YOU WILL NOT BE SURPRISED at my observation that all fiction is written in language -- even science fiction, however much some of its practitioners wish it could be written in mathematics.
The writer's choice of language probably has as much to do with the eventual success or failure of his books as his choice of character or plot or point of view. For instance, Robert Anton Wilson's Schrodinger's Cat: The Universe Next Door (Pocket, $2.50) survives being a fundamentally silly book because the language is so much fun. The attitude and rhythm of the book are even more like Vonnegut than Vonnegut's most recent imitations of himself; the cynical send-ups of practically everything in the world are often painfully accurate, always amusing. That amusement, however, is the only thing that kept me reading to the end. When the author has wryly ridiculed terrorists, pathetic pranksters, America as a whole, all Americans individually, religions, parties, corporations, love, death and reality, what is left? There is no one in the book to care about, nothing in the book to believe in. I happen to think that a love for and belief in something is essential in order to write anything meaningful at all. Satire especially requires a moral platform, and because Wilson's book lacks one, Schrodinger's Cat left me feeling entertained but empty.
The White Hart, by Nancy Springer (Pocket, $2.25) is almost an opposite book, if there can be opposites in fiction. The writer is painfully sincere, and the story itself is a better-than-average fantasy tale of a rather likeable half-god who has a moral kingdom thrust upon him. The choice of language, however, kills the book. It is an illusion among writers of fantasy that to be truly grand, one's language must be very formal; worse, however, is the idea that to be truly formal, one's language must sound very old. The result is too often a novel written in a pathetic imitation of Shakespeare -- or, worse, an imitation of Raymond Chandler with a few "deems" and "forsooths" tossed in so it sounds medieval. Springer has opted for Elizabethan diction, badly done, with some laughable anachronisms thrown in -- like the early 19th-century slang use of the word "lark" to mean "frolic," so that we lurch from Shakespeare to Dickens in a phrase.
In Christopher Priest's story collection An Infinite Summer (Scribners, $8.95), the writing evokes a powerful nostalgia for a Victorian England that never was -- but not by imitating the style of Victorian novelists. Priest is one of the best writers in the field of science fiction, though his stories are so quiet that they are unlikely to attract a huge and vocal audience. I especially recommend the love story "Palely Loitering," in which a young boy pursues his love through endless slantwise trips through time; and the title story, in which spectators from the future come to freeze tableaux in the past, fixing people in their moments of agony, terror, viciousness and joy.
Roger Zelazny is a frustrating writer. He is capable of startlingly original writing, powerful scenes and new ideas in a field where ideas tend to be a bit threadbare from overuse. And yet, about halfway through his latest novel, Roadmarks (Del Rey/Ballantine, $8.95), he seems to get bored and throws his book away. The ideas are potentially very good: a freeway through time, where new exits and new forks in the road are created whenever travelers make some change in history and where old roads fade away as they are left unused; the son of one of these time travelers, who searches up and down the road for the father who abandoned him in -- of all places -- Cleveland; a man who suspects he is immortal and keeps having fits of madness in which he dreams of earlier lives and earlier memories; a character obsessed with altering the past so that this time the Greeks win at Marathon. As he introduces these ideas and figures, Zelazny raises high expectations in the reader; this will be an intelligent novel, an emotional novel, a memorable experience. But then, once he has proved that he can actually juggle all these ideas in a rather complex form, he turns to an easy ending involving dragons, a few quick switches in the plot and finally a bad joke. I wish Zelazny had realized what a potential masterpiece he had with Roadmarks -- in 500 pages he could have created something unforgettable.
Shadows 2 (Doubleday, $8.95) is editor Charles L. Grant's second original anthology of macabre fantasy (i.e., horror stories), and it suffers from belonging too wholeheartedly to its genre. The formula for horror stories is: A person acquires an artifact or a building with a strange and hidden history; gradually, as horrible things happen, he learns that history; then, if he is a nice person, he overcomes the evil, if he is nasty, he suffers an ugly but much-deserved fate. Most of the stories in this book are competent exercises in repeating that formula. A few, however, are not: Manly Wade Wellman's "The Spring" is a sweet evocation of the magic of Applalachia; "Mackintosh Willy," by Ramsey Campbell, explores a child's flirtation with the object of his terror; in "The Closing Off of Old Doors," Peter D. Pautz beautifully creates a strange sort of life after death; and in "Seasons of Belief," Michael Bishop tells of a father whose teasing of his children tampers with the fabric of reality. Yet these good writers who transcend the formula invariably trip up on their own talent. Their good style and layered characterizations raise the reader's expectations, so that the "punch" ending is always a letdown. For instance, in the story "Petey," T.E.D. Klein depicts a middle-class house-warming party that is far more horrifying and believable than the rather ordinary monster lurking outside.
One would think that Lester Del Rey, one of the more competent writers of old-time science fiction, would be an ideal person to write a definitive introduction to the genre. Unfortunately, it is his own close involvement in the field that makes The World of Science Fiction (Del Rey/Ballantine, $5.95) a virtually worthless book. He usually gets his facts right, I suppose, but too much of the book seems like a self-serving attempt to vindicate Del Rey's position in trivial arguments in the inbred world of science fiction. His own confusion is clear from the fact that he never quite makes up his mind whether to refer to his own exploits in the third person or the first person; he alternates freely between the two. The book seems to have been written as a textbook for college courses in science fiction literature. I sincerely hope it is never used that way. A miseducation is worse than no education at all.