Sunday, March 8, 2009

Review - "The Quickening" and "The Bone Flute"

Controversy rocked the Science Fiction Writers Association in 1981. It was one of those little things that seemed like a big problem at the time and with thirty years of hindsight seems rather small. Some of the editors and authors who were nominated for short fiction awards at that time were sending copies of nominated works out to the entire SFWA membership. Some authors in the SFWA objected to this practice since most SF writers couldn't afford such advertising schemes. Opposition centered on Lisa Tuttle and when her short story "The Bone Flute" won she refused to accept the award.

Tuttle refused to allow it to be printed in the Nebula Award Stories anthology that year according to Joe Haldeman who had editing duties for it and wrote the introduction. I can't say what happened after that; whether Tuttle has held the story closely due to the controversy or if it has been essentially blackballed. Whatever the reason "The Bone Flute" has only been collected in two anthologies one of which is a single author anthology that was only printed in the UK. The other is Tales in Space, one of those large trade paperback anthologies White Wolf issued when they had that brief period of trying to publish things other than gaming tie-ins.

I can't say that it was a bad thing for Tuttle to refuse the award. She was protesting the heavy campaigning that was taking place and her own campaign against it tainted the voting for her short story. Still, she won the voting which is why I'm including Tuttle's work while aknowledging her protest.

"The Quickening"
by Michael Bishop
1981 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novelette

Imaging waking up and finding yourself in a strange bed. In your sleep you've been transported to another continent. The same this has occurred for everyone else in the city creating a modern day Babel.

That's the premise of "The Quickening" and Bishop never gives a reason for why a city (and presumably the entire world but no one knows for sure) has been displaced like that. It's a bit heavy handed and an obvious set up for a morality tale but I can live with it if the author really explores the complications of billions of people removed from home and dealing with the complete removal of society and infrastructure. Unfortunately Bishop does not do that.

The story limps along weakly, dancing around the problems that would be created for the sake of an emphasis on connecting with people. Eventually it reaches a conclusion that I found both logically and philisophically terrible. I'd add dramatically to that but the story has all the tension of grass growing so fizzling out isn't really a feature of just the ending. Bishop only paints the aspects of the characters relating to connecting with strangers which leaves me to draw inferrances that are less than flattering. This is a story that you are better off avoiding.

"The Bone Flute"
by Lisa Tuttle
Refused the 1981 Nebula Award for Best Short Story

With a story mired in so much politicking I don't expect much. That made "The Bone Flute" into a pleasant surprise. It's a pretty good story that turns nicely on itself a few times.

There's a world that was colonized and cut off for hundreds of years. It recently rejoined galactic society and has become open to trade. There is also a trader who wants to take advantage of the new market while the novelty is still there and she falls in love with a muscician who wants to accompany her to this world where they might have new musical forms. They do find new music there, soul stirring music that must be played on a flute made from the bones of a loved one.

Every time I thought I knew where Tuttle was going with the story she quickly shifted it another fresh direction. Right up to the very end she changed things around on me. For that reason alone I have to considder it a successful story. It also helped that Tuttle managed to draw me into the relationships between the characters which form the heart of the story. I can't call them richly drawn (it's a short story, after all) but she manages to convey everything the reader needs.

Oddly enough I have to speak about the conclusion of the story again since some readers may get to that last paragraph and get so turned around by it that "The Bone Flute" leaves a bad taste. I didn't mind it myself; I've never been one to rigidly hold to genre lines when I'm reading (just when I'm organizing).

"The Bone Flute" was worth the extra effort to seek out. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it is a shame that the controversy surrounding it has made the story so difficult to find.