Sunday, August 24, 2008

Review - "The Death of Captain Future" , "Think Like a Dinosaur", and "The Lincoln Train"

Bob Eggleton
1996 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

Once more back to the Hugo winning short stories! I'm considering alternating to the Nebulas next week but I'll burn that bridge when I come to it.

"The Death of Captain Future"
by Allen Steele
1996 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

Let me give you a plot outline for "The Death of Captain Future". You have a lunar miner who has signed on to a short hop on a craft so that he can get to a distant mining colony in time to catch a job that will put him on the road to success. The ship however is run by a self styled "Captain Future" an obsessive fan of the pulp stories of Edmond Hamilton. When they are nearly there they receive a distress call from an asteroid converted to a ship and find that everyone on it had space madness (not the name used in the story but it might as well have been). They smashed the controls and left the asteroid on course for Mars but thanks to some cliched and obvious... er... quick and resourceful thinking they save the day but something happens to result in the story title.

There's two obvious ways to do this story: humor and postmodern. Both of them depend on one vital thing to carry the story however: Captain Future. Steele chooses the postmodern direction and his "Captain Future" is a loser of the highest caliber. The problem is that Steele chooses to tell us that rather than show us it. The captain is barely on stage for the story at all and instead other people tell us about how pathetic he is. So the reader doesn't get to develop their own feelings about the captain, we are just supposed to attach ourselves to the other characters. Those characters are also very unlikable in a postmodern style of making them unlikable because it's "more real"; since they're not interesting it just leaves everyone in the story as unlikable.

Consequently there's not a thing to recommend the story for. The plot is tired and cliche but it is intended to be a character piece. So that might have worked except that the characters aren't worth reading about. I also suspect that it was intended as a deconstruction of pulp SF but it fails on that as well since it doesn't really examine the structure in the first place. This one should be avoided.

"Think Like a Dinosaur"
by James Patrick Kelly
1996 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

Of the three short works I read for this review this is the only one I liked and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Aliens turn up and allow human beings access to the populated universe through their teleporter that goes to other worlds. The catch is that the teleporter isn't really a teleporter but a duplicator and the aliens require that the original copy is destroyed once the new one has been received. One human is selected as the gatekeeper for this and his job is to push the button that kills the originals; if he doesn't then the aliens will likely cut off contact from the Earth. A transport gone bad has left the original alive and walking around after the duplicate is made and he must either take drastic steps to deal with it or risk closing humanity off.

It seems funny to me that this is in the novelette category since the story is fairly short. My guess is that it was just over the word count level for the short story category. Kelly manages to weave an interesting problem in that little space dealing with the psychology of people trying to adapt for aliens, the willingness of someone to use this method to leave Earth, and the not so clear implications of the technology. It's definitely worth checking out.

"The Lincoln Train"
by Maureen F. McHugh
1996 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

For some odd reason I've read a lot of things in the past couple of weeks written mainly in present tense. Besides this story there are two Nebula winning novels coming up for reviews, several other short stories that I've come across, and I bumped into discussion of the use of present tense as a voice in fiction. So after reading an awful lot of this stuff I've come to a conclusion: I don't like it.

Those in favor of its use argue for a sense of immediacy and I find that it actually has the opposite effect on me: rather than feeling immediate it feels distant. The use of present tense narration gives a work a radio announcer type quality that separates me from things. This isn't necessarily a bad thing and a distinctive point of view can make effective use of that (not to spoil things but The Speed of Dark is a perfect example of this). To simply substitute tense of verbs in a one to one substitution from past to present is more annoying than clever.

That's the situation with "The Lincoln Train". Despite being told in present tense the story would not lose a think structurally, narrative, or stylistically to be told in past tense. It left me feeling annoyed with the story. It is told from the point of view of a young woman who was a slave owner before the American Civil War (the first person voice with present tense giving it even more of a radio announcer feel). She is undergoing a harsh forced migration as part of cruel reparations placed on the South by President Lincoln who may have been left addled by a head wound he received at the theater.

I never get a feeling for the characters so I wasn't really about to connect to their plight and the style of writing grated on me so badly to finish it off. I wouldn't recommend it.