Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Review - "The Winds of Marble Arch", "10^16 to 1", and "Scherzo with Tyrannosaur"

Michael Whelan
2000 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

I'm gearing up for a run at NaNoWriMo so my updates are going to get even slower in November. After that's over I should be ready to launch into the World Fantasy Award winners, though. So right now I'm clearing some back stock of short fiction, original art, and dramatic presentation reviews.

There's a lot of time travel this year. Perhaps the calendar roll over drove brought them out of the wood work.

"The Winds of Marble Arch"
by Connie Willis
2000 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

Willis who is no stranger to time travel is the only one to not explicitly use time travel of the winners this year but "The Winds of the Marble Arch" carries many of the same themes common in time travel stories and uses a lot of information she wrote about in other time travel stories. This is also one of Willis's serious stories and while I don't think the whole thing was as well integrated as it could have been it is still worth checking out.

A couple approaching middle age are on a trip to London where they spent some time in their youth. Catching up with old friends they find that things have changed; their friends are no longer adventurous free spirits and one of them is having an affair. The husband chooses to use the subway to travel everywhere and while underground he is struck by a wind that carries a smell of terror and death. He becomes obsessed with determining the causes of these winds and it may be that they carry with them all the horrors of the past.

Willis's story is about those passages and transitions of life. The main characters are well drawn and carry the story well. They're both undergoing the transitions to middle age while being confronted by those who have already felt its impact. My only problem is that the moral toward the end of the story doesn't really match well with the rest and doesn't really dovetale the two plots of the budding mid-life crisis and the winds well. Still the very end is touching without being too sappy and I strongly recommend this story.

"10^16 to 1"
by James Patrick Kelly
2000 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

If this story was published in 1969 it would have fit in perfectly. Published in 1999, however, it seems archaic building on themes that went out of fashion decades before.

A young boy in October of 1962 encounters a time traveller. He shelters him but the time traveller is there to change the future. When the mission is disrupted the time traveller charges the boy with completing the mission even though the odds are 10,000,000,000,000,000 to 1 against him being successful.

I'd like to think this is a gag story because then it would make more sense but if it is then it isn't a clever or funny one. It seems to me that this is intended to be taken at face value even though it is a story about the possibility of a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the fact that the Earth would be doomed to be reduced to a charred cinder by ten years after the story was written if our timeline wasn't changed, and that the odds of the mission success. Even in 1990 just after the Cold War ended I wouldn't be able to believe a story that claimed an all consuming war would destroy the Earth by 2000. It makes less sense after disarmament treaties and ten years of one superpower.

In addition to being conceptually flawed it was poorly written. I couldn't tell you a thing about the characters except the one characteristic that was assigned to them. He's an SF fan (note for would be SF authors; SF fans love being told how they're the heroes). She's an alchoholic. He's an absent father. He's a time traveller who talks funny. What else are they? I have no idea.

"10^16 to 1" is a mass of time travel cliches without a single thing to recommend it. The only thing I could find notable in it is the metatextual context of the boy recognizing the time travel elements due to reading Galaxy. That's not a reason for reading it, though.

"Scherzo with Tyrannosaur"
by Michael Swanwick
2000 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

"Scherzo with Tyrannosaur" is also a mass of time travel cliches. Unlike "10^16 to 1", however, they're cliches placed in the context of interesting characters which makes it a bit more tolerable than the complete cyphers in the novelette.

Once time travel is developed it is carefully controled to avoid creating paradoxes. In spite of that paleontologists maintain a base in the late Jurrasic. At a fund raising dinner several overlapping time lines coincide and the director of the project has to make sure that it all occurs just as it has to.

If you've read a time travel story with paradoxes then you'll be able to predict what happens. That doesn't mean, however, that Swanwick doesn't make it an enjoyable trip. He manages to avoid most of the blocks of exposition trusting that just mentioning the real connection between events would be suffcient for SF fans. I'd still read "All You Zombies" before "Scherzo with Tyrannosaur", but there's no shame in being second to Heinlein.