Sunday, March 23, 2008

Review - "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?", "By Any Other Name", "The Bicentennial Man", and "Tricentennial"

Rick Sternbach
1977 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"Houston, Houston, Do You Read?"

by James Tiptree Jr.

Tied 1977 Hugo Winner for Best Novella
1976 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

Three astronauts on the first trip around the sun emerge from behind it only to find they cannot contact Earth. They do pick up a strange transmission from a nearby source that claims to be a human space craft and that they have traveled through time. Eventually the astronauts meet the people on that craft and find that they have some vast differences.

The story is very deeply mired in the sexual politics of the 1970's but it has a real gut punch of an ending. Initially Tiptree plays up the astronauts being macho men who can't believe that women would be allowed into space but instead of going to the obvious and well worn place with those interactions (i.e. the women wind up being better than the men) things become more complicated. It's not a standard feminist screed though it might appear that way at first glance.

I did have some trouble suspending disbelief in the society Tiptree presents since I'm dubious that a culture of dilettantes could even maintain what they have. Still I think the whole effect of the story worked in the end.

"By Any Other Name"
by Spider Robinson
Tied 1977 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

It starts with a great concept: what if civilization was not destroyed by nuclear war, environmental disaster, or even a deadly plague but instead was irreparably damaged by greatly enhancing humanity's sense of smell. Unfortunately the concept isn't really explored well.

Everyone's sense of smell is enhanced to the point that it is ten times greater than a canine's and because people can't stand the smell of the world hysteria ensues. Decades later a small group of survivors in the wilderness are trying to rebuild while fighting a war with psychic gaseous beings who we could only detect once our sense of smell got better. Their leader wants revenge on the person who caused the problem and he sends his son into New York City to kill him.

I love the hook but Robinson only used it for color in a handful of scenes. It seems as though he didn't realize the implications of such a greatly enhanced sense, the complications with the wind, the fact that smells would carry for miles with that level of sensitivity.

It also doesn't help that he seems to confuse "natural" with "good". The "unnatural" smells are what drive humans crazy though it doesn't stop the new group from making paper or using a mimeograph, both processes that would make things stink for miles around them. If it was sensory overload that was the problem then this might have been more understandable since the typical city or even household would contain a bewildering array of smells but Robinson makes it explicitly "natural".

There's a lot that could have been done with characters who have such a distinct viewpoint and so perhaps some of my problem is that I see so much wasted potential. The story is reasonably crafted, my problem is just that the poor depiction of scents, something that every human being already deals with every day, snapped my suspension of disbelief badly.

"The Bicentennial Man"
by Isaac Asimov

1977 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette
1976 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

Isaac Asimov's best known story is also, in my opinion, his best. It's sappy and maudlin but it also cuts to the core of his robot stories and defines one of the common themes of science fiction perfectly. Simply put it is the story of a robot that wants to be human and in generations of observing people he gradually works toward his goal.

It's telling that Asimov's robot starts with sentience, one of the main points of being human, and works backward to smaller and smaller steps. His journey begins when it is found that he can create unique art, then he attempts to take on the social conventions of man before moving on to biological functions.

The human characters are simple but they're typically only on stage for just long enough to react to the robot before shuffling off again to allow the narrative to advance a few more years. So though they're all one note there is only one character really important to the tale and and by his nature he has to start as an innocent.

I don't think I would be able to take this kind of story in large doses but the sentimental tone got to me. "The Bicentennial Man" is story worthy of the attention it has received over the years (though the movie isn't).

by Joe Haldeman

1977 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

There isn't a deep story here but I think Haldeman's atmosphere makes up for it. In it a space colony plans to send a vessel to a nearby star where a signal was detected. For political reasons it's disguised as a trip to a small, dark, dwarf companion star to the sun which is composed of antimatter. Naturally complications ensue.

Haldeman tells the story in tiny vignettes. It's a style I have found annoying sometimes in the past but I think it was effective here because he uses it to gloss over some big events. The reader is told that they occurred and can infer some reasons why they occurred. "Tricentennial" is a common story wonderfully told.