Saturday, February 16, 2008

Review - "The Word for World is Forest", "Goat Song", "Eurema's Dam", and "The Meeting"

Frank Kelly Freas
1973 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"The Word for World is Forest"
by Ursala Le Guin
1973 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

You might recall when I reviewed The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness how surprised I was when I read them. My experience with Le Guin had not been good before that. "The Word for World is Forest" is a perfect example of what I encountered before.

If it was any more shrill only dogs could hear it. If it was any more preachy it would have to be delivered by the Pope. It reads like the deranged rantings of an extremist political blogger (feel free to pick your least favorite side for that).

In the first three pages we find that our major human viewpoint character is part of an imperialist colonization group along the lines of Europeans in Africa in the nineteenth century, an agricultural administrator who is unaware of basic principles of agriculture that have been understood since at least the sixteenth century, slave owning, racist, sexist, rapist, murderer, hunts animals to the point of extinction for sport, and has (and this really is a quote) "a final solution" for dealing with the sentient natives of the planet that is being colonized. I would have loved to have called Godwin's law on the story right then but it proceeds to go on for another hundred pages. The caricature of the human beings is so great that Le Guin often sends contradictory messages throwing out bits that would be offensive to twentieth century readers and eventually contradicting those bits of characterization later. While this view point character is the worst of the worst almost all of the humans on the planet condone if not outright share his viewpoints.

The sole exception is, of course, the anthropologist who has studies the wise, caring, perfect natives who lived in a pastoral eden until the humans showed up and clear cut an area the size of Los Angeles that for some reason has "destroyed" a homogeneous environment the size the United States (this joke intentionally left blank). The natives are abused for years until there is finally an uprising where they put those evil humans in their place.

I wish I could say that I exaggerated any of this for comic effect but if anything I've understated my case. There's no complexity or depth to the situation, just humans so ludicrously over the top with evil they might as well twirl their handlebar mustaches against cute aliens so perfect they might as well have halos. The closest Le Guin comes to adding texture is that by being so evil humanity has infected the friendly aliens with evil.

Le Guin tears into the extremities of 19th century style imperialism like it was a daring statement and pats herself on the back for it. She does so with no style, with no redeeming features at all in this story. It is one of the worst I've ever read and the fact that it goes on and on just makes it worse. I'd say to avoid it but it makes a fine object lesson in how to not make a political statement using fiction.

"Goat Song"
by Poul Anderson
1973 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette
1972 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

Once a year the Dark Queen walks abroad in the land and any man who dares to approach her may petitioner her for their heart's desire. A harpist who has lost his true love confronts her and asks for her life to be restored and the Dark Queen takes him to her castle in the Underworld where he pleads with the king of the dead to return her.

Does that sound familiar to anyone?

In 1972 Anderson won a Hugo for "The Queen of Air and Darkness" where he took some classic ideas and reworked them very well into a science fiction setting. Perhaps he decided that what worked once might work again because "Goat Song" is very similar and in its own way its even more effective.

Stylistically "Goat Song" is much better than Anderson's previous work. On the other hand I liked the idea that the fairies were archetypes that could be repeated and play off the human mind. "Goat Song" is a more direct retelling of Orpheus so I think the purpose of the story is not as firm. Regardless of that "Goat Song" is a superb story and I would definitely recommend reading it.

"Eurema's Dam"
by R. A. Lafferty
Tied 1973 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

This story takes the comedic point of view that the competent and skilled people make their way in the world as it exists while the incompetent have to make adjustments for their failings. For example, they may need to change pictographs for phonetic characters because they can't learn to read the hundreds of pictures.

One boy is particularly incompetent and needs to do things like make a hand held device that can turn his scrawl into perfect handwriting. He does the best he can but he needs to keep creating things to help him get by. It's a cute story and turning intelligence on its head as the premise is rather unique so I would recommend it.

"The Meeting"
by Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
Tied 1973 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

The parent of a disturbed child (who would probably be referred to as "autistic" if the story was written today) attends a PTA meeting at the special school he has enrolled his child into. The meeting and discussions with the other parents help him make a very difficult decision.

That's a brief description but this is a brief story about a very bad situation. The science fiction elements don't even enter into it until the very end of the story but I think that it works. Pohl (his co-author Kornbluth died twenty years before this story was published so I suspect the bulk of the effort is Pohl's) tells a fine, very down to Earth and human story. It's sentimental without being overwhelmed by it. "The Meeting" is another fine story well worth your time.