Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Review - "Da Vinci Rising", "Lifeboat on a Burning Sea", and "A Birthday"

Before I say anything else I need to point out that my absence for the past few days did not have anything to do with the fact that one of the Nebula winning stories being reviewed has a tragic connection to an event recently in the news. That's just one of those coincidences that color life.

"Da Vinci Rising"
by Jack Dann
1996 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

Instead of remaining on the drawing board Leonardo with the assistance of a young Niccolo Machiavelli build a glider to impress the rulers of their city. After a nearly disastrous first test where Leonardo finds out that it's easier to go up than to land safely the artist and engineer becomes obsessed with making it safe while Machiavelli and the Medicis push for other applications.

I've got to get this out of the way first. In my copy there is an introduction by Dann where he mentions the vast research that he did on Leonardo da Vinci's life. Somehow he managed to miss one of the big things that drive historians nuts: "da Vinci" was not Leonardo's last name. Vinci was the town he was from so "Leonardo da Vinci" means "Leonardo from Vinci". It's not a family name or title. If you ever want a ten minute diatribe out of a historian just call him "da Vinci" and stand back.

So despite Dann missing that detail this is an interesting historical story. There's still a lot of name dropping and throwing out irrelevant factoids but it never becomes overwhelming. Once you're past the opening where all the major historical figures in Florence at the time were thrown into the mix things improve dramatically. Dann focuses in on the development of a flying machine given renaissance technology and a distractable genius and that was an effective story.

On the other hand I didn't really get a feeling for the characters beyond their broad historical roles. Leonardo is brilliant but prone to flights of fancy. Machiavelli is a conniving social climber (not entirely fair to Machiavelli, of course, but that is most people's perceptions). Relying on the weight of history for characterization is not effective.

Consequently I'm left with a slightly negative impression of "Da Vinci Rising". If you're interested in the period or Leonardo then you'll probably find more in this story to enjoy. Without that connection there isn't anything in it to draw a reader in.

"Lifeboat on a Burning Sea"
by Bruce Holland Rogers
1996 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

A pair of researchers are looking into developing machine intelligence to the point where it can replicate human intelligence. One is desperately seeking a means for immortality while the other is seeking knowledge. Despite the fact that they play off each other for research their spiritual beliefs bring them into conflict. When the knowledge seeker dies the other is pushed into creating a computer simulation of him and finds some anomalies.

Rogers does a great job of establishing the tension in the philosophies of the main characters: one who feels he is racing death itself in order to find a way to transfer his mind to a computer and the other who believes in an immortal soul that cannot be contained in this way. Its a classic scenario and it plays out very well because there are not even hints of something beyond the philosophical arguments. There are no ghosts or indications that the computerized copy is more or less than what it is presented as since those would disrupt the theme.

I did have a problem with some of the characterization in the last portion of the story. It felt to me that Rogers wanted (to continue this theme) a philosophical ending and consequently some of the motivations get muddied. This isn't really a problem with the story since it is one of those messy situations that life can get into, it's just that I think that the concepts could have been presented more clearly.

What Rogers does really well with his story is bring those arguments about minds and souls into simulations. It's not unique but he told it very well and for that reason I think "Lifeboat on a Burning Sea" is worth reading.

"A Birthday"
by Esther M. Friesner
1996 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

In the not too distant future the conflict between pro-choice and pro-life with abortion is effectively over. A law was passed that made abortion available to women who wanted it but when they had an abortion a recording of the genetic code of the fetus was made. Once that was done for the next seven years the women would be confronted by images of the child they never had on any digital screen they used. One woman is on the last day of this sentence and she spends it helping at a women's center where she encounters many facets of the consequences to this.

The idea that the two sides of the abortion debate could come to an accord is a huge stretch. Setting aside religion for the moment (which is difficult to do given how it entrenched it is on one side) you have the question of when a fetus transitions into a human being weighed against the question of when is it acceptable to restrict self-determination and it is impossible to resolve those two cleanly (I expect that the abortion debate will be with us for a long time to come). Still I'll accept it as the premise of the story and Friesner does a great job of making that the only major assumption. Human beings are still human beings; twisted up and conflicted despite the accord.

The story obviously exists to explore the details of this world though in this case Friesner emphasizes the personal story of the woman seeing the child who has haunted her for the last time over the talking with all of the people who have been impacted by abortions. Friesner keeps it personal and that's the best way to deal with a story that is really about the setting.

This isn't a perfect story; it might still be a bit too exposition heavy for some. I think that Friesner managed to overcome that problem and write a story that manages to show the qualities and flaws in both sides of the argument. I've read far too many stories along these lines that can only demonize the side that the author disagrees with and while I think I've felt out Friesner's actual opinion I wouldn't bet money on it. That makes "A Birthday" a mix that could anger any reader and that makes it a bit more interesting.