Saturday, January 26, 2008

Review - "Ship of Shadows" and "Time Considdered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones"

Frank Kelly Freas
1970 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

This might not be the best cover Freas did (get used to seeing his work in the best professional artist position), but I just love the Starblazers feel from this cover.

"Ship of Shadows"
by Fritz Leiber
1970 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

I was impressed by ninety-five percent of this story. It started strong, built atmosphere and tension subtly, and then blew it all by explaining everything including questions that weren't developed on the last page. I couldn't understand how that happened. Leiber's brief, "That's just how it is!" explanations worked fine for this narrative and throwing an extended back story for the whole thing quite literally after the climax just felt wrong.

"Ship of Shadows" is about a spacecraft where people have forgotten the nature of the world they inhabit. This isn't a straight generation ship, it's an orbital zero-gravity environment all plastic and metal. Our protagonist works in a bar in a section of the ship that is plagued by vampires, witches, and werewolves. A local crime lord is trying to put the squeeze on the bar looking for a convenient McGuffin.

The story unfolds slowly. While anyone who has read a bit of science fiction will immediately recognize that they're on a space craft Leiber paces the revelations of the nature of the world and people very gently. Particularly interesting is the character of the talking black cat which provides some rude commentary on the action.

If it wasn't for that last page info dump I would recommend "Ship of Shadows" enthusiastically. As it stands I think that the quality of the vast majority outweighs the undermining of the concepts at the end.

"Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones"
by Samuel R. Delany
1970 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story
1969 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

Delany won the second and third Nebula awards for best novel but never really managed to make a big inroad with the Hugos. Perhaps he is just a writer's writer. This is his only Hugo victory for fiction but this story just didn't do anything for me. I found it to have ameandering flow; the story just didn't really seem to be moving anywhere.

A conman who switches identities as easily as we put on a pair of socks has returned to earth with an unidentified McGuffin (big year for those, I guess) which he intends to sell for more money than he's ever seen. This draws the attention of the secret police who warn him that the moment he moves up in his criminal tax bracket they'll take him out. The conman then proceeds to find a Singer, a person whose tunes are so expressive that they draw complete attention, who carries the secret password for the criminal underground in order to go to a fancy party with politicians and mobsters in the hopes of making an exchange and escaping in the confusion.

Upon reflection I know exactly what bothered me about "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones": the lack of reason. Delany has this complicated world that he drops the reader in with its tiered criminal system that has some kind of central communication methods, a secret police that only cares about criminals increasing their income, and impossibly charismatic singing voices and it just doesn't gel for me. Since so many aspects of the world require that people behave in counterintuitive ways I found myself questioning the how's and why's of Delany's setting and there aren't any answers to them.

That doesn't mean the story isn't well written, it was. And it doesn't mean that the characters aren't interesting because they were. I just couldn't get past that setting and it disrupted my enjoyment of the story.