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Schopenhauer in Cyberspace : DREAM OF GLASS, By Jean Mark Gawron (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $21.95; 367 pp.) : RAINBOW MAN, By M. J. Engh (Tom Doherty Associates Inc: $17.95; 256 pp.) : AMMONITE, By Nicola Griffith (Ballantine Books: $3.99; 360 pp.) : NIGHTSIDE THE LONG SUN, By Gene Wolfe (Tom Doherty Associates Inc: $21.95; 336 pp.)

June 06, 1993|Reviewed by James Sallis | Sallis reviews science fiction regularly for the Book Review. His latest novel, "Moth," will be published in August by Carroll & Graf

By turns a meditation on the evolution of artificial intelligence, a psychodrama about the interdependence of individual and state and an inquiry into the nature of identity, Mark Gawron's "Dream of Glass" is a remarkably intelligent book, intelligent in the way that Samuel Delany's Triton and Neveryon series, or certain books by Joanna Russ, are intelligent. Chapter epigraphs from the like of Fenelon, Schopenhauer, Marcus Aurelius, Northrop Frye and Mussolini give fair notice of the waters we're about to dive into.

The novel's difficulty is likely to limit its following among committed science fiction readers, just as its speculative elements--futuristic setting, computer metaphors, human beings augmented by machinery or reconstructed from stored information--may deter more "literary" readers. Maybe not, though: If critics like Larry McCaffery and Scott Bukatman are right ("Storming the Reality Studio" and "Terminal Identity," both from Duke University Press), Gawron's novel may be one of the first buildings to go up at the new crossroads of science-fictional and literary sensibilities. And if so, my friends, it's going to be one hell of a city.

In contrast to the dazzle and dash of Cyberpunk, Gawron's narrative unfolds slowly and at some remove. Vibrant, poetic passages give way to dialogue wherein (rather than in action) much of the novel's discourse resides. Much that is important occurs offstage, much of the rest in characters' minds. Gawron's efforts to visualize concept, to transform metaphor into physicality in his descriptions of the "cyberspace" Net, seem to me no more convincing than those of William Gibson and the "punkers." And one device I would praise as central to the novel's structure--its alternating first-person voices--to other readers may seem unnecessarily confusing.

No reader can doubt for a moment Gawron's authority and accomplishments here, yet readers from both sides of the fence (which hasn't been torn down for new construction) may fail to find what they are looking for: the accustomed, the familiar, the stone worn smooth with use. Perhaps, finally, that is the best recommendation of all.

Like many genre novels, "Rainbow Man" by M. J. Engh opens on a compelling premise--a woman leaves her place aboard a star-ship commune for a new life in planet Bimran's anarchic society, where because she has been surgically sterilized she is classified a man--then prolapses into fairly standard fare.

The book deals not at all with the gender/identity issues suggested by its first pages, nor in any authentic manner with the wounding and patchwork of so violent a cultural dislocation, but offers up, instead, a conventional tale of authoritarian repression and religious zeal so simplistic that it might have been extracted from '50s pulps. While Engh tells us repeatedly that Bimran has no government, for example, she gives us absolutely no information as to how the society does work.

Where "Rainbow Man" takes a sharp turn away from pulp fare is in the fine, capable quality of its writing. There's really not a lot in the way of plot here, for what Engh cares about are issues: issues such as the inter-penetrability of good and evil, individual rights versus the needs of society--and more than anything else, I suspect, "Rainbow Man" is a vehicle to discuss them.

If science fiction is about anything, it's about vision, about imaginative force that at its best can crack the husks of conventional wisdom and the blinds of daily life and offer glimpses of a much larger world, a transformed self. Engh's issues may sometimes seem like those traded late at night in university dorm rooms, but at least she's out there trying. "Everything we are taught is false," the greatest adolescent of all, Rimbaud, wrote. Engh knows that, too.

Rimbaud also wrote "'I' Is An other," and the central story uniting Nicola Griffith's many-faceted "Ammonite" is of protagonist (and eventual heroine) Marghe Taishan becoming just that: other. A first novel in Ballantine's Del Rey Discovery series, "Ammonite" spins out a rich tale encompassing biochemistry, mysticism, planetary colonization, unisexual reproduction, recidivism, inquiries into the nature of self and social catalysis.

Anthropologist Marghe Taishan comes to the planet GP to test a new vaccine against the virus that centuries past killed most of its original colonists and all the men. In search of knowledge, she voluntarily sunders herself from kith and kin and the world she knows. Imprisoned by one tribal family, she attempts to escape and finally succeeds, then begs to be allowed to join another, where eventually she becomes a viajera : a griot, a wanderer in her new world, that world's memory and conscience, history-walking.

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