Sunday, May 11, 2008

Review - "Cascade Point" , "Blood Music", and "Speech Sounds"

Michael Whelan
1984 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"Cascade Point"
by Timothy Zahn
1984 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

Standard science fiction plot #3: a technology with complex implications is introduced, causes problems, and then the characters devise a solution to that problem based on a logical extension of the concept. Most commonly done with space craft since they're self-contained with obvious risks. Expect a lot of heavy exposition as the technology has to be explained to the reader so they understand both the problem and "new" solution.

Grab a random issue of a science fiction magazine since the 1930's and I can just about guarantee that it has a story that follows this basic pattern and it takes a careful touch to pull it off well. Besides the obvious trap of having the only thing of interest in the story be the technology it can be easy to make many of the characters (if not the entire society) appear foolish for not recognizing simple applications of the technology.

I can't say that Zahn is entirely successful with his story. In it there is a faster than light drive that may involve moving through parallel earths. A material that changes the flight characteristics is accidentally brought on board a ship using it (the story hints that it might not be an accident and the character didn't understand the consequences but that's like not understanding the consequences of carrying a bottle of nitroglycerin on board a airplane) and they find themselves in a parallel universe and they have to work out how to use the drive to get back.

Where this story works and works well is that Zahn pains a vivid image of characters with many regrets who live through them every time they use the drive. They see visions of what they may have been at different points making staying conscious through the process emotionally draining. Zahn uses this cleverly to illuminate the characters.

The downside is that the technology isn't really as well thought out as it could have been. There were obvious, easy things that anyone who was developing this technology should have tried. It disrupts electronics requiring one person to manually make adjustments for all spacecraft but apparently the idea of mechanical devices has been lost. The unique situation the ship finds itself in should be well understood.

Don't get me wrong, I did like the story because it works extremely well on an emotional level; I just didn't find it very satisfying intellectually.

"Blood Music"
by Greg Bear
1984 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

This story on the other hand had the opposite problem. A researcher finds a way to make intelligent colonies of microscopic organisms and he modifies them to live in his blood stream. As they grow and develop they begin to modify his body and he seeks help from a college friend who is driven to desperate measures.

Bear creates an interesting situation and goes in depth on it. He tells us how such things might be possible and how they might be performing their actions. The problem lies in that it feels more like an indistinct report than someone reacting to a human being being modified for the purposes of an non-human intelligence. The story is surprisingly passionless, but I enjoyed it for the interesting ideas.

"Speech Sounds"
by Octavia Butler
1984 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

A plague that essentially gives everyone who catches it a stroke has swept the world. The language centers of the brain are destroyed and most people lose the ability to read or write. A woman is attempting to make her way across Los Angeles and finds herself in the company of a police officer who is driven to continue helping people despite the failings of communication.

Obviously from the category this is a brief tale but it is very vivid and Butler makes the lack of dialog feel natural in the context of the story. It's also a hopeful story despite being post-apocalyptic. With some very appealing characters to hang her story on I found Butler's tale quite interesting.