Sunday, September 28, 2008

Review - "Call Him Lord" and "The Secret Place"

More Hugo winning short fiction reviews are coming in the next few weeks but for the time being I'm pressing ahead with filling out the Nebulas. It is not uncommon for there to be at least some cross over between the Hugos and Nebulas with short fiction though. My plan is that when a year only has one winner that has not been reviewed I'll roll it up with another year's stories.

Now is a good time to mention the Nebula winner anthologies. For thirty-three years the SFWA published a collection that included the winners of the awards, essays, and other Nebula nominees that were worth noting. They have since been replaced by a yearly Nebula Awards Showcase which for some reason the handy doesn't index (for some reason information on this series online is very thin). I haven't gotten any of the Showcase collections yet but from the first few Nebula Awards books I'd have to say they work very well as a "Best of 196x" series. The stories are all solid and so far they've all contained some of my favorite SF stories. The Annual World's Best SF series didn't start until 1972 so the first few Nebula Awards books can do a good job of covering that hole.

On the other hand if you want to read just the Nebula winners then I don't recommend them. Okay the first volume was about two-thirds winners thanks to the fact that there was a tie in the novella category but the winners get more sparse after that. There is a collection titled The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 3 which covers the Nebula winners between 1965 and 1969 (the first two are good as well). Volume 4 carries this forward to 1974 but that is as far as these go. Still two books are a more efficient purchase for someone who isn't being a collector than ten.

Getting to the stories...

"Call Him Lord"
by Gordon R. Dickson
1966 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

I really should have hated this story but I didn't. It's cliched, simplistic, and carries a some disturbing unintended messages but Dickson also managed to make it entertaining.

The heir to the Emperor of the Galaxy is coming to Earth as part of his touring education. The Earth is kept as a primitive backwater where people ride horses to get around and generally reject any twentieth century technology. The prince is one of the new breed of humanity: smarter, stronger, more intelligent, and naturally completely lacking in any social skills. He is to be guided by an Earthman who served the Emperor in the past. Together they get into a lot of trouble as the prince treats everyone like crap and is shocked that they don't defer to him automatically (despite the fact that he's hiding his noble heritage).

This must have been a popular year for arrogant aristocrats getting their come-upance. The Novella winner for both Hugo and Nebula was "The Last Castle" where a bunch of snooty aristocrats get kicked around by the people they pushed around. This concept was a cliche when Shakespeare used it and it's just as much of a cliche now. Dickson made it work for him however and the reason for that is that his snooty aristocrat makes it personal.

A bunch of strange guys replacing an alien race's stomachs with nutriant pods? There's no connection there for the reader. A stuck up rich kid thinking he can get away with anything? Now that's something that the reader can identify with. For that reason I liked "Call Him Lord" and I suspect that most people will too.

"The Secret Place"
by Richard McKenna
1966 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

McKenna died in 1964 and this story was published posthumously as were most of his writing. That is disappointing since while I don't think this story worked perfectly it is a surprisingly modern fantasy story that would not be out of place in any publication today. I would have loved to seen more from him; he was at the start of his literary career and things would have only improved from here.

In the early thirties in a small desert town a boy declares that he has found a gold mine. When his neighbors don't believe him he runs off and is found dead a few hours later with a nugget of gold and a crystal that turns out to be uranium ore. The townspeople can't find the mine and it becomes a local legend.

Ten years on the army becomes interested in the uranium ore. They send a geological survey team who insist that the terrain is wrong for gold or uranium but search anyway. When they cannot find anything one team member, our narrator, is left behind to continue the search. Instead of looking geologically he tries involving the boy's sister. She reveals that her brother created a fairy tale kingdom that they played in and the narrator finds that it might have been too real for both of them.

That's the simply view of the story. There's also the complicated one that the science is right and the fairy tales are part of a schizophrenic break that the narrator is cruelly exploiting. This is what makes things interesting; the way McKenna builds the story around contrasting views of reality. The divisions between everyone are highlighted as the central theme and it makes all of the characters interesting to read about. The prose is solid and carries the story well but I think the ambiguities of the climax weaken the story. So I can't give it a whole-hearted recommendation but I still think it's worth checking out.