Monday, 29 December 2014

"The Ice Owl" by Carolyn Gilman


Hugo and Nebula nominated? Really? Because this isn't a bad story, but it's got a very weak ending, and it's certainly not a great one. Great short science fiction stories can hit you like a punch in the gut, but this one changes themes at the end, and all these plot threads are left dangling. I'm not one to argue for everything needing to be neat and tidy, but some kind of pay-off, please.

The writing is fine. It wasn't intrusive, it wasn't clumsy. The main character, Thorn, is a well-drawn young woman who gets dragged from planet to planet by her mother. This is not well developed enough at the start of the story for where it ends up. 

She is on a world that appears to be fairly Puritan in nature, although there's not really time to do more than sketch that in a short story. Somewhere else in the universe, there was a racially-based massacre. It's hard to know if it's really racial, or cultural - i.e., are there different alien races, or are we talking about disparate groups of humans here?

So, on the completely other planet Thorn lives on now, there are people who hunt for war criminals from that genocide. It's a very thinly veiled version of Nazi hunters. However, despite the thriving business hunting down ex-Gminta/Nazis, it doesn't seem like the actual world where the Gminta massacred the Vind has had a change in government. The main character has to go through a genetic test to get in, to make sure she isn't Vind. So where is the authority to hunt these people down coming from? Plus, if you were safe on your homeworld but subject to arrest and execution anywhere else, why would enough people have left to make NaziGminta hunting a viable life's pursuit?


The problem is that this is obviously the core of the story, what takes up most of the time, and then...nothing is done with it. Nothing. It's thrown out the window in order to make this a story about mothers and daughters, which the previous part of the story does nothing, really, to support. You want to tell a story about Nazi hunters in space, do that.  You want to tell a story about feckless mothers and fed-up daughters, do that. Just pick one. The fake-out doesn't work. It leaves me feeling like my time was wasted, when the author couldn't even be bothered to follow the plotlines she had laid out.

The Ice Owl of the title is sort of a misfire too. The fate of the owl signals where the story shifts gears, but it's sloppy. Again, we need more set-up about the mother to make that make sense, and instead, the story before this has been about guilt and hunting down the guilty. About collaboration and repentance. It could be good. But then it fizzles.

In part, it feels like this is supposed to be a longer story, possibly even a book. But if you're taking a chapter from a book in progress, make sure it's self-contained. Make sure the storylines you put in place are important and relevant and aren't just tossed aside because you have writerly distractions. If these things were followed up on in a larger work, that would be one thing. But for a short story? It's very strange. And it's frustrating, because the writing, while not stellar, is quite good.

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