Sunday, May 3, 2009

Review - "The Tower of Babylon", "Guide Dog", "Ma Qui"

It's another two year's worth of outstanding (in both senses of the word) Nebula winners.

I need to mention something of my plans. First, I'll be following up the World Fantasy Award winners over the next few days. Then I'll be doing some Nebula catch up with this year's Nebula winners. After that I plan on mixing some Hugo stuff with reviews of a new award.

"The Tower of Babylon"
by Ted Chiang
1990 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

One of the rare pleasures for me as I read these award winning stories is to come across a story that I read a long time ago, enjoyed, and haven't seen since. I had a subscription to Omni when Ted Chiang had this appear there as his first published story and I remembered it as magnificent, haunting, and impressive. Upon revisiting it I found that my memory was accurate.

In the story the Babylonians have constructed a huge tower extending to the top of the sky and have managed to connect the heavens to the earth with it. To breach the dome of the sky and gain access to heaven they have sent for a team of miners who will spend months climbing the tower with their gear and then dig upward to seek God. So "The Tower of Babylon" is about the miner's journey upward.

When I read the story it was the first time that I had encountered an author taking ancient tales and extrapolating some natural feeling consequences out from them. Obviously Chiang was not the first person to do this but "The Tower of Babylon" might be the greatest single example of this. Once you accept the premise that a construction of mud bricks could be hundreds of miles tall and the universe was something that could be climbed through with it then the rest of the world building follows naturally. It's like science fiction from 3000 B.C.E.

Of course if the story was just page after page of cosmology and tower building descriptions then this was be a pretty lousy story. Chiang's story is really about man confronting god, living and working in harsh conditions, and how environment shapes a person. The miners climbing the tower throughout the story aren't undergoing vast spiritual changes as they progress but they are being shaped by what they find and there's always something strange and wonderous around the next corner. This story is exceptional and well worth reading.

"Guide Dog"
by Mike Conner
1991 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

Early on in "Guide Dog" I worked out the general shape of the story. I was ready for some heavy handed use of the themes and some ugly moralizing. Conner surprised me when he took this material which has been used very poorly by other storytellers and doing a pretty good job with it.

On an alien world one way that the human colony attempts to integrate is by training children to be guide dogs for the flying, bat like aliens that have lost their senses. The humans can only communicate through a cybernetic interface and since the aliens are empathic their human guides must be able to overcome the flood of emotions from them. The most promising of those trained to be guide dogs is given to an artist. The two of them bond while dealing with the complications that come from the human chafing at being thought of as a dog.

From that brief description you can probably paste on a general outline that comes pretty close to the mark. Conner manages to take some of those overworked concepts and breathe life into them by retaining the tension. All of the characters in this story are broken by their circumstances whether they aknowledge it or not. Consequently even the healing that you'd expect is distorted. It makes the whole story better than the sum of its parts and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

"Ma Qui"
by Alan Brennert
1991 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

"Ma Qui" was the worst of these three stories. Oh sure it isn't a bad story and I liked what I found in it but someone has to be on the bottom of the totem pole. It was like "The Tower of Babylon" without the spiritual aspects and in a story about ghosts the lack of spiritual aspects is a problem.

In Viet Nam a soldier is gunned down and finds himself a specter wandering loose from his body. His body vanishes into the jungle and since his fellow dead vanish as they're bodies are recovered the soldier decides that he needs to return to his in order to find his way to his eternal rest. On that journey he encounters the dead of Viet Nam who maintain their own ghostly existance according to their traditions.

That's the problem with "Ma Qui": it's a story about the mechanics of the afterlife instead of the people. I could have gotten that same information from reading the wikipedia article on the Vietnamese afterlife beliefs. I didn't find the dead soldier to be a compelling character and so "Ma Qui" didn't thrill me.

Which isn't to say it's a bad story since I found Brennert to be fairly effective with his prose. I was just left wanting more of a story in "Ma Qui". In terms of stories about the just dead (a surprisingly large subgenre) I've read much worse and I think I would have liked the story more if Brennert expanded it so that it didn't feel so much like a recitation of setting details.