Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 46: Tower of Babylon by Ted Chiang

Chiang, Ted. "Tower of Babylon." 
Omni, November 1990

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   8.70/10
My Rating:        8/10

"Were the tower to be laid down across the plain of Shinar, it would be two days' journey to walk from one end to the other."

For centuries humans have been constructing a tower in an attempt to reach the vault of heaven. Now that the final brick has been laid, a group of miners is tasked with ascending the tower and penetrating the vault. The miner's include our protagonist, Hillalum, and along with his co-miners and their alternating guides, we learn of the society that has evolved on the tower, and of humanity's desire to understand their purpose and to reach heaven.

It takes four months for a man carting a load of bricks to make the journey from the base of the tower to its summit. Much of the story takes place during this trek, and along with Hilalum we learn of the societies that have evolved along the way, as many people have given up life on the ground in order to live closer to heaven. During ascension we also discover that the world is a near literal take on biblical stories. The science that governs the world is made up of the beliefs of the ancient world, made real in "Tower of Babylon." The Earth is at the centre of this universe, and as our group ascends they pass the moon, followed by the sun and then sky and stars, until finally they reach the vault. The wonderful ending teaches humanity that certain secrets are not meant to be broached, and man's purpose is elusive.

A wonderful story, nicely detailed and well thought out. This is Ted Chiang's first professionally published story, and impressive on all counts. The story received the 1991 Nebula Award for Best Novelette, and was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novelette.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 45: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce

Bierce, Ambrose"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." San Francisco Examiner, 13 July 1890.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   8.71/10
My Rating:        8/10

"A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below."
Illustration by François Vigneault

During the American Civil War, a civilian is set to be hanged by the Union army on a makeshift platform on the Owl Creek Bridge in Northern Alabama. Civilian executions were not uncommon during the war, and the southern criminal is standing in what is described as a routine event, with some onlooking soldiers appearing even bored. Bierce was both a soldier during the war and a respected journalist later on, and many of his stories draw on both experiences. The narration here is that of an observer, employing heightened realism to what turns out to be partly fantasy. The point of view is that of an observer, a local man, describing the scene and making some assumptions, such as where the river is likely to run. It is partly the realism on which the story is built upon that makes the ending so jarring.

Yet ending aside, what I find most disturbing is the lead-up to the civilian's crime. We learn that Peyton Farquhar is a wealthy thirty-five year-old plantation owner "ardently devoted to the Southern cause." His plantation lies near Owl Creek, and he is caught attempting to set the Union-controlled bridge on fire. Yet we learn that the information Farquhar received concerning the details of the bridge were provided by a federal scout masquerading as a Confederate soldier, so that the planter was deliberately set up by the northern army to be caught and executed. This is essentially a form of murder, and though the man is a prosperous slave-owner desiring to maintain the status quo to the point that he is willing to take part in the war by destroying a bridge, he is presented as a victim. It is a rare instance when a slave-owner can gain audience sympathy.

The story is presented in three short chapters. The first is the realist depiction of Farquhar, nameless at this point, getting prepared for hanging. The second gives us his back-story. The final and longest chapter takes us on an unexpected flight, and enters a realm of fantasy. Here the observatory narration is replaced with heightened senses, the boredom with excitement, the silence with blaring guns. We are prepared by a slight shift in narration when Farquhar closes his eyes moments before he is dropped and the noose tightened, and this sets of the quasi dream sequence that then leads to the tragic finish. He closes his eyes and here the narrator is no longer a distant observer, but is aware of the man's thoughts and feelings. This transition is a blatant hint as to what is to come, but as a narrative technique is subtle, and only after re-reading can we piece together how Bierce is able to shift his realism into a dream. Overall an excellent, deftly-written story.

The story was made into an excellent short film, La rivière du hibou (The Owl River), directed by Robert Enrico. The film received the 1964 Academy Award for best live action short, and was purchased by Rod Serling and aired as a Twilight Zone episode in February 1964. This was a brilliant and bold move by Serling, saving the show a good deal of production money that was then used to fund other, more expensive episodes. The episode features a straightforward and entirely brief introduction, allowing the short film its own space and respectfully removing it from Serling's clasp.

The illustration included above is by François Vigneault, from an illustrated edition of the short story published by Scout Books (Portland) in 2012. You can discover more about the artist here.

For more of this week's Wednesday Short Stories, please visit Patti Abbott's Patti Abbott's blog.

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 44: The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke

Clarke, Arthur C. "The Nine Billion Names of God." Star Science Fiction Stories, edited by Frederik Pohl. Ballantine Books, February 1953.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   8.71/10
My Rating:        8/10

" 'This is a slightly unusual request,' said Dr. Wagner, with what he hoped was commendable restraint."

Cover art by Richard Powers

The Tibetan lamasery hires an Automated Sequence Computer and a pair of engineers to complete a project that was begun three thousand years ago: to write out the nine billion possible names for God. The lamas believe that it would take another fifteen thousand years to complete the task by hand, whereas a modern computer would in ten days succeed in delivering the final list. The task is important to the lamas as they believe that God created humans for this duty only, and that the completion of the task is the fulfillment of humanity's purpose, so that once the nine billion names have been isolated, the world as we know it will come to an end.

A simple yet wonderful short story, it manages despite its briefness and unwavering focus to touch upon a number of contrasting realities. The most obvious is combining ancient religious beliefs with modern technology. The lamasery, we are repeatedly informed, is isolated from the rest of the world. It is high upon a mountain overlooking the surrounding quiet rural landscape, and even the computer components can only be delivered to India, where the locals would then cart them to their final destination for reassembly. The lamasery has no access to electricity, and has only recently obtained a generator that will allow the computer to complete its task. In contrast with the lamasery, the story opens in a high-rise building in New York City, where the lama is meeting with the specialist Dr. Wagner, their conversation surrounded by "the faint sounds from the Manhattan streets far below." The western engineers located for three months in the Tibetan mountains are tired of their peaceful setting and long for television, not its entertainment value necessarily, since "even the sight of a TV commercial would seem like manna from heaven." The western idea of heavenly gifts comes in the form of television, whereas the eastern ideal is to complete their purpose to God.

Another contrast between east and west comes in the form of the anecdote of the Louisiana "crackpot preacher who once said the world was going to end next Sunday." When the world did not end, his congregation was not upset, despite panicking and selling off their homes, thinking he had made a mistake but wanting more than anything to believe. These Tibetan monks are careful not to panic the public, keeping their motivations secret for the most part, and satisfied not by maintaining a congregation, but by pursuing the responsibilities they believe were delegated by God.

There is an eerie connotation in the story that strikes a chord with more modern sensibilities, and that is the implication that modern technology will help bring about the end of humanity. Whether or not this is Clarke's belief, or if he was criticizing western society for having such inconsequential ambitions in comparison with the east, or an amalgamation of various thoughts rather than firm beliefs, can be argued. What is most charming here, as with his short story "The Star," is that for a man heralded for his understanding and pursuit of the sciences, he is able to write the most affecting science fiction stories that uphold un-scientific religious beliefs.

And of course there is that excellent, understated last line.

For more of this week's Wednesday Short Stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 43: By His Bootstraps by Robert A. Heinlein

Heinlein, Robert A. "By His Bootstraps." Astounding Science-Fiction, October 1941.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   8.71/10
My Rating:        6/10

"Bob Wilson did not see the circle grow."

Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps" was chosen
for the cover of ASF October 1941

Bob Wilson has locked himself in his room in order to complete his graduate thesis, disavowing the notion of time travel, when his future self appears through a time gate. This future self, referring to himself as "Joe," urges Wilson to step through the gate, claiming that a great future lies ahead. Wilson, sleep-deprived and irritable, is unable to recognize his future self and refuses to comply, when a third version of himself appears. This third version is from a farther future, and refutes the second incarnation's claims. The three selves get into a brawl, and Wilson is conveniently shoved through the gate, because otherwise we would not have much of a story.

On the other side, Wilson encounters Diktor, the controller of the time gate, who claims Wilson has stepped 30,000 years into his future. He informs Wilson that the gift of the time gate was bestowed to humanity by a race of aliens referred to as the "High Ones," who essentially enslaved humanity and transformed them into meek creatures. Here, among the spineless humans of the future, Wilson could make himself king.

A great concept raising many paradoxes of time travel, as Heinlein frequently did (see " 'All You Zombies...' "). Interesting as an idea, but as a story it is overlong, tiresomely repetitive and predictable. In addition, I don't care for the jocular tone, which worked better for a story like "--And He Built a Crooked House" published the same year (perhaps Heinlein was in that mood at the time) and both published in Astounding Science Fiction (perhaps editor John W. Campbell was in the mood for such hilarity). It worked in Crooked because of the absurd scenario and caricatures, but this story aims to be more complex with more serious undertones, and the light tone is not helped by the story being flat-out unfunny (arguably dated--again a "perhaps" as in 1941 some readers may have gotten a kick out of beautiful enslaved girls who can be owned and traded by men who do not give a thought to anything other than their physical appearance). None of this is helped by the story's protagonist who is conveniently not too smart (despite attempting to write a seemingly complex thesis) and therefore easily manipulated.

"By His Bootstraps" was published in the October 1941 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction, under the byline Anson MacDonald. It was the lead story, a novella, and shared the issue with another novella by Heinlein, "Common Sense," so that of the 164 pages of that issue, 73 of them were from Heinlein's typewriter. "Bootstraps" proved in the long term to be more popular, and since it is a recognizable Heinlein story, it is interesting that it was printed under a pseudonym and not reserved for another issue. I have not read "Common Sense," and it appears to be more recognizable as the second half of the novel Orphans in the Sky, and while the first half, "Universe," had already been published in ASF in the May issue of that same year, as a sequel "Common Sense" needed to carry Heinlein's name. The cover, as well as the interior art accompanying the novella, were produced by Hubert Rogers. The cover illustration depicts the time gate with the three versions of Wilson, and in the backdrop the two different time periods in which he settles.

For more of this week's Wednesday short stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 42: "—And He Built a Crooked House" by Robert A. Heinlein

Heinlein, Robert A. " '—And He Built a Crooked House' ." Astounding Science-Fiction, February 1941.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   8.71/10
My Rating:        7/10

"Outside, the night was cold and wet, but in the small living room the curtains were closed and the
fire burned brightly.

Ambitious experimental architect Quintus Teal conceives of a house in the form of a tesseract. His persistence convinces friend Homer Bailey to invest in having it built, since his socialite wife would be proud to own and show off such an unusual house of the future. Constructed quickly, the house on the outside is an unimpressive cube, but on the inside it is a vast structure with eight rooms. As the house is four dimensional, however, when Teal and the new owners attempt to leave they instead find themselves in a different room, as each part of the house loops into another. Moreover, the views through some of the windows are from various parts of the country and perhaps even the world and beyond into other worlds. Not just looping, the house extends itself well into the other dimension.

The trio, with Teal in the lead, attempt to find a way out of the tesseract house.

An enjoyable story and a good concept. The characters are basic Heinlein and annoying more often than not, but they suit the story that at the same time delivers a scathing version of Los Angeles. The story is both satirical, poking fun at LA and its inhabitants, at architecture and the idea of the modern aesthetic, while maintaining its focus on mathematical and geometric logic.

I am generally mixed about Heinlen, but aside from the annoying protagonist and comical tone, I did enjoy this one.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Briefly: Little Eve by Catriona Ward (2018)

Ward, Catriona. Little Eve. UK: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, July 2018

Rating:     8/10

Little Eve at the ISFsb
Little Eve at Goodreads

Tor Nightfire edition, 2022

Catriona Ward's gothic novel Little Eve is difficult to describe. Not because it is surreal or unclear or overly complex, but because revealing its plot is a disservice to the reader. The novel begins in 1921 with the discovery of a brutal scene, then falls back to 1917, the latter stages of the Great War, to tell its story. The story reveals itself to the reader in mostly episodic sequences, as characters living on an isolated Scottish island go about their daily activities, picking mushrooms and mending clothes and taking part in a snake ritual. As we read, the story becomes increasingly complex, with characters from the outside world seeping in, and the occasional time jump. Yet as it is complicated it also begins to piece itself together.

This is as vague as I dare describe the plot, since I would urge readers of darker, psychological fiction to pick this one up. I enjoyed it immensely. The novel revolves primarily around two teenaged girls at the isolated island, where they live with their Uncle, two women and two other children. They attend school at the nearby village, and have various encounters with outsiders, most of whom see them as odd. Tensions rise among the island members, through their outside interactions, their individual desires, and their often strained relationships between one another, all under the watchful eyes and strict leadership of their Uncle. The situation is fascinating, the characters intriguing, and Ward manages to consistently maintain both the suspense and the tension, along with its powerful atmosphere in that stormy environment, as the story builds to its reveal.

Despite selling poorly and being available at the time of publication only in the UK, the book received the 2018 Shirley Jackson Award for best novel, which is awarded for dark psychological fiction. Following the international success of The House on Needless Street, which I also enjoyed immensely, Little Eve was reprinted with an introduction by Ward, and made available in North America.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 41: The Dunwich Horror by H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft, H. P. "The Dunwich Horror." Weird Tales, April 1929.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   8.75/10
My Rating:        7/10

"When a traveller in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of the Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean's Corners he comes upon a lonely and curious country."

And so begins the tale of the town of Dunwich and a horror it recently experienced. Like many a Lovecraft story, the setting is lonely and isolated, but compared to the more urban centres of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" and the ports and seas of "The Call of Cthulhu," Dunwich is mostly detached from the known world. The story keeps us mostly at an isolated house in the hills and its environs (with side visits to the library), and of course such tales must be in isolated regions otherwise their secrets wouldn't be so secretive and the curious general public would be milling about.

In our isolated house lives Lavinia Whateley, her aged father and her unusually quick-developing Wilbur, who is toddler-sized and skilled when he is less than a year old. Who is the father of this devilish child, and what strange creature is he and grandpa hiding in the newly reconstructed portion of their house? This is not among my favourite of Lovecraft's stories, but I award points for mood and atmosphere, which are highly effective throughout. Lovecraft's melodrama is sometimes too much for me, with the learned townsmen studying and desperately translating documents, and later swooning at indescribable horrors, and the story, as many of his stories, is somewhat overlong since we get the point and don't need have it stretched out. This is why as a teen I believe I read only one of his collections, and I believe I read it intermittently, goaded on by Lovecraft-reading classmates.

For more of this week's Wednesday Short Stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.
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