Sunday, June 28, 2009

Review - "Goddesses", "Daddy's World", and "macs"

It feels strange to me when I'm coming into the current decade as I follow my lists. It's one of those odd thresholds like when I start reaching books and stories that I read when they were new. Now I've reached stories that are essentially "current" (at least in my view; I know some people take a shorter perspective on that).

by Linda Nagata
2000 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

The opening to this story is very promising. A young executive for a corporation in the distant future of 2012 is given control of a state in rural India. His given goal is to improve the quality of life in the province and consequently earn a percentage of its revenue. What this western man finds is a culture that's resistant to change even though their own decisions are creating a looming crisis: thanks to the abuse of birth control implants almost no women are being born. The population disparity is already causing problems and there is no simple solution.

These problems come to a head for the executive when he encounters a fifteen year old girl cowering on his doorstep. She has been turned out by her family because her husband died of AIDS. In trying to help her the executive triggers a confrontation with the patriarchs of this community.

That sounds like a pretty good set up for the complications of the first world imposing on the third. The gender disparity in Asian countries is a problem that I haven't seen confronted in SF. Not to mention the exploration of how private industry management could try to elevate a state instead of run it into the ground as most SF posits. It's a complex, morally ambiguous situation that's established and it could go anywhere.

Where it goes, unfortunately, is straight into a lot of preaching. The story isn't just heavy handed, it pounds its points into the ground and then keeps beating on them apparently because Nagata assumed that the reader wouldn't be able to pick up on the subtle hints. The theme of the land that the poorest people live on being poisoned is fine. Making the point again with illegal dumping of toxins in broad daylight in the middle of a city street with many witnesses in the United States during the 1990's is wrong. The pollution is a regular occurrence and a real problem (China shoving their pollution problems out to underdeveloped areas is a timely example) but not in the United States in the 1990's. If someone rolled a tanker of toxic waste up to a playground in South Central LA in the 1990's and dumped it out in front of children it would be on the national news by 5 o'clock. That's the problem with "Goddesses"; Nagata didn't know when to stop.

The characters exist mainly to preach to the reader on the necessity of more social services in developing nations. Or how microlending inherently makes everything better (Muhammad Yunus has done some great work but he'll be the first to tell you that it's not a magic wand). About the only thing that Nagata doesn't pound into the reader by having a character show up and explain it in small words is the resentment of those in developing nations against outsiders coming in and trying to enforce changes in their culture. Since she simply paints those attitudes as the villains of her story she just skips over the difficulties of cultural imperialism.

Consequently "Goddesses" is an unpleasant story to read. You'll get more out of reading your favorite in depth news magazine than you will from this. I wanted more from the story than preaching and there just isn't anything else to it.

"Daddy's World"
by Walter Jon Williams
2000 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

A young boy has an idyllic life in a fantasy land where his education and needs are cared for. Eventually he learns that it isn't real; he's a back up copy of a dying boy's mind running as a simulation to keep his family happy. With that knowledge his begins a rough adolescence.

I think the real point of this story is "What if your perfect world was actually made as the perfect world for someone else?" Taking it from that perspective and the family dynamic Williams explores "Daddy's World" is terrific. It gives the story a cruel edge that most "mind inside a computer" tales lack.

Williams also keeps a very tight focus on the growing boy. The only other human who plays a major on stage roll is his sister who goes from playing along to trying to help. The perspective of a child who can never escape from under his parent's thumb just makes it more effective. He acts out just as someone of his mental age should which helps make it heartwrenching.

In the copy I have there is an afterword where Williams says that he wrote this story to be about the downside of living as a mind in a computer. I personally think of it as the problem of living in a controlled world run for someone else's benefit. He creates an atmosphere of oppression in "Daddy's World". I can't recommend it highly enough just for that.

by Terry Bisson
2000 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

There's this thing that gets on my nerves in SF. It's used a lot by bad writers though it turns up from time to time from better authors. I don't like that thing because it results in awkward sentence construction and circular paragraphs. It's also predictable once the reader recognizes what is occurring (usually by the end of the first page).

I'm talking about stories where a vital piece of information that everyone in the story is aware of and is talking about is withheld for a plot twist. It results in strange dialog where people dance around the subject for the benefit of the unseen reader.

I can't even say much about this story because it's backward construction makes nearly everything about it a spoiler. There's this fellow who is following a trail of punishment and that's about all I can tell you without giving away some aspect of the "twist".

I did like Bisson's concept and following this story around could have been very effective. But by turning it into a guessing game for the reader I think the concept gets undermined. It's not a bad effort, I just found it to be told poorly.