Most science-fiction novels seem to begin with the end of the world. It is, perhaps, no wonder. The dilemmas we must face, as citizens of the planet in 1990, are simply too complex to write good stories about. The easiest way to cope (in fiction) is to wipe the slate clean.
For the writer who wishes to entertain us with the future, almost anything will do--a plague of mutant AIDS viruses, or war, or famine, or the sudden death of the oceans, or perhaps a simple collapse. Then, once the decks have been cleared, the story can begin.
Gordon R. Dickson--a veteran writer from the 1950s, when the future was more easily grasped--takes the simplest option in "Wolf and Iron." To begin his novel, he chooses collapse.
In America, the late 20th Century has, quite suddenly, ceased to be sustainable. The cities have collapsed. Government has imploded. Gangs loot the countryside. Jeebee Walter escapes the shambles of his university town to trek westward through dangerous country in the direction of his older brother's ranch in Montana.
En route, he liberates a wolf from captivity; slowly and delicately, the two establish a working rapport. He comes across a traveling caravan, and learns from its sagacious master some further lessons in coping with the new world; and he falls in love with the old man's resilient daughter. They part. He reaches Montana.
Injuries force him to set up camp short of his brother's territory. After the ambush of her caravan, the girl (in the only pulpy moment of the book) manages to reach him. They have a child. The wolf continues, more and more intimately, to behave like a wolf. Jeebee and the girl decide to stay where they are. The book ends.
It all sounds very much too simple, a Robinsonade that makes Crusoe's experiences seem positively worldly, but "Wolf and Iron," a tale sustained on a raft of emotion, shines in its clarity like a jewel. Perhaps it is because Dickson wears his heart so openly on his sleeve.
It is obvious he loves the cleansed and emptied America of Jeebee's trek; he loves Jeebee himself, his sinewy alertness of mind, his singular attentiveness to the new world and how to make things work in it; and he loves the entirely realistic wolf whose behavior he has so meticulously envisioned. "Wolf and Iron" is what one might call a fascinated book.
After the labored pulpit-pounding of Dickson's Childe Cycle, it returns us to the real thing.
THE QUIET POOLS by Michael P. Kube-McDowell (Ace Books: $17.95; 371 pp.)
"The Quiet Pools," Michael P. Kube-McDowell's first novel, is of genuinely strong interest, but its underlying premise is devastating to the self-esteem of the human race.
It is the 21st Century. Against fervent opposition, a private corporation is building spaceships to carry select populations to the stars. Christopher McCutcheon, who works for The Diaspora Project but who does not himself wish to embark, slowly analyzes his bruised self, his failed marriage group, his enigmatic father, and through a slightly over-complicated plot discovers something of the truth behind things. Some humans (he learns) have a genetic quirk that compels them into space, and those who remain behind are bound to the planet by what they lack.
There is a glad tale-telling energy about the book--just as there was about James Tiptree Jr.'s best stories--that carries one on, as though to joy; but just as in Tiptree's "A Momentary Taste of Being," the message of "The Quiet Pools" is ultimately determinist and bleak. We are walking spermatozoa, Kube-McDowell suggests; and, as we depart this world, it is likely we will leave our nest in ruins.
THE DIVIDE by Robert Charles Wilson (Foundation/Doubleday: $19.95, cloth; $8.95, paper)
Take a break with "The Divide," a neat and simple dual-personality drama by Robert Charles Wilson that looks as though it is going to address some heavy issues, but ends in a fit of glamorizing plot.
A man whose intelligence has been artificially enhanced creates a secondary personality to cope with mundane matters. When he finds his own abilities beginning to decay, he must attempt to come to terms with the sharer he has created.
It is a familiar SF tale, which is no reason not to retell it, and Wilson is deft and nifty and quick off the mark. But his problem is just that: He stays nifty. In the process, he sloughs off any anguish inherent in the drama he has begun to develop, and for a climax tricks his tale up in tiresome twists like a fatally unambitious magician looking for a fast curtain.
Those final moments are too contorted and too dumb to expose in their entirety--but guess who gets his brains sorted out by a blow to the head? Right.
WALKER OF WORLDS by Tom De Haven (Foundation/Doubleday: $19.95, cloth; $8.95, paper)