Sunday, February 3, 2008

Review - "Ill Met in Lankhmar" and "Slow Sculpture"

Leo and Diane Dillon
1971 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"Ill Met in Lankhmar"
by Fritz Leiber
1971 Hugo Winner for Best Novella
1970 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

Two highly skilled thieves ambush the same jewel thieves at the same time and strike up a friendship. One a former barbarian, the other a former wizard's apprentice: together they cause crime.

By far Leiber's greatest success were the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories. Though he had written them for decades it wasn't until 1970 when a revived interest in swords and sorcery fantasy that he told readers how this dynamic duo met.

Leiber wrote quite a few new stories about this pairing in the late sixties and seventies but this was the best of them. They make interesting anti-heroes and Leiber paints a vivid image of Lankhmar. His prose does tend toward the clumsy side (in one rather memorable moment after introducing themselves the Mouser asks Fafhrd how to pronounce his name), but there's a lot of fun to be had in this story. It's among the best the sword and sorcery genre have to offer.

"Slow Sculpture"
by Theodore Sturgeon
1971 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story
1970 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

The premise of "Slow Sculpture" is simple: a woman suffering from breast cancer meets a genius who has a cure for cancer which he refuses to provide to the world. This genius has many creations that could improve humanity but he hates people. The story is about their interaction and what it does to both of them.

This is a cynical story even if Sturgeon tries to redeem it at the end and its cynicism is built on the worst assumptions of conspiracy theorists: "they" want to keep down things that would help people because they "don't like alternative medicine" or "wouldn't make money on it". I see that kind of reasoning all the time from people who don't understand the scientific method or economics. That reasoning ignores the fact that there are simple double blind lab tests to demonstrate the cure conclusively regardless of what source it comes from. Any automobile manufacturer who did introduce a super-efficient car would dominate the industry in a manner not seen since Henry Ford. If the character who created these advances was presented as not being particularly stable then I might have been willing to accept this but Sturgeon goes through great lengths to tell us over and over again how brilliant this man is in all fields and since that's the primary driving point of the story it makes the whole thing fall apart for me.

I also didn't care for the several pages of technobabble that accompanied the cancer cure. It was complete nonsense and it served to pull me out of the story when just saying it was doing something would have been effective.

Since the story was built on such a flawed premise I couldn't enjoy it at all. Sturgeon does tell his story competently enough but requiring me to accept that businesses would choose "being evil" over "making large piles of money" just doesn't work.