Sunday, June 14, 2009

Review - "Reading the Bones", "Lost Girls", and "Thirteen Ways to Water"

"Reading the Bones"
by Sheila Finch
1998 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

I was genuinely looking forward to reading this story. I had only known it by its reputation for kicking off a trend of linguistic SF. From that I figured it might be a story where the elements were familiar to me from reading the stories that followed it but it would still contain the fire that launched many other authors' imaginations. What I found was a tale that was as close to generic as possible without it being retitled "STORY".

There's a small human outpost on an alien world where two intelligent species developed. These two species do not interact except at certain rare times and the ones that the humans are in contact with have a dark secret that they'll kill to protect once it has been uncovered. If you can't guess what the "secret" is already then you probably haven't read a lot of SF. Anyhow, a xenolinguist attached to the consulate flees the surprise attacks by the aliens along with a generically antagonistic teenager and they're forced to make their way through an alien landscape to find assistance.

The cliches run far deeper than just that but to go through them all would take too much time. I have to mention one more: when the prime directive turned up out of nowhere three-quarters of the way through to provide a conflict for the climax of the story I nearly threw the book across the room. Not only was it completely out of place, it didn't even make sense in the context of the story.

I do have a few nice things to say about "Reading the Bones". Something that Finch does very well in the story is demonstrating the difficulty in alien communications. The complications in conveying intent when half the words used have a different cultural context for the individuals involved is handled very well. The interspecies dialog is rough, almost pidgin in nature.

Also Finch drops in a mind-catching idea about the development of language and it plays a role in story. The problem is that she seems to think that language is something that can be dropped whole onto an existing culture. Esperanto is a good real world example of how that doesn't work. Languages evolve and develop; successful ones do not spring fully formed from the mind of a creator. Even allowing for differences between humanity and aliens there is no connection between the development of language in "Reading the Bones" and its use.

Once you strip aside the big idea you have a particularly weak story underneath. The xenolinguist is a man ruined by the death of his wife and driven to drink. The children who accompany him completely forget about their parents' deaths within hours. These aren't characters, they're stock paper cutouts who exist to ride the plot to the end.

Needless to say I was very disappointed in "Reading the Bones". I can only guess that people were driven to write more xenolinguistic stories because after reading this every author out there thought that they could take the ideas and tell a better story with them. Just avoid this one, it's not worth your effort.

"Lost Girls"
by Jane Yolen
1998 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

I am aware of more than a dozen "darker and edgier" versions of Alice in Wonderland including two that are in development at this moment. Piling adult themes onto that book is like shooting fish in a barrel and about as satisfying. On the other hand I know of only three attempts to make a more adult Peter Pan despite the fact that J. M. Barrie's children's book has much more sinister undertones. Even though the idea is fresher what really made Yolen's take on the uglier side of Peter Pan was the gender politics; it adds a whole new layer of creepiness when you look at how Wendy was treated.

A young girl who was familiar with Peter Pan is pulled to Neverland where she encounters Peter, the lost boys, and "the Wendies" who are dozens of girls who do the cooking and cleaning for the boys. Peter keeps them in line with the threat of Captain Hook but the new girl is not tolerant of the Victorian gender identities and stirs up the Wendies against the Lost Boys.

Despite my talk about this being a "darker and edgier" Peter Pan "Lost Girls" is still a light-hearted story. It reminds me a lot of Neil Gaiman's Coraline. Both are about young girls drawn into fantasy worlds due to dissatisfaction with their parents. Both have protagonists who are clever enough to see the sinister nature of it and both girls are clever and bold enough to try to do something about it. It's a broad outline admittedly but both Yolen and Gaiman are clearly working from the same sources.

Yolen tells her story very well by using the viewpoint of her young protagonist. She reacts as a child would and consequently misses some things that readers can pick up on. Yolen captures that perspective expertly.

I would not hesitate to give "Lost Girls" to a child to read; they might not pick up on the sexual references that help drive the problems home for the reader but it is written in a way that they would enjoy it. And as for me I liked the story as a deconstructionist take on the original. I'd definitely recommend it.

"Thirteen Ways to Water"
by Bruce Holland Rogers
1998 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

Speaking of stories reminding me of other ones, "Thirteen Ways to Water" reminded me a lot of Joe Haldeman's "Graves". Both are stories about Vietnam and some superstitions and both are so slight on any fantastic element that they could have been removed without losing a thing. I get the impression with "Thirteen Ways to Water" that the fantasy element exists mainly to sell the story.

Decades after the war has ended one Vietnam veteran has fallen into a funk. His wife locates the only person she knows who is also a veteran and asks him to intervene. The depressed veteran has saved soil from each place where he killed someone and is concerned that it is losing its effectiveness in keeping ghosts away.

Rogers does suburb work in defining his characters. One returned from the war a broken man who hid his brittleness and the other returned with a new sense of purpose. They disliked each other before the war and they still hate each other but they have something terrible in common.

The story is oddly formatted by being broken in the "Thirteen Ways" and I felt it was unnecessary and clumsy. I couldn't find a thematic reason for it and so it came across as just strange formatting for the sake of being different.

This is a pretty good story by Rogers about the Vietnam war, superstition, and what people do to go on. It might be extremely slight as fantasy but that isn't a negative except in context of it winning an award for best SF or fantasy short story. I'd recommend reading it if you get a chance.