Sunday, March 1, 2009

Review - "The Unicorn Tapestry" and "The Ugly Chickens"

I haven't posted the covers to the Nebula Award collections (sometimes called Nebula Award Stories, other times Nebula Winners, and eventually Nebula Awards) because to be frank they're hideous. The first seven years featured that drawing of the award using state of the art 1965 computer graphics and I posted that but after that it's almost always plain text with an occasional pattern background. The thirteenth collection had a small black and white photo of the award on it but by the time I reached that collection this one with it's better but still very 1970's style photo was coming up.

This was one of the rare occasions where I was already familiar with all of the winners that year. I even owned copies of all of the stories in other collections but I hate skipping a year when I'm building a set of the Nebula collections. Besides then I'd miss the amusement of an essay on the SF films of 1980 that mentions how much inferior Empire Strikes Back is to Star Wars since the director just wasn't as a good.
"The Unicorn Tapestry" by Suzy McKee Charnas 1980 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

The concept of this novel might not be as fresh in this era of poorly written vampire romances consistently topping the best seller list. I still like the hook though: a vampire goes to a psychologist claiming to be under a delusion that he's a vampire. He wants to convince her that he only thought he was a vampire and thus gain a reference from a medical professional to cover for an attack if he is caught while the psychologist (a vulnerable woman, naturally) tries to work out what her unusual patient is doing.

This is actually part of a series of stories Charnas did with this vampire character and she does a good job of exploring the psychology of a being who treats humanity as food. Obviously any story that is essentially a psychologist versus a vampire is going to be about how those characters interact and explore their psyches; Charnas avoids making things too pat and simplistic with their personalities. Their battle of wills is interesting and the only misstep that I think she makes with it is toward the end where she shifts things around to fit more of a vampiric metaphor theme than what she had used before in this story. I definitely recommend it.

"The Ugly Chickens"
by Howard Waldrop

1980 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette
1981 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Short Fiction

An ornithologist is commuting to work on a bus while flipping through a book on extinct birds when an elderly passenger sitting next to him says, "I haven't seen one of those ugly chickens in a long time." That innocuous comment sets the ornithologist off on a worldwide chase since the "ugly chicken" is a dodo a bird which was supposed to have gone extinct over two hundred years before.

I have to confess that this is one of my favorite hard science fiction stories. Someone familiar with the story might have just gone, "Huh? Hard SF?" Hard SF is in my definition about taking a possible scientific conceit and following the implications. Species thought to be extinct have turned up in limited populations from time to time and the idea that a small population of dodos could have survived in captivity where the owner was unaware of what they had is a reasonable leap.

The downside is that "The Ugly Chickens" is almost all exposition. The narrator goes one place, finds out more history of the dodo or explains a bit more to the audience and then dashes off to the next. The story exists solely for the exploration of that idea. I enjoyed it and I think Waldrop did a fine job with keeping the story moving and integrating the info dumps. It was a fun story and decently told.