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.