Keeper of Dreams, by Orson Scott Card

Keeper of Dreams
By Orson Scott Card (Tor, 2008, 656p, $27.95)

There is one glaring difference between Keeper of Dreams and Card’s earlier 1990 collection, Maps in a Mirror. These aren’t stories by a man hoping to be published; they are stories by a man who is pretty certain he will be. None of them have opening paragraphs written by a man who badly needed to catch an editor’s attention; Card knows these will be read. They were mostly written for guest anthologies, or conventions, or are offcuts from existing novels or planned openers for new ones; and though they are all well written and come to satisfying conclusions, there are none that really stand out. I can still remember stories from Maps in a Mirror 18 years later, even if I need to look up the actual titles. I doubt I will remember many of these in 18 years time. There are no bad stories among them, but there are a few that twenty years ago would have been more concise.

Quite simply, Card isn’t a Young Turk short story writer any more. He is frank in his introduction. He started writing short Sf to make a name for himself in the field. Having made a name for himself, but wanting to earn a living too, he began to write novels instead, though he keeps his hand in with the short form when he can. Thus Maps in a Mirror contained 46 stories published over twelve years, 1977-1989; Keeper of Dreams has 22 published in the last eighteen. Maps in a Mirror defined Card as a writer. Keeper of Dreams is a light protective covering.

Another effect of Card having made it is that his notorious taste for violence and grue in earlier stories is completely absent. He’s got our attention already. There is nothing here really likely to rattle anyone’s cages – certainly no equivalent of the first collection’s excellent “Lost Boys” (published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1989, which made letters pages glow red hot with protest and drew epithets of which “Mormon baby killer” was the kindest), or “Kingsmeat”, or “Holy”. Shame. But one thing Card hasn’t done is forgotten where he came from – he knows and remembers exactly what it’s like to be a new writer, casting desperately about for hints and the first big break. Like Maps in a Mirror, the stories here are interspersed with little essays from Card that give extra value to the story you have just read and, yes, should help out aspiring writers a little too.

There may have been readers of the Maps in a Mirror stories who didn’t actually know who the author was. There will be few readers now who don’t know that Card is a Mormon, for a start; that he is a happily married family man; and that he is what many would call a political and religious conservative (even though he is in fact a proud American who loathes unfettered capitalism; a Democrat who despises Clinton, doesn’t believe in human-led global warming and supports the Iraq war). Anyway, it’s safe to say that none of these stories will surprise you.

What hasn’t changed one jot over eighteen years is the high regard and value that Orson Scott Card has for the value and dignity of human beings; for the worth of love and family; and his fascination with the practical problems that will be faced by anyone living in the real world who is determined to live their life in a moral way. This may derive from his belief in a God who so loved the world that he gave his only son etc., or it may just be who Card is. Or both.

“Feed the Baby of Love” and “Inventing Lovers on the Phone” are perhaps the stories where Card’s personal values shine through the strongest. The former can only really be considered genre because it’s a sequel to Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine – it comes from an anthology in which authors were invited to expand on any point from anywhere in the Bradbury oeuvre. If you follow Card’s online column “Uncle Orson Reviews Everything” (http://www.hatrack.com/osc/reviews/everything/) then you will soon gather that the Card family are inveterate board game players, and “Feed the Baby of Love” shows both Card the game player and Card the moral family man in exquisite detail. Even if you disagree with Card’s morality for life, you’re going to have to think damn hard to come up with your counter argument. Meanwhile “Inventing Lovers on the Phone” says all that could need to be said about the contempt in which any rapist should be held, not least by his victims.

Of historical interest is “Geriatric Ward” (I would need a genuine geneticist to tell me if its science makes sense; I wasn’t entirely convinced), which was written for The Last Dangerous Visions and appears here for the first time anywhere – apparently without incurring the wrath of Harlan Ellison. Does this mean that TLDV is now officially over?

Card was a playwright first of all, before he was any other kind of writer. A playwright has to dictate the audience’s emotions through dialogue alone, and thus there tends to be a lot of it. In the Keeper of Dreams stories, Card can afford to indulge himself by going back to his roots. He has no taciturn characters – no one who mutters a line and just shuts up. Hearts are worn exclusively on sleeves; everyone has to express themselves fluidly and fluently until every “i” is dotted and every “t” crossed. Then and only then is the story judged complete. It means Card almost invariably uses exactly the right words to carry the story along but there is always a slightly studied effect to anything that anyone says. You become aware that this character is talking like that not because that is who they are but because that is the voice Card, a slightly spoddy middle class American white guy, has given them. The effect is especially strong in the stories “Waterbaby” and “Keeper of Lost Dreams”, both offcuts from his novel Magic Street which is set in a black neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Yes, Card takes on the brothers.

Other novel offcuts are “Atlantis”, “Grinning Man” and “The Yazoo Queen”. “Atlantis” expands on a plot point from Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus and presents a novel origin theory on the separate myths of Atlantis, Noah and Gilgamesh. Well, it convinced me. It’s a story that reads perfectly well on its own – but, if you are aware that Card believes in a god who has been intervening in human affairs since prehistory, there’s an extra layer there for you.

Meanwhile “Grinning Man” and “The Yazoo Queen” are both from the Tales of Alvin Maker series, adding nothing new but deepening the background of the novels. Alvin and Arthur Stuart continue to meander through an alternative nineteenth century America and meet famous people: Davy Crockett in the first; Jim Bowie, Stephen Austin and Abraham Lincoln in the second. “The Yazoo Queen” is effectively the first chapter of The Crystal City, though for contractual reasons it couldn’t actually appear in that novel. It does make the novel a little easier to understand.

The closing stories of Maps in a Mirror were to me the let down – Card’s equivalent of “What I did in the holidays”, there for the completists and Card researchers only. I was expecting the same here and was pleased to be wrong. The last section of Keeper of Dreams is just labelled “Mormon” and the stories here were written by Card the grown up, the family man, the holder of responsibility. They were written by a Mormon for Mormons, but he has included them for the insight they give the rest of us into day to day Mormon life. Mormonism is a world with unspoken rules and conventions every bit as intricate as Sf fandom and that is why these last stories don’t feel remotely out of place in a genre publication.

Only one is remotely genre, “God Plays Fair Once Too Often”, a kind of sequel to the Biblical Book of Job. “Neighbors” is a disposable little squib about gossip. But “Christmas at Helaman’s House” excoriates those materially prosperous Christians who regard their wealth as a blessing from God, while people starve in the streets; and “Worthy to be One of Us” is Card’s take on Mormons – and indeed anyone – to whom ancestry is more important than who you actually are. And to Mormons, ancestry means a great deal. Yet Card is talking from a position of great strength. He loves to talk about his family in his column but I don’t think I have ever heard him mention – until now – that he is a great nephew of LeGrand Richards and great grandson of George F. Richards. It’s a bit like an early Christian failing to mention that they are two generations away from St Paul. Why hasn’t he said anything? Because he knows how unimportant it actually is.

You may respect Card as a writer but have issues with Card the man; but, coming at the end of this collection, these stories mean you close the book and find you are starting to like him too.