Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Review - Little, Big

Little, Big
by John Crowley
1982 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

At the end of the nineteenth century an architect builds an exotic country house with a floor plan that anyone could become lost in and five faces that gave it the appearance of a completely different style depending on how you approached it. His wife's family believes that the universe consists of worlds nested within worlds and that each world within was larger than the one outside. They also believe that the boundaries between these worlds can be crossed and the residents of those deeper in are what most people think of as faeries.

Over the course of a century generations of their family live and die in the house feeling that the history of their large family is a tale that is building to something. The strange and magical lurk among them and Little, Big is the story of their lives.

This book was a monster. As you might guess I can work through books quickly but I was lucky if I could read seventy-five pages a day of Little, Big and the novel is over five hundred pages long. The complication for me was that the prose bobbed and weaved, spun in circles about the reader creating lengthy digressions that branched like the most tangled of shrub losing the thread of narrative as it wanders in its poetic labyrinth until I was exhausted from deciphering Crowley's archaic formations.

Making things more complicated is the fact that there isn't really a proper narrative to the book. One threatens to break out on occasion but the thread doesn't progress so much as spiral outward with those plots typically trailing off with only the barest hint of resolution. The reader isn't getting more than a tiny fragment of what hints at a larger picture as enter in the middle and leaving before the end. The only thing that someone can do is hold on and hope that by those last few pages that the whole thing is revealed to be greater than the sum of its parts. It's uncommon for a book to promise this and then actually deliver on it and with Little, Big I'm not entirely sure if it was successful. So much of the plot is left hanging or developed for hundreds of pages and then the reader is told that it didn't really matter that the ending was unsatisfactory but at the same time Crowley ending some aspects of his story as a whole very well.

Which comes together to make this a novel of language and structure rather than one of plot. Crowley shifts focus approximately once a page constantly building on his metaphor of worlds within worlds and the smaller containing the larger. Everything in the novel centers on those themes that seem to exist for their own purpose rather than being part of something else.

Aspects of the novel are very good but they're entangled with the wearying portions and enjoyment of the book is going to be entirely dependent on how much the reader appreciates Crowley's use of language. I can't say that I found it to be worth the effort but some people might find value in the poetic style.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Review - The Shadow of the Torturer

The Shadow of the Torturer
by Gene Wolfe
1981 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun series has an interesting distinction: each one of the four volumes (I can't count the later continuation as part of the story) won a separate literary award. I've already reviewed the Nebula winning second volume and I'm sure I'll get around to the third and fourth books when I deal with their awards. It's the only series that has won such a variety of awards and it's made more unique by a different award for each book.

For the World Fantasy Award winner we go to the beginning of the story. The Shadow of the Torturer begins the life story of Severian who is an orphan boy raised as to be a torturer, executioner of the Autarch's laws. His life is to be dedicated to meting out punishments. Shortly after taking up his position however he becomes close to one of his prisoners who is sentenced to die in the most agonizing way possible. He grants her mercy and for that is exiled. From there his foot is placed on the path to becoming the new messiah.

You could almost copy and past my review of The Claw of the Conciliator here and it would work. Since these original four books were written together as one story the strengths and weaknesses are carried across them all. As the series progresses Wolfe starts tinkering with the theme and structure but this first novel is all about establishing his dying world.

That might be the biggest problem with Shadow; it's all prologue and little story. An arc does very slowly develop in the second half of the book moving so gently that you might not even be aware that it exists until it reaches a climax. Wolfe spends a lot of time on diversions in the novel that pan out by the end of the series but appear to drift aimlessly over the course of this book. it feels awkward since the book lays down a goal that will occupy months early on and then spends the rest of it's length covering the events of the rest of that particular day.

Despite that slothful plotting Wolfe succeeds in making his characters very compelling. Severian as a young man who was raised in the absolute morality of the jailer has to deal with the conflict between his stark view and ones of relative morality. His position as punisher of the guilty colors his actions and Wolfe recognizes the complication of the legal punisher placing themselves above the judge and society. Severian's life could keep a dozen philosphers arguing for years and no simple answer is given in the book.

At this point I've read a lot of books where civilization reached a pinacle of marvels before collapsing back into a rotting heap where the story is set. I've read a massive pile of them just going through the award winning SF and fantasy. So far I think Wolfe's vision is the most effective of them and I think that has to do with his vision of how things grew and then fell apart. The Shadow of the Torturer, for example, features a city a hundred miles long but sparsely populated except for certain neighborhoods and falling into ruin. Some of the wonders of the past age still exist matter of factly alongside what people can use. Having the world shrouded in perpetual twilight was an ingenious choice as well for mood.

When I reviewed Conciliator I mentioned how it made me determined to read the rest of the series. I did go back and finish it after I concluded reading the Nebulas and despite what I felt was a minor downturn I enjoyed it quite a bit. The Shadow of the Torturer is definitely a book I'd recommend but be prepared to read the rest of the series if you do pick it up.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Review - "The Death of Doctor Island", "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand", and "Love is the Plan the Plan is Death"

As long as I'm talking about my short fiction collection I might as well note that I have achieved the one-third mark on my set of the Nebula Award Stories anthologies in hard cover. It's interesting to me that the majority of these I have only been able to get at a reasonable price as former library books, particular since they all appear to be well read library books. They're not books that sat on the shelf for thirty years untouched until someone decided to clear up space like some others in my collection.

"The Death of Doctor Island"
by Gene Wolfe
1973 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

A group of mentally unstable individuals awaken to find themselves on a tropical beach where the island defies the laws of space and time. There they're confronted by a monster made of smoke that uproots trees and the sinister results of a mysterious project while flashing back to their lives before arriving.

No wait. That's Lost.

Despite lacking a smoke monster or mysterious initiatives "The Death of Doctor Island" does feature an ending. It does have the flashbacks, however.

It also is about just one emotionally disturbed adolescent who has just been deposited on Doctor Island, an asylum where the island itself is alive. The island acts as their doctor and speaks to the patients through the sounds of the island. The result is a very strange story that is best described as madness given form.

As I read the story I was expecting Wolfe to take certain easy steps with the psychological examination of the main character and to his credit he never did. The main character is deeply troubled young man for whom even desperate measures are unlikely to reach. The other two patients in the story aren't as well developed but since the story is about getting into one disturbed mind it didn't really bother me.

Unfortunately I just didn't find that protagonist to be particularly compelling either. Wolfe did such a great job of developing his sociopath that I couldn't empathize with him when the story required that I do. I can deal with an unlikable protagonist but I just didn't find him even interesting.

"The Death of Doctor Island" is an intriguing story and I definitely appreciate what Wolfe was doing with it but it just left me cold. So I wouldn't recommend reading it but it is a very interesting effort.

"Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand"
by Vonda N. McIntyre
1973 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

It is impossible for me to separate this story from Dreamsnake which won both the Hugo and Nebula a few years later since the first thirty pages of Dreamsnake are this story with only the most minimal of changes.

I despised Dreamsnake.

The thing that I hated most about the novel, the perfection of its main character who is too good for her sinful world, fixes problems without effort, and tolerates the cruel stupidity of everyone else who isn't nearly as great is on display in "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" but since it's one-eighth the length of the novel at least here it can be passed off as tightening up the writing.

In these few pages the Shamanistic healer is called in to a tribe in order to cure a dying boy. Once there she has to contend with their backward ways by not showing any deference to the culture of her hosts. This is okay because they're macho, fearful, and stupid so she can put them in their place.

I cannot strongly recommend avoiding this work enough, but if you absolutely must sample it then I suppose reading the twenty-five pages of "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" is better then the full Dreamsnake.

"Love is the Plan the Plan is Death"
by James Tiptree Jr.
1973 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

I couldn't begin to describe the plot of this story since it really only develops a traditional plot in the last few pages. Instead it is best described as a romance where its participates have extremely different life cycles from human beings. One of these beings recounts his life and wooing his mate.

There's a lot to debate regarding the perspective character but it all hinges on the gradual revelations of the story so I don't want to dig into that. I will say that I am uncertain if the story takes place on earth from an unusual vantage point or among an alien species. There are a lot of science fiction stories where the nature of the viewpoint character is hidden from the reader until the end and often they fall apart when the revelation isn't that great. Tiptree managed to handle it perfectly since it's clearly an alien viewpoint from the start (instead of trying to hide that fact) and knowledge of certain aspects of terrestrial biology adds to the depth of the story without being necessary.

The worst thing I can say about the story is that the unusual viewpoint character's distinctive speech made getting into the story a tough challenge but once that hurdle was overcome I found it to be one of the best alien love stories I've ever read. It's definitely a story worth seeking out.