Sunday, October 12, 2008

Review - Chronospace, "We Will Drink a Fish Together", and "The 43 Antarean Dynasties"

Bob Eggleton
1998 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

This was a funky set of stories to read. Not because of their content or any link between them but because they were a pain to get them. Chronospace is an expansion of Allen Steele's "...Where Angels Fear to Tread"; since the story has never been collected anywhere I had to get that book and rather than just read the section with the title of the short story I need to review the book as a whole since I can't be certain how it was expanded. "The 43 Antarean Dynasties" is not widely collected as well so I had to obtain a copy of Resnick's collection Travels With My Cats (which is a fine set of his short stories and I'd give it a solid recommendation with my only complaint being that there is no hard cover edition). Which meant that I had to get a third book for "We Will Drink a Fish Together".

I think next time I'll take up creating a simpler collection. Like Faberge eggs.

by Allen Steele
An expansion of "...Where Angels Fear to Tread", the 1998 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

I'm not going to give this book a full review since I read it for the Hugo winning short fiction it was based on. I'll fit as much complaining as possible into the next couple of paragraphs to make up for that.

In the future historians time travel to investigate the past and their time machines are mistaken for alien spacecraft by those who catch a glimpse of them. A team is selected for the most dangerous mission yet, a trip to the final voyage of the Hindenburg. Something changes, though, and the blimp does not explode leaving the time travelers stranded.

I had a lot of problems with this book structurally and factually. The book is divided into three sections with the middle third having the title of the original novella. The final third reads like a sequel to it rather than part of the same book and the first third contains little activity. The whole effect is a patchwork Frankenstein's monster of a novel where the reader is given extended exposition for events they read about twenty pages before. When a character needs to be reminded that they broke history a few hours before hand then there is something seriously wrong.

(Seriously, there is a conversation that goes something like this: "Oh my god, what happened to the world?! Why has everything changed?" "Well we screwed up history a few hours ago. I suspect that might have something to do with this." "Perhaps you're right...")

A real issue for me is that the story is built upon the discredited theory that the Hindenburg exploded due to sabotage. I can suspend my disbelief for time travel, FTL drives, and concepts that get discredited after the author writes the story but I want a story about history to get the basic history right. Sabotage is nice and dramatic but even in 1997 people recognized that it was the least likely of the possible causes. And somehow between now when we don't know and four hundred years from now they discover definitive proof of the sabotage, who did it, what methods they used, and what went wrong since it is common knowledge even before the time travellers go back to view things first hand. It appeared to me as I read the book that Steele read some of the popular conspiracy theories and took them as fact.

I need to stop here before I continue on to Steele's horrific handling of exposition, his head scratching characterization, the complications policing time travel being completely ignored, and how the ending actually appears to make the central conflict of the novel worse while everyone acts like it is resolved for the better. That's enough for me, though. This is a bad novel; the middle third is a bit more ambiguous and most of my problems come from the book ending sections so the novella may be better. After that mess I'm not putting in the effort to find out, though.

"We Will Drink a Fish Together"
by Bill Johnson
1998 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

Ah the quirky folk of small town Middle America. I don't know if you can rightly call them stock characters when they seem to be defined by the author randomly picking character quirks out of a list of zaniness but they do come up a lot in modern fiction. It takes a deft hand to take this theme and give it some depth.

The human body guard for an alien ambassador is called back to his small town home to bury a family friend. Assassination attempts have been made on the ambassador and the ambassador follows hoping to dodge the attackers. Naturally wackiness ensues as they deal with the quirky inhabitants of the small town.

Not a lot really happens in this story; it just drifts from encounter to encounter until it finally comes to an end. While Johnson avoids the pitfall of being patronizing regarding the small town inhabitants he doesn't really manage to make them more than simply quirky. I wasn't really engaged by any of them. I didn't find "We Will Drink a Fish Together" to be a bad story, Johnson tells it reasonably well, it just didn't thrill me.

"The 43 Antarean Dynasties"
by Mike Resnick
1998 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

Empires rise and fall but their monuments remain to be gawked at by tourists. In "The 43 Antarean Dynasties" the monuments of past glories are alien ones; a vast civilization that has fallen into ruin after centuries of repeated invasions. A tour guide shows a few tourists these wonders and deals with their apathy.

Resnick says that the story was inspired by Egypt but it could have been about any country with archeological treasures standing next to crushing poverty. That might be the biggest problem with the story since the themes might be better explored with the present day Earth rather than disconnected with a "better than everything" alien civilization. Still Resnick does a fine job of making his points without being too heavy handed; tourists are tourists after all and they bear no more guilt for not reveling in a foreign culture than the members of that culture do for not appreciating theirs. The story is a bit light so I wouldn't say it's worth undergoing a monumental effort for but if you come across it then you won't feel worse for having read it.