Sunday, May 18, 2008

Review - "Press Enter", "Bloodchild", and "The Crystal Spheres"

Michael Whelan
1985 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"Press Enter g"
by John Varley

1985 Hugo Winner for Best Novella
1984 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

Another Varley story? Okay, sure of the four stories I've read by him four have had pedophilia as a positive experience, some of them having it as the central theme, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. Let's see... a story about the mysterious death of a computer hacker (hence the block in the title; it's an old style computer cursor the kind of which I haven't seen on a new machine in twenty years). That doesn't sound so bad. Hmm... a large breasted (Varley goes into extensive detail on that feature), Asian computer goddess who throws herself at middle aged men. That makes my eyes roll but it's new ground for him. Oh, and she escaped poverty in Viet Nam thanks to a pedophile who saved her while screwing her twelve year old body and she has fond memories of him.

Sigh. So five for five. Reading his stories that have won the Hugos has made me certain that I never want to read anything by him ever again. If I see his stories in other collections (where I read the first two stories I encountered by him) I'm going to skip over them.

So aside from the pedophilia this is not a good story. I'm sure you all remember how when Intel's 386 processor was released they combined together to form one murderous super-AI. No? Hmm... this story hinges on the fact that 16-bit processors are so powerful that an AI arising out of them would occur naturally. I wonder how we dodged that bullet.

It's the story of the boogey-man of the 1980's: the evil PC. Saying that it hasn't aged well is putting things mildly. To anyone with a little bit of technical knowledge in 1985 this story would be laughable; in 2008 it's pretty much a joke. The best part of the story is all the references to tech culture in the early 80's most of which I have nostalgia for but it's not enough to say it was worth reading.

by Octavia Butler
1985 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette
1984 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

Apparently the trick to winning a Hugo and Nebula those years were to have "blood" as the first word in the title. After the previous year's "Blood Music" comes "Bloodchild". Fortunately the voters stopped this otherwise all of the winners would sound like heavy metal bands.

Butler plays her cards close to her chest with setting details in this story and that can be a risky thing. One of the Nebula winners I recently read did the same thing but did it so poorly that the story was reduced to confusing nonsense. Butler does it right. My perceptions were being constantly rewritten by the story and where I ended up would not be where I thought the story was going at the start or even later on. She does this by building emotional connections rather than simply revealing facts.

I can't even begin to describe the story since it has a complex structure around those revelations but I can say that it's about the interaction of a human family with alien authorities. To go beyond that would be spoiling a wonderful story that you owe it to yourself to read.

"The Crystal Spheres"
by David Brin
1985 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

Before Kepler and Copernicus defined the motions of the planets it was assumed that the movement of heavenly bodies was due to them being embedded in vast crystal spheres that spun. Brin not only manages to revive the concept with "The Crystal Spheres", he manages to do it in a context that fits with modern science and give it a reason that makes it more intriguing.

It turns out that all life supporting stars are surrounded by vast crystal spheres. Earth's first interstellar space craft crashes into ours shattering it and sending quadrillions of comets down into the solar system. As it turns out the spheres are indestructible from the outside but soap bubble weak from within and those interstellar explorers find that they are constantly looking in at worlds that they can never touch. Eventually humanity retreats back to earth but centuries later a probe finds another broken sphere.

It's big concept science fiction played straight in the same style that Brin used in his Uplift books. The story is heavy on ideas but light on actual action but Brin manages to tell the story of the history of the spheres so well that I didn't mind. Humanity itself is the character that develops over the course of the story and I enjoyed it quite a bit.