Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Unnumbered Reviews #8: Piers Anthony

This review is intended as first aid for readers who are giving the Piers Anthony shelf at the bookstore dubious glances and wondering whether and where to jump in. That comes close to being a frequently asked question. In some respects, my answers are going to be very similar to those that are typically given in response.

Piers Anthony is a writer with a gimmick. Many gimmicks, in fact, and each book or series he writes is structured around a gimmick of some sort, most often a game. The result is typically excellent mind candy, at least to start, often mixed in with non-trivial ethical or philosophical issues which can challenge the young readers who constitute his primary target audience. Anthony has the bad habit, unfortunately, of taking the contents of one excellent novel and stretching them over an entire series -- flogging the gimmick-of-the-day until the last bit of life has gone out of it. This is why he aggravates people so: He hasn't the grace to be an untalented hack who can just be ignored or to write to his potential.

It's worth thinking of Anthony's career in two parts. Before he hit the jackpot with his 'Xanth' series, he wrote mostly stand-alone novels. They ranged from excellent to execrable. (The worst of the latter were unpublishable at the time, but have since been printed on the basis of Anthony's name. Those books often have forewords that say things like "I wrote this in 1960 but couldn't sell it until 1990." Take those warnings gratefully to heart.) Since he became a reliable best-seller, stand-alone novels have become the exception, and the series novels have become the rule. He hasn't stopped writing entertaining young-people's fiction: If you pick up the first book of almost any of his series, it's likely to be good. Trouble is, he then puts that book through more sequel-permutations than the book was made to bear. So -- where to start?

"Macroscope" (***+ on an uncalibrated four-point scale) is probably his best book. The Macroscope itself is the ultimate 'eye', capable of picking up high-resolution observations from anywhere in the galaxy. A number of extraterrestrial civilizations are already under observation -- and those near Earth's level of development show a distressing tendency to self-destruct. The Macroscope is also picking up a general broadcast, on the band it uses, which appears to carry technical information -- including the key to interstellar travel -- but that information is protected by a 'destroyer' sequence which destroys the minds of those with high enough intelligence to comprehend the technical information. A small group, which includes the one person capable of making limited use of the broadcast, embarks on a search for answers: What is the 'destroyer'? Why is it inplace? Can the information it shields save Earth from self-destruction?

The book bubbles with ideas. The author bubbles with ideas, and wants to share them with us, often at great length. Reading "Macroscope" is like being shown through a child's collection of gems, bottle-tops, and other shiny objects found on the beach: Word puzzles, ecological collapse, mathematical games, racism, astrology, the nature of genius, and more -- the elements are interesting and thought-provoking, but it often feels as if Anthony included anything that happened to interest him that day. The characters are shallow and obsessive -- a problem Anthony's never licked -- and play idiotic games for absurdly high stakes. The story keeps taking time out for little psychodramas, apparently for no better reason than that the author likes writing them. And yet... and yet, there is something engaging about this book bubbling over with ideas faster than the author can put them on paper.

A relatively early work (1969) "Macroscope" hasn't aged as gracefully as it might have, but Anthony's strengths and weaknesses show clearly. At the time, the book signalled great potential. An author who could build on those strengths and overcome those weaknesses could produce wonderful books. Now, a quarter of a century later, little has changed. Replace "Macroscope" with another title and change the list of shiny objects, and the preceding paragraph can be applied to most anything Anthony's written since.

"A Spell for Chameleon" (***) is the first book in the 'Xanth' series, that made Anthony's fortune. If most of Anthony's books are mind candy, the 'Xanth' novels are spun sugar -- light, airy, and almost content-free. Xanth in a magical land. No, not in the sense that there's a lot of magic, but in the sense that everything is magic. It's a land of dragons and harpies and giants and demons. It's a land where shoes grow on shoe trees and butter comes from butterflies and everyone is born with a magic power. Everyone except Bink, that is, who's about to be exiled from Xanth as a result. Bink's search for magic takes him first to the castle of the Good Magician -- who is able to verify that he does have a powerful magic, but one that is hidden -- and then into the path of an invading army led by a previously exiled Evil Magician.

"A Spell for Chameleon" is cute, light-weight, and fun -- particularly if you don't mind bad puns and characters who are seldom more than extensions of their talents. The series has run to many sequels. The first couple, "The Source of Magic" and "Castle Roogna" are better than the ones that follow, as each book in the series seems to lean more heavily on bad puns than the previous one. The most frequently asked question about Anthony's books is which Xanth novels to read, and the answer that is almost always given is to read until they stop being fun and then to stop -- because they're not going to get better. (Anthony's series generally decline, but the Xanth series has run long enough for the decline to be particularly visible.) One other word of warning: Piers Anthony's handling of relations between the sexes generally puts me in mind of a twelve-year-old peeking up girls' dresses, but nowhere is this more pronounced than in the Xanth novels.

Other Major Series:

"On a Pale Horse" (***) is the first book in the series "Incarnations of Immortality." It's placed in an Earth much like our own, except that magic coexists with science, and the Earth is a battleground between Heaven and Hell. Between God and the Devil are the five Incarnations -- once-human manifestations of Death, Time, War, Fate, and Nature. Neutral in principle, they often oppose the Devil in practice. When Zane's time comes to die, Death comes for him -- and winds up taking the bullet meant for Zane. By the 'rules', Zane gets the job and becomes the new Death -- and the Devil takes advantage of his lack of experience to further a scheme meant to give Hell control of the Earth. Each sequel tells the story of a different Incarnation. As is typical, the series goes downhill after a promising start.

"Split Infinity" (***) is the first of three -- and ultimately seven -- books in the "Apprentice Adept" sf/fantasy series. Proton is a fabulously rich planet whose Citizens are served by 'serfs' -- people from other worlds who are happy to take long-term contracts as almost-property for extremely high pay. The chief recreation on Proton is "the Game" -- a complex competitive framework which supplies most of the digressions in the series. Phaze is a parallel world in which magic replaces science. The murder of the Blue Adept, one of the most powerful mages of Phaze, enables Stile, his Proton analogue and one of the foremost Game players, to enter Phaze and take his place. As an adept on Phaze and as a major Game competitor on Proton, he battles what turn out to be related dangers.

"Sos the Rope" (***) begins one of Anthony's earliest series, the "Battle Circle" trilogy. In a post-holocaust future, men wander around duelling with primitive weapons, or settle into small tribes whose leadership is determined by this code duello. (Women function primarily as camp followers.) This 'idyll' is shattered when Sol and Sos -- respectively an unbeatable warrior and a thinker -- join forces and begin to create an empire.

"Refugee" (**) begins the five-volume "Bio of a Space Tyrant" -- a novel of contemporary politics, artificially placed in a science-fictional setting. Anthony's political prescriptions follow the rather corrupt tradition of "Here is what I would do if I were President and had dictatorial powers."

The "Cluster" series -- a trilogy beginning with "Cluster" (**) and two stand-alone novels -- is placed in a future in which interstellar travel is expensive, but it is practical to interact with other worlds by projecting one's personality into a host -- if one has a strong enough Kirlian aura. Each book in the trilogy has a different character with an exceptionally powerful aura serving as a key player in an intergalactic struggle. A prequel -- the "Tarot" trilogy -- is probably better thought of.

A number of Anthony's stand-alone novels are worth at least mentioning. "Triple Detente" (***) is structured around the question of how to make good government and self-interest congruent -- and begins when Earth and another world ...conquer each other. "Prostho Plus" (***) is silly fun: A dentist (a prosthodontist, actually) is kidnapped by a space alien with a toothache, and finds himself being passed from planet to planet in a never-ending battle against interstellar tooth decay. Steppe (**+) is essentially a retelling of the history of Genghis Khan, within the context of a futuristic role-playing game.

Anthony has also coauthored many novels, mostly with mediocre results. Among these is his recent and unlikely collaboration with Mercedes Lackey, titled "If I Pay Thee Not in Gold" (**). I came away from this book with the impression that Lackey had done the word-smithing (which is better than Anthony's usual) while adhering to a fairly generic Piers Anthony plot outline. The result is a book for Anthony fans, not for Lackey fans.

Comments and Recommendations: If you're looking for books that are thoughtful and thought-provoking, with plausible characters facing meaningful challenges, don't waste your time with Piers Anthony. If you're looking for trash, and aren't put off by a few stylistic quirks -- including shallow characterization, a juvenile attitude towards women, obsessive patterning of the story, and a tendency for characters to determine the fate of the galaxy by challenging each other to a game of monopoly or such like -- Anthony writes good trash. Bear in mind that these books are written primarily for younger readers, and written down, at that: The ethical dimension of Anthony's writing is pronounced, but it's shallow and simplistic.

None of which means that you won't enjoy his books. Millions do. I do. Sometimes. The important rule to remember is to start at the beginning of a series, and not to expect a declining series to get better. I haven't tried to be exhaustive in listing Anthony's novels -- or even in listing his series. It's more useful to think of Piers Anthony's books as a commodity, in the sense that a Harlequin romance is a commodity: The question isn't "which are the good ones?" so much as "do I feel like reading one?" One of his books is about as good as another for answering that question.

disclaimer for the Unnumbered Reviews

%A Anthony, Piers
%T Macroscope

%S The Xanth Series
%S Incarnations of Immortality
%S The Apprentice Adept
%S Battle Circle
%S Bio of a Space Tyrant
%S Cluster

%T Triple Detente
%T Prostho Plus
%T Steppe
%T If I Pay Thee Not in Gold
%O The last coauthored with Mercedes Lackey

Dani Zweig