Saturday, August 8, 2009

Review - "Fountain of Age" and "Always"

Here we are at the end of the Nebulas. Just in time for this year's Hugo award ceremony.

"Fountain of Age"
by Nancy Kress
2007 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

When I read this story as one of last year's Hugo nominees I didn't care for it. So here it is more than a year later and upon rereading it I still didn't like it. Some things do not improve with age.

A retired mobster in the future has kept a lock of hair and paper kiss in a ring as a reminder of a woman he met in his youth. When the ring is destroy he sets out to get replacements. The problem is that the woman is now one of the most important people in the world. A substance harvested from her body stops the aging process and she lives in isolation away from the world. On top of that the government still watches his every move which will complicate any plans. Still he seeks out some old friends and enlists their help.

I think my biggest problem with "Fountain of Age" is the mixed signals that Kress kept sending me. The main character ran a criminal empire that apparently never actually did a whole lot except be vaguely illegal. So she's trying to keep him sympathetic. And then a primary facet of his characterization is how his affection for a prostitute he met when he was twenty made him despise his wife and child. So he's a thoroughly rotten human being. Who we're supposed to care about his wistful dreams of lost love. It's not even a rich characterization; I'm pretty sure that he's supposed to be a charming, sympathetic protagonist on a quixotic quest but he's not charming or sympathetic.

For "Fountain of Age" to work as a story I have to care about the main character and his efforts to get a lost kiss and I didn't.

by Karen Joy Fowler
2007 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

On the other side of the coin I enjoyed "Always" and a year's time has not diminished that in the slightest. While it uses a common theme and is completely predictable Fowler does a great job in developing the situation.

A cult leader has an incredible offer that he extends to only a select few people: if you pay him five thousand dollars and live in his commune then he will let you live forever. A pair of young lovers scrape together the money and move into the commune where they deal with the complications of being in a cult of people who believe themselves to be immortal.

From those plot elements you should be able to work out pretty much ever beat that Fowler uses and yet "Always" works out better than that. Mostly I think it is because of the narrator who views things through the eyes of a true believer. So while she's telling a straightforward life story the reader is picking up on the unpleasant truths.

In "Always" Fowler puts belief and faith on display at the center of the story. And not the mushy, feel-good broad concept that you usually see but the outright denial of reality because it disagrees with what the believer "knows" to be true. And in exploring that she took a run of the mill concept and made a very interesting tale out of it.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Where SF Writers Work...

Kyle Cassidy has created a fascinating photo series that he's titled Where I Write. It features the workspaces of authors and most of the authors used are SF writers. So you can see which ones live in messy houses piled with books and which ones keep everything neat as a button. Some of the interesting things I noticed:
  • Michael Swanwick not only had to make extra shelves to hold all of his awards, he has a pedestal for one of his Nebulas.
  • Samuel Delany works in a closet that he insulates with paperbacks.
  • Joe Haldeman writes things out long hand by candlelight.
It's an interesting set of photos and while I think Cassidy uses a perspective distorting lens far too much it's great to catch a glimpse into these writers lives.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Review - "Magic for Beginners" and "I Live With You"

I'm stepping back here to cover the 2005 Nebula winners. Kelly Link managed to get the incredibly rare double Nebula win that year for both the novella and novelette category with "The Fairy Handbag". Only Roger Zelazny with the first Nebulas and Connie Willis in the 1992 awards have managed to do that.

"Magic for Beginners"
by Kelly Link
2005 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

I have come to the conclusion that Kelly Link is an author that I will never like. When I first encountered her writing what struck me was how she overstuffed her story with random details intended to provide color that they stood out as random, meaningless nonsense. I got the impression of a story background done madlib style where she filled in a few nouns verbs and adjectives. "Magic for Beginners" isn't bad but I found Link's style distracting.

In a metatextually recursive television show a teenager is having trouble sorting out his feelings for the girls in his circle of friends. They're bound together by their love a strange, magical television show. His parent's marriage is in trouble and so when his mother inherits property she is determined to take her son away for several months to examine the inheritance.

Kelly does a good job with her cast of characters. Yes, they're also too conveniently quirky and unique but my feeling is that was an aspect of the characters within a television series conceit. Everyone is memorably strange except the lead and his initial love interest and they play their roles for the camera. Kelly portrays the fumbling missteps (not just sexual) in those teen relationships well and I liked her use of how a common bit of pop culture can tie people together.

My problems with the story is that Kelly spends the majority of it with what amounts to nonsense. Roughly half the story is about the television show that the kids watch which is occasionally metaphorical and too often just random noise. It's a forced attempt at whimsy and while a bit of it is useful for color packing a story thick with meaningless fluff gets on my nerves.

The phrase that comes to mind when I read Link's stories is "bargain basement Neil Gaiman". Gaiman uses many of the same techniques as Link but he typically uses them much more successfully. With Link I just find myself wishing she'd stop telling me about cursed gnomes living in hair and get back to the story.

"I Live With You"
by Carol Emshwiller
2005 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

The narrator of "I Live With You" spotted a lonely aging woman in a book story and decided they looked somewhat alike. They followed the woman home and because no one ever notices the narrator was able to just follow her into the house and set up residence. The narrator (whose nature is never made clear; it's probably not human but it could be) lives in the woman's house and does small things to disrupt her life and gradually make her more uncomfortable within her own home. Eventually the narrator decides that the boring, day-to-day life of this woman has to change.

This story is fantastically creepy. Part of it is the ambiguous narrator shifts gears from pranking annoyance to menacing lurker from moment to moment. The taunting is runs from irritating to cruel and sometimes both. The home invasion aspect of it doesn't hurt either and it takes a particularly nasty turn toward the end of the story.

The harassment are something that every reader will be able to empathize with and at the same time recognize in their own lives. Did you misplace your keys or is something like that living with you and trying to screw up your life for its amusement? I enjoyed "I Live With You" quite a bit since it took that central concept of a complete violation of someone's life and presented it from the perspective of the monster doing it.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Review - "Burn" and "Echo"

I've got a set of admissions to make here. First, I read the wrong set of stories this week and didn't have enough time to read the correct ones. So I'm jumping straight up to the 2006 winners and I'll cover the 2005 winners sometime during the week.

And the reason why I'll being doing those during the week rather than next Sunday is that in two weeks I'll be on vacation. So rather than skipping a week with one last year of Nebula winning short stories to cover I'm going to wrap it up this week.

I'm rushing those because the announcement of the Hugo winners is next week so it'll take me some time to get to this year's winners. If I'm lucky (and I don't expect to be) then I may have just enough time to squeeze in a review of something I've already read before leaving on my trip.

So enough talking about my scheduling conflicts and errors. Let's get to this.

by James Patrick Kelly

2006 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

It's sometimes funny the things that jump out at you. "Burn" is the longest winner of the novella category for either Hugo or Nebulas. It's longer than some works that have won the novel category. The funny thing is that I think it could have been even longer; if anything the story feels a bit compressed.

In a post-human universe a group has bought one planet and dedicated it to a life of "simplicity". Their goal is to preserve unaltered humanity and they live an isolated existence cut off from the rest of the universe. The problem for them is that there were colonists on the planet they purchased; colonists that refused to leave and didn't like how the newcomers were creating a world wide forest for their agrarian life style. So the old colonists fight the new ones by setting forest fires and the new colonists have conscripted men into stopping the forest fires as part of an undeclared war.

"Burn" starts with one of these firefighters recuperating from injuries at a high tech hospital where he has his first contact with the wider universe. A bit of fiddling with the telephone/internet system accidentally puts him in contact with a group of children being groomed for political power. Intrigued by the discussion the children and their guardian come to the culturally quarantined planet to find out how they can help.

There seems to be a streak of Luddism that runs through science fiction authors. There's a reoccurring theme that turns up particularly in dystopian novels that once man abandons his wicked future technologies and returns to a nineteenth century level of development that everyone will be better off. The irony of a Luddite wanting to go back to the nineteenth century is lost in this situations. "Burn" isn't like that. The cultural basis for its world is a sense of moral superiority. Kelly gets this just right; the effect on individuals is subtle while the cumulative effect is major. And at the same time they have a point; their lifestyle is idyllic and gently pastoral. It's just at the cost of losing the wonders of the universe at large and locking themselves away from them.

"Burn" has a lively and interesting cast of characters. I was anticipating a round of "quirky small town life" and Kelly doesn't do that all. His backworld characters do not lead as simplistic of lives as their philosophy implies. The high tech ones have a mixture of worldliness and childishness that comes out as they take wonder in visiting a unique planet and manipulating the situation for what they perceive as the benefit of all.

The only problem I had with "Burn" is that I don't think it explores its themes as deeply as it could have. Kelly works his story with subtlety that I appreciated but at the same time by keeping so much of it low key it feels like he is dancing around topics. There's so much going on in "Burn" that it could have been twice it's length to give room for all of the interesting facets of the story.

I found "Burn" to be enjoyable but not terrific. Kelly subverted all of my expectations in his story which is something rare enough that it deserves mention. Still I think the result is "just" good. When my biggest complaint about a story is that I think it could have been better then it's definitely worth checking out.

by Elizabeth Hand

2006 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

In the not too distant future civilization is collapsing under the weight of terrorism and environmental disaster. On an island off the coast of main a person lives on their own and pines for a former lover who vanished in the chaos.

I understand what Hand was doing in "Echo" and I just didn't care for it. I never got a reason to care about the lonely hermit pining for their love lost somewhere in world wide chaos. The narrator is completely passive to the point that the entire story is just a monologue about them waiting out their life. That's a tough starting point for making me care about the characters and their relationship and Hand didn't help the situation by making their relationship an abstract thing. The reader gets impressions of their life but nothing concrete. The vague cloud of longing that forms the narrative of "Echo" just isn't enough to make me interested.

It's almost as if "Echo" is an attempt to fit love poetry into a story though Hand's prose isn't strong in that regard either. So I was left not caring about "Echo". It isn't even bad enough to make me dislike it; I just didn't care.