GREG BEAR seems determined to give serious science-fiction readers everything they could possibly want. His large new novel The Forge of God (Tor Books, $17.95) has adventure, suspense, believable people, a touch of philosophy, a series of frightening phenomena that are explained without resorting to gimmicks, and tableaux ranging from domestic life to global catastrophe. The writing is elegant, the science is accurate -- and yet, with all of this, the novel is curiously dissatisfying.
It opens with a series of mysteries; in fact, in a sense, it is a mystery novel. One of Jupiter's moons has vanished without a trace. A huge rock formation suddenly appears in an Australian desert, and a similar structure materializes in Death Valley. A creature emerges from the American artifact, prophesying doom. Levitating spheres emerge in Australia, welcoming Earth as a new member of galactic civilization. Not only are these events bizarre, they contradict one another, like statements from unreliable witnesses at the scene of a crime. Scientists conduct an investigation, looking for "just the facts"; and they peel away deception in a series of layers.
Bear introduces some unexpected twists, but we know without a doubt that, like any mystery novel, this one will explain everything in the end. Unfortunately, this creates a sense of inevitability that tends to undermine the suspense. Bear compensates with a multiple-viewpoint narrative that keeps hitting us with human drama. There's a scientist with leukemia, liable to die on any page; a mentally unstable geologist, liable to go crazy; a woman and children, liable to become widowed and orphaned; and a superstitious U.S. president, liable to precipitate global panic (if he doesn't heed the wise advice of a science-fiction writer modeled loosely on Arthur C. Clarke). If this isn't enough, there's also the entire human race, liable to be wiped out.
The whole, however, seems less than the sum of these parts. The story remains shackled to its science-fiction-mystery format, which is not only predictable, but dated. Too many times, we have followed the efforts of responsible scientists collaborating with government officials to unravel an alien enigma. Clarke himself employed these fundamentals in Childhood's End, in 1953. Twenty years later, he was still doing it, in Rendezvous with Rama. Fifteen years further on, Greg Bear brings to it an arsenal of characters and documentary realism, but the structure now seems as arthritic as that of an Agatha Christie novel.
Bear's earlier book Blood Music demonstrated that he is capable of truly astonishing departures from the norm. Here, however, his writing seems to be feeding off science fiction's past, rather than developing its future. In many ways, The Forge of God is a worthy book that should be enjoyed by readers who are relatively unfamiliar with science fiction. Alas, it fails to break new ground.
Silverberg Among the Gold
SCIENCE FICTION'S odd tendency to hide inside walls of its own making is illustrated in another way by Robert Silverberg's Worlds of Wonder (Warner, $17.95). This collection contains 13 excellent stories, most of them from the 1950s, by writers ranging from Frederik Pohl to Philip K. Dick. Silverberg presents a lucid critical analysis of each item and prefaces the book with a lengthy reminiscence describing his own career. As a confessional, this is fascinating in its masochistic honesty. Silverberg has been an immensely prolific writer, and yet he says he began not out of love for writing itself, but simply to achieve acclaim. "How they would admire me at school," he remembers thinking, if he could merely produce a publishable story (not a great one -- he didn't believe he was capable of that). And so he drilled himself relentlessly, enduring countless rejection slips, as he tried to come up with what he calls "the right mix of storytelling ingredients." His eventual answer: "A novel background, an interesting character, a tough problem, an ingenious solution." It sounds like a recipe.
We should not be fooled into thinking that his approach was totally soulless, however. Silverberg has often downplayed the emotional content of his life and art, to a misleading extent. True, he did go from being an unpublished hopeful to a one-man assembly line: "To pay the rent, you had to produce salable copy day in and day out," he recalls. "Once I had decided that I was missing whatever gene it was that carries literary greatness, I chose to settle merely for learning how to write things that someone, anyone, would publish."
Later, though, he produced some extremely sensitive, introspective novels. His memoir, here, barely mentions them, perhaps because they led to a very painful decision to stop writing altogether. His decision to start again, confining his talent to a more conventional format, is likewise glossed over. This book is concerned strictly with his origins; and the stories (most of which have been anthologized many times elsewhere) are by the writers who influenced him in his formative years.
Isaac Asimov has published an autobiography longer than Nixon's memoirs; Frederik Pohl, in The Way the Future Was, has given us a nostalgic picture of science fiction in the 1930s and 1940s; Fritz Leiber has narrated, in some detail, his early inhibitions and difficulties; and so it goes on. No other category of popular fiction seems to allow its authors this kind of autobiographical indulgence. To his credit, Silverberg's contribution is more objective and more interesting than most. His fans will like the personal material, creative writing classes can make good use of his critical commentary, and the stories themselves are an excellent introduction to the most important roots of modern science fiction.
SOME OF the modern branches that have developed since the 1950s hardly seem like science fiction at all. Leigh Kennedy's Faces (Atlantic Monthly Press, $15.95) is a collection of 10 stories whose subtle speculative element is the only aspect that distinguishes them from fiction in, say, The New Yorker. Each piece creates a brief, intensely vivid picture of a human dilemma. We see a scientist whose inability to deal with intimate relationships recurs in his experiments with intelligent apes; a would-be concert pianist tormented by failure, finding unexpected fulfilment entertaining retired people in a small town; an aging hippie visiting one-time lovers who have moved on, abandoning him to his memories. The mood is somber and the message is sometimes enigmatic to the point of ambiguity, but the prose is eloquent and the images are beautifully drawn.
Science fiction is usually a literature of transcendence. Kennedy focuses more on fallibility and failure, and yet she plays games with reality, refusing to accept it the way it is, in a manner which has always distinguished science fiction from straightforwardly realistic literature.
ELEANOR ARNASON, like Leigh Kennedy, is interested in the little quirks and follies of everyday life; but there the similarity ends. If Philip K. Dick had ever written fantasy about dragons and princesses, he might well have done it as Arnason does, with her tongue in her cheek, her head full of wonderfully crazy ideas, and her feet firmly on the ground.
Her novel Daughter of the Bear King (Avon, $3.50) is quite simply the most enjoyable fantasy novel I have ever read. Its protagonist, Esperance Olson, is a 40-year-old housewife in Minneapolis -- until she gets electrocuted by a faulty washing machine and finds herself in a dreamland where (they tell her) she was originally born as a Chosen One with special powers to rid the realm of various plagues. These include dragons, cockroaches and "second-rate" monsters: "creatures that looked like chickens or snails or a combination of the two."
She runs into trouble when she discovers that, as daughter of the Bear King, she has an unpredictable tendency to turn into a bear. There's more trouble when she finds herself running back to Minneapolis, pursued by hordes of nightmare creatures that alarm the neighbors and baffle the police.
We begin to see an underpinning to this episodic plot when Soringalla, keeper of the Pool of Ab, welcomes Esperance Olson to her island palace and offers her "a fine herb tea from the island of Pendi, which lies far to the south of here. And a copy of yesterday's Wall Street Journal, flown in from the Fortress of Worlds by carrier albatross."
Yes, the land of fantasy has been corrupted by the land of reality. Wizards have installed a large computer, and are planning to build a factory to manufacture consumer goods. But behind the jokes lies a serious message: Sensible people are too easily seduced by glib jargon, dumb gadgets and half-baked ideas -- shoddiness in general, which displaces our feeling for quality in all things.
There's no preaching in her novel, however. She writes with an easy, infectious charm. The magic and mystery are free of whimsy or cliche', and this is truly a book that can appeal to all ages. Best of all, it keeps exceeding the reader's expectations -- which is surely the most we can ask of any science-fiction or fantasy novel.
Charles Platt's books include "Dreammakers," a collection of interviews with science fiction writers.