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A Futuristic Teen-Ager Who Faces Several Personal Dragons

November 08, 1986|BEN BOVA | Ben Bova is the author of more than 65 futuristic novels and nonfiction books about science and high technology. His latest novel is "Voyagers II: The Alien Within." and

A Memory of Dragons by Annabel and Edgar Johnson (Atheneum: $13.95, hardcover; 170 pp.)

After reading Annabel and Edgar Johnson's "A Memory of Dragons," I realize that I was born 30 years too soon.

When I started writing juvenile novels in the late 1950s, there were taboos against almost everything interesting: Neither the teen-age protagonists nor the adult characters were allowed to drink, smoke, swear, or engage in anything more romantic than an occasional modest kiss.

But violence was OK, so long as it was not too graphic. I could destroy entire planets in my science fiction novels, but accurately portraying the way teen-agers spoke, or their emotional yearnings, was an implacable no-no.

Thirty years of history and experience have changed all that--for the better, as this fine novel shows. "A Memory of Dragons" contains mild profanity, discusses physical and sexual child abuse (discreetly), and has a charmingly likable hero who drinks beer, even though he is barely 18 years old.

Accurate Portrayal

Without the taboos, the authors are able to write a novel that accurately portrays a teen-ager, even though this one is somewhat of a genius. It is the 1990s. Paul Killian is an electronics wizard, and a murderer. The victim of child abuse, he thinks he killed his father, and as a result, he has lost part of his memory. As the story begins, Paul is 18 and working for high-tech corporation in Colorado.

He is recruited by a government security agency to help ferret out a subversive movement that is trying to get the Western states to secede from the United States.

Meanwhile, he is taking a new, untested psychiatric drug in an effort to regain the lost portion of his memory, to see if he did actually murder his father, and if so, why.

There are four major elements in a science fiction story: character, background, conflict, and plot. The Johnsons get high grades in all four areas.

The characterizations are excellent throughout, from Paul and his doctor, to his laid-back boss at the electronics company, the two sisters with whom he becomes romantically entangled, and assorted friends who might be secret enemies. There's even a thoroughly nasty 9-year-old, the kind of spoiled brat who deserves a good swat on the rear.

The background--both the natural setting in Colorado and the high technology involved in the story--are first-rate. When Paul produces a new piece of electronic wizardry, you believe it actually works. When he tries to escape his pursuers by leaping into an icy mountain river, you feel the cold right down to your bones.

Plenty of Conflict

There is plenty of conflict within Paul. He is torn by the fear that he is psychopathically violent, a madman who murdered his father. He thinks he loves the daughter of the retired general who owns the company, and thinks his immediate boss is his friend. He has obvious enemies, but his real enemies are hidden from his eyes.

And, as a result of the memory-restoring drug he is taking, he begins to get "flashbacks" to the era of the Civil War, where he lives the life of one of his own ancestors, trapped in a bloody battle.

The plot is full of surprising turns and revelations. Every detail works to support the main structure of the story. There are no wasted words.

I have one gripe with the book. Paul's narrative is written in a snappy style somewhat reminiscent of Raymond Chandler. ("The general is one of those tall, slim, gray eminences who carry their own indirect lighting: that rich gleam of authority.") I don't believe that an 18-year-old talks like Philip Marlowe.

But that is a minor gripe, and this is an exceptional novel.

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