Sunday, September 21, 2008

Review - "The Saliva Tree", "He Who Shapes", and "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth"

What? The Nebulas don't have an artist to highlight? Well then let me hit the story reviews!

"The Saliva Tree"
by Brian W. Aldiss
Tied for 1965 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

In his history of science fiction The Trillion Year Spree Aldiss points out "The Colour Out of Space" as one of the few works of H. P. Lovecraft that he enjoyed. Which I suppose is why he decided to remake it only worse. Imagine the Lovecraft story with more needless explanations, actual invisible monsters, a very British attitude, and a romantic arc and you have "The Saliva Tree".

One day in the early twentieth century a rock falls from the sky and lands on a farm in Britain. Shortly afterward strange things begin happening at this farm as all of the life there becomes incredibly fertile and grows rapidly. Invisible things begin stalking the farm and the mental health of those living there deteriorates. Fortunately a scholarly young man spending a holiday in the countryside after finishing his schooling has taken a liking to the farmer's daughter and he resolves to comprehend the phenomena.

This would be a weak story even if I had not read the superior prototype. The main problem for me is one of tone. Is it a War of the Worlds pastiche? Lovecraft? Manners comedy as different social classes clash? Scientific adventure or cosmic horror? Aldiss flips on these so often I got whiplash and he never quite brings it all together as a coherent whole. On top of that I found the protagonist to be as interesting as lawn clippings; I just didn't care if he managed to deal with the aliens or got the girl. For those reasons I'd say don't bother with this story.

"He Who Shapes"
by Roger Zelazny
Tied 1965 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

I have made fun of Zelazny for so many of his stories being similar. Part of this is that he found a particular voice that he preferred and stuck with it regardless. That was not so at the beginning of his career. "He Who Shapes" was first published in 1964. Zelazny's first work was published in 1962. A spectacular rise and it means that both of his winners of 1965 Nebulas are very different from his later work.

There is no macho protagonist in "He Who Shapes". Nor is there a fist fight that ends with both combatants walking away friends. There is quite a bit of a drinking and smoking but only alcohol and tobacco.

A psychologist who specializes in entering the dreams of his clients and shaping them (hence the title) encounters a blind woman who wishes to learn that profession. There is a danger to it since if person who enters dreams loses control of the dream they risk insanity. Though the psychologist cannot take her on in good conscience as an apprentice he agrees to see her as a patient to help her overcome the confusion she will encounter upon seeing things in a dream. They're therapy becomes entangled in his personal life and the psychologist's quest for scientific glory.

For some reason I can't put my finger on the story just didn't connect with me. The character dynamics are interesting as Zelazny builds quite a bit of conflict into them (my plot description doesn't cover the intelligent seeing eye dog that fears being obsolete or the lover concerned about the integrity of the patient relationship). I suspect it has to do with the fact that Zelazny relies heavily on hallucinogenic descriptions of dreams and I find that kind of thing to be dull (and Zelazny himself does them better in other books and stories) but there's also the pacing which feels awkward. I can't recommend seeking it out but this is a situation where millage may vary quite a bit.

"The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth"
by Roger Zelazny
1965 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

Zelazny's other winner is much closer to what his stories would become thanks to it being heavily influenced by Hemingway (and not simply The Old Man and the Sea as you might guess).

In the seas of Venus swims a fish larger than any other in the known universe: around three hundred meters long which is large enough to swallow most office buildings whole. A special ship was built specifically to catch it but when the attempt failed it bankrupted its builder. Many have tried to use the ship to catch the giant fish but at best they've left in disgrace and at worst people died in the attempt. One resident of Venus makes an effort to be directly involved in each attempt and now a woman he had a love affair with a long time ago arrives to make another attempt. The fisherman knows from experience how hard it can be to capture the beast when staring it in the face.

One of the things that makes this story particularly interesting is that Zelazny is very obtuse in his plot developments. You'll be half way through before you have a pretty good idea of the back story. It does make it tough reading for the first few pages before you realize exactly what Zelazny is doing with his plot but patience is rewarded.

The same strong characterization I noted with "He Who Shapes" is on display here but with "The Doors of His Face..." I think that it is supported by a stronger plot. I can honestly say that I had no idea where things would go in the end since either success or failure on any front in the story would have been perfectly appropriate. I strongly recommend seeking this story out as long as you can get past that "oceans of Venus" part.