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.
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.
While much of the action on Lusitania is, though well-plotted, sententious and tenuous, the story of Qing-jao goes to the heart. It is exquisite. Her character is deeply probed. Her life problem is more akin to concerns found in mainstream fiction than in science fiction. Here, Card, one of the first writers in the genre, develops Qing-jao so lovingly that to a degree she shoulders the main plot aside. The Ender series is bound to continue.
Third in another series, following "CV" and "The Observers," is the more traditional novel A Reasonable World (TOR, 272 pp., $17.95 cloth, $3.99 paper) by the old master, Damon Knight. This series, set on Earth, also involves an invasive micro-organism, McNulty's symbiont, which enters humankind and forces people to be reasonable or die. Naturally the governments of the earth try to root it out. Knight uses the situation to comment mordantly on human behavior.
"A Reasonable World" is an idea novel. Knight explores his concept brilliantly. Even when misinformed, he is interesting. His prose is of the old school of science fiction - spare, economical, and direct.
Not all novels, of course, appear in series. Carol Severance's Reefsong (Del Rey, 313 pp., $4.99 paper) is an other-world adventure. Its heroine, a highly trained trouble-shooter from Earth, has been physically modified to fit into the water world of the planet. Again, the central struggle is of individuals to survive against the machinations of huge companies and huge governments. But the central interest of the novel is in Severance's fascination with the marine life of the Pacific and her adaptation o f it, and of Pacific peoples, to life on another planet. "Reefsong" is vigorous, diverting, and in part a feminist novel.
Tom Maddox's Halo (TOR, 216 pp., $18.95) has, in broad terms, close plot parallels to "Reefsong." It, too, involves a protagonist's trip to a space environment and a struggle to maintain it against corporate interference. But "Halo" is more benign and involves extensive exploration of the current novelty of "virtual reality," that is, computer simulated experience. Maddox questions at length what the possibilities of such mental experience say about the nature of real experience. He writes smoothly and e conomically, with occasional lyricism.
The short story form has long been a mainstay of science fiction, and one collection, The Bradbury Chronicles: Stories in Honor of Ray Bradbury (ROC/Penguin, 328 pp., $19.95), is unusually charming. Edited by William F. Nolan and Martin H. Greenberg, it contains 21 stories by established writers, most closely connected with Bradbury, celebrating his "50 years of creativity." To this, writer Isaac Asimov adds an appreciation, Nolan an introduction and headnotes to each story, and Bradbury an autobiographi cal afterword. Most of the stories use Bradbury characters and themes, or add to Bradbury stories.
The science fiction world loves Bradbury. So, obviously, do these writers. The result is pure pleasure. Bradbury's omnivorous enthusiasm runs through the book, honored by the sensitivity with which the other writers adapt it to their stories.
Today, science fiction is a genre too large to grasp in its entirety. Readers are well advised to find handles in it that they can hold and divert themselves with those, not worrying about the whole.