Thursday, February 19, 2009

Review - Only Begotten Daughter

Only Begotten Daughter
by James Morrow
Tied for 1991 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

I thought after the run of pretty good novels followed by two exceptionally weak ones that the World Fantasy Awards might have been entering the 90's slump that the Hugos and Nebulas had where it seemed like every winner was worse than the last one (well, except for The Terminal Experiment; you can't get worse than that). Well things have perked up again starting right here with Only Begotten Daughter.

Through a set of circumstances too unimportant to recount here a sperm donor finds that one of his samples has spontaneously started growing a fetus. He names the child Julie and she is the daughter of God. Julie's mother won't talk to her and her father is terrified that she will repeat the life of her half-brother and forbids that she perform miracles. An old friend of the family is lurking around, though, and wants Julie to do what comes naturally to her.

Religious parody is a tricky thing to do well; far too much of it comes across as a fifteen year old who has just figured out that he can shock his parents by saying that God doesn't exist. It's not enough to just trot out the same complaints of hypocrisy and illogic in Christianity (which is the target of 99% of the religious parodies that I've encountered). The author needs a sharp wit and a distance from the material to avoid turning into an angry, boring rant. Morrow for the most part succeeds in this by using a strawman religious cult as his foil and the only onscreen representative of religions which can occupy the niche of all the bad things in organized religion while only having the slightest resemblence to any major modern religions.

That isn't to say he does it perfectly. There are chunks of the novel where I felt he did descend into childish mocking. It's the kind of thing that someone who already doesn't believe can only nod their head to and it doesn't connect with those who do believe. Simply saying, in effect, "Ha ha they believe that!" doesn't really add anything.

It also helps that Morrow emphasizes the human over the divine. It is a major point in the novel that divinity is unfathomable and the characters (both natural and supernatural) struggle with that. Dealing with the tension between omnipotence and humanity is a driving force in the novel as Julie wants to help but fears losing her humanity to the obligations of power. I can't say that I agree with how the characters interpret the situation but at the same time I understand why they choose the paths they take.

The plot is a high speed dance that rapidly moves from structure to structure never dwelling in any one place for long. It dashes from set peice to set peice skipping forward in time at a breakneck speed. Morrow does an excellent job of capturing Julie's life in these vignettes and by avoiding padding the book it doesn't ever drag.

In the end I have to conclude that Only Begotten Daughter is effective. I have read better religious parodies, ones that are lighter in tone usually, but rarely one that is as effectively philisophical. Morrow has written many of these books and his similarly themed Towing Jehova won the World Fantasy Award a few years later. Just on the strength of this novel I am looking forward to reading it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Review - Madouc

Lyonesse: Madouc
by Jack Vance
1990 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

It's so much easier to talk about a terrible book than a good book; with a good book I don't want to spoil the experience for anyone and with the terrible I desperately want to warn people away. So take this review as a warning.

The eponymous protagonist is a half-fairy changeling who was substituted for the grandson of an evil king. Why is he an evil king? Well he's the one who doesn't treat medieval politics like it was negotiations between Cold War superpowers. The evil king has a problem because his grandson, who would also be second in line to the throne, has been prophesied to rule all of the collection of kingdoms that he wants to conquer. So naturally the evil king has no choice but to hunt down his grandson and kill him.

Can you spot the flaw in the logic there? I'll give you a few moments.

The person he's hunting to stop from "beating" him is one who could easily fulfill the prophecy because the evil king won. Admittedly this would not be something that the person who is first in line for the throne would want but it's the evil king who is trying to stop the prophecy. This isn't something like Orpheus where the grandson is destined to kill him, just rule everything at some unspecified point in the future. If I were the evil king I'd take it as a sign of my eventual victory and let my offspring sort out the prophecy if they wanted.

And that's the level of plotting in the book. People are idiots who do thing because the plot requires it of them, not because their choices make sense in context.

Getting back to the plot Madouc is looking for her parentage but can't do anything on her own so gets the solutions to all of her problems handed to her with magic from her fairy mother. There's also a subplot regarding an evil witch's ghost that never connects to any of the other events in the book and made me wonder why it was even there.

Madouc being a princess in a poorly plotted fantasy novel is a brash, adventurous girl who defies authority and is free thinking. She is despised beyond reason by everyone who behaves like they're in a medieval setting and is naturally beloved by everyone who behaves like they live in the late twentieth century only with horses and castles. She's a stock character who suffers for her lack of initiative; rather than have the character overcome difficulties on her own Vance has her beg, whine, and cry to have solutions handed to her.

As noted all of the characters are paper thin. The evil king is evil and crafty; the reader knows this because the author has characters comment on it rather than actually demonstrating it. In terms of ruthlessness and scheming that reader observes he's an incompetent buffoon (just because a country is neutral doesn't mean that they're pacifists; if you march an army through their territory and insult them on the way then you're leaving an angry, hostile army behind you). The good characters are all perfect and nice and talk about peace and love while the bad characters don't have a drop of humanity in them.

And then there's what I can only generously describe as "prose". It gets so purple in the novel that it shifts to ultraviolet. The dialog is amazingly clunky as it switches wildly between common dialog and peppering it liberally with archaic terms. It's all heavily overwritten and made me groan at how painful it was.

Not only is Madouc a fantasy novel that features everything I hate in fantasy novels, it is a bad novel on every level. There is not a redeeming feature in it. I can only take its selection for the World Fantasy Award as a tribute to Jack Vance's career rather than a statement on the quality of the work.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Review - "San Diego Lightfoot Sue", "A Crowd of Shadows", and "The Screwfly Solution"

With this I've reached a minor complication with going through all of the Nebula winners and really every year from around 1975 to 1982 seems to have some monkey wrench to throw at me. This time and next time it's overlap with the Hugo winning works. In 1975, '76, and '77 two out of the three winners of the Nebulas for short fiction also won the Hugo. So this week it's three years for the price of one.

"San Diego Lightfoot Sue"
by Tom Reamy
1975 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

In the early sixties a naive teenager arrives in Los Angelas where he immediately falls in with homosexuals and prostitutes. His innocence drops away as he becomes aware of who they are and falls in love with a middle-aged prostitute.

Reamy paints an interesting picture of an innocent discovering that there are people who do not conform with what society thinks of sexuality. Ironically for something so sexually progressive for 1975 it does feel fairly restrained by 2009 standards and I think that harms the story. Since the intent was clearly to bring those outsiders forward the fact that it is no longer shocking removes the emotional impact. On top of that Reamy dances around the sexual themes in a way that an author in 2009 would be more direct with. It's still a decent story and I enjoyed reading it but the context has changed dramatically.

"A Crowd of Shadows"
by Charles L. Grant
1976 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

In a small town an android teenager with two human parents shows up and have to deal with some human prejudices. Then the people who said cruel things start being murdered in gruesome ways. The suspect is the android but they cannot act on their own to kill someone. That doesn't stop the tensions and resentment from building in the town.

The story itself is an anti-prejudice screed along the lines of a thousand other SF short stories but Grant does a descent job with keeping things tight. As a result it doesn't overstay its welcome. You won't find anything new in "A Crowd of Shadows" (even for 1976) and I can't call it brilliant. Still it has an interesting narrative voice that helps it be a bit more than the sum of its parts.

"The Screwfly Solution"
by Raccoona Sheldon (a.k.a. James Tiptree, Jr.)
1977 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

Speaking of interesting narrative voices, I suspect that's all Tiptree could do. This time something is making all of the men in the world become homocidally violent toward women and justifying it to themselves. The story is told in fragments between a husband and wife that flicker between letters, passed along articles, scientific reports, diary entries, and even a couple of sections of straight prose.

The concept itself is solid enough and Tiptree (I'm going to keep using that name since it's the author's most common penname) builds an image of a world gone mad where only half the population can recognize the problem. The real hook in the story is the ending where there is a twist that will stick with the reader. The narrative structure is carried surprisingly well by the disjointed format. I thought the overall effect was suburb and strongly recommend the story.