JOHN CHANDAGNAC and his father toured late 17th-century Europe as master puppeteers, profiting greatly during the years when live actors were banned in Germany. But that time passed, and John's father died in poverty.

Now John is on his way to Jamaica to claim the family inheritance that his uncle stole -- but his ship is seized by pirates. Chandagnac is too impetuous; he attacks the pirate chief to avenge the cold-blooded murder of the ship's captain, and ends up with a choice between quick death and life as a pirate. He chooses life.

So begins On Stranger Tides (Ace, $16.95). Tim Powers has written across the entire range of the literature of the fantastic, but he is at his best when writing gonzo historical novels like his unforgettable The Anubis Gates -- and like On Stranger Tides.

It is obvious he has done his research, and he fascinates us with the richly detailed Caribbean culture at the end of the great days of piracy. If you grew up, as I did, with pirate novels and swashbuckling movies, this will be familiar territory.

Still, it is the essence of gonzo history to stick a knife into the past and give a couple of good, sharp twists. The result is a dark, delicious flow of strangeness: Even though you know things didn't happen that way, even though violence is being done to the past, you find that you like the fictional version better than reality.

In On Stranger Tides, the strangeness comes from the fact that the primitive magic of vodun works. No one is surprised when animated corpses walk along the beach; children play with dead chickens by magically making them dance; you don't eat a chicken with certain markings on its beak, because a healer has put someone's disease in that chicken, and it will poison you.

So it is that John Chandagnac, now called Jack Shandy, finds himself caught up in more piracy. An English scientist, obsessed with his wife's death, has come to the Caribbean to bring her back to life by putting her spirit in their daughter's body -- he would gladly destroy his own daughter for the sake of getting his wife back.

And, just to keep things interesting, the famous Blackbeard is pursuing his own immortality, and thinks of the young woman as his proper consort. Shandy, who is obsessed with love for her, must save her from her mad father and from the wife-consuming pirate.

Does this all sound familiar? Do you recognize elements of this story? Of course you do. The woman in danger; the man trying to save her, though she misunderstands and fears him; the displaced heir who returns to oust the usurper and reclaim his fortune. These are the stories that all human beings in every society hunger for. What we charitably call "contemporary literature" is only a thin, dry crust on the roiling stew of romance. Powers has all the writing skill needed to dazzle the literati, but that is not his concern. He is writing to the volunteer readers, the audience that is hungry for the rich, true tales -- stories at once safe and perilous, familiar and strange. On Stranger Tides reminded me of why I came to love reading in the first place.

We Have Met the Enemy

HUMANITY HAS SPREAD to distant worlds. Near the galactic core, where a giant black hole called "the Eater" is devouring stars, the last families of a once-great human civilization struggle to survive on the planet Snowglade. Mechs, intelligent machines, are busy reforming the planet to their specifications -- bone dry and bitterly cold.

There seems to be little malice in the machines. They regard all organic life as a temporary infestation; humans are flies to be swatted only when they annoy. Recently, though, a new mech called the Mantis has begun deliberately hunting human beings, and Gregory Benford's novel Great Sky River (Bantam Spectra, $17.95) is the story of Killeen's confrontation with the Mantis, a confrontation that wins freedom for the handful of humans who mean the most to him.

Benford was the leading science fiction novelist of the late 1970s, but in recent years, his novels have seemed almost irrelevant to the genre. His Artifact, though a good book, was clearly structured like a commercial thriller, with the result that he probably baffled the thriller audience with the heavy scientific talk and annoyed the science fiction audience with the soulless plot cliche's he borrowed but did not make his own. And Heart of the Comet, his collaboration with David Brin, seemed nothing more than a Halley's Comet tie-in, combining the worst habits of both writers so that it never provoked the slightest interest or belief. One might even have suspected that Benford had lost his touch.

I'm pleased to tell you that Benford has not lost his touch -- far from it. In Great Sky River, he reached into the childhood of science fiction and retrieved one of the root stories of the genre; then, with intelligence and understanding, he created a deep and layered reality that made the old story new.

Forced to compete with machines, the humans of Snowglade have become half-machine themselves, augmenting their senses and their strength with cobbled-together gleanings from the mechs. The memories and personalities of their dead are preserved in chips that inhabit the minds of the living. And yet their humanity survives; the overlying machine can be stripped away and the self remains.

The book is not perfect, and unfortunately its flaws come near the climax, where Benford reveals his delusion that a rapturous description of sex still has power to move us. We've seen too many gauzy sex scenes in silly movies to be much impressed, alas. And when he resorts to the hoary cliche' that laughter is what makes us human, we can only sigh and turn the page. But the lapses are slight, compared with the overwhelming power of Benford's vision and the irresistible strength of the tale itself.

Beauty vs. Clarity

THE LANGUAGE of Paul Park's first novel, Soldiers of Paradise (Arbor House, $17.95), is so lush, his images so evocative, and the story so ambitious that I really wanted to like the book. He dared the most difficult of science fictional tasks: creating an alien world with no human characters, so that we have no familiar perspective.

It is a world in which the seasons are each a generation long, so that social patterns are broken down and the continuity of families destroyed. There is also a group, called antinomials, who have rejected identity entirely, living forever in the present moment, making them at once dangerous and helpless.

For reasons passing understanding, Park begins his novel with an extended flashback of antinomial life, told by an antinomial, making it almost unreadably alien. By definition it is impossible for us to identify with antinomials, and the result is that we are 50 pages into the book before we finally meet a character we can understand or care about.

Even then, however, Park's elegant language continues to function like a chain-link fence, keeping us forever at a distance from his characters, never quite sure what is actually happening or why people are doing the things they do. Far away from us we can see that a magical, powerful story is being told, of wars and religious struggles, with strong passions, betrayals, and finally a kind of exalting vindication. Had Park been more concerned with communicating with his readers, and less concerned with creating filigreed language, this might have been an outstanding novel. Instead it is merely a promising book. Some will admire the language and world creation enough to call Park brilliant, and I won't argue with them. But what good is blinding brilliance, if it means the reader cannot see?

For contrast, look at Jack L. Chalker's When the Changewinds Blow (Ace paperback, $3.50), the first volume of a new trilogy. Chalker's prose is workmanlike, unmusical, often annoyingly wrong. A grammatical error in the first sentence lets us know right away that we are listening to a storyteller who has an untrustworthy ear. Those who could call Park brilliant will find Chalker's prose annoying at best.

Yet Chalker spins a tale that strikes at the root of human identity. What Park tries to develop intellectually, Chalker gives us viscerally.

Chalker tells of two high-school girls who are snatched from the world of malls to a strange land of ever-shifting reality. They are caught up in a war between wizards, but that pro forma plot is not what captures the imagination. Instead it is the transformations the girls themselves go through.

Even before they leave our familiar world, they find their sexual identity challenged -- both are nicknamed with boys' names, for instance, and neither is content with the female role they are trapped in. In the new world, they go through transformation after transformation -- magical disguises, traded identities, changed sexes -- until neither is sure what she really is and what she is merely pretending to be. Finally one finds herself in a lotus-eating dream-state, in which she soon becomes repulsively fat, the worst-feared transformation of the self-alienated American teenager. This is a story for people uncertain of their identity -- which includes a good many whose teens are decades behind them. They need stories the way they need food. Their spiritual metabolism requires what Chalker so plainly gives them.

Park is a talented writer who has not yet learned to tell a story clearly. Chalker is a powerful storyteller who has not yet learned to write beautiful prose. Best are the writers, like Powers, who can do both; but if I could only do one, I'd choose Chalker's way. It's nice to be admired, but far better to be needed; it is pleasant to create beauty, but if it comes at the expense of clarity, prettiness is little compensation.

Orson Scott Card received both the Nebula and Hugo awards for his novels "Ender's Game" and "Speaker for the Dead."