Sunday, May 10, 2009

Review - "City of Truth" and "Danny Goes to Mars"

Since congress passed that law which said that any geek who saw Star Trek this weekend must comment about it on his blog I need to say something. I've pointed out in the past that the only Star Trek series that I really enjoyed was the original and that means that the reboot really spoke to me. And I enjoyed it. I can't call it a brilliant piece of film making; it was just an entertaining SF romp.

Yes, the science is stupid. I can't complain about that since Star Trek has always used situational made-up science. You have to accept the premise of the information provided in the movie and just let any connection to the real world go. It also didn't really follow continuity and I can't say that it's a bad thing. It doesn't matter that Robert April didn't captain the Enterprise first or any of the other four dozen nitpicks I've seen attached to the line "ruined the movie for me". The film was about making a fresh start with a franchise that has been beaten to death.

What Star Trek did have was the best directed space action I've seen in a long time. I'm not talking about the quality of the effects (they were what you would expect in a big budget action movie); the selection of shots, positioning of the action, and things like that were spectacular. The actors did a great job of distilling the essence of the characters and making it their own. The movie juggled the light humorous scenes with melodrama just like the original series did.

In short, I'm now eagerly looking forward to the sequel and the last time that happened was The Lord of the Rings.

Okay, on to the Nebulas!

"City of Truth"
by James Morrow
1992 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

This was an oddly dichotomous tale. The first half is terrible. The second half is wonderful. The first half is an attempt at parody that crumbles to dust as you think about it. The second half seeks deeper meaning and conveys it well.

There is a city called Veritas where all of its citizens are conditioned to be unable to lie. In this city is a highly placed citizen charged with destroying art for its deceptions. His son is dying of a rare, inevitably fatal illness and this citizen grabs onto a desperate chance from the works that he's been burning. He wants to use the power of positive thinking to try for a miracle. The only way he can do this is to learn how to lie.

The concept of a place where everyone must tell the absolute truth is interesting but Morrow handles it so poorly that I wanted to put the story down and walk away before I was ten pages in. Instead of starting from the concept and working outward he starts with modern society and then overlays honesty onto that. A society where honestly is forced is going to be very different from our; if you go around spouting the things you try to hide then you'd have to come up with a different way of dealing with them.

A perfect example of the problems with Morrow's parody is that restaurants do not serve hamburgers and steaks; they have "murdered cow". That presupposes that a cow can be "murdered" (an ethical issue which different people may have different "truths" for), ignores the fact that it is such a narrow descriptor that it is impossible to distinguish the dozens of different kinds of food that come from beef, and the fact that a cow died to provide it is implicit in the definition of the word "hamburger". It's the kind of gag that could have been cute in moderation but the pages are filled with this kind of thing. Morrow is inconsistent with his treatment of honesty as well and the whole thing just left me with a headache. The gag names don't even hold together when viewed as a whole; why would anyone buy "adequate" goods when someone has to be honestly making "great" ones?

Once Morrow gets away from that heavy-handed parody the story improves dramatically. The gags fall into the background and it becomes a more personal tale. The good elements were there before but they were buried under people who were obligated to say the worst things when they would be "funny". With that stripped away the emotion in the story can shine through.

The second half of "City of Truth" wouldn't have been as effective without the emotional developments in the first half. And yet the jokes in the first half were so distracting and unfunny that they completely disrupted the story. That makes a recommendation tricky for me. On balance I think it's worth reading but mileage is going to vary quite a bit based on your tolerance for Morrow's humor.

"Danny Goes to Mars"
by Pamela Sargent
1992 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

Dan Quayle jokes have not aged well. With the "major political figure is an idiot" memes having a life span of only a few years we've been through a lot of them. That means that this piece of Dan Quayle fanfiction (and it's hard to describe it as anything else) doesn't have the impact that it did twenty years ago.

A breakthrough in space propulsion has allowed NASA to plan a mission to Mars that will take only a few weeks. For political grandstanding President Bush arranges to have Vice President Quayle put on the mission. Quayle takes his responsibility seriously but naturally there are complications.

Sargent presents Quayle as a good natured goof who sticks his foot in his mouth continually. This is probably for the best since it allows him to be a reasonably pleasent protagonist. Sargent also doesn't really take political shots in the story; the worst it gets is presenting Bush as a politician. This story could have easily fallen into some cheap shots and the fact that it didn't helps it be more readable today.

Unfortunately it doesn't really rise above the level of readable. It is just fanfiction that's peppered with Quayle facts and if you don't care about Dan Quayle then this story won't hold any interest for you. The plot procedes predictably, the notes it hits are the ones that you'd expect. It's a bit of inoffensive fluff and I can't recommend a story just because it didn't bother me.