Sunday, March 15, 2009

Review - "Another Orphan" and "A Letter From the Clearys"

After the kerfuffle with the 1981 Nebulas I had to mention last week I was hoping for some problems to talk about this time. No such luck I'm afraid, so let's get to it.

"Another Orphan"
by John Kessel
1982 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

In "Another Orphan" a stockbroker falls asleep one night in his bed and awakens on board a eighteenth century ship. The crew knows him as if he had been with them from the beginning. To the stockbroker's horror he finds that he has not simply been displaced in time, the ship he is aboard is the Pequod and there's a gold coin nailed to the mast for the first person who spots Moby Dick.

There are many stories about people entering a world of fiction. Inevitably these are light-hearted adventure tales where the protagonist gets to meet the main character of the other work and they have a great time. Kessel, on the other hand, dropped his protagonist into a bad situation for something that reflected on the themes of the original work. Life on a whaler was hard and the ship is doomed; this prevents it from being simply an adventure.

Something I noticed is Kessel kept slipping into and out of Melvillian prose. I thought it was an effective method of carrying the concept of being trapped within a book. When its about whales, obsession, predestination, and the sea the dense sentence formations of Melville come forward.

I've heard of Moby Dick referred to as "classic lit for Science Fiction fans" and that is certainly true; anyone who enjoys lengthy technical descriptions is going to be more inclined to enjoy the efforts Melville put into capturing the life of whalers. I wish I had a chance to reread it before reading "Another Orphan" because I think I would have appreciated Kessel's efforts more. Still I enjoyed it even if my memories of its source material wasn't fresh.

"A Letter From the Clearys"
by Connie Willis
1982 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

Connie Willis actually won two Nebulas in 1982: one for the short story "A Letter from the Clearys" and one for the novella "Fire Watch". Willis sold her first story in 1970 but then didn't sell another for nearly a decade. She then only sold a story or two until suddenly in 1982 her popularity exploded and she started that huge collection of SF awards.

The simple summary of the story is that a girl poking through the post office finds a long forgotten letter to her family which she reads to them. But that isn't really what "A Letter From the Clearys" is about. It's about the family dynamics of people struggling to survive. It's about the petty annoyances that each family has. It's about the hurtful things that people can do.

Willis does a great job in capturing those emotions. I do think she is a bit to coy with the situation but she didn't do a whole lot of dancing around the topic (no more than someone trying to ignore the situation would) so it wasn't that bad. So all in all it was an interesting story that took a different direction with some familiar SF concepts.