Saturday, August 8, 2009

Review - "Fountain of Age" and "Always"

Here we are at the end of the Nebulas. Just in time for this year's Hugo award ceremony.

"Fountain of Age"
by Nancy Kress
2007 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

When I read this story as one of last year's Hugo nominees I didn't care for it. So here it is more than a year later and upon rereading it I still didn't like it. Some things do not improve with age.

A retired mobster in the future has kept a lock of hair and paper kiss in a ring as a reminder of a woman he met in his youth. When the ring is destroy he sets out to get replacements. The problem is that the woman is now one of the most important people in the world. A substance harvested from her body stops the aging process and she lives in isolation away from the world. On top of that the government still watches his every move which will complicate any plans. Still he seeks out some old friends and enlists their help.

I think my biggest problem with "Fountain of Age" is the mixed signals that Kress kept sending me. The main character ran a criminal empire that apparently never actually did a whole lot except be vaguely illegal. So she's trying to keep him sympathetic. And then a primary facet of his characterization is how his affection for a prostitute he met when he was twenty made him despise his wife and child. So he's a thoroughly rotten human being. Who we're supposed to care about his wistful dreams of lost love. It's not even a rich characterization; I'm pretty sure that he's supposed to be a charming, sympathetic protagonist on a quixotic quest but he's not charming or sympathetic.

For "Fountain of Age" to work as a story I have to care about the main character and his efforts to get a lost kiss and I didn't.

by Karen Joy Fowler
2007 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

On the other side of the coin I enjoyed "Always" and a year's time has not diminished that in the slightest. While it uses a common theme and is completely predictable Fowler does a great job in developing the situation.

A cult leader has an incredible offer that he extends to only a select few people: if you pay him five thousand dollars and live in his commune then he will let you live forever. A pair of young lovers scrape together the money and move into the commune where they deal with the complications of being in a cult of people who believe themselves to be immortal.

From those plot elements you should be able to work out pretty much ever beat that Fowler uses and yet "Always" works out better than that. Mostly I think it is because of the narrator who views things through the eyes of a true believer. So while she's telling a straightforward life story the reader is picking up on the unpleasant truths.

In "Always" Fowler puts belief and faith on display at the center of the story. And not the mushy, feel-good broad concept that you usually see but the outright denial of reality because it disagrees with what the believer "knows" to be true. And in exploring that she took a run of the mill concept and made a very interesting tale out of it.