The Portable Universe 5

originally published in The Elkhart Truth
April 15, 1983

It’s a good thing fantasy writer Gene Wolfe is such a genial bear of a man. If he were not, the critical and popular success of his Book of the New Sun tetrology would surely make him anathema to his fellow writers. As it is, they’ve probably been wishing he would hurry up and finish it, so someone else would have a chance at the awards.

To be specific, the first book, “The Shadow of the Torturer,” won a World Fantasy Award and was nominated for the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Nebula. “The Claw of the Conciliator” won the 1981 Nebula and was nominated for the World Science Fiction Convention’s Achievement Award (the “Hugo”). Last year’s book, “The Sword of the Lictor,” should figure in both the Nebula and Hugo voting later this year.

If Wolfe has felt any pressure from all the praise, there’s no evidence of it in “The Citadel of the Autarch” (Timescape, $15.95). The hallmarks of the series so far have been intricate plotting, lavish cultural detail, and Wolfe’s stylish prose, all still much in evidence in the new volume.

The Book of the New Sun is a demanding reading experience. Those who can meet the demands will also find it a richly rewarding one. Though there are portions which are self-contained (such as the delightful “Loyal to the Group of Seventeen’s Story” in the newest book), start at the beginning! You may not be able to find “Citadel” in hardcover anyway, if the speedy sell-out of the first three books is any measure. The earlier volumes are available as Timescape paperbacks.

There. And not a single comparison to “The Lord of the Rings,” either.

Polish writer Stanislaw Lem had to wait 15 years to see his last long work, the novel “His Master’s Voice” (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $12.95), published in English. Ostensibly, it’s the story of the Master’s Voice Project, a Manhattan-Project style endeavor to decode what seems to be a message from space but proves to be a test instead. The book focuses more on the furious and sometimes infuriating thoughts of its iconoclastic narrator Peter Hogarth, a top mathematician on the project. Translator Michael Kandel has done his job well, but the unpleasantness of Hogarth kept me at a distance.

Calling Zoe Fairbairns “a female H.G. Wells” or her novel “Benefits” (Bard, $2.95) a “chilling Orwellian vision” strikes me as overstating the case a good deal. Set in a near-future Britain, it projects an anti-feminist backlash which puts control of reproduction in the hands of the state and removes women from the workplace to make room for unemployed men. Though I could identify with the frustration over clones of Phyllis Schlafly undercutting the effort to get a male-dominated world to recognize women’s rights, “Benefits” failed to convince me that the society it portrayed could ever come to pass. Maybe I’m just an optimist.

Michael Bishop can write with both power and poetry, as he showed in his quasi-novel “Catacomb Years.” Both qualities are also on display in his first collection of short works, “Blooded on Arachne” (Timescape, $3.50). The 11 stories and two poems contained herein give a good picture of the range of one of the newer and more interesting voices in speculative fiction.

In one of the improbable oddities of publishing, it took Gordon Dickson’s collection “Mutants” (DAW, $2.95) 13 years after its hardcover appearance to reach the paperback shelves.Odd because Dickson is not only a good writer,but a popular one (he’s best known for his ongoing Childe Cycle, which includes the Hugo-winning “Soldier, Ask Not”). The title tells the theme here: 11 tales of the not-quite-human.

Equally improbable is the idea that an Isaac Asimov story might pass 30 years without appearing in one of his collections of short fiction–but it happened. The story is “Belief,” an enjoyable tale about a man who doesn’t mean to make trouble for the scientists–he just happens to be able to levitate his body. The oversight is now corrected, though, as the story is one of 21 in the anthology “Winds of Change” (Doubleday, $15.95). No classics here, but plenty of solid entertainment.

–Michael Kube-McDowell is a member of the Truth staff.

Return to K-Mac's home page