Sunday, July 26, 2009

Review - "The Green Leopard Plague", "Basement Magic", and "Coming to Terms"

Something I wrote earlier this week has already become outdated. I mentioned that Stan Sakai was the only person other than Todd Klein to win the Eisner award for lettering. As of Friday that is no longer true. Chris Ware won the Eisner for the lettering in his Acme Novelty Library.

I've added this year's Eisner winners to the side bar, but I don't have a whole lot to say about them. The winners that I've read aren't bad though few of them are what I'd consider classics to transcend time. I'll get to them in time. Tonight it's time for the 2004 Nebula winners.

"The Green Leopard Plague"
by Walter Jon Williams
2004 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

In the distant future a researcher who is avoiding her recently resurrected lover embarks on a data mining project to find information on a twenty-first century philosopher whose economic and political theories revolutionized the world. He had been a minor figure until he vanished for three weeks and then reappeared with the first paper that set the world on a new course. Dividing time with her narrative is the actual story of what happened to that philosopher and how he became entangled with spies trying to kill a woman carrying a solution for world hunger. Stopping famine is a noble goal in itself but the couple bicker across Europe over the dangerous consequences that it could have.

Philosophically Williams puts forward economic concepts for a post-scarcity world which I can't say that I completely agree with. On the other hand he does understand the problems of unintended consequences and some of the less intuitive economic concepts that many SF authors ignore when postulating their future society (the value of labor being one of the biggest). The fact that he could support his economic arguments made a refreshing change from the usual libertarian/socialist utopias that turn up in SF which seemed to be managed by authorial fiat. And while the future that Williams shows the reader from the start indicates that it works out in the end the portions in the past avoid making either of the main character's positions morally correct.

One thing that I appreciated in "The Green Leopard Plague" is that while Williams sets things up as a spy story he avoids the standard pattern for the story. While a loose outline of the twenty-first century portion of the story might sound like a cheap airport thriller it only shares the broadest concepts. For one thing Williams gives his enemy spies more thought than most of them. They're far from superhuman, plot convenient engines of death; they screw things up, can't find the protagonists easily, and their actions are consistent with their motives.

Rounding things off nicely is how interesting Williams's characters are. Both near-future and far-future characters are troubled by the deaths around them but the implications for them are very different. This isn't a situation where I was left wanting more about these characters but that's mainly because when "The Green Leopard Plague" ended I felt that their story was finished and there wasn't anything more to say.

"The Green Leopard Plague" is classic SF in it's structure but very modern in its telling. I completely enjoyed it and highly recommend it.

"Basement Magic"
by Ellen Klages
2004 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

"Basement Magic" is a story that is very familiar. A young girl in an affluent household in the late-fifties has a wicked stepmother. She is neglected by her parents and withdraw into books. She bonds with their minority housekeeper and when her stepmother does something especially cruel the housekeeper shows the girl a bit of magic to help keep her safe.

You can pretty much tell how the entire story is going to go from that brief description. The plot is strictly paint by numbers. And yet somehow Klages manages to tell it well enough that I didn't mind.

Partially it's because she captured the character of the little girl so well. It's a bit of a reviewing cliche (to turn the tables on myself) to praise something for having a child who isn't completely annoying as a character. Still, in "Basement Magic" Klages demonstrates quite a bit of skill in making a sympathetic childish character at the center of the story. Not just a "child"; actually childish. The girl isn't just a cute little adult; she's bewildered and lost and hurt and doesn't understand things as well as the adults around her think she does.

Kluges also keeps the narrative as tight as a drum which helps her keep the momentum of the story. So instead of dwelling on things that would keep the reader's focus on how generic the plot is Kluges pushes on to the next inevitable event.

All that makes "Basement Magic" an entertaining but not brilliant story. It's almost the storytelling equivalent of comfort food. You know it's not good for you but you enjoy it anyway.

"Coming to Terms"
by Eileen Gunn
2004 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

The trend of Nebula winners with negligible SF contents continue with "Coming to Terms" and once again I can't really complain since it is an interesting story. When an author dies his daughter goes to his home to sort out the belongings and once there she finds everything in the household neatly labeled with tiny bits of wisdom that her father left behind.

There isn't really much more to the story than that. Just a daughter getting to know her father through fragments of writing scattered about his home. If Gunn had tried to make the fragments of writing into something deep or meaningful I think it wouldn't have worked; instead they're tiny facets of a man that the reader gets to know at the same pace as his estranged daughter. It's a fascinating view into a character that only gets characterized through his belongings and notes. It's a slight story but Gunn does so much with so little text that it's terrific.