The Portable Universe 4

originally published in The Elkhart Truth,
March 4, 1983

“Of Classic Themes and Elder Statesmen”

As L. Sprague de Camp is fond of noting, speculative fiction is the oldest form of fiction, and for much of history was the most common form as well. So it shouldn’t be surprising if modern writers reach back from time to time and resurrect a classic story for retelling.

The most popular such topic from where I sit would be the legends–some purists would say “histories”–of King Arthur and the court of Camelot. From Malory’s “Le Morte D’Arthur” to T. H. White’s “The Once and Future King” (my favorite) to Mary Stewart’s “The Crystal Cave,” many writers have tackled this most enduring and endearing of tales. But until now, as far as I know, no writer has ever attempted the challenge of telling the story of Camelot from the standpoint of the women: Gwenhwyfar, Viviane, Igraine, and Morgan.

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon” (Knopf, $16.95 paper) neatly fills that unclaimed niche. For Bradley, the book represents a double risk– that of tampering with the stuff of legends, and that of moving afield from the “Darkover” SF novels which have earned her her popularity. I admire risk-taking in a writer, and when the risk-taking is backed by talent the results are pure pleasure–in this case, 876 pages worth.

On the other hand, I’m more than a little tired of ultramacho fantasies populated by demanding sword-wielding warriors and submissive ankle-chained slave girls.* The subgenre traces back at least to Conan, but John Norman’s “Gor” books deserve most of the blame for replacing story with sexual apologetics.

Advertising for Sharon Green’s Terrillian series, of which “The Warrior Enchained” (DAW, $2.95 paper) is the second volume, promises Norman fans more of the same. What difference does having a woman–assuming Green’s is not a pen name–write such books make? Her heroine is a Prime Xenomediator, which means that she can telepathically read and influence the minds of others. Does that keep her from having to become someone’s property? No–she’s assigned undercover to a barbarian planet. Besides, she likes it–sort of. I hate to think of people associating these books with the term SF.

The late James Blish was unfortunately best known for his books of script-to-story “Star Trek” episodes. I say unfortunately because Blish had much more going for him than those books, however skillfully executed the later ones were, could ever show. So I’ve been pleased to see Avon reissuing several of Blish’s books in new uniform editions, the latest of which is “Fallen Star” ($2.50 paper). The series, which includes “Doctor Mirablis” and “Jack of Eagles,” shows off Blish’s depth.

Del Rey has launched a massive Isaac Asimov reissue program with the publication of the three books of the classic Foundation trilogy: “Foundation,” “Foundation and Empire,” and “Second Foundation” ($2.75 each, paper). The cover art is only fair (SF collectors are prone to debate the merits of the covers of successive editions) but the stories inside are first-rate. Del Rey now owns the rights to all of Asimov’s fiction, So these may turn out to be the definitive Asimov editions.

The fix-up–that is, a novel built up from several shorter pieces of fiction–has an honorable history in SF. The key to making it work is not to let the seams show. Failure to conceal them is the biggest weakness of Joe Haldeman and Jack C. Haldeman II’s “There Is No Darkness” (Ace, $2.75 paper). Though the individual segments are diverting, breaks in continuity weaken this travelogue about the cadets of the training ship Starschool. Since I thought highly of Joe Haldeman’s “Mindbridge” and “The Forever War,” I was hoping for more.

Finally, for those who don’t mind a little reality intruding on their reading, David Baker’s “The History of Manned Space Flight” (Crown, $35.00 cloth) traces In detail what the author considers the First Space Age–from Sputnik in 1957 to Apollo-Soyuz in 1975. Like any comprehensive (544 oversized pages) history, it’s at times dry and draggy. But the research appears impeccable, and in the long run, the dawn of the space age may well be seen as the key development for our century. Not many will want to tackle this as light reading, but for reference value alone it’s a book that needed to be written.

Michael Kube-McDowell, 1983

*Turns out I was only tired of it when it was done artlessly. See Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart for a counterexample. -K-Mac, 2005

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