Sunday, July 20, 2008

Review - "Barnacle Bill the Spacer", "The Nutcracker Coup", and "Even the Queen"

Don Maitz
1993 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

Well after weeks of loving every story I read the streak was bound to break. If you just want me being cheerful and handing out compliments skip to the end. Otherwise settle in for some griping. Okay not really griping, just general dissatisfaction but angry words get more attention.

"Barnacle Bill the Spacer"
by Lucius Shepard
1993 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

There's a long tradition in pop culture of the wise fool, the idiot whose lack of intelligence grants them a special insight into the world. They are inevitably kind, gentle souls who are tormented by the wicked people around them until the protagonist recognizes their special nature and through it learns how much better it is to feel than to think.

I hate that story. There is exactly one time where I have encountered it where it was effective, "Flowers for Algernon", since typically it carries a heavy handed anti-intellectual message. Knowledge is inherently evil in this kind of story and the smarter the character is the worse of a human being they are. Even when that message isn't intentional that's what comes through so thankfully it's not half as popular in science fiction as it is elsewhere.

Obviously "Barnacle Bill the Spacer" is one of these stories. This time the eponymous wise fool is a man born on a space station where the limited available area means that he is barely tolerated. A cult of nihilists that have terrified the earth are starting to infiltrate the station and one of the security personnel works to protect the fool while trying to cut off the cult. The fool notices a change in vacuum dwelling life forms that the attach themselves to the surface of the station and insists that change is important. Predictability ensues.

The security officer who cares for the title character is a destructive man himself and Shepard does drop a bit of information in the first few pages to try to turn "Barnacle Bill" less sympathetic but that is the best the story gets. Each character is introduced with some characteristic that would add texture to them which is then completely abandoned as the story goes on so they fit into their simple little archetypes. It also doesn't help that much of the story's prose is outright purple: there are sentences that go on for nearly a full page and not as stream of consciousness. And that just leaves the story which as I stated was not very good.

Usually I can work out why a story won even if I don't like it. This is not one of those times. It's a weak story that can be safely ignored.

"The Nutcracker Coup"
by Janet Kagan
1993 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

I missed this before but while reading something this week I found out that Janet Kagan died a few months ago. I read her Star Trek novel Uhura's Song twenty years ago and recall thinking it was pretty good then but that was before I underwent some dramatic shifts in taste. I can't think of anything else by her that I've seen. I didn't care for her "The Nutcracker Coup", but I couldn't let the passing of its author go unremarked.

A minor diplomat on a primitive world has a major impact on that world's culture by sharing Earth holiday traditions. Knowledge of Christmas and Martin Luther King Day drive the natives to rebel against their repressive regime that controls them.

The problem is that things aren't really that bad. The extent of the evil of the repressive regime is that the emperor doesn't like people making fun of him and the terrible punishment for it is public humiliation. Really; that's it. I like freedom of speech enough to express it daily but that's downright mild. There's countries that considered free and long time allies of the United States that have more onerous restrictions on speech (see Germany where they'll throw you into jail for expressing certain vile political beliefs). It makes it a bit hard to get worked up about things though Kagan tries to by presenting things through the filter of "sympathetic" natives. The repressive regime never even responds to the open rebellion until its on their door step and still are unwilling to do much of anything. Passivity is not a good characteristic for an antagonist.

The result is that the story is dull as dishwater. More interesting characters could have saved it but they were about as flat as they come. It adds up to "The Nutcracker Coup" being a weak story but not nearly as annoying as the one that preceded it in these reviews.

"Even the Queen"
by Connie Willis
1993 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story
1992 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

And before this week becomes a total loss there is the best short story from Willis that I have read. Its a situation where I think the short length worked to its advantage since it let Willis get in, make her points, and get out. And she had a lot of fun making her points which make the story that much more enjoyable to read.

In the not too distant future women no longer menstruate due to a drug that is widely available and dolled out from an implant that they receive before their first period. There is a movement that considers these implants part of a male driven conspiracy to control women by making them ashamed of the menstrual cycle. When the youngest daughter of a judge decides to join them the entire family of very willful women come together to confront her about this.

If you told me that I'd love a story about women sitting around and talking about their menstrual cycles I would have called you insane. Each of the women who wind up meeting have very different opinions of how things should be handled and the bulk of the story is their intervention. And despite the fact that they all start from different places their menstrual cycles still bring them together in end. Well, most of them.

Willis's comedic side is in full force in this story and I smiled and laughed through it. Even if "Even the Queen" wasn't a good story (and it is) it would still be fun and that forgives a lot.