Sunday, July 19, 2009

Review - "The Empire of Ice Cream" and "What I Didn't See"

"The Empire of Ice Cream"
by Jeffrey Ford
2003 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

"The Empire of Ice Cream" reminded me a lot of Ford's World Fantasy Award winner The Physiognomy. That wasn't because it used the same setting or even that it occupied the same themes. It reminds me of his book because he built a dazzling mosaic of words that left me bewildered but with a general sense at the end that it was pretty good.

Part of that has to with how the main character in "The Empire of Ice Cream" is a synesthetic, a person who interprets information from one sense as something from another. A common form is to associate colors with sound and this character uses that sense to compose music as though creating a painting. Of all the experiences he has the most complex one is that the taste of coffee ice cream gives him a detailed vision of a girl his age. He falls in love with this vision and savors each chance he gets to enjoy coffee ice cream for it.

In an odd way Ford seems to dodge using descriptions over the course of the story. The few that there are tend to be sterile. Everyone once and a while he dips into the synesthetic viewpoint but he seems to save those for more poetic uses. Avoiding dependence on the gimmick of a distorted viewpoint seems to help as it brings the descriptions of auditory paintings and visions into focus.

I found that I didn't care about the main character. As the story progresses he's essentially Gifted But Troubled Young Man Longing For an Impossible Girl #508. The plot for the most part runs an obvious course and if you've seen this once before (and you probably have) then it will feel very familiar.

And yet somehow Ford pulls me in. I didn't care about how the plot was unfolding or if young love would be found and I still enjoyed the ride. There's something to how he assembles his stories that make them come across as very different than what they suggest at first brush. I'd recommend "The Empire of Ice Cream" just for that; it's a well told story that just happens to be an old one.

"What I Didn't See"
by Karen Joy Fowler
2003 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

This is the first Nebula winner that doesn't even have the pretense of being fantasy or science fiction. There's not a single fantastic element in it. Not even a hint of strange happenings. There have been stories before where there isn't really anything SF in them but the author hints at it; that's not the case here. So even though "What I Didn't See" was an extremely good story it still seems peculiar that it won the Nebula.

In the 1920's a university expedition heads to the heart of Africa with a stated purpose of specimen collection. The actual purpose is only known to the organizer and is revealed once the group is on site. The organizer believes that gorillas are gentle animals and not the rampaging beasts they are portrayed as. He plans to put a stop to the practice of hunting them for sport by removing the glamor from it. And to do that he wants the two women on the expedition to kill gorillas.

That's the plot but the real story is in the break down in the expedition which is exasperated by torrid affairs and the anger regarding the hidden purpose. The main character is one of the women who does not appreciate being used and it, with other factors, strains her otherwise happy marriage.

Fowler does a great job in portraying her characters as conflicted, lost people. This story is in the same mold as Hemmingway and Conrad and yet Fowler finds a way to make it feel distinctive. Part of that is her choice of viewpoint, a woman who is sympathetic and yet just as lost in the ugly social mores of the time as everyone else. The story rarely went where I thought it would and each spin made the whole scenario more terrible.

"What I Didn't See" was a gripping story and so I definitely recommend it. The fact that it's an odd selection for the Nebula doesn't lessen its impact.