Sunday, April 26, 2009

Review - "The Spacetime Pool", "Pride and Prometheus", and "Trophy Wives"

I can't say I was particularly excited with the winners of last night's Nebula awards. There's two works that I think are interesting efforts but not really that great and one that made me wish I had taken up another hobby. Like stabbing myself in the leg repeatedly.

"The Spacetime Pool"
by Catherine Asaro
2009 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

I was almost half-way through "The Spacetime Pool" before I remembered who Catherine Asaro was. The Quantum Rose was so bad that I had completely suppressed it and here is Asaro making another assault on the mental stability of anyone who enjoys fiction. I can't say it rises quite to the level of The Quantum Rose but there is a bondage scene that makes me think we're seeing Asaro's fetishes put on the display.

A hiker in the woods is suddenly teleported to a psuedo-medieval kingdom by a handsome prince who informs her that she is part of a prophecy. She will marry either him or his evil brother and whoever she marries will kill the other sibling. Predictability ensues.

Let me offer this general tip for people: if you are in the mountains one thousand miles inland and suddenly find yourself on an ocean beach with no mountains in sight it is not a movie set. Asking the person who tells you that you're part of a prophecy before instantaneously transporting you from mountains to seashore makes you seem pretty stupid. Unless your name is Thomas Covenant there's no harm in just going along with the scenario until you either wake up (either in your bed or the mental institution) or become as confidant in the reality of the situation as you can be. To continue in a state of denial for things you are directly experiencing makes you seem particularly stupid no matter how much the narrator tries to present you as smart.

That's a fairly major problem with Asaro's writing: she says things as exposition and then never deals with the consequences of it. There's no confrontation that gets the hiker to realize she's no longer in Kansas; she just drops it eventually. The mathematicians on the new world apparently have the same names as those in ours but that apparently is just a massive coincidence (especially since the other world's mathematicians would have been Arabic). English is like Latin on this other world and only the Handsome Prince knew it well in the initial group but everyone later on speaks informal English perfectly (unless they have to slip into some bad faux medieval dialog). And despite all the implications in the story she wasn't transported to the future and it's not even a plot element (those were the tip of the iceberg); it's like Asaro was writing it one way and then changed her mind but forgot to remove all of the set up. Because that "introduce and ignore the consequences" writing is so common you can't even start to string up your disbelief before its cut down again.

And then there's the characters: take my plot description and drop in the biggest cliches you can and you have them. The Mary Sue... er... protagonist is beautiful, smart, brave, and completely lacking in faults. The handsome prince is kind, considerate, and a just ruler. The evil brother goes around murdering and torturing and is completely without redeeming qualities.

I can't stop without mentioning the single most over-the-top ludicrous portion of the story. Once our heroine is abducted and forced to marry the evil brother (like I said: predictability ensues) he locks her in a tower. Before going he taunts her by giving her a math problem where the solution is the combonation to the lock.


I honestly spent the first half of the novel wondering when the subversion would start that would take this trash to a level that was worthy of Nebula consideration. When I remembered who Asaro was I had to wonder about what blackmail photos she had. This was a dreadful story and if I never encounter Asaro's work again it will be too soon.

"Pride and Prometheus"
by John Kessel
2009 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

I bet John Kessel grinds his teeth anytime someone mentions Pride and Prejudice and Zombies around him. Here he was doing it first and doing it better while someone who made a kludge of a joke novel is raking in the cash. Okay, he's not really "first", but he was the most recent Austin/horror mash-up before someone struck the gold mine.

Life has gone on after the end of Pride and Prejudice and Mary is still unmarried. She's effectively given up on seeking a husband when she bumps into a visiting gentleman from Switzerland at a party. He's left his country to try to make peace with something terrible that he has done. This gentleman is hesitant to become involved with Mary both because of a fiance in Switzerland waiting for him to complete his tasks and a threat hanging over him. A set of social misunderstandings ensue that lead to complications in both of their lives.

What Kessel has essentially done is worked out a timeline where both Frankenstein and Pride and Prejudice occurred at the time of their publication and this story is an insert into the middle of Frankenstein. Since the story is an insert Kessel does not play with the plot of Frankenstein and can only really expand on Austin's novel. I can't help but wonder if the story would have been more effective if he just took the themes of the novels and had fun with them rather than pushing at Austin's.

This story fanfiction though in this case it is of high enough quality that we can pretend it isn't by slapping the "homage" label on it. Kessel has the concepts down and the liberties he took didn't grate on me. I just wasn't as excited by the end result as I was with the title. I guess it has that in common with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as well.

“Trophy Wives”
by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
2009 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

On a planet with a very regimented social structure a pair of mentally linked women encounter a woman on the run from a would-be husband. This husband wants to put the bride on display, locked in an isolated bubble for the rest of her life.

I'm left with a lot of conflicting emotions about this story. There's quite a bit to like and at the same time there's some things that put me off. I find myself wishing that it was significantly longer since there are concepts touched on in the story that could be more effective if they were developed further and at the same time I don't know if Hoffman's writing could sustain a longer story.

In fact with reflection that is exactly what is wrong and what is right in the story at the same time. Hoffman throws out a lot of interesting concepts and themes but never managed to make them join together into a coherent form. It's a squiggle of a short story and if she took it out to five times its length then that squiggle could be part of a work of art or just a large mess.

The characters are intriguing but not fully formed. The setting is intriguing but not fully formed. The plot is intriguing but not fully formed. The prose is not intriguing; it's decent enough. The story either needs to be stripped down to a more narrow focus on its core themes of status or expanded to let these ideas grow. As it stands it is an interesting effort that just doesn't come together for me.