Barry’s Tale: Gentle humor in a strong novella

Buffalito Buffet by Lawrence M. Schoen science fiction book reviewsfantasy and science fiction book reviewsBarry’s Tale by Lawrence M. Schoen

Barry’s Tale, a novella which has been nominated for this year’s Nebula Award, appears in Buffalito Buffet, one of a number of collections written by Lawrence M. Schoen regarding The Amazing Conroy and his buffalito, Reggie. And that calls for an explanation, doesn’t it? “The Amazing Conroy” is man who formerly made his living as a stage hypnotist, but who, at the time of this story, has a nascent business marketing buffalitos, alien creatures that look like miniature buffaloes  but are as cuddly as puppies and will eat literally anything. (Ball bearings are a particularly favorite treat.)

As this novella opens, Conroy has traveled to Colson’s World, a watery planet with a single, relatively small landmass. It was discovered by Amadeus Colson, a famously rich man and recluse. Colson has lived on the planet for more than 60 years, along with a few hundred humans, ten thousand head of cattle, and a half million bison. Access to the planet by anyone else is extremely restricted, except for once a year when Colson hosts a barbecue competition. Conroy travels to Colson’s World in order to secure the man’s endorsement for his business. And besides, Conroy is a foodie, and the thought of all that barbecue makes his mouth water.

The first person Conroy sees upon his arrival on the planet is Bethany Colson, one of his college classmates and a woman he had dated for a short time. Bethany looks like she hasn’t aged a day, even though it’s been a few decades. She tells Colson that it has something to do with both her genetics and the planet, but she just doesn’t age. Neither does her great-grandfather, who is over a hundred years old but appears to be in his forties. Conroy accepts Bethany’s explanation, but there is more to the story that she doesn’t know, and finding that out is what this story is really about.

The complication that leads us to the explanation is Angela, one of the hundreds of orphans Bethany and her great-grandfather care for. Angela is six, and she is heavily drugged for a neurological condition. The nature of this affliction only becomes clear when Angela is threatened by a thoat — a massive grazing animal, much like a bison except for its greater size (and named for creatures from Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars). Angela simply makes the thoat disappear. And that’s the problem: when she’s angry or frightened, Angela just makes the source of her anger or fear disappear. The problem is growing worse, and she doesn’t seem to have any control over it.

Conroy believes that his skill with hypnosis might help Angela. If so, he might be just in time, because Bethany’s great-grandfather is making noises about having to “do something” about Angela in order to protect the other children. If that sounds ominous, it is.

The story unravels from there with gentle humor. The prose is clear and unornamented, but not without a strong voice; Colson is a full-rounded character, and his first-person narration conveys his spirit and makes a reader eager to read more of Schoen’s stories about him. The science involved in Conroy’s hypnosis is lucidly explained, as might be expected from an author with a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology who taught at the college level for a decade.

This work reminded me of some of the best writers from the early days of science fiction. He brings to mind writers like Zenna Henderson with his prose style. His plotting is sufficient to the story, and there’s enough action and hazard to keep things interesting. I’m surprised that a story like this, which is something of a throwback to the early days of SF in its absence of advanced physics and literary furbelows, has been nominated for a Nebula Award, but I’m glad it has. It’s a strong story, and great fun to read.


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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

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