Winners that are out of this world

Nebula Awards Showcase 2000 Edited by Gregory Benford Harcourt 288 pp., $15

This collection of science fiction includes stories that earned the Nebula Award - the Academy Awards of science fiction - chosen by the voting members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association.

In addition to including the winners from 1998, the editor, Gregory Benford, has added several pieces that were nominated, as well as some nonfiction essays that discuss science fiction as a social force.

In his helpful introduction, Benford contends that science fiction "takes on ideas long before general culture would face them" and yet "remains largely neglected by the conventional literary world."

Winning the award for best novel is Joe Haldeman's "Forever Peace" (an excerpt is reprinted in this volume). A Vietnam vet, Haldeman describes how soldiers might conduct battles in the future. Advanced soldier teams place their bodies into exoskeleton shells and jack their minds in a shared network where the platoon operates as one person. Each person manipulates his own Remote Infantry Combat Unit, a remote-controlled mechanical "soldierboy" that goes out into combat, while the operators stay protected in an underground base.

Although at times Haldeman's prose is poetic - "thin blue moonlight threading down through the canopy of leaves" - it also reverberates with the icy violence of war.

Sheila Finch's novella "Reading the Bones" describes the life of a "lingster," one who translates alien languages. Assigned as a translator to the human colony's deputy commissioner, Ries Danyo is learning to speak with the Freh, the indigenous population. However, he has become a washed-out drunk who feels sorry for himself after the death of his wife.

Over the course of the story, he learns to better appreciate the alien culture as he attempts to save the lives of the deputy commissioner's daughters after their parents are killed by Freh assassins. Fleeing a civil war, Danyo heads into the mountains to a human base camp. At times expressing narrative and character clichs, Finch manages to deepen the story when the three characters are taken by a mysterious group of female Freh who hold the secret to the planet's history. Danyo's skills and self-sacrifice brings healing to the alien Freh who are attempting to create a written language to record their unique history.

Jane Yolen's novelette "Lost Girls" presents a humorous feminist reading of the masculine biases found in J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan." One evening Darla enters Neverland, where she discovers that there are a lot of Wendys - the original, plus others who have entered Neverland over the years. She finds that all the boys have fun and make messes while the girls clean up after them. She faces down Peter by convincing all the girls to go on strike. When the pirates arrive for a fight, Peter, upset with Darla for organizing the strike, decides to let the girls fight the pirates alone, knowing that they would quickly get captured. What they don't suspect is that there is a Mrs. Hook, who arranges a pizza party for the girls, after their "rescue" from Peter Pan's gang.

In "Thirteen Ways to Water," Bruce Holland Rogers's short story tells the tale of Jack Salter who falls in love with Bull's girlfriend, Diane. After serving in the Vietnam War, Bull marries Diane and Salter lives alone. Thirty years later Diane comes to Jack and asks him to help Bull, who, unable to give up the dead in the war, is having another flashback. Despite his misgivings, Jack helps Bull purge the ghosts of his haunted past. In the process, Jack learns to let go of his desire for Diane.

In all of these stories, the theme of the spirit of humanity transcends the limitations the characters have imposed on themselves, as they discover something new about themselves and their relationship to others.

*Kurt Lancaster teaches science fiction at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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