Sunday, January 13, 2008

Reviews - "Weyr Search", "Riders of the Purple Wage", "Gonna Roll the Bones", and "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream"

Jack Gaughan
1968 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

I'm taking a break from the magazine covers for an interior illustration. This one is from Fred Saberhagen's "Brother Assassin" and features a Foucault stand-in noticing his pendulum while a time traveling murder cyborg from the future which is in disguise (no relation to the Terminator) hunts him down.

"Weyr Search"
by Anne McCaffrey
Tied for 1968 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

The entire Pern series came from this humble origin but I won't hold that against this story which managed to be fairly entertaining. It's not a particularly deep story and while nominally science fiction the tropes owe a lot more to fantasy series than science fiction.

Centuries ago the dragonriders saved Pern from an invasion of a plague from another star system and maintained an early warning system against it. Now their power has waned but its close to the time when the plague will come again. Their queen is dying though and they are on a desperate search among people who no longer respect them for a woman who can rule them. They may find them in the crumbling ruins of one of the few castles who still supported them but was conquered and all of their heirs murdered.

I found all of the characters completely unpleasent in "Weyr Search" but at the same time they were at least interesting. There's the woman (who obviously is the object of their search) who plots murderous revenge for a decade, just the kind of stable personality you want ruling a group of warriors with superior firepower, and is rather casual about the brutal deaths of people around her. The leader of the search is determined to impose a new rule by the dragonriders. They're only looking for nobles; if you're not of the ruling class then you're clearly beneath them. Though they are the protagonists and the villain is set up as so much of a caricature that you have to root for them.

But at the same time they're lively, they pursue their goals ruthlessly, and are interesting to read about. The result is that "Weyr Search" is an entertaining story to read even if it doesn't amount to much. I'm not fond of where the series went or it's acres of imitators the original is enjoyable.

"Riders of the Purple Wage"
by Philip José Farmer
Tied for 1968 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

This on the other hand was painful. Very painful.

The story is pretentious, overwritten and most of it is a set up for a very bad pun. In fact there's a lot of very bad puns in the stream-of-consciousness rambling that comprises most of "Riders of the Purple Wage" something that Farmer attempts to justify by essentially saying other, better writers used them. Of course those other, better writers didn't ram the puns down their readers throats over and over again and create a nearly sixty page, unreadable mess as a set up for a bad pun.

I cannot describe just how horrible the prose in this short story is. Most of it is a very bad James Joyce pastiche and since I don't care for Joyce to begin with someone doing a bad copy of him just makes it worse. It shifts tone and style randomly and it is built around being as pretentious as possible which just makes it worse.

The story is about a young artist who is having a showing that will determine if his family can stay in their home, where his grandfather has been hiding from the police for thirty years, or if they will have to leave the country. In this future everyone gets welfare from the government and nearly everything is provided for them. Those who cannot get by on the welfare check are sent to other countries. The artist is be pressured to have sex with a critic in exchange for a good review.

I'd like to give Farmer the benefit of the doubt and say that his pretentious style was chosen because of his theme but even if he did it still makes it a very unpleasant story to read. If the prose is unreadable then the effect no matter how well intentioned has failed.

"Gonna Roll the Bones"
by Fritz Leiber
1968 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette
1967 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

Even more than "Weyr Search" this feels like Leiber slapped some very loose science fiction references onto a perfectly good fantasy story in order to sell it. He occasionally mentions spacecraft or travelers from other worlds but it doesn't come into the story at all.

Instead it is about an unpleasant man who leaves his wife behind at home one night to gamble and get drunk. He finds a new gambling den open with some very high rollers and he is determined to use his skill in perfectly throwing dice to win a large sum from them. This gambling den is not a normal place and his game is for higher stakes than he first thinks.

Though this is a pretty traditional style of story it is done very well. I suspect that I would have enjoyed it more if I knew how to play craps which is the center of the story but I could follow enough to enjoy it.

"I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream"
by Harlan Ellison
1968 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

What if an omnipotent god was a being of so much hatred that it makes the stuff portrayed in the Old Testament look like a mild scolding? It's the disturbing premise of Ellison's story which tells of five people trapped by a computer which has gained omnipotence. The computer tortures them in some of the most horrifically graphic ways you can imagine. These people live with no hope and no peace. The characters are distorted to the point of inhumanity but you can still sympathize with them due to the nature of their tortures.

Ellison's prose brings this scenario to life and though the story is very short it will haunt you and it can be very unsettling to read. It is still a great story specifically for that.