Sunday, November 9, 2008

Review - "Dragonrider", "Mother to the World", and "The Planners"

1968 was the first time that the Hugo and Nebula winners completely diverged. As time went by this became more and more common. It's also the first time that I disliked all three winners.

It was also the height of the New Wave and the free love movement so you can guess what that means: ugly prose and bizarre sexual politics abound in these stories.

by Anne McCaffrey
1968 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

You might recall when I reviewed "Weyr Search" I liked it even though I can't stand McCaffrey's books in general. It had a fairy tale quality to it so that despite the flaws there was a charm I appreciated: a hidden princess, a lost kingdom, and "magical" beasts added up. Unfortunately McCaffrey wasted no time in flushing that premise for one of the most annoying protagonists ever.

"Dragonrider" is roughly the last third of the novel Dragonflight and "Weyr Search" was the first third. The middle third was never placed in a novella but it is referenced in "Dragonrider" just to stack the confusion for those fortunate enough to not read Dragonflight. The time has come for the killer spores to fall out of the sky but there aren't enough dragonriders left to protect an entire planet. Fortunately our heroine discovers how to time travel; a trick that has been overlooked from the beginning because it requires someone to remember the place they're going to rather than just going there. She also has special powers that no one else has, has found true love with the greatest warrior in the world as her first sexual experience (who's also a sensative man), summons a deus ex machina, and does all of this with no real effort on her part.

I hated both of the protagonists. They're painted in the broadest of possible strokes (he's the good guy, she's the spunky love interest) with what McCaffrey spells out in the text but anyone examining things closely sees the unintentional ugliness of the characters. Thanks to time travel they learn that one of the plans they are forming will have some mild success but kill a good friend. There's some inherent drama right there; having to send a good man to a lengthy, horrible death to avoid breaking causality. So naturally McCaffrey ignores that and our heroes giggle about their prescience knowledge as they send him into years of torment and eventual death. I can't say it made me hate the protagonists since I already did but it cemented those feelings.

I'm going to follow my self-imposed rule of no spoilers but I will say that the conclusion of the story is clearly intended to be a "happy ending". I, on the other hand, was left with the chilling realization that they've triggered a political upheaval that is going to kill thousands (potentially millions) and could let the world turn to ash in its wake.

That's the problem at the heart of "Dragonrider": McCaffrey didn't understand the consequences of the story she was telling. When that story is an epic world spanning adventure it introduces problems like reqiring every single person involved with the dragons for centuries to be complete morons. If the reader doesn't get swept up by the idea of fighting on dragon back then there's going to be left questioning why things are so screwy.

Ironically while writing this someone pointed out something that summed up my feelings on the story much more briefly.

"Mother to the World"
by Richard Wilson
1968 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

A middle aged man and a mentally handicapped woman are the only survivors of a war that used a biological weapon to kill every other person on Earth. They get around to the work of repopulating it.

I'm going to give Wilson the benefit of the doubt and say that he recognized just how disturbing the premise is. In my case he was unable to overcome the premise. All I could see while reading "Mother to the World" was that the survival of the human race depended on an abusive relationship. It was unpleasant to read about these characters.

Unfortunately there is little else to the story than them. It's reasonably well told alternating between diary entries and prose though there is a clumsy misstep where Wilson inserts the new Eve's diary entries with commentary from an unknown source that does not enter the story before or after. Also for people who have chosen to do the needful with regard to repopulating the Earth they don't actually appear to work at very hard. That kind of thing just adds mixed signals to a story that is more troubling than interesting.

"The Planners"
by Kate Wilhelm
1968 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

Speaking of thoroughly unlikable characters, this story features a doctor who is working on an intelligence enhancing project and his fantasy life. Really, that's it for the story; there is no narrative arc, it just drifts between his real life and his fantasy. He is dealing with SPCA protests against his research on monkeys and a wife that he's become distant with but these elements are poorly explored and not really resolved.

I had a major problem with the prose in this story; Wilhelm drifts back and forth between fantasy and reality with no transitions either way and the result was I often was flipping back because I thought I missed a characters or vital plot element. As a result I was consistently pulled out of the story.

In addition the main character is more creepy than interesting. The constant diversion into his woman hating sexual fantasies is just unpleasant. The net result was to make me wish that I hadn't read the story.