Friday, December 30, 2022

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #14: The Last Question by Isaac Asimov

Asimov, Isaac. "The Last Question." Science Fiction Quarterly, November 1956.

This article is part of my attempt to read 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 here. I am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:    9.14/10
My Rating:         8/10

"The last question was asked for the first time, half in jest, on May 21 2061, at a time when humanity first stepped into the light."

Once human's learn to utilize the energy of the sun, and begin to populate the galaxy, the perpetual question that haunts us is can the rate of entropy be decreased? Or, in other words, can humanity continue to exist after the end of everything? Over centuries, the same question is asked, in various ways, of each period's most powerful computer, beginning with Multivac, and over the centuries the same response is given: "INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER."

Asimov is not only interested in humanity's desire for survival, but looks also at our evolution. As we continue to populate the galaxy and the galaxies, leaving Earth further behind, humans transcend our most basic attributes, and despite less form and greater intelligence, the need for our race to go on remains as strong as is ever was.

While I tend to be mixed about Asimov--I love the ideas but the stories don't always live up to them--this is among my favourites of his. For such a short piece, there is so much happening, and the simple writing, with bits of Asimov humour, truly helps the ideas take the forefront of a story made up of vignettes that are actually variations on a theme.

It is interesting that Asimov posits that computers will continue to enlarge as they become more advanced, and the technology to reduce their size will only become reality a thousand or so years in the future. It will get to a point that a computer will fill the inside of an asteroid. If this were true, imagine how large our phones would be today.

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #13: A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny

Zelazny, Roger. "A Rose for Ecclesiastes." The Magazine of Science Fiction, November 1963.

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:   9.14/10
My Rating:        7/10

"I was busy translating one of my Madrigals Macabre into Martian on the morning I was found acceptable."

Wraparound cover by Hannes Bok,
depicting "A Rose for Ecclesiastes."
Gallinger, a gifted linguist and poet, was destined for the church, but was instead seduced by eastern culture and language. Now he finds himself on Mars, the first human to be allowed to enter the Martian temple and access their ancient sacred texts. The Martians are ancient and cultured, yet they are sterile as a result of a weather event from long ago, referred to as "the Rains," and these ancient people are the last of their kind. Moreover, as there resides in this ancient race an innate pessimism, it is challenging to discuss possibilities for their future.

Gallinger is an arrogant poet, disliked by many on the expedition. He becomes acquainted with one of the most skilled of the Martian dancers, Braxa, unknowingly seduces her, and they fall in love. This is the first experience of real love for another for the arrogant poet, and when Braxa falls pregnant and disappears into the Martian desert, Gallinger searches desperately for her. It is through this desperation, also, that Gallinger begins to see others in a different, more human light.

Gallinger is arrogant to the point that the text was difficult at times to read, and since it was published in 1963, there is lacking a certain sensitivity that prevents minimizing the idea of othering. Not only are the Martians (Easterners) patronized, but so are the women. As expected, Gallinger wins out over the Martians' innate pessimism, and does so quite cleverly, and yet in an excellent, unpredicted twist, his arrogance is pounded down, so that a victory over the fate of a race is simultaneously a personal defeat over this proud man.

There is a point to the arrogance; it is not merely the author's whim to create this character in such a way, but the trait is essential to the plot. This does not, however, make the character likeable. In addition, though technologically advanced, Earth is culturally retarded. Humans can make lengthy expeditions to other planets, yet interracial marriage is still frowned upon to the point that couples are kept physically separated. These details are a little odd, and more appropriate for a story published a decade a earlier, but I would think by 1963 our outlook on race relations of the future should not have been so stalled in its age, and I don't see that Zelazny was trying to make a particular point about the ship's captain having ben separated from his easter family, other than making a link with Gallinger.

Moreover, as with many stories of the period, the 1960s have run amok. Smoking is common, even on ships where you'd think oxygen was at a premium. At one point, comical to the contemporary lens, when Gallinger needs to catch his breath after a physuical fight, he lights a cigarette. On Mars, which of course has breathable air. Even Captain Kirk was more advanced. But of course the story is not about the science of space travel or Mars exploration or whether it is still cool for poets to smoke cigarettes, and half a century from now we might be scoffing at what contemporary speculative fiction authors are putting to paper today. Likely my own children will snicker at this silly little article.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #12: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang

Chiang, Ted. "Story of Your Life." Starlight 2, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, ed. New York: Tor, November 1998.

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:   9.17/10
My Rating:        10/10

"Your father is about to ask me the question."

When alien beings arrive to Earth and hover over specific points of the planet, governments hire physicists and linguists to attempt communication. Among the American linguists is Dr. Louise Banks, and the story follows her progress in deciphering the alien language. Her detailed progress is interlinked with writings to her daughter spanning several years.

The aliens, whose motives are unknown, set up semi circular mirrors across the planet, through which they can communicate with humans. With the use of these "looking glasses," Dr. Banks and physicist Dr. Gary Donnelly communicate with two aliens they have named "Flapper" and "Raspberry." Communications are monitored by the military, and the academics are advised to learn the language without revealing too much about themselves.

With "Story of Your Life," Chiang creates an excellent story of ideas that manages to also evoke solid emotion. Both the ideas and the emotional experience work hand-in-hand, and "Story of Your Life" is among those unique experiences where both aspects of the story, its central idea and the lives affected by it, exist on a higher plane. The idea itself is ingenious, and the emotional impact superlative.

Without giving anything away, in the exploration of alien communication, Chiang offers a variety of interesting forms of communication, of written language, that can be developed by an alien lifeform, and settles on a truly unique one. The eventual discovery of the nature of the communication also leads to the tragedy of the story. Not the discovery itself, of course, but the ability to read the writing trains the reader to see life in a way not meant for humans.

A vague review, yes, but I truly cannot spoil this experience, and highly recommend the story. The movie based on the novella, Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, is also excellent, because you cannot go wrong with such an incredible story. Even though I'd seen and admired the film, reading the story nonetheless had a great impact on me.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #11: Jeffty Is Five by Harlan Ellison

Ellison, Harlan. "Jeffty Is Five." The Magazine of Science Fiction, July 1977.

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:   9.18/10
My Rating:        7/10

"When I was five years old, there was a little kid I played with: Jeffty."

At the age of five, Donald H. Horton had a friend named Jeff Kinzer, or "Jeffty," as the kids called him. Donny grew and experienced life, from school to the army, and during these years Jeffty remained five. In his twenties, Donny settles down in his hometown and opens up an electronics shop, whereas Jeffty is still five. He rekindles his friendship with Jeffty, and soon learns that the five year-old has an odd relationship with the past. Namely, in his world radio stations broadcast old-time shows with new episodes, the movie theatre features new films starring actors who had died years ago, and comic books continue to publish the comics of yesteryear.

I often like Ellison's premises more than I like the execution. This story is about nostalgia, about a more technological-minded society that does not necessarily return a better way of life. Ellison states this, but he does not prove the point. The narrator is charmed by the nostalgia, but it is being five years of age that he wants. He wants the innocence, the freedom from responsibility. He is unhappy with his job, which he shirks off whenever he can in order to hang out with a five year-old, unhappy with the women he dates, and simply unhappy with the idea of responsibility. He immerses himself in Jeffty's old-time world as a source of recapturing his youth, but he does nothing to help Jeffty in his predicament. This is a forever five year-old with aging parents; what will become of him when he is orphaned? With no medical experiments, who can know of Jeffty's health or his life expectancy? Donny criticizes the Kinzers for showing a lack of interest in their son, but he instead takes advantage of Jeffty's gifts for his own entertainment and access to youthful emotions, but gives nothing to the boy which may help him progress through life as a five year-old. It is also Donny's world that eventually shatters Jeffty's, so that the boy is left with nothing.

Finally, one would expect that if a child does not age beyond five years, there would be medical interest, government interest, pharmaceutical interest in that finally a source for the fountain of youth has been discovered. But Jeffty lives with his parents wholly undisturbed by such potentially interested parties. The story is a fantasy not only in Jeffty's perpetual half-decade existence, but also in the way the world functions around him.

Still, despite the annoying narrator and many loose ends the premise itself is interesting enough, and the story can be, to an extent, thought provoking.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #10: The Shadow Over Innsmouth by H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft, H. P. "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." Visionary Press, April 1936.

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:   9.3/10
My Rating:        9/10

"During the winter of 1927-28 officials of the Federal government made a strange and secret investigation of certain conditions in the ancient Massachusetts seaport of Innsmouth."

H. P. Lovecraft's longest published work, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," was first printed as a standalone book. This is not what Lovecraft wanted; he was actually unable to place it in a magazine, as the story was too long, and no editor wanted to serialize the novella. The problem, they argued, is that there is no clear break with which to split the work into two or three installments. The work has thrived, however, and has since become among his most beloved stories, and is included in many of his better collections, including The Best of H.P Lovecraft, from where I have read it.

Our youthful narrator is taking a budget trip in New England, where he is hoping to learn of the region's antiquity. He comes across some oddly-shaped jewelry which leads him to the fishing town of Innsmouth. A once-thriving community of seafarers that boasted a successful gold refinery, there is little left of the port town, as a plague appears to have killed off much of the town years before, and most neighbouring towns want nothing to do with Innsmouth. Because of this, our nameless narrator finds it challenging to enter the town.

Finally in the heart of Innsmouth, he learns of the town's extraordinary history by speaking with the chain grocery store's attendant, an outsider, and the town drunk. His nosiness is not taken well by the locals, and a chase through the dark streets of Innsmouth ensues.

Lovecraft's investment in building the town is excellent, as the story's geography is clear, and the town's details can be visualized almost down to the last brick. This detail adds to the creepiness of the story, the narrator's isolation and the vividness of the flight sequence in the latter part of the tale.

There is some inconsistency as the story wavers a little following the narrator's escape from the hotel. This is when the story can feel a little overlong, as he hears some pursuers and walks down a road, cowers in one doorway, looks at his map, hears more pursuers, wanders down another street... I am exaggerating a little, but there were a few paragraphs I rushed through at this point. However, the ending pays off nicely, as I was taken by surprise with the twist. I feel I shouldn't have been as the clues were all there, but I guess I was too busy brick-gazing to take notice.

The postscript, or post-twist, does leave a bit of a hole. The story is essentially the narrator's telling of his strange and frightening experiences. However, with the realization he, and the reader, make, and as he makes his motivation clear, it begs to question why he bothers to leave the record of events when he intends to leave the mortal world. My paragraph is vague as I don't wish to be more detailed for fear of spoilers, but I am making a point here.

Minor qualms of course, for a major work. This was my first time reading the novella, and I was surprised at how good it actually is.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #9: Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock

Moorcock, Michael. "Behold the Man." New Worlds SF, September 1966.

This article is part of my attempt to read 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 here. I am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:    9.33/10
My Rating:         9/10

"The time machine was a sphere full of milky fluid in which the traveller floated, enclosed in a rubber suit, breathing through a mask attached to a hose leading to the wall of the machine."

(I was gonna to cheat & not re-read this one. I've read the novella & the novel versions multiple times when I was younger. While I've also read the lengthy "Flowers for Algernon" multiple times, I was happy to re-visit it anew for this project. With "Behold the Man," I just wasn't in the mood and thought I'd be too bored for the fifty-page slog. Unlike Keyes's story, I didn't expect to return to it soon, if ever. While I've always liked it, I do feel I've grown a little tired of this one, and my last re-read about a decade ago did find me less immersed. I believe it has to do with the unsympathetic protagonist. However, I looked up an e-version of the New Worlds issue in which it first appeared, & was hooked with the first sentence.)

Karl Glogauer is a young and whiney pseudo-intellectual with little drive, or at least little healthy drive. Stuck in a bad relationship and running a bookshop bought from an inheritance, a business in which he does not appear interested, Glogauer is in the search for some kind of meaning in his life. He appears motivated by the constant fights he has with his older cynical girlfriend psychiatrist Monica, and decides he would love to prove that Jesus Christ did exist, and however corrupt the religion may come in the last two centuries, that there is at least a base minimal truth at its inception. It is not the religion, however, he is concerned about, or historical accuracy or the base of much of western culture; he wants to prove Monica wrong. Really, this kind of vindictiveness-fueled purpose does not garner much sympathy, and it is difficult to care for either his or Monica's world views.

Yet it is just these kinds of characters that can trigger such an off-the-wall journey. As part of a Jungian reading circle organized at his bookshop, Glogauer meets a man who claims to have built a time machine, and wants Karl to be the test pilot. Glogauer of course agrees, so long as he can decide the destination in both time and space.

The journey for Christ is what makes the story so interesting, as Moorcock manages to re-create the world that might have been. His depiction of John the Baptist and his community of Essenes are probably the most interesting parts of the novella. John's conversations with Karl are not only interesting in themselves, but offer a nice contrast with Karl's conversation with Monica. There is genuine humanity and concern here, as though Karl does belong in the past, or perhaps modern human interaction, even in dialogue, has become destructive.

Because it is Moorcock, the reality we expect is turned upside down. While John the Baptist as an Essene is believable and creates a very real image of biblical writing, rather than the quietly charismatic leader popular culture has come to expect from Jesus Christ, he is instead an idiot child. He lives with his struggling parents who do not dote on him, but openly show their distaste for him. Glogauer is utterly shocked, whether by the reality of what he is experiencing, or because he cannot prove cold-hearted Monica's arguments to be at fault, and after some delusional episodes, decides that he must realize (resurrect?) the historical Christ, and sets off, still semi delusional, to become that man.

Truly fascinating, well presented and nicely structured as it leaps from one point in time to another, a conversation here to one over there... And with a great ending which, to me, seals Karl's failure, though this can be argued.

As for what is better, the novella or novel... I haven't re-read the novel version in many years and don't feel I need to. The novel spends more time on Karl's childhood, on sexual abuse at the hands of the church, while also exaggerating much of the extreme portions of the novella, such as the idiot child Jesus, and the less-than-Virgin Mary. I do not think these elements add to the story. I am not offended by any of them, though an atheist who is highly respectful of all religion, I just feel the exaggeration is unnecessary. Moorcock proves his point in the novella, and overkills it in the novel. The story is not about Christianity or how much truth there is in the biblical stories, but it is more about the lost youth of 1960s-70s England, who is without purpose and chooses to carve a meaningless objective for their lives, in this case to spite a lover.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #8: The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Black Cat." United States Saturday Post, 19 August 1843.

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:   9.33/10
My Rating:        9.5/10

"For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief."

While awaiting execution, the narrator of this wild yet homely tale pens of his experience concerning one black cat. It is this feline that drives our narrator to a horrible act of violence, and yet, as in many of Poe's tales, the object of obsession is not the real motivator for the crime. The cat is not a menacing devil, only an innocent, victimized pet, and it is the narrator's own psychoses that drive him to murder.

Poe always saw himself as an original writer, never writing the same story twice. Of course, there are many similarities between his more popular stories, particularly those involving murder, from the first person confessional narrative, to the vague motive. With this story, Poe was attempting to play around with the conventions of temperance literature; those books focusing on the evils of drink that were so popular at the time. He wanted to create a darker domestic tale, an attack on the standards of the happy American home, and achieved this with ghastly results. There would be no saved alcoholics in Poe's rendition, no family that thwarts the evils of drink. Immediately the conventions of the mid-western family are flipped over: the happy couple has no children, but their house is instead teeming with animals. The man of the house is an alcoholic, and mistreats these animals as well as his wife (domestic violence was a staple in temperance literature--think of Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), with the exception of his favourite "brute," the titular black cat. This cat is named Plato, sharing its name with the Roman god of the underworld, and yet there is nothing hellish about this gentle creature. Identifying the cat with the underworld is the narrator's doing, as he names him, and as he also holds the cat responsible for the many horrible acts of violence he himself is capable of administering on others. When the cat crosses him while he is in a foul drunken mood, the narrator plucks out one of its eyes, which is the act of his downfall, and essentially severs himself from the man he once was, to the alcoholic brute he has become.

The narrator eventually hangs the cat, and following additional misfortune, adopts a near doppelgänger feline who follows him home one day from a local tavern. Adopting the cat is an act of remorse, and yet instead of treating this cat as he had once treated the original beloved pet, of making amends for past evils, he fears it, believing it to be a creature out to punish him. Again, though the cat is the eventual source of his comeuppance, this is all in his mind. Mixed up with alcohol and shocked at the extremes of his own behaviour, the narrator projects his own brutishness on the animal. It is  ironic that more than once this feline is referred to as a brute, and that the narrator names him for a god the underworld, and that more blatantly the animal is blamed for rousing him to violence. These are projections from the narrator himself, who is the brute, exhibiting hellish behaviour. The story is titled after the black cat, just as Poe has titled many stories after tell-tale hearts and casks of amontillado, objects that help to reveal the narrator's own guilt.

Not my favourite Poe story, but I do have a sentimental attachment as it is among the ones that most affected me as a youth. And it is expertly constructed. Of course Poe himself had bouts with the bottle, the frequent reports of him being a hopeless alcoholic are exaggerated. He was a hard worker trying to support a severely ill wife, who despite his popularity as story writer and critic, had to struggle as he rarely achieved the independence in his writing that he longed for. "The Black Cat" was written during a very productive time later in life, when his then editor allowed him more freedom than he was accustomed to.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #7: The Women Men Don't See by James Tiptree Jr

Tiptree, Jr., James. "The Women Men Don't See." The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 1973.

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:    9.50/10
My Rating:        8/10

"I see her first while the Mexicana 727 is barreling down to Cozumel Island."

American Don Fenton is in Mexico, hoping to catch a flight to Belize where he is scheduled to do some "serious" fishing. The Cessna he was expecting to board has grounded, so he gets onto a plane heading to Chetumal in the Yucatán Peninsula. He shares the plane with its Mayan pilot, Captain Esteban, and a pair of American women, Ruth Parsons and her daughter, Althea. Unfortunately, the plane crash lands in an isolated marsh, and due to their isolation, the four do not expect to be rescued quickly. Fenton heads out to a clearing he noticed from the plane, where he believes is fresh water, and Mrs. Parsons  volunteers to join him.

The story is told through the point of view of Fenton, a hard and cynical man with traditional values. Ruth Parsons, on the other hand, is a secretive woman who slowly opens up to Fenton's persistent questioning, and reveals herself to be an outsider, uncomfortable with the current social makeup, and unconventional in her views of women's place in the world, particularly the notions of marriage and child rearing. As she grows more anxious following a mysterious late-night encounter on the beach, we realize she is carrying an additional secret.

Tiptree conveys her ideas via a not-too-likeable narrator. Fenton is outgoing but gruff, a committed bachelor with traditional views of women's roles and needs, such as the need for middle-aged women to be married in order to be secure. Ruth, a single mother, clashes respectfully with Fenton, and her own views on independence and its challenges against the forces of conventional western society come across as odd in Fenton's ears. It is possible that Fenton, though a specific character rather than an everyman, takes on the role of the standard male reader, whose traditional understanding of women is being challenged by this modern outlook. Whatever Fenton's role, the reader is sympathetic to Ruth Parsons.

Parsons is a generic western family name, possibly alluding to the fact that the sentiments expressed by Ruth are common among women. The name Ruth is Hebrew for "friend," and the biblical Ruth is also a widowed woman. However, the biblical Ruth does re-marry, whereas Mrs. Parsons has no desire whatsoever for a husband, and had not even married her daughter's father. In the Book of Ruth, she sacrifices everything for her belief in God, and will follow God anywhere she is told to go, and do whatever is his bidding. This last point is very much raised in Ruth Parsons at the end of the story, but of course not in the religious sense. Adding more detail here would be spoiling the story.

Published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction when the general public still believed that Tiptree was a man. Alice Sheldon (aka Tiptree) captures the male voice with such accuracy that it is not surprising that so few people correctly guessed the author's true gender.

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