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Three Novels by Mark S. Geston


In 1991 John Douglas of Avon, a house I've never worked for, sent me for quote the bound proofs of Mark Geston's first new novel in over a decade. I knew John only well enough to say hi if we happened to be standing in front of a hotel at the same time.

I quoted enthusiastically.

Years later I ran into John (in front of a hotel) and asked him how he'd happened to send the proofs to me. There weren't, I'd have thought, many obvious clues that I'm a Geston fan.

John explained that he knew I'd started writing at about the time Lords of the Starship appeared. He assumed that anybody from that period would not only be familiar with Geston but be an enthusiastic fan.

He was certainly right about me.


The Books of the Wars reprints three early Geston novels: Lords of the Starship, Out of the Mouth of the Dragon, and The Siege of Wonder. Siege is probably a self-standing novel, though nothing is quite as certain as it may first seem in these fictions. Dragon can be read as a sequel to Lords, but it need not be.

Dragon was the first of Geston's books that I read, while I was in Vietnam. We'll get back to that.


You can read The Books as exercises in plotting. The plots aren't conventional, but they most certainly exist. The sweep and purpose of Lords, the recapitulation of the world by the viewpoint character's wanderings in Dragon, and the quest of Siege which leads to a mystery greater than the one it answers—all are perfectly structured in their different fashions.

You can read The Books for their gorgeous, detailed imagery—Faberge eggs in prose, if you will. I suspect much of the enormous critical impact they had when they were first published was due to the surreal majesty of their settings. As a few typical examples: the first sight from on high of the yard where the miles-long starship will be built; aircraft arrayed like worshippers under the stained glass of a great cathedral; or a great wizard escorted by shambling corpses in armor.

You can even read The Books for their characterizations. Though often cameos, they are real human beings who have their moments and pass on, as happens in real life. Because the ideas are so overwhelming a reader may ignore the individuals, but the author never does. Here a civilian, handed a sword and engulfed by battle; there a madwoman in a plague-swept ruin, speaking lucidly of what had happened and then dissolving into the laughter that is her only defense; or again, a precise military officer leading his unit into the heart of unreason in the calm certainty that his truth will prevail . . . all real, all vivid.

And if you have the sort of mind that I do, there's another reason you might want to read The Books.


I prefaced a collection of my humorous stories by noting that the only kind of humor there is in a war zone is black humor—and there's no place I've been where I more needed the humor.

In the same context, these gorgeous, surreal novels are about hope.


When I entered college in 1963, the Vietnam War was a squabble in a distant place. There'd been similar squabbles in my memory—rather a bad one in Lebanon, for example—but that had been with Eisenhower as president. Now our president was Kennedy and shortly Johnson; and perhaps more important, their Secretary of Defense was Robert S. McNamara, a technocrat and a monster.

By the time I got my undergraduate degree in 1967, Vietnam was a storm that had broken over America and the world, shredding society and bodies. Tens of thousands of Americans had died, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese.

The war was building without plan or purpose. Each previous failure was used as the reason for a further, greater, effort; which would fail in turn, as by then everybody knew it would fail.

General Westmoreland announced light at the end of the tunnel, shortly before the tunnel collapsed on him in the form of the Tet Offensive. Politicians lied—to themselves first, I believe, but to everyone else as well. And the war went on and would go on, and on. There was no end, and no hope.


But I was a law student at Duke, deferred from the draft for so long as my grades were good enough to keep me in school. Grades weren't a problem—I made the law journal easily.

And then, as one of his last acts in office, Mr McNamara cancelled the deferments of graduate students. I was drafted along with nine other members of my hundred-man class (eight of us were on the law journal). The demographics of the armed services changed: a third of my basic training platoon had graduated from college. The army created courses that were only open to college grads. (I took one.)

One of my army buddies was getting his Ph.D. in Old English at Princeton. Two more were getting theirs at the University of Chicago: one in zoology, the other in physics. It wouldn't have been completely unfair to call us the best and the brightest America had to offer. Our government sent us to Vietnam.

I was helpless and hopeless, and the person I'd been in 1968 died in that muggy, endemically corrupt meat-grinder. The body that walked off the plane at Travis Air Force Base on January 13, 1971 had nothing inside it but anger.


I don't know what Mark Geston intended in these novels (I hope to learn in his own introduction), but for me they perfectly capture the ambiance of the Vietnam War, both the way it was conducted and its effect on society. In The Books, however, there are things that I didn't have (though others must have): hope and purpose and dreams.


The Books are founded in concrete reality. Physical descriptions are crisp and vivid. Geston's subject is society, not individual characters, but the characters he draws are just as real as his picture—for example—of a winged abomination preparing to stoop on a convoy of barges.

The political and social movements Geston describes are those of the present world (and of men for as far back as history penetrates). Sometimes the fictional motivations initially appear as surreal as the juxtapositions of physical realities (for example, armored horsemen with jet bombers), but the reader soon finds that The Books are self-consistent and completely logical.

The events themselves are the ordinary ones of the evening news, but Geston has imposed system. By looking for causes with a historian's eye rather than taking the (literally) ephemeral viewpoint of a journalist, he unveils Truth instead of just creating copy. Here is the fabric of everyday life, clothed in jewels and given a purpose greater than men or even Mankind.

The great and terribly destructive strivings of The Books are entered into for their own sakes. The dreams of the people involved are directed at particular results, but in every case the real result is different from and greater than the conscious intention of the participants: they seek a specific end, but what grows instead are realms of infinite possibility, spreading and pointing like thorn hedges.


I said that The Books capture the ambiance of the Vietnam War for me. To be explicit, they display ruin, misery and failure.

And yet there is hope, there is purpose; there is reason to live, even if that reason is death. I couldn't escape the reality of death in Vietnam and Cambodia, but Mark Geston made it possible for me to believe that there might somehow be a purpose in such a world; that there might somehow be hope.


What I found in these novels was hope in the midst of hopelessness. I found here the thing I couldn't find in my own heart, and which I desperately needed.

Dave Drake

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