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.