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Across the Sea of Genre

John Grant revels in the diverse

Three reviews:

Vitals

by Greg Bear

(US edition: Del Rey, $24.95, hardback. UK edition: Voyager, £17.99, 342 pages, 2 April 2002, ISBN: 0007124023.)

The Visitor

by Sheri S Tepper

(US edition: Eos, $25.95, hardcover, 416 pages, 26 March 2002, ISBN: 0380979055. UK editions: Gollancz, hardback, £17.99, 416 pages, 18 July 2002, ISBN: 0575074159. Gollancz, trade paperback, £10.99, 416 pages, 18 July 2002, ISBN: 0575074167. Gollancz, 6.99, 407 pages, mass market paperback, 10 April 2003.)

The Dragon Queen

by Alice Borchardt

(Del Rey, hardcover, $25.00, 480 pages, 30 October 2001, ISBN: 0345443993.)

This is a column about three fantasy novels. To be sure, two of them would be more generally described as science fiction, but we should bear in mind the final, all-encompassing definition of sf as promulgated by none other than this reviewer, who should therefore know if anyone does: "Science fiction is that subgenre of fantasy which panders to the scientific pretensions of its readers and writers." So here are three novels which, between them, cover the full spectrum of fantasy from hard(ish) sf to the purest stuff itself.

I suppose that Greg Bear's Vitals is more likely to find its way onto the technothriller shelves than cover scanthe hard sf ones, despite Bear's excellent credentials in the latter discipline. Gene scientist Hal Cousins is a researcher into immortality, his approach being that Death entered the ecosystem not at the same time as the emergence of Earth's first lifeforms but some little while after. Accordingly he retrieves from the deep ocean trenches some of the most primordial organisms there are, and finds that indeed his hunch is backed up by the facts. What he doesn't know is that others have been here before him; not only are they murderously eager to protect their secret but they have learnt how to use what are effectively the same techniques to create insane monsters out of the innocent. Researchers into longevity, including Cousins's own brother, are being knocked off on all sides, and it is soon brought dramatically to his attention -- not least by the endeavours of an enigmatic eccentric called Rudy Banning -- that he's more or less next on the list. Naturally, Cousins teams up with those he assumes are the good guys in order to counter the secret tyranny of the quasi-immortals...

This is all promising stuff, of course. Throw in a loony scientist or three -- which Bear dutifully does -- and you have all the makings of the standard technothriller. The trouble is that Bear, while getting the "techno" part right, paints in the "thriller" aspects as if by numbers. Yes, there's the paranoia of not knowing whether any particular character among the goodies can actually be trusted, because the baddies have spies and double agents everywhere; and there's the added paranoia that the insane-monster syndrome can be spread merely by touch, the more intimate the better. But the reader is only halfway through the first quick paranoid frisson when a recently introduced addition to the band of goodies promptly starts boffing our hero, behaviour unusual in one who's only just been bereaved of a spouse. Well, lemme guess, Watson, who the traitor might be...

Those fairly detailed sex scenes are about as erotic as a catalogue: "Positions #41 (lite version, omitting live octopus), #76 and #129-#131 inclusive", perhaps. Similarly, there are shoot-ups galore, but they appear on the page as dry, accurate and somehow rather academic descriptions of events rather than as incidents in which one feels at all involved: as per a police report, there is no whiff of blood or gunpowder in the reader's nostrils.

Bear is manifestly capable of much more enthralling writing than this, and one can only assume -- perhaps wrongly, but this is the way the book feels -- that this essay at the technothriller discipline was born more of a desire to move into a subgenre where sales, and hence royalty earnings, are generally rather higher than for sf proper, that the lack of excitement in the book reflects a lack of genuine interest on the author's part.

Sheri S. Tepper is an author who has probably cover scan - US editionnever written an uninvolved novel in her life -- although a few of her earliest attempts are somewhat rote and some of her efforts of the 1990s smack a little of the formulaic (although, to be fair, the formula is one of her own devising). In the course of her extremely distinguished career she has established a sub-subgenre of her own that so far doesn't really have a proper descriptive term in the critic's vocabulary. A good term would be "science fantasy", except that that's already been largely appropriated for tales of sword 'n' sorcery on exotic planets where technological development has come grinding to a halt with the invention of the unwashed loincloth. Yet Tepper's novels suit the term far better than this: for the most part they can be read either as fantasies that are eventually shown to have a scientific rationale or as exercises in sf that nevertheless deploy all the tropes and characteristics of high fantasy. Such matters of definition, of course, are hardly germane to the average reader, who sensibly ignores them altogether and just judges each book according to whether or not it's any good.

Tepper's novels are generally not just good but extremely good. Even the weaker among her recent offerings -- such as Singer from the Sea, The Family Tree and especially Gibbon's Decline and Fall -- are nevertheless more interesting and conceptually challenging than most other novels on the fantasy/sf shelves. Still, there's been the undoubted sense that it was about time for Tepper to return to the very peak of her form, and this April saw that joyous event with the publication of The Visitor.

It's fair to say that the plot begins with the discovery cover scan - UK editionsby astronomers, in the near future, that a rogue cosmic body is on an impact trajectory towards Earth. Accurate but misleading, I should hastily add before your eyes glaze and images of Bruce Willis and a team of moronic but plucky, goddammit plucky all-Amurkan miners come to mind. This is not a disaster novel in any accepted sense of the term. The main action concerns the aftermath of the holocaust that occurs when the object hits, but not the immediate aftermath; instead the setting is many generations later, when science is, as it were, a dead language and the route to knowledge is seen as lying along the road of magic -- more specifically necromancy. This future Earth is a world in which the case for magic is actually quite a good one, for supernatural monsters -- with some of whom humankind operates in uneasy alliance and of others humans are rightly terrified -- are all over the place. The biggest and most psychically powerful of all these monsters is the Visitor itself, the main raison d'être for the coming to this planet of that rogue celestial object: the Visitor squats enigmatically over much of the Arctic, but is known to have the ability to move elsewhere should circumstances so advise.

Central to the tale is a typical Tepper heroine: a young orphan called Dismé Latimer. She possesses a book that is seemingly incomprehensible but which she eventually deciphers as the diary of her ancestor Nell Latimer, one of the scientists who documented the course of the Visitor's unorthodox spacecraft as it sped towards the Earth. More, Nell and select bands of other scientists took the precaution, before the impact, of setting themselves into cryogenic sleep at various centres throughout the world, emerging from their slumbers in widely separated shifts to observe their descendants' rebuilding (or, more like it, building anew) of civilization.

There are delicious baddies galore, both human and supernatural; and in due course there is what is in effect a Last Battle straight from more traditional high fantasy ... which, I would argue, is what The Visitor actually is. And this is what's so exciting about this book, I feel: where before Tepper has written fantasies that are finally rationalized to become science fiction, with The Visitor she at last takes the obvious next step. Yes, there are many of the trappings of sf here -- aliens, a far future Earth, classy human technology, and so on -- but at the end all is not rationalized: extraterrestrial in origin those monsters and indeed some of the goodies might be, but that doesn't affect in the slightest their status as beings of the supernatural, rather than of physical reality. What Tepper has done is to create a full-blooded fantasy -- and a superbly realized, gorgeously readable one at that -- that just happens to be set in a sciencefictional venue and draws upon some aspects of science and technology (and sf) as elements of that fantasy.

One might be tempted to come out with the old cliché that, if you're going to buy just one book this Spring, then The Visitor should be it, but actually there've been a lot of extremely good books in the field of fantastic fiction these past few months. A few that come randomly to mind cover scanare Harry Squires's What Rough Beast, George Foy's The Last Harbor, Richard Paul Russo's Ship of Fools, Robert Katz's Edward Maret and of course Michael Moorcock's The Dreamthief's Daughter, while a couple of glorious revised reissues have been Nancy Collins's Tempter and especially Sylvia Louise Engdahl's long-neglected Enchantress from the Stars -- one of the best sf novels ever published, but published into the YA ghetto. (The new YA imprint Firebird is shortly to release the paperback of the Enchantress reissue.) And also there's been Alice Borchardt's The Dragon Queen.

Borchardt, you will recall, was the author much heralded a while back as doing for werewolves what Anne Rice had done for vampires; accordingly, and particularly because he'd read a couple of the early Borchardts, this reviewer opened The Dragon Queen with a certain deeply rooted feeling of malaise. What, he wondered, might Borchardt do with the tale of Guinevere, Arthur's queen? Little reassurance is to be gained from the fact that the very first character we're introduced to is ... a werewolf. (Well, OK, he's a shapeshifter who alternates between man and wolf, but that's splitting bristles.) The book almost went back on the shelf in the wake of that discovery, but very, very fortunately it didn't.

Arthurian fantasies do tend to be much of a muchness: some are better than others, but almost all are written in similar style and have similar preoccupations -- one that is outstandingly different in both style and mood is the Fay Sampson series Daughter of Tintagel, which is a sort of oral history of Morgan Le Fay, but it's well out on its own limb (and excitingly so). Guinevere is generally treated as the least interesting of the central Arthurian characters: a sort of bimbo for the Age of Chivalry.

Not in Borchardt's book she ain't. The version of the Arthurian cycle rendered in The Dragon Queen is a completely revisionist one. The villain of the piece is Merlin, here rendered as a youthful necromancer with an almost insane lust for power and power-broking. He is ably assisted by his lover, Arthur's mother, Queen Igrane, her youthful beauty preserved by foul necromantic means. Guinevere, who tells much of the story herself, is orphaned in infancy and reared by a family of (were)wolves, headed by the wily Maeniel; the family is shortly joined by the fussy rebel druid Dugald and the freed slave Kyra (one of the best characters in the book). The girl-child has an affinity for dragons, which are an accepted if rare part of the ecosystem in Dark Age Britain; she also has a natural aptitude for magic and, most importantly, a spiritual identification with the Fertility Goddess, here rendered under various names, including Athena and the Flower Bride, but generally appearing simply as "She", no proper noun being required.

From the description so far you might still be tempted to think that The Dragon Queen is going to be just yet another feminist-slanted rehash of the standard Arthurian fodder, with a few dragons chucked in to give the cover artist something evocative to work with. Nothing could be further from the truth. Borchardt uses her materials, some traditional but many of them original, to create a fully fledged work of the fantastic that is wildly imaginative and astonishingly exhilarating. One symptom of true fantasy (as opposed to the generic pap we're most often fed) is that the reader hasn't a clue what to expect in the next chapter but that, when the chapter in question arrives, filled with fresh and unanticipated marvels, it seems to belong rationally to the whole, whatever the logical system upon which the novel is based. Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking-glass is a fine example of a fantasy based on a highly non-mundane logical system, yet it passes this test; and The Dragon Queen is another. For neither Guinevere nor Arthur, preordained to be a breeding pair yet beating the system by genuinely falling in love, spend all their time in this world, being cast often instead, by the magical machinations of their elders, into otherworlds of varying degrees of strangeness, from a truly bizarre Land of the Dead to unnamed lands where "alive" and "dead" are merely arbitrary terms.

Looking along the dreary bookstore shelves filled with myriad interchangeable titles of the general form Quest of the Dragonspume Volume VI: The Realms of Kumquat, one often has the dispiriting sense that high fantasy, for misguided commercial reasons, has departed the realm of fantastic literature to become an adjunct of the bodice-busting romance; it is a dismal truth that this is more or less an accurate statement of the case. The Dragon Queen, which -- joy! joy! -- has no central quest, no kitchen-boy-who-will-come-to-the-throne, no wise old mage apt to produce Dale Carnegie-style pronouncements, and no twee elves, is, like Tepper's The Visitor, a timely and heartening reminder that the potential of the discipline is still as great as ever.


Review by John Grant.

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