Saturday, February 16, 2008

Review - "The Word for World is Forest", "Goat Song", "Eurema's Dam", and "The Meeting"

Frank Kelly Freas
1973 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"The Word for World is Forest"
by Ursala Le Guin
1973 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

You might recall when I reviewed The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness how surprised I was when I read them. My experience with Le Guin had not been good before that. "The Word for World is Forest" is a perfect example of what I encountered before.

If it was any more shrill only dogs could hear it. If it was any more preachy it would have to be delivered by the Pope. It reads like the deranged rantings of an extremist political blogger (feel free to pick your least favorite side for that).

In the first three pages we find that our major human viewpoint character is part of an imperialist colonization group along the lines of Europeans in Africa in the nineteenth century, an agricultural administrator who is unaware of basic principles of agriculture that have been understood since at least the sixteenth century, slave owning, racist, sexist, rapist, murderer, hunts animals to the point of extinction for sport, and has (and this really is a quote) "a final solution" for dealing with the sentient natives of the planet that is being colonized. I would have loved to have called Godwin's law on the story right then but it proceeds to go on for another hundred pages. The caricature of the human beings is so great that Le Guin often sends contradictory messages throwing out bits that would be offensive to twentieth century readers and eventually contradicting those bits of characterization later. While this view point character is the worst of the worst almost all of the humans on the planet condone if not outright share his viewpoints.

The sole exception is, of course, the anthropologist who has studies the wise, caring, perfect natives who lived in a pastoral eden until the humans showed up and clear cut an area the size of Los Angeles that for some reason has "destroyed" a homogeneous environment the size the United States (this joke intentionally left blank). The natives are abused for years until there is finally an uprising where they put those evil humans in their place.

I wish I could say that I exaggerated any of this for comic effect but if anything I've understated my case. There's no complexity or depth to the situation, just humans so ludicrously over the top with evil they might as well twirl their handlebar mustaches against cute aliens so perfect they might as well have halos. The closest Le Guin comes to adding texture is that by being so evil humanity has infected the friendly aliens with evil.

Le Guin tears into the extremities of 19th century style imperialism like it was a daring statement and pats herself on the back for it. She does so with no style, with no redeeming features at all in this story. It is one of the worst I've ever read and the fact that it goes on and on just makes it worse. I'd say to avoid it but it makes a fine object lesson in how to not make a political statement using fiction.

"Goat Song"
by Poul Anderson
1973 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette
1972 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

Once a year the Dark Queen walks abroad in the land and any man who dares to approach her may petitioner her for their heart's desire. A harpist who has lost his true love confronts her and asks for her life to be restored and the Dark Queen takes him to her castle in the Underworld where he pleads with the king of the dead to return her.

Does that sound familiar to anyone?

In 1972 Anderson won a Hugo for "The Queen of Air and Darkness" where he took some classic ideas and reworked them very well into a science fiction setting. Perhaps he decided that what worked once might work again because "Goat Song" is very similar and in its own way its even more effective.

Stylistically "Goat Song" is much better than Anderson's previous work. On the other hand I liked the idea that the fairies were archetypes that could be repeated and play off the human mind. "Goat Song" is a more direct retelling of Orpheus so I think the purpose of the story is not as firm. Regardless of that "Goat Song" is a superb story and I would definitely recommend reading it.

"Eurema's Dam"
by R. A. Lafferty
Tied 1973 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

This story takes the comedic point of view that the competent and skilled people make their way in the world as it exists while the incompetent have to make adjustments for their failings. For example, they may need to change pictographs for phonetic characters because they can't learn to read the hundreds of pictures.

One boy is particularly incompetent and needs to do things like make a hand held device that can turn his scrawl into perfect handwriting. He does the best he can but he needs to keep creating things to help him get by. It's a cute story and turning intelligence on its head as the premise is rather unique so I would recommend it.

"The Meeting"
by Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
Tied 1973 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

The parent of a disturbed child (who would probably be referred to as "autistic" if the story was written today) attends a PTA meeting at the special school he has enrolled his child into. The meeting and discussions with the other parents help him make a very difficult decision.

That's a brief description but this is a brief story about a very bad situation. The science fiction elements don't even enter into it until the very end of the story but I think that it works. Pohl (his co-author Kornbluth died twenty years before this story was published so I suspect the bulk of the effort is Pohl's) tells a fine, very down to Earth and human story. It's sentimental without being overwhelmed by it. "The Meeting" is another fine story well worth your time.

Friday, February 15, 2008

What I'm Playing Now...

I actually bought Secret of Mana on the day it was released in the US. At that point I was buying just about any game that sounded like it would be fun for two players to play together and this sounded like a co-operative Legend of Zelda from the pre-release hype. Well it wasn't really a co-op Zelda, it was something much cooler.

Despite playing through the game a few times I never did play it through with three players. I didn't own the device for plugging in a third controller so when an opportunity came up for me to play it three player I jumped on the chance. We're less than a third of the way through the game at the moment (Mana is one of those games that is surprisingly large) and it's working pretty well so far. I was concerned that with three people the menu interruptions caused by the whole game stopping when someone wants to take an action would be more annoying but we're moving well.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Review - The World of Charles Addams

The World of Charles Addams
1992 Hugo Winner for Best Related Non-Fiction

Well if there were any of these books where it doesn't matter one bit what a reviewer says this is it. The World of Charles Addams is just a collection of some of the better known cartoons by Charles Addams. His work was familiar to readers of the New Yorker and his morbid sense of humor became iconic. He was The Far Side before Gary Larson thought of The Far Side. If you're not familiar with his work then I definitely recommend checking it out, if you like his work then you'll probably want to get this book, and if you don't like his work then this isn't going to change your mind.

The only thing I can ever talk about is the presentation and despite a few flaws it is as reasonable as one can expect. The vast majority of the cartoons are presented one for each very large page. There are four pages where the cartoons are doubled up. The pages are glossy and bright making it easy to see the subtle details in the work. There are about a dozen full color illustrations as well in two sections which look just as great as their counterparts.

My problem is with the selection of a few of the cartoons. Addams repeated some ideas later in his career and a few of those cartoons are inside. The book only represents about a quarter of his total output so did we really need two nearly identical illustrations of a child releasing something dangerous among model boats? Also the introduction offers no insight into Charles Addams or his process of creation. It is a generic "He was so great!" puff piece.

But that comes down to not liking roughly ten of three hundred pages and half of those I wouldn't consider to be really part of the book. The book can be found for not much money (I think my copy was less than ten dollars shipped in a state that might as well have been new) so there's no reason not to get it.

Let me leave you with one of my favorite cartoons from the book:

Deathray? Fiddlesticks! Why it doesn't even slow them up!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Review - The Vor Game

The Vor Game
by Lois McMaster Bujold
1991 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

So I've finally reached Her.

She deserves to be capitalized like that. No other author gave me such a rough time. She's a monster and as my difficulties with her compounded I grew convinced that she was out to get me. My archenemy: Lois McMaster Bujold. Her crimes against me are numerous and cruel.

You'll note that Cherryh and Brin were kind hearted when they won. Although the books they won the Hugo for were part of ongoing series a reader could simply pick any of them up. Bujold saw this as a chance to inflate all of her book sales and so every single book that she has won best novel for is a direct sequel to a book that has not. Oh she writes the books out of chronological order in her series thinking she can disguise it but the ones that she wins Hugos for are the ones that are directly attached to previously written books. As I result I had to read more than half of her total output just to read the books that she won the Hugo award for.

That isn't enough for Her, though. Bujold's older books are also nightmarishly hard to find in hardcover. One of the required ones doesn't even have a hard cover edition! (That would be Brothers in Arms which is required reading before Mirror Dance which won a Hugo.) There's some omnibus editions out there but most of those are just as hard to find. For one of her Hugo winners I had a choice of a leather bound reprint or a first edition hard cover. I can just envision Her sitting at stately Bujold manner on piles of first edition copies of books selling one or two off every time she feels like getting another solid ivory back scratcher. The woman is stone cold evil.

I'm also pretty sure she convinced other authors at the time to do this. I spent more on the books of the 1990's than on the rest of the collection combined.

And perhaps her worst crime of all, the one that makes me convinced of her status as an evil genius: she writes pretty good adventure novels.

Bujold's Vorkosigan books focus on the class of cultures on Barrayar who lost interstellar contact centuries ago and fell into barbarism. Rediscovered only a few decades before the start of the series they were immediately conquered and fought a decades long war which reaffirmed their military culture and feudal loyalties. This sets up a division between the people who hold to the old ways and those who are trying to rejoin galactic culture.

The Vor Game is a fine example of her usual work. After his daring adventure in The Warrior's Apprentice the brittle boned genius Miles Vorkosigan has been accepted to his home world's military academy. Despite being far in advance of everyone in his class in everything except physical conditioning he's sent to a dead-end position gathering meteorological data at an arctic training base. An incident there demonstrates how well he could fit into the military and Miles winds up embroiled in a plot involving a scheme to start an interstellar war, a missing emperor, and the mercenaries he lead in the previous book.

Bujold's style has wild swings of light humor with brooding seriousness and she deftly balances each. Miles has a very sardonic sense of humor and his comments are a high point in the novel. The situations he finds himself in are often completely outrageous.

The plot requires quite a few stretches to accept but Bujold's breezy style carries everything past the rough bumps to get into the interesting interactions. The universe seems to run on serendipity as people coincidently wind up in just the right place at the right time over and over again.

Her characters are all sharply defined and in this case are much more interesting than the story that they're involved in. Miles in particular is a fascinating construction of conflicting drives; his body is fragile but he's often involved in action scenes, he's hated by his countrymen for looking so odd but is driven by patriotism. Even though Miles is the focus of the book all the characters are richly developed.

The Vor Game makes for fun reading but its not particularly deep. But who cares if there isn't a rich message, it's an entertaining book and that's what matters.

Even if Bujold is the most evil science fiction author who has ever lived.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Comics legend Steve Gerber died over the weekend. I haven't been a big Gerber fan but I had considerable respect for him. He was on the cutting edge in the 1970's bringing a kind of underground sensibility to mainstream comics. His work on Man-Thing, Omega the Unknown, and The Defenders (my personal favorite) was interesting but what he'll be remembered for is Howard the Duck.

The scan above is from Howard the Duck #16 which threw the format to the wind for a set of double page images accompanying a Gerber essay (apparently this was the result of a very tight deadline) and it sums up Gerber perfectly. He was willing to break the format, experiment, and go in new directions but there were as many missteps as there were clever ideas.

What made him daring has become mainstream and for that Gerber deserves to be remembered. He is one of the key figures of that 70's generation of comic writers who pushed things further rather than aping the silver age. For that comic book fans owe him a debt.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Review - Hyperion

by Dan Simmons
1990 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

A group of pilgrims share the stories that put them on the road to Canterbury. No, wait, that was Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Dan Simmons's Hyperion is about pilgrims sharing their stories on the road to the Shrike. The similarities are obviously intentional; Simmons structures his book like The Canterbury Tales and throughout the book he demonstrates an affinity for classic literature.

The Shrike that the pilgrims are traveling to is a godlike creature who is capable of nearly anything but is more likely to kill. Regular pilgrimages to the Shrike result in all the members of that party being brutally murdered save one who survives and gets their heart's desire. The Shrike is normally found among the Time Tombs, sealed chambers that move backward through time and are, at the beginning of the story, days away from unsealing. They are found on the planet Hyperion, a world initially colonized by poets.

Hyperion is doomed as a hoard of world ravaging, interstellar barbarians are approaching the planet. There is time for one last pilgrimage though, and seven individuals whose lives have already been touched by the strangeness of Hyperion and the Shrike are journeying to try to get answers to their mysteries. Among them are a priest who encountered terrifying religious icons of an ancient civilization on Hyperion, a soldier who may have seen the true shape of the Shrike, and an ancient poet whose greatest work was done while living in a city haunted by the Shrike. The most touching story is that of man whose daughter had her life tangled up by the Time Tombs and now ages backward a day every time she goes to sleep.

Each story is told in a unique style which Simmons pulls off well. The Lovecraftian overtones of "The Priest's Tale" is completely different from the noir styling of the "The Detective's Tale". There would be no mistaking which character is speaking from a sample. The characters are broad stereotypes but that works in the context of telling stories about them.

Simmons did a great job of weaving a tapestry among his stories. Each one reveals a tiny facet of a rich world and Simmons has paced it precisely to draw the reader in. It's something that a lot of writers in science fiction and fantasy attempt but very few do well. Each tale has a resolution that leads its teller to journey to Hyperion but at the same time it leaves the reader with questions and dangling plot lines that can only be resolved when the pilgrims confront the Shrike. Simmons stacks mystery on top of mystery, crisis on top of crisis until it all builds to a head.

And that's where things fall apart. I don't like handing out spoilers but Hyperion is half of a book. It ends abruptly with no resolution to any of it. The story telling is done but it's like you've just read five hundred pages of prologue. Even worse, the answers when they come (in the next book for the most part) aren't half as interesting as the set up. That's a common problem but it's rare that I've seen such a drop off between the set up and resolution.

Still I recommend reading Hyperion for the style and world building. Even though I was not happy with where Simmons went with the story after Hyperion I have to look at this book standing alone and it is well worth it.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Review - "The Queen of Air and Darkness" and "Inconsistent Moon"

Frank Kelly Freas
1972 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

I don't own a lot of the old science fiction magazines. By the time I started reading science fiction the days of the magazines had passed, but this is one of the very few that I actually do own. My copy is in much worse shape than this one but it's a lovely tribute cover.

"The Queen of Air and Darkness"
by Poul Anderson
1972 Hugo Winner for Best Novella
1971 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

And here's the man of the hour with a great entry into his monumental pile of Hugo awards (my theory is that Anderson was actually a model rocket enthusiast who simply collected the awards for the attached rockets) and it has a great premise: Sherlock Holmes in the future fighting Celtic fairies. Oh it's not really "Sherlock Holmes", as noted in the story the character emulated the analytical detective archetype. And they're not really fairies but aliens who have hit on the use of those archetypes.

On a trip into the wilderness of an untamed world a researcher's child vanishes without a trace. Local legends tell of spirits that abduct infants and raise them in a magical world of their own. The local authorities refuse to look into the disappearance writing it off as an accident so the grieving mother hires a detective. The detective has a theory about all of the disappearances and it leads them to a confrontation with the Queen of the fairies.

This is a spectacularly good Anderson story particularly with regard to the characters. All of them, human and other, are richly portrayed despite being archetypes. Perhaps that's why it all works so well because the story is about a clash of archetypes. I would have enjoyed the investigation being a bit more fleshed out but that would have entailed expanding the story to a novel. All in all a very enjoyable story.

"Inconsistent Moon"
by Larry Niven
1972 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

Late one evening the moon suddenly changes to become hundreds of times brighter than it was before and a few people up at that hour realize the implications of it. Since the moon's light is reflected it means that the sun has suddenly become so bright that it would have burned away the other side of the world and they have hours to live.

I enjoyed the story which focused almost entirely on two characters and hinges on the fact that each of them know just enough science to recognize the problem. It's not really about the science but instead is about what to do when there's only a few hours left until the end of the world. Niven's characters aren't as interesting as they could be (especially in comparison to Anderson's winner) but there is just enough there to hang the concept on. I liked it but this one was much more marginal.