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Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder Kindle Edition
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Top customer reviews
The piece is well-written and edited--something I always notice and appreciate!--and uses a documentary style. In written work, this often consists of "found" writings--in this case, a range, from journals to official court documents. This approach allows Taylor to present multiple points of view through the journals and documents. And, where the presence of a single, first person narrator can sometimes create a false sense of reliability--that narrator is creating the reader's reality, so we can sometimes fall into the trap of assuming their version of reality is correct--having multiple points of view of this sort also means that the varying levels of unreliability of the different journal-keepers become explicit, as we are shown how the accounts of similar events contradict each other.
Stylistically, the work evokes what I would call "classic SF" writing and pacing. The early works of Ursula K. LeGuin come most prominently to mind--something like _The Left Hand of Darkness_.
In _Monster_, the premise is that there is an expedition of scientists who have gone on a brief excursion to study an unfamiliar race of people. In the early pages, there is a similar sense of leisure to what one finds in the classic works. Taylor begins by establishing the outer frame narrative of a series of hearings. The next layer consists of an excerpt from an official report, which provides the reader with world-related information, in the vein of a scientific entry. The third layer of narrative, consisting of excerpts from the journals of the expedition members, ultimately contains the core of the story, but also takes its time.
It's a pace you don't often see in contemporary works, where there seems to be a lot of pressure to start with an initial conflict and tension, move the plot along. However, fans of the classics of SF will find both the style and pacing familiar, with their focus on establishing the verisimilitude of the documentary form being cited (i.e. journal, report etc.).
The meat of the story is in the journal accounts. Between the fact that these are documents associated with a hearing, and the early introduction of the characters' personalities, it is clear that we aren't looking at a happy ending. In one sense, the story has the inevitability of a Classical tragedy.
I did find my credulity stretched respecting the reactions of some of the characters. Most significantly, I wondered why Dr. Oliva, the leader of the expedition, did not take firmer steps and stronger measures when Pross, one of the other members of the party, reacted so strongly to his first encounter. Given the importance and delicacy of the mission and the risks involved, I was surprised that after her initial talk with Pross, Dr. Oliva did not monitor him more closely. Her own account of her observation of him carried a lot of red flags and so I would have expected she'd be checking in on him and taking preventative steps. For me, this would have added to the sense of tragedy, as I would have seen her doing everything she could, to try to stem the inevitable.
Still, if you accept that she was too caught in the wonder and fascination of her own work and scholarship--and therefore underestimated or misread the situation--then the rest of the story works well, as you watch the situation escalate, as the ominous shadow of what is to come looms higher and higher over the characters and events.
I would highly recommend this story for readers who enjoy a good, cathartic, Classical-style tragedy, and who miss the more meaty, "scientific", anthropological-style realism of the SF classics.
Lorinda J. Taylor's imaginative and entertaining science-fiction novella, Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder, reminded this reader of Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow (1996). Both works are first-contact stories that turn on what happens when human beings, acting with best intentions, behave in ways that cause catastrophic damage. Doria Russell and Taylor both explore the nature of good and evil, cultural difference, and prejudice, and both choose to tell their stories, for the most part, in framed flashbacks.
Taylor's epistolary Monster..., set in the year 3001, relies on official reports and journals/recordings kept by the major characters to tell the story of a first scientific expedition to the Planet Kal-fa. The story gets off to a quick start when a group of human xenoanthropologists encounters the Kal, a peaceful, telepathic, and spiritually evolved civilization of `teratoids'.
The expedition leader is Professor Kaitrin Oliva, a scientist so enamored of life's infinite variety that she fails to heed early signs that her expedition is heading toward disaster. The mission seems to be proceeding splendidly; however, two of the human scientists are gradually running amok, one of them via an egregious ethical lapse that, in turn, triggers long-repressed psychological and moral defects in the other--defects exacerbated by exposure to the teratoidal Kal. Speaking of the Kal, to reveal more here of their physical appearance and characteristics would be to ruin the credulity-straining surprise of why Taylor has used the term `teratoid'--i.e., monster-like--to describe them; suffice to say, no scientific expedition is likely to encounter a more `detached' group of beings.
Taylor does a fine job building to the violence that ends the expedition. Likewise, she deftly handles the official `inquisition' in the wake of the mission's failure, as well as the novella's surprising, if somewhat unsettling parting shot (apparently humans aren't the only species to suffer from cultural myopia). It is also commendable that, like Doria Russell, Taylor pays attention to anthropology, sociology, linguistics, and religion in her novella--a welcome change from the traditional hard-science emphasis that pervades so much science fiction.
It seems appropriate to offer a few words about Taylor's narrative stance. The epistolary form has its pros and cons. It can be employed to reveal a character's most private, intimate thoughts, and is especially powerful when used to reveal the innermost longings and conflicts of characters operating in actual and/or emotional isolation (think Mary Shelley's Frankenstein). Conversely, the epistolary stance can distance the reader--and not always in good ways--from the action of the story. That is to say, if the reader is too often reminded that what she is reading has already happened, then any more visceral, immediate connection to the characters and their various dilemmas is likely to be reduced. In such cases, it is almost as if the epistolary character/narrator is telegraphing the reader: "Don't worry! Obviously, I've survived this episode--otherwise, how could I be recounting it?" Perhaps that is why this reader found the longest journal and report entries in Taylor's Monster to be the most engaging; when the story was allowed to run on to six or eight pages, it was easier to forget that the action wasn't taking place now (suspension of disbelief). On the other hand, the shorter journal/report entries featured in Taylor's work tended to interrupt and flatten the story. But that is perhaps a purely subjective reaction, and, in any case, a minor flaw in an often engaging and thought-provoking story.
Jack A. Urquhart is the author of several works of fiction, including So They Say Collected Stories.
I wish I could have read a page or two prior to my purchase. I think then I would have known better.
Also *minus points* for excessive use of exclamation points. sigh.
The Kal are among the most innovative and unexpected aliens I have ever encountered in sci-fi. None the less, this is not "gadget fiction"; as is generally the case with the best science fiction tales, it's the human side of the story which takes center stage, and that story is both believable and moving.
Get it, and read it -- you won't regret it! (And you won't forget it, either, not for a very long time!)
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