Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"The Ruby Incomparable" by Kage Baker

I think I enjoy fantasy the most when it's about a character's personal story. Sure, all the old standards of magic-sword-wielding heroes and wise wizards saving the kingdom from hideous monsters certainly have their place. However, what I really love is when an author uses their world to explore characters and their relationships.

This is exactly what Kage Baker does in her short story "The Ruby Incomparable." Except she also adds the curious twist of making what seems like a sort of fantasy-adventure story about the strong-willed daughter of two very unlikely magical parents into something far more interesting. She actually kind of blindsides the reader a bit by sneaking the main character, Svnae's, issues with relating to her mother in the back door of the story while you're busy reading about her exploits. It's very well-done, frankly, and very enjoyable. I highly recommend it.

"A Portrait in Ivory" by Michael Moorcock

You know, I acknowledge that "A Portrait in Ivory" seems to be well-written in the broad sense, and I also recognize that Michael Moorcock is a giant of genre fantasy fiction. Furthermore, I recognize that Moorcock's long-running character, Elric, who is featured prominently in this story, is held dear by many a Moorcock fan. Perhaps, I would feel the same way about the character if I had read any of the Moorcock's work that precedes this story. But, at the end of the day, I just felt that this story was dragged down by the sheer mass of the character's history. To really understand or identify with Elric's guilt in this story, you have to know what he's done. Since "what he has done", from my brief perusal of the Wikipedia entry one the subject spans over several short stories, novelettes, and novellas, many of which seem to have been written out of chronological order, that's not something I'm willing to do for this story alone. As a result, it left me a little flat.

It does, however, say some interesting things about the nature of art, specifically of portraiture, and what it reveals about the subject. Overall, though, I don't think that these observations, which arn't really all that original or groundbreaking, make the story worth it for me.

"Paper Cuts Scissors" by Holly Black

First things first: in the interest of full disclosure, I am a librarian by trade. As such, I'm more than partial to the field. Holly Black, who has also gone to library school, is clearly at least a little fond of it as well, since this short story not only involves two library science students, a massive private library, and one particularly well-written section that explains why someone could actually enjoy classification, but is also divided into sections according to the ten broad categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification System. Yes, I'm a geek. You hadn't figured that out yet?

Moreover, this story deals with the reasons why people love books, and how people can come to love books and stories for very different reasons. It's also a story about relationships, about growth and learning to see things from the perspective of others. All in all, though, it's just a damn fine story. Easily one of my favourites from this whole endeavour.

Incidentally, there's also some good tips in here about how to win at Rock Paper Scissors, if that's you thing.

"Shatterday" by Harlan Ellison

Okay, so this will be the last Ellison story for a while, I swear. And no, that's not just because I've run out of his stories to read, although that does play a very big part in it.

What better way to leave Ellison, however, than with a really creepy supernatural horror story? And a psychological horror at that, something which, I feel, Ellison really does best. In this particular story, the protagonist, Peter Jay Novin, finds that, somehow, he's been split into two different people. Moreover, it seems that the world only has enough space for one Peter Novin. What follows is the playing out of the battle for supremacy between the two Novins. This battle, in many ways, seems to mirror the sort of internal struggles we all experience; struggles between things like conscience and self-interest; Ego and Id.*

It's a really great premise, frankly, and is masterfully executed by Ellison. I won't tell you how it all turns out. I will tell you, however, that, if you get the chance, you really should read "Shatterday."

*Although Ellison actually uses Jungian archetypes in the story (Shadow, Persona, Anima, and Animus), and might object to my choice to word it differently using Ego, Id, and Superego.

"The Executioner of the Malformed Children" by Harlan Ellison

I'm largely ambivalent when it comes to "twist" endings (e.g.: endings where everything, at the last minute, turns out to be vastly different than what it seemed). When they're done well, they can make for a great literary experience. Fight Club, for example. On the other hand, they can sometimes feel a little telegraphed, which I feel may be happening in this short story.

I won't get too much into the twist of this story, as knowing the twist ahead of time kind of ruins the story. However, I will say that all the signs seem to point to the twist early on. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed this story, as I tend to enjoy all of Ellison's work. More specifically, I loved the setting he creates in this specific story: a future world where psychic agents are trained from birth to protect the presence from dangerous creatures from the future. Yes, it does sound lame when I say it, but Ellison makes it seem pretty cool.

What I didn't love is that the ending twists all that around in a way that seems so, well, obvious to me. Maybe it's because, since this story was written, others have copied the idea to such an extent that it just doesn't seem fresh? Or maybe it's just a weak point in the story. I'll leave that to you to decide for yourself.

"The Other Eye of Polyphemus" by Harlan Ellison

I have, once again, been remiss in my postings. In fact, I'm farther behind in postings than ever before, with a full six days worth of stories to do. As such, I'm not going to bother trying to apologize for my lazy ass, and get right down to it.

"The Other Eye of Polyphemus" focuses on a man who seems doomed to constantly provide others with what they need, emotionally and sexually, without ever getting what he needs in return. After a very bizarre experience with ethereal people (ghosts?), he seems to come to terms with ability, and, as we are told at the end of the story "he went to get something warm; he went to get what he needed."

This is an admittedly simplistic rundown of this story, which has more layers than I really have the space to explore here. For example, why does Ellison choose the reference to Polyphemus, one of the mythical cyclopes, and his "other eye." Is the man in the story supposed to living a life where he lacks perspective, perhaps. Is he Polyphemus, and does he learn to see through his "other eye" (or, perhaps more appropriately, both his "eyes," seeing both perspectives at once)? I'm not entirely sure, and I fear I lack the knowledge in cyclopean myth to come to a proper conclusion

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"Opium" by Harlan Ellison

This (very short) short story left me kind of flat. Apparently originally written to be read on television, Ellison notes that the four-and-some-change page story was intended as a bit of "guerilla warfare" in his continuing opposition to television (although why, if he is so opposed to TV, did he show up on TV in the first place). It takes it's cue from the idea that, more and more often, people spend all of their free time trying to escape reality. Therefore, why wouldn't reality try to change to become more interesting?

I'll admit that it's an intriguing premise, and I think, given more breathing room, it could have been a really great story. However, as it is, it seems cramped and underealized. Perhaps more than a little ironically, I had a hard time suspending my disbelief in this story. In essence, I really wasn't able to "escape" into it like I was able to with many of Ellison's other storys. Maybe this is intentional, or maybe it's the result of the information about the story that I received from the preface, or some. . third. . thing. Whatever the reason, I just didn't find that the story clicked for me.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"All the Birds Come Home to Roost" by Harlan Ellison

This supernatural horror story is Ellison at his best. It's creepy, surreal yet somehow streaked through with realism, and somewhat pessimistic about humanity. Seriously, I get the feeling that Ellison is not a very happy human being.

Specifically, this story deals with a man who suddenly finds that he keeps meeting the women with which he's had relationships over the years in reverse order, all inexorably leading back to his first wife, who was not only mentally unstable herself, but was so volatile that she almost drove him insane as well (as is evidenced in the main character's visceral retelling of an extremely disturbing pivotal event in their relationship). Like I said before, the story is certainly surreal and very creepy, with a slow build of tension behind each "chance" meeting with an earlier girlfriend, fiancee, or wife. Yet there's also this level of realism to the story. As the main character deteriorates into a mess of anxiety and paranoia, you begin to wonder if these meetings are some machination of some malevolent force, or if it's all in his mind.

Monday, November 30, 2009

'Alive and Well on a Friendless Voyage" by Harlan Ellison

In this very bizarre short story, Elllison seems to be using the old saying of "like a moth to a flame" to parallel his main character (who is named Moth, of course), who is drawn to experience the misery of every single passenger of a nameless vessel travelling through something called the Megaflow. Every passenger on the ship is a stranger to each other (and possibly themselves), and no one talks to anyone except for Moth, who becomes their secretly held miseries, drawing them out.

It seems to me that the ship is some sort of bleak metaphor for life and the miseries we all come to experience. Moth himself, through this metaphor, and through his ability to let people displace their miseries on someone else; to vent their self-loathing, becomes an immensely tragic figure. I say tragic because each stranger on the vessel is allowed to leave. However, Moth, who is a permanent resident of the vessel, must stay on, presumably to continue absorbing the miseries and self-loathing of each passenger. Essentially, it shows that, no matter how bad your own individual miseries are, they are better than having to experience every collective misery.

"In the Fourth Year of the War" by Harlan Ellison

I've said this before here, but let me reiterate: I pity every single person that has ever pissed off Harlan Ellison (I believe that they are legion). "In the Fourth Year of the War" is another sort of revenge story in which the main character, now in the fourth year of a war with the homicidal split personality in his head, is driven to murder every person who has done him or his loved ones wrong, including an old neighbour from his childhood that had his dog put down, and even his ex-wife.

The story itself seems to hinge on the idea that we are made up of our memories, including the bad ones, and that, as human beings, we never really let things go (quite disturbingly, Ellison mentions in the introduction from the Shatterday anthology that one of the inspirations for this story was a woman who had his dog put down when he was young, whom he never forgave). Of course, he's not condoning the main characters murderous actions in the story, rather that this is what not properly dealing with the memories we carry with us can lead to, and that, in some way, all people have a similar problem to the protagonist, which only serves to make the story that much creepier.

"Count the Clock that Tells the Time" by Harlan Ellison

Next up is "Count the Clock that Tells the Time," which hinges off the idea that time is conserved like energy. In other words, that wasted time, like energy, has to go somewhere. That, instead of being "wasted," it is siphoned off into a sort of pool of time, where it can be recycled and used later.

An interesting premise, to be sure; one which is made more interesting with the addition of the idea that people who have wasted their entire lives, like this story's main character, eventually become so weighed down with wasted time that they are suck into this parallel pool/dimension of wasted time.

Of course, what I've said so far just makes for an interesting premise of a Sci Fi story. It doesn't make an interesting story in and of itself (fact I wish some other authors would realize). But, again, Ellison doesn't disappoint, using the premise explained above to explore what happens when two such "wasted" individuals meet each other in the formless void of the time pool/dimension, and fall for each other. Through this further wrinkly, a sort of irony is achieved in that the two characters never would have met if they hadn't wasted their lives. It also adds the further question as to whether they are still wasting their lives together.

"Django" by Harlan Ellison

Okay, I haven't been posting regularly. . . again. Chalk it up to laziness if you want. You'd probably be right. However, I'm back to rectify that again, with four new (to me anyway) short stories by Harlan Ellison. First up: "Django"

What can I say about this story other than it is very, very strange. Inspired by the story of Django Reinhardt, Ellison writes this very bizarre story of French resistance member, Michel Herve, who, despite having two of his fingers paralyzed during the war, rediscovers guitar playing while trapped in an otherworldly dimension (think Cthulhu only stranger but less menacing). The strange other-world seems to have trapped him when the other members of this group all died while attempting to escape some German sturmerkommandos (German Stormtroopers, I think?). Instead of falling to his death like the others, Michel falls into this strange new dimension. I told you it was weird.

Now, to me, it seems like this story is entirely a metaphor for depression and the idea of finding something to live for. Michel, who has just witnessed the death of many of his friends, who is alone and without hope in an alien world, rediscovers music, which seems to give him a new lease on life. It seems a little obvious to me, but, frankly, it's still a very engaging story. Obvious or not, it's still a good read.

Oh, and while on the subject of Django Reinhardt, check out the Reinhardt inspired The Lost Fingers. They are truly awesome.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

"Coming of Age in Karhide: by Sov Thade Tage em Ereb, of Rer, in Karhide, on Gethen" by Ursula K. Le Guin

No this is more like it! In this short story, Le Guin revisits the androgynous/dual-sexed people of her classic novel The Left Hand of Darkness (Read it. Read it now.) to craft a coming of age story. This is particularly interesting not only because it explores the difficulties of puberty with a race of people that have the potential to become either sex each time they enter "Kemmer" (their monthly mating cycle), but that, when you really get down to it, the experience isn't really all that different from what humans go through. Perhaps a little less traumatic, in many senses, but very similar nonetheless.

This shouldn't be surprising to anyone that has read The Left Hand of Darkness though, since an overarching theme of the entire novel is the play between the alien and the familiar, and how, particularly, an alien race can simultaneously be so different from us, and, yet, so similar. This short story just takes that same theme in a new direction, removing the human observer from Left Hand and bringing the reader entirely into the mind of an alien. I think this is particularly important to the story, because, in many ways, it adds the extra layer of what is alien and new to the main character, yet, in some ways, still potentially familiar.

"Wang's Carpets" by Greg Egan

This story was just not for me. I couldn't get into at all. I think this was because it skews so far into "Hard Science" science fiction territory, and takes long digressions into descriptions of biology and mathematics and the like that I, as someone who primarily studied philosophy and literature in the University years, just can't get into. Maybe it would be a good story for someone who's really into speculative science. For me it was just tremendously boring.

I think, for me, the problem was that, while there are some really interesting ideas and story elements here, I just didn't buy into the overarching story. I know that many people argue that "real" science fiction should be about the science first and everything else second, but I just don't buy into that. Again, maybe this is my liberal arts education talking, but, really, what is a short story without a good "story"? Moreover, to me, if the science gets in the way of the story to the point of impeding the reader's enjoyment, then isn't that just bad fiction?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

'Recording Angel" by Ian McDonald

I knew it! I was not, in fact, behind on my reading, and have completed 76 stories. I just havn't written about all of them. You see, I read the following story on Sunday, and, in the press of trying to catch up yesterday, I forgot about it completely. I am shamed.

So, "Recording Angel." This particularly intriguing story reverses the idea of terraforming by having a mysterious alien presence on Earth that is gradually starting to reform Earth into an alien landscape called the "Chaga" The story itself takes place in Kenya at the edge of the advancing line of Chaga, specifically at the famous Treehouse Hotel. The main character, Gaby, is a reporter, who, ostensibly, has been sent to the hotel to cover a running party the world's celebrities are throwing at the hotel up until the moment that the Chaga takes over.

But what she's really there for, and what she ultimately finds, is a new angle on the Chaga. Perspective. Through a man named Prederleith, a hunter in the employ of the hotel, Gaby discovers that the Chaga may not be something else, but something older. In other words, it isn't so taking the African landscape away from humanity, but, perhaps, making it into what it should have been. This, to me, is a very interesting idea, since it is, essentially, playing on the concept that colonialism has changed Africa irrecovably, and it isn't, nor can it ever again be, the suppossed "dark continent" that it was imagined to be for so many centuries. The Chaga, in its own way, is returning the unknown to Africa, and, eventually the world.

Now maybe I'm way off base. I don't know for sure, but that's the feeling I get from the story. Read it yourself and see if you agree.

"The Undiscovered" by William Sanders

So, apparently, alternate history stories are growing on me a bit, since, like "The Lincoln Train," I also quite enjoyed Sanders' short story. "The Undiscovered" is based around the question of "what if Shakespeare had coming to the New World, and ended up living with the Cherokee. Told from the point of view of a Cherokee named Mouse, who became friends with the man he calls Spearshaker. It's a very detailed, well thought out, and well researched tale on Sanders part. In an particularly well-done conceit, Sanders intersperses Mouse's retelling of Shakespeare's time with the Cherokee with snippets from a diary that Shakespeare kept, giving sometimes very divergent interpretations of the same event. My personal favourite is when they decide to put on a play, but Mouse insists that the female characters have to be played by women, as no man would ever dress up in women's clothing. Shakespeare, being Elizabethan, is, of course, more shocked at the prospect of having women on stage.

Ultimately, though, what makes this story interesting are the characters themselves, especially in how they interact and overcome vast cultural differences. I know, this sounds very corny, but it's done in a very realistic, and not-at-all touchy-feely sort of way. In the end, it makes for a tremendously engaging story.

Also, I've just done a re-count, and I realized that I'm still one story behind. I started this effort on September 9th, and, since today is the 24th, that means I should have 76 stories read, not 75. Unfortunately, I'm really too tired to start another story today, so I'll have to do two again tomorrow. After that, I'm definitely trying to get back to a regular schedule, since getting behind seems to equal getting confused.

"A Dry, Quiet War" by Tony Daniel

I enjoyed "A Dry, Quiet War" like I enjoy a really well-made spaghetti western or samurai movie. There's some plot-development there, and the characters are deep and engaging, but what you're really there for is the scene where the unassuming main character (usually some kind of veteran of some war) really decides to come out and kick ass. That's where the real fun begins.

Don't get me wrong, Daniel is doing some really interesting things here with ideas like time-travel, interdimensional beings, and wars at the end of the world. He's also saying some interesting things about how much a person might be willing to sacrifice in order to protect the people he loves. But, at it's heart, "A Dry, Quiet War" is a Spaghetti Western in space. And I thank him for that. As a big fan of Joss Whedon's Firefly, I think there really needs to be more work that plays with that aesthetic. All in all, a very enjoyable read.

Oh, and I know, I'm still one story behind. This was yesterday's story, which I never got around to posting last night. I'm reading William Sanders' "The Undiscovered" right now. I'll post about it when I'm finished.

Monday, November 23, 2009

"The Lincoln Train" by Maureen F. McHugh

As Gardner Dozois, in his introduction to this short story in The Best of the Best : 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction, puts it "There are many tragic periods in history. As the melancholy story that follows suggests, though, there are few of those periods that couldn't also have been made a little worse (his emphasis)"(293).

That quote pretty much sums up "The Lincoln Train," which asks "How would the American Civil War have ended if Lincoln had been shot but hadn't died." McHugh's answer is "pretty bleak." The North still wins the war, true, but, in the aftermath, due to reasons that I, as someone that has never studied American History, can't understand, certain parties take power and start a horrific forced resettlement of all Southerners that still had slaves at the end of the war, much like how the Americans "resettled" many Native tribes. The results are similarly as bleak.

From the point of view of a character study, this is a very engaging story. The main character, a young woman named Clara, is very sympathetic, and her plight as one of the "recalcitrant" Southerners, is engaging. I've never really been a fan of alternate history. I don't usually see the point other than as an academic exercise. However, McHugh has definitely pulled an interesting story out of this particular "what if."

Okay, that's all I have time for now. Two more to go before I'm caught up. I'll post those tonight.

"Guest of Honor" by Robert Reed

Back again with another batch of responses. It's been particularly difficult the past few weeks to keep a regular daily schedule here, between other obligations and my general laziness, for which I apologize. At least I've been keeping up on the actual reading, which is the important part of this whole exercise.

Anyway, on to the first short story for today, Robert Reed's "Guest of Honor." This strange story about a woman returning to Earth after several decades of space travel raises some interesting questions about life. First, it asks whether it would be better to have a short life full of excitement, adventure, and heartbreak, as the protagonist Pico has lived, or to live a virtually immortal, but sedentary life, as the lives of her patrons. This is an important question because Pico is an amalgamation of the personalities of 63 ultra-rich, near-immortals, and was specifically designed to travel through space for them, only to return to Earth where she will be broken down an implanted into their minds.

This brings me to the second question this story raises: how does a person cope with the idea of their impending death? Especially, in this case, with meeting the people who will, very soon, be killing her? This lays quite heavily on Pico throughout the story, and provides a complementary thread to the juxtaposition of Pico's stories from her travels and the descriptions of her "benefactors'" lives.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"None So Blind" by Joe Haldeman

I don't want to get too into the specifics of this amazing little short story. It's best if you read it yourself, I think. Suffice to say it posits an interesting question of what people will do for intelligence; what they will be willing to sacrifice. It also involves some really interesting descriptions of how computers and human brains work, and, most importantly, how they differ. The end result is a disturbing but compelling story that I can't recommend enough. I'm definitely going to have to look up some more of Joe Haldeman's work myself.

"Even the Queen" by Connie Willis

So the day got away from me (again) yesterday, and I wasn't ablet to post. It seems to be getting to be a theme of the is blog, actually. Anyway, to make up for it, I have random ruminations on two new stories coming up.

I really enjoyed Connie Willis' "Even the Queen" although, as a man, I'm not sure I can ever understand it. It revolves around the idea of a future in which women have been forever freed from the menstrual cycle through a drug called ammenerol and special shunts, and a small group of anti-shunt activists called "Cyclists" (Willis uses the, admittedly pretty funny, bicycle joke a few times). All of this is explored through a single family in which the main character's daughter, an obvious "black sheep" has recently decided to join the Cyclists.

The story itself, while serious in subject matter, is pretty light in tone, and surprisingly humourous. The characters are incredibly human, and, at times, very funny. While, like I said before, I could never understand the idea of being freed from something from menstruation (or for that matter, why some women would see menstruation as the perfect expression of their feminine selves), I still enjoyed the story as a whole, and understood the arguments being made on both sides (although I think Willis does skew the story to be strongly anti-Cyclist).

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"Tales From the Venia Woods" by Robert Silverburg

"Tales From the Venia Woods," which is part of Robert Silverburg's "Roma" series of short-stories, espouses an unusual view on the merits of Empire (or some sort of overarching governement). To make sense of what I'm saying here, I should first note that the "Roma" series takes place on an alternate earth where the Roman Empire never really fell, and now covers the entire planet. Well, strictly speaking, the "Empire" has recently fallen, to have been replaced with a second Roman Republic, but, for the purposes of the central argument, "Empire" and "Republic" could be used interchangeably. Whether we're talking about a unified Empire or a unified Republic is somewhat beside the point.

What is the point of this argument, however, is the kind of peace that has been brought about by the Empire/Republic, also known as the "Pax Romana." The narrator notes in this story that this is not a true peace, of course. There have been many internal wars throughout the history of the Empire/Republic. Rather, he argues that it has brought a relative peace to the planet. That the unification created by the Empire/Republic has minimized the potential for strife.

Given the pluralistic, post-colonial society we live in today, I'd say this isn't exactly a popular point of view when it comes to global politics. However, when you think about it, one could argue that, if the planet was unified under one government, World War I would have never happened. On the other hand, it could also be argued that World War II occurred largely as the result of Imperial impulses, so there you go. Either way you look at it, the story does bring up an interesting point, and one that might just be worth thinking about.

Monday, November 16, 2009

"Kirinyaga" by Mike Resnick

"Kirinyaga," which is part of a cycle of interrelated short stories,* tells the tale of Koriba, the mundumugu or witch doctor of Kirinyaga, an orbital space-colony that has been made in the image of ancient Kenya as part of a Utopian experiment. The story centres thematically around the idea of the need an adhere to rituals to maintain a culture and, in turn, a cultural identify.

Specifically, it focuses on the ancient Kirinyagan custom of killing a baby that was born feet first, as the belief is that such a child would actually be possessed by a demon. To a modern European or North American, this would seem horrible, a sentiment which is personified in by Maintenance, an all-white group of people who, well, maintain Kirinyaga's space station. However, Koriba argues throughout the story that the Kirinyagans cannot defer to maintenance's requests to abandon this ritual. He argues that, as a part of the rituals of Kirinyagan culture, it is necessary in order to maintain their identities as Kirinyagans, and that the removal of just one piece of the culture, just one ritual, will cause them to cease to be Kirinyagan. It's a surprisingly convincing argument actually, despite the disturbing repercussions of culturally-supported infanticide.

*I should note that, despite being part of a cycle, this story does stand quite well on it's own.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"The Pure Product" By John Kessel

I'm going to be honest, I'm not entirely sure what's exactly going on in this short story. In the story, Kessel introduces us to a nameless* protagonist who, as we quickly find out, not only appears to be immortal, but also totally immoral, travelling across America leaving a trail of senseless murders and various petty crimes in his wake. Furthermore, it appears that he's not the only immortal out there, as he meets a "girl" named Ruth during the course of his story that's also immortal and, like him, pretty randomly psychopathic. To make matters a little more confusing, he might also actually be from the future, and lives in the past because he's afraid of change; of what the world becomes. Of course, that particular revelation comes during a scene in which he's hallucinating from heavy drug use.

So like I said, I don't know what's going on here, but I do know that it's pretty compelling. Despite the central character's psychopathic impulses, the mystery of who or what he is really pulls you along in the story. You really want to know if he's some kind of immortal or demigod or man from the future. Or, if he really is just crazy. Perhaps it's a tribute to Kessel's writing that he doesn't really let us pin the character down into a neat little category. That maybe keeping us guessing is part of the point? Whatever the case, I know that the end result is an awfully good read.

*He might be named "Gerald Spotsworth," or he might be named "Loki." It's hard to tell.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

"The Dead" by Michael Swanwick

Coincidentally, I was flipping through the current short story collection I'm reading (The Best of the Best : 20 years of the year's best science fiction) and came across this story by Michael Swanwick. Since "Triceratops Summer" was still pretty fresh in my head, I thought "Why not give this one a try?"

In no way could two stories by father apart than "Triceratops Summer" and "The Dead." Where one is strangely beautiful, the other is very twisted and bleak. Yet both, in my mind, are great stories, which should say something about the quality of Swanwick's work.

What is interesting about "The Dead" specifically, though, is that it successfully does what I feel "Stable Strategies for Middle Management" doesn't manage: it presents a disturbingly plausible corporate future. In Swanwick's future, not only do zombies exist, but one corporation has just figured out how to use the zombies as blue-collar labour. This means that whole swaths of people will soon be out of work in favour of the walking dead; that their only source of income will be to sell their future dead selves to the highest bidder. Moreover, there's the implication that zombies could also replace people as sexual partners as a sort of living dead concubines, which means the whole concept doesn't just threaten people's jobs, but threatens the future of humanity in general.

It's a truly disturbing thought, only made more unsettling because I could easily see it happening. Most often, in films such as Shaun of the Dead and Fido, the idea of zombies being re-purposed as cheap labour is used as a sort of tongue-in-cheek story point. However, Swanwick is pointing out in this story that there's no reason why this couldn't be executed (excuse the pun) by some corporation in complete seriousness, and that the effects would, in fact be devastating.

Friday, November 13, 2009

"Bears Discover Fire" by Terry Bisson

Next up is "Bears Discover Fire," which, in a way, is about bears discovering fire one year in the near future. However, in a more accurate way, this story is about how bears discovering fire affects one man and his extended family, including his brother, Wallace, his nephew, Wallace, Jr., and his ageing mother. It's a touching and wry story with a whimsical touch, and it's just good to read. It reminds me a lot of a story call "Triceratops Summer" by Michael Swanwick which I read shortly before starting this blog. Both are really simple but beautifully written stories where science fiction elements are really only there to help drive the true story, which centres on the characters, rather than to take centre stage.

Frankly, this is the kind of SciFi that I prefer: stories where the characters come first and the "science fiction" is there as a supporting aspect to the story. This is not to say that the science fiction element of the story can just be swapped out for the conventions of another genre (in both of the stories mentioned here, for example, the science fiction elements drive the way the characters act and react). If it could, why would you bother writing SciFi at all? Instead, I hold that the SciFi elements are necessary to each of these stories. But, in the end, they're really not what's important. In other words, the story takes centre stage over the science, which is something that I often find is a rarity in the genre.

"Stable Strategies for Middle Management" by Eileen Gunn

It's been a busy couple of days, so, once again, I'm behind on my postings. I'm going to try to rectify that now.

First up is "Stable Strategies for Middle Management" by Eileen Gunn. I liked the basic idea behind this story (that bioengineering would someday be used by corporate employees to give them very unusual competitive advantages), but I found the execution to be a little extreme. I mean, I can easily see people going in for bioengineering that might make them a little bit stronger, faster, smarter, more attractive, etc. . . . In many ways, with things like plastic surgery? However, the tack Gunn takes in this story involves wholesale genetic manipulation that cross-breeds humans with other species, resulting in things like monkey-people, or, in the case of the main character of this story, an insect woman. I just can't see someone that would be willing to go quite that far just to get a competitive advantage. Then again, maybe this is why I'm not part of the corporate world.

Of course, I think a lot of what Gunn is doing is a tongue-in-cheek shot at corporate culture. Also, I think the analogy with insects is pretty apt. I also think that the end result is pretty entertaining. However, I can't get over the absurdity of the premise. It just feels like it was taken just a bit too far.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"The Winter Market" by William Gibson

This short story, to me, is Gibson at his absolute best, which. It has all the earmarks of a classic cyberpunk story. And I mean the real earmarks, not just people in full leather and reflective sunglasses. It explores that wonderful play between urban decay and extreme technological advance, slammed violently together and wrapped in a prose so vibrant that you can almost see the sheen off of a piece of computer equipment, or feel the grime built up on an old table.

"The Winter Market," more importantly, explores the human condition and what it is like to be human. Like much of Gibson's early work, it asks whether something that seems in every way to be human IS human, or if there is some quality to humanity that simply can't be replicated. It also, at it's core, touches on the idea that people are flawed, and that, no matter how hard we try, nothing we do is purely selfless.

If you've read Gibson's work before, you probably know what I mean. If you've never read Gibson before, then what are you doing here? Go out and find some Gibson to read on you own! You'll thank me for it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

"Trinity" by Nancy Kress

There is a a lot more going on in "Trinity" than I can rightfully address in this format. It's very deep, and deals with the relationships between three very complex characters, morality, human testing for the benefit of science, and the nature of God, not to mention two separate acts of what might be classified as incest. Needless to say, it's an intense story. It's also needless to say that there is no way I can do any of these themes justice in a blog post. The nature of God alone, the somewhat bewildering fact that some will give up everything to truly know God, and the possibility that, even if God or something like him does exists, He/She/It may not even be aware of us is overwhelming. So let me just say that I enjoyed this short story immensely, and that I would recommend it to others in a heartbeat.

Monday, November 9, 2009

"Snow" by John Crowley

John Crowley's "Snow" is a commentary on how human memory works and, more specifically, a reasoning against the idea that human memory is somehow imperfect. This is not, of course, to say that Crowley is arguing that people are capable of remembering everything perfectly. That would be absurd. Instead, he's arguing that our inability, over time, to remember every detail of every moment of our lives is, in a sense, a good thing. This is because, instead of the minutiae of our lives, we are instead left with broad impressions of things. Perhaps the occasional, semi-conscious remembrance of a single person or event that affected us greatly. In the end, Crowley argues, and I wholeheartedly agree, that this second type of non-rational memory, the kind of memory that is composed of impressions and not "facts" or "details," is far more important to us.

Of course, there's a lot more going on here than this thesis on the nature of human memory. This just composes the backbone of a story the explores how people might try to overcome what is generally viewed as "imperfect" memory, and how their attempts, ultimately, fail. It's an intriguing idea, and very well fleshed out, although I still feel it's entirely secondary to the exploration of memory in general.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

"Shoppe Keeper" by Harlan Ellison

Apparently, this story began when Harlan Ellison wondered to himself what the life of the shop keeper must be like in all of those fantasy stories that feature a mysterious magic shop that sells the protagonist some talisman or other that will, purportedly, bring them their deepest desires. He asks who would run such a shop, what can selling these trinkets to unsuspecting passersby can possibly benefit them, and where do they go when the shop inevitably disappears.

Ellison's explanation for these is very imaginative, and very science-fiction heavy for a very traditional fantasy trope. He creates a world in which these shop keepers are actually trading for time; secretly taking time and causing the proliferation of anti-entropic energy by selling what, to the future, are essentially toys, to key figures in history. This time and energy is in turn used by the people of this far future to remain animated in a universe that has entirely succumbed to entropy and dark matter. Heavy, I know.

But the important part of this story is really more about a particular shop keeper; an artist named Lhayne who is working tirelessly to buy the reanimation of his lover, Ahna, but whose own artistic impulse and moral compass runs counter to the necessities of survival. What's really at play here is not just an attempt to answer an idle question on Ellison's part, but an exploration of the problems of art and the artist in the face of necessities of life. Ultimately, Ellison seems to be asking which is more important to the artist: their art or their survival. And, more importantly, why one would win over the other.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

"Roadside Rescue" by Pat Cadigan

There is something deeply disturbing about Pat Cadian's story. Set vaguely at some point in the future in which alien races have become common to Earth, it involves a chance roadside encounter between Etan Carrea, whose vehicle has broken down and an alien. The alien, as we find out from it's Limo driver, is fascinated by the sound of the human voice, almost to the point of a sexual fetish. To this end, Etan is coerced into talking with the alien, in a scene that brutally parallels rape in many ways. It's truly quite unsettling.

Unsettling, but I'm not sure there's really much else there. Of course, the story is only about six pages long, so how much could there be, right? I guess what I mean is that I'm not sure what Cadigan's goal was in creating this story other than to explore the idea that, since aliens could very well be vastly different from us in terms of gender, sex, and sexuality, that violation could take place in many forms. Perhaps this thought is enough to carry the story, and I will admit that, due to the tense and tight writing style, it did compel me to read on. However, after finishing the story, I can't help but wonder what the point was. What should I take away from this other than aliens are quite possibly capable of being just as debased and depraved as human beings? And, if that is what I should take away from this, is that enough?

"Dinner in Audoghast" by Bruce Sterling

Okay, because I missed Thursday, I'm posting twice today to catch up. Up first, Bruce Sterling's "Dinner in Audoghast."

Sterling's excellently written short story uses a literary device near and dear to my heart, prophecy, to explore the impermanence of all things. He sets it in the ancient city of Audoghast during the height of it's power (and, consequently, arrogance), and inserts into it the figure of a lone prophet who has the undesirable and unique ability to render only true prophecies. I say undesirable here because his prophecies all revolve around the idea that nothing lasts forever: that, specifically, Audoghast and it's elite may be powerful now, but that will someday change.

The use of prophecy in fiction and how characters react to prophetic revelation has long been a subject of interest to me, particularly in how it relates to how the reader reads the story. Here, by having the distance that comes with time, a distance that lets the reader know with certainty that what the prophet says will in fact come to pass, helps to reveal to us the arrogance of the characters in the story when they choose to ignore what has been prophesied. In turn, I think that this does an interesting thing to the reader, making them also realize that our own society isn't permanent either, and that some day, things will change dramatically. This may be four hundred years from now, or it may be next week. That really doesn't matter. What is important is the idea that things will change, no matter what we do.

Friday, November 6, 2009

"Flying Saucer Rock and Roll" by Howard Waldrop

First things first: apologies for not posting yesterday. I went straight from work to a movie ( Where the Wild Things Are, which I highly recommend), and, by the time I got home, it was too late and I was too tired. So. . . yeah. . .

On to today's short story. I have to say that "Flying Saucer Rock and Roll" is brilliant. It's a wonderful celebration of the underdog and of 1950s to early 1960s acapella rock. It's also a great look into life in the New York Projects during the early 1960s (which, sadly seems to be awfully similar to what life is like in poor neighbourhoods today), and if filling with richly fleshed-out characters.

The one part of the story I don't quite understand is the inclusion of UFOs. I suppose it does provide a sort of escape from a hard life for the central character, Leroy. It also provides an interesting twist two an otherwise common, The Commitments-like story (although, to be perfectly fair, this story, which was published in 1984, predates Roddy Doyle's novel by a full three years). However, I'm not sure it's entirely necessary. There's already enough charisma; enough raw story here to ride to a satisfying conclusion without the UFOs. Perhaps Waldrop has a good reason for their inclusion. Or perhaps he simply set out to write a Science Fiction piece because that's what he likes to write, which, now that I think about it, is also a good reason for writing something. I'm not sure.

This is also not to say that the UFOs detract from the overall quality of the story. I think this element, like all of the other elements in the short story, is executed quite well. I'm just curious about why Waldrop chose to go this route when other, equally viable, but more common, routes would have been available to him.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"Salvador" by Lucius Shepard

In this short story, Shepard serves up an incredibly distrubing tale of the effects of war with a Science Fiction / Fantasy twist. It follows Dantzler, a Special Forces soldier during a fictional (although not implausible, especially for when this story was written in the 1980s) war of American conquest of South America. There are a few small Science Fiction elements mixed in, largely in the form of government-supplied Ampoules of what appears to be souped-up PCP (again, not entirely implausible), along with, as the story progresses, a heavy mix of Fantasy through the application of the myths and beliefs of the Santa Ana tribesman of El Salvador.

However, if you set the Fantasy and Science Fiction elements aside, you can see that Shepard's true thrust in this story is the inhumanizing effect of the horrors of war. In the character of Dantzler, Shepard shows the effects of war and how a normal person can become so hollowed-out by it, so devoid of emotion, that they become capable of unspeakable acts. Every aspect of this story is tragic, yet, especially if you think of the Fantasy elements as the disintegration of Dantzler's sanity, distrubingly plausible. And that is probably the most unsettling aspect of this story: You can clearly see how Dantzler's experiences make him into the "person" that he is at the end of the story.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"A Cabin on the Coast"

Gene Wolfe is playing with some classic fairy-myth tropes in this story, mixing the traditions of fairy-folk from a range of cultures with the more modern idea of alien visitors. What results is a sort of gestalt. A distant, utterly alien, and totally aloof force that takes the forms of human myths as it sees fit. This is an interesting idea, of course, but the story the surrounds the idea seems a little done to me. Because he's telling a fairy-story, we're given all the requisite earmarks: a supernatural kidnapping, a deal, and a sacrifice. Even, somewhat expectedly, a twist on wording of the deal that leads to a "surprise" ending. These are all very necessary if you're going to play off of fairy-tales and myths in the first place. But it just ends up feeling like I've read this story before, written by other authors, and with more interesting varients. Also, while the twist is a clever one, it's not entirely unexpected. In the end, I'm a little ambivalent about the story. It's good enough to be fairly enjoyable, but not great.

I should say that the above is, of course, just my opinion, and it is clear that others don't share this opinion, as this story was nominated for both a Nebula and an Locus award in 1985.

Monday, November 2, 2009

"Blood Music" by Greg Bear

This short story isn't about a vampire rock band, and we can all be thankful for that. It is, in fact, a particularly disturbing take on the dangers of nanotechnology. It's a cautionary tale not uncommon to Science Fiction, although a particularly well thought out one, in my opinion. It also takes a very original take on what could happen to humanity if technology runs out of control.

The one flaw I see in the story is that it does sometimes get lost in technobabble while explaining the microscopic organisms of the tale (Bear doesn't ever actually use the terms "nanites" or "nanotechnology"), but this only detracts very slightly from what is an excellent cautionary tale. , Of course, that's really just a matter of personal taste. I could easily see someone that's interested in computers or biochemistry being really interested in this aspect of the story.

However, even if you're not particularly scientifically inclined, this is a pretty damn good story.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

"The Music of Erich Zahn" By H.P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft Week Continues?!?

Happy All Saints Day everyone (okay, not as exciting as Halloween by a longshot, but it IS All Saints Day nonetheless). As I said in the original post for Lovecraft Week, I'm also reading a Lovecraft story today, mostly because I like the idea of an entire week instead of six days, and I didn't come up with the idea until Monday, so I was a little late for ending directly on Halloween. So consider this the after show.

And for the after show, we have the musical styling of Erich Zahn on the Viol. What really interested me about this short story was Lovecraft's use of music as a sort of conduit to magic or the unknown. In the story, Zahn's music has a sort of transformative and transportive power, revealing things not previously experienced by the listener. However, in true Lovecraft fashion, these revelations prove dangerous and destructive. Zahn's music is dangerous and destructive, both to Zahn himself and to the narrator. Luckily, the narrator seems to escape with his mind intact (something which seems to be a rarity in Lovecraft's fiction), but, once again, knowledge and revelation is seen as potentially destructive in Lovecraft's story. The music itself has a power to reveal, but, in revealing, is also has the power to destroy.

"The Dunwich Horror" by H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft Week Continues!

So I decided that, for Halloween day, I'd read one of Lovecraft's most well-known creations, "The Dunwich Horror." However, I quickly afterwards decided that I should instead eat copious amounts of candy and drink some beer. So, it didn't get read until this morning, leaving me, once again, a day behind schedule. Luckily, thanks to Daylight Savings Time, I have an extra hour to catch up.

As I mentioned before, "The Dunwich Horror" is one of the best-know of Lovecraft's work, having been adapted into three movie adaptations, a radio play, a claymation short, the basis for a quest in the video game Fallout 3, and the inspiration for the song "Goin' Down to Dunwich" by The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets. I'm sure there are others as well. And, as I've found, it it well-known for good reason. It is probably the best of the Lovecraft stories I've read so far. It's dark, atmospheric, and creepy, although, I believe, it stops just short of causing a true feeling of horror in the reader. I think this might me because the horror of "The Dunwich Horror" is so alien, so otherworldly, that, while it could easily drive someone insane in real life, it has a bit of a distancing effect on the reader, allowing them to go "hey, that was weird," while keeping themselves far enough away from it to not truly be scared.

I think this distancing in relation to Lovecraft's work can possibly best be seen in the massive popularity of Chthulhu in pop culture, especially the proliferation of plush Chthulhus and "Little Chthulhus" out there. I think what happens here is that, while something like Chthulhu or the Dunwich Horror is terrifying to those that are actually experiencing them in the story, they just come across as weird, and perhaps even slightly fascinating, to the reader. Now, maybe I'm wrong here. Maybe what's really at work is the age and popularity of Lovecraft's works has made it such a part of popular culture that it is no longer particularly foreign or horrific to the modern reader. Kind of like how vampires have become so commonplace to popular fiction that they're no longer all that scary.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween Everyone!

I'll be back tomorrow with two Lovecraft stories to round out the week, but I'm too busy enjoying Halloween for now. Hope yours is fun as well!

Friday, October 30, 2009

"The Quest of Iranon" by H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft Week Keeps on Trucking. . .

Hmm, today's selection from Lovecraft just left me a little flat. It's a interesting enough Greek-esque myth about a singer who searches for years for his lost homeland, kept young by his hopes and dreams. It also has a sort of moral aspect to it relating to excess (unsurprising, really, since Lovecraft was apparently a known Teetotaller*), which is mildly interesting, but kind of heavy-handed. Ultimately, the story seems to explore the power of hope in sustaining someone, and what happens when this hope is taken away. It's not a particularly revolutionary sentiment, but a good one. I just wish that the story that illuminated this idea was a little more interesting.

* Or so say the notes to the Penguin Edition of The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, which were edited by S.T. Joshi, a Lovecraft critic and biographer. This also makes it kind of funny that there is a Lovecraft Drinking Game.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

"The Tomb" by H.P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft Week Continues. . . (insert spooky music here)

What struck me most about this short story is it's claustrophobic feel and the tense and somewhat terrifying atmosphere that that claustrophobia creates within the story itself. Set on a doomed U-boat during World War I, we read the last words of the Captain of said U-boat, who is also it's last surviving crewmember. He calmly takes us through all the horrors that have occured on the boat that have, ultimately, left him alone, without power, at the bottom of the ocean in an ancient ruined city. Lovecraft is brilliant at giving the reader a feel of the futilityand claustrophobia of the crew's situation, even having one character choose to kill himself by stepping out of the airlock instead of slowing dying of deprivation.

Also, in true Lovecraftian form, we can't quite trust the narrator, as he no longer trusts his own senses. In turn, this means that you're never sure if everything happened as he says it happened. You're not sure, for example, it he actually "had" to shoot six of the crew because they went insane and started to tear up the boat, or if he just shot them because he himself is insane. This only adds to the spookiness of the situation, and heightens the atmospheric terror that permeates the story.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"The White Ship" by H.P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft Week Continues. . .

With a uncharacteristically un-scary story, to be quite frank. Of course, I don't think Lovecraft intended it to be scary, just strange (and strange it is), but it, unfortunately, makes it kind of a bad pick for a week where I'm trying to read and write about scary stories.

Nevertheless, Lovecraft's very unconventionally cautionary tale about the grass always being greener on the other site is still an engrossing read. The dream sequence that takes of the bulk of this short story includes some beautifully described passages of wonderfully imaginative locals. There is also a strong recurring theme that things aren't always what they seem, and may, in fact, often be too good to be true. For instance, we learn that Tharlarion, the "'. . .City of a Thousand Wonders, wherein reside all those mysteries that man has striven in vain to fathom.'" is a terrible place, where anyone who has entered have either died, been driven mad, or turned into a daemon by what they have seen. Similarly, while Xuria, "Land of Pleasures Unattained" seems beautiful and idyllic, it smells of the plague and of open graves.

What Lovecraft seems to be getting at here is the need to be happy with what you have, and that getting what you think you want may in fact be worse than what you already have. It's a bit heavy-handed, and I'm not sure that it's a sentiment that always rings true, but it's a valid point nonetheless.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Beyond the Wall of Sleep" by H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft Week Continues. . .

With this little number about a unnamed doctor reporting on his potentially psychopathic patient, a middle-aged man from the Catskill Mountains named Joe Slater. Slater has been having strange dreams frequently wakes in a violent rage, ranting about being a being of light and about how he needs to destroy his adversary, and will burn anything that gets in his way. The doctor tells us that, at one point, these rages became so violent that Slater beat a man to a bloody pulp. Since it appears Slater is unaware of what he says or does in his rages, the authorities assume that he is completely insane. However, the narrator believes that he is actually tapping into something else: a dream-existence that is incomprehensible to us in our waking lives.

This whole concept makes for a terribly interesting story in itself. However, I still had a hard time with this story because of the overt disdain the narrator has for Slater. There is a real racism and classism at work here, with the narrator repeatedly calling Slater a "degenerate" and a "decadent" that is typical of the people of the Catskill mountains. In fact, the narrator goes so far as to say:

Among those old folk, who correspond exactly to the 'white trash' in the South, law and morals are non-existent; and their general mental status is probably below that of any section of the native American people.

Frankly, as a modern reader, I found this pretty shocking, and kind of offensive. Of course, I realize that, when this story was written in 1919, and certainly for the time it is set (1900-1901), these wouldn't be unheard-of sentiments. The word "Hillbilly" came from somewhere, right? Still, it ends up rubbing me the wrong way. Throughout the story, I couldn't help but laugh at the narrator whenever he would make some sort of assertion that what Slater was saying in his rages had to have come from somewhere other than Slater's own mind on account of the "fact" that this degenerate hillbilly couldn't possibly be capable of such feats of imagination. It just seems like such a ridiculous argument for "proving" the presence of a supernatural force. As a result, the narrator comes across as a bit of an ass.

Monday, October 26, 2009

"The Tomb" by H.P. Lovecraft

Looks like a guy who'd create Cthulhu, doesn't he?Okay, now that I'm caught up on my reading, it's time to announce what I'm doing for the next week in honour of Halloween. To commemorate one of my favourite non-holiday holidays, I decided that it would only be appropriate to read some scary stories, and who better to go with than H.P. Lovecraft? So, for the next seven days (including Sunday, aka "All Saints Day,"), I'll be reading and writing on one Lovecraft story a day. And who might be the lucky first contestant, you might ask? Well, it's:

"The Tomb"

I personally think that this story perfectly showcases why H.P. Lovecraft is considered a master of creepy fiction, and it doesn't even contain a single Cthulhu reference. It's a first person account of Jervas Dudley, a young man who has been driven mad by his obsession with an old tomb in the woods near his home, the final resting place of the once great Hyde family. What makes this story great, however, is how Lovecraft makes you question whether the "facts" Dudley recites to the reader are the result of his existing psychoses, or if they are the cause of his current state. He makes the reader ask whether Dudley was mad to begin with, or if there was something else that caused his madness (or if he is even mad at all. . .). It's a creepy, atmospheric read, and a great way to start out Lovecraft week.

"The Man Who Was Heavily Into Revenge" by Harlan Ellison

This story is an elaborate revenge fantasy, and, let me say this right now, I pity anyone who has ever or will ever cross Harlan Ellison, because this is possibly the most inventive revenge fantasy I've ever read (I havn't read many, but nonetheless). It revolves around the idea that sometimes, just sometimes, the cumulative impotent anger of the entire planet (around 4 billion at the time of the writing of this story), reaches such a critical mass and has to find a place to vent; a "lightening rod" who has been so personally wronged and is so deserving of justice that he/she can siphon off some of that rage.

The "lightening rod" in this story if one Fred Tolliver, who has been wronged by William Weisel, as crooked contractor who took Tolliver for thousands of dollars in exchange for a shoddily made guest bathroom. What follows from this cosmic siphoning off is incredibly elaborate and strangely cathartic, although also at times deeply disturbing.

"Would you do it for a Penny" by Harlan Ellison and Haskell Barkin

I have to say, I recommend anyone who hasn't read Harlan Ellison before to go out and pick up a copy of the Shatterday anthology right now, if only for his brilliant introductions to each piece. It's okay, I'll wait. . .
. . I say that the intros alone make it worth it specifically for stories like this one. In the into, Ellison explains how this collaboration with Haskell Barkin is what finally got him published in Playboy, which, at the time of the publication of this story, was one of the highest paying markets for fiction (and what does that say about the state of modern society?). It's an entertaining anecdote to say the least, and it helps illustrate a bit about how author collaborations come to be.

As for the story itself, it's funny enough. The main character, Arlo, a self-styled "Great White Hunter" of women, is oddly endearing despite being incredibly slimy, and his "prey", a woman named "Anastasia" is wonderfully witty and sarcastic as well. It also includes the best string of explicatives ever put to page. I won't ruin it to you, but, if you have the Tachyon edition of the anthology, skip to the bottom of page 84 to find out.

What I don't like, however, is how the story turns out. I won't ruin it, but, suffice to say, it's very Playboy, so you can guess where it goes. Somehow, I expected a little more from Ellison and Barkin in this respect, especially since every other aspect of the story excels.

"On the Road with Fiamong's Rule" by Sherry D. Ramsey

So I have, once again, been remiss in my posting, which means it's time for another posting marathon. I have four days worth of stories to catch up on (including today's), so I better get started.

"On the Road with Fiamong's Rule" by Sherry D. Ramsey, is kind of clever, but not incredibly deep. It's a sort of unconventional road trip story involving a stranded alien, a bored housewife, and a minivan. It has it's funny moments (the stranded alien's faulty translator is pretty hilarious, actually), and it's a nice, light read which was perfect for a Friday when I read this. There's also an interesting use of smell on the alien's part to get what he/she wants. But, like I said before, there isn't much depth here. It's a good road trip comedy, and that's about it.

Of course, is there anything wrong with a story that lacks depth? I don't think so, as long as it was the author's intent to create a "fun" story, and I think this is what Ramsey has done here. The characters are well fleshed-out and interesting, and, like I said before, the story is funny. Really, what more could you ask for on a burnt-out Friday night.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"Golden City Far" by Gene Wolfe

I know, I need to to some catch up, again. I have the stories read for the last few days, but I just havn't had the time to write about them. I only have enough time for one right now. The others will have to follow later today, or maybe tomorrow.

I love a good story where you're not sure if the the main character has lost his mind. Seriously, Fight Club is one of my favourite novels. I think that's partially why I enjoyed Gene Wolfe's "Golden City Far" so much.

In this story, Wolfe works with the not-uncommon idea of a teen protagonist who lives a fairly uneventful life, but dreams of a being a hero in a fantasy world at night. Through the story, the teen comes to success in real life through the strength and skills he gains in the fantasy world. While few particular examples are coming to mind right now, I've seen this story hundreds of times before.

However, the twist here is that Wolfe makes it unclear as to whether his protagonist, William Watcher, is actually visiting a fantasy world in his dreams, or if he is just going insane. The fantasy world bleeds heavily into the characters real world and vice versa (Bill's neighbour's dog starts talking to and follows him around, both in and out of his dreams, a black-haired woman named Dinah from his dreams keeps appearing to him at different points, and so on. . .). Ultimately, it appears that Bill is transported to his dream world, but it's still unclear as to whether this really happens, or if it's all in his head.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Sleepover" by Al Sarrantonio

Sarrantonio's story is a tightly written, incredibly creepy little piece that plays off of the regret that some parents sometimes feel about having children, and how horrible it would be if, somehow, those parents could go "back to the way things were before." To make matters worse, he writes this from the perspective of the children, making the reader relieve the sort of deep abandonment that would go along with such a change. The result is emotionally draining, but beautifully written. An excellent piece of short fiction.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Bill, the Little Steam Shovel" by Joe R. Lansdale

We have a new champion in the category of "weirdest story!" And, boy, this one is a doozy (that's right, a "doozy." I like odd words. So sue me."

In "Bill, the Little Steam Shovel," Lansdale takes the well-known children's story trope of anthropomorphic machinery and rewrites it for adults. Think Cars, or Thomas the Tank Engine, except that it hasn't been written for six-year-olds. Just like any number of these types of children's stories, Bill, the titular Steam Shovel, is new to the construction crew, and smaller than all the other steam shovels. Unsurprisingly, he's bullied by the local thug steam shovel, is befriended by the old coot steam shovel, falls for the girl steam shovel, and ultimately proves his heroism despite his small stature. However, unlike other stories of this type, Lansdale's story is filled with crude language, psychoanalysis, some musings on the Steam Shovel God (and Jaysus, "the Steam Shovel Who Had Died for [Bill's] Sins and all Steam Shovel's sins by allowing himself to be worked to a frazzle and run off a cliff by a lot of uncaring machines of the old religion"), and graphic violence. Oh, and graphic steam shovel on steam shovel sex. Yep, steam shovel sex. That's not an image I'm going to get rid of soon.

Despite the weird machinery sex (can you tell I'm a little bit traumatized?), this is actually a pretty good coming of age story with overtones of heroism in the face of adversity. And it can be pretty funny, too (see "Jaysus"). In the end, it's definitely worth a read.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Jupiter's Skull" by Jeffrey Ford

"Jupiter's Skull" reminds me a lot of Neil Gaiman's short fiction. It has that wonderful feel of the fantastic amidst the mundane that is so often present in Gaiman's work. Also, like Gaiman's work, Jeffrey Ford's story centres on the importance of stories and the act of storytelling. In Ford's story, the act of storytelling is a transformative one. It allows the protagonist, who is burdened with his own sense of failure in life, to escape from the meaningless rut his life and become something more. Through the agency of an old woman named Mrs. Strellop, he and a young prostitute named Maylee tell the story of Zel and Jupiter, two young lovers. It is through the events of Zel and Jupiter's story that the protagonist is allowed (forced?) to leave behind his "life" in the Bolukuchet (a run-down district in a nameless city filled with people who have given up on life), and move on to telling his own stories.

So what does this say about stories in general? To be frank, I'm not entirely sure. Is Ford saying that all stories have the power to inspire people, to allow them to escape from their own lives? Or possibly that a well-told story pulls the reader in to such an extent that they almost become one with the main character, and are changed by the character's experiences? Maybe. It's something I'll have to think about.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"Tots" by Peter Schneider

In "Tots," Peter Schneider takes the reader into the seedy world of Totfights, kind of an ultra violent version of "Boy Fights" from Arrested Development in which two four-year-old boys fight to death. In Schneider's story, the narrator refers to it as a "logical extension of the vastly more popular cockfighting - though, truth be told, totfighting probably originated long before mankind had domesticated roosters." Yeah, it's a weird story. A very weird story.

Actually, I can't help but think that the Totfights/Cockfights allegory is a bit of a tip of the hat to A Modest Proposal, showing the horrific nature of the actions of real-world people through the logical extension of those actions. While I don't think anyone would equate chickens with toddlers (chickens are nasty birds, while many toddlers can be quite pleasant), the analogy largely works. There are some other interesting things here as well, such as the future of Totfighters as VPs in fortune 500 companies, and the oddly caring relationship of a Totfighting handler for his "boys."

All in all, it's a weird little read of a story that reminds me a lot of Chuck Palahniuk's work (and not just because of Fight Club). The morals presented seem a little broad, but Schneider never decends to the point of preaching to his audience.

Phew, there we go. I'm all caught up on short stories for the week. Hopefully, from now on, I can get back to a regular schedule with a response per day. So far, staying on track for the readings have been the easy part. It's getting to these responses that seem to be tripping me up.

"Watchfire" by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts

Feist and Wurts (which, incidentally, sounds very funny together) put some major twists on the traditional "regular-person-pulled-into-a-different-world-that-he/she-is-destined-to-save" fantasy trope* in this story. Instead a plucky young pre-teen or teen, the character here is "Old Jake" a half-mad old wino whose only companion on a wet December night is Gran, an even older homeless woman that seems to be suffering from severe dementia. This is enough of a twist to make things interesting to begin with, but Feist and Wurts (again, funny) add the extra twist that Jake, for all the time that he ends up spending in the fantasy world he's pulled into, never really knows if it is real or just a vivid dream brought on by a cold, wet winter's night. This is in turn woven into the role he plays in the alternate world as "the doubter." By the end of the story, neither Jake nor the reader really knows if any of the events from the alternate world "really" happened, or is it was all in Jake's head.

Of course, I think that it isn't important to the story whether what happens to Jake is real or not. Instead, what's truly important is what it all reveals about Jake's character, about how he came to be homeless in the first place, and, more importantly, how he came to care so much for Gran. The story itself ends on a incredible down note, but not one that seems inappropriate.

*What I also like to call "The Narnia Plot."

"Keeper of Lost Dreams" by Orson Scott Card

Card's story of Mack Street, a young orphan boy growing up the inner city who grows up dreaming other people's dreams, is a real treat of a story. The characters, especially Mack, are well rounded and believable, and the plot is subtle and nuanced. Mack is the consummate "strange" kid, and suffers from waking dreams which he knows arn't his, but are actually the dreams of other people in the neighbourhood. Between these dreams and the fact that he was even alive today was nothing short of miraculous, given that his birth mother had tried to abort him at seven months, Mack has come to believe that his life has a purpose. Most of the rest of the neighbourhood seems to think he's crazy, and suffers from epilepsy, but Mack himself nevers loses faith that there is a reason he's alive today.

What I think makes this story great, however, is that this "purpose" isn't some grand teenage wish-fulfillment fantasy. It's something much simpler than that. It's closer to home, but important nonetheless, and far more beleivable. As to what it is, I'll leave that to you to find out for yourself.

"Coming Across" by Harry Turtledove

Harry Turtledove is know for his alternate-history fiction, which, while not my thing, I have heard is quite good. So I guess that I shouldn't be surprised that, when I came across a fantasy short story by Turtledove that it would be highly focused on this type of speculation. In "Coming Across," Turtledove establishes a parallel world to ours that is inhabited by elves. The elves themselves are pretty interesting, actually, and it's clear that Turtledove has put a lot of thought into what an immortal race would really be like.

However, the true focus of the story is on a single elf that travels to our world in 1979 San Fransisco, and, after an affair with a man there, ends up contracting HIV. What follows is an exploration of how HIV would spread through the Elven community once he comes back, taking into account that elves had never previously really experienced sickness (or, at least sickness that they couldn't heal). It's clear that Turtledove thought a lot about this, and the results are fairly engaging, but I couldn't help but wonder what was the point. Okay, yes, it would be terrible for these elves if they contracted AIDS. But, I can't seem to figure out if Turtledove is using the plight of the Elves as some kind of metaphor or not. They're so fundamentally different from people that it doesn't seem like the story could serve any kind of allegorical purpose. Ultimately, it just seems like an exercise in "what would happen if," which is interesting, but kind of unfulfilling as a narrative.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Falling off the Wagon

So I havn't posted in a few days. I don't really have a reason, except that I've been lazy. I have been keeping up on the reading, though, so expect a whole slew of updates tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Perchance to Dream" by David Morrel

There's not much I can tell you about Morrel's short story. It's an engaging, psychological "horror" about one man's descent into madness as seen through the eyes of a doctor that specializes in sleep disorders. I put horror in quotation marks here, because it isn't horrific in the sense of axe murderers, homicidal ghosts, or supernatural monsters. It's more horrific in the sense of what happens to the man. The story is very Hitchcockian in style, actually.

Incidentally, this Hitchcock-esque style is also why I can't say much about it, as any real analysis of the story will completely ruin it for anyone that hasn't read it before. The story itself relies on the surprise of the ending to make it a good story, and revealing that ending would be doing too much of a disservice to readers. So all I can say is: find it for yourself, and give it a read. I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"Death's Door" by Terry Bisson

Turkey Day Marathon Part Five: I'm too tired to say something even remotely clever

I really liked this story, which generally brings the Turkey Day Marathon score to four out of five, which isn't a bad streak at all. In if, Bisson asks the question of what it really would be like if death just took a few days off. In short, it would be horrific. Since people and animals still become injured, but just won't die, the hospitals become overfull in a matter of days. People that are blown apart in horrible accidents still suffer through the pain, and even a little girl's dog that is hit by a car just won't pass away (although cats somehow still manage to get around the "no death" thing, which seems to be such a cat thing to me).

In a way, the point of the story seems to me to be that, in many ways, we should appreciate death. That, in many cases, death is a relief from pain and suffering. Bisson also seems to be trying to tell us that death is what really helps us appreciate life. That, without death, somewhat ironically, life would be pretty horrible.

There, I'm done. Five posts in one night. Not five quality posts, I'm sure, but the point is that they are complete, and that I have kept up my commitment to the rules. From now on, it's back to a normal post-a-day schedule. In the meantime, I'm going to take a nap.

"The White Man" by Thomas M. Disch

Turkey Day Marathon Episode Four: A New Turkey

Story number four is kind of unusual. In it, Disch deals with how one culture can be woefully misinterpreted by another. It also deals with the exploitation of immigrants in America. It follows a Somali teen, Tawana, who lives with her family in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Through a string of events, and with the encouragement of a local minister, Tawana comes to believe that "White Men," which appears to be an variant on vampires that uses syringes to take your blood and kill you. This belief leads to some very disturbing results.

Equally disturbing, however, is what you learn about Tawana's life, and, through her, the life of a refugee family (Tawana herself doesn't appear to be a refugee, although it is clear that her grandfather and her parents did flee from Somalia to the U.S.). There are several instances where, I think, the reader is supposed to be equally horrified about the everyday things that happen to Tawana as they are horrified by the playing out of the vampire plot. It's an unsettling story, and not one you really want to read while on a long car trip where you have a lot of time to think.

"Out of the Woods" by Patricia A. McKillip

Turkey Day Marathon Part Three: Turkey Day Revolutions

Another good story comes out of my post-Turkey Day catchup! So far we're two for three, which is not bad at all. Into the woods is an interesting story of crushing normalcy which seems to take place in the background of a Medieval Romance or Arthurian Legend-type world (which are actually one in the same, but anyway). It's the story of a peasant woman, Leta, who spends her days keeping house for a local wizard, and her nights trying to reconnect with her increasingly distant woodcutter husband. She feels the boredom an monotony of her mundane life acutely. To make matters worse, Leta is witness to several fantastic events, one of which I swear is a scene between Merlin and Nimue, a.k.a. the Lady of the Lake, although no one seems to listen to her when she recounts these events.

Ultimately, I think the story shows the power of fantasy to help people escape from the mundane. That the fantastic is ultimately Leta's escape from her life; that it is more compelling and, well, real, than her own life has become. In the end, I'm not sure if you should be happy for Leta at the end of the story or not. You certainly don't feel good for her during the story, but the conclusion is intentionally left vague. You feel that it is an escape, but you're not sure to where.

Anyway, I should stop there. I still have two more stories to write about tonight.

"Tourists" by Neal Barrett, Jr.

Turkey Day Marathon Part Deux.

I enjoyed this story immensely, even though (perhaps because) it is so weird. You can kind of tell that it's the kind of story where the author had an interesting concept or question that she wanted to explore. In this case, the question is: "What would it be like to be a tourist in Hell?" This, of course, leads to the not only the chance for Barrett, Jr. to establish his own view of Hell*, and to ponder what it would be like to take a bus tour to Hell, but also to ask what kind of tourist would voluntarily go to Hell. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Okay, so I don't think I have much more to say about this one. In short, if you like off-kilter fantasy, look it up. It's an enjoyable read.

* Which is incredibly and unconventionally creepy, by the way, not to mention way better than L.E. Modesitt's version. At least in my opinion.

"Relations" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Okay, I'm back, and I've got five separate stories to write about, so these will be brief.

Here begins the legend of the Turkey Day Marathon

The first story, which I read on Friday, was a little disturbing to me, but not in any way that I think was intended. On one level, it's the story about a woman that possesses hereditary magical powers who uses these powers to make random people fall hopelessly in love with her, then bend them to her will, discarding them once they, as she puts it, "break" and cease to be interesting. Somewhat unsurprisingly, she ends up coming across a man that she cannot make fall in love with her. Instead, she falls in love with him (it turns out that his family have similar powers). The only difference is that he appears to be kind to her while she is cruel to her prey, and there is no indication that he will leave her. Sweet, isn't it?

Except that, read on another level, this story could pretty disturbing. It could also be said that this is a story of a strong (but admittedly evil) woman who goes through life taking what she wants, until she comes across a man that is stronger than her, whom she falls hopelessly in love with. He even draws her into a traditional role of wife by giving her the one thing she could never have before, a child (she was previously barren). And, as we all know, all any woman really wants is a strong man and a child. Barefoot and pregnant!

So, to say the least, this story bothers me a little. I won't go so far as saying that it's sexist, since it was written by a woman, but I'm not sure I agree with the message it seems to convey.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Turkey Day Weekend

Like many other Canadians this weekend, I will be visiting family for Thanksgiving (aka "Turkey Day"). Now, my parents do not have Internet access, as they are not very technologically inclined. As a result, I won't be able to post over the next few days. However, as per the rules of the game, I will continue to be reading stories in my time away, and will batch post to catch up once I return on Monday/Tuesday. I was hoping to post today as well, but it doesn't look like that will happen. To all you Canadians out there, enjoy your turkey (or, if you're vegitarian, vegetable-based-turkey-subsitite) this weekend. I certainly will.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

"Demons Hide Their Faces" by A. A. Attanasio

Let me start this entry out by saying that not everyone can be Charles de Lint, and, A. A. Attanasio, you are most certainly not Charles de Lint. This is not a bad story by any stretch. The cyclical structure of the story in which the later parts of the story are told interspersed with the earlier segments is actually quite clever and plays into the ending quite well. It won't make any sense until you're almost done the story, but once it does, it strikes you as pretty clever. I don't particularly have anything against the story itself either. The idea that demons steal book to gain power is interesting, to say the least, and Attanasio's portrayal of Hell is nothing if not original.

What I do have against this story is Attanasio's prose style. His prose is just too, well, crowded. When he could say something in a few words, he instead opts for a whole heap of them, choosing complex and obscure terms when simpler ones would do. Now, there could be an argument here that this is done for the sake of poetic style; that Attanasio's choice of words are calculated to bring a more vibrant image to the reader's mind. However, it comes accross more like he's saying "Hey, I know a lot of obscure words! Watch me you them in sentences!" The end effect for me is a distancing from the story itself.

This is especially concerning when the first sentence suffers from this problem. Attanasio opens the story with:
Winterset in Egypt beside a rotting canal at Sidi Bishr, with the little, ceramic hashish pipe in her freckled hand, a thin thread of palpitant smoke twisting in the air before her, the professor faced her student and informed him seriously and with hollow impersonality, "The most avid collectors of books are demons. But they want only the old texts The oldest texts."

Not only does this sentence run on and on, its use of words like "palpitant" (pulsating) and "Winterset" (which, is not defined in any dictionary I can find, and is not "the professor's" name, so I can only assume it means "in the winter") distract the reader. At least they distracted me. The end effect is that I became more interested in deciphering Attanasio's strange vocabulary than the story itself, which I think is a major failing for any piece of prose.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"Riding Shotgun" by Charles de Lint

I'm not entirely sure what to say about this short story because it is just so good. The characters are full and lifelike, the story is engaging (sometimes even heart-wrenching), and the central conceit of "going back and doing it all over again" is masterfully handled. This is easily the best story I've read during this whole self-challenge, and Charles de Lint in one of my new favourite authors.

Gushing aside, de Lint does some great things with his main character here, playing off his urges to save the people he loves, whether it is his dead brother, the ghost-girl Ginny, or his long time friend, Allessandra. These competing urges to make things better for everyone involved creates some great tensions in the story, as the character is forced to make tough decisions in order to do what he knows is right.

I won't say any more, because I don't want to ruin any part of this great story. Please, if you're actually reading this (there may be one or two you), just go out and find this story and read it. Don't worry, I'll wait.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"Blood, Oak, Iron" by Janny Wurts

This short story reminds me a bit of "The Tale of Sir Bors," from Sir Thomas Mallory's Morte Darthur in that both stories deal with a main character that accepts a fate they cannot change. In the case of Wurts' story, Findlaire, the son of a dying king, comes to accept his fate as the next vessel for a demon that has plague his family for centuries. One of Findlaire's ancestors made a deal with a demon, presumably to guarantee his rule of the kingdom of Chaldir. In return, the demon possesses the king of the realm, and passes to the closest male heir as each successive king dies, leaving the chancellor and king's council to rule Chaldir in the place of its king. As the story opens, the current king is dying, and Findlaire is the next in line of succession. However, instead of trying to escape his fate; instead of trying to find a way out, Findlaire learns to accept it.

To me, this acceptance seems very similar to Sir Bors' acceptance of his fate in Mallory's tale. In his acceptance of his fate, Findlaire is like Bors, who accepts that he cannot avoid the prophecy that states that he will kill his own brother, instead choosing to act as valiantly as possible despite the prophecy. However, Findlaire's acceptance of his fate and his resulting sacrifice goes much farther than in the case of Sir Bors. While Bors still retains a tinge of the tragic to his character, Findlaire achieves a sort of zen-like peace in accepting his fate. This allows him to accept what must happen without entirely giving up hope, while Bors simply goes on despite the absence of hope. Findlaire is able to recognize that, because life itself is temporary, his possession will only be temporary, and that, while the demon may pass to the next male in the line of succession upon his death, someone will someday be able to break the curse. In realizing the transience of his own life, and if the curse, Findlaire is able to accept his fate without even losing hope that, someday, life will be better for his heirs. It is this sort of grand scale, long-term thinking and the strength that goes with it that allows Findlaire to accept his fate.

Monday, October 5, 2009

"Wonderwall" by Elizabeth Hand

Despite being a child of the nineties, and thus having been overexposed to the Oasis song of the same name, I still had to look up the meaning of the word "wonderwall" after reading this story. Thanks to the Urban Dictionary, I now know that it roughly means "someone you find yourself thinking about all the time, or are infatuated with." Apparently, it is also the name of a German Pop Band, and a solo album by Ringo Starr, which, in turn, was the soundtrack to a 1968 movie of the same name. Thanks, Internet!

Getting back to the story itself, if we take the above definition of "wonderwall" to be the one applied here (which I am, since I havn't been able to find another definition anywhere), there seems to be two possibilities for the "wonderwall" of the story itself. The most obvious seems to be to be the narrator's friend, David Baldanders, since the story itself starts with the statement "A long time ago, nearly thirty years now, I had a friend who was waiting to be discovered. His name was David Baldanders. . .," and, in turn, ends with her meeting him several years later.

However, while the narrator's relationship with David sets the framework for the story, I'd personally propose that the "wonderwall" of the title is actually the nameless, skinny, lank-haired, blond boy that keeps appearing to the narrator, calling her a "poseur." I think this apparition, lets call him "poseur-boy," becomes the true object of obsession for the narrator in the story, as we witness her descent into a spiral of heavy drinking and alcohol abuse in the pursuit of what she sees as "High Art." In fact, I would argue that "poseur-boy" is a sort of physical manifestation of art, and that, through his violence towards her (he attacks her at one point in addition to shouting "poseur" at her every time she sees him), is trying to show her that the life she's living is not the way to get to a place to create art. He his trying to show her that, in the folly of her youth, she has perhaps mistaken the drug and alcohol abuse of her idols as fuel for their artistic brilliance, when they were, in fact, secondary to sid brilliance. More importantly, I believe the manifestation of "poseur-boy" it trying to show her that, while that life may have "worked" for others, it is only destroying her.

That's my take on it, at least. Maybe I'm wrong.