Sunday, January 6, 2008

Review - "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman", "The Last Castle", and "Neutron Star"

Frank Frazetta
966 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman"
by Harlan Ellison
966 Hugo Winner for Best Short Fiction
1965 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

And so I finally come to Harlan Ellison, the grumpiest man in science fiction. Ellison had some very good years starting in 1966 but that's better covered next week when I touch on the year he walked away with three Hugos in three different categories.

If I had to pick a single Ellison story as the best example of his style it would be "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman". Despite the clumsy title it is a very entertaining counterculture tale of a society that has made being late a sin and now runs like clockwork. The Harlequin is a mysterious figure who tweaks the nose of authority and gums up the works a bit while his nemesis is the Ticktockman who is given power over life and death to make sure everything runs on time.

It's the classic Trickster versus the Lawgiver formula wrapped up in an Orwellian future. Anyone would cheer for a character who makes a fool of Big Brother, but the Harlequin is also a man who isn't able to function in their society and Ellison adds a touch of pity through that.

Ellison's use of language is superb (just in case you couldn't get that from the title) and the prose carries the story very well. It's sharp, it's tight, and I can't recommend this story enough.

"The Last Castle"
by Jack Vance
1967 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette
1966 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

In 1967 the short fiction awards were divided again into two categories and the following year they would be split once more into three categories. Vance took the first of the returned novelette awards with this story of the collapse of a decadent society.

In the distant future a new breed of aristocrats have set themselves up in the ruins of the earth. There people are so aristocratic that they make Victorian england gentlemen look like savages. They have captured intelligent aliens and converted them to slave races. When they inevitably revolt they are quite put out and are rather shocked when the rabble they've been condescending toward for decades don't fall over themselves to protect the people living in the castles.

The characters in this short story are like shadow puppets of aristocrats; they're two dimensional and shallow. They exist only to show the reader how ludicrously over the top they are. It makes them both unpleasant to read about and uninteresting because they are so incredibly predictable.

If you like seeing obnoxious aristocrats getting their comeuppance then you may find more to enjoy in this story than I did. Personally I've seen that done too many times that this average entry into that field didn't interest me at all.

Jack Gaughan
1967 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"Neutron Star"
by Larry Niven
1967 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

This was one of Niven's earliest published stories and it is still a bit rough though you can see some of the promise that his later career would demonstrate.

Supposedly nothing can get through a General Products spaceship hull except visible light but when a scientific mission passed within a mile of a neutron star something killed all of the crew on board and smashed much of their equipment. Concerned about their reputation the president of General Products hires a pilot and outfits him with a state of the art ship to replicate the trip and determine what killed the crew.

I do have a problem with this story in that I would hope that any scientist planning a close pass by a neutron star would realize the problem that killed them. It's part of what makes the star an interesting thing to visit. If they're the experts in their field that they're supposed to be then they would have taken it into account. At the same time if the company was making a major effort to determine what killed them then the answer would be found just by asking a few people familiar with the concept of neutron stars. Since the solution isn't necessarily obvious to someone who isn't planning or researching them having people who wouldn't spot the problem as the focus of the story would have eliminated that plot hole.

The characters are rather thin, though the pilot does get some development. Mainly they exist to act as a science lesson to the reader and Niven's prose does convey the unusual phenomenon well. It reminds me of those stories from the golden age where the heroic scientist demonstrated some principle of physics to resolve the story. Your tolerance for "Neutron Star" is going to be dependent on how much you enjoy that.