong moral positions they defend with their lives, they are involved with each other and make practical decisions based on emotion. In other words, this book fits the criteria for inclusion in this column, and would make a perfect episode of a TV series. Moreover, it's a perfect example of the difference between magick and science. These people don't have to take a step up The Path in order to see with inner vision a solution to the problem. They don't have to change their values to solve the problem, just their thinking.

Murder at the Galactic Writer's Society is a real murder mystery, and a rollicking good read, too. I'm not sure how funny it may seem to those who never knew Isaac Asimov, who created this universe, and/or his wife Janet who has written this particular book in Isaac's universe. She has captured the essence of Isaac's philosophy and views in this wonderful spoof that is nevertheless a very serious little story. I recommend it more as a refreshing change of pace, especially if you have followed any of Isaac's work. If you "get" the jokes, this book supports and elaborates on my points made above about science and magick.

Which brings us to The Sword of Maiden's Tears by Rosemary Edghill. Magickal tools are handmade, one-of-a-kind objects. Your wallet is a magical tool - just ask any techphobe who has watched you use an ATM. No one has a wallet just like yours and it took you years and years to build it and the assets it accesses. It literally contains your identity, as magickal swords are wont to do. If you lose your wallet (or it's stolen) do you spend the whole rest of your life hunting for it?

Ordinarily not. You cancel your cards and build a new wallet.

A real magician who had a magickal weapon stolen would simply cancel it and build a new one, not chase across dimensions and risk chaos to retrieve it.

Nevertheless, in order to build a familiar matrix in which to tell a heart-rending story, a writer must take certain poetic license with reality. Thus you can't learn magick from reading novels, but you can learn attitude.

Here is a group of graduate students at a contemporary New York campus who stumble on an "elphen lord" who fell through a dimension gate while chasing his magickal sword — critically important for historical political reasons back home. To tell this story, Edghill didn't need an elf (but I really like this elf) or a sword. He could have been an alien from outer space chasing the distributor cap to his space ship's warp engines. The fabulously gripping thing here is Edghill's writing, her sensitivity, her insight, and her relentless thematic unity.

Edghill lays out for us all the laws of karma regarding helping a stranger. She shows how the stranger changes the graduate students and how the students change the stranger. The best thing about this wonderful "good read" is that it's "The First Book of The Twelve Treasures." I can't wait for the next one!

In Woman Without a Shadow by Karen Haber, we again have some sort of quasi-living psychic-amplifying crystals mined on one and only one world, Styx. The crystals are called mindstones, and they have mind-altering properties. Using the stone wears it out, and does odd things to some users, too. The stones come in various qualities. The main psychic talent involved here is empathy. The main character, caught up in the aftermath of her parents' karma, is forced to change and grow in order to master her environment, which includes power-thirsty politicians, thieves, junkies, murderers and worse.

Like The Sword of Maiden's Tears, this is a breezy good read with a lot of food for thought, a journey in consciousness, and a refreshing change of pace. In other words, it's what I call "Real Literature" because the characters must change and grow inwardly to master their outward situation. (Series television forbids such stories. Sometimes you get a little of it in a movie, but never in an anthology series.)

Woman Without a Shadow is exactly the sort of book I love, and which is now threatened with extinction by the shifts in the fiction delivery system's economics and demographics as I have been discussing for several columns now.

Honorable mentions this month go to Fred Saberhagen for his intriguingly different novels about Dracula in the modern day. Known as an Old Friend of the Family, Dracula protects the human descendants of one who mattered a lot to him. Here is an evolved Dracula, whose dread of seances is revealed in Seance for a Vampire, (which discusses the tools of the illusionist) and whose enemies resurface in modern day Chicago in A Matter of Taste (which demonstrates improvisation and the evolution of a vampire soul) where Dracula is defended by a woman about to marry into the family. Most of Saberhagen's work has much less relationship and characterization than his Old Friend of the Family series, which is deep, witty, charming and warm-hearted. Saberhagen, a master craftsman of the first order, produces a uniform product. Check your library for hardcovers. Try any one of these. If you like it, you'll like them all. I collect them.

Send books for review in this column to: Jacqueline Lichtenberg, POB 290, Monsey, N.Y. 10952.



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Reviewed by Jacqueline Lichtenberg