Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"[Jagged Lines] : Six Hypotheses" by Joyce Carol Oates

I have to say, I was surprised to find a story by Joyce Carol Oates when I flipped to the next story in the current anthology that I'm reading (Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy). I thought to myself "what is her work doing here? She's not a fantasy author, right?" Now, I'll freely admit that I've never been too familiar with Oates' work, other than to know that she's been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize a few times now and that she's incredibly prolific. Now, perhaps, if I did know more, I wouldn't have doubted why she was being included in the above anthology, but, as it was, I had no idea that any of her work could be classified as fantasy.

That's why I was surprised to not only find the short story included in Flights collection, but also to find that it was so good! In fact, probably the best story of the Collection so far. Oates crafts a wonderfully creepy story here, chronicling the a single family's descent into madness under the influence of, well, something. Through the six sections of the story, the six "hypotheses" for how the "Thing" invades the minds of the family and subsequently drove them to madness, Oates really gets the reader into the heads of the characters. You can feel their sanity falling apart, and their frantic reactions to the threat of the "thing" as the story progresses. The final effect is a very, very creepy story that leaves you tense and drained. In short a perfect psychological, supernatural horror story. I'll never doubt that Joyce Carol Oates can write a work of fantasy again.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"Pat Moore" by Tim Powers

Maybe its because I'm still recovering from this damnable cold (shakes fist futily in the air), but there were large parts of this story I just didn't understand.

Tim Powers short story deals with a man (the titular Pat Moore) who is haunted by his wife's suicide (also the titular Pat Moore). In addition, this wife ends up haunting him as a sort of guardian angel in order to protect him from a third Pat Moore. This third Pat Moore has discovered the key to immortality, which involves becoming a ghost and then taking over another Pat Moore's body. The plot also involves some weird physics that I don't even pretend to understand, the idea that ghosts exist outside of linear time (and thus exist at every point and every place at once), and a chain letter. See what I mean?

Ultimately, the central thrust of this story, once you strip away all the creepy, confusing, surrealness of it, is to explore Pat Moore's coming to terms with his wife's death and his possible role in her suicide. This part of the story is quite touching and human, and acts as a great counterpoint to the creepy, insane Pat Moore ghost.

Overall, this is possibly the strangest short story I've read so far in this challenge, although a few others come very close. Serves me right for reading so much Science Fiction and Fantasy of late.

Monday, September 28, 2009

"The Edges of Never-Haven" by Catherine Asaro

"Straight Edges could take your soul."

the core of Asaro's story hangs on this incredible opening line. Through the course of this story, Asaro explores the idea that succumbing to hardship and fear can slowly make you less than human, and that you are only able to overcome hardships (the metaphorical "edges" of life), by facing your fears and coming to terms with your doubts. By adapting to and accepting the reality of your life, without letting it drag you into despair. This is expressed in the story itself through the threat of the Edger Demons, who, in my mind, are allegorical expressions of the "demons" that plague the "edges" of our lives -- i.e. our doubts and fears.

To make things even stranger, Asaro uses the idea of linear vs. non linear mathematics as a basis for the Edger demons' magic and their ability to control humans. The demons draw power from straight lines, or rather the equations that define these lines. The only way that the main character, Denric, can escape these demons is by using non-linear mathematics, the math that defines curved lines.

I know, it sounds dumb so far, but bear with me. The idea that non-linear math trumps linear math because it is of a "higher order" bears out into the overarching theme of the story. By not only using curves, but by embracing what they represent (flexible, yielding, soft), Denric is able to overcome the linear magic that traps him. Ultimately, the idea here is that flexibility, adaptability, and the willingness to face adversity overcomes the unyielding, yet also horribly rigid, strength of the Edgers. He gains his freedom by being adaptable enough, yielding enough to face his own inner fears and doubts, which in turn allows him to overcome the influence of the Edger demons.

Apologies if none of that made any sense. I'm still fighting off a bad cold, possibly the flu, so I don't think I'm on top of my game (not that my "game" is very high, but nonetheless).

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Perpetua" by Kit Reed

Okay, I've been hit hard by a bad cold today, so my brain is pretty much mush. As a result, I'm going to be brief. Kit Reed's story is very, very weird. It centers around a family of five grown daughters and their father, who have shrunk themselves to take refuge inside a specially outfitted alligator to escape a seriews of catastrophic weather events that promise to destroy all of human civilization. Like I said, weird.

It is also enjoyable, however. Rather than getting preachy about the evils of Humanity that have brought these characters to this point, Reed instead, through the character of Molly, focusses on the relationship between the father and his daughters. It explores the urge on the father's part to keep his daughters as "daddy's little girls," and on the urges of the daughters to alternately create their own lives and to please their father. Ultimately, it is about Molly's attempt to escape her father's influence, breaking what she refers to as the "King / Princess" relationship that exists between all fathers and daughters. Keeping with the setting, she does this in a very strange way.

Okay, that's all I have to say for now. I'm going to get some tea and have a rest.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

'The Sorcerer's Apprentice" by Robert Silverberg

In this short story, Silverberg presents an nice twist on the high fantasy trope of the socerer and their apprentice. Instead of presenting the expected young, plucky teen learning from the old, wise, slightly crazy old man (let's call it the Miyagi trope), Silverberg presents a story about an apprentice in his early thirties (Gannin Thidritch), who takes up apprenticeship under a woman of slightly the same age (V. Halabant). As a result of the changes, the story revolves strongly around the power relationship between the two characters, complicated by the character's increasing attraction to one another.

Appropriately, is is Halabant who manages to control this attraction throughout the majority of the story, maintaining her status in the story as the more self-controlled mentor while Gannin descends into a spiral of adolescent obsession. Disappointingly, however, Silverberg sets up a situation in which Gannin can demonstrate his physical prowess over Halabant, balancing it against her superiority with magic, making it possible for the two characters to come together and finally explore there attraction. I will give him credit that Silverberg doesn't seem to imply that they become lovers as a result of this event, although the event itself, along with a few other references in the story, seem unnecessarily sexist. I can't help but wonder if Silverberg himself was a little uneasy with the position of power Halabant assumes in the story, and felt the need to balance it out himself.

Friday, September 25, 2009

"Understanding Space and Time" by Alastair Reynolds

To me, this story is ultimately a discussion about the merits of knowledge and the merits of faith. The main character, first as a way to escape his situation and, later on, out of his own curiousity, becomes wrapped up in the search for a perfect understanding of how the universe works. However, along the way, he comes to learn that simply knowing that the universe works (essentially having faith in it), is just as, is not more, rewarding. In the end, the obsessive search for perfect knowledge of the universe proves to be self-destructive, while perfect faith that it does work proves to be freeing.

A lot of other things happen here, of course, but they're all too complicated to go into here. Suffice to say that true enlightenment also leads to learning that Elton John is truly awesome. I'll let you ruminate on that, while I go do enjoy the rest of Friday night.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

"The Jenna Set" by Daniel Kaysen

Kaysen's short story reminds of the television show Numb3rs* (Or, if you're a child of the eighties, the infinitely more awesome Mathnet). Except that there are no crimes to solve in "The Jenna Set" And the main character, Jenna, isn't a mathematical genius. Okay, so the only connection is that all three contain complex math that I'm pretty sure might just be made up (Except for Mathnet, of course. That stuff was straight from PBS, so you know it was solid).

Truthfully, "The Jenna Set" is more like a British romantic comedy movie, sort of along the lines of Love, Actually, except that, instead of meeting at a coffee shop, or randomly at work, or any of the other standard Rom Com tropes, the characters end up being brought together through the power of Math! Well, sort of. You see, Jenna ends up signing up for this experimental phone service called Palavatar, which, in addition to all the normal telephone features, will reliably automate phone calls for you, mimicking your voice and making up responses based on your observed patterns. Some pretty funny moments ensure, Jenna ends up getting the guy, of course, and Kelly's geeky sister and the inventor of Palavalar end up bonding over how people and their relationships can be mapped out as set of "psycho-socio-mathematical laws."

This last part about the "psycho-socio-mathematical law" I don't even pretend to understand, but I don't think you have to know what they're talking about to enjoy the story. In layman's terms Kaysen's characters come to believe that people can be mathematically defined by what they like, what they dislike, who they're friends with, and who they hate, and that how well you get along with someone can be calculated from these values. Except for the fact that they're applying this idea mathematically, there's nothing really new to that concept. Nick Hornby's characters in High Fidelity basically hold to this kind of "It's what you like, not what you're like." outlook on life, for example.

But the math is also not really the point of the story, either. Ultimately, Kaysen's story does what a good Rom Com should (and there are a few good ones). It's funny and entertaining. There may not be a whole lot there, but you don't really miss it, either.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"'You' by Anonymous" by Stephen Leigh

This story is really more of a (very) short essay on the nature of reading fiction and how it becomes part of our lives. To Leigh, fiction stories are like parasites, sliding into our brains through letters and words, and, ultimately, changing who we are. Now, I don't mean that who we are is what we read, and I don't think that Leigh believes this either. More along the lines that what we read affects how we think, that, much like a parasite affects the way a body works, fiction has an effect on how we think. Fiction, especially good fiction, can take us to metaphorical places we've never been and prompt us to have thoughts we've never had before.

Really, none of this is a new idea. Even the earliest works of fiction, like Beowulf or the Iliad, aren't just telling us a story. They're prompting us to think in a certain way about that story. The author(s) of Beowulf wants us to think about what makes a great hero and what makes a great king, for instance.

What is new about Leigh's story how he takes the idea of fiction infiltrating your brain for it's own purposes and turns it into something almost malicious, and certainly creepily insidious, by having the story talk directly to the reader. The directness doesn't quite always work for me, but Leigh also allows for that in the story as well, and works in some interesting safeguards so as to not lose "you." He also keeps the work very short (three and a half pages), which I think was a smart move, because, other than the central hook of the story, there isn't a lot to work with here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Search Engine" by Mary Rosenblum

I really enjoy cyberpunk. Even after all these years, William Gibson's Neuromancer is one of my favourite novels. As a result, Mary Rosenblum's short story, "Search Engine," was a real treat. It had that great computer tech taken to it's nth degree feel to it, with the all too familiar reminder that technology isn't always a good thing. Rosenblum takes the idea of computer networking and runs with it, taking it to some logical, but disturbing conclusions. For good measure, she also throws in Luddiste/Hippie political dissidents called Gaiists, and the idea of migrant "cash" workers to flesh everything out, since everyone wouldn't be happy with the idea that everything is networked, and there are always going to be people who have to take crappily-paying, under the table jobs just to get by. A dark view of society, I know, but this is cyberpunk, folks. It kind of goes with the territory.

It wasn't the setting that really pulled me into this story, though. Instead, it was the very complex main character, Aman. Aman works for Search Engine Inc., which is basically a high-tech detective agency that sorts through all the data generated by everyday life to track down people for their customers. Aman is an old pro at this. He's the sort of cynical, seasoned professional you come to expect from cyberpunk fiction. However, when he's hired by the government to track down a young Gaiist, he starts to have doubts. Throught the progression of the story, the reader discovers that Aman's own son, became a Gaiist years ago, and hasn't spoken to Aman since. So, understandably, the case opens up old wounds in Aman, and the full range of his character unfolds to the reader as the story progresses. In the end, the readers is present with the story of a nuanced and very interesting character, whose true nature is quite far from the stereotypical "hardened professional" that you'd normally get in a lot of cyberpunk fiction. My only complaint is that the story ended too soon. Aman's story could easily have spun out into a novella, or even full novel.

Monday, September 21, 2009

"The Inn at Mount Either" by James Van Pelt

I didn't like this story at all. It's built around an interesting premise (a isolated mountain Inn where the lodgers can travel to parallel realities and enjoy a whole range of worlds), but it doesn't really take off for me from there. The relationship between the main character, Dorian, and his wife, Stephanie, is mildly touching, and the parallel worlds are well-described (I think this is one of Van Pelt's strengths, actually), but the overall story just leaves me cold.

I think this is because it falls into the trap of the "surprise" ending that is so common to science fiction. Like so many stories before it, the protagonist realizes, just a little to late, that something has gone terribly wrong. It's just been done so many times before, and mostly just reminds me of the premise for a Twilight Zone episode. Van Pelt does put a bit of an original spin on it by pulling off the twist in such a way that the reader isn't entirely sure that something is wrong or that Dorian is just being paranoid, but it just isn't enough for me.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Flop Sweat" by Harlan Ellison

I'm not sure what to say about this story. It's enjoyable, and deeply disturbing, but not incredibly deep. It takes a serious dig at modern media which I'm starting to recognize as pretty standard for Ellison's work. But beyond that, there's not a whole lot to work with.

This might have to do with how this story was written, however, which turns out to be a more interesting story that the story itself. As Ellison notes in his introduction to this story in his Shatterday collection, this story was written as part of a challenge for an appearance he was making on a Los Angeles radio show in 1977. The host wanted Ellison to read one of his stories on the air. However, the story in question would have been too long, and would have interfered with commercial breaks. So Ellison suggest instead that she will contact him with a topic the morning of the show, and he would have to write a complete story around the idea by the time that the show goes on aid at 8:00pm that night.

Of course, she doesn't call him until 1:00pm that day, which only gives him about six and a half hours to write the story. On top of that, all she gives him to work with is "Write a story about a female talk show host." Ugh.
Needless to say, however, Ellison manages to work something out in short order, and barely gets to the show on time. In addition, since he works in a theme connected to the Hillside strangler, who was terrorizing L.A. at the time, he creeps the hell out of the audience, and the whole thing is a success.

I kind of hate Ellison for being talented enough to pull this off. Nevertheless, the story is worth reading, and pretty damn good for an afternoon's work.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"Finished" by Robert Reed

Another day, another story about immortality. Or rather, another story about the cost of immortality, which is almost invariably a more important question than whether immortality itself will ever be acheivable.

In Reed's iteration of the theme, immortality is acheived by a process called "finishing," in which a person's mind is imprinted on a crystal, which is then placed inside an artificial body. The drawbacks are that the process destroys the person's original body, and freezes their consciousness into the state they were in when the finishing was performed. Essentially, people that are finished are frozen in time. The can use memory sinks to learn new things and store their new experiences, but, essentially, they remain the same person that they were at the moment they were finished.

There are a lot of directions that Reed could have taken with this premise, many of which have already explored to death (excuse the pun). Of course, he could of asked whether the finished are really people anymore, whether the person really dies during the process, or if immortality is really worth the cost of being frozen in time.* Instead, Reed focuses on the physical cost of being finshed. To a certain extent, Reed is a realist/pessimist (depending on how you look at it) about humanity and society. In his world, much like it would be in ours, finishing is not a cheap process. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to even have the most basic of finished bodies, and much more for the creation of the crystallized brain.

However, as you see in the story itself, it isn't only the super-rich that get finished. Many average people seem to go through the process as well. So, the question remains, how does the average person pay for their finishing. Keeping in mind that, after the process is completed, the finished person is essentially immortal, the possibilities are quite disturbing. I'll leave it at that, because I don't want to ruin anything, although I will say that the resolution does not show a very positive picture of the capitalist spirit.

*To a certain extent, he does address this last question briefly, when we hear the story of a terminally ill man who was finished to escape death. We find out that, because he was sick and miserable and in pain when he was finished, he remains locked in that state for eternity. Basically, this is just a point for the argument on the main character's part for picking the "perfect" day to be finished.

Friday, September 18, 2009

"The Policeman's Daughter" by Wil McCarthy

In "The Policeman's Daughter," McCarthy creates a world in which death has ceased to exist. Through the technology of "fax machines," which in McCarthy's world, are kind of a cross between Replicators and Transporters from Star Trek. They can copy and transmit anything, including human beings. In addition, copies of anything, including human beings, can be saved in "hypercomputers" (really dumb word, I know) indefinitely. Essentially, this means that people can live forever, making new copies of themselves as needed, sometimes existing as several copies at once in order to multitask. A new state of deathless "immorbidity" ensures. It's a little cheesy, but interesting nonetheless.

What I really like about this story, however, is that McCarthy has decided not to focus on how immortality would affect the way people act. It is in there a bit, of course, but it certainly isn't the focus of the story. Instead, McCarthy asks the question "If death doesn't exist, does that mean that murder also ceases to exist?" Of course, copies can be killed, and people arn't impervious to injury, but, if a new copy can just be made, is it really murder?

In a style reminiscent of old noir stories, this is exactly the question that Carmine Strange Douglas, Esq., renowned lawer of "strange cases," is faced with when his old university friend, Theddy, shows up unannounce at his office one day. Theddy wants to elist Carmine's services because he believes that he is trying to kill himself. More specifically, an earlier version of Theddy from 70 years ago (when both he and Carmine were in their 20s), is now trying to destroy all the current versions of Theddy. The story revolves around the figuring out why, and how Carmine can solve this problem. It's a great twist on the detective story, and even involves a great romantic sub-plot that involves the titular policeman's daughter. All in all, and enjoyable twist on the genre.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"Bliss" by Leah Bobet

Purely by coincidence, it appears that I've picked a second story in as many days that deals with the addiction. The difference here, however, is that instead of the addictive power of sex, Bobet's story deals with the addictive effects of happiness. I think that the root of Bobet's story lies in what people would assume would be the ultimate drug: a drug that delivers the user into a state of pure joy (appropriately named "Bliss"), and asks what would be needed to kick an addiction to such a drug.

In the story, Bliss appears to basically be Ecstasy on steroids, stimulating the pleasure centres of the brain while also blocking all pain receptors. The user, of course, quickly becomes hopelessly addicted to bliss, descending into severe depression as they come down. After all, once you've experienced pure bliss, it stands to reason that normal reality would seem that much more painful, that much less that what it is while on Bliss. Bliss is destroying society as more people stop caring about anything but getting their next fix. Drug tests are mandatory for just about any sort of job, and it seems to be general practice that Bliss addicts that are checked into hospitals are carted off by "social services," never to be seen again. It's a dark future, to say the least.

So, when Sam, the protagonist of this story, finds out that his older sister, Elizabeth, is back on Bliss again, he's understandably anxious to try and find a way to help her kick her addiction. He enlists his friend, Mac, who is also the drug testing technician at Sam's job, to try and concoct something that will help. Mac's solution turns out to be the truly interesting part of this story. You see, Mac's solution appears to be, in many ways, just as addictive as Bliss, although in a very different way. It's a clever solution that I won't ruin here (if you haven't noticed yet, I'm prone to do so), other than to say that it Bobet ends up implying some interesting things about the power of our emotions and of what humans value (as well as what we will do to ourselves to get what we value). If you want to know more, read it for yourself. It's definitely worth it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"How's the Night Life on Cissalda?" by Harlan Ellison

To put it succinctly, this story is about sex and the end of the world. There, that's the sum total of what's going on here. Thank you, and goodnight.

Seriously, though, this story explores the human capacity for sexual desire and the destructive effect that it can have on us as a whole. It's also very, very funny. It's the story of Enoch Mirren, temponaut, who returns from his trip to an alternate earth in a very, well, strange way. Let me let Ellison explain it:

"When they unscrewed the time capsule, preparatory to helping tmponaut Enoch Mirren to disembark, they found him doing a disgusting thing with a disgusting thing."

Mirren, in his travels, has come accross a being called a Cissaldan, the perfect sex partner, and is now locked in neverending coitus. Unfortunately, once those in charge finally figure out a way to pry Mirren and the Cissaldan apart (it's not easy: they even try pulling them apart with horses) and find out what has happened, it's already too late.

It turns out that Cissaldans, never having come across other sentient life before, have, until now, have only ever been able to have constant sex with one another (they're apparently very good at it). Understandably, they've gotten a little bored. So, when they get the chance to schtup a new life form, they take it. The Cissaldans, despite being rather disgusting amorphous ball-like things, also possess psychic powers and the ability to produce powerful hormones, so, it's not like people (or anything) can resist. The apocalypse, or the world's biggest orgy, depending on how you look at it, ensuses.

Setting aside Ellison's basic assertion that, given the chance for perfect sex, humans will give up all else, including eating, sleeping, and, ultimately, their lives, and what that might say about humanity as a whole, this story is mainly just pretty funny. Especially the lengthly section in which Ellison describes how various celebrities and political figures of the early 1980s are overcome by the Cissaldans. My personal favourite being the description of William Shatner, which is as follows:

William Shatner, because of his deep and profound experience with Third World Aliens, attempted to communicate with the disgusting thing that popped into existence in his dressing room. He began delivering a captainlike lecture on coexistence and the Cissaldan -- bored -- vanished, to find a more suitable mate. A few minutes later, a less discerning Cissaldan appeared and Shatner, now overcome with this good idea, fell on it, dislodging his hairpiece.

And, if you don't think Ellison thinks highly of Shatner, wait until you read what the Cissaldans do to Anita Bryant.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"The King of Where-I-Go" By Howard Waldrop

If I had to choose one word for this story, it would be "subtle." I know that that sounds overly melodramatic, but what I mean is that I'm impressed about the subtle way that Waldrop has decided to deal with time travel in this story. He shows the consequences of going back in time to change the past, and, as a result, the present, but not in an overblown "Oh No, the Nazis won World War II! And then the Commies took over!! And I'm my own grandfather!!!" kind of way. The changes that are wrought in Waldrop's story are small, and the consequences equally so. Of course, they have significant repercussions for the story's protagonist, but not necessarily devastating ones.

Because these consequences are so small, Waldrop ends up focussing much more of his time on the life of his story's protagonist, Franklin (Bubba), and the protagonist’s sister Ethel than on the time-travel element. The reader receives lush descriptions of key scenes from Bubba's childhood, and you really get the feeling of what it must have been like to grow up in 1950s / 1960s Texas and Alabama.* In my mind, this is really the only way to make the reader care about the changes that are made in Bubba's life as a result of the time travel. Without the background, the changes, which are really only implied, would not make sense, and certainly wouldn’t have the same degree of impact.

In the end, I have to hand it to Waldrop for taking an overdone SF trope like time travel and, while not really doing anything new with it, still managing to create a compelling story. Actually, I think that the story itself could have been compelling without the SF elements at all. The story stands well on its own as a story about growing up in the American south in the middle of the 20th century, without having to complicate things with the time travel angle.

*Actually, I wonder how much of the story is based on Waldrop's and his sister own childhoods, since he dedicates the story to "Ms. Mary Ethel (Waldrop) Burton Falco Bray Hodnett, my little sister. . . "

Monday, September 14, 2009

" The Fate of Mice" by Susan Palwick

I don't have much energy today, so I'll be brief.

This story is about a mouse named "Rodney" (or "Rodent," depending on whether you take his name from Pippa, or from her father, Dr. Krantor). Dr. Krantor has used "SCIENCE" to increase Rodney's IQ and to give him the ability to speak. Krantor's intent in this was to prove that an intelligent mouse that possessed the ability to speak and reason out loud could navigate a maze faster that an IQ-enhanced mouse that couldn't speak (in Palwick's world, intelligent mice have become pretty commonplace in laboratories). However, as you might guess, this isn't the focus of the story. Rather, it deals with the consequences of giving a mouse self-awareness and the ability to speak, while still treating it like a lab mouse. Essentially, Palwick argues that it is wrong to keep a creature that can speak, reason, and even come to terms with the inevitability of it's own death, in a cage. That, ultimately, self-awareness brings a desire for freedom; a desire to live, and not just to survive. While a normal mouse may be happy with his lot as a lab animal, Rodney desires more.

It's interesting to note that, unlike other stories with intelligent animals, Palwick doesn't seem to fall into the trap of making Rodney anthropomorphic. He isn't a tiny, furry little human. He is clearly still a mouse and desires all the things a regular mouse does. Instead, she focuses directly on the idea of what is would be like to make an animal self-aware; to give them the comparable intelligence of a human being (strangely, he doesn't once try to take over the world).

In all, the story is an interesting read. There is a subplot here as well involving Pippa, Dr. Krantor, and Krantor's ex-wife, but I don't feel that it's all that important to the central theme, and I'm frankly too lazy to explore it right now. All I'll say in closing is that if you come across this story, give it a chance. It's definitely worth a read.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

"Jeffty is Five" by Harlan Ellison

Before I talk about this story, I have to say that I've never read any of Harlan Ellison's work before. I'm not sure why, and, frankly, I'm kicking myself for having taken so long, because this story was really good. Maybe my past reluctance to read Ellison has to do with the fact that everyone related to Science Fiction seems to hold that he is an asshole. From what little I know of the man, which is to say, what I gleaned from his introduction to the Shatterday anthology, which contains this particular story, I have to agree. He is a bit of an asshole. But he's a good kind of asshole, in that he doesn't let people get away with being stupid. He says what he feels needs to be said, and I have to say I like him for that. It also doesn't hurt that he seems to be very intelligent and well-spoken (written?).

Okay, so on to the story, which is the exploration of the main character's relationship with Jeffty, an eternally five-year-old boy. The narrator, Danny, grew up with Jeffty, they're the same age. But, where Danny grew up, went to university, and started his own television business, Jeffty hasn't aged a day since he was five. He is completely frozen in time.

Except he also isn't. As time passes, the narrator discovers that Jeffty actually lives in a sort of parallel time; a time of 1940s radio, pulp fiction, and movies. Somehow, in a world that has moved on to other things (much to the narrator's, and, one can surmise, Ellison's, dismay), Jeffty is still able to listen to new episodes of his favourite old shows, pick up new copies of old magazines, and see new movies with all the old stars every Saturday.

But the true thrust behind this story is Jeffty's unsettling ability to exist out of time, but how the present reacts to the existence of the past in its midst. Jeffty is not some kind of Stephen King-like monster child. He's a completely "normal" kid. Instead, the horror of this story, and I would describe this as a bit of a psychological horror, lies in how the past is anathema to the present, and how the present, unthinkingly, comes to hate it and want to destroy it.

This is a truly unsettling thought, but I'm not sure an entirely inaccurate one. Of course, we have a love affair with nostalgia in the modern day (just look at how well the two Transformers films have done and you can see how the modern world is obsessed with its childhood). I'm guilty of this myself (sadly, I did go see both of the aforementioned Transformers films, and even enjoyed the first one on a certain leveel). But I don't think we would act so kindly to a living, breathing past stepping up beside us. It would be unsettling. It would be a constant reminder of what was and is no more; a reminder of our own aging, and, ultimately, our own mortality. In short, if would be really, really disturbing.

Okay, so I've gone on far too long today. I should end this now. I'll be back with another story tomorrow.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

"Heartwired" by Joe Haldeman

Okay, so I don't have a lot of spare time today. As a reuslt, I've picked a pretty short short story to read. Joe Haldeman's "Heartwired" clocks in a two pages and a half pages, and is really more of a sketch than a fully fleshed out story. Haldeman sets up a situation in which a woman, on the eve of her 25th anniversary, goes to a company called "Relationships Inc." and purchases a vial of what is, essentially, a love potion. She is instructed to give half to her husband and to take half herself, the result of which will be that they will temporarily become infatuated with each other, like when they were first together.

After this setup, Haldeman breaks the fourth wall of the story a bit and explains directly to the reader that they are free to imagine any one of "nine permutations" in relation to what will happen next, then gives his preferred ending. It's an interesting technique, as everything is left to the reader. If you follow reader response theory, an immense blank of information is left for the reader to fill in, and how the reader fills in this blank, I believe, can be very telling to their views on relationships. Does she use the vial? Does it work? Does it backfire? The possibilities are numerous. In fact, I havn't counted, but I believe that there are probably more than just nine permutations available to the reader.

I'd like to say more about Haldeman's chosen permutation, and how it still leaves the final results wonderfully vague, but I don't want to ruin it for anyone who might read the story (and they really should read it, by the way). I will say that some of the events imply some interesting things about what the author believes men value in a relationship versus what women value in a relationship, but I'll leave it at that.

Friday, September 11, 2009

"The Edge of Nowhere" by James Patrick Kelly

It's not that I didn't enjoy this story. I did enjoy it quite a bit. I just feel like I've sort of read it before. Kelly's story is set in the small town of Nowhere, which is populated by people forcibly taken from various time periods by the myterious "cognisphere." No one living in Nowhere knows why they're there, or what the cognisphere is. Appropriately, they also don't know exactly where Nowhere is (It appears to be set on top of a giant cliff surrounded by a vaguely abstract green and yellow grid). Also, somehow connected to all this if the MemEx system, a system which tracks the stories the residents of Nowhere tell to each other about their pasts. Strangely, the residents of Nowhere carry currency through this MemEx system, acquiring credit through hearing stories and spending credit by telling. What's interesting though is that none of the stories appear to be new.

That is until the main character, Lorraine Carraway, operator of the Nowhere Very Memorial Library, encourages her boyfriend, Will, to try his hand at writing The Great American Novel. This act sets something new into place, and seems to bring a sort of personal focus to Will, who we find out early on is a bit of a restless dilettente. Almost inevitably, Will's work on his novel seems to lead him to think about what is really going on in Nowhere, and whether there is something beyond its borders. By creating something new in a world that is simply a rehasing of everything that has come before, Will (who I don't think is named Will by conincidence) is, not to give too much away, set free. Of course, the cognisphere also tries to stop this freeing by sending three of its agents (three very well-dressed dogs, but that's another post altogether) to retrieve the manuscript.

When I say that I feel that I've read this before, it's because it often seems to closely mirror other major stories about the idea that there is something beyond what we see or what we know. I was reminded of "The Truman Show" throughout this story, and it also seems to share some pedigree with "The Matrix," although I think this story does a much better job of dealing with things like reality and perception than "The Matrix" ever did. I guess, ultimately, the difference between this story and the movies I've mentioned above, is that Kelly seems to be more concerned with the idea of creation as a way of escape. That the new can be a way out of the repetitiveness of life, maybe? I'm not sure.

In the end, I did enjoy this story, and, the more I think about it here, the more willing I am to say that it was truly quite good. It still echoes some very familiar themes in places, but I'm not sure that's as bad as I origninally thought.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

" A Coffee Cup / Alien Invasion Story" by Douglas Lain

This story provides a few interesting twists on the "coffee cup" style of short stories popularized by Hemingway and his ilk (eg: a story that is really just a conversation between two characters, the conversation itself initiating some sort of change in their lives). First, instead of just showing a slice from the "normal" lives of two characters, Lain has decided to take that slice out of the lives of two characters that are living in the wake of an alien invasion, or at least an invasion of a sort. The two characters, Alex and Shelly, are sharing drinks outside a pub. In the sky float numerous flying saucers. We learn that the saucers just showed up a little while ago. When they first appeared, they caused widespread panic, but, after they just hung there in the air for a few days, everything went back to normal and people stopped caring about them. In fact, as the story progresses, you learn that some people question whether the saucers really exist.

Essentially the story is a commentary on humanity's ability to cling to normalcy in the face of massive or catastrophic change. However, it is also about Alex and Shelly's inability to accept this new reality and go on with their lives. This is especially the case for Alex, who has been fundamentally changed by the appearance of the saucers.

This brings me to the other interesting aspect of this story. Rather than tell the story of Alex and Shelly in a conventional manner, Lain has decided to interlace the story of how he (or, to be a little more literary, "the character of the author") came to write this story. Alex and Shelly's inability to adapt to their new reality is mirrored with the author's own inner turmoil in the wake of 9/11. In this way, the saucers become a metaphor for the 9/11 attacks, and the fundamental changes wrought by the saucers' existence in Alex and Shelly's world mirror the fundamental shift that the author feels in his own reality in the wake of the destruction of the twin towers in New York. At one point, the author says that Alex and Shelly's story is "a story about the New Normal, about life during wartime." As the two interlacing stories unfold, you begin to realize that Alex and Shelly arn't the only ones having a difficult time adjusting to the New Normal. The author also has his own issues with the new reality that is presented to him in the wake of catastrophic events. All in all, an interesting read, and one I would certainly recommend to others.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

"Bank Run" by Tom Purden

So, completely by accident, I apparently decided to start things out with a pretty lengthy fifty pager of a story. Apparently, I'm not one to do things in halves.

All, in all, I'd have to say that this is an okay story, which is actually a little disappointing, since I found it in an anthology titled Science Fiction: The best of the year 2006 Edition. Don't get me wrong, it's not bad, but it's also certainly not a classic.

The plot of the story follows a man named Sabor Haveri, a well-off banker on a small colony world in a indeterminate future. Sabor is on the run with his concubine slash personal assistant, Purvali, and his sercurity officer, Choytang, from a ruthless landowner named Kenzan Khan. Khan wanted Sabor to lend him money. Sabor refused because Khan is all kinds of crazy, so Khan decided that the best course of action it to take Sabor by force, wipe his mind, and take over all of his assests, basically turning one of the colony's four major banks into his own personal coffer. As they make a "daring" (re: actually a little tedious due to all the time Purden takes to give his complex descriptions of the technology of the future) escape across land, Sabor, with the help of Purvali and Choy, makes a series of contacts and pulls several economic strings, orchestrating Khan's downfall. Ultimately, brains and heaps of money prevail over assholes with giant egos and low impulse control. Hooray!

As the story progresses, we find out that the future of Purden's story features, among other technological advances, extensive genetic manipulation, along with cybernetic brain implants that allow people to essentially carry their computers in their heads. At least if you're rich. It's impossible to tell what it's like to be poor in Purden's world, as the only people that feature into the story that arn't fairly well off property owners or businessmen/women all appear to be, for a lack of a better word, artificially grown slaves for the rich.

To me, this was a particularly bothersome part of Purden's world that just isn't addressed in the story, other than by showing that Sabor is as much in love with his concubine (whom we are told was designed to be Sabor's perfect woman) as his concubine was programmed to be in love with him. They may love each other, but she is still his property, and that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

The other thing that bothered me was the idea that the free market economy was the best way to run a society. We learn in the story that the colony has no central banking system. Instead, all four of the biggest bankers on the planet maintain prudent surpluses and help each other out by lending to one another when capital gets low. Except for Krazy Khan, everyone seems to basically get along and everything works well, because, as is argued by Sabor in the story, financiers have something solid to lose from a chaotic and poorly run society: their money. Yes, because people with money have never made that bad decisions lead to general chaos and social unrest. . . well, you know, except for that Great Depression thing, but that was a one-in-a-million sort of thing, right? Right?

Setting aside the fact that I would hate to live in the Purden's world of uber-capitalism where you can buy whatever you want as long as you have the money, including people, the story itself wasn't that bad. It was interesting to see Sabor pull all his strings and screw Khan over, if only because Sabor was likable and Khan was portrayed as an insane would-be despot. All in all, I don't think I'd recommend to story to others, but I also don't wish I had the time it took to read back. Again, not a bad story, just not a really good one.

Rules of the Game

Okay, so I've decided to start a blog. I know what you're thinking: "Big deal, who doesn't have a blog these days? Why should I care what this guy has to say." Generally speaking, you shouldn't care. There are already enough blogs out there with people expressing their opinions on a whole range of interesting subjects, many of which do a much better job than I ever could (others are just plain terrible, but that's beside the point).

But this isn't that kind of blog. I'm not coming here to post my opinions on current events, or pop culture, or music, or whatever you crazy kids are up to those days. Instead, I've decided to start this blog as a record of a personal challenge. Recently, I wondered to myself if I could keep up a schedule of reading one short story a day for a full year. I love to read, and I especially love to read fiction, but, until now, I've never really tracked what I have read, and, and least since finishing university, I've rarely responded to what I've read in any kind of formal manner. Personally, I think that's a bit of a shame.

So, starting today, I will attempt to read, and write about, at least one short story a day. But first, I neet to lay some ground rules:
  • I will have to read 365 short stories in 365 days, starting today, September 9, 2009.
  • I will have to write a blog post about each short story I read. This can include a short review or a musing on an aspect of the story. It's content really isn't as important as is the act of responding itself.
  • A short story will count as any story of 20,000 words or less. More broadly put, anything that can be read in about an hour.
  • Anying under 1,000 words (aka "flash fiction") generally won't count, unless I read a few in on one go (let's say four or more). I don't have anything against flash fiction, but, for the purposes of this challenge, it just seems way too easy to go that route.
  • Novellettes and Novellas can count if I can finish them in a day, but I doubt that will happen very often, if at all. I don't have that much free time.
  • Each story has to be a new story. No rereads.
  • The stories must be fiction. For the purposes of the challenge, Memoirs don't count.
  • My goal is to read one story a day. However, I recognize that life can often get in the way of ideals. As a result, I'm allowing myself to miss days reading and/or writing about a story, as long as I have a good reason (eg: sick, swamped with work, alien invasion, etc. . .), and as long as I make up the deficit before the year is over.
Okay, so that seems to be about it. Time to get to work. I've quite a bit of reading ahead of me.