Sunday, February 1, 2009

Review - "A Billion Eves", "The Djinn's Wife", and "Impossible Dreams"

Donato Giancola
2007 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

And so it draws to a close. This is the last of the Hugo winning short fiction to review. It's taken me about a year to read them all. Fifty-three years worth of winners; one hundred and forty short stories covering the length of breadth of science fiction and fantasy. Even for short fiction that's a lot. I'll post a bit on the highs and lows of the reading but I can't say it is a reading project I'd recommend for all science fiction fans; getting the stories is just too much of a pain.

For my last reading I had to go to Science Fiction: The Best of the Year: 2007 Edition, The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fourth Annual Collection, and the single author anthology Hart & Boot by Tim Pratt. I have to say that I'm always amused by how much the two "Best of" anthologies disagree on exactly what the "best" is. I know that it's two different editors but one chose a story that I despised for his "best" and the other chose a story that I thought was very well done for his "best". I know which of the two editors I'm more likely to trust.

"A Billion Eves"
by Robert Reed

2007 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

There are two things that break my suspension of disbelief past the point of no repair. One is poorly thought out economics. The other is poorly thought out sociology. "A Billion Eves" manages to hit both of those sticking points on a scale I rarely encounter. The general story that Reed tells isn't bad but the world building around it is so atrocious and the fact that the genuinely interesting issues raised are consistently ignored that I was driven to frustration.

There are devices called "rippers" that teleport everything within a certain radius to a random parallel earth where a particle moved a little differently at some point in the universe's history and things turned out very differently. At some point in our near future a person took two semi-trucks full of supplies, parked them next to a sorority house, and then kidnapped one hundred college aged women to use as his personal harem on an empty earth. Now what do you suppose the results of that to be:

A. He enjoyed a full life of decadant pleasures with his one hundred new sex slaves.
B. Despite having a rifle he was immediately torn apart by a mob of college aged women who outnumbered him one hundred to one and didn't care for being kidnapped to be used as sex slaves.
C. Rather than risk the gun they waited eight hours and smothered him in his sleep.
D. The college aged women decide immediately to repopulate the new Earth they find themselves on and use him as their sex slave in order to accomplish this.
E. They immediately decide to repopulate the new Earth and set up a patriarchy where women have no rights.

Now personally I would have gone with B or C since I can't see that continuation of the species being a big factor against the "kidnapped and permantly taken from everyone and everything they knew in order to be used as a sex slave" thing. Reed however assures the reader that the answer is E which is how we know that it's a science fiction story; most people in real life when suddenly abducted and deposited on a new planet wouldn't put the long term continuation of the species on that planet first.

And yet that's what the entire societal structure in "A Billion Eves" hangs upon. The idea is that people will put homo sapiens as a species ahead of society or even their own personal good. On top of that it's a religious patriarchy that's been stable for more than twenty-thousand years. With a premise so fundamentally against humanity it breaks my willingness to read the story.

Continuing on from that Reed toys with things like the problem of carrying species into new environments, though he doesn't consider the fact that an equilibrium will be reached and that a new species introduced will not automatically take over from whatever is already in that ecological niche; an introduced species is just as likely to be immediately cut down by more agressive species already there as it is to cause problems. He also touches on the concept of what manafest destiny means in a truly infinite wilderness but backs off for an ecological message based on turning around the idea that a universe that divides ten to thirty-fifth power times each picosecond is too precious to be contaminated. It's a universe that could not be harmed before it all collapses into entropy but it's apparently precious.

The annoying part is that the story that Reed wants to tell with about half of the novella isn't as bad as the world he spends the other half establishing. It's about a girl trying to break out of the mold that the nonsensical society has created. It's a bit worn as a premise though Reed handles it reasonably well. If he hadn't tied it to such terrible world building then it might have been worth reading.

"The Djinn's Wife"
by Ian McDonald
2007 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

In near future India a dancer falls in love with an AI diplomat. They have a storybook romance until the differences between humanity and computer program raise their ugly head. This is cast in the mold of a woman marrying a spirit of air and fire with strange powers.

McDonald chose a very odd prose style for "The Djinn's Wife" but in this instance where the idea of the story is ancient superstition being blended with a cyberpunk future I think it works. It's a story with many exotic viewpoints and a surplus of data. So when McDonald chooses to blend sentences together or shift tenses or go from a formal distant style to a rapid choppy one I think it conveys the concepts he's working with well.

McDonald also captures the flame of passion and the disolutionment that comes from discovering how seperate the lovers truly are extremely well. While we can never quite get inside the AI's mind the dancer and those around her reacting to the marriage are fascinating and believable characters. Consequently I have to recommend "The Djinn's Wife" as well worth reading.

"Impossible Dreams"
by Tim Pratt
2007 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

The book story or library with books that cannot exist is a common concept in fantasy but "Impossible Dreams" is the first time where I have seen it transposed to a video store. It features a videophile who stumbles one night into a store where shelves contain Hollywood productions that have been lost or never quite came together. It's from a world where things were just different enough that slightly different movies were made. The videophile is frustrated in his attempts to view this new world of cinema and in the short time each day that he can reach the store he begins a relationship with the woman working there.

The result of this is a cute story that I wouldn't call brilliant but it is fun if you know anything about the history of Hollywood. Any film buff will pick up on many references to the productions that might have been. Still the story is more about cinematic name dropping than developing an enduring plot. I enjoyed it and I'd recommend it with those caveats.