Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Review - "The Erdmann Nexus", "Shoggoths in Bloom", and "Exhalation"

Well, I'm back. I had a terrific vacation, got to see some family, and experience a whole host of new things. I didn't get to some of the nerdy sites I had planned for my trip since wildfires made other members of my group want to keep out of the area but I can't complain.

And it's time to get started on these long dormant Hugo winners. First up is the short fiction category. You may recall that I liked all of the winners even if none of them were my first pick.

Donato Giancola
2009 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"The Erdmann Nexus"
by Nancy Kress
2009 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

At a retirement home populated by quirky individuals the retirees have started to occasionally black out and have visions. When these visions appear to come true a physics professor who is at the center of the phenomenon tries to get to the bottom of it.

I appreciated that Kress didn't try to be coy about what was happening; the collective minds are reshaping reality and have drawn the attention of a distant spacecraft who helpfully explains for the reader's benefit what's going on. It grates on my nerves badly when an author tells a completely transparent story and tries to write around certain aspects of it in order to create a "mystery". By cutting straight to the chase Kress turns "The Erdmann Nexus" into something of a procedural with a distinctive cast. The story becomes how they work out what is happening and what they do about it rather than it being about ineffectively hiding from the reader what is happening to them.

I tend to run hot and cold when it comes to the quirky cast. With "The Erdmann Nexus" Kress seems less focused on emphasizing how "zany" they are and instead fills them in as elderly people who have grown into the eccentricities.

It's funny but the longest story to win in 2009 is the one that I have the least to talk about. That's because I found most of "The Erdmann Nexus" to be run of the mill. It wasn't bad but it wasn't terrific. I can't work up any enthusiasm either way on it. It's a decently crafted science fiction story and that's enough reason to give it a look but at the same time it's not really special.

"Shoggoths in Bloom"
by Elizabeth Bear
2009 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

I love the works of H.P. Lovecraft but I'm under no illusion about the man himself. Even by the standards of the 1930's where casual racism was so ingrained that it would pass without notice Lovecraft was a bigot. Personally I think his irrational xenophobia is an inseparable part of his stories; he channeled his loathing of anyone who wasn't Caucasian into unfathomable horrors. Which brings me to "Shoggoths in Bloom" which is all about racism in the 1930's and horrors that we cannot fathom.

Unlike the monsters in Lovecraft the Shoggoths in this story are relatively peaceful. Or as peaceful as freakish, acid secreting, gelatonous monstrocities the size of houses that emerge from the blackest depths of the ocean and occasionally crush small towns can be. In the late autumn they beach themselves on the rocky shore of New England where they bloom for a short period before vanishing into the deepest parts of the ocean again. An African-American scientist travels to a remote fishing village to study them and once there deals with both prejudice against him by the townspeople and his own prejudices.

My original reaction to "Shoggoths in Bloom" was that I liked it but wasn't thrilled and I didn't like the ending at all. I've revised that opinion a bit. I think "Shoggoths in Bloom" is a better story than my original impressions. I think part of my initial response was that I came into it with certain expectations based on the horror genre and while I could recognize what Bear was doing I couldn't reconcile that with my views. With a bit of distance I have come to appreciate her deconstruction of Lovecraft on multiple levels.

Bear places the xenophobia at the heart of Lovecraft on display with human characters, the shoggoths, and international politics. The horrors in Bear's story are comprehendable if a person makes the effort to cross the divide. Evil large enough to swallow mankind whole can be faced and confronted. Answers are out there for those who seek them. "Shoggoths in Bloom" takes the trappings of Lovecraft and turns them all on their ear.

That makes it a good thing that Bear didn't follow the path of far too many authors and did not choose to ape Lovecraft's style. Since Bear is subverting other aspects of his writing it would have been awkward to have to prose be the same.

Getting to the actual story, "Shoggoths in Bloom" is one of the better SF works that I've read about racism. There have been a lot of them and certain cliches seem to dominate them (see District 9 for a good example of one that came out this week) but Bear avoids those cliches. Her scientist is not a virtuous minority figure who does only good in contrast to the wicked and cruel townspeople who hate everyone different from themselves. The scientist has his own prejudices to deal with and the townspeople for the most part don't care a bit about the skin color of their visitor though they'll say some hurtful things not realizing how they'll be taken. It's a more nuanced look at racial problems than the usual simple morality play.

On the surface "Shoggoths in Bloom" is about race relations and our reaction to concepts outside of our worldview. At that level it's a pretty good story that I'd recommend. There's a deeper structure to it as an attack on H.P. Lovecraft and that is a whole extra dimension that I appreciated. Not everyone will come to the story from that same place but it made it work better for me.

by Ted Chiang
2009 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

It strikes me that the absolute hardest kind of science fiction to make a good story out of is the scientific principle story. These have fallen out of fashion over the years; they were part of the didactic SF right from the beginning and had their heyday in the early years of Joseph Campbell's editing. When the new wave came along and the full weight of the genre jumped to the other side of the spectrum they nearly completely vanished. These stories are invariably hard SF but they're a subgenre of that subgenre. The basic structure is that the scientist hero discovers some kind of scientific problem (usually involving physics) that is an immediate threat. As they explain the concept to the reader they apply their knowledge of science to the problem and resolve it. The problem with these stories is that they're inevitably more about lecturing the reader than telling a good story. It's phenomenally rare for an author to be able to merge both the high concept of the scientific problem and quality writing. Which is why "Exhalation" stands out.

There is a place populated by machines that are driven by high pressure gas cylinders. One of these intelligent machines is interested in the way that their minds function and so contrives a method to disassemble his own head and watch his mind in operation. However as he examines his own brain he realizes that some recent odd occurrences spell doom for their civilization.

I think it goes without saying that Chiang is master storyteller and he is my favorite author of short SF today. He is exceptional when it comes to devising high concepts for his stories and at the same time he is a verbal chameleon whose style shifts dramatically depending on the demands of the story. "Exhalation" is not his best work. The main character is less interesting than others and the story is almost a lecture. And yet it is still something wonderful to read. This is a story that can easily bring together all SF readers from those who just want big ideas to those (like myself) looking for something more literary. All of this year's winners are good but if you can only read one then this is the one to go for.