RECENTLY a number of critics have claimed that "pure" science fiction somehow is being taken over and lessened by fantasy. Such assertions are, of course, blatantly absurd, especially considering that science fiction is a subset of the fantasy field -- albeit a very large and influential subset these days. As a prime example of fantasy and science fiction blending together to create a powerful novel that wouldn't be possible without either element, consider Lisa Goldstein's brilliant A Mask for the General (Bantam, $14.95).
Goldstein sets up a 21st-century world in which the United States has suffered an economic collapse and become a third-world nation ruled by a dictator, the general of the title. There are shortages of everything from chocolate to light bulbs.
A new way of life is at hand, however. A creeping tribalism is spreading through the country, one marked by spiritual journeys to lands inhabited by spirit-totems. These spirit-totems take the form of animals, each with its own personality and traits. For instance, Mary, the protagonist, is of the sea-otter tribe; other characters belong to the bear, lion, and spider tribes. The general is a crow.
Goldstein has done her research into the beliefs of American Indians and African tribesmen. But she's also up to date: the spirit-totems are an extension of the "power-animal" fantasies -- in which an animal guides a human on a spiritual journey -- that a number of yuppies are experimenting with these days. It's a retreat from technology to a more primitive mindset.
A Mask for the General takes for granted that spirit-totems are real. The whole point of the book lies in getting the oppressive General to wear a mask so his spirit-totem can find him and give him a soul, which will then free the United States from his tyranny. Yet even though mysticism drives the novel's action, science fiction is also intrinsic to the story: It simply wouldn't work if it were set in today's New York or San Francisco, partly because many of the characters' decisions are based on environmental factors. Several of them escape from one of the general's "rehabilitation camps" for instance, and use drugs not yet invented to mimic the effects of spirit-trances.
More than a synthesis of fantasy and sf, A Mask for the General also offers clear and crisp writing, well-drawn characters, and a believable background. It's easy to see why Lisa Goldstein's first novel, The Red Magician, won an American Book Award.
WRITER James P. Blaylock has been receiving some intensely favorable attention in the last few years: he's won the Philip K. Dick Award (for his novel Homunculus) and the World Fantasy Award (for his story "Paper Dragons"). His latest book, Land of Dreams (Arbor House, $16.95) is set in the same world as "Paper Dragons," but with quite a few added twists thrown in: travel between worlds with different realities; an evil carnival that shows up once every 12 years during the "Solstice"; a migration of hermit crabs, each crab slightly larger than the one that preceded it; a giant's clothing that keeps washing ashore (a shoe as large as a boat, an immense pair of glasses, a button as large as a dinner plate).
A number of people have compared Land of Dreams to Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes because they both depict carnivals, and indeed the similarities between the two are probably more than coincidental. But the real problem of the book lies in the writing: Although interesting things are happening throughout, they're told in near-vignettes. Blaylock goes up blind alleys, pursuing various plot threads, then wanders back to the storyline, then wanders off again on one tangent after another. The effect is like examining a mosaic with a magnifying glass: You can see a few of the tiles at once, but never the whole picture. To his credit, at the end Blaylock manages to tie up most of the plot threads. (But does Blaylock know what a solstice is? If so, why does it only occur every 12 years?) All in all, this is an ambitious book that's critically flawed.
PAMELA SARGENT has been writing science fiction, fantasy and horror for a few years short of two decades now, and in all that time she has never won a Hugo or Nebula for any of her stories or novels. Indeed, Sargent has not even been a finalist for either award. It's a sad statement about the field, especially considering the consistent high quality of her work. Ursula K. Le Guin called Sargent's writing, "extremely realistic, humane, and well proportioned," and her latest collection, The Best of Pamela Sargent (Academy Chicago, $16.95; paperback, $5.95) shows why.
Assembled here are 14 science fiction and fantasy stories spanning most of Sargent's career (the earliest appeared in 1972; the latest in 1984) and touching on themes ranging from telepathy to alien invasion to time-travel. Not all the stories are great; but there are enough gems here to keep anyone reading, and together they provide a good preview of one of the genre's best -- and most overlooked -- writers. Among the most powerful stories in the book is "Heavenly Flowers" which explores the theme of surviving a nuclear war; but equally effective are "Clone Sister," about incest, and "The Summer's Dust," about the problems of immortality.
The World And Philip K. Dick
IT'S BECOMING almost a cliche' these days for "literary" science fiction writers to publish stories purporting to be tributes to the late, much admired novelist Philip K. Dick. The latest -- and best to date -- is Michael Bishop's The Secret Ascension, subtitled Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas (Tor Books, $16.95).
In Bishop's alternate America, Richard Nixon has assumed complete control of the country and is now in his fourth term as president (a lot of people refer to him as King Richard). Nixon's United States is reminiscent of Hitler's Germany, with travel restrictions, censorship and secret police everywhere. In this world Philip K. Dick is a writer famous for his mainstream novels (books that, in our world, didn't get published until after his death). Dick's science fiction remains unpublished because it's too full of anti-governmental messages.
When Philip K. Dick dies, God (or aliens, depending on which way you look at it) brings him back as a sort of astral projection. The purpose of his new existence is to change the present reality for the better. Unfortunately, he can't remember who he is anymore. But he sets about contacting people anyway, slowly working toward the altered reality in which Nixon is no longer president.
Bishop mimics a number of Dick's story devices -- an unraveling reality and multiple third-person viewpoints -- with seeming ease. Furthermore, he builds on a number of Dick's real-world fears, chiefly secret police (the writer's apartment was broken into and his files searched several times in the early 1970s) and religious obsession (at one point Dick claimed to be receiving messages from God).
Would Philip K. Dick have liked The Secret Ascension? Probably not; it hits awfully close to his private phobias. Will readers familiar and unfamiliar with Dick's work like it? Probably. Even if Philip K. Dick weren't in it, the book works.
John Gregory Betancourt is an editor of the newly revived Weird Tales. His latest novel, due out in this winter, is "The Blind Archer."