Sunday, August 10, 2008

Review - "All Seated On the Ground", "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", and "Tideline"

Stephan Martiniere
2008 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

Martiniere has been doing exceptional work in recent years with some very impressive book covers. She did that wonderful cover for Rainbows End, last year's Hugo winner for best novel. This sample of her work is the cover to Queen of Candesce.

"All Seated On the Ground"
by Connie Willis
2008 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

Would be Hugo winners let me give you the east path to victory:

1. Determine what location the Worldcon five years from now will be held at and move there.
2. Write a story utilizing that local setting. It doesn't have to be great, it just has to not stink (and sometimes that isn't even a problem).
3. For added insurance make sure its published in the last eligible month so that its fresh in people's minds.
4. Profit.

I enjoy Connie Willis's work quite a bit. I enjoy it enough that I've got a reasonably expensive hard cover edition of some of her short stories on the way. "All Seated On the Ground" however was a weak effort.

Aliens land in Denver but they don't do much more than stare disapprovingly at people while a government team attempts to communicate with them. This goes on for some time until a core group of nutcases is left including our narrator. Suddenly while taking them to the mall during Christmas to pick up a Nintendo Wii or something they finally respond. A choir director who rapidly becomes the love interest of our protagonist points out that they responded to a line in a Christmas carol and they spend the rest of the time trying to get them to react to other carols, figure out a message that won't be harmful, and work out what's happening.

The problem is that what's happening is immediately evident to the reader but Willis dances around the subject for three-quarters of the story. It left me wanting her to just get on with it. On the positive side of things the story does use Willis's lighter style to decent effect but it's a cute story that overstays its welcome.

"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate"
by Ted Chiang
2008 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

I don't think I've mentioned this before but I have a decent folklore collection and one of my favorites from that collection is 1001 Arabian Nights. I have at least four copies in three different translations and I am very familiar with the Richard Burton translantion (that would be the explorer/adventurer not the actor). Chiang's story is wonderful but knowing Burton's work elevates it even higher.

I'm not sure I can even propperly explain this story except in the broadest terms. There's an alchemist and he builds a door that connects points twenty years distant. There's a merchant who lost his wife nearly twenty years ago. And there's a whole lot of people who time travel using that door.

The thing about this story is that much like 1001 Arabian Nights it isn't "a story", it's eight stories (if I'm counting correctly). And it's not as simple as one story ends and the other begins; people constantly interrupt one story to tell another one and so the stories become nested at least three deep. Chiang borrows many other elements from Nights. The sexual elements are particularly noticiable especially when paired with the pious morals.

Chiang managed to take a well worn science fiction theme and make it enjoyable by using a distinct structure. It doesn't matter that using time travel to attempt to save your loved ones and change history is overdone, Chiang makes it feel fresh and new again by filtering it through a new vision.

by Elizabeth Bear
2008 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

Speaking of old themes in this story we have a robot learning emotions by bonding with a child. That's two old themes for the price of one! Bear isn't nearly as successful as Chiang is at putting fresh life into them but she does a decent job.

After a devistating war a robot tank too damaged to travel far wanders a beach knowing that some vital component will fail soon. It is attempting to make a memorial to its fallen comrades but keeps getting interupted by a boy. Naturally sweetness ensues.

Bear does a fine job with this and manages to avoid completely swamping the reader in sentimentality. It's may be an old story (or stories) but its told reasonably well. For that reason I wouldn't recommend going out of way... no, forget it. It's a short story freely available online that will take you half an hour to read so there isn't a reason to skip it.