Sunday, May 24, 2009

Review - "Last Summer at Mars Hill", "Solitude", and "Death and the Librarian"

"Last Summer at Mars Hill"
by Elizabeth Hand
1995 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

There's a psychic colony in Maine where would be psychics go and spend a summer along the coast. Two of them bring their children along with them and these two are a woman dying of advanced breast cancer and a gay man dying of AIDS. Most people go for a good time but a few people who go can see beings of flickering light who appear briefly and vanish.

I can say some nice things about Hand's story. It's reasonably well plotted, the characters avoid the obvious cliches even when they touch on them, and she understands how to pace her central mystery. For some reason that I can't put my finger on her prose bored me. It wasn't anything that I could point to and say, "That's the problem!"; no long descriptive passages, no clunky grammar, no tin earred dialog. It's just that reading this story made my eyes glaze over. I am prepared to say that my inability to get into this story is completely my own problem.

Perhaps part of the issue I had was the viewpoint. The story is told mainly from the perspective of the children one of whom is angry with her dying mother and the other is accepting of his dying father. That's almost the entire sum of their characterization. I couldn't connect with them at all and the impact of that may have been masked by the rapidly shifting viewpoints.

The plot does move in a predictable fashion though in this case I think it's more fair to call it inevitable. The peices are all there and obvious to anyone who has read a bit of SF and the story is more about the characters dealing with death.

Despite my own problems with reading "Last Summer at Mars Hill" I can't say it was a bad story. It someone was looking for a bit of light modern fantasy then they might enjoy it.

by Ursula K. Le Guin
1995 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

I've got some mixed feelings about "Solitude". On one hand it's a perfect example of why Le Guin is considered to be a good writer. On the other I suspect this is an attempt to lull me into a false sense of security and the next Le Guin story I read is going to be so terrible that it makes my eyes bleed.

In "Solitude" an anthropologist wants to study a lost colony of humanity that has developed a culture of isolation. As an adult this anthropologist cannot get anyone from the colony to communicate with her but she has a clever plan. She brings her two children along since any culture must pass on its values to children.

Le Guin draws on personal experience for this story since her parents were anthropologists who took her along into the field. I'm not sure how much of the story is drawn from her life but the whole thing feels very natural. In general I've found that when Le Guin sticks to anthropology she does a much better job of telling stories and that's the case here.

The real core of the story is a mother and daughter growing apart as the daughter is absorbed into another culture (I'm not spoiling anything there since it's clear what has happened from the start). This conflict is exceptionally well handled with the mother being unable to handle the social isolation and her daughter being grown into it. These are some characters who will inevitably hurt each other and the collision is fascinating to read about.

One problem with the story is that several plot points depend on the reader being familiar with the settings of her Hainish stories. Especially how they lack faster than light travel but have faster than light communications though there are other aspects where it helps to know the setting. As a result I could not recommend this as a story for someone completely new to Le Guin despite the fact that it touches on several of her major reoccurring themes. If you've read The Left Hand of Darkness or other books in the setting then this is a prime example of Le Guin doing what she does best.

"Death and the Librarian"
by Esther M. Friesner
1995 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

Wrapping up the common themes of the week this is a story about a dying woman having a final conversation with the personification of death. Friesner doesn't really explore new ground with this theme though she does use it well.

The librarian in this case is a woman who made a few troubling choices (I can't really call them bad) early on in life and has spent decades trapped by them. Death this time is a constantly shifting form who wants to politely whisk people off to their final reward with as little fuss as possible.

The story is a slight bit of fluff; a tiny thing where not a lot happens beyond the librarian explaining her life to death and a revelation toward the end. As characters go they're okay but not really memorable. With such a common plot I needed something more special to make it stand out for me and for that reason I can't recommend hunting it down. Though if you find it someday as you're reading an anthology then you won't be disappointed if you read it.