New novels, a critique, plus thoughts on the 'science' in sci-fi Canopus in Argos: Archives: Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire, by Doris Lessing. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 179 pp. $12.95. The Eye of the Queen, by Phillip Mann. New York: Arbor House. 262 pp. $13.50. Nebula Maker & Four Encounters, by Olaf Stapledon. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 260 pp. $14.95. Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided, by Leslie A. Fiedler. New York: Oxford University Press. 236 pp. $19.95. The Cosmic Dancers: Exploring the Physics of Science Fiction, by Amit Goswami, with Maggie Goswami. New York: Harper & Row. 292 pp. $18.50.
Readers of Doris Lessing's earlier work, which displayed her unusual gift of insight into human relationships, have to look harder to see that gift exercised in the author's current science fiction series.Skip to next paragraph
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Here we have Lessing's fifth novel in the ''Canopus in Argos: Archives'' series, Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire, presented in the form of visionary archives left by a vast galactic empire. Again Lessing has given us a book that's difficult to read but which has a great deal to say. The theme is language in its broadest sense - its promise when used effectively, and its insidiousness when used to distort.
Written as a collection of documents including reports in dialogue form, this volume relates the experiences of a mature agent of the powerful Canopean Empire , as he guides a younger official, Incent, who suffers from a condition known as ''Undulant Rhetoric.''
Throughout the narrative, Agent Klorathy (and the reader) are ''subjected to burning sincerity from Incent,'' as he learns to conquer his obsession with large words, cliches, grandiose ideas, and, in general, inflated rhetoric employed for its manipulatory potential.
Incent's earnest rhetoric makes good material for satire and humor, two elements that make this novel the most approachable of Lessing's Canopean fare.
The Eye of the Queen also uses a documentary approach, in the form of journal entries recorded by Contract Linguist Marius Thorndyke and his assistant, who become humanity's first representatives on the strange alien world of Pe-Ellia.
New Zealander Phillip Mann chooses a dual point of view for his portrayal of the alien, and it's soon clear that no matter how ''scientific'' each observer attempts to be, ultimately each views the new world through subjective eyes.
The author's real achievement is to use striking, specific, earthly detail to make contact with the alien's experience seem real. For instance, Thorndyke likens his first entrance into the alien spaceship to his experience as a boy ''standing in York Cathedral at a time when the organ had just been switched on. Nothing changed but I was aware that the air was suddenly charged. The charge had to go somewhere and was resolved when the first notes pealed out. Such experiences mark one for life.''
Mann does a rather good job of convincing us that the Pe-Ellians ''manipulate thought as well as we build bridges,'' and of Thorndyke's drive to join with the alien race. But the reader may regret that the Contact Linguists don't provide more glimpses into the actual language of this well-realized culture.
The release of the first American edition of Olaf Stapledon's Nebula Maker & Four Encounters, a book of immense importance to science fiction scholars, may win new readers who will be fascinated with Stapledon's deft handling of immense spans of time and space, and his grasp of human types.
''Nebula Maker'' represents the author's first explorations of the themes he fully realized in his later novel ''Star Maker,'' a work generally judged to be a masterpiece of speculative fiction, and Stapledon's greatest work. ''Four Encounters'' consists of imaginary conversations with a Christian, a mystic, a scientist, and a revolutionary that succeed in elucidating Stapledon's philosophical views on a more human scale.
Leslie A. Fiedler's study, Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided, reveals Stapledon as an original thinker who never identified himself with genre science fiction, preferring to term his work ''romance of the future,'' or ''fantastic fiction of a semi-philosophical kind.'' Some of Stapledon's writings, Fiedler points out, can hardly be classified as novels but should be regarded as ''philosophy disguised as literature.''
Fiedler handles the complicated religious implications of Stapledon's philosophy well, noting that the author portrayed the ''Creator as Spirit awakening in time,'' an unfinished force ''like unto a god.'' Stapledon saw himself as working with symbols, as in myth, to convey ideas and emotions of intellectual significance. His myth isn't a cozy one but rather the story of a man seeking order in the vast cosmos of his imagination.
The Cosmic Dancers is a lucid and captivating treatment of the theoretical physics upon which much science fiction is based. Although the authors' goal is to enrich our understanding of science fictional technologies, this book must be recommended to anyone wishing to understand today's science better.
Written by nuclear physicist Amit Goswami, of the University of Oregon, in collaboration with his wife, the text provides the layman with step-by-step explanations of major scientific theories. In the Goswamis' hands, imposing ideas become palatable food for thought. With this book as a guide, even the theory of relativity becomes comprehensible to the nonscientist.