Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review - "Fast Times at Fairmont High", "Hell is the Absence of God", and "The Dog Said Bow-Wow"

Michael Whelan
2002 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

This is an odd year of winners for one major reason: I do have a single bad thing to say about any of the winners. For those who want a quick review that's it; these are not only stories worth reading but stories that you need to read.

I read "Fast Times at Fairmont High" in The Hard SF Renaissance, a massive anthology of hard SF stories that contains a lot of interesting stories especially if you enjoy SF about big ideas. "Hell is the Absence of God" was in the single author anthology The Stories of Your Life and Others which contained every single published story by Ted Chiang up to that point and for that reason alone needs to be on your bookshelf. Finally "The Dog Said Bow-Wow" can be found in the conveniently titled single author anthology The Dog Said Bow-Wow.

"Fast Times at Fairmont High"
by Vernor Vinge
2002 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

Thanks to a blurb at the front of the novel Rainbows End I had been under the impression that "Fast Times and Fairmont High" was an early version of a few chapters of that novel.

I was wrong.

It definitely is an eary version of some of the things in Rainbows End, but beyond sharing the names of a few characters and featuring a few of the same technologies it is a very different story. At the same time it shares almost all of the strengths of the novel. The book that eventually emerges has more well defined characters but the story is not lacking in quality.

In the not too distant future the ability to process vast amounts of information has radically transformed society. Students commute virtually across country to attend high school. Custom smart drugs are available that can do astounding things but only for the person they're made for. People's view of the world is constantly altered to match what they are looking for. And against this backdrop high school students are working on their exams by seeking to create something of value for their school. A weak student who has been cheating with brain enhancers and a brilliant student join forces for one of the tests where more than one secret may be revealed to the world.

Just like Rainbows End this story hits all of Vinge's strong points. And just like Rainbows End its flaws are so minor that it is not worth mentioning them. And just like Rainbows End I recommend seeking out this story and reading it; if you've enjoyed any of Vinge's work then it is well worth the effort.

"Hell is the Absence of God"
by Ted Chiang
2002 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

Since Chiang is a short story author and since this is the first Hugo he received (though not the first I reviewed) I want to say a few words about him. He is, by percentage, the most honored science fiction author in world. He has published ten stories and won the Hugo and Nebula six times. And that's with declining the nomination one year. That wouldn't mean much if Chiang's work was just popular instead of good but his stories are inevitably brilliant; perfect gems of writing.

The thing that impresses me the most with Chiang is that he is a verbal chameleon. Each story is unique in style, tone, and structure and they never strike false notes. Take "Hell is the Absence of God" since that's why we're here: Chiang writes it in a passive voice that despite breaking all of the traditional rules of good storytelling brings into focus the parable nature of the story. I suspect this is why Chiang only writes one story every two years: it just takes him that long to carefully craft perfection.

"Hell is the Absence of God" postulates a world where the evidence for something along the lines of Judeo-Christian theology is constantly around everyone. Angels manifest regularly leaving disasters and miracles in their wake. Occasionally a glimpse of heaven can be viewed where they pass and its beauty transfigures those who see it and sometimes hell can be viewed below the earth. Souls can be seen departing the dead and moving to their final destination; to heaven if its owner devoutly loves God and to hell to be apart from God for eternity if they don't.

Several people have their lives disrupted by the visitation of an angel: Neil loses his wife whose soul departs for heaven, a preacher whose mission centered on her lack of legs is given the limbs she never had, and a man who has been searching for meaning in life finds nothing has changed despite witnessing an angel. The story focuses on Neil's despair at his wife being taken by God and his necessity to learn to truly love God in order to rejoin her upon his death.

Chiang uses that framework to explore not just the theology of his posited world but modern theology. He also ties it together with an absolute stunner of an ending that is both shocking and inevitable at the same time. I've gushed enough; this is a story that you should read to get the full effect.

"The Dog Said Bow-Wow"
by Michael Swanwick
2002 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

This was the worst of the three short fiction winners in 2002 but that is like noting an opal isn't quite as stunning a diamond or ruby.

In a distant, decadent future technology that is sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic is falling into decay. The systems that controlled much of it have turned against humanity and things have regressed to a kind of neo-Victorian style. A dog man joins with a petty thief in a scheme to gain access to the aristocracy and rob them blind.

This is a lively, fast paced adventure story that despite being setting heavy never feels bogged down by it like a lot of SF stories can be. It's the interesting characters who drive the tale and though I worked out the scheme immediately it didn't bother me. I can't call it brilliant but "The Dog Said Bow-Wow" was very enjoyable.