Sunday, January 11, 2009

Review - "The Death of Doctor Island", "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand", and "Love is the Plan the Plan is Death"

As long as I'm talking about my short fiction collection I might as well note that I have achieved the one-third mark on my set of the Nebula Award Stories anthologies in hard cover. It's interesting to me that the majority of these I have only been able to get at a reasonable price as former library books, particular since they all appear to be well read library books. They're not books that sat on the shelf for thirty years untouched until someone decided to clear up space like some others in my collection.

"The Death of Doctor Island"
by Gene Wolfe
1973 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

A group of mentally unstable individuals awaken to find themselves on a tropical beach where the island defies the laws of space and time. There they're confronted by a monster made of smoke that uproots trees and the sinister results of a mysterious project while flashing back to their lives before arriving.

No wait. That's Lost.

Despite lacking a smoke monster or mysterious initiatives "The Death of Doctor Island" does feature an ending. It does have the flashbacks, however.

It also is about just one emotionally disturbed adolescent who has just been deposited on Doctor Island, an asylum where the island itself is alive. The island acts as their doctor and speaks to the patients through the sounds of the island. The result is a very strange story that is best described as madness given form.

As I read the story I was expecting Wolfe to take certain easy steps with the psychological examination of the main character and to his credit he never did. The main character is deeply troubled young man for whom even desperate measures are unlikely to reach. The other two patients in the story aren't as well developed but since the story is about getting into one disturbed mind it didn't really bother me.

Unfortunately I just didn't find that protagonist to be particularly compelling either. Wolfe did such a great job of developing his sociopath that I couldn't empathize with him when the story required that I do. I can deal with an unlikable protagonist but I just didn't find him even interesting.

"The Death of Doctor Island" is an intriguing story and I definitely appreciate what Wolfe was doing with it but it just left me cold. So I wouldn't recommend reading it but it is a very interesting effort.

"Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand"
by Vonda N. McIntyre
1973 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

It is impossible for me to separate this story from Dreamsnake which won both the Hugo and Nebula a few years later since the first thirty pages of Dreamsnake are this story with only the most minimal of changes.

I despised Dreamsnake.

The thing that I hated most about the novel, the perfection of its main character who is too good for her sinful world, fixes problems without effort, and tolerates the cruel stupidity of everyone else who isn't nearly as great is on display in "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" but since it's one-eighth the length of the novel at least here it can be passed off as tightening up the writing.

In these few pages the Shamanistic healer is called in to a tribe in order to cure a dying boy. Once there she has to contend with their backward ways by not showing any deference to the culture of her hosts. This is okay because they're macho, fearful, and stupid so she can put them in their place.

I cannot strongly recommend avoiding this work enough, but if you absolutely must sample it then I suppose reading the twenty-five pages of "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" is better then the full Dreamsnake.

"Love is the Plan the Plan is Death"
by James Tiptree Jr.
1973 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

I couldn't begin to describe the plot of this story since it really only develops a traditional plot in the last few pages. Instead it is best described as a romance where its participates have extremely different life cycles from human beings. One of these beings recounts his life and wooing his mate.

There's a lot to debate regarding the perspective character but it all hinges on the gradual revelations of the story so I don't want to dig into that. I will say that I am uncertain if the story takes place on earth from an unusual vantage point or among an alien species. There are a lot of science fiction stories where the nature of the viewpoint character is hidden from the reader until the end and often they fall apart when the revelation isn't that great. Tiptree managed to handle it perfectly since it's clearly an alien viewpoint from the start (instead of trying to hide that fact) and knowledge of certain aspects of terrestrial biology adds to the depth of the story without being necessary.

The worst thing I can say about the story is that the unusual viewpoint character's distinctive speech made getting into the story a tough challenge but once that hurdle was overcome I found it to be one of the best alien love stories I've ever read. It's definitely a story worth seeking out.