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COUNTERSOLAR! by Richard A. Lupoff (Arbor House: $16.95; 293 pp.)

February 15, 1987|Orson Scott Card | Recipient of the Nebula and Hugo awards for his science fiction, Card is author of the fourthcoming American fantasy novel "Seventh Son" (Tor)

Back in the early '30s, when science fiction appeared only in magazines titled "Thrilling" and "Wonder" and "Astounding" and "Marvel," everybody knew such stories were supposed to take hold of your imagination and blow your brains away.

Seems like most people have forgotten that, in the years since. Everybody in science fiction these days wants to be respectable or start a revolution. They're so solemn.

The few who go back to that old Thrilling-Wonder-Astounding-Marvel type of story usually write parody. As if they thought that to a modern, sophisticated audience, such tales could only be funny.

Well, to hell with that condescending attitude, says Richard Lupoff. Those old stories weren't funny, they were fun. And in "Countersolar!" he proves that there's still some life in those old romantic bones.

Start with a planet Earth that isn't a sphere at all. It's a torus--a flattened doughnut or a chubby phonograph record, with a North Hole and a South Rim. In a previous novel, "Circumpolar!," Lupoff took us on the first expedition from our side of that Earth to the other side, with Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes on the American team, and the German team headed by a certain Von Richthofen.

"Countersolar!" at first seems to be a replay--another international race, but this time through space, to visit the duplicate Earth that has only recently been discovered orbiting exactly opposite us on the other side of the sun.

The teams have the same kind of historical resonance. The good guys launch from the deck of the Titanic with Albert Einstein and the first woman pro baseball player, Babe Didrickson, among the crew. The Fascists launch a faster ship from Argentina, armed for a war in space--but with Evita aboard, Juan Peron is easily distracted.

Already, astronomy and history are in tatters, but it's an artful kind of quasi-cosmology that Lupoff has devised.

He is creating, not the scientific wonders that our jaded '80s sensibility expects, but rather the limitless possibilities that people in the '30s once imagined.

It is our old future, the one that filled us with so much hope during those Depression years when we hungered to believe that American ingenuity and democratic principles would triumph over all comers.

Lupoff doesn't waste time trying to make us believe in this universe. On the surface, at least, he asks us only to smile with delight, to marvel at the sights he has prepared for us, like the pyramids and sphinxes waiting silently on the other side of the moon.

Despite Lupoff's perfect evocation of all that was good in the old-time space operas, however, he is still a writer of our time. Much of the fun still depends on our sense of irony--the contrast between our world today and the horrors dreaded by the people of the '30s.

His villains are vaguely comforting--they pale in contrast with the monsters of our own true history.

What makes this kind of storytelling work, though, is not just breakneck action and an eccentric cosmic vision. The librettists of the old space operas were also believers in their vision.

So, in a way, is Lupoff.

No, he's not a lunatic. He knows his cosmos, his history. And his characters are his own clever malformation of reality.

As "Countersolar!" winds down to its wistful denouement, he shows us Einstein telling the U.S. President about the atomic bomb that might be built--and how terrible it would be.

"Do we wish to build this weapon, Dr. Einstein?" the President asks.

Einstein answers, "If we build it, it may spell our final doom. If we do not build it and another nation . . . does, it may also spell our final doom."

When asked about his most transcendent experience, Einstein says the last words in the book: "I cannot tell you about God. Only listen, Mr. President, listen to God. In this room, at this moment. Listen to the flames. Listen to the falling snow, so soft a sound, so beautiful a sound. Be still and listen to the beating of your heart."

What Lupoff believes is not the details of his story, but its underlying hope.

Yet I will only cheat you if I try to tell you openly what Lupoff silently tells us in this book. It's a message so subtly given that it's possible to close the book and think there was no message there at all.

It's possible to think that all Lupoff created was several hours of old-fashioned wonderment, an exhilarating tour of never-land. Maybe that's enough.

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