Visions of Paradise

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Unconquered Countries

Geoff Ryman has had a stellar reputation in the science fiction field ever since the publication of his novella The Unconquered Country in 1986. So when his hardcover collection of four novellas entitled Unconquered Countries showed up in my favorite remaindered catalog for a price of $4.95, I gobbled it up.

The collection displays several obvious strengths of Ryman as a writer: a superb writing style, powerful allusions, well-developed themes. It also shows off one obvious weakness: weak plotting. I learned quickly that one does not read Ryman for his storytelling, but for the literary merits of his stories. Once I accepted that premise, the collection's four stories were well-worth reading, although none were totally successful.

A Fall of Angels is a tale of genetically-engineered space explorers who contact an alien and then find themselves unable to prevent the exploitation of that alien by unscrupulous authorities, even at the cost of their own lives. It is a bit simplistic, and the characters of the angels were not totally convincing.

The Fan is a character study of a misfit who falls hopelessly in love with a reclusive singer, an obsession so all-encompassing it totally dominates her life up until the time she determines to meet him. This type of personality is not unusual in science fiction, and Ryman had little new to add to the character, but the story was worthwhile for the ending which was a fascinating look at the creation of media superstars.

O Happy Day! is pure allegory about how people forced into degrading political confinement do not support each other but rather contribute to each other's increasing degradation. It contained some scenes which were somewhat offensive but actually added to the overall effectiveness of the story. However, the ending was far from convincing, seeming almost like an add-on to please the reader.

Overall, O Happy Day! was the most powerful of the four stories, in spite of the fact that The Unconquered Country has been universally hailed and won several awards. It is a good story though, describing the effects invasion by outsiders has on a rural country. The story contained several outstanding scenes set in a rich, gripping milieu, but its focus was too wide, ultimately draining some of its overall effect.

Ryman does not write routinely-plotted stories, and obviously falls well within the literary end of the SF spectrum. He is a very talented writer who deserves a wider audience, although he will certainly not be to everybody's taste. Fans of Kim Stanley Robinson, Michael Bishop, or James Morrow should give Geoff Ryman a try.


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