Thursday, March 12, 2009

Review - The Prestige

The Prestige
by Christopher Priest
1995 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

A few weeks before I read The Prestige someone managed to spoil the book for me. Since it is a book about magicians and secrets I fully expected that to harm my enjoyment of the novel. As it turns out it didn't; I could still recognize The Prestige as a well crafted novel telling an interesting story.

At the end of the nineteenth century a feud is born between two magicians. Neither fully understands how it starts and each take their turn escalating it. Eventually one of them develops an illusion that cannot be adequately explained by the normal techniques used and the other becomes obsessed with the secret. His obsession drives him to outperform that illusion and create something even grander though it carries with it grave consequences. Those consequences stretch far beyond their own lifetimes to change the lives of their descendants.

The story is told in four widely divergent styles across five sections that Priest manages to make distinctive. The modern accounts aren't spectacular but they're offset by the note perfect sections set in the nineteenth century. Those portions of the novel are presented as a secret autobiography that was never intended to be published and excerpts from a journal. They each possess strange quirks that come out in the writing that make the mysteries of the novel even more interesting.

Part of that is how the narrative voice becomes key to the characterization of the magicians. The magicians are secretive and tend to talk around subjects and so the reader has to look deeper into their stories to find the truth. They're bundles of self-delusions and obsession. Priest does such a great job getting into their heads for the narrative that it makes their stories that much more fascinating. That might be why the magician's sections of The Prestige are so much better than the portions about their modern day descendants; their great-grandchildren just don't carry the same passions.

Since the story is told in broken fragments it turns back on itself multiple times. The second portion of the novel set in the nineteenth century in particular repeats many of the events shown earlier but with a new perspective. This tactic successfully adds to the mysteries surrounding the novel and I never got annoyed with Priest repeating himself.

My complaints about the novel are nitpicks. As I mentioned the modern day sections lack the intrigue of the memoirs and didn't grab me. The characters there just aren't as interesting and the mysteries surrounding their lives aren't active forces in their lives. The magicians scheme, plot, and stalk each other over the course of decades; their descendants stumble around and talk about their ancestors. Also Nikolai Tesla plays a major part in the novel and at this point I'm weary of alternative histories featuring brilliant inventions by Tesla; yes, he's the archetypal mad scientist but he's overused.

Those are nitpicks and I do have one more major complaint that doesn't speak against the novel. I'm a collector and I try to acquire hard cover editions of all of these books. A hard cover edition of The Prestige starts at over two hundred dollars. Someone needs to reissue this book in a new hard cover printing.

The Prestige is a superior novel due mainly to the extremely strong narrative voice that Priest gives to the magician characters. It's a good story of a a petty feud that is wonderfully told. This is a book that is well worth getting.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

At least it wasn't a dodo...

Once again SF boldly predicts the future. (That's kind of a spoiler for "The Ugly Chickens"...)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Review - Towing Jehovah

Towing Jehovah
by James Morrow
1995 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

After reading Morrow's Only Begotten Daughter I was looking forward to Towing Jehovah. Only Begotten Daughter was intriguingly philosophical and despite some problems with it I enjoyed it quite a bit. A novel of similar style built on a more unique premise sounded right up my ally.

Anthony Van Horne was a great ship's captain until he left the bridge one evening due to illness and and a massive oil spill happened in his absence. He can't escape the guilt but an opportunity presents itself when an angel appears to him. The angel informs him that God has died and his two mile long corpse is floating in the Atlantic ocean. The angels have prepared a tomb for corpse and conscripted the Vatican in arranging for a ship to tow his body. The angels are insistent on Van Horne captaining the ship.

There are other forces at work to defeat the mission: militant atheists who cannot bear the thought of any evidence of God even if it is dead, predators slowly consuming the body, and the fact that mankind reacts poorly the realization that there is no higher power sitting in judgment of them. Over all of this hangs the question of just how God died.

The best thing in the novel is the concept. The corpse of God looks just like the traditional images such as the one on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Placing such common cultural images in contrast to the modern world is a great hook and it fires the imagination. The question of how the western world would react to finding out that their faiths were more or less correct and that their divine patron is gone is interesting (don't ask me how Hindus and Buddhists react; they apparently don't exist in Morrow's novel).

The plot is fairly strong as well. Morrow starts with a ticking clock to get God into freezing waters before his neurons decay too badly. Throwing in multiple factions who want to insure that God's corpse is never discovered for completely different reasons adds some intriguing complications.

Morrow shows similar skill in handling the big concepts in Towing Jehovah as he did in Only Begotten Daughter, though it falls flat at some points. A Jesuit priest holding out ethical philosophy as a stand-in for God is interesting; the same priest insisting that those same arguments would hold off blue-collar works turned pagan is less effective. I understand the effect that Morrow was going for with that sequence but that doesn't justify how clumsy it is.

So I was inclined to like Towing Jehovah because the ideas were interesting. Unfortunately the book is completely undermined by Morrows weak prose. The novel is an allegorical one and given the themes that is understandable. It's not a particularly deep allegory, though that isn't the problem. What happens is that after something allegorical happens someone makes a comment or there's something in the narration that points the allegory out to the reader. It's like you're reading the novel with the author nudging you in the ribs every few pages and saying, "Hey, did you get that? Huh, get it? Wasn't that clever?" Allegory is like humor: if you point it out and explain it you ruin it.

The net result of dealing with this for hundreds of pages is that I wound up hating the narrative voice of the Towing Jehovah. That's the fundamental building block of a novel and a problem there breaks the reader from the story.

For that reason I can't recommend Towing Jehovah. I can understand how some people can overlook that problem but it was like constantly rubbing my brain with sandpaper as I read it. I liked in Only Begotten Daughter that Morrow managed to avoid drifting too far into preaching; in Towing Jehovah I feel that he became obsessed with being sure that the readers got his message to the detriment on the book.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Review - "The Quickening" and "The Bone Flute"

Controversy rocked the Science Fiction Writers Association in 1981. It was one of those little things that seemed like a big problem at the time and with thirty years of hindsight seems rather small. Some of the editors and authors who were nominated for short fiction awards at that time were sending copies of nominated works out to the entire SFWA membership. Some authors in the SFWA objected to this practice since most SF writers couldn't afford such advertising schemes. Opposition centered on Lisa Tuttle and when her short story "The Bone Flute" won she refused to accept the award.

Tuttle refused to allow it to be printed in the Nebula Award Stories anthology that year according to Joe Haldeman who had editing duties for it and wrote the introduction. I can't say what happened after that; whether Tuttle has held the story closely due to the controversy or if it has been essentially blackballed. Whatever the reason "The Bone Flute" has only been collected in two anthologies one of which is a single author anthology that was only printed in the UK. The other is Tales in Space, one of those large trade paperback anthologies White Wolf issued when they had that brief period of trying to publish things other than gaming tie-ins.

I can't say that it was a bad thing for Tuttle to refuse the award. She was protesting the heavy campaigning that was taking place and her own campaign against it tainted the voting for her short story. Still, she won the voting which is why I'm including Tuttle's work while aknowledging her protest.

"The Quickening"
by Michael Bishop
1981 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novelette

Imaging waking up and finding yourself in a strange bed. In your sleep you've been transported to another continent. The same this has occurred for everyone else in the city creating a modern day Babel.

That's the premise of "The Quickening" and Bishop never gives a reason for why a city (and presumably the entire world but no one knows for sure) has been displaced like that. It's a bit heavy handed and an obvious set up for a morality tale but I can live with it if the author really explores the complications of billions of people removed from home and dealing with the complete removal of society and infrastructure. Unfortunately Bishop does not do that.

The story limps along weakly, dancing around the problems that would be created for the sake of an emphasis on connecting with people. Eventually it reaches a conclusion that I found both logically and philisophically terrible. I'd add dramatically to that but the story has all the tension of grass growing so fizzling out isn't really a feature of just the ending. Bishop only paints the aspects of the characters relating to connecting with strangers which leaves me to draw inferrances that are less than flattering. This is a story that you are better off avoiding.

"The Bone Flute"
by Lisa Tuttle
Refused the 1981 Nebula Award for Best Short Story

With a story mired in so much politicking I don't expect much. That made "The Bone Flute" into a pleasant surprise. It's a pretty good story that turns nicely on itself a few times.

There's a world that was colonized and cut off for hundreds of years. It recently rejoined galactic society and has become open to trade. There is also a trader who wants to take advantage of the new market while the novelty is still there and she falls in love with a muscician who wants to accompany her to this world where they might have new musical forms. They do find new music there, soul stirring music that must be played on a flute made from the bones of a loved one.

Every time I thought I knew where Tuttle was going with the story she quickly shifted it another fresh direction. Right up to the very end she changed things around on me. For that reason alone I have to considder it a successful story. It also helped that Tuttle managed to draw me into the relationships between the characters which form the heart of the story. I can't call them richly drawn (it's a short story, after all) but she manages to convey everything the reader needs.

Oddly enough I have to speak about the conclusion of the story again since some readers may get to that last paragraph and get so turned around by it that "The Bone Flute" leaves a bad taste. I didn't mind it myself; I've never been one to rigidly hold to genre lines when I'm reading (just when I'm organizing).

"The Bone Flute" was worth the extra effort to seek out. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it is a shame that the controversy surrounding it has made the story so difficult to find.