Sunday, February 24, 2008

Review - "The Girl Who Was Plugged In", "The Deathbird", and "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"

Frank Kelly Freas
1974 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

Freas continues to be voted in over and over again as the best professional artist (he owns the seventies much in the way certain other artists will own the award during their decade), but you'll note that there isn't a magazine or book cover this time. That year Freas designed the Skylab mission patch.

"The Girl Who Was Plugged In"
by James Tiptree, Jr.
1974 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

A biography of "Tiptree" won the Hugo award for best related non-fiction this year so I'm not going to go into the author's unique history at the moment. Let's just say that in a field filled with unique, quirky personalities (and Harlan Ellison) Tiptree's story is one of the most interesting. I'll talk about that when I get to the biography.

The story is about a very ugly girl who is given the chance to join upper-class society. But rather than a Pygmalion style transformation she controls a perfect woman as a puppet, living the high life through separate eyes. The reason for this opportunity is that in a future where advertising is banned companies promote their products by creating celebrities and having them use the product. The plugged in girl becomes more and more absorbed into the life of her doll until as the doll she finds true love in someone who doesn't realize the body is a doll. Needless to say, complications ensue.

The story uses the style of a storyteller relating a romance to the twentieth century reader and I don't think it was completely successful but it did work to gloss over any technical details which weren't really necessary for this very human story. You can't help but be drawn in as the title character descends into a peculiar kind of schizophrenia. I could not recommend this story highly enough.

"The Deathbird"
by Harlan Ellison
1974 Hugo Award for Best Novelette

This, on the other hand, is a complete failure. The Devil, who the limited information in the story tells us really isn't that bad, wakes up the last man on earth to go confront God, who the limited information in the story tells us is insane. This could have been good but the justification for it is built on anti-religion rants like you'd see from first year college freshmen rebelling against their parents; they rely on sophism and have no grounding in theology or logic. So man confronts God for no good reason on the prompting of the Devil who does it for no good reason and God does something nebulous and unspecified for no good reason and nothing really happens. The whole thing as a result is very unsatisfying.

It doesn't help that Ellison is very deeply into his all-style, zero-substance period. "The Deathbird" is peppered with asides and essays and quiz style questions that struggle to build a point of religion being bad but fail when logic is applied to them (and this is coming from an atheist; I can only imagine what someone with some really detailed knowledge of theology would think). If I want to be preached at ineffectively I'll go to a church.

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"
by Ursala K. Le Guin
1974 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

Finally this... um... well... it's not really a story. It's more of an essay or a screed. There's a perfectly happy city where they live in decadence and it's all good except for one kid who they torture because the story says they have to in order to keep their happiness. It's an old philosophical question, what is the value of the happiness of one innocent? Le Guin just drops it there and leaves it sitting. The story is all description: no real characters, no plot, just the city and then the kid and that's it. It's not even told particularly well. Take a philosophy course and skip this one.