Thursday, November 17, 2022

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #4: Reasons to Be Cheerful by Greg Egan

Egan, Greg. "Reasons to Be Cheerful." Interzone #118, April 1997.

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:    9.67/10
My Rating:        8/10

"Reasons to Be Cheerful" is tied with Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life" (1953) and Richard Matheson's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (1962).

"In September 2004, not long after my twelfth birthday, I entered a state of almost constant happiness."

Twelve year-old Mark is suffering from constant euphoria as a result of a cancerous tumor in his brain. The pressure from the tumor floods his brain with Leu-enkephalin, a chemical responsible for triggering happiness. Mark's mood of constant happiness is quickly transformed into a constant depression, as a life-saving operation removed the tumor and left a gaping hole in the happiness centres of his brain. He spends eighteen years in a grave depression, after which he has an operation to replace missing brain tissue with tissue from a combination of four thousand other brains. With the help of software, he can control what triggers his moods, and to what extent.

"Reasons to Be Cheerful" is the most thought-provoking story I have read in some time. Though a short story (a novelette, technically), it is nonetheless time-consuming as one cannot help but think of the ideas Egan raises. Reading the story is work, cognitive work, and the time spent working is well worth it. This is a "hard" sci-fi story that has its readers contemplating ideas on the nature of self and of shaping one's self, let alone the ethical considerations of the experimental procedure Mark undertakes, which are only brushed upon in the text. The story is divided into three  clear-cut sections: his early life of constant happiness and the operation that saves his life; his deep depression, living almost entirely in an apartment, and the second operation; and Mark's recovery  and attempt to re-enter society as, in his words, a thirty year-old teenager.

I found myself completely fascinated with the science of the illness and with both procedures. They were well presented, clearly delineated. I would have preferred, though, more of the societal integration. I felt this a little rushed, as though Egan (or some editors) felt the climax of the story had been reached already. Or perhaps it was enough and my wanting more was proof of my immersion in the story.

The story shares similarities with Daniel Keyes's "Flowers for Algernon," in that the two rely on an operation that alters the subject dramatically, and re-enters them into society. Where Keyes's story glosses over the nature of the operation, focusing primarily on protagonist Charley's transformation and the story's emotional factor, Egan's piece wallows on the details of both Mark's cancer and the operation, making it all too possible, and while "Reasons to Be Cheerful" does not reach the same emotional heights, and lacks the characterization and humour, it's focus on the possibilities it presents are just as fascinating.

This is my first read of the story (from an e-copy of Interzone #118, in which it first appeared), and my first read of Greg Egan's work. I understand that much of the reclusive writer's work is just as challenging, and that his later work is quite daunting, but there will certainly be more reading of Egan for me in the future.

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

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