Thursday, June 11, 2009

Review - "Vanishing Point"

Mike Sterling at Progressive Ruin made me aware this morning of the science fiction career of C. C. Beck. Beck is best known to comic fans as the co-creator of Captain Marvel and artist who devised the whimsical style that made the book distinctive.

Beck never wrote many comics; his work was as an artist. As for science fiction stories he only wrote one: "Vanishing Point". It appeared in the July 1959 issue of Astounding and has never been anthologized or reprinted. Fortunately Project Gutenberg is currently distributing copies of the story and has an MP3 audiobook of the story.

So I read the story and I can see why it didn't make a splash. 1959 was a time of shifting tastes and a push for more mature science fiction and Beck's story feels like it's solidly out of the 1930's. It would have fit in perfectly with the pulp tales of that era. On the other hand it is a decently told pulp story and I found it to be pretty good for a first effort.

"Vanish Point" is told from the perspective of an artist whose roommate was obsessed with capturing things exactly as were on the page rather than representative art. To that end this man began tracking the vanishing points of perspective and devised a machine to pull apart that perspective. Needless to say things go badly.

The plot is a common one and Beck didn't do anything particularly distinctive with it. He did trend more toward the Lovecraftian "tampering with malevolent things man was not meant to know and will drive anyone mad" which helped but the tone of the story was light-hearted. Beck didn't take advantage of that disconnection and so all the reader is left with is a familiar plot.

The best thing in the story was the writing itself. Beck was almost certainly pulling in his own experiences when he wrote "Vanishing Point" and the narrative voice of the first artist who just didn't care about the experiments his roommate was conducting was extremely well done. It captured the character very well in a small amount of space. The story is told as a monologue but it's a somewhat believable one; it feels like a story being recounted rather than just someone handing out exposition.

The artist that was experimenting with perspective was not particularly fleshed out and I feel that is mainly due to the point-of-view that Beck chose for his story. He exists almost entirely as a plot device

What I found in "Vanishing Point" was a good effort but flawed in a few ways that harm the whole thing. It does make me think that if Beck had stuck with it he could have been an impressive voice in science fiction, especially with the change in emphasis the New Wave brought in just a few years later. If he could have gotten his plotting into the swing of things then he could have been terrific. Instead we have one decent but not brilliant story from him. I'd recommend checking it out if you enjoy any kind of pulp SF; it'll only take a few minutes of your time and it's likable enough.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

2009 Hugo Nominees - Best Novella

The last of the best professional artists nominees is picture book illustrator Shaun Tan:

Once again in a category there is one nominee that is unavailable to me. Ian McDonald's "The Tear" has only been published in an Science Fiction Book Club anthology. I'm not a member so I haven't read it. It also has not been made available online like the other nominees have (though one other of them is currently unavailable). As for the rest:

“The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay - The phrase that comes to mind about this story is "average". An intelligence officer is swept up in a coup and finds himself locked away in a prison camp by his own side. There he's treated badly and left to die. Finlay takes this basic story of survival (which you can find plenty of real world parallels easily enough) and tells it well. He captures the feeling of a gulag well. The downside of doing this kind of story is that I was wondering why I was reading it as science fiction; I'd rather read a non-fiction account which would have the same themes and carry more weight. I never connected with Finlay's spy that is at the center of the story and without that it's mainly an account of life in a prison camp. It's not a bad effort; if "The Political Prisoner" was truly bad the real-world resonances wouldn't have bothered me as much.

“Truth” by Robert Reed - I didn't care for Robert Reed's story but I do have to give him credit for one thing: rather than simply giving the reader a "treating prisoners wrong is bad" message he builds a scenario where the more extreme techniques are hard to ignore. A man is found just across the US border with several pounds of uranium. In interrogation it comes out that the terrorist is a time traveler who came back with dozens of infiltrators who are waiting for the right moment. The story is about a replacement interrogator who takes up the job after the previous one committed suicide. I think from those details you can conclude where the story goes. The battle of wills between prisoner and interrogator is a powerful theme that could have overcome that but Reed just isn't able to portray it well. The prisoner is a cipher, the interrogator isn't really that interesting and the bulk of the interaction occurs away from the reader. Instead Reed fills the time in his story by telling the reader how terrible the world is. It's makes for an uninteresting story.

“The Erdmann Nexus” by Nancy Kress - Something strange is happening to elderly people around the world. In one retirement home in particular a physicist finds himself having strange attacks and flashes of other people's memories. Eventually he finds that their idle thoughts are changing the world. Kress doesn't bother playing with "What's happening?" to build up tension; she reveals that through an omniscient space intelligence early on. Instead she presents it as a situation where things will get worse and the human characters need to work it out before it is too late. I enjoyed the characters she created to populate the retirement home since none of them were precisely what one would expect.

“True Names” by Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctorow - This is the one story out of the novella category that I thought was genuinely terrific. It's the tale of three colonies of self-replicating quantum computer based nanomachines that each have their own design for the universe. One is a fragmented social intelligence that wants to replace all matter with colonies of itself and since those fragments might be considdered personalities they act as the protagonist. Then there is their direct adversary who acts as an solitary mind by only allowing one path of reasoning and how it wants to limit the consumption of the universe to just one percent of its mass. Finally there are a voratious swarm who consume all matter in its path and exist only for that purpose. The high concepts in the story are a lot of fun. The biggest problem with "True Names" for me was that it comes across as two stories jammed together. The climax to the first plot line is a strange deus ex machina that involves not only the reader not being provided fundamental information about the logic systems but for the logic systems themselves to not be aware of this fundamental aspect to their society. Since the story continues on past that point and the rest of it is completely engrossing I can forgive that but it was a stumbling block.

So my ballot for the novella category would be:

"True Names"
"The Erdmann Nexus"
"The Political Prisoner"
No award
"The Tear"

Naturally "The Tear" is only at the bottom since I haven't read it. I happen to like Ian McDonald's work and I want to read it though I suspect it will be a while before I get that chance.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Review - "Abandon in Place", "The Flowers of Aulit Prison", and "Sister Emily's Lightship"

This time around all three of the stories awarded the Nebula had something distinctive about them that made them all interesting to read.

"Abandon in Place"
by Jerry Oltion
1997 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novella

NASA is being haunted by the ghost of the dead space program. Ghostly Saturn V rockets are appearing at abandoned launch pads and firing themselves to the moon where they vanish. To end this public embarrassment NASA has an astronaut commandeer the rocket before it launches so that it can be disabled in orbit. Once there the astronaut changes his mind and decides to fly it to the moon.

Oltion has made a "scientific ghost story" for lack of a better term. A lot of this story's emphasis is on the technical challenges of flying an Apollo era craft. Along with that is a lot of explanation on the nature of ghosts. This ghost in particular provides a unique challenge to the travelers on board. It gives the story a strange tension that helps elevate it above its common roots. The ghost's nature (which is a plot point from about half way through so I can't go into too many details) also shifts focus from the mission to the characters.

The hook of the space program's ghost plays very well nearly fifteen years after the story was written. We're still dealing with the same problems and there's no change in sight. "Abandon in Place" is a pretty good story as it stands but that resonence helps make it even more interesting.

"The Flowers of Aulit Prison"
by Nancy Kress
1997 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novelette

In an alien culture where belonging to society is the most important thing to them they punish people by declairing them "dead" and ignoring them. They don't let the most violent offenders wander the streets; they stick them in Aulit Prison and let them rot. A woman who murdered her sister in a fit of jealousy has been given a rare chance at recovering her life by acting as a spy and informant for the government. She is sent into the prison to convince a human locked away to tell her about who from her people were assisting the human with experiments on children's brains.

What made this story particularly effective is how well Kress uses an alien culture. Rather than bogging the reader down with explanations about the culture she mentions things in passing and implies details. Kress doesn't drop in a lot of made up words where English would work fine. The way that the culture is used is not alien they just different.

I wasn't really impressed with the plot twist in the middle of the story. It seemed unnecessary to me and added themes that were not as well developed as the punishment and redemption one. It's not that Kress does a bad job with that new direction; it's that it feels like there's a disjointed break in the story when it shifts.

Still that's the worst thing I can say about "The Flowers of Aulit Prison". The protagonist's journey in search of redemption in a society that thinks of her as dead is terrific. It's well worth your effort to seek out this story.

"Sister Emily's Lightship"
by Jane Yolen
1997 Nebula Award Winner for Best Short Story

Emily Dickenson was having a quiet life as a recluise and poet when she starts spotting a strange light in the sky after midnight. She watches for that light and eventually meets a visitor who has been using it.

This story is a wonderful example of how to use a historical setting well. There are no infodumps where Dickenson explains details of her life to people who should already know them. Yolen smoothly integrates her into the story as a character.

The biggest problem with this story is nothing really happens. Dickenson avoids company, feels unwell, and sees the light but there isn't really much of a dramatic arc. If you changed the title to "Emily Dickenson Sees a Spaceship" you could sum up the story right there. I liked how well Yolen presented Dickenson as a character but at the same time wished that she had found something more interesting for Dickenson to do. In the end the story is a bit of fun fluff for those who like Dickenson and anyone else is going to have the story just bounce off of them.