THE DETAILS of the fight need not concern us. But in recent years something of a vendetta has been waged along the cutting edge of sf between the sets of writers now generally known as the Humanists and the Cyberpunks. It may be the case that neither Kim Stanley Robinson (Humanist) nor William Gibson (the Cyberpunk author of Neuromancer) much cares for these labels, or much likes being used as a counter in a quarrel over the true nature of sf; but both have been willy-nilly dragged into something like an affray, despite the fact that each writer admires the other's work, and some damage has been done. Robinson, in particular, has suffered under a false presentation of his work as being conservative, unadventurous and defensive of the status quo. (For more about Robinson, see Book Report on page 15.)

It must be admitted that in his first novel, The Wild Shore (1984), Robinson rather led with his chin, because the searching moral ambiguities of that book were concealed in a fresh-faced open style reminiscent of Mark Twain at his sunniest. The protagonists of that novel, who live in an Orange County transformed into a pastoral backwater, and whose sources of information are exceedingly unreliable, believe that America has been defeated by a sneak atomic attack, and that the patriotic duty of the survivors, many years after the disaster, is to conduct guerrilla warfare against the Japanese quarantine that prevents America from reasserting her greatness. That they are deluded, and that The Wild Shore is in fact a critical examination of cultural nostalgia for an unreal innocence, should have been understood on a close reading of the text, and should actively inform any response to The Gold Coast (Tor, $18.95), Robinson's highly charged new novel, for in this book he gives the fable of the innocent American a merited coup de grace.

The venue is once again Orange County, three or four decades into the next century. Like the narrator of The Wild Shore, Jim McPherson in The Gold Coast is a naive, companionable young man standing at the edge of an adulthood he may never adequately achieve, and whose essential decency has never been put to the test. As does the hero of the earlier book, McPherson attempts to express his vague idealistic sense that the world has gone awry in a gesture of political violence and, as in the earlier book, his actions lead to a humiliating and farcical catastrophe, with grave consequences for his friends and associates.

Beyond these circumstances, and some forcedly playful assonances of character and geography, the two novels differ widely and fruitfully from one another. The disaster that America must confront in The Gold Coast is no external collapse but merely the continuation of the world as we know it now. Fifty more years of growth have transformed Orange County into a congested complex of suburb, shopping plaza and freeway. The Cold War continues to fuel further growth in the defense industries vital to the County's cancerous prosperity; the last orange trees will soon be uprooted from their outmoded cosmetic role as grave markers in an obscure cemetery, and a cultural windedness stales the lives of McPherson, his drug-dropping friends, his family, the freeway-bound horizons of his world. When he does ultimately take action, his innocent rage at the ways of the world cannot mitigate the harm he does, and the book closes with some very sharp lessons, staining the young fool with the first dark hues of responsible adulthood.

Some sf readers may balk at the absence in The Gold Coast of any saving sf solution to the polluted dystopia America has become, for the book celebrates no magical breakthroughs, no easy transit to a better world, another planet or nirvana. What it does celebrate, with an earned and elated refusal of despair, is the persistent joyful survival of human persons in the interstices of the juggernaut. Robinson even leaves us almost half-believing that McPherson and his friends will someday make it new. It is a rich, brave book. To read The Gold Coast is not just to go through the fire; it is to emerge from fire.

The Lost World

BECAUSE WE know it is a dream of an America we do not deserve to remember, Orson Scott Card's luminous alternate history of the early 19th century continues to chill as it soothes. Seventh Son (1987), reviewed in Book World last August, began to construct a framework for the story of Alvin Maker, a human child whose powers of shaping rapport with the earth are very little short of sacerdotal. For much of its length, Red Prophet (Tor, $17.95) shifts the focus of the series from Alvin to a pair of contrasted Indians, or "Reds." Ta-Kumsaw (whom we know as Tecumseh) and his brother Lolla-Wossiky (whom we know as Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee Prophet, and who urged a separation of Indian and white cultures) represent conflicting strategies for saving the Reds and the living land from the relentless earth-scorching advance of civilization. Ta-Kumsaw chooses war; Lolla-Wossiky chooses to trick W.H. Harrison into committing a massacre at Tippecanoe whose effect will be magically to keep all whites east of the Mississippi, or Mizzipy as Card calls it.

More acted upon than acting, the child Alvin is booted from one brother to the other as the plot requires, for his real role in Red Prophet is to observe and learn wisdom from the division of America into a land of the living and the dead. Unlike the real Tecumseh, Ta-Kumsaw does not die after Tippecanoe, and as Alvin watches him paddle westward into the singing world he realizes that the Red "was taking the land with him, the greensong; what the White man had won with so much blood and dishonesty was not the living land of the Red man, but the corpse of that land. It was decay that the White man won. It would turn to dust in his hands." From an author as polished and calculating of effect as Orson Scott Card, the savagery of this prophetic message must be utterly deliberate. And suddenly the saga of Alvin Maker begins to thrill.

Esthetes and Aliens

THE PERFECTLY professional Frederik Pohl must have written and edited a couple of hundred books by now, some of them of very considerable power and grace and point (e.g. Gateway), and it will be sufficient to note that Narabedla Ltd (Del Rey, $16.95) is swift, natty, delightful -- and very silly indeed. Narabedla read backwards is Aldebaran (the brilliant red star of the constellation Taurus); as a talent agency renting abducted human artistes to esthetes across the galaxy while at the same time monitoring humanity's progress starwards, the firm has its hands full when body-builder (and bad baritone) Nolly Stennis bumbles into the works, fouls them up and becomes ruler of Earth, all in short order. Esthete-wise, it is pleasant to report that it is Busoni's chirpy Turandot that merits passing attention rather than Puccini's glassy monument.

A dogged insistence on saying everything twice very slowly makes the first 100 pages of Nancy Kress' An Alien Light (Arbor House, $18.95) almost impenetrably uninviting; but the reader who manages somehow to sidle into the heart of this text will find there an attractively complex portrayal of an alien species called the Ged who are seeking, on a planet alien to them and to humans as well, the secret of homo sapiens' survival. No other race that indulges in internecine warfare as does the human has avoided self-destruction.

Kress' answer to the Ged's query is long in coming, long in the telling, unpalatable to the species-patriotism of Robert A. Heinlein and his followers, and definitive enough, in the terms she allows. There are a few hints of sequels to come, but An Alien Light does fulfill its brief, and should be allowed to stand alone.

Catch a Falling Asteroid

CHART-CHOKED, figure-filled hard sf books like Paul Preuss' Starfire (Tor, $17.95) should probably not be called novels, given the fact that they are much harder to read than the movie version is to view, and might better be entered into one's computer and computed. But Paul Preuss is a writer of real intelligence, and manages to treat his human characters as actually Wanted on the Voyage.

The trip in question is that of the atomic spaceship Starfire, its mission to land upon an asteroid falling into the sun and to chart its anomalies for fun, science, NASA and profit. Sunflares and sex heat the storyline very nearly to burn-out, but the ship survives, the reader learns a good deal about highly plausible space technologies for the near future, charts and figures come as close to living in Preuss' deft hands as they are ever likely to, and near space seems once again nearly possible. And that is good news. :: John Clute is the book review editor of the sf journal of criticism Foundation. His books include a novel, "The Disinheriting Party," and a collection of essays, "Strokes."