Thursday, February 5, 2009

Review - Perfume

by Patrick Suskind
1987 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel
Translated by John E. Woods

That was... er... well... very European.

Perfume is the first of these award winning novels that was not written in English and since I do not read German above a level capable of stumbling through board game rules (barely) I resorted to an English translation.

In eighteenth century France a child is born in the middle of rotting fish and corpses who lacks an odor of his own. He defines his world by scents thanks to his supernaturally gifted sense of smell. As the child grows he finds that certain people smell a way that draws others to them and becomes obsessed with replicating that smell himself in a perfume. Unfortunately his unique viewpoint has made him into a sociopath that is more than capable of killing anyone in order to get what he desires.

So what do I mean when I call Perfume "very European"? The story is low key. It's filled with philosophical digressions. It has a certain self-important style that attempts to give the novel a greater weight. Symbolism and imagery are the most important aspects of the book. It reminded me a great deal of those European films that you can only see in tiny art houses with people who equate confusing and slow paced with quality.

Fortunately Perfume doesn't manage to crawl so far up its own navel that the only thing you can find is what you bring with you but it does come close. It's salvation is it's problem: Suskin designs his descriptions in terms of scents and so every smell that crosses the pages must carry its own deep meaning. So on one hand the descriptions are unique and give the book a completely different feel to anything else, on the other the prose hits those over and over again.

To some extent this may be the result of the translation and so I'm hesitent to criticize the prose. It is clumsy in some place but I don't know if it was really the fault of the author.

Another problem with the book is the fact that viewpoint character is an inhuman monster. His actions and reactions are not those of a person. However Suskind does craft him into a character that can be understood much in the way that one can understand the behavior of a predatory insect. There's a fascination involved in watching that does not require any empathy. I have to considder that a success since I'm certain that it was the author's intention but at the same time there are likely to be readers who have no tolerance for it.

When this character is interacting with people the book is at its best. Suskind plays up the differences between his monster and "normal" people which make these sections gripping. Unfortunately for a long section in the middle of the book he moves the character away from any human contact and the story loses much of its momentum. It does pick up again several chapters later but it is a rough speed pump in the story.

I know this seems like a lot of griping but I did when it comes down to the bottom line enjoy Perfume and I do recommend it. I just recogonize that it's a very different book from what most people enjoy. So I have to recommend it with caveats: if you have no problem with slow paced allegory, if you don't need a likable protagonist, if you're interested in a very alternative viewpoint, then you'll be able to read Perfume and enjoy it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Looking Back at the Hugo Winning Short Fiction

What a long and strange journey that was. Even more than the novels reading the Hugo winning short stories really gives on a cross section of science fiction from the 1950's on. From the light pulp stories that began it to the psychedelic New Wave to the refinement of the literary form that followed to the fragmentation of subgenres to the fading of science fiction in favor of fantasy; the award winning stories are SF in microcosm.

Looking back through the list of winners by my count I enjoyed a bit more than 60% of the winners. I don't think that's a particularly bad average given the standards I hold the stories to.

By a few arbitrary categories:

Best Story - There really isn't any other choice than Daniel Keyes's "Flowers for Algernon" which won in 1960. Not only a great story, it's acknowledged as one of the most significant short stories of the twentieth century. It's one of the stories that you can point to in order to demonstrate the significance of science fiction.

Worst Story - It's hard to select one but I have to go with "Down in the Bottomlands" by Harry Turtledove which narrowly defeats the moral bludgeoning of Ursala Le Guin's "The Word for Wold is Forst" and the goofy superhuman story of Orson Scott Card's "Eye for Eye". As bad as those other two were they lacked a character named "Evilla" whose defining characteristic was that they were evil.

Author Who I Never Want to Read Again - In my life I have read five stories by Jon Varley and of those five of them present pedophilia as a positive thing that is beneficial for everyone involved. Even in a novella that didn't involve children he managed to work it in as part of the back story. It's enough that I now considder Varley's name a warning to avoid the story.

Author Who I'll Read Whatever They Write - A much harder decision since there are three current authors whose short stories have convinced me that I'll want to read whatever they put down on the page. For quality and consistancy based solely on their Hugo winners I have to go with Ted Chiang who narrowly beats Connie Willis (who is consistantly enjoyable but tents to alternate flippant nothings with more deep stories) and Michael Resnick (who is great at presenting morally ambiguous stories). Chiang beats them because of his ability as a literary chameleon, able to shift form to always given the perfect presentation to his concepts.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Review - Song of Kali

Song of Kali
by Dan Simmons
1986 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

I'm not sure what was going on with the World Fantasy Award juries back in the mid-eighties. They managed to select a set of very interesting novels their winners each completely different from the last. So after mythic China and an allegorical novel there is a horror novel based around a middle class American couple in a third world slum and he does it well.

In 1977 it was still twenty years before India would start it's economic boom and Calcutta was a warren of slums. Word of a new work by an Indian poet who mysteriously vanished a decade before brings a poet to the sprawling city. He brings his Indian wife along with him to act as translator and their infant daughter. Once the poet arrives however he finds himself confronted with stories of a cult dedicated to the worship of the goddess Kali and hints of horrors lurking just out of sight.

The real heart of Song of Kali is in its atmosphere. Simmons paints an image of Calcutta as a city that is well past the point of decay, where ten million people live in the worst of conditions in enough space for just a million of them. It's a city and people pushed into complete collapse and Simmons captures it. The book is almost a travel guide to the worst places on earth; Calcutta may not fit the description anymore but such places still exist. The bulk of the novel's consists of
those descriptions and while that could have been tedious I found that it drove the story well.

The plot itself is more intriguing than I would expect given the fact that it could have been distilled down to something around a third of the novel's length without really losing anything. Simmons impressed me with his pacing as he takes detours that feel minor, take up a great deal of time (like the descriptions mentioned before), and yet serve to draw out the tension to the straining point. He'll slide off into a side trip to a museum dedicated to a writer or a lengthy story of a young man in the big city but his prose managed to keep pulling me along to the conclusion.

And what a climax it has. I guessed part of what would occur toward the end of Song of Kali but I was still impressed.

By using the poet as the perspective character Simmons gives us a view of a man being pulled into insanity and barely holding on. He is becoming absorbed into the poisonous atmosphere of Calcutta and the reader is getting carried along with it. He is interesting as the rational man being pushed to an edge.

Song of Kali is a very interesting novel of a style that isn't seen very often these days. At one point the "civilized man in a strange and evil foreign land" theme was more common but the only recent use I can think of is the movie Babel. That's understandable since it does inherently contain tones of racism and cultural imperialism. I think that Simmons manages to sidestep those problems by making Song of Kali more about the problems that are inherent to any overpopulated third-world country than India in particular.

I found a lot to like in Song of Kali; it is creepy, depressing, and haunting. The only negative for me was that a reader who needs constant action might not enjoy it. This is a horror novel of atmopshere and it was just what I like.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Review - "A Billion Eves", "The Djinn's Wife", and "Impossible Dreams"

Donato Giancola
2007 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

And so it draws to a close. This is the last of the Hugo winning short fiction to review. It's taken me about a year to read them all. Fifty-three years worth of winners; one hundred and forty short stories covering the length of breadth of science fiction and fantasy. Even for short fiction that's a lot. I'll post a bit on the highs and lows of the reading but I can't say it is a reading project I'd recommend for all science fiction fans; getting the stories is just too much of a pain.

For my last reading I had to go to Science Fiction: The Best of the Year: 2007 Edition, The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fourth Annual Collection, and the single author anthology Hart & Boot by Tim Pratt. I have to say that I'm always amused by how much the two "Best of" anthologies disagree on exactly what the "best" is. I know that it's two different editors but one chose a story that I despised for his "best" and the other chose a story that I thought was very well done for his "best". I know which of the two editors I'm more likely to trust.

"A Billion Eves"
by Robert Reed

2007 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

There are two things that break my suspension of disbelief past the point of no repair. One is poorly thought out economics. The other is poorly thought out sociology. "A Billion Eves" manages to hit both of those sticking points on a scale I rarely encounter. The general story that Reed tells isn't bad but the world building around it is so atrocious and the fact that the genuinely interesting issues raised are consistently ignored that I was driven to frustration.

There are devices called "rippers" that teleport everything within a certain radius to a random parallel earth where a particle moved a little differently at some point in the universe's history and things turned out very differently. At some point in our near future a person took two semi-trucks full of supplies, parked them next to a sorority house, and then kidnapped one hundred college aged women to use as his personal harem on an empty earth. Now what do you suppose the results of that to be:

A. He enjoyed a full life of decadant pleasures with his one hundred new sex slaves.
B. Despite having a rifle he was immediately torn apart by a mob of college aged women who outnumbered him one hundred to one and didn't care for being kidnapped to be used as sex slaves.
C. Rather than risk the gun they waited eight hours and smothered him in his sleep.
D. The college aged women decide immediately to repopulate the new Earth they find themselves on and use him as their sex slave in order to accomplish this.
E. They immediately decide to repopulate the new Earth and set up a patriarchy where women have no rights.

Now personally I would have gone with B or C since I can't see that continuation of the species being a big factor against the "kidnapped and permantly taken from everyone and everything they knew in order to be used as a sex slave" thing. Reed however assures the reader that the answer is E which is how we know that it's a science fiction story; most people in real life when suddenly abducted and deposited on a new planet wouldn't put the long term continuation of the species on that planet first.

And yet that's what the entire societal structure in "A Billion Eves" hangs upon. The idea is that people will put homo sapiens as a species ahead of society or even their own personal good. On top of that it's a religious patriarchy that's been stable for more than twenty-thousand years. With a premise so fundamentally against humanity it breaks my willingness to read the story.

Continuing on from that Reed toys with things like the problem of carrying species into new environments, though he doesn't consider the fact that an equilibrium will be reached and that a new species introduced will not automatically take over from whatever is already in that ecological niche; an introduced species is just as likely to be immediately cut down by more agressive species already there as it is to cause problems. He also touches on the concept of what manafest destiny means in a truly infinite wilderness but backs off for an ecological message based on turning around the idea that a universe that divides ten to thirty-fifth power times each picosecond is too precious to be contaminated. It's a universe that could not be harmed before it all collapses into entropy but it's apparently precious.

The annoying part is that the story that Reed wants to tell with about half of the novella isn't as bad as the world he spends the other half establishing. It's about a girl trying to break out of the mold that the nonsensical society has created. It's a bit worn as a premise though Reed handles it reasonably well. If he hadn't tied it to such terrible world building then it might have been worth reading.

"The Djinn's Wife"
by Ian McDonald
2007 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

In near future India a dancer falls in love with an AI diplomat. They have a storybook romance until the differences between humanity and computer program raise their ugly head. This is cast in the mold of a woman marrying a spirit of air and fire with strange powers.

McDonald chose a very odd prose style for "The Djinn's Wife" but in this instance where the idea of the story is ancient superstition being blended with a cyberpunk future I think it works. It's a story with many exotic viewpoints and a surplus of data. So when McDonald chooses to blend sentences together or shift tenses or go from a formal distant style to a rapid choppy one I think it conveys the concepts he's working with well.

McDonald also captures the flame of passion and the disolutionment that comes from discovering how seperate the lovers truly are extremely well. While we can never quite get inside the AI's mind the dancer and those around her reacting to the marriage are fascinating and believable characters. Consequently I have to recommend "The Djinn's Wife" as well worth reading.

"Impossible Dreams"
by Tim Pratt
2007 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

The book story or library with books that cannot exist is a common concept in fantasy but "Impossible Dreams" is the first time where I have seen it transposed to a video store. It features a videophile who stumbles one night into a store where shelves contain Hollywood productions that have been lost or never quite came together. It's from a world where things were just different enough that slightly different movies were made. The videophile is frustrated in his attempts to view this new world of cinema and in the short time each day that he can reach the store he begins a relationship with the woman working there.

The result of this is a cute story that I wouldn't call brilliant but it is fun if you know anything about the history of Hollywood. Any film buff will pick up on many references to the productions that might have been. Still the story is more about cinematic name dropping than developing an enduring plot. I enjoyed it and I'd recommend it with those caveats.