Sunday, June 1, 2008

Review - "Gilgamesh in the Outback", "Permafrost", and "Tangents"

Jim Burns
1987 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

Hey, where did Michael Whelan go?

And yes that was the best of Burns's work that I could definitively tie to the award period. I'm not fond of it myself but Burns does have better work at his website.

"Gilgamesh in the Outback"
by Robert Silverberg
1987 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

There's a long tradition of telling stories in the afterlife and populating it with famous people. Apparently if you're famous you get to be important and if you're not you exist simply to serve the famous people. You'd think in a place where everyone starts from nothing that there would be at least some change up in the order of things; if you don't have to eat, you don't die, and there's no need for currency why would people consent to being the servants of the famous dead person?

Silverberg gives us a Gilgamesh who has achieved immortality through dying. Over the thousands of years he has been dead he's seen the ebb and flow of history and while managed to adapt to earlier changes the past five hundred years have been too much for him. After a fight with Enkidu where they left determined to never speak to each other again Gilgamesh retreated to the wild, unpopulated lands to spend his time hunting. This is interrupted by Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft who are traveling as envoys of a kingdom and mediating in a war between Chairman Mao and Prester John.

Despite my annoyance that the story relies on famous people dealing with famous people Silverberg chose his subjects well. That was the plot but the story is really about the relationship between men. Gilgamesh and Enkidu's friendship is played off of Howard's homosexual attraction to a man who might have been Conan come to life (it doesn't take a deep reading to find homosexual themes in the Epic of Gilgamesh). And with Howard there his long friendship with his polar opposite in H. P. Lovecraft is a natural inclusion.

One tiny problem that I had due to this, though, is that there is a character named Howard and a character named Howard Phillip Lovecraft interacting with people. So there were times when someone was referred to as Howard that threw me off because it could have been either of them. This was strictly my problem since Silverberg only refers to Lovecraft as "H. P." but other Lovecraft fans might be bothered.

That's a minor annoyance, however. Silverberg's allegorical tale succeeds because it's not about the afterlife even if its framed that way. He'd repeat the structure two years later with "Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another" which won another Hugo. I'm not fond of this kind of name dropping historical but Silverberg manages to do it well.

by Roger Zelazny
1987 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

I've mentioned before how Roger Zelazny is the Ernest Hemingway of SF. While "Permafrost" doesn't fit smoothly into his standard pattern it does open with a frozen leopard on the side of Kilimanjaro. You can hardly get more Hemingway than that.

There's a resort world that's a paradise for fifty years and a frozen wasteland for fifty. A man who was rich and lost his fortune has returned to it in the middle of its winter with a new love to help him recover his fortune. He had acted as the winter custodian of the resort and he left after his lover died under mysterious circumstances. There is an AI ghost of person who handles day to day operations and doesn't trust him due to that death; the AI works to protect his new love from possibly facing the same fate. And if that wasn't enough the world itself seems to be working in the treasure hunter's favor.

The total result is a cute but not brilliant story. It follows the standard Zelazny pattern even less than his previous winner does; no one has a fist fight in this story where they become friends afterward, for example. Zelazny does use some unusual prose at some points but I found it to be slightly awkward rather than poetic. Still I enjoyed it.

by Greg Bear
1987 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story
1986 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

One of the very few creative works that I've distributed was a mash-up of Edwin A. Abbott and H. P. Lovecraft (hey, there he is again!) that dealt with the invasion of beings with an extra dimension from the perspective of a two dimensional being. The reason I bring this up is not to compare myself to Greg Bear but to say that trying to squeeze two dimensional perspective, design, and biology into my three dimensional thoughts gave me some massive headaches. While Bear doesn't use a completely alien point of view his story about normal humans attempting to interact with four dimensional beings does feature quite a bit of people trying to explain how the gradual extension of four dimensional shapes into three dimensions would look and I can sympathize when one of the characters complains about how rough that is to do.

The real heart of the story is the interaction between a cryptography expert in hiding and a neglected foster child. The cryptography expert is spending his time trying to visualize an extra spacial dimension and the child is a genius who can describe it. The child identified beings that exist there and do not often intersect our three dimensional space. Together they devise a plan to communicate with them.

The story wasn't bad but it didn't impress me and since the child acted more as a plot device than a person I couldn't get into their relationship which formed the heart of the story. I wasn't repulsed but there just wasn't enough here to make me really happy with it either.