Sunday, July 12, 2009

Review - "Bronte's Egg" and "Creature"

The theme of this year's Nebula winners is genetically-engineered, human-intelligent lizards as main characters. I know that's an oddly specific theme and yet there it is. Admittedly I don't remember a genetically-engineered, human-intelligent lizard as a main character in "Hell is the Absence of God" but I'm sure that's just an oversight on Ted Chiang's part.

"Bronte's Egg"
by Richard Chwedyk
2002 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

In the not too distant future a company creates talking dinosaur pets. They're supposed to live short lives and be as intelligent as parrots but since it does involve a company genetically engineering dinosaurs something goes wrong. The dinosaurs are sentient and live full life cycles. Rescue organizations form to take in the pets and protect them. Since the dinosaurs can't reproduce humanity is content to just let them live out their days in remote homes. A complication ensues when some of the dinosaurs start laying eggs and word leaks out.

That's the bulk of the story there and it's dabbled with the inhumane treatment of pets, what to do when sentience can be created, and the extended family of dinosaurs. Oh, and there's alien communications. That doesn't really have an impact on the story, it's just there. Since the house that they live in is essentially a rescue shelter most of the dinosaurs have very good reason for being distrustful of people; Chwedyk lets that theme simmer below the surface before finally letting it come up at the end.

The whole story is disjointed. The biggest plot is the laying of a viable egg and what people will do when they find out about it. But there's also another intelligent animal that turns up, a robot superhero, the old wounds and aging, and more. The narrative jumps around from topic to topic like a three year old high on pixie sticks. And that's oddly appropriate since the primary viewpoint character is essentially just that.

"Bronte's Egg" would have been a perfectly average story except for one thing: Chwedyk has created an incredibly endearing cast of characters. It takes the common themes and elevates it to a really enjoyable story. The hyperactive, mentally three-year-old dinosaur dashes about causing trouble and demanding attention which the rest of his large adopted family deals with in their unique ways. The story has a huge cast and they're all very distinctive.

So obviously I liked the story quite a bit. It has a bit too much of a kitchen sink plot but I was left wanting to read more about these dinosaurs. I want a full novel about them and that's definitely a recommendation for "Bronte's Egg".

by Carol Emshwiller
2002 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

A man has abandoned civilization after his wife and child die in a military strike. He has moved to a shack in the mountains far removed from the war. His lonely existence is interrupted when one of the genetically engineered lizard warriors for one of the sides turns up wounded near his home. He takes in the soldier who is still being hunted.

This could have been a straightforward "Enemy Mine" style story but Emshwiller goes in a completely different direction with the themes. Instead of this being a story about two hated enemies coming together to survive it's a story of a lonely man finding someone to love. The mountain man projects onto the lizard warrior a gentle feminine personality and tries to shield it. It's unclear in the story how much of this is reciprocated by the soldier which gives it an ambiguous tone. Is the soldier male or female? Is it trying to be friendly or romantic? Is it compassionate or just passive? Do the answers to any of those questions really matter in the end?

It's that ambiguous treatment of the situation that elevates the story to being pretty good. I'm not sure what I thought about the situation but I know that I'll be thinking about it for a while.