Sunday, October 19, 2008

Review - "Oceanic", "Taklamakan", and "The Very Pulse of the Machine"

Bob Eggleton
1999 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

I've started the process of collecting the World Fantasy Award winners but it will be a few more weeks before reviews start up. The first one is here and the next few week worth are in the mail. I'm hoping that once I'm over the hump of the first few that I'll be able to acquire most of the rest without too much trouble. Of course since the toughest books for me to get in hard cover from the Hugos and Nebulas were from the 1990's there could be trouble on the horizon.

Anyway, look for an overview of the awards and a listing shortly before I start the reviews.

All three of this week's stories are in The Year's Best Science Fiction: The Sixteenth Annual Collection along with Ted Chiang's Nebula winner "The Story of Your Life".

by Greg Egan
1999 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

I had a strongly mixed reaction to this story. Egan picks his theme and tells that story reasonably well and for that reason I think it's worth reading, on the other hand there's a few road bumps and stylistic choices that prevent me from getting too enthusiastic about it.

On a world where culture has been divided by those who spend their lives wandering the oceans and those who make their way on dry land a child has a religious encounter in the depths. He becomes a fervent follower of a fundamentalist religion with Christian overtones but as time passes the events of his life drive him further and further from that. That's the real story that Egan is telling but he ties it up with the unusual history of the planet and biochemistry.

At its core there's a decent story in "Oceanic" and as long as it sticks with people it's fine. I wouldn't call it brilliant but I've read much worse. The problem for me was when Egan veered into the world building and my reaction was "That doesn't make any sense!" In particular there is the protagonists first sexual encounter where after pages of being mysterious we find out that after sex they swap genitals with their partner. It's a bit of an odd ball thing to just throw in and it has absolutely zero impact on the story other than to pad things out for a couple of pages and have mysterious references to it in the story before this point. When I hit that part I thought that Egan was going to go into gender relationships or the impact of this on the religions of the planet since what he told us about them doesn't make any sense if they're all hermaphrodites. Instead he goes straight into a "And now because of my religion we must get married!" bit and when the protagonist's partner refuses they swap back and nothing more is said of it.

There's other developments that Egan has in the story that give the appearance of being part of the narrative and in the end don't do anything at all. It makes for frustration on the part of the reader. In general I'd give "Oceanic" a hesitant recommendation but I wouldn't suggest hunting it down.

by Bruce Sterling
1999 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

A pair a cat burglars are recruited by the government to infiltrate a major project located in the remotest desert in China. They're anticipating a construction center for interstellar space craft or a new superweapon. When they sneak in the find a secret that is both far more shocking than anything they could have anticipated. I'm hesitant to describe the story more than that since the plot is dependent upon the slow reveal of the details.

This is a story for tech fetishists. I get the suspicion reading it that Sterling cared a lot more about the technology the characters use than the plot or the characters themselves. If you read the story brace yourself for lots of technology to be thrown out there. Fortunately Sterling doesn't spend the entire story on describing everything and how it works but he does spend a lot of time on it.

Despite that bit of criticism I wound up enjoying "Taklamakan" quite a bit. Sterling paces the reveals in the story very well as things get stranger and stranger. I never did get a proper feel for the characters beyond the archetypes of the brash young adventure seeker and the wise mentor but I wasn't bothered by that since the plot zips from one point to another only pausing to explain how awesome some bit of equipment they're carrying is. It's not a story for everyone; if you need strong characters then look elsewhere. Still I liked it.

"The Very Pulse of the Machine"
by Michael Swanwick
1999 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

A few years ago I did quite a bit of research on the moon of Jupiter Io. Like its companion Galilean satellites Io is a fascinating place. Still it has not been a popular place for science fiction. We are, after all, more likely to settle on the more solid Ganymede or dive below the ice of Europa than try to build on a constantly shifting volcanic surface that builds up a massive electrical charge. So this gave me some extra appreciation for what Swanwick was doing in "The Very Pulse of the Machine".

One of the two members of the first mission to land on Io died when the rover they were traveling in crashed. The other is left to drag her body across miles of inhospitable terrain to get back to their lander. On the trip her dead companion's voice keeps trying to talk to her over the radio alternating between poetry fragments, textbook information on Io, and details of the chemistry of the surfaces she is crossing. She could be going mad or something could be trying to communicate with her.

The lone astronaut trying to cross inhospitable terrain is one of those science fiction staples that everyone seems to do at least once. Swanwick builds the surface of Io into a distinct threat. Besides that the survival is secondary to the voice on the radio. Those two factors give "The Very Pulse of the Machine" a different feeling and I wound up enjoying it.