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Sci-Fi Books to Tempt Readers, Fans

From traditional novels to a fan's dictionary of science fiction terms, this other-world genre has become more literary and less specialized

By Paul A. WilliamsPaul O. Williams, who teaches English at DeAnza College in Cupertino, Calif., is the author of eight science fiction novels. / January 31, 1992

SCIENCE fiction today is less distinct as a genre than it was in the past. Once it was a hurly-burly fiction of fast reads, new ideas, tech-fixes, space operas, and masculine adventure, with minimal characterization and carelessly woven plots. It was published in pulp magazine or paperbacks, and the readership was specialized.

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While science fiction retains many of its former proclivities, it has become increasingly literary: Its characterizations are often stronger, and it is often published in expensive hard covers for a more general market.

The science-fiction-consuming public may be roughly divided into readers and fans. Readers read. Fans often do that, too. But they also form societies, hold conventions, start "fanzines" (minor circulation periodicals), masquerade as their favorite characters, and have parties. For some fans, reading is quite extraneous. Fandom is a huge family, embracing and tolerant, a subculture for the bemused, a means of giving the impersonal urban scene faces and names.

Naturally fans (or "fen," as they often call themselves) have developed their own vocabulary. And now in Roberta Rogow's Futurespeak: A Fan's Guide to the Language of Science Fiction (Paragon House, 408 pp., $24.95) fans have their own dictionary. Much of its content defines scientific terms or concepts common to the genre, such as an "ansible" or a "hive-mind." But fannish peculiarities, such as a "genzine," to "GAFIA" or to "grok," are also included. Anyone perusing this volume will see how huge this i nternational subculture has become and how curious is the combination of intellectual pursuit and sheer zaniness included in fandom.

But the traditional devotion to a series format has, if anything, increased, both for purely commercial reasons and to build mere stories into sagas. After all, adventure with a grand sweep is a love of this genre. Typical of such endeavors is Orson Scott Card's Xenocide (TOR, 394 pp., $21.95), the third book in his Ender series, preceded by his popular "Ender's Game" and "Speaker for the Dead."

Card continues the story of Andrew Wiggin, on the planet Lusitania, with its three sapient but widely different species. Their struggles with one another are severe enough, but the overall threat offered by the Starways Congress, invisible yet a strong presence in the novel, supplies their most severe problem. The Congress is alarmed by the virus descolada, which has invaded all who live on Lusitania, and which, if borne throughout the universe, could infect and destroy all life.

Their solution is to send a fleet to destroy Lusitania. Wiggin forestalls this with the aid of Jane, a vastly complex (and hardly believable) electronic intelligence that has cut all communications among the wide-flung segments of the Starways Congress.

The Congress seeks to discover and disarm this threat by using Qing-jao, a genetically programmed compulsive from the planet Path, to explore the identity of the entity Jane. Curiously, it is in this subplot that the novel achieves its exquisite pathos.