Sunday, April 19, 2009

Review - "Bible Stories for Adults, No. 17: The Deluge", "At the Rialto", and "Ripples in the Dirac Sea"

It's time to wrap up the 1980's for those Nebula winning short stories and it's a quirky set of tales this time. Both of my unread winners from 1989 were focused on quantum physics in a way that isn't normally dealt with in SF. As for the other story I think it's obvious right from the start that one of Morrow's biblical reworkings will be odd.

I have finished my collection of the Nebula Awards/Winners anthologies and I have to double check from this point on if the stories I want are in the Nebula Showcase volumes since several of that newer series lack that year's winners. The anthologies were not easily available in hard covers; nearly all of my set are former library books and several show some extreme signs of wear.

"Bible Stories for Adults, No. 17: The Deluge"
by James Morrow
1988 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

As the world floods to wipe out an evil humanity Noah and his family are safely aboard their own boat. A few days into the deluge something unforeseen happens: they pick up a survivor, a whore who contains all the terrible things that were being washed from humanity. Since the flood was intended to kill everyone should they fulfill that purpose or show mercy?

If you've read Morrow's Only Begotten Daughter and Towing Jehovah then you'll find this story much the same only condensed. To his credit Morrow glosses over the ludicrous nature of the flood and goes straight for the moral implications. The story has at its heart that interesting question of what is the right choice to appease an angry god that contradicts themselves? There was a small misstep where the whore shifted into some very modern psychological concepts in making her argument. I can accept 600 year old men building boats containing two of every species to deal with a flood that covers the planet for a story but a prostitute from 3000 BC suddenly talking like a college student from 1988 strikes a sour note for me. Still I think on the whole the story works well.

"At the Rialto"
by Connie Willis
1989 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

At a conference for quantum physicists held in Hollywood nothing goes right. Half the attendees are more interested in seeing the town, the presenters are missing more often then they are there, and the hotel staff is clueless. One physicist tries to keep things on track but finds herself become distracted by the prospect of love.

I'll get the nice things out of the way fast: this is a comedic story by Connie Willis so it's light, fluffy, and fun. It has its charm and if you like Willis at all then you'll almost certainly enjoy this story. There is an ugly aspect to it, though. Willis makes "At the Rialto" about how no one really understands quantum physics and while I personally only grasp the big concepts I know a few physicists who would feel a bit insulted at the idea that they don't understand their field. You only have to look at the short story winner from the same year to realize that at least some people understand some aspects of it. So I can't agree with her message or her conclusion but I appreciated the ride along the way.

"Ripples in the Dirac Sea"
by Geoffrey A. Landis
1989 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

Consider the possibility of time travel in a universe where cause and effect cannot be broken. The traditional way to deal with this is the method of the ancient greeks; the universe is fated to be a certain way and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Landis looks to quantum theory and gives us time travel where any changes made are written in sand that is washed away when time rolls back over them. His time traveller can do anything he wants because when he catches up to his point of departure his changes are wiped away; a universe that only exists because one person is there to observe it. Landis does cheat a bit since if the hypothesis he was expanding on is true then the time travelers could not even retain memories of his voyage but I can't hold that against him since it allows him to tell a story about a the painful complications of a very different kind of time travel.

That's as much of a plot summary as I'll give on "Ripples in the Dirac Sea" since part of its impact is how those complications play out for its narrator. The story is a fascinating hard SF take on what is usually a soft topic and it is very effective.