Friday, November 30, 2007

Reviews - "The Darfsteller" and "Allamagoosa"

Hannes Bok
1953 Hugo Co-Winner for Best Cover Artist

As I start down the road of short fiction I thought it would be nice to include an image from the Hugo winning artist of that year with each of them. Since the same artist won for the four years I'm going to be covering in the next few days I am jumped back to the beginning and coincidently found an oddity.

It's the kind of thing that you can expect from time to time with the Hugo awards. Since they are voted upon by fans there can be votes for bodies of work rather than the specific things that are winning. It leads to situations where a famous writer who has been underrepresented gets an award for one of their worst works to use a very convenient example.

In this case in 1953 both Ed Emshwiller (often credited as just Emsh) and Hannes Bok won for Best Cover Artist. This occurred despite the fact that Bok didn't illustrate any covers in 1952. Bok did do quite a few very nice covers before and a few covers very early in 1953 which probably put him in the voter's minds. I'll admit to liking the earlier stuff better (there's some very nice work he did in 1951) but I wanted an image that the voters would have seen which is the one that I'm starting with.

So that minor controversy out of the way, let's begin:

"The Darfsteller"
by Walter M. Miller Jr.
1955 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

"The Darfstellar" left me with mixed feelings. I liked flow of the story that Miller created and he never went quite where I expected him to, but at the same time it's built on a conceit that I just can't accept.

In "The Darfsteller" the theater has almost completely replaced other forms of entertainment. However this is not simply actors on stage, the theater in this case is essentially elaborate puppet shows with a computer using a program built around famous actors to manipulate the android puppets on stage. The advantage to this, we are told, is mass-produced theater; a performance that can be sent around the world and done precisely the same way every time with the actors appearing on thousands of stages.

The problem is that even in 1954 when it was written they had this and it was common place. It's called "movies". What Miller had done was transplant the advantages of movies onto a much clumsier form and that simply would not happen. Perhaps it seemed more viable in the 1950's when the theater was much stronger than it is today but it pulled me out of his story.

I was left pondering as I read the story what exactly Miller was trying to make a parallel to with his puppet theaters. Technology replacing creative endevors is obvious (and timely considdering the recent release of Beowulf), but was he raging against movies and television replacing other forms? Is it supposed to be like the introduction of the talkies? Color film? The reduction of the importance of the theater? Radio? I suspect that I'm just too far removed from this work.

There is an actor in the story named Ryan Thornier who was a method actor and as a result could not have his personality programmed into the computer for stage acting. He has become a janitor in one of these puppet theaters but he has a plan to put on one last performance.

The theme of technology supplanting man is one of the most common ones in science fiction and I will give Miller credit for putting it into such a unique context. Miller also took what could have been a pile of cliches and turned them all over.

Altogether I think "The Darfstellar" was worth reading. While that premise is impossible to swallow and severed my suspension of disbelief completely Miller did carry the narrative well.

Ed Emshwiller
1953 Hugo Co-Winner for Best Cover Artist

by Eric Frank Russell
1955 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

On the other side of things, "Allamagoosa" is an inoffensive bit of fluff with nothing to recommend it or make me loath it. The short story is essentially an old military joke told over several pages. In "Allamangoosa" shortly before a military inspection the crew finds an item in their manifest that they've never heard of and no one knows what it is. I think you can see where this goes from here. There's not much in the way of setting, character, or distinctive prose. This is a one note story that if you came across it you might think, "Oh, that was cute," but then immediately forget again.

I've got to be negative on this one for just that reason. Don't bother searching for "Allamagoosa", it just isn't worth your time.