Sunday, June 8, 2008

Review - "Eye for Eye", "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight", "Why I Left Harry's All-Night Hamburgers"

Michael Whelan
1988 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

For those who were wondering The Book of the New Sun did not turn up which means that its unlikely I would have finished The Claw of the Conciliator for Wednesday. So there's at least one more week before the Nebula reviews start up again.

But let's get to this week's short fiction.

"Eye for Eye"
by Orson Scott Card
1988 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

Card talked quite a bit in his own book on writing about the complications of doing exposition; it's especially necessary for science fiction and fantasy but at the same time its the weakest part of the narrative. I'd like to think he wrote that section with the failures of this story in mind.

The story is an interview with people who at the end turn out to already know the majority of what is explained to them and the character telling them all of this information knows that. It starts with about eight pages of exposition about things they already know then pauses for a page of plot before there's another ten pages of exposition that everyone already knows about how the previous eight pages weren't exactly right. Another page or two of plot follows before jumping right back into extended exposition about how the previous two lengthy expositions didn't fully explain everything. That's a lot of people standing around telling each other stuff and not doing much.

The story is that there's a group of people with super powers hiding among the population. The evil group is breeding for powers and their prodigal son who was the strongest of them all returns but not before the good group tells him about the evil group. Then they all fight.

People in this story are good or evil based on who they're allied with and there's little more motivation than that. The main character's internal conflicts were resolved before the story even began so it was raised and dropped in those long expository sections. Instead the narrative hangs on him picking up a new super power every few pages which lets him deal with whatever new situation has come up.

This kind of story was stale when Card wrote it but today it has gone stale, been made to compost, used to fertilize some grain, had bread made from that grain, and then gone stale again. If you want something like this done well watch Heroes (or not, that second season wasn't as interesting as the first) but avoid this story.

"Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight"
by Ursala K. Le Guin
1988 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette
1988 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novella

There was a trend in fantasy fiction for a while where a story would be about the protagonist finding out that an animist religion was the real one but thanks to those evil Europeans the magic is dying out. It's was typically Native American beliefs that were at the center of these stories though I've read a few were African or Asian religions were used. I dislike those stories quite a bit mainly because they raise a lot of complicated theological questions which are ignored for the author to just beat the "White men are evil!" concept into the ground. Surprisingly Le Guin's effort this time manages to avoid the heavy moralizing. There is a bit of it there but it's not a heavy handed condemnation of three thousand years of civilization.

A small girl is the only survivor of a plane crash and as she stumbles away from it she is found by Coyote, the trickster in many Native American traditions. Coyote leads her to a small desert village occupied by many animal spirits who nurse her back to health. She befriends them and in the end must choose between them and returning to civilization.

I'm not entirely certain why the story was effective for me. I think it's that Le Guin builds an interesting group of personalities in the spirits that occupy the story. She blends the animal aspects and the human ones smoothly particularly with Coyote. I wouldn't call the story brilliant, I don't think there's quite enough plot there, but it was interesting.

"Why I Left Harry's All-Night Hamburgers"
by Lawrence Watt-Evans
1988 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

This is a story with a moral but it's one you don't see very often in science fiction and one that many science fiction fans need to be reminded of every so often. As a result I didn't mind the moralizing for the climax of the story that much.

A kid gets a job working the counter at a remote hamburger joint in the middle of the night. After the last late night diners go away and before the early breakfast eaters come in a unique clientele arrives to meet and enjoy a burger. They come from a lot further away than the nearest town and the kid is taken by their stories of distant places. His job brings his life to a crossroads one evening when he has to choose what to do with his life.

It's a fable and one that I enjoyed quite a bit. It's a very tight story; there's just enough time to establish the theme and then the decision. That doesn't leave a lot of room for characterization or exciting plotting but because it was a fable and not trying to disguise the foundation of the story as something else it worked for me.