Sunday, December 14, 2008

Review - "The Missing Man" and "Good News from the Vatican"

1970 was a year where all of the Nebula winners coincided exactly with the Hugo winners so it's on to 1971.

Something interesting to me as I read the Nebula winners is that the Nebula Award Stories collections also inevitably contain "State of the Genre" essays. In the seventh volume Poul Anderson talks about the use of science in recent stories while Theodore Sturgeon looks at the merits of then recent shifts in writing style. Other volumes have tended to contain some overwritten academic paper justifying SF's existence as a literary genre which were painfully uninteresting alongside a more interesting essay by an author.

"The Missing Man"
by Katherine MacLean
1971 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

In the not to distance future humanity has fragmented into tiny microcultures who hold their own small compounds. A depressed city planner has perfected the concept of a kind of city killing martial art where he can apply the tiniest pressure in an minor system and cause vast destruction. When he's abducted by anarchists who use his skills to threaten all of society it's up to a pair of civil servants to locate him using a clever tongue and empathic abilities.

Summing up "The Missing Man" is simple: interesting concept, not as solid execution. The idea of a mad civil engineer who knows how to manipulate the seemingly chaotic systems for maximum entropy is intriguing. The problem is that in the novella he acts as a rare plot device; there's a lot of talk and little in the way of exploration. Instead a lot of attention is given to the empathic rescuer who just isn't that interesting of a character. The empath is just your standard slow guy with a heart of gold.

The concept is evocative but the story itself is not. Disasters are threatened but the reader gets most of the results of those relayed distantly. Even when horrible things are occurring the prose is so dispassionate it doesn't really connect. I get the impression that MacLean felt that the descriptions were enough (there's a line in the story on the voyeuristic nature of disasters) but I was just left cold.

"Good News from the Vatican"
by Robert Silverberg
1971 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

This brief study by Silverberg doesn't have a lot of narrative or introspection. A group of travelers to Rome meet at a cafe to await the announcement of the next pope. A pope that depending on how the election goes will likely be a robot. They chat about a few of the implications of such a move by the church but there isn't really anything more than that. I suppose if I was shocked at the concept of an AI pope then it might have more of an impact on me but there isn't anything in the story about this would be pontiff other than the fact that it's a robot. It's not bad, but again I was left wishing that more was done with the idea.