Friday, December 19, 2008

Review - Bid Time Return

Bid Time Return
by Richard Matheson
1976 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

For what its worth I'm planning on reviewing the World Fantasy Award winning novels on Monday and Wednesday but work related emergencies have kept me running (and on that note, Internet Explorer users, install your security updates).

Bid Time Return is better known as Somewhere in Time which it was retitled to after the release of the cult Christopher Reeve movie. I had seen the movie years ago and didn't think much of it; there was nothing wrong with the film it just didn't impress me. I had a similar reaction to the novel.

In the novel a television writer dying of a brain tumor decides to spend his last few months traveling. He comes to an isolated hotel on the Californian coast where things still have a feel of its nineteenth century origins. Within a small museum of the hotel's past he sees the image of a stage actress from seventy-five years before that haunts him and he seeks to learn about her life. The actress's life coincides with his own in strange ways and leads him to discover a theory of reliving the past through hypnotism. He thinks he has fallen in love with her and these coincidences make him believe that he knew her in the past so he resolves to use self-hypnosis to travel back in time in order to be her lover.

A person's enjoyment of the novel is going to depend on two things which I didn't care for but it does not surprise me to find that others appreciate them. The first is the writing style. Matheson opens the book as a transcript of the writer talking into a tape recorder. Speaking in stacato fragments. Broken sentences. Grow wearying quickly. Don't know anyone who speaks that way. Feels unnatural. Goes on for fifty or sixty pages.

Eventually Matheson does switch to a more traditional narrative but to have such a jarring tone immediately in the book made it difficult to connect with the story in those critical early pages. Since was annoyed with the prose for that first quarter of the book it was rough going when it did settle down.

Secondly I didn't care for the characters at all. A man who sees a woman once and then stalks her through time struck me as creepily obsessive rather than romantic. His would be love strikes me as little more than blank slate. I didn't care what happened to either of them and since the story is a romance that was a terminal failing.

On the positive side of things Matheson clearly worked hard to get the atmosphere of late nineteenth century California right and he managed to do it without it coming across as an info dump to the reader. He cuts through the pop culture vision of the era and consequently makes it feel more natural. Getting the details to feel right without overwhelming the reader is a a rare enough skill to make that worth mentioning.

In addition the ending for the story is particularly memorable. Irregardless of the fact that the characters reduced my interest of the plot the conclusion is something that will stay with you.

There are books I love and books I hate but with Bid Time Return I think I was just the wrong person for the book. I didn't care for it but if you like the idea of a cross-time romance and don't object to the abreviated style of the early sections then you could find it something worth reading.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Review - The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld
by Patricia A. McKillip
1975 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

Starting from the first World Fantasy Award winner today and we start with one that despite my initial reservations turned out to pretty good. I'd call that an auspicious beginning.

Sybel is a girl just entering adulthood who lives alone in a mountain sanctuary with a menagerie of intelligent magical animals that were collected by her father. She spends her days attempting to summon a new one telepathically and they have an idyllic life until one day a man arrives on their doorstep carrying a baby. The infant is the prince of a nearby kingdom and a war is being fought to control him. Sybel refuses to have any part of it and raises the child in isolation.

So far The Forgotten Beasts of Eld isn't anything that special. It's decently told but a common story that was already cliche in 1974. Then story takes a turn for the dark. I try to avoid spoiling anything more than the beginning of the book with my descriptions I will say that the lighthearted fairytale nature of the initial chapters gives way to a harsh story of revenge and cruelty by the end.

It's not that things took an ugly turn, it's the fact that what had been a relatively shallow fairy tale before suddenly gains quite a bit of emotional depth. The transition is skillfully done where a thoughtful reader should from the beginning become more and more offput by Sybel's actions until the ultimate end of that path is shown but you'd have to be questioning the morality of her actions for this to stand out (I took it as just McPhillip sticking to genre conventions and never questioning the purity of the protagonist). If you just accept it as the protagonist's behavior (as younger readers which this book is intended for might) then reaching that mid-point changes the perspective on the entire story. It's very effective.

The development of these characters is the most fascinating portion of the novel. While there are many that act mainly as plot elements there is a central trio who develop in reaction to the twisting situation. They care about each other but at the same time have three opposing goals which may destroy them all; it adds a tension to the center of the novel.

I wouldn't call The Forgotten Beasts of Eld perfect; there's still plenty of rough edges. The dialog could use a bit of smoothing (just about everyone seems to talk in the same very formal voice) and the prose is a little clunky in parts. However I still found it to be a very engaging book because of how well drawn the characters were.

If you're appreciate fairy tale style fantasy then reading this book is a no brainer; it's exactly up that ally. Even if you don't I'd definitely recommend reading this one because it's strength in the plotting. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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.