Wednesday, May 20, 2015

SNARL: A Single Samurai

There has been a big kerfluffle about the Hugo awards in Science Fiction this year, and most of it has been about the political and cultural implications of the works and the award process. At this point we have a set of nominees. I will be voting in August for which author will take home the coveted rocket-shaped Hugo trophy(s). I have read and reviewed the five nominees for Best Novella.  This is the fifth of what will be five actual reviews by me of the nominated "short-story" works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

This is a review of "A Single Samurai" by Steven Diamond

This is the recollection of a Samurai’s adventure battling a (怪獣) kaijū by climbing into its skull and then committing ritual suicide.

You can read the above synopsis twice and it will still say the same thing. This Samurai actually climbs up into the giant monster’s skull and then kills himself to kill the giant monster. The really unfortunate thing is that the Samurai must get so close to the giant monster’s brain in order to cause the kaijū to die by killing himself. It would have been much simpler if the Samurai could have destroyed the kaijū by offing himself as soon as he first glimpsed the kaijū; it would have made this entire story delightfully unnecessary.

This story ends with two different issues vigorously competing for the title of “Most annoying thing about this story”. In one corner is the question of how shoving a sword into his own belly helps the Samurai kill the giant Godzilla-like monster. In the other is the question of how the Samurai is recollecting the story to me if he is dead before it ends. Unfortunately it does not matter which wins as the reader is the only real loser.

I also think the proper Japanese term should have been (大怪獣) daikaijū which is the giant monster made famous by the likes of Godzilla and Mothra.

At this point –dear readers- I should point out that writing my own reviews allows me to capriciously score the stories that are reviewed. For this story I am going to award a couple of points. I will give this story one star just for having a daikaijū  in it because I dig daikaijū. I will also give it another star for having a Samurai in it because I like the films of Akira Kurosawa.

The Samurai is obsessed with his weapons, and they are magic. The Samurai’s obsession with the weapons even constitutes some of the proof that they are magic.

“A unique bond is formed between the samurai and his weapons. Should the blade break—which is rare in the extreme—a samurai’s soul breaks with it, and dies. Likewise—and far more common—when a samurai dies, his sword crumbles to dust. “

Somehow that crumbling to dust is the very magic power the Samurai calls upon to kill the giant monster. When the Samurai finally reaches the glowing green room with the suspended green brain in the center of it he realizes that he could hack away at it “for days” without killing the kaijū. So instead he plunges his katana into the house sized kaijū brain with his right hand, and then plunges his wakizashi into his own belly with his left. Somehow the magical connection combined with the crumbling to dust kills kaijū more effectively.

"I had mere moments left, but I knew that when I died, the connection of my life to the kaiju’s would remain. When I died, it would die."

The author wants to create a two-dimensional (at best) Samurai character. The Samurai is not given a name. He imbues it with testosterone-laden machismo ethos: Pain is nothing, Honor is more important than life…. This imbuing is not a subtle process.  The author underlines these attributes in metaphorical crayon.

“Pain is nothing. It is simply a feeling, like hunger, or worry. It can be tolerated and banished with proper discipline. There are demons that live off that pain, that thrive off their victims succumbing to it. So I feel no pain. I do not just ignore it, for that implies a recognition that it was there to begin with. “

Later in the story the author changes his mind about how the Samurai interacts with pain. I get the feeling the author was simply interpreting what he saw on some poorly rendered Japanese-language monster-Samurai anime. The character just did not appear to flow from any understanding of who the character was.

“The ground pitched beneath me and I tumbled, striking my wounded leg. The pain was the worst I had ever felt previously. It was a pain that, even as a samurai, I was unable to ignore.”

I don’t know if it would have made for a better story if the author was able to maintain the Samurai attributes he obviously wanted the Samurai to have. I don’t know if continuity could have saved this character. It probably would have made for a better story if the author decided on who the Samurai was before writing a story starring him.

There is probably a lot implied in this story that I may have missed. That is ironic because I generally feel the author could have implied the entire story instead of going to the trouble of writing it.

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