Tangent Reviews

SF Age, March 1998

from Tangent #20, Fall 1997/Winter 1998

Big issues, quiet characterization. Ideally, they would co-exist within the best sf. Ideals are what keep critics going. Reviewers have to take what they can get.

Stephen Dedman's "Founding Fathers" has a beauty of a big issue plotline. A colony of white supremacists has deliberately cut itself off from the rest of a universe that doesn't understand its standards. That egalitarian universe, however, has just discovered instantaneous wormhole travel and is contacting all the lost colonies - and offering any takers a chance to rejoin the mainstream. You wouldn't think it possible to drain all the tension out of such a plot while playing fair to both sides, but this curiously plodding and uninvolving novelette goes out of its way to avoid the inherent conflict of its premise. Dedman's real plot lies in what first appears to be a meaningless digression. Add the time until the digression takes center stage to the many long lumps of exposition and the story takes forever to go nowhere.

"Craphound," by Cory Doctorow makes one ask: What is a Craphound and why should anyone come within miles of a story with a title like that? Craphounds, n., the pros who spend their lives sniffing through the thriftshops and garage sales looking for the thrownaway crap that turns into collectibles when some nostalgia victim offers to pay big bucks for it. Mystery readers may be reminded of the Lovejoy novels by this short story, and while Doctorow's pop-cult toys and tchotchkes are more fun for us lowbrows than Lovejoy's antiques, my eyes still skipped over the tenth listing of them. And the twentieth. Indeed, after a long while I started seriously wondering what the point of the story might be and why it was in an sf mag and whether the otherwise totally gratuitous presence of an alien would connect the dots. It does, mostly, but at a cost. For Doctorow really, badly wants this to be a character story, but the enormous and always looming mystery of the alien keeps the character stuff a boring digression rather than the sum and substance (see above). Overall though, am I really going to complain about an author who wants to deepen his characters? Not hardly. In "Craphound," the voice is strong and sure, the details pile high and authentic, and the characters are likeable; it just never all pulls together. (The editorial [which, I swear, I read after I read the story] reveals that this is Doctorow's first fiction sale. All the more impressive then.)

Onward. You could say that S. N. Dyer's short-short "I Borrow Dave's Time Machine" is a pop- cult deconstruction of high culture's hegemonistic deification of Dead White European Men. Or you could just read it and laugh. I recommend the latter.

Thinking about it later, I realized that most everything in Ernest Hogan's novelette "Skin Dragons Talk" has been done before, from the Japanese-flavored cyberpunk urban noir to the alien entities taking over the protagonist's imperiled body. So? So it only proves once again that the pleasure lies in the author's telling, not the reviewer's retelling. Hogan's characteristic hyperbolic prose works well in this milieu, and the dialog between the skin dragons -- dragon tattoos that have come to life -- and their only semi-hapless bearer move the story whenever it starts to flag. Easily the best read in the issue. (BTW, both Hogan's name and the illustrator's got left off the story's splash page, a supremely embarrassing production mistake worthy of a big mea culpa on somebody's part.)

Robert Silverberg writes with an expert ease that is intimidating to those of us mere mortal writers. His novella "The Colonel in Autumn" rolls along effortlessly unfolding any desired scene, from the inside of the Pentagon to the inside of an alien spacecraft. The aliens have landed; they are beyond attack, beyond understanding, beyond hope. Yet hope is what must sustain the Colonel, a Vietnam era vet whose experiences there led him into a lifelong search for understanding of the alien. The irony of the story is that the Colonel cannot understand anything; his own family baffles him as much as the aliens, and he exhausts his life in an endless futile attempt to achieve a final victory in a war that never comes to battle.

What Silverberg was intending in this piece is equally baffling. A novella whose subject is impotence ending in anticlimax reads like a parody of what the Campbell crowd once accused New Wavers like Silverberg of turning sf into. Yet the Colonel and the family enclave that he fashions as resistance to the aliens is sf as a Heinlein wet dream. (The human slave-labor camps that were at the center of Silverberg's earlier, shorter, and better focused SF Age story set in this future, November 1997's "On the Inside," are conspicuously absent here.) Similarly Heinleinish is the fact that the lead character (whose first name is Anson, Heinlein's middle name) is lovingly detailed while the subordinate characters are faceless reflections of his glory. Worse, Silverberg starts the story by having his hero muse that he always hated Wells' lack of a "useful solution" to the problem of "What do you do when you find yourself up against an utterly unbeatable enemy?" in The War of the Worlds, making an implicit contract with the reader that this story would supply the long-sought answer. All the tension in "The Colonel" stems from that promise. The anticlimactic ending is a flat-out cheat.

I very much like the idea of big stories grappling with big issues. Remember the old joke about the farmer whacking his mule across the face with a two-by-four? The punch line is "First, you got to get its attention." If print sf is to continue as a viable medium, its two-by-four has to be big, powerful and yet thoughtful and nuanced stories, stories that command attention while satisfying more deeply than the noise and glitter offered elsewhere. But writers seem to be so afraid of rewriting the gosh-wow cliches of the past that they have not found a new vocabulary to marry the smallness of character-driven stories with the awesomeness of a universe of wonders. This is not a small task, true; it is only a necessary one.

Copyright 1998 by Steve Carper

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