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A Few Good Christmas Books
© Robert R. Chase

What makes a good Christmas book? All the things that make any good book, of course, but something more as well. We want to be happy at Christmas. We don't want to read about the end of the world. Nor do we wish to subject ourselves to the strident screeds of some self-appointed expert on everything. We want to be delighted, to have the feeling of being with good friends around a fire strong enough to keep cold and dark at bay, to be filled with a kind of solemn joy.

This is a tall order for any kind of writing, and it may not be the kind of description which comes immediately to mind when thinking of fantasy and science fiction. However, I have three choices (and I'm sure many of you have more) which would be perfectly at home beneath any fan's Christmas tree.

Ingathering: the Complete People Stories

Ingathering: the Complete People Stories by Zenna Henderson. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that these stories were to many of their generation what the Harry Potter books are to today's readers. Many of the same themes are present: the feeling of being an outcast, of being oppressed by those who don't understand you; the joy of discovering secret powers, of being discovered by others like yourself; of finally coming to your true home.

Henderson couched these stories in science fictional rather than magical terms but the effect is much the same. Although physically indistinguishable from humans, the People are actually "aliens with psychic abilities who are separated after crash-landing on Earth but come to find each other after a period of many years."

Given the controversy that the Harry Potter books have caused with some Christian groups, it is interesting to discern the Christian subtext of these stories. Several titles (Ararat, Gilead, Jordan, Pottage) clearly point back to the Bible. Likewise, references within the stories to "the Presence" or making the sign of the triangle indicate a barely disguised Trinitarianism.

The wonder is that Henderson was able to do all this without being either preachy or cloying. "I get love letters about this book," an NESFA editor said recently at CapClave. Read it and you will understand why.

John the Balladeer

Manly Wade Wellman started writing s-f in the 30s, but is best remembered for a series of horror fantasies about John, sometimes called Silver John or John the Balladeer, who wanders the mountains of North Carolina with his silver-stringed guitar. In the course of his travels, he meets various wizards, witches, giants, ghosts, university professors and the damnedest assortment of creatures imagined: the One Other, the Toller, the Behinder, and the Flat among them. Most of John's early adventures were collected in Who Fears the Devil? (Arkham House, and various paperback editions) but a more complete volume is Baen's John the Balladeer. Toward the end of his life, John appeared in five novels, all published by Doubleday and reprinted in paperback by Berkley: The Old Gods Waken, After Dark, The Lost and the Lurking, The Hanging Stones, and The Voice of the Mountain.

Wellman knew how to write some seriously scary stories. The rumor is that one story he submitted to Weird Tales was so frightening that the editor would not publish it until Wellman rewrote the ending. In John's adventures, he added a marvelous sense of place, and of a people who must have started to disappear with the construction of the interstates. Although John is clearly a pretty good Baptist, that doesn't stop him from enjoying the occasion Ball Jar of "blockade" (moonshine) or using a spell from The Long Lost Friend when needed. Admittedly, tension is sometimes lessened when the reader realizes that, even if the monster does get John, the worst that can happen is that he will go straight to Heaven.

It breaks my heart to say that all these books are all out of print. The Voice of the Mountains, which I have never read, is quoted at $40 for a used edition! Are any of you NESFAns or SFBC editors paying attention?

The Book of the Long Sun

The Book of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe. Published as four separate novels, Nightside of the Long Sun, Lake of the Long Sun, Calde of Long Sun, and Exodus From the Long Sun, this is probably the most reader-friendly of all Wolfe's extended works. Patera Silk, in an instant while playing ball with the boys of his manteion (basically a parochial school) receives an epiphany, a moment of enlightenment from a god he knows only as the Outsider and given a mission. He must save the manteion from being demolished by a local crime king who has bought the land. In his attempt to do so, Silk becomes a cat burglar, exorcises a brothel, solves mysteries (there is more than a little of Chesterton's Father Brown in Silk) and is elected Calde (mayor) of his city. He comes to realize that his Whorl is in fact a huge generation starship and that the gods he once worshipped are the personalities of the original builders uploaded on the mainframe computer which controls the whole ship. Eventually, he leads many of the Whorl's inhabitants to life on a new world.

In order to help the reader keep track of this more than thousand-page story, Wolfe has provided a four-page glossary of "Gods, Persons, and Animals Mentioned in the Text." What really keeps the reader involved, however, is Silk himself. He is one of the most truly good characters in all fiction. He brings warmth and light even to the darkest portions of the story. It is very difficult to create a completely good character without making him seem saccharine, annoyingly holier-than-thou, or coldly inhuman. Wolfe makes us understand, if not why we should want to be saints, at least why we would like to be in their company.

So invite the People to Christmas dinner. Have Patera Silk say the blessing. (Go easy on that blockage, it'll take your head off.) Afterwards, John and his friends will set up in the parlor and play some good old-timey music. It is likely to be your most enjoyable Christmas in memory.

Robert R. Chase is the author of three published s-f novels. A dozen or so of his short stories have appeared in Analog and Asimov's.

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