Sunday, August 2, 2009

Review - "Burn" and "Echo"

I've got a set of admissions to make here. First, I read the wrong set of stories this week and didn't have enough time to read the correct ones. So I'm jumping straight up to the 2006 winners and I'll cover the 2005 winners sometime during the week.

And the reason why I'll being doing those during the week rather than next Sunday is that in two weeks I'll be on vacation. So rather than skipping a week with one last year of Nebula winning short stories to cover I'm going to wrap it up this week.

I'm rushing those because the announcement of the Hugo winners is next week so it'll take me some time to get to this year's winners. If I'm lucky (and I don't expect to be) then I may have just enough time to squeeze in a review of something I've already read before leaving on my trip.

So enough talking about my scheduling conflicts and errors. Let's get to this.

by James Patrick Kelly

2006 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

It's sometimes funny the things that jump out at you. "Burn" is the longest winner of the novella category for either Hugo or Nebulas. It's longer than some works that have won the novel category. The funny thing is that I think it could have been even longer; if anything the story feels a bit compressed.

In a post-human universe a group has bought one planet and dedicated it to a life of "simplicity". Their goal is to preserve unaltered humanity and they live an isolated existence cut off from the rest of the universe. The problem for them is that there were colonists on the planet they purchased; colonists that refused to leave and didn't like how the newcomers were creating a world wide forest for their agrarian life style. So the old colonists fight the new ones by setting forest fires and the new colonists have conscripted men into stopping the forest fires as part of an undeclared war.

"Burn" starts with one of these firefighters recuperating from injuries at a high tech hospital where he has his first contact with the wider universe. A bit of fiddling with the telephone/internet system accidentally puts him in contact with a group of children being groomed for political power. Intrigued by the discussion the children and their guardian come to the culturally quarantined planet to find out how they can help.

There seems to be a streak of Luddism that runs through science fiction authors. There's a reoccurring theme that turns up particularly in dystopian novels that once man abandons his wicked future technologies and returns to a nineteenth century level of development that everyone will be better off. The irony of a Luddite wanting to go back to the nineteenth century is lost in this situations. "Burn" isn't like that. The cultural basis for its world is a sense of moral superiority. Kelly gets this just right; the effect on individuals is subtle while the cumulative effect is major. And at the same time they have a point; their lifestyle is idyllic and gently pastoral. It's just at the cost of losing the wonders of the universe at large and locking themselves away from them.

"Burn" has a lively and interesting cast of characters. I was anticipating a round of "quirky small town life" and Kelly doesn't do that all. His backworld characters do not lead as simplistic of lives as their philosophy implies. The high tech ones have a mixture of worldliness and childishness that comes out as they take wonder in visiting a unique planet and manipulating the situation for what they perceive as the benefit of all.

The only problem I had with "Burn" is that I don't think it explores its themes as deeply as it could have. Kelly works his story with subtlety that I appreciated but at the same time by keeping so much of it low key it feels like he is dancing around topics. There's so much going on in "Burn" that it could have been twice it's length to give room for all of the interesting facets of the story.

I found "Burn" to be enjoyable but not terrific. Kelly subverted all of my expectations in his story which is something rare enough that it deserves mention. Still I think the result is "just" good. When my biggest complaint about a story is that I think it could have been better then it's definitely worth checking out.

by Elizabeth Hand

2006 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

In the not too distant future civilization is collapsing under the weight of terrorism and environmental disaster. On an island off the coast of main a person lives on their own and pines for a former lover who vanished in the chaos.

I understand what Hand was doing in "Echo" and I just didn't care for it. I never got a reason to care about the lonely hermit pining for their love lost somewhere in world wide chaos. The narrator is completely passive to the point that the entire story is just a monologue about them waiting out their life. That's a tough starting point for making me care about the characters and their relationship and Hand didn't help the situation by making their relationship an abstract thing. The reader gets impressions of their life but nothing concrete. The vague cloud of longing that forms the narrative of "Echo" just isn't enough to make me interested.

It's almost as if "Echo" is an attempt to fit love poetry into a story though Hand's prose isn't strong in that regard either. So I was left not caring about "Echo". It isn't even bad enough to make me dislike it; I just didn't care.