The Sacred Band by David Anthony Durham

May 30, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Posted in Book Reviews, Elsewhere, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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I’m a little late in mentioning it, but my review of the third book of David Anthony Durham’s Acacia trilogy, The Sacred Band, was posted on Monday at Strange Horizons.

Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge

May 27, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 2 Comments
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It’s no surprise that Vernor Vinge decided to revisit the Zones of Thought setting of A Fire Upon the Deep for his next novel, A Deepness in the Sky, published seven years later in 1999. What was surprising was that A Deepness in the Sky was a Pham Nuwen-oriented prequel set entirely in the Slow Zone. I remember feeling slightly disappointed and even a little perplexed by this. I really liked the Zones of Thought setting, but a story set in the Slow Zone is in basically the same setting as every non-FTL SF space opera. Admittedly that’s not a crowded genre, exactly, and certainly my disappointment quickly faded when I read and enjoyed the actual book, but it still seemed like an odd choice.

Fast forward to the end of last year, when after leaving the setting on the shelf for a decade, Vinge published Children of the Sky, a true sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep…that is nevertheless set entirely in the Slow Zone.

Now that I am older and theoretically wiser than I was in 1999, I recognize that the same Singularity theory that made the Beyond and the Transcend so interesting in A Fire Upon the Deep also ties Vinge’s hands. It is sometimes forgotten that he made the allusion to black holes not because, or not merely because, he thought technological process would become faster and faster, the way something falls faster and faster into a black hole. The real analogy was with the black hole’s event horizon, for Vinge thought that it is impossible to predict what will happen once superintelligence was achieved. To then go and tell stories about it would be fatally inconsistent with his thinking.

With the benefit of having recently reread A Fire Upon the Deep, I could see an additional plus to a sequel that focused solely on the Tines’ World: the Tines strand of Fire‘s two-sided story was considerably stronger and had more interesting things to say even if it lacked some of the glitz and special effects of the space opera portion.

Children of the Sky is a sequel, then, but although Ravna is now the main character it is really a sequel to the setting and concerns of the Tines’ World portion of A Fire Upon the Deep. Though Ravna casts plenty of nervous glances skyward and there is a lot of foreshadowing in the direction of a rematch with the Blight, this is left for a further sequel and this novel remains firmly on the ground. Given that I really enjoyed the Tines in A Fire Upon the Deep, I still had every reason to expect to enjoy the novel.

But I did not. One of the things I liked about A Fire Upon the Deep that allowed me to overlook its flaws was the flood of new and interesting ideas. Children keeps the Tines concept more or less unchanged. Oh, it fills in some detail about the massive group minds in the tropics that were alluded to but not explained in its predecessor, but although there are hints that the tropical Tines aren’t the mindless savages the temperate Tines believe their hive lifestyle requires, nothing ever comes of it. Perhaps this too is being saved for a later sequel.

What does change are the characters, but alas, with results that ill-serve most of the sympathetic (and some of the unsympathetic) Tine characters. Woodcarver becomes foolish thanks to a breeding miscalculation, Pilgrim is assimilated into society enough that he’s now just a generic nice guy, and the most intriguing character of all, the mad scientist/naive schoolteacher hybrid Flenser Tyrathect, is left languishing on the story’s sidelines. Stepping into the spotlight is a boring villain and a cipher called Tycoon. Tycoon appears to have been intended as a vehicle for extending the first novel’s concept of the fluidity of Tine identity, but because he spends the entire novel being easily manipulated by the real villain (who is even more dull), it’s hard to see him as anything more than a naif.

One reason the Tine characters aren’t very compelling this time around is the narrative focuses almost entirely on the human characters. Here Vinge has the germ of an interesting idea: everyone but Ravna was a child during the High Lab disaster that unleashed the Blight at the beginning of the first book, and they have only her explanation about what happened, an explanation that positions their parents as the idiots whose recklessness caused a galactic cataclysm. Dissatisfied with the implications Ravna’s historical narrative has for their own identity as well as the slow, measured pace she has adopted for technological uplift on Tines’ World, conspirators create conditions for a coup d’etat to drive Ravna from her position of power over human society. Behind all this is the question that A Fire Upon the Deep also asked: how do you decide who to trust in a world where information is perfectly malleable and even dangerous?

That’s an interesting question, but the way Children answers it varies from dull to dreadful. Right from the beginning, the narrative leaves no room for doubt that Ravna is right about everything. Her intentions are completely good, her policies are optimal, and if she’s ever done anything wrong in her life, it’s that as a truth-loving scientist she’s not cynical enough to play politics. Her political opponent, who I will not name because his identity is carefully concealed for the first portion of the book (though it will be blazingly obvious to most readers), presents a wise and caring face to the world but in fact turns out to be both foolish and monstrously evil. Why he behaves like this is never explained. At the beginning of the story, every human character from Ravna to his fiancee to his friends and acquaintances are convinced that he’s literally the most reasonable and responsible human on the planet. But it turns out they were wrong. Not just a little wrong, but completely wrong. Somehow no one else saw his true nature even though everyone has known him since he was a small child. Apparently he was not only just born evil, he was born with the capacity to completely conceal it from everyone around him. Late in the story, a sympathetic character wins an argument with Ravna and the other good guys with the following completely serious observation: “So far no one has overestimated [character name]’s capacity for evil.” No responses are even presented, the narrative just moves on, accepting her conclusion as self-evident. His capacity for evil, as far as this story is concerned, is more or less unbounded and cannot be overestimated.

Now in a wild space opera like A Fire Upon the Deep, this sort of cartoon psychology might be a little annoying, but cardboard villains are par for the course in adventure stories. But unlike its predecessor Children of the Sky is not a space opera, it’s an intrigue story that’s full of plotting, characters speculating about other characters’ motivations and whose side they’re on, and so forth. The lack of any sense of psychological realism makes much of this incomprehensible. It also deprives the novel of even the slightest shade of gray. Ravna is Right, her enemies are Evil, and the humans and Tines who don’t realize this are Wrong and will be Very Sorry when they are shown the error in their ways. The only room for discussion is how best wake them up to these facts. Some of this might be defended as an attempt by Vinge to ground the third person narrative within Ravna’s subjective frame of reference. The young pack member within Woodcarver who causes her to doubt Ravna’s intentions, for example, is referred to by the narrative as The Puppy from Hell without any qualifiers linking the label to Ravna’s internal thoughts, so even though the story uses other viewpoints to relate plenty of scenes Ravna isn’t present for and never learns of, perhaps we’re to understand the entire story as being somehow told from her point of view? But then you see that the puppy’s name, surely a detail we can assume is an objective fact and not a subjective element of the narrative, turns out to be, I kid you not, “Sht”, and you realize that, no, the author is just doing everything he can to stack the deck.

As is usually the case with such narratives, this deck-stacking has the effect of draining events of anything that might complicate the story’s simplistic world and thus make it genuinely interesting. Earlier I said Ravna is unseated by a coup d’etat because that’s how the narrative presents it, but what really happens is there is a transition to democracy. Is this a bad thing? Of course, Vinge tells us, because this allows a demagogue to take power. Any doubts can be put to bed because this demagogue turns out to be history’s greatest monster, and the fact he fooled the electorate means they need a return to Ravna’s benevolent despotism. Never mind that Ravna herself was among those fooled. Her response to all this is to go and, in a scene which I reread searching in vain for signs it was some sort of parody, read ebooks about how to manipulate electorates so she can outwit him. This is a society of about a hundred literate and educated adults, incidentally, without any of the bureaucracy that diffuses responsibility in modern governments.

I can imagine some arguments justifying the book’s politics. Maybe losing their parents has left the Children too emotionally unstable to be trusted with democracy. Maybe the dislocation of being stranded on a low technology world after living in the Beyond has them unmoored. Maybe they aren’t sufficiently educated to understand the technological path toward high technology. The novel doesn’t really make any of these arguments, and it is wise not to do so, because Ravna doesn’t come off looking too great as an alternative. As an adult she might have been better able to withstand having her parents killed by the Blight, but she was probably more impacted by the loss of her entire civilization. Like the Children she was a product of a high technology civilization and had to learn everything they’re using on Tines’ World from the same tutorials they used, and when it comes to technological adaptation being older is if anything a disadvantage (a theme Vinge thoroughly explored in Rainbows End).

One gets the feeling that Vinge passed up the chance to tell a psychologically interesting story because he was more interested in the psychology of the reader. All of Children of the Sky‘s biggest failings stem from the author’s desire to maximize the narrative impact at the expense of nuance. The reader is encouraged to empathize with Ravna, who is not only the protagonist but the only one who shares the reader’s knowledge of the space portions of A Fire Upon the Deep. The other holdover characters from Fire who might share this allegiance are given comparatively little time. Ravna (and the reader) know what’s true, and therefore she knows the right thing to do, but almost everyone doubts her and believes the lies told about her. Toward the end of the story, when they finally realize how wrong they were, they beg Ravna to save them. This is a powerful narrative template, one that Vinge has deployed far more successfully once before already with Pham Nuwen in A Deepness in the Sky and to a lesser extent also in A Fire Upon the Deep.

Over the years Vinge’s writing has had its ups and downs and hasn’t always fulfilled the potential of his ideas, but this is the first time he’s written a book that seemed almost devoid of new ideas at all. He didn’t win his awards and get close to the genre’s A-list because of his mastery of character or even plot, and without the lift from new ideas that was so powerful in his best work, Children of the Sky never gets off the ground.

“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E Lily Yu

May 26, 2012 at 3:02 am | Posted in Short Stories | Leave a comment
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This is the fifth and final short story nominated for this year’s Hugo awards. It was published by Clarkesworld and, as are all their stories, is freely available online.

It’s hard not to approach this story as being of a piece with George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Like that novel, this story involves animals that are cognitively but not physically anthropomorphic mirroring human political movements. The specialty of the wasps may be cartography, but in most other ways they act like an imperial monarchy of previous centuries. They concern themselves with scholarship and art, but all of it is channeled toward the glory of the state, and their sudden arrival and annexation of the native bees certainly recalls European colonialism. For their part, the bees are called a constitutional monarchy, but otherwise they are portrayed as an undeveloped culture completely outmatched by the wasps’ intellectual and martial arts. This all seems straightforward.

But any attempt to make this story a one-to-one allegory like Animal Farm stumbles when it comes to the role of humans in the story. Humans all but exterminate the wasps of Yiwei, causing the wasps who arrive in the bees territory to come as refugees, not conquistadors. That alone severely limits historical analogues: the modern state of Israel, the Germanic invasions of the Roman Empire, and even the ancient Sea Peoples come to mind as possibilities, but none of them fit very well, and none of them are compatible with the sudden removal of the wasps at the end of the story. Especially discordant is the fact that humans are incompetently exploiting the wasps just as the wasps competently exploit the bees, a minor irony that seems entirely without an antecedent.

If allegory fails us, so what? Most stories, most fantasy stories, even most storybook animal fantasy stories aren’t allegories. But without the allegory, what’s left in this particular case? A story that is beautifully written, has little in the way of characters, a plot that doesn’t feel like it really goes anywhere, and a setting that combines what amounts to a joke about honeybee “anarchism” with a tepid critique of imperialism. I say tepid, incidentally, because the story seems to endorse anarchism while admitting it is a philosophy that requires the scholarship and rigor of the wasp culture to discover. Are we to conclude that their subjugation by the wasps was a useful and perhaps even necessary step in the evolution of bee society along some dialectic of political progress? Probably we are intended to draw our own conclusions, but I confess my conclusion is that the presence of all-powerful and capricious humans changes the calculus of geopolitics past any applicability.

But it is so beautifully written that it is still a joy to read, even if upon finishing I find it muddled and almost aimless. In this way it is the complete opposite of “Paper Menagerie”, meditative and discursive where that story was precise and driven. I said that “Paper Menagerie” had a surplus of artifice because the plot was so obviously contrived to put its characters in the strongest possible light. “The Cartographer Wasps…” has a surplus of what we might instead call craft, in that sentence by sentence and even paragraph by paragraph it is elegant and eloquent, the best written story on this year’s Hugo ballot in that sense. Whereas “Movement”, “Paper Menagerie”, and “Homecoming” all wanted to dictate how the reader should think and feel and “The Shadow War…” wanted to make the reader laugh, “The Cartographer Wasps…” just does its own thing and leaves the reaction, if any, to the reader’s complete discretion. As I said in relation to “Paper Menagerie”, this is how we tend to think stories should function: they should express whatever is on the author’s mind and let the reader’s chips fall where they may.

But I can’t help but feel that beneath its wonderful prose “The Cartographer Wasps…” is missing the humanity that “Paper Menagerie” evoked so aggressively. This isn’t just, or even mostly, because of the use of animals, although the tension between the human-like minds and the resolutely insect biology of the wasps and bees is something of a distraction. The bigger problem is that the characters in “The Cartographer Wasps…” are almost all fanatics of one stripe or another, from the imperialist wasps to the communitarian bees. The only character thinking about something other than ideals of governance is the third bee ambassador, and it’s no coincidence that scene is by far the best in the story.

I’m sure that on some years ballots this would have been my top story, and as it stands it only falls beneath “Paper Menagerie” by a hair. None of the nominated stories struck me as problem-free, nor do any make me want to run out and recommend people read them, but I’m afraid that this is a very normal state of affairs. It is more often among the novelettes that I find one or two stories that I can be genuinely enthusiastic about, so I’ll continue on to those stories soon.

“Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu

May 25, 2012 at 11:27 am | Posted in Short Stories | 4 Comments
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This is the fourth of the five Hugo-nominated short stories. It was originally published by F&SF and is available online (PDF).

This is obviously a fantasy story, but I’d rather think of it as an exercise in meta-science fiction, because it seems like an excellent argument that someday human authors will go the way of Kasparov and Jennings and end up outclassed by artificial intelligence. No one likes to hear the talk, popular in screenwriting circles, that there are only 10 plots, or 11 characters, or any other quantification of story. Stories capture the human experience, and if they can be circumscribed by formula, so can our minds. Any time someone talks about story patterns that “work” or “don’t work” (I can speak from personal experience on this score) they can expect to hear from people telling them about this or that great work that doesn’t follow the rule in question, or even that all taste is subjective and thus there is no good or bad literature, just stuff one person likes and stuff that person doesn’t like. This is art, not science, they say. The artist doesn’t maximize a value function, they express their inner soul.

To those who feel this way, I would point you at this story. In a world where hundreds of thousands of stories are written every year, I’m sure at least a few of them were more calculated and emotionally manipulative (perhaps I should say more successfully calculated and manipulative, for even elewhere on this year’s ballot, both “Homecoming” and “Movement” wanted to be as emotionally manipulative, they just weren’t as successful). I suppose it sounds like I don’t like the story, because in our society “calculated” and “emotionally manipulative” are things you say about stories you don’t like. If you like the story, and I do like this story, then you’re supposed to describe the exact same attributes by calling it “effective”, “tragic”, “poignant”, and perhaps even “haunting”.

An obvious criticism of this story, especially in the context of the Hugo awards, is that the fantasy element is not very important. In fact, I would go so far as to call it completely unnecessary. Not only do I think the story would be just as a good if the magic was stripped out, I will go farther and say I think it would be better. While reading the story I spent at least a little time trying to work out the specifics of the origami magic system, and I think every moment not spent thinking about the central emotional conflict lessened, however minutely, its impact (but there I go talking about what works and doesn’t work again).

It’s the manner in which the details of the story seem strictly decoration for its emotional structure that made me think of artificial intelligence. The details of the mother’s difficulties assimilating into America and her son’s experience in school are far more important to the story than the magic paper, in that if they were removed they would definitely have to be replaced by something, but still it seems as though a completely different set of details could be swapped in and the story would function more or less as before, like new tires on a car or new lyrics to a song. It’s those details about the mother and son’s lives that are the recognizably human part of this story, the part that the idealist would say comes from the soul of Ken Liu, even if there’s absolutely no autobiography present. But this story, precisely because it is so effective, lets us glimpse something beneath those details that looks like a formula: a mother whose only real emotional connection in life is to son, her estrangement from that son through no fault of her own and plenty of his, and the son’s tragic realization of the error in his ways their eventual reconciliation that comes too late. Is the mother/son relationship even necessary, or can we further generalize this to an acquaintance with an emotional connection to the protagonist and so on?

I find that an interesting question, but I doubt many people reading this will, so I’ll move on. Sometimes, once your attention is drawn away from the art and to the craft, the attraction is gone. After we learn the clever trick behind a magician’s illusion, the act becomes boring. I don’t think that’s the case with “Paper Menagerie”. Yes, the author clearly worked very hard to manipulate the reader’s emotions. That strikes the modern mind as false, for authors are supposed to be expressing themselves, not manipulating their audience. Yet the story is effective, so effective that it easily overcomes the obstacle posed by the reader’s awareness of its artifice, because of the truth it contains. The circumstances might be contrived to heighten everything to an improbable degree, but nevertheless the problems faced by the mother and her son in “Paper Menagerie” are real problems we recognize from our own lives and the lives of those we know. I haven’t decided if it’s the best story on the ballot, but I think it simultaneously has the most artifice as well as the most truth.

“Movement” by Nancy Fulda

May 24, 2012 at 2:39 am | Posted in Short Stories | 1 Comment
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This is the third of five short stories nomianted for this year’s Hugo award. Originally published in Asimov’s, for now at least it is freely available on the author’s web site.

The people around you say you have a mental disability and want to “fix” you, but you don’t agree. That’s a bad situation, and it serves as the premise of “Movement”. Hannah is a girl growing up in the not-entirely-near future whose parents want to cure her of her sort-of-autistism. I say “sort-of” because the author has apparently invented an imaginary variant of autism for the story, something I feel weakens a story of this kind. No matter how successful the story is in making us reconsider our preconceptions about the character’s condition, it will have only convinced us about “temporal autism”, not autism as it actually exists. It’s not easy to talk about a story like this, since I personally don’t have any personal experience with autism and there are a lot of people online who do, including many who have reviewed this story already. Then again, I’ve seen examples of such people reacting to the story both very positively and very negatively. And as someone who rarely thinks about autism under normal circumstances, I suppose I’m really the intended audience for the story more than they are. Unfortunately I lean toward the negative camp.

My guess is that those in favor would say that stories that force us to confront issues like this, and especially those that enable us to empathize with those who think differently, are very valuable. I agree to a point, but any discussion of an autism cure makes me think of those families I have known dealing with schizophrenia. What do you do if a schizophrenic refuses to take anti-psychotic medication and cannot function as a result? The obvious objection here is that autism is extremely different from schizophrenia, and that’s true, but saying that is acknowledging that the specifics matter, and that when you change the specifics (say, from autism to “temporal autism”) then you might well change the answer.

Since I approach these questions this way, “Movement” left me cold, because the argument it makes is fundamentally an emotionally one. Viewed analytically, it actually advances two separate arguments. One of them is summed up metaphorically by the protagonist:

“No new shoes,” I say. “I couldn’t dance the same in new shoes.”

What this seems to be saying is that who-I-am-now is me, and that if you change who I am, I am no longer me, I am someone else. This is problematic. It seems equally effective as an argument against treating disorders like schizophrenia or even intoxication. Worse, it’s grounded in assumptions that are not true either biologically or philosophically. We are always changing, a fact repeatedly brought up in “Movement” but never taken to the obvious conclusion: there’s no point trying to defend the status quo because the status quo is an illusion. Everything is changing, so we must weigh which changes are desirable and which are not, presumably by their anticipated outcomes.

The story’s other argument is along these lines. Early on, a neurological specialist has this to say about the prospects of a patient with “temporal autism”:

Without treatment, some children like Hannah develop into extraordinary individuals. They become famous, change the world, learn to integrate their abilities into the structures of society. But only a very few are that lucky. The others never learn to make friends, hold a job, or live outside of institutions.

At the end of the story, Hannah’s monologue takes this as her final justification for refusing treatment:

I do not want to live small. I do not want to be like everyone else, ignorant of the great rush of time, trapped in frantic racing sentences. I want something else, something that I cannot find a word for.

If we take this argument further than the story’s brief summation, it seems to be saying that Hannah’s way of seeing the world is capable of generating unique insights, insights she would be denied if she was like everyone else. There’s an implicit utilitarian justification that while the chances are low, the payoff is great, making it worth the attempt. Temporal autism is like a lottery ticket, apparently, and if you win, you become a world-historical figure. If you lose, though, you’re not just out a few bucks, you live in an institution for the rest of your life. One is tempted to quibble with the specialist’s assertion, for surely we all have some small chance of becoming famous and changing the world? But even if we take it for granted, it’s a brutal argument. For those with the philosophical fortitude to relentlessly follow a utility function wherever it leads, it might make sense to seize on this small chance, but few live their lives that way. Most of us would rather avoid suffering the likely huge loss even if that means we miss out on that tiny chance of an even larger win.

There are probably excellent arguments against cures for autism, especially given the track record of “cures” in the history of mental health treatment, but I suspect most of them involve patient’s rights, not low probability outcomes (deontological instead of consequentialist reasoning, if you want to be technical). As for “Movement”, despite the fact I was unconvinced, it’s both well-written and thought-provoking, which is at least enough to elevate it over the Resnick and Scalzi stories it shares the ballot with (separated from them by “No Award”). Although I’ve read all the stories already, however, I’m still undecided as to how to rank this story and the remaining two I have yet to review.

“The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City” John Scalzi

May 23, 2012 at 12:48 am | Posted in Short Stories | 1 Comment
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This is the second of five short stories nominated for this year’s Hugo award. This one was published by Tor.com and is freely available online.

Hot on the heels of “Homecoming”‘s moral daring comes an even more risky story, in which Jon Scalzi enrages the fan community by…writing something funny. At least, that’s how he frames the situation in his post celebrating his nomination. The fan community is diverse enough that I’m sure he’s right, and that there are Very Serious Fans who will despise this story for daring to take the genre at anything less than face value, but then again I doubt there are very many. This is, after all, the same genre that venerates Terry Pratchett and which will still be celebrating Douglas Adams after we’re all dead even though Adams’ career involved the uneven distribution of about a novel’s worth of material across a dozen novels, screenplays, and radio scripts. Then again, Terry Pratchett has never won or, from what I can tell, even been nominated for a Hugo or Nebula (I had to double-check this astounding fact). Perhaps people just leave funny books off their ballot when it comes time to vote for awards even if they liked them better than what they’re actually voting for?

Scalzi’s story shouldn’t be penalized for being funny, but it probably should be penalized for not being funny enough. Published on April 1st, it was obviously intended to be a trifle working in a very long tradition of Bulwer-Lytton pastiches. It’s certainly amusing in places, but although short, it’s still quite a bit longer than the amount of humor justifies. Instead of going completely over the top, Scalzi tries to make some sort of point about the political uses of superstition, but there’s no room in such a short story for this to go anywhere.

I don’t read enough short fiction to know if this is the funniest genre short story published in 2011. So few humorous stories are published that I’m afraid it’s possible, but that’s a very low bar. That Scalzi got a nomination for a story that I’m sure he would admit is just a shadow of even Pratchett’s lesser work doesn’t, as he seems to think, undermine the oh-so-serious Hugo awards (I seem to remember any seriousness being fatally undermined by a certain nominee involving Ray Bradbury last year) or act as validation for genre humor. We all know what it really represents is validation of Scalzi’s popularity as a blogger. People often complain about this (especially after the 2009 Hugo nominations for Best Novel) but I don’t begrudge Scalzi his success. It’s extremely difficult to write a good blog (personally I can vouch for it even being difficult to write a bad one!). Writing good genre fiction that’s also humorous is, based on its rarity, something even more difficult, but I’d like to see more authors do it. Even though I’ll be ranking “No Award” higher than this story, I hope to see Scalzi write something along these lines that’s more substantial in the future.

“Homecoming” by Mike Resnick

May 22, 2012 at 2:21 am | Posted in Short Stories | Leave a comment
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Circumstances have prevented me from posting for a while so I’ve got a bunch of catching up to do.  First up is a look at the Hugo-nominated short stories.  This is the first year I’ll actually be voting, so this time I hope to read every piece of nominated fiction.  That’s a feat I’ve never come close to managing, so we’ll see how it goes.

During the voting period “Homecoming” is available for free online here (PDF).

In role-playing video games like those made by Bioware, the player frequently encounters someone dead set on some extreme proposition (a determination to fight to the death for their lost cause, for example), only to talk them into a reversal of this position with an argument that amounts to a single sentence.  In a video game, this is an understandable shorthand since the conversation is firmly in a supportive role in the wider set of gameplay mechanics.  In a short story, especially one that consists of what is more or less a single conversation, this is less forgivable.

The plot of “Homecoming” involves an elderly narrator whose small-minded superficiality estranges him from his son for many years and proves impervious to the pages of tedious argument that constitute most of the story only to be healed by a few sentences from his wife.  One might attempt to defend the story on the grounds that these few words are lent gravitas by being spoken during an unexpected and completely transient remission of the effects of Alzheimer’s, but the more one thinks about these circumstances the less believable they are.  That an Alzheimer’s sufferer would experience a brief moment of lucidity is credible, but that it would come at the exact moment it does smacks of authorial contrivance, and that it would involve the sufferer suddenly holding an opinion she evidently did not hold before the onset of the disease seems absurd.

All of this is in service to the daring moral message “Don’t judge a book by its cover”.  The SFnal element, the idea that the narrator’s son has undergone an irreversible process that makes him appear to be a member of an alien species, is not developed enough to go any place new and, in any case, seems more dubious the longer one thinks about it.  It seems like a crude metaphor for racism, but viewed through this lens, the story is asking the important question: does making yourself look like a different race in order to study that race make you some sort of race traitor?  Spoiler alert: no.  The story does not attempt to deal with the somewhat more interesting question of whether or not there is even such a thing as, in the narrator’s words, “deserting your species”, nor the still more intriguing question of just what this business of dressing up as aliens to interact with them suggests about how humans view the aliens.  What would we think about white anthropologists donning blackface before going to visit an African village?

I don’t mean to imply that if the story can’t be related back to Important Themes, like modern struggles over racism, it can’t be good.  It’s worth mentioning that of the short stories nominated for a Hugo this year, this one is the most firmly situated within the genre.  Maybe that gives it a shot at winning?  There isn’t much discussion of this story online, but what I’ve seen suggests that other people (presumably to include the author, editor, and nominating voters) don’t find it so psychologically absurd as I do.

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