Sunday, June 21, 2009

Review - "Story of Your Life", "Mars is No Place for Children", and "The Cost of Doing Business"

I've had a really strange week with online retailers. The worst of it was an omnibus comic that I ordered from Amazon had an RFID tracking tag permanently affixed over the artwork in the middle of the book and set so that it was pushing against the spine. I don't know if Amazon or the original distributor did it but I've never seen a new book treated worse.

Another retailer that I ordered a used book from offered a "free gift" with every purchase. Since I'm not a complete fool I knew that "free gift" from a used bookstore actually meant "a copy of some piece of garbage that we can't get rid of". Still it was the cheapest copy I could find in decent condition so I ordered it. Here's my free book:

For those keeping score at home that's a novelization (-1 point) of Harmony Gold's (-1 point) worst show (-1 point). And that's without reading a single word. I suspect actually trying to read the novel might prove fatal.

So let's get to some good things:

"Story of Your Life"
by Ted Chiang

1999 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

I really enjoy Ted Chiang's stories and that's why I had been saving this one. I wanted there to be one last story of his that I had not read as I was working my way through these award winners. So with "Story of Your Life" done I have read everything that Chiang has published. It's not the best story that he ever wrote in my view but it's close. It demonstrates exactly what I love reading his stories so much: he took a used up SF concept and carefully constructed a beautiful story around it about how it affected the people involved.

Aliens have come to Earth and they don't speak any local language. So a team of linguists work to grasp their language while teaching them enough of ours so that communication is possible. At the same time physicists and mathematicians try to connect through universal concepts. The story is told by a woman on one of these linguists who spaces the discussions of the aliens with her daughter's life story from conception to early death. Her daughter's story, however, is told in the future tense.

Chiang is not the first person to tell a story about how language affects thinking. What he does is bring those concepts down to a personal level. This isn't a story about aliens, it's about the connection between parent and child and all of the triumphs and tragedies that accompany it. The aliens are there to lend perspective to the whole thing. Chiang draws the focus of his story to just three characters and they're all human. The aliens may talk but they're off stage for the most part so that they can act as mysterious plot devices.

The whole effect is an exceptional story about a family where tragedy is inevitable. It's terrific and not even overly sentimental. I highly recommend checking this story out.

"Mars is No Place for Children"
by Mary A. Turzillo
1999 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

Here is another story about parents losing children. The Nebula voters must have been pretty bitter that year.

Colonists on Mars have to deal with harsh conditions including a high amount of radiation exposure. While the adults who immigrate manage to survive the rate of leukemia in their children makes it nearly impossible for any to survive through their teen years. One smart child develops cancer as her brother did and her parents prepare to send her away for a treatment that is not likely to work. A far better treatment is available but it costs too much money so the child runs away from home hoping to find the Mars Pathfinder.

I found that the child in this story was a bit too smart and precocious to be reasonable; the adult sensibilities of the author resulted in a schizophrenic view of the character whose understanding of adult things depends on if it's convenient for that scene. Her awareness depends on what is necessary for the plot and her willingness to harm her family makes her unsympathetic.

Though I might not have been fond of the main character there is quite a bit to recommend in the story. Turzillo did a better job when the child didn't understand something since she used that as a device to slowly expand the scope of loss that Martian parents endure. The story that Turzillo was telling was far more interesting than her lead character and for that reason I think it's something worth reading.

"The Cost of Doing Business"
by Leslie What
1999 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

I have to say that What's story is the weakest of the three Nebula winners in 1999. It's also pretty good which makes this into an exceptional year for the awards.

A woman sells her services as a "professional victim": if someone is going to harm you then you call her up and she stands in for the treatment. "The Cost of Doing Business" is all about what kind of person could do this how people would react to someone selling themselves like that.

I can't say that I believe for a moment that a professional victim would work. It doesn't work for victims targetted for personal reasons since there's no motovation to take out their frustrations on a third party. And it doesn't work in situations like the carjacking that's in the story since if they're kidnapping the person then the criminals won't get as much for a substitute victim.

Still allowing for the story's premise it is about masochism and society's reaction to it. I liked the professional victim in the story since she dealt with the conflict between having to actively choose to be passive. In fact I'd say there was too little to this story; I want to see how What would handle a broader exploration of the premise. It might not hold together over the course of the novel but I think there's more that could be done.