Sunday, December 7, 2008

Review - Coraline, "Slow Time", and "Falling Onto Mars"

Bob Eggleton
2003 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

The image is Eggleton's cover for Nancy Kress's Probability Moon.

Wow, twelve stories away from wrapping up the Hugo winning short fiction and I'm starting to hit the major problems with story availability. "Falling Onto Mars", for example, has never been published anywhere except the issue of Analog that it first appeared in. Fortunately Analog has made it available on their website but if one wants a book collection that has all of the winners that isn't a desirable solution. At least Coraline was published as a Young Adult novel and "Slow Time"

The winners in 2003 struck me as being familiar. All three cover concepts and themes so well worn that ruts have been dug into them. None of them are bad stories by any definition but in all three cases I said to myself, "I've read this before and done better."

by Neil Gaiman
2003 Hugo Winner for Best Novella
2003 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

Yeah, I have the movie edition since I bought my copy a few weeks ago.

Let me describe the standard Neil Gaiman plot: a mundane person with a notable character quirk encounters something supernatural. At first it's wondrous and populated by convenient archetypes but sinister undercurrents are there and something goes horribly wrong. Fortunately with the help of a magic talisman provided by a wise woman and their own skill the person manages to get the better of their supernatural opponent and life returns to normal.

Gaiman writes in archetypes; you can practically map Joseph Campbell right onto his stories. Fortunately his skill at crafting prose and character carries a lot of weight.

Coraline might be considered the most standard of Neil Gaiman stories. It hits all the beats dead on with little variation. Coraline is the adventurous young girl in a strange house who finds a door to another world where things initially seem better to her but a monster lurks. It goes through all the same motions that Gaiman always does.

Consequently if you're a fan of Neil Gaiman then you'll probably enjoy Coraline but I won't say that you would be thrilled with it. The book is written for children and the prose and wit just isn't as sharp as it is in other Gaiman books. If you're not a Gaiman fan read American Gods instead.

"Slow Time"
by Michael Swanwick
2003 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

The first astronaut to visit a new world that was thought to be devoid of life makes the shocking discovery that there's something there. Unfortunately for the astronaut they get into some technical trouble which may kill them. There's a chance that the new life found is intelligent and by bridging the gap between species the astronaut may survive.

If you just said to yourself, "Hey, that's the exact same plot as the 1999 Hugo winner 'The Very Pulse of the Machine'!" then give yourself half a cookie; you only get a whole one if you recognize that this has been a standard SF plot since the 1950's (a fact I mentioned briefly in my previous review). At this point an author really has to offer something special to make me interested in how they handle it; the author of "The Very Pulse of the Machine", for example, included a threatening atmosphere. Unfortunately the author of "The Very Pulse of the Machine" was none other than Michael Swanwick and repeating oneself a few years later but not as skillfully leaves a bitter taste.

The astronauts this time around just aren't that interesting; they barely react to each other let alone the exploration of Titan. The story is very setting heavy with a lot of clumsy dialog and situations created specifically to pile on setting details for the story. Unfortunately the setting is just as uninteresting as the astronauts. The bright spot is the alien encountered has some interesting reactions to the exploration.

This story is decisively average; it's the bog standard, run of the mill stuff I would expect to find in any given anthology or magazine. Give this a pass and read "The Very Pulse of the Machine" instead; it's just a more interesting take on the exact same subject matter.

"Falling Onto Mars"
by Geoffrey A. Landis
2003 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

After my comments on the last two stories you might thing that "Falling Onto Mars" is nothing more than a weak copy of Landis's other work. If it is then it's a copy of something I'm not familiar with. Landis's story hits familiar concepts but it does so in a distinct manner.

In the future Mars is used as a cheap dumping ground for undesirables. Some of these undesirables band together to survive and others come together to take what they want. The bandits overrun the only science station on Mars and torture, rape, and kill almost all of its staff. It is retaken by those seeking to survive.

This is a very short story; even printed it would only be three or four pages (which might be why it has never been collected). That helps it, I think. "Falling Onto Mars" is told as a family anecdote and because Landis moves quickly through the point it never gets a chance to overstay its welcome. I recommend taking the ten minutes to browse over and read it.