IN THE BEGINNING PLACE (Harper & Row, $8.95) Ursula K. Le Guin has returned to the intraspychic landscape of her earlier fantasies (such as the Earthsea trilogy) and has had her characters reject it as a permanent habitation. Two modern young people, Hugh and Irena, discover a strange, fantastic realm, which Irena calls "the ain countree," and which they enter, are changed by and finally leave behind as they return to the real world.
In the essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" (Pendragon Press, 1973; also included in The Language of the Night ) Le Guin distinguished the genuine, risky Inner Lands ("Elfland") from the banal imitation which is really the outside world in disguise ("Poughkeepsie"). In The Beginning Place she brings Elfland into violent contiguity, as it were, with Poughkeepsie, both places rendered in a gray, gritty, realistic style which may annoy fans of the author's more colorful fantasies but which strikes me as an impressive Le Guinian advance.
Above the inner landscape (which takes up most of the book) I think there can be no question: Le Guin is post-mistress here, from the too-simple wish fulfillment of the beginning to the seeming lack of explanations to the sophisticated, conscious use of the Hero-Kills-Dragon myth to the final fading away of the protagonists' earlier loves as they enter a dream-perfect union and finally rejoin the real world. But back in Poughkeepsie the author has created a world so socially and politically abominable that to it the Inner Lands' classic, fairy-tale progression (from family of origin to reproductive family, a pattern that made sense in a stable, feudal society built on such progressions) is simply irrelevant.
In short, Elfland and Poughkeepsie are badly out of gear here, a situation which forces the author into inadvertent lies about the latter: that working-class people are inarticulate, that marriage is a mystical, once-for-all fusion (of the right people only, of course), that clumsy, shy Hugh is a possible real man (and not a woman's dream of one), that his gentleness will not vanish with his guilt over his mother (though Le Guin has previously connected the two), and that achieving his (carefully atypical) ambition will not lead to intense disillusionment.
Place falls flat at the end since the author can imagine no potential change in Poughkeepsie commensurate with the beauty and terror of the changes that have occurred in Elfland. The novel comes perilously close to recommending marriage for women and marriage-plus-upward-mobility for men as a victory over our system that produces exhausted, battered wives, embittered husbands, poverty and a trashy life for almost everyone. But Le Guin's own socially-conscious description of the real world in Place makes that solution totally inadequate. The Beginning Place, for all its beauties, remains hanging in the air; there is literally no place for the characters to return to save permanent residence in Elfland, a choice the author is far too sane and responsible to make.
Vonda N. McIntyre's apparently simple method of putting one foot carefully, rigorously and systematically in front of another leads her, at her worst, into merely intelligent and interesting stories and, at her best, into some very good ones. Fireflood and Other Stories (Houghton Mifflin, $10.95) contains the deservedly famous "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" (the story won a Nebula; the book Dreamsnake, which was a continuation of the story, a Nebula and a Hugo); a fine, early nightmare, "The Genius Freaks"; and to my mind the best piece in the collection, the magical novella "Aztecs," which blends a transfigured Seattle (most of the setting is underwater), sacrifice, biological technology and lost love in a way unique in McIntyre's work and rare in science fiction. (McIntyre's men, like Le Guin's Hugh, are the kind women wish for, but McIntyre's future worlds are also matter-of-factly sexual-egalitarian, which makes the existence of such men a good deal more plausible.)
The author's speculations are biological and solidly so; her work is compassionate, often incomplete (for example, the politics of the story "Screwtop" are vague although the landscape and the changed mores are -- as usual -- very good) and almost always concerned with rendering how it feels to be intelligent and nonhuman, from the exuberant flying carnivores of "The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn" and "Wings" to the earth-burrowing, volcano-tasting heroine of "Fireflood."
Critics have noted McIntyre's feminism, but (at least in this collection) alienation -- usually literal -- is her real subject, and alien(ated) beings her heroes. As a dolphin, in "The End's Beginning," reflects tragically, "humans have a terrible need to put things inside things, to overcome the inevitable randomness of life. People know better." (Italics mine.)
David Gerrold knows nothing of war, the psychology of command, or the behavior of men cooped up on a deteriorating spaceship -- all the ostensible subjects of his Yesterday's Children, (Fawcett Popular Library, $1.95) -- and yet his very human obsession with putting things inside things slowly creates something authentic and interesting. This reality may inhere in the exhaustively-imagined ship itself, the only convincing element in the book, although its details are heavy going at first. Even the ending, extraordinarily silly in realistic terms (the characters are likewise impossible), works somehow as part of the grim, claustrophobic, tiring, ultimately worthwhile metaphor that the novel becomes.
The Demon of Scattery by Poul Anderson and Mildred Downey Broxon (Ace, $4.95) is a badly inflated publisher's package: big type, bigger margins, a small novella and lots of handsome, off-key illustration by Alicia Austen. Within, one learns that a man may rape a woman repeatedly, murder her family and deprive her of her profession, but if he says he is sorry and satisfies her in bed, she will love him, forego revenge and live with him happily ever after.
"It was a brutal age," says Anderson defensively in his afterword about the 9th-century setting. Then why write about it except as protest (the Strugatskys) or nightmare warning (James Tiptree Jr.)? Demon does it for fun. There is much casual brutality and stiffly antiquarian detail, and one good sea-serpent which should have devoured the entire project, especially whoever thought up charging readers five times what the wordage would cost elsewhere. Caveat emptor.