Thursday, April 3, 2008

Review - "Stardance", "Eyes of Amber", "Jeffty is Five"

Rick Sternbach
1978 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

I don't know what it was but 1978 might have been the best single year for Hugo award winning short fiction. I'd call two of them excellent and the other one very good

by Spider Robinson and Jeanne Robinson
1978 Hugo Winner for Best Novella
1977 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

You might recall that I didn't like Robinson's earlier "By Any Other Name" but my problem with that story wasn't the writing or the characters; it was the fact that my suspension of disbelief was snapped so hard that it walked with a limp afterward. "Stardance" is different (perhaps due to the influence of his wife who is credited as co-author) and while I found its overall story a bit predictable the telling couldn't be better.

There is a woman who wants to be a dancer. She's brilliant with choreography, poetic with her own motions, but doesn't have the figure for a modern dance company. On her own she's perfect but with others she can't do it. So she is locked out of her dream but attempts to pursue it on her own with a professional camera man. Eventually she gets access to an orbital facility and trades her body for the opportunity to dance in zero gravity. The effect of working without gravity is destroying her but her dances are inspiring the world. She has one last great dance to perform but the stress of doing it may kill her.

The Robinsons have built a powerful, moving story on this framework. The characters for the most part are richly detailed and fascinating. Even though I knew quickly how it would progress (the story opens with hints of the ending) the narrative pulled me along. I could not recommend this story more highly.

"Eyes of Amber"
by Joan Vinge
1978 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

An alien civilization has been found in our own solar system and humanity has sent a space probe to them. The probe lands on Titan and falls into the hands of a psuedo-medieval bandit who is seeking revenge on her family. While her plans take shape the human monitors on Earth separated by the time lag for their signal debate what to do about it.

"Eyes of Amber" raises a lot of difficult questions and offers no solutions. Is it right for humanity to impose its values on another civilization? What about when it's our views on murder? And how much does the promotion of science in popular culture matter? How far should it go? The characters make their decisions but they aren't made easily. It does give the story a bit of an anticlimactic feeling since the tension mostly comes from the human drama which makes the resolution come across as a bit flat. Still I enjoyed the effect of the story as a whole.

"Jeffty is Five"
by Harlan Ellison
1978 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story
1977 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

Remember the Harlan Ellison who wrote clever and interesting stuff like "'Repent Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" and "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream"? The one that got consumed by the pretentious, droning Ellison? Well by 1978 the New Wave was gone and people stopped equating "densely overwritten and meaningless" with "good". So the old Ellison came back with the very good "Jeffty is Five".

In a suburban neighborhood live Jeffty who is, as the title states, five years old. Jeffty has always been five since the narrator of the story was five years old himself. It appears to simply be a situation like Peter Pan until the narrator finds out that not only is Jeffty five, everything that was important to him when he was five also exists around Jeffty. Radio dramas continued, movies in that style still turned up, and so on.

As a result Ellison's story is deeply embedded in nostalgia and that isn't a bad thing. He indulges it while at the same time recognizing the problems with it. It makes the whole thing feel more like something Ray Bradbury would write rather than the angry ranting that Ellison commonly dipped into. Perhaps that was a sign of Ellison growing up.