Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lots of Cliches and Some Very Poor Pacing

The December issue of Baen's Universe offers a decidedly mixed bag. It has some good stuff, lots of cliched stuff, and one seriously flawed bit that just makes you shake your head.

The leading story, "Moon Race" by Ben Bova falls into the "cliched" category. A guy enters a race to prove that his robotic walker can beat the usual car-type moon buggies used for getting around on the Moon. The consequences for failure are repeatedly emphasized: if he doesn't win the race, he won't get any investment funding, he'll have to go back to Earth, and his crippled partner will be stuck for life. He plans to take a shortcut to the goal that the buggy-vehicles can't take, but when he does so the race marshall disqualifies him. He finishes the race his way anyway, and beats the other vehicles, but he thinks that all is lost. That the character can be so incredibly blind to the happy ending racing at him like a freight train is unbelievable, but otherwise this story is fine. It's also totally aware of its antecedents, repeatedly referencing the John Henry tall-tale legend.

Next up is "Pumpkin” by Bud Sparhawk. This one also has 'cliche' elements of the Western and Sea story varieties. A guy runs a ship on Jupiter that goes into dangerous storms to try to capture raw materials (asteroids and such) that well up from the depths during atmospheric upheavals. It's incredibly dangerous, and his girlfriend keeps trying to get him a stable job on one of the stations. He repeatedly avoids these opportunities--he's addicted to the danger and to trying to find the "one big strike" that will make him rich. Much of the story involves his close brushes with big ones that get away. It's a fun enough story, (Sparhawk has a talent for action scenes) but it's been told many times before.

"Loki's Net" by Marissa Lingen is not terribly memorable. It has a nice hook, in a near future where story-telling emerges as a major entertainment form. The main character is an assistant to the star diva story-teller, who obsesses over finding a missing scientist. Turns out the guy developed a serum that allows one person to truly experience what it's like to be another person (for instance, a male), which is probably every actor's dream. The scientist decides that this is too dangerous to exist and tries to disappear, but eventually the actress tracks down the serum, which he'd tested on himself (of course). This story centers on the idea of being able to be someone else, not on the characters, and certainly from a plot logic standpoint it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. However, this is a nice examination of the thesis.

"Some Events At the Templar Radiant" by Fred Saberhagen is another Berserker story. The setting is the post-Berserker future, where all research into their tech is verboten. Of course, that won't stop some curious scientists who don't understand the dangers. More cliches show up as the scientist works to both investigate and hide his investigations, and of course gets destroyed by his own hubris, both professional and personal. I suspect that if I were more immersed in the Berserker mythos I would recognize more nifty tidbits here to entertain me. Nevertheless, Saberhagen spins a satisfying, if foregone, conclusion.

The second installment of David Brin's "Shoresteading" continues to entertain. The plot follows the Chinese man, Wer, who can talk to an alien artefact as different factions use force and subterfuge to capture both him and the artefact. It's a big ol' game of capture the flag from the flag's point of view. I kept feeling like Brin was drawing out some of his scenes too long; once it's obvious where the next step is sometimes it felt like it took to long to get there. However, he brings in the concept of the smart mob that he's used in some of his zeppelin stories to start to help Wer gain some control over his fate... or perhaps just another capricious master. I'm considering following this story even if I'm not reading/reviewing the rest of the Baen's issues; I'm a sucker for Brin's idea-rich near futures.

The story that I had the biggest problem with, and ended up skipping, is "The Gossamer Mage: Intended Words" by Julie Czerneda. I'm surprised by this, since I had heard nothing but good things about Czerneda in the past. Most of my objections stem from the fact that this feels like a novel beginning instead of a story. The first section is simply being character and world building with no plot elements and no indication of why we should care about either the world or the character. But I got through that. The next section opens up with some plot! A mage is summoned to see the duke, who is apparently a very bad person to be on the wrong side of. So the mage goes hurrying off... only to be stopped in the middle for a whole bunch of paragraphs of world-building info-dumps. Let me give you the start of the action, then the paragraph starters that come afterwards:
"Saeleonarial puffed as he hurried down the wide, too-empty hall. No one came late without consequence to an audience with a hold lord, not even the head of Tananen's only magic casters. There was malice in the delayed summons. Well done, Harn.

"In this part of the new wing, the floor was polished marble, so smooth he had to be wary of a slip...
"The merchants and seamen who came on the ships were polite but curious, their heads stuffed with rumor and wild tales...
"For freight was welcome up the Helthrom, but not foreigners...
"Tiler's hold lords kept it that way..."
"The latest, Insom the Second, was more than watchful...
"He would indeed demand answers...
"Saeleonarial's hasty steps and puffing filled the space... [no, he's still not actually at his audience yet, he's still in the hall]
'He was too old for this...
"The bells around his ears laughed at him."
And in fact at the end of the scene, he still hasn't gotten to the dreaded audience. That's where I gave up. If the author doesn't care whether the character gets there despite all his huffing and puffing, why should I? His urgent journey shouldn't be interrupted by a geography and history lesson! This is a page-long example of something that Samuel Delany pointed out in his book About Writing, but he did it in a single sentence: "After almost no time at all the string on which he had been pulling and pulling came apart into two separate pieces so quickly he hardly realized it had snapped." If you say that something is happening quickly, or urgently, your prose & diction needs to reflect that. Multiple diversions and digressions suck all the life out of the narrative. Again, this may be tolerable at the beginning of a novel, where the reader is expecting a slow build-up and is invested in seeing it through, but no way could this work at any shorter length.

After that we get a short and silly story by Mike Resnick, "A Very Formal Affair: A Harry the Book Story." Harry is a bookie in a magical version of Prohibition days, and he investigates some oddities surrounding a dance competition. Resnick, of course, has no problem getting into and out of a story quickly.

From new authors we get "In the Light of the Hunger Moon" by Kevin J. Cheek and "Johnny Plays 'Round Saturn's Rings" by Jason K. Chapman. "Hunger Moon" is a good story of religious and racial tension in a world of humans and trolls in which plague looms large. Lorgash's entire tribe was wiped out by plague and he's heading into the mountains to die, but instead he winds up helping a widow and her son hold out against a power grab by both humans and trolls. There are some silly made-up phrases (why 'turned-out' instead of exile?) but generally this is a good, well-rounded story. "Johnny Plays" is the story of a kid coming to accept that androids made from people's memories are real people too (his dad is about to become one) after one of the androids saves him and other people from a pressure leak on the space station they live in. So many of these android stories have a 1950's feel to them, and this one is no exception. In fact, it puts me in mind of the Twilight Zone episode "I Sing the Body Electric" (written by Ray Bradbury) in which a robotic grandmother persuades a young girl to love her after saving her from being run over by a truck. Nothing new under the sun, I guess.

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