Sunday, May 25, 2008

Review - "Twenty-four Views of Mount Fuji, by Hokusai", "Paladin of the Lost Hour", and "Fermi and Frost"

Michael Whelan
1986 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

Representing Whelan this time is the cover to one of my least favorite books: Robert Heinlein's The Cat Who Walked Through Walls. It's been a while since I've stated this so it bears repeating: if an author makes a sequel to some of their best loved works more than ten years later and attempts to link it to some of their other books it's a very bad sign.

"Twenty-four Views of Mount Fuji, by Hokusai"
by Roger Zelazny
1986 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

This one requires a bit of explanation. The actual name of nineteenth century Japanese artist Hokusai's work is "Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji". There are actually forty-six prints in the set, but Zelazny was familiar with it through a book that had twenty-four of the images. What Zelazny did was craft a story framed by the images in the order they were presented in his book. The novella is divided into chapters, each one set at the location of a corresponding print.

While there's aspects of the Zelazny's standard stories in place this really isn't his standard kind of work. A former spy is sick and has one last thing to do before she dies. Her husband died years before and she has returned to Japan to kill him. She is traveling to see each view of Mount Fuji with her own eyes but is being hunted.

While reading it I had very mixed feelings but on reflections I have to say that I enjoyed the story. It's a very slow paced tale with a pastoral feel despite also being a spy thriller. It was a tough balancing act and I think Zelazny pulled it off. I would recommend reading the story with the Hokusai's images handy since they compliment the work perfectly.

"Paladin of the Lost Hour"
by Harlan Ellison
1986 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

When the shift from the Gregorian to the Julian calendar occurred one hour was left out. This hour was trapped in a silver pocket watch and must be protected. Now an old man with the watch meets a young veteran who has never recovered from Vietnam and a decision must be made.

Sure that set up doesn't make much sense even by fantasy standards (how did they get a silver pocket watch in the sixteenth century?) but the over all concepts are strong enough to build a framework for the story which is really about the emotional problems the two men have and how they connect. Ellison's story is powerful on those grounds and it's enjoyable to read about the bond that forms between them despite the tensions.

One thing that needs to be mentioned is a very odd bit of writing where Ellison specifies that one of the men is black and the other white but doesn't say which is which. It doesn't even matter since the story has nothing to do with racial differences and race is only brought up once at the very beginning in narration and once at the very end. It didn't matter to the story which made this line feel like self-important posturing. In 1965 throwing this into a story might have carried some weight; 1985 its time has passed.

But one bit of pretentious silliness isn't enough to ruin a fine story. I liked it quite a bit despite its quirks.

"Fermi and Frost"
by Frederik Pohl
1986 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

In this tale a nuclear war occurs and as the survivors huddle underground in Iceland they smugly decide that they have an answer to the Fermi paradox, the question of why given the scale of the universe we are unable to detect any sign of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Naturally they haven't since their "answer" would fall apart if just one alien species managed to dodge complete extinction by the nuclear bullet but this clumsy story exists solely to pose that theory.

I feel like I'm starting to pick on Pohl a bit and I'm not trying to. I suspect that this weak story was a tribute Hugo for his nearly fifty years in science fiction at that point rather a selection based on the quality of the work. There's a weak emotional arc involving a child who was snatched away from doom by a scientist who managed to get on a plane away from population centers but it's so poorly developed that there's no emotional connection there. This is one story that is very skippable.