Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Review - "Home if the Hangman", "The Borderlands of Sol", and "Catch that Zeppelin!"

Frank Kelly Freas
1976 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"Home is the Hangman"
by Roger Zelazny
1976 Hugo Winner for Best Novela
1975 Nebula Winner for Best Novela

Ah Roger Zelazny, the Ernest Hemingway of science fiction. His stories are where men are men, women are there for men to fight over, and machismo is the optimal form of interspecies communication.

The Hangman is a android space probe with a mind built out of a four person gestalt. On its first trip into space it went mad and vanished into the outer reaches of the solar system, but its ship has crashed and been found empty. Now one of the people who helped build its mind is afraid that it has returned to kill its creators and hires a man who does not exist in any government record to stop it.

It's a Frankenstein story but Zelazny takes that common beginning and throws a few twists into it that make the story worth reading. Admittedly I've seen the concept subverted enough that it probably didn't have the impact for me that it did for readers in 1975.

Zelazny hits all of his traditional style fetishes in this which I won't bother pointing out since a few of them fall along the lines of spoilers but I will say that it will feel very familiar to anyone who has read a lot of Zelazny. I'd recommend the story but if you don't have a tolerance for his writing then "Home is the Hangman" won't change your mind.

"The Borderlands of Sol"
by Larry Niven
1976 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

Hard SF. Space opera. The two opposite ends of the science fiction spectrum. Throwing around science throws off the adventure, the high concept ideas rarely have anything to do with actual science. Niven has had more luck than most in jamming these two opposite ends together and "The Borderlands of Sol" is a decent but not brilliant effort.

A mysterious force has been making ships vanish at the edge of the Sol system and it's up to Niven's usual cast of heroes to locate them. The two theories of what could be causing it are space pirates or quantum black holes so naturally both are intertwined.

Black holes were coming to the public attention at this point so it's natural the Niven played around with them a bit. In this story he calls them "collapsars", a term that completely vanished by the early 80's for the more evocative but less accurately descriptive "black hole". This does mean that there's a lot of redundant exposition for modern readers.

That's the science component (there isn't really a lot of hard SF other than trying to explain the black hole), the space opera consists of a James Bond style adventure complete with handing out of gadgets. The action in the story is only on the last four or five pages though so it doesn't really pay off like it could.

It's a decent effort but time has passed this story by and I can't recommend it unless you really like Niven. If you do then you'll probably enjoy it.

"Catch that Zeppelin!"
by Fritz Leiber
1976 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story
1975 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

"Can you imagine a world where alternate world fiction is filled with pointless expository dialog expressing shock at the idea of a world that is the same as the reader's own!"

"And those poor souls would likely also read a lot of dialog of people pitying them for living in such an alternate world outside of the one in the author's imagination."

"Yes! Such a world would have many alternate world stories written along these lines positing strange things like if Germany lost the Second Great War or if Socrates had drunk that cup of poison hemlock, but many of these stories would be written in that odd expository format."

"Yet at the same time it is not impossible that in the field of speculative fiction that one of their grand masters would toward the end of his career write one of these poor stories and still be honored for it."

"And there would be horrifying twist toward the end that demonstrates that the alternate world isn't as great as it first seems. Fortunately our world's greatest writer Piers Anthony would never create such a thing."