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Science Fiction and Fantasy

Zen coincidences, after Heinlein, the aged at war, and peaceful kingdoms.

Reviewed by Paul Di Filippo
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page BW13

Immortality Is the Simplest Thing

The stirring events of Steve Cash's debut fantasy, The Meq (Del Rey; paperback, $13.95), the opening salvo in a series, span the years from 1881 to 1918. During these four decades, an astonishing number of perils, marvels, challenges, triumphs and defeats will befall our protagonist, Zianno Zezen, commonly called "Z." He will meet a large cast of friends and one particularly malign enemy. And he will come to embody the future hopes of his race. A 12-year-old orphan when the book begins, Zianno will mature rapidly under pressure, ending up nearly 40 years later as -- a 12-year-old in love?

Yes, such is the case. For Zianno is not human; he belongs to a separate species known as the Meq. Although superficially identical to humanity, the Meq are an older race than homo sapiens, living in a perpetual masquerade among us, and possessed of certain psychic talents. They also exhibit a most peculiar life cycle. Meq parents, who look perfectly mature, have chosen at some point in their lives, after meeting the one individual who is their fated mate, to cast aside the immortality that descends on them at age 12 and renders them eternal adolescents. For some, this decision happens after a century or so. For others, such as the 3,000-year-old Opari and Sailor, millennia pass while they occupy childish shapes. The crux of Cash's tale is that this immemorial ecology is at the point of changing forever, transforming the Meq into they know not what.

Cash -- a professional musician of more than 30 years' standing and founder of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils -- brings to this book a hard-edged maturity and wisdom (not often found in debut novels or in fantasy) couched in Zianno's limpid first-person voice. The book's blend of melancholy and optimism, synchronicity and fate, melodrama and spiritual concerns, calls to mind the work of Nicholas Christopher in such novels as Franklin Flyer (2002).

The issue of coincidence is particularly important. Zianno identifies it as "that place in time where the rules change and, whether we like it or not, so do our lives." Readers who cannot assimilate such improbable occurrences as a miraculous reunion in a trackless desert between Zianno and his mentor Sailor after decades apart, at the exact moment when Zianno most needs help, would probably be advised by Zianno that their faith in the cosmic workings of the universe is insufficiently developed. Likewise, if one is averse to encountering Zen maxims such as "to find something while one is still looking is to lose it, but to find something after one has stopped looking, that is discovery," then this is not the book for you.

But all of us who enjoy a historical fantasy with vivid personages, a startling premise richly elaborated, and enough derring-do and dastardly schemes to make William Goldman jealous will feel 12 years old all over again.

Reborn to Raise Hell

So much of modern sf traces its genome back to the work of Robert Heinlein. The Grand Master's seminal influence is still being felt nearly 20 years after his death in 1988. Certainly no branch of the genre owes more to Heinlein than military sf, of which there is currently a plethora, perhaps reflective of the zeitgeist. With his 1959 novel Starship Troopers, Heinlein dropped a smart bomb on the field. To switch metaphors, this one book has ever since provided the template for novels of future combat, with a specific focus on the transformation of an average citizen into an efficient soldier confronting the horrors of interstellar warfare. Every once in a while, instead of slavishly imitating the mere form, resulting in a soulless husk of a tale, a contemporary author penetrates to the heart of Heinlein's vision of patriotism, camaraderie and guilt-free alien gore, managing to replicate the master's effects. The year 2004 saw one such book, Robert Beuttner's Orphanage. Now comes another.

John Scalzi's Old Man's War (Tor, $23.95) adds a special riff to the formula: The recruits in this future battle scenario are the elderly. Past their shelf date on Earth, the aged are given new synthetic bodies and turned into killers charged with fostering humanity's manifest destiny, to spread our kind throughout a vicious universe of alien competitors. Our hero is John Perry, an unassuming sort whose transformation captures an engaging everyman perspective. Scalzi's imagined interstellar arena is coherently and compellingly delineated (although after two centuries of intervening history, I question Perry's familiarity with such 20th-century icons as Denny's restaurants and the Super Bowl). His speculative elements are top-notch. His combat scenes are blood-roiling. His dialogue is suitably snappy and profane. And the moral and philosophical issues he raises, while not as deeply plumbed as in Joe Haldeman's classic The Forever War (1975), still insert useful ethical burrs under the military saddle of the story.

One seemingly inevitable tic of this archetype is that our hero ends up being uniquely valuable to the war effort, thanks to the strength of his character and the forces of chance. John Perry conforms to this pattern as well, as you know he will. Still, it's hard to complain about such predestination. The tale of a grunt who dies during the first engagement would be merely the stuff of journalism.

Marsh Magics

There are older models for fantasy novels than Tolkien: The romances of William Morris and H. Rider Haggard; myth cycles such as the Mabinogian; legends, fairy tales and folk beliefs. Not every otherwordly tale needs magic swords, world-devouring wars between good and evil, and fearsome wizards. Cecilia Dart-Thornton knows these other sources deeply, and from them and her own vivid imagination she has fashioned a leisurely, lilting, low-key yet suspenseful tale of hidden identity, doomed love, kismet and uncanniness amid the quotidian.

Dart-Thornton's first fantasy series, The Bitterbynde Trilogy, was set in a quasi-medieval world named Aia. In the first volume of her new series, The Iron Tree (Tor, $24.95), we are introduced to Aia's "sister world," Tir. Richly detailed, from desert south to Nordic north, Tir boasts several kingdoms. In one, Asqaleth, we encounter Jarred, a young man eager to set off and explore the world, partially in search of his mysterious missing father, Jovan. Jarred and companions set off, and before too long find themselves in a village hard by extensive marshes. There, Jarred's fate meets him in the form of a woman named Lilith. Recognizing each other instantly as soul mates, the pair form an inviolable bond. But what they cannot know is that Lilith labors under a curse and that Jarred's hidden paternal heritage is intricately bound up in her plight. Likewise, they fail to see that the jealousy of one of Lilith's old suitors, Eoin, will compound their troubles.

Endowing her characters with courtly yet bucolic diction, almost Elizabethan, and casting her narrative in clean yet poetic prose, Dart-Thornton conjures up her world of Tir and its rituals and beliefs in the luminous yet hard-edged manner of Jack Vance or Mary Gentle. Her plot is expansive enough to include forays among the various non-human inhabitants of the marshlands, as well as among the city-dwellers in the nearby town of Cathair Rua. Pleasing patterns of predestination weave more and more tightly about the characters, resulting in a narrative that resonates with sagas from a more robust and vital era of our own world.

Lilith, describing Jarred, her ideal man, limns one "who loves his mother, who delights in children, who holds old women in honor and friendship, who is kind to birds and beasts, who laughs, who is well spoken of by those who know him, and who is adept at earning money and does not waste it." Not a word in there about a mighty sword arm that can cleave orcs, and that's all to the good for readers tired of warriors and their deeds.

Tiny Miracles

Another missing father, Bibi Brown, plays a large part in Sean Murphy's The Time of New Weather (Delta; paperback, $13). But to fully appreciate Bibi's impact on the life of his son Buddy, you'll want to read Murphy's excellent debut novel, The Hope Valley Hubcap King (2002), the saga of Bibi's own quest for enlightenment. A blend of Herman Hesse, Tom Robbins and Kurt Vonnegut, Murphy's new book offers an appealing cast of eccentrics engaged in a quixotic effort to redeem a surreal future America from its own folly.

Twenty-two years after the events of Hubcap King, America is convulsing under "time storms" and waves of gravity reversal and suffering from a general malaise. The president has been booted out of the "Big House" by "the America Corporation." The only show on TV is a Big Brother-style reality spycast. And nursing-home residents are being sold into indentured servitude.

Against this tide of avarice, environmental chaos and mean-spiritedness are arrayed Buddy -- like his father, a Buddha figure -- his lover, Rhonda Jefferson, and a posse of freaks and outcasts. Like some Pynchonian counterforce, they bumble their way to eventual victory, but not without costs. (Bibi even has a tendency to evanesce, like Gravity Rainbow's Tyrone Slothrop.) Murphy manages to balance a kind of whimsical naivete with a knowing, Swiftian perspective on human affairs, achieving the Buddhist ideal of the Middle Way between extremes. His characters experience confusion and certainty, panic and exuberance in equal measure. Surely the lucky reader will undergo a similar range of emotions while enjoying this farcical love story. •

Paul Di Filippo has contributed to the recently released comics anthology "Bizarro World."

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