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Science Fiction and Fantasy

From a gathering of lost pilgrims to a nation's capital of the future -- four forays into the magical.

By Gregory Feeley
Sunday, October 3, 2004; Page BW17

Tales of the Imagination

Gene Wolfe's Innocents Aboard: New Fantasy Stories (Tor, $25.95) appears between two volumes of a long novel that he is publishing this year, so it would be understandable to suppose it something of an entr'acte rather than one of his major collections. Indeed, only a few of the 22 stories published in this volume seem to rank among his very best. This should not be taken as discouragement (though readers unfamiliar with Wolfe should perhaps begin elsewhere), for even Wolfe's less-than-best can be very good.

The significance of Wolfe's sly title is not made explicit, but the number of orphans, strays, lost souls and holy fools who populate these stories is readily attested to by their titles -- "The Waif," "Slow Children at Play," "The Lost Pilgrim." It is easy by now to note the recurrent themes in Wolfe's work, and no points accrue for remarking the presence of solar myths, travelers' tales, narrators who seem to share their creator's name, retellings of the Nativity or beloved figures from 19th-century popular literature. Wolfe is always able to surprise, but the sharpest surprises come after you conclude you have taken his measure.

Perhaps the book's finest story is "The Old Women Whose Rolling Pin Is the Sun," one of its shortest. A compact and seemingly limpid oral tale, it manages to be several things at once, including a "Just So" story whose Best Beloved is not Kipling's daughter but the author's granddaughter. Wolfe's willingness to invite such a comparison is testimony to his enormous (notwithstanding his introduction's genial show of modesty) artistic self-confidence; the story's success shows how well it is warranted.

Journey to the Bottom of the Sea

Joe Haldeman often seems the antithesis of Gene Wolfe, as his new novel Camouflage (Ace, $23.95) suggests. Haldeman tends to write an omniscient narrative that readily explains matters, rather than Wolfe's strategy of showing and allowing readers to infer what they can. He favors a wry third-person voice as much as Wolfe tends to a quiet impassioned first-person one, and he inclines to compact, stand-alone novels where Wolfe writes multi-volume works.

And while Wolfe's novels tend to be dizzyingly ambitious, Camouflage, like several of Haldeman's other recent novels, is "only" an extremely intelligent thriller. That it does not push the envelope doesn't make it any less enjoyable.

The novel begins with the discovery of an alien artifact that has lain at the bottom of the Pacific for millennia. Its salvage and slow investigation by researchers attract the attention not only of an alien shapeshifter that has lived surreptitiously on Earth for as long as it can remember and suspects (rightly) that it once emerged from the artifact, but also that of a second alien, unrelated to the first, that had likewise lived on Earth throughout much of human history.

The two creatures have roughly similar abilities to assume human form, but while the first (which Haldeman calls the changeling) is curious and essentially benign, the second (called the chameleon) has devoted its innumerable lives to the pursuit of pleasure, chiefly that of killing. The chameleon is interested in the alien artifact because it might draw out any other creature like itself, which it regards as competition to be eliminated.

Haldeman develops his setup with such sufficient care that the reader rarely pauses to consider its implausibility. (What, two separate Aliens Among Us?) His scenes shift between various points of view and over centuries of history but converge toward a single narrative as human, alien and alien begin to reach the mysterious artifact.

Haldeman's adept plotting, strong pacing and sense of grim stoicism have won him wide acclaim, but for me the great virtue in his fiction lies in its style. His prose is laconic, compact, seemingly offhand but quite precise; one can pull down his earlier novels and reread individual pages years later with undiminished pleasure. Haldeman mostly abjures striking images or similes (the description of how a fish will "flex the one huge muscle of itself" to dart away from enemies is about as figurative as he gets), relying instead on the poetics of compression and indirection. Like the grammar of cinema, it is a mode that looks natural and even easy but requires exacting skill.

The Long Hot Summer

Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain (Bantam, $25) shows us the dysfunctional intersection of science and politics -- specifically, Washington, D.C., in the near future, where Congress and the National Science Foundation attempt to address the global environmental crisis in tentative and inadequate ways. Robinson's three major protagonists -- an administrator, an academic and a Senate policy adviser -- can see that the system they are committed to is not working, and that its expedients and compromises are crumbling like the cliffside houses in storm-lashed San Diego County, which another character sees collapse into the sea.

Policy-making is a process, as ongoing as the weather, and Robinson is more interested here in the dynamics of complex systems than in the contours of character. His protagonists are deftly drawn, but we see most of them in action, some of it frenzied: A work-at-home dad madly juggles climate change and child care; a cynical scientist experiences a revelation after attending a monk's lecture on science and Buddhism and then has to climb the mobile hanging from his office's atrium lobby to retrieve a resignation letter he left on his boss's desk. Characters speak of an "information cascade," "phase change" and "paradigm shift," and the phenomena they study are moving at a pace almost beyond their apprehension and certainly beyond their control.

Robinson's prose is more relaxed and discursive than Haldeman's, and rich in adjectives, some of which I found myself mentally lopping as I read. His narrative tactics can include some surprisingly ingenuous ways of buttonholing the reader -- one character attends a lecture, which Robinson gives in full, then goes off to ponder its implications, which we are invited to ponder as well. Such practice would be ruinous in a less skillful writer, but Robinson largely manages to charm us into accepting them.

Plainly the first of a sequence, Forty Signs of Rain leans forward in anticipation of events that, by the final page, have only set in motion, as though its center of gravity lies somewhere beyond that. Its main characters possess names (Chase, Vanderwal) that suggest dynamic forces, and the novel ends with numerous balls still in the air. Its climactic scene -- a giant storm that produces catastrophic flooding and submerges most of Washington -- announces a cascade of long-denied consequences, just as the titled promised.

Seduction and Betrayal

Jennifer Stevenson has published short stories and essays over the past dozen years, but Trash Sex Magic (Small Beer, $26; paperback, $16) is her first book. A contemporary fantasy set on the banks of the Fox River in northern Illinois, Stevenson's uneven but engaging novel turns upon a group of scruffy-looking trailer folk, especially Gelia Somershoe and her daughter Raedawn, who employ their sexual wiles on men in a way that is not entirely natural.

When developers breaking ground for a row of riverside townhouses across the road cut down an enormous tree, the Somershoe women are distraught -- we do not immediately know why -- and set into motion a chain of events that eventually encompasses construction workers, Somershoe lovers past and present, the gaggle of half-feral children who live in the trailers and the local population of animals and trees, several of which prove to have interesting pasts.

Trash Sex Magic is not the work of a young writer -- Stevenson is 49 -- and it has the look of a book that has been worked over for many years. This is not entirely to its advantage: Stevenson sometimes feels obliged to explain too much, subplots occasionally proliferate beyond her control, and the elaborate rewards and comeuppances she dispenses to her characters threaten to weary the reader. But her portrayal of sexual magic and weird familial dysfunction in her ramshackle yet lovingly described milieu ("I guess you know this whole area's wetter than dog stool," Gelia warns at one point) is deeply charming, and its best scenes lodge in the reader's memory.

Gregory Feeley's novel "Arabian Wine" will appear this winter.

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