Friday, June 18, 2010

The Healer's War

by Elizabeth Scarborough

Part of my campaign to read all novels that won the Nebula award. I'm ambivalent on this one. It's a fairly good book, but definitely shouldn't have won the Nebuala, partly because of weak genre elements. The main story is about an American nurse in the Vietnam war, and the way she has conflicting sympathies, and is eventually caught up in her own life and death struggle. This involves a magic amulet, and some perceptions based on this.

Late in the novel the protagonist has to give an account of her actions to the American military command. Of course, she modifies her recollections to make her not sound like a crazy person. I find it suggestive how little she has to change things to make it comprehensible for a mainstream narrative, there are some intense scenes left out, but the plot works similarly is people were less injured and had more medical capability to treat injuries. That makes the main fantasy element seem almost an afterthought. As well, there are issues in introducing such a one-piece magic element into a story that's fairly grim and realistic about the process of the war. It appears to undermine itself too much, and makes for ultimately an awkward tone between the first and second halves of the book, making either the magical element doubly unrealistic or undermining the sense of coherence of the Vietnam war. It succeeds to an extent because of strength in characterization, but still remains a problematic venue. I have the sense of a good wirtter that wrote a somewhat underwhelming book, which suffers from both an overly direct story layout and incorporation of genre elements that are subversive to the main project.

On a more positive element, the level of questioning and deconstruction involved with both race and gender is welcome. Considered as takeoff and reinterpretation of military fiction and colonial adventure stories it’s fairly worthwhile, and bringing the kind of after the fact scrutiny to the Vietnam war experience has good elements.

Better than: The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro
Worse than: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

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