Sunday, December 28, 2008

Review - "Meeting With Medusa" and "When It Changed"

Since I've been ordering a lot of used books on Amazon in the past few years (I'd guess that less than two percent of what I've purchased for these projects have been in print) I've been developing a new pet peeve: Amazon sellers who are dishonest about the books. I can't tell you how many times I've found that a "Good" condition book with the description "Former library book with the usual markings" translates to "Run over by a truck repeatedly until the spine is broken and the binding isn't holding." And then there's ones like the listings under the hard cover edition of the 1987 World Fantasy Award Winner Perfume. While I have to say it's good that so many sellers on that page mention the copy they're selling is a paperback the fact that at least six sellers seem to think that someone who explicitly looks for the hardcover edition will suddenly change their mind when they see their listing is rather pitiful.

I mention this because that's what happened with my first copy of Nebula Award Stories Eight. When you buy as many books as I do then when a problem occurs it really gets on your nerves.

Still, I suppose it could have been worse; they could have sent me a copy of a Terry Brooks novel.

"Meeting With Medusa"
by Arthur C. Clarke
1972 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

It has come up in the past that I am not a big fan of Arthur C. Clarke's stories. I've found in many of them that he's got the big concepts down but I'm bothered when they're implemented into plots. So I wasn't expecting much when I read "Meeting With Medusa" even though it is regarded as one of his classic stories. As it turns out I was pleasantly surprised when it was a pretty good story.

An engineer who barely survived the crash of a luxury blimp he built takes on a new goal to keep him moving: he will be the first person "on" Jupiter. The plan is to create a new blimp which he will fly into the atmosphere and orbit the gas giant. Once there he finds many strange things about our largest planetary neighbor.

It's a travelogue much in the style of Ringworld which was published a few years before, but it's a travelogue of a gas giant which is a very distinctive idea. In addition there's a gradual revelation regarding the nature of the main character which provides a strong character arc that I have found lacking in many of Clarke's other works. The story is still distinctly Clarke's, it's about the big concepts rather than the developing story, but it's tempered by other elements which helped me enjoy it. As a result I have to recommend reading it.

"When It Changed"
by Joanna Russ
1972 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

I'm going to drift off topic a bit here and talk about authorial screeds for just a moment. Due to its nature speculative fiction has a high tendency for this going all the way back to its earliest ancestors in the Greek philosophers. Done well and the point is made without choking out the story; done poorly and the reader gets the impression of a shrill voice screaming in their ear and that's not a way to win friends and influence people.

I bring this up because "When It Changed" is a feminist screed from the height of the feminist movement. On a planet where all men died out centuries before the women managed to make due and create their own civilization. Eventually this lost colony of humanity is found again and men return.

I've had problems with other of Russ's works where the heavy handed preaching has gotten on my nerves but that aspect of "When It Changed" didn't bother me. Yes it is horribly out of date and built on the sexual politics of the 1970's but Russ doesn't get bogged down in a "Women are perfect paragons of virtue and beauty while all men are vile, lust driven rapists determined to oppress them" rant that many works with similar themes use. The men might not be pleasent but the women are little better. It puts the story more on the ground of alien invaders than gender disparity which actually makes its theme stronger.

I still think the story is as out of date as Burrough's vision of Mars and shifting cultural and political realities harm a story more than shifting science. Still "When It Changed" holds up remarkably well and is a good story that marks a distinctive portion of recent history. For that reason it is worth seeking out.