Visions of Paradise

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Kragen / The Calorie Man

Some short fiction...

How many times have you read the following two statements: Short fiction is the lifeblood of science fiction and Novellas are the best length for a science fiction story. I don’t know if either statement is really true, but I certainly enjoy reading short fiction, especially novellas, at least as much, if not more, than novels. My favorite “novels” tend to be “fix-ups”, which use a series of novelettes and novellas to paint a deep portrait of a future world, rather than novels which are often so dependent on complicated plots that the development of the world is sometimes downplayed as a result.

There are a handful of sf writers who, in my opinion, have written more major novellas than any others, including Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, and Jack Vance. In the latter case, it is almost expected that periodically I will run across another Vance novella I had never read, likely never even heard of, but which impresses me considerably. Recently I was going through a handful of old Ultimate reprintzines from the 1970s where I found a Vance novella called “The Kragen.” The cover picture makes it look like one of those invasion thrillers that most other writers would have written for a story with that title. But not Vance. “The Kragen” is set on a water world populated by a relatively small number of settlers who apparently fled from a more populated world several centuries (millennia?) ago and who live under a rigid caste system. More importantly, they are in thrall to a giant sea creature, King Kragen, who eats much of their daily harvest as tribute for protecting the settlers from lesser kragen.

As is a popular theme of Vance novellas, “The Kragen” is set during a time of uprising, when a small group of settlers capture and kill a smaller kragen. This incrurs the wrath of both King Kragen–who apparently has no problem killing other kragen himself, but forbids humans to do so as well–and the leaders of the various castes. What follows is the exile of the dissidents and continuing conflict between them, the caste leaders, and King Kragen. The story’s ending was a bit abrupt, but overall it was a very intriguing story. It was later expanded into the novel The Blue World, which I might look up as well someday.

I also began reading Gardner Dozois’ 2006 Best Science Fiction of the Year, Twenty-third Annual Collection, which I will review piecemeal over the next few weeks. I am mostly skipping stories I have read previously, such as Ian McDonald’s Hugo-winning “The Little Goddess,” not because I did not enjoy it, but because I have too much unread fiction to spend a lot of time rereading stories for completion’s sake. If you have not read McDonald’s story, I recommend it, although perhaps not quite so much as to consider it award-worthy, since McDonald is much better for his sense of wonder and world creation than for his story sense.

I did read Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Calorie Man.” The first story of his I read was “The Fluted Girl” a few years ago, and it was a very powerful, somewhat depressing tale, a good description of both “The Calorie Man” and perhaps all Bacigalupi fiction as well. He neither pulls punches nor has a particularly optimistic outlook for the near future of humanity (an outlook which I share somewhat, which is why I generally prefer fiction set farther in the future past the inevitable near-future decline). “The Calorie Man” hypothesizes huge agribusinesses controlling the production of all food products since they have basically replaced “natural” plants with sterile crops which they control and which nobody but they can produce. The story involves the search for a scientific genius who perceives himself as another Johnny Appleseed spreading fecund plants to replace the sterile crops. The story is partly a thriller–although slower-paced than usual, which I found more appealing to my taste–and partly a portrait of a dark, dismal world. At least the ending held out a ray of hope and sunshine for the future. While I doubt I would enjoy reading an entire book of Bacigalupi short fiction in succession, such as his new collection Pump Six, in small doses he is a very thought-provoking writer who is highly recommended.


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