AS THE CURRENT glut of science fiction swells to truly intimidating proportions, even veteran browsers must feel increasingly frustrated as they attempt to disinter the occasional adult, imaginative novel from the stacks of action-adventure concocted for 12- year-olds. Established publishers have enlarged their science-fiction lists, while relatively new imprints such as Tor Books, Baen Books, and Bluejay Books survive by selling science fiction and little else. Almost all of this outpouring of Product looks equally lurid, so that, for example, the casual reader can have no inkling that Dream Games by Karl Hansen (Ace Books, $2.95) is totally different from the other 10 titles being published by Ace this month -- and indeed is different from most science fiction put out by any publisher so far this year.
Hansen has a powerfully deranged imagination that will delight anyone who wishes that science fiction dabbled more often in "adult" themes. He postulates a solar system colonized by genetically modified near- immortals of legendary decadence, who enjoy sadomasochistic sex by turns with siblings, children, animalized versions of people, and boyish hermaphrodites specially bred as playthings. The plot centers on an interplanetary female terrorist who has retired from her "war games" (the title of Hansen's prevous novel, unrelated to the movie of the same name) and has mothered twin sons. When these boys are abducted, remade as hybrids, and conscripted to fight insurrectionists on Mars, she attempts suicide, but is rescued by the cybernetic system that runs Earth, and is herself hybridized. Reborn with all memories of their old identities erased, mother and sons form a grotesque commando unit. One of the twins is now a feminized cat-creature, the other has the power to invade and alter minds via the victim's dreams (hence the book's title), and they enjoy a perverse love relationship that becomes sociopathic when they escape their military captors and run loose on a rape-and- kill spree through pleasure worlds of the asteroid belt.
Hansen has a medical background that enables him to make far-fetched biological distortions seem convincing. Ultimately, he redeems the perversions in his story with a moral sense which seems founded on a touchingly idealistic faith in the essential goodness of sexual freedom. His prose is uneven, often interrupted by pages of lecture- like exposition, but at his best he writes compelling, visual scenes, and the novel is never dull.
Dream Games seems startling not only because it is perverse but because science fiction seldom tampers seriously with human biology. Computers, by contrast, have been done to death; which is why the freshness of Real Names by Vernor Vinge (Bluejay Books, $6.95) comes as a surprise. Vinge, a computer scientist, describes futuristic "hackers" invading a global computer network via brain interfaces that enable them to experience data as a multi-sensory input. Other novels have explored the same scenario, but Vinge's version is by far the most authentic: he makes not only the hardware but the characters and their shared "data landscape" seem engagingly real, and sketches a convincing near-future American social background as well. His book gives us an exceptionally clear impression of the possible impact of computer technology.
MANY FAMOUS NAMES in science fiction currently seem to lack the time, talent, or technical knowledge to do as much. One may turn to newcomers in hope of better things; but if Writers of the Future (Bridge Publications, $3.95) is any guide, one may be disappointed. This collection of stories by 15 virtually unknown authors is marred by jejune style and ideas. In view of the contributors' inexperience, this is perhaps excusable, and could be ignored if there was a freshness of approach. Alas, several of the stories imitate not only other science fiction, but science-fiction movies -- an ominous trend indeed. The collection is interesting, however, as evidence of the ambitions of L. Ron Hubbard, who funded the series of nationally publicized writing competitions from which these stories were selected. Hubbard's name is large on the cover, there is an introduction by him, and a tribute to him that makes much of his "return to science fiction" while somehow omitting to mention where he is returning from: namely, his seminal role in the Church of Scientology. Having given us Battlefield Earth (soon, it says here, to be not one but two major motion pictures) Hubbard now seems to wish to be perceived as a science-fiction writer whose loyalty to the literature never wavered. Writers of the Future ennobles this image, casting him as a benefactor not only of struggling authors but of society as a whole: "The artist injects the spirit of life into a culture," he asserts, "and through his creative endeavors, the writer works continually to give tomorrow a new form."
A surprising number of established authors have lent their names to this project. The stories are edited by Algis Budrys, a man of considerable integrity, and the competition judges include Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon, and Roger Zelazny. Presumably, they feel that encouraging new talent is so important, it is neither here nor there if Hubbard's reputation is enhanced in the process. Some readers may disagree.
IT IS MUCH easier to perceive the purity of intentions of those scruffy and mostly penniless idealists who promote the literature they love by publishing it themselves in limited editions. The expanding audience for science fiction includes a growing number of collectors who are willing to pay a premium for handsome volumes printed on non-yellowing, acid-free paper with properly sewn bindings. Small presses can now afford to publish original work, as well as reprints, in this form, and prices are becoming more reasonable. For example, Beastmarks by A.A. Attanasio is a collection of mostly new short stories published by Mark Ziesing, P.O. Box 806, Willimantic, Connecticut 06226 for $25 (signed copies numbered 1 through 250) or $13.95 (remaining 1,250 copies). Attanasio's exceptional first novel Radix was nominated for a Nebula Award, and he is unusual among science-fiction writers for his sensitivity to language. When his control lapses, dazzling metaphors degenerate into descriptive excess exacerbated by abstruse syntax; but for the most part his vision is powerfully expressed and is infectiously optimistic. He tends to dwell on mystical transcendence, but this is moderated by moments of prosaic rationality, and some of his hypnotic fantasies are justified with unexpected virtuoso thought-experiments in particle physics and cosmology. Beastmarks provides a fair sample of this writer's unusual capabilities. One would like to see this book more widely available; but the glut in science fiction, however large, still provides little sustenance for short stories that veer significantly from the popular storytelling center.
One can hardly blame editors at paperback publishing conglomerates for treading so circumspectly, in view of the relatively recent demise of Timescape Books, which demonstrated that it takes more than an occasional Star Trek tie-in to sustain a line of othewise thoughtful, even erudite science-fiction novels. Recent titles from Avon Books (edited, as it happens, by a refugee from Timescape) are perhaps as innovative as anyone currently dares to be, though the covers remain misleadingly banal for fear of panicking the sales department. Saraband of Lost Time by Richard Grant (Avon, $2.95) stands out in particular as a clever, original satire of heroic fantasy and the feudal scenario beloved by writers such as Poul Anderson and Jack Vance. Grant's kingdom is littered with high-tech relics that don't work properly; his peasants are devious and intractable; the king is a Reaganesque buffoon; and the whole system is mired in a parchment-and- sealing-wax bureaucracy. He playfully juxtaposes medieval fantasy elements and modern referents, as in: "At the distant end of the dining hall a coterie of musicians assembled, attired in traditional soiled cotton. They brandished like weapons their lutar, sinth, and sax." The novel goes on rather too long, and founders at its dissatisfyingly mystical climax. It is often highly entertaining, though, and makes memorable fun of science-fiction clich,es while using them shrewdly for its own ends.
Lastly, for anyone who has idly wondered what the people who write these books actually look like, The Faces of Science Fiction (Bluejay Books, $11.95) contains 81 pictures by Patti Perret. Alas, she was not a science- fiction reader before tackling this assignment, and shows little intimacy with her subjects, many of whom sit stiffly at their word processors as if posing for a Famous Writers School advertisement. Their short self-descriptive paragraphs tend toward excruciating narcissism, the lack of contents page or index renders this useless as a reference book, and the lens Perret has used worsens the appearance of these already dowdy folk by expanding their faces horizontally while leaving the vertical dimension unchanged. Perhaps it's all just as well; we'd be disappointed if science-fiction people didn't look weird, and by its ineptitude and omissions this book does help to preserve some of their slightly sleazy mystique.