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This is a brief discussion of Steven Bauer and, of course, of some speculative-fiction books by Bauer.
This discussion and list does not necessarily include every book by Bauer: it includes only those books that I both know and like. Just as with the author list itself, omission of a particular item may mean I didn’t think highly enough of the omitted item, or it may simply mean that I have not yet sufficient familiarity with it. (In a very few cases, I have listed some books merely on the strength of my opinion of the author: all such books are clearly marked below, as throughout these lists, with a hash mark (#) before the title so you know what’s what.)
I don’t pretend that this discussion is a deep analysis. My intent is no more than to give you a rough idea of what kinds of tales Bauer tells, how those tales are usually told, and what makes them and Bauer worthy; in sum, to help you rank Steven Bauer (and the works by Bauer listed here) on your personal literary “to do” list.
Satyrday, published in 1980 to significant acclaim, was Bauer’s first novel; before then, he had been a recognized poet. Since then, unfortunately, Bauer has not ventured back into these fields (unless one wants to count—and I, perhaps unfairly, don’t—two books of stories based on teleplays from Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories series), and two children’s books. So, for our purposes, we are dealing with a one-book author and this article is necessarily about that one book.
(Mind, “children’s books” are not automatically outside our purview—there are many listed here, and even a young readers page focussing on them—but whether those two would qualify as also being suitable for adults seems doubtful from brief online reviews, however excellent they may be, and likely are, as reading for children.)
Bauer’s language is pleasingly full and rich without being unduly lush. Here is the opening of the book:
It was just past midnight and the air was filled with wings. An army of ravens came out of the west like a cold black storm. Leaves rustled in the deepening chill, and over the grounds a wind rolled, a darkly visible tumbleweed of air.
But in the sky was a rumble such as a distant earthquake might have made. The moon was startled by the sound. The night had been peaceful, its curved sweep studded with stars. Above her, their sharp sparks bristled. She had followed this course forever, her bright edge unfolding until a pale medallion hung full in the sky. Balanced between the earth and the pincushion of stars above, she remained pleased with herself, the axis of night, the interlocutor. But now she was waning, past half, growing weaker with the loss of light. And this rumble behind her was frightening.
Over her shoulder the moon watched the ravens approach.
That is obviously the work of one well familiar with working words like a smith works iron—a poet, in fact. The “tumbleweed”/“rumble”, the repeated alliterative “ess” sounds, the “waning”/“weaker” pairing—this brief passage is practically an exercise book in sound principles of prose. (Or sound principles of sound?) And it is not a simple case of putting one’s best foot forward: Bauer effortlessly (or seemingly so) maintains that poetic pitch throughout the entire tale. One consequence of that dignified style is that the book reads like a modern translation of an ancient legend, perhaps of an elder epic poem. The prose alone justifies this book’s being in any serious SF&F admirer’s library, but that is the beginning, not the end, of its qualities.
As to plot, I am as usual limited by my aversion to short-circuiting the pleasures awaiting a reader new to a given work. Let us say that it is a reasonably original rendition and weaving of elemental themes and conceits as old as humanity. Reviewers frequently had recourse to the terms “fable” and “myth” and equivalents, and it is easy to see why, in light of the work’s particular yet timeless sweep. The tale is in form a quest, in concept a search for identity (usually a part of quests anyway, at least in well-written quest tales); it is growing, it is persevering in the face of the overwhelming, it is a catalogue you, even without having read the book, could likely supply as well as I; but it is fine because none of it is formulaic, only familiar (which is a vastly different thing).
Of the book’s setting not much need be said—it is more or less our world, save that satyrs and mermaids and witches and thinking, speaking animals inhabit it, just as (one might argue) they do our world, and the moon and the sun are articulate beings. What matters is that Bauer handles all that quite properly: beings and facts simply happen when and where they belong, and that’s that. We don’t get tedious essays on their powers or genealogy tables of their descent; we simply find them out in the fields or in the sky or on the porches of their cottages or in the sea or wherever they rightly belong, in the tale and in their world. So simple, yet so difficult (at least to judge by the run of the mill), and here masterly done. I might add that—as you saw in the quotation above—Bauer is quite good at delightfully evocative description of his settings, or, clearly, any settings.
Bauer’s characters also delight, for from noble to evil they are plausible, complete, rounded beings. They discourse with their allies and their enemies in intelligent, self-aware, credible dialogues that are vastly more than signals to the reader about where the plot is and needs to be going.
“You had his wings broken.”
“I admit it,” the owl said. “The other animals might have learned from his example. My power is absolute, but illusory, much like your light. I assume those I rule won’t understand my power is something which can be taken away from me.”
“I hadn’t known your penchant for the philosophical,” the moon said. “But all the philosophy you could command can’t change the fact of Maxwell’s death.”
“He was only one raven,” the owl said.
“Yes,” the moon said. “He was that.”
“I followed you last night after you saved my life….”
“Do me the favor of eschewing the melodrama,” she said….”
“Young one,” she said. “Are you sick?”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “Do I look sick?”
“You certainly do,” the crone said. “What’s the matter?”
“All I feel is sad,” Condor said. “It’s like I have something growing inside me that wants to get out but can’t.”
“Indigestion,” the crone said. “You’re not chewing your food properly.”
Condor shot her a disappointed glance. “I don’t think this is something for you to joke about.”
Not all the dialogue is snappy repartee—that stuff is what I just happened to find, following my basic principle for locating quotations: open at random till you find one that is representative. (My thought is to not cherry-pick but rather to convey the author’s prevailing tone). But whatever their tone, Bauer’s dialogues show the characters as what they are: proud, or meek, or simply very, very tired of trying to do the impossible. If you accept a world in which these creatures exist at all, you will be compelled by Bauer’s presentation of them to believe that this is what they are really like: these are the beings you would meet there, and this is how they would talk and seem to you.
With Satyrday Bauer has made a new myth, a new legend, a new fable. Few can say that, for few have done that. Read it.
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(Identifying web material on Bauer is a pain, owing to the internet presence of a movie actor, a physician, an attorney, and a few other Steven Bauers.)
There is really only one web page (other than this one) about Bauer: it is Bauer’s page on his wife’s web site (she, Elizabeth Arthur, is herself an active and much-praised author). Well, there’s also a brief bio page, but it’s basically an advertisement of his services as an editor. And there’s an memoir by Bauer, though it’s only somewhat related to his craft.
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I couldn’t find any; sorry.
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