Friday, December 8, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 35: The Gernsback Continuum by William Gibson

Gibson, William. "The Gernsback Continuum." Universe 11, edited by Terry Carr. New York: Doubleday, June 1981.

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:   8.83/10
My Rating:        7/10

"Mercifully, the whole thing started to fade, to become an episode."

An American photographer in London photographing shoes for a series of ads, is hired by a British publisher to photograph 1930s American architecture. The idea is that American architecture of the 1930s reveals what western society at the time believed was in store for the future--the future through the perspective of the past. The photographer returns to the U.S. and, in Los Angeles, begins work on the project. As he is immersed in canvasing and documenting buildings and other constructs of the past, he begins to catch glimpses of future engineering from the perspective of the '30s, images evoked from old science fiction film, H. G. Wells, pulp magazines and the naïve hopefulness of an America that was unaware of the damages created by striving to achieve a technologically driven future.

"The Gernsback Continuum" is an essay disguised as a short story. In terms of plot, there really isn't much: a photographer is assigned to take specific photos, becomes immersed and starts to hallucinate, gains perspective from a friend and the hallucinations begin to dissipate. He reflects, and the end. It is the thesis that makes the story interesting, and it could have been quite a good essay, but would not have found as many readers as the short story did.

Gibson is essentially looking at how westerners used to view the future half a century in the pre-World War II past, with a hopefulness that longed for the technology proposed by the early pulps, led by pulp pioneer Hugo Gernsback. We could have had large flying machines with fins or advanced dirigibles, oversized road vehicles, underwater civilizations, eighty-lane highways, nutrition pills, and so forth. Yet the reality fifty years later is the cost of technological development, the environmental and health problems derived in order to get to where we are in 1980. The future we received is one of global threats, illness. strife and pollution. He wonders which of these options is the preferred world?

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 34: The Quest for Saint Aquin by Anthony Boucher

Boucher, Anthony. "The Quest for Saint Aquin." New Tales of Time and Space, Raymond J. Healy, editor, November 1951.

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:   8.86/10
My Rating:        7/10

"The Bishop of Rome, the head of the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, the Vicar of Christ on Earth--in short, the Pope--brushed a cockroach from the fifth-encrusted wooden table, took another sip of the raw red wine, and resumed his discourse."

In a post-apocalyptic future, the technocratic government has banned all religion, and those who insist on practicing must do so in secret or risk imprisonment or death. The story opens with the secret pope meeting a devout Catholic, Thomas, at the back of a quiet, out-of-the-way pub. The pope engages Thomas to seek out the remains of a long-deceased Catholic orator named Saint Aquin, who it is said had the power to convert people in droves. It is also rumoured that Saint Aquin's body remains entirely intact, and the pope believes that if they can find these remains, they would attract many more converts to the church. The body, however, is located in the radioactive zone, and Thomas would need to successfully sneak past government officials and loyal atheist citizens who are always on the lookout for believers. To help him in his quest, the pope gives him a robotic horse, or "robass" as it is called (more of a robotic donkey, but despite the "ass," still it is referred to as a horse). The robass is sentient, a robot instilled with artificial intelligence, and en route the two are able to freely converse.

On their quest they face many dangers, of discovery, physical violence and doubt. The voyage is filled also with many biblical allusions. Saint Aquin is a barely disguised reference to Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas is, without a doubt, Doubting Thomas. The robass is Balem's donkey, a tale mentioned in the story, and amid the biblical allusions there is a different kind of reference.

The story outright mentions Isaac Asimov's short story "Reason" (Astounding Science Fiction, April 1941), one of the robot stories later included in his 1950 collection I, Robot--one of my favourites in the collection. In "Reason," a robot deduces that humans could not have created it, since the robot is far superior than humans, and therefore worshipped a robot god. Amid Thomas and the robass's ongoing discussion of faith, the donkey-horse states: "I have heard of one robot on an isolated space station who worshipped a God of robots and would not believe that any man had created him." (Though perhaps what he heard about was the short story, rather than the event, though an AI of today wouldn't confuse the two.) Boucher places his story in the same universe as Asimov's robot stories, and the anecdote of the reasoning robot is set in "The Quest for Saint Aquin's" distant past, as though the technocracy occurred following the robot age. Perhaps the technocracy was established by Asimov's now-ruling robots (really there is nothing in the text to suggest this.)

"The Quest for Saint Aquin" is a good short story, with some good ideas interweaved with plotting that is expected of such a story. It is an idea that we encounter quite frequently in science fiction, that science and robotics will eventually help in eliminating faith, as we continue to learn more about the world around us, and can argue less and less that what is in nature is a miracle, since we can explain its existence in scientific words. These earlier stories do it in simpler terms, but it continues to crop up as a sub-genre. Or perhaps a sub-sub-genre.

The story was reprinted a few years later in the January 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, shortly after Boucher stepped down as its editor. The note on the story indicates that the reprint was aimed at getting the story out to a wider audience, as "its single previous appearance, in an anthology some years ago, did not give it as wide a readership as it deserves." There is no indication that Boucher himself had any influence in its publication, but perhaps it was included partly as homage to the magazine's previous editor. The reprint is reformatted, and ignores the original breaks that appeared in its original publication, replacing them with new breaks in unusual places.

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

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 33: The Marching Morons by C. M. Kornbluth

Kornbluth, C.M. "The Marching Morons." Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1951.

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:   8.86/10
My Rating:        7/10

"Some things had not changed."

An average man from 1988 is awoken in the distant future to a world in which the average IQ is 45.

In his time, Barlow was a successful but dishonest realtor. A dental accident left him in a coma, and he was sealed in a vacuum until, centuries later, a potter discovers his body, recognizes his ailment and immediately cures him. Barlow is brought to a government rep and eventually learns of the current state of the world. Evidently, over the last generations, the more educated classes produced less children while the less educated continued to breed furiously, so that the genetics passed down led to a crisis of idiocy, and an overpopulation of morons. The government wants Barlow to help find a way to reduce the population, so that eventually a balance can be found. Being a man of greed and lesser morals, Barlow comes up with a harsh solution while demanding a dictatorship in return.

While this is among Kornbluth's best-known stories, and much praised, I was less taken by it. The circumstances are certainly interesting, and I do like the depiction of the chaotic future society where objects are oversized rather than miniaturized, radios are still the main source of information and entertainment, and paper money is still being used while movie theatres have become so advanced that sensory enhancements include scent, despite featuring primarily blatant propaganda. Other than the radio news segment, I did not care for the overt comedy and feel the story would have had a natural element of comedy in the circumstances alone. The tone is comedic though the storyline is quite dark--extremely dark as it deals with eugenics in a plot set up by a clearly racist man, so that the need to eliminate morons can ultimately be diverted to a need to eliminate anyone of a darker skin tone or a different set of beliefs. While Kornbluth does not pursue this particular route outwardly, the two are placed side-by-side, so that racial cleansing is a possibility in a world determined to pursue moron-cleansing.

There are a lot of similarities between "The Marching Morons" and Kornbluth's other popular story "The Little Black Bag." For a premise, each presents us with unlikeable characters accidentally embroiled in time travel who gain fame and fortune by taking advantage of the people around them. In "The Little Black Bag," however, protagonist Dr. Brayard Kendrick attempts to improve upon himself and, despite conning those around him, does perform positive acts for society. In "The Marching Morons," Barlow has no intention or even a kindling of awareness of doing good, and goes to extremes to gain as much from helping government than he possibly can. He is overtly racist and egocentric, and sees people as cattle, or more specifically, as lemmings. Nowhere is there even the hint of any gains he might make, and his desires are to the extremes of selfishness. The end differs greatly, for while they are both taken down from the heights they have achieved, Barlow suffers a cruel death through an act of vengeance by those who promised him great wealth, while Kendrick's demise is quite somber, as he has given a great deal of aid to those around him, and has learned to be a better person through his experiences, despite having begun his career with less than moral motives.

This characterization of Barlow in the midst of a moronic dystopia leads us to wonder if it is not the constant breeding of the genetically poor that leads to a bleak, dysfunctional future, but instead the lack of morals in the average contemporary man and in government. And this, subtly presented, is the most interesting idea in the story. Barlow behaves similarly to the higher IQ government officials, whose intelligence is used not to save humanity, as they recruit Barlow for this, but to eventually execute Barlow once humanity has been saved. The officials use Barlow to exterminate the moron population, and are pleased at the extermination, but primarily because it was done other hands. They in turn exterminate the exterminator on grounds that he is dangerous and a threat to them, whereas the officials were the threat to the moron population--the entire citizenry of the planet--as the ruse to wipe them out was effectively their own. In fact, it is implied that the officials have conjured up this idea of extermination but were unable to act on it, as soon as an outsider with the ability to effectuate the plan is easily paid off to do so. There is no talk of education programs or methods other than propaganda aimed to reduce the birthrate, and the simplest form of cleansing is death, not rehabilitation of any kind. A comment on the current state of an uninvolved mass and a government out to protect itself. 

I do not like this story as much as I liked "The Little Black Bag," but I do like the thinking it offers if we peel away the humour.

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

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 32: Second Variety by Philip K. Dick

Dick, Philip K. "Second Variety." Space Science Fiction, May 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:   8.88/10
My Rating:        8/10

"The Russian soldier made his way nervously up the ragged side of the hill, holding his gun ready."

Opposing Russian and American forces are nearing the end of a lengthy world war that has decimated much of the Earth. The Russians were in control of the war, but the Americans developed a new weapon, small machines called "claws" that dig around searching for prey, essentially tearing to pieces any life it encounters, human or otherwise. Americans have radiation shields to protect themselves from attack, and in the latter stages of the war it was the Russians who were being decimated. But these machines have evolved, gained sentience, and have been able to construct improved versions of itself, and smarter claws have begun to appear. Humans have been forced to live sheltered underground, the only place they are protected from the claws. The American leaders, however, have managed to escape to the moon, where they are safe from both claws and the Russian military. Communication has become difficult on- and off-planet

An American bunker is visited by a single Russian soldier who is taken down by a claw as he delivers a message, asking for an American officer to visit the Russian bunker. Senior officer Major Hendricks decides to comply, and makes his way through ash-ridden wasteland France toward the enemy base. At the Russian base he discovers a new kind of claw, far more advanced than former counterparts. The remaining three Russians show him faded photographs of other advanced claws, and inform him that the two they have encountered each have a plate indicating their make: V1 and V3. Therefore, there remains a still undiscovered second variety.

Then the real paranoia sets in.

I have always admired the work of Philip K. Dick, and I have read a good deal of it. "Second Variety" is among his better stories. While it has some clunky bits in the first half and some less polished sequences in the latter quarter, it is nonetheless a good, energetic read. (Dick rarely polished his work as he was in a rush to get it published.) In this story Dick mixes his usual paranoia with a powerful comment on human nature, and it is this comment that he chooses to end the story with, rather than the expected final twist. Dick does try to veer us away from guessing that twist, but really it is only direction in which the story can head, and because he chooses to end on his social commentary, the story is not weakened by predictability, but rather elevated by this decision.

Oddly, the original interior artwork used in Space Science Fiction, by Alex Ebel, gives away the story's two major surprise plot points. It would be interesting to know what was Dick's response response to this, as well as that of the readers.

The story was adapted in 1995 as Screamers, an entertaining movie diminished by a final act made up of generic drawn-out fight sequences. The ending tries to capture Dick's intention but is not as effective, though has Peter Weller and a nice post-apocalyptic setting filmed in my home city. If I were to re-watch it today, though, I would probably be disappointed.

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

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 31: Sandkings by George R.R. Martin

Martin, George R.R. "Sandkings." Omni, August 1979.

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:   8.88/10
My Rating:        9/10

"Simon Kress lived alone in a sprawling manor house among dry, rocky hills fifty kilometers from the city."

Wealthy and arrogant Simon Kress likes to amuse himself with unusual pets, and needs a new kind of somewhat self-sufficient pet as he is often away from home for lengthy periods. At an obscure rarities shop, he purchases psionic insect-like creatures called "sandkings." These creatures have a "maw" that  lives underground and is protected by its minion "mobiles," who built elaborate castle-like structures over their maw. Moreover, these creatures can wage war among their groups, and worship their owner who feeds them, to the point that they can carve the owner's likeness into their castle.

Kress purchases four maws and a large aquarium-encased desert is installed in his house. Seller Jala Wo tells him to be patient, that the creatures need time to evolve and develop their communities before the warring and worshipping can begin. Yet Kress is nothing but impatient. Utterly spoiled by wealth and the social circle in which he revolves, Kress learns to provoke the sandkings into battle through calculated starvation, and soon places the creatures on display for his impressed elite guests. Betting ensues, and things get pretty nutty. As we expect, everything escalates, from the growth of the sandkings to their abuse, their battles, the social gatherings and even the skewed worshipping of Kress.

The story straddles many genres, from science fiction with elements of fantasy, it soon evolves into pure horror with even quite the all-out action sequence in its latter stages. The story is satire and a cruel depiction of wealth and greed--its protagonist is not one who will change but instead become more and more warped as his situation becomes more dire, and he shows absolutely no compassion, or even the slightest acknowledgement of those he harms along the way, committing acts to protect himself that can pretty much harm anyone and everyone who get involved. The violence too escalates as does the gruesome horror. It is all done well though, as the novella-length allows for good pacing and story development. Unlike Kress, the narrative is very patient, giving the reader first Kress's current situation and circumstance, nicely bringing in the sandkings and developing those creatures at a nice pace as well. Martin then begins to toss everything into the story, placing Kress through various stages of horror and desperation, as he attempts so many ways in escaping his ever-evolving sandkings.

And that ending is excellent.

As much as we despise Kress, and pretty much everyone else in the story, we cannot help feel threatened by these creatures and hence drawn into Kress's own desperations as he attempts to leave the hell that he has created. We want Kress to get what he deserves, but we do not necessarily want the sandkings to be victorious. These creatures essentially evolve from Kress's own warped psychology, and the physical world that the sandkings begin to build around Kress are pretty much emulating his own warped mind, as though they are evolving as Kress himself had evolved, from opportunist to egoist to murderer.

This story left a strong impression on me when I first read it as a teen. Incidentally, in Nebula Winners 15 (Frank Herbert, ed., Harper & Row, 1981), which is where I also first encountered a couple other stories that impressed me, including Barry B. Longyear's "Enemy Mine." This is my third reading, I believe, and I have enjoyed it each time. The novella was loosely adapted for the pilot episode of The Outer Limits, and while much was changed to make the story more contemporaneous and appropriate for prime time, an to make Kress into a mad scientist rather than a greedy young professional, it is on its own merits enjoyable television, with a great performance by Beau Bridges.

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

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 30: The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin, Ursula K. "The Word for World is Forest." Again, Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison, ed. New York: Doubleday, March 1972.

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:   8.90/10
My Rating:        8/10

"Two pieces of yesterday were in Captain Davidson's mind when he woke, and he lay looking at them in the darkness for a while."

Humans are in the process of colonizing Athshe, a planet covered almost entirely with forest. Some settlements on the planet act as military bases and administration centres, while others act as lumberyards, like New Tahiti, where the loggers are clear-cutting the dense forest, preparing the lumber for a one-way trip to Earth. As with early colonial invasion on Earth, settlements have enslaved a number of Athsheans, or "creechies" as they are derogatorily called. Athsheans are small in stature and covered in green fur, and live what humans consider to be simple and primitive lives. Moreover, Athsheans are non-aggressive, have no recorded acts of violence against one another, no war of any kind, and live entirely in peace. They are forced to perform menial tasks under the administrative guise of "autochthone volunteers," and are looked upon as inferior and treated poorly. While a few humans are sympathetic to the Athsheans, wanting to learn of their rich culture, their world view and unusual lucid dreaming, to the point of befriending some of the natives, most are indifferent or downright aggressive toward the furry green beings.

When a female Athshean is brutally raped and killed by a human soldier, her husband begins an uprising, forever changing the nature of his people.

An undisguised anti-colonial novel that has been likened to a treatise on Vietnam, given its date of publication, as well as a statement on the founding of the Americas, really it can be read as a criticism of all forms of colonialism humans have experienced. "It's just how things happen to be," one human conqueror remarks early on. "Primitive races always have to give way to civilized ones. Or be assimilated."

Le Guin's sympathies, and the readers', are with the Athsheans, though she does give a broad range of character to the humans, from the caring Lyubov who teaches Athshean revolt leader Slever and essentially lays the foundation for his later vengeance, to the marine Davidson, a cold-blooded "virile" brute (Le Guin's words). From their names, humans are given international scope, as we have colonists named Muhammed, Juju and Raj, and so forth, yet Davidson is the only one given a nationality, as he is born in Cleveland, so the unsympathetic virile colonial brute is an American. With "hoppers" he and his group of loyal followers try to mow down the "creechies" in their jungle, dropping jelly bombs that set the forests on fire. This scene is a portrait of the American war in Vietnam.

My favourite section of the novella is Chapter II, where we travel with Selver among his people, village to village, and learn of their culture, of their dreaming and understanding of the world which is vastly different from the colonialists, with their own ideas of "dreaming" and their own notions of madness. In particular, a very different experience of killing and for the Athsheans, not knowing the concept of murder. This living directly on the land and a connection to its people can be a representation of North American Indigenous peoples.

Overall it is a strong story. The first half is, however, stronger than the latter sections, which were a little more familiar, and even Avatar-like (but of course precedes any Hollywood take on colonialism), and ends on a more realistically grim reality. The end made the work a little over-long, as Davidson's struggles just aren't as interesting as the Athsheans or their relations with humans.

Evidently Le Guin titled the story "The Little Green Men," and her editor for Again, Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison, pressured her to re-title it "The Word for World is Forest," which she eventually, and reluctantly agreed to. I like Ellison's title, which refers to the fact that the Athsheans have the same work for "world" as they do for "forest," and this title evokes their view of the world in which they live, as for them society is the world, and their world of Athshe is their single society. This point is also important as it is in contrast with the humans naming their planet Earth, which is synonymous with dirt. Le Guin's title, on the other hand, takes the classic idea of aliens from outer space, the concept of "little green men," and essentially humanizes them, which should be the objective when encountering a new people, rather than othering them.

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

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 29: The Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury

Bradbury, Ray. "A Sound of Thunder." Collier's, 28 June 1952.

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:   8.91/10
My Rating:        7/10

"The sign on the wall seemed to quaver under a film of sliding warm water."

Wealthy Eckels joins a hunting safari that takes him far into the past to hunt a Tyrannosaurus rex. The guide warns Eckles and his fellow hunters to remain on the path they have set up, and to shoot only the dinosaur they have marked with paint. Any other action, no matter how infinitesimal, can change the future.

Bradbury plays with the theory of the butterfly effect to exaggeration, and as expected, Eckels strays off the marked path. This slight action infuriates the guides, as they fear nothing more than to change the course of history, and even threaten to leave Eckels behind. As expected, great change in the far future of 2055 awaits our time travellers.

So many variations of this story have been published over the years that it has become too familiar. Yet in the vein of predictable dated Bradbury, it is nonetheless a good story. I particularly like his use of the titular sound of thunder as it unites the threat of the distant past with the threat of the changed future. Of greater impact than a massive, threatening monster, is awakening in a world that has completely changed. I also like that Bradbury takes the time to explain the certainty of why the death of the hunted animal will not affect the future. Far-fetched, sure, but that he takes the time to close this potential hole with logical reasoning is great.

The original Collier's included a nice, and nicely accurate, illustration for the story by Frederick "Fritz" Siebel.

In 2005, a movie adaptation was released, The Sound of Thunder, directed by Peter Hyams. I have not seen it, nor do I particularly wish to.

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