Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #21: Nightfall by Isaac Asimov

Asimov, Isaac. "Nightfall." Astounding Science-Fiction, September 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:   9.06/10
My Rating:        7/10

"Aton 77, director of Saro University, thrust out a belligerent lower lip and glared at the young newspaperman in a hot fury."

The planet Lagash has six suns, and in a few hours, when only one remains in the sky, an eclipse will plunge the planet into total darkness. This occurrence transpires every 2,049 years, and it appears that every 2,049 years, like clockwork, the people of Lagash destroy their civilization at the moment of eclipse.

Gathered in the University of Saro observatory is a group of scientists and a reporter who await the monumental event. A hideout has been built to preserve some citizens from the anticipated chaos, while the scientists remain in the enclosed building to record the event with their somewhat primitive instruments. Adding to the tension is a group of religious fanatics trying to break into the observatory, to sabotage the research as they believe this is truly the end of days. Yet even the rational men (yes, they are all men) fear the oncoming dark, as no one from Lagash has ever experienced total darkness, nor has anyone seen stars.

History has progressed at a somewhat slower pace on Lagash than it has on Earth. With the absence of the night sky, it is more difficult for astronomers to properly observe the celestial bodies, and we learn that their science discovered gravity late in the civilization's maturation. In addition, with the absence of darkness, Lagashians do not develop electric light, and yet they do have electricity, as revealed by the two astronomers who attempt to create artificial stars in a darkened dome. In no instance does it appear that Lagash is ahead of Earth technologically, so the implication is that darkness and the access to stars (visible access, at least), has greatly helped humans evolve. However, religion has evolved at an equal pace on both planets, so ironically the absence of the heavens has placed greater emphasis on eventually reaching them.

I have always enjoyed this story as well as the concept behind it. Asimov was truly a great thinker, and at the age of twenty-one had already developed such an advanced concept for 1941. As with many of his early stories, editor John W. Campbell Jr. helped the young Asimov develop his ideas, and apparently with the success of "Nightfall," increased the writer's pay.

One item in the story alludes me, and perhaps someone can clear this up for me. One sun remains in the sky, while the five others have set, presumably lighting up the opposite side of the planet. The eclipse is of the remaining star, plunging the entire planet into darkness. However, wouldn't the eclipse affect only this side of the planet? Yet the scientists maintain that the entire planet will plunge into darkness, and there is mention of other cities on the planet, so wouldn't those far enough away be spared the eclipse and the sight of the stars? Have I misread a detail in the story?

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

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Isaac Asimov, editor, The Hugo Winners (1962)

Asimov, Isaac, ed. The Hugo Winners. New York: Doubleday, 1962.

The Hugo Winners at the ISFdb
The Hugo Winners at Goodreads

Overall rating:        7/10

Wraparound cover by Richard Powers,
from the 1964 Avon edition

The first of the eventual Hugo winners series, Asimov gives us a charming introduction, and set of author intros that are among the best portions of the anthology. Charming, but also of historical value as he delineates many of people involved in the SF pulp industry of the 1950s, the authors and editors who make up the science fiction community of the period.

The stories are mostly good, as they are Hugo winners, though some have aged better than others, Only two I find to be somewhat average in the 2020s, whereas the remaining seven of nine are quite strong and hold up well seventy years in their future.

The Darfsteller by Walter M. Miller Jr.     7/10
Astounding Science Fiction, January 1955
In a future where androids fill in for actors on stage, a former stage actor works as a janitor at a popular theatre. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he refuses to make a contract to have a replica of himself built, yet cannot leave the theatre environment despite the abuse he receives in his current post. Instead, he concocts a plan to sabotage the upcoming grand opening mechanized performance.

Miller gives us a believable presentation of near future theatre. The environment, characters and character relationships are very real, and the story is engaging, though drags a little in the last act as we figure out what is to come by the curtain's closing.

Currently #116 on the ISFdb Top Short Fiction list, as voted by users.

Allamagoosa by Eric Frank Russell     7/10
Astounding Science Fiction, January 1955
While docked for a little R&R, the spaceship Bustler learns that a government inspector is on his way. Captain and crew have three days to ensure that the ship's stock is accurate, otherwise there can be dire consequences on the ship's captain. During the inventory search, they notice that the "offog" is missing, and have great difficulty in locating it, since no one on the ship seems to know what an "offog" actually is. A humourous story that actually made me guffaw. The story's title is another term for "thingamajig."

Currently #78 on the ISFdb Top Short Fiction list, as voted by users.

Exploration Team by Murray Leinster     6/10
Astounding Science Fiction, January 1955
In the distant future, when humans have colonized planets on various solar systems, self-professed criminal Huyghens is stationed illegally on a planet deemed too dangerous for colonization. The planet is inhospitable, and populated by vicious creatures called sphexes, while Huyghens resides in a fortress with three massive mutated Kodiaks and a cub, as well as an eagle. When a colonial inspector arrives to check on a recently-landed colony of robots and a dozen men, Huyghens is discovered. However, as the robot colony has not responded to communication, Huyghens manages to locate a distress signal, and he and the inspector, along with the animals, head out in search of survivors.

Some fine world building in a story that becomes marred by tedious travel and didactic dialoguing about man's need to live free rather than as part of the establishment. The robots here are not those envisioned by Asimov, but rather act like microwave ovens or other household appliances, functioning only as programmed, and the mutated bears prove to be better, and more loyal, servants--I mean, friends--to man. There is a bit of a compromise between the two men, which feels forced, but welcome as the story is overlong. I am also uncomfortable of the notions of genocide, as the men determine that they can wipe out the population of sphexes in order to make the planet more habitable for humans. I suppose in the far future we have learned little of our distant past, and are unaware and unprepared to learn of the consequences in wiping out an entire species.

The story was part of the preliminary ballot for the 2016 Prometheus Awards for the Hall of Fame category, handed out to the best libertarian work of fiction. Ans libertarian it so blatantly is.

"Exploration Team" is part of Leinster's "Colonial Survey" series, and was one of four novelettes to be incorporated into the 1956 novel, Colonial Survey. The other novelettes seem to have been forgotten, and I will not be seeking them out.

Currently #140 on the ISFdb Top Short Fiction list, as voted by users.

The Star by Arthur C. Clarke     8/10
Astounding Science Fiction, January 1955
An expedition to the Phoenix Nebula is returning to Earth, and its astrophysicist, a Jesuit, is facing a major crisis in his faith. The expedition had encountered the remains of an advanced civilization destroyed when their star went supernova, yet prior to their extinction, they managed to build a vault on a distant planet to preserve their rich culture. The Jesuit struggles to understand the needless death of such a beautiful civilization.

Among Clarke's strongest stories. In his author intro, Asimov praises the story and its author. Thirty years after the publication of this anthology, he included it among the ten stories in the culmination of  all the Hugo winners, titled The Super Hugos (Baen, 1992), which I have read not too long ago and agree with most of his choices.

Currently #67 on the ISFdb Top Short Fiction list, as voted by users.

Or All the Seas with Oysters by Avram Davidson     8/10
Astounding Science Fiction, January 1955
A pair of disparate bike shop owners encounter the possibility that a life form exists on Earth that can replicate inanimate objects. As thoroughly enjoyable as it is thoroughly ridiculous. Despite its ridiculous premise, the concept is quite interesting, and aware of how silly the interesting premise is, Davidson presents it in a humourous vein.

Currently #143 on the ISFdb Top Short Fiction list, as voted by users.

The Big Front Yard by Clifford D. Simak     7/10
Astounding Science Fiction, October 1958
Handyman Hiram Taine's family home is seemingly invaded by aliens. His dog is acting oddly, and broken items in his home are fixed--and improved--overnight. Suspense is combined with some light humour, and a neat little explanation as to the nature of this visit. Enjoyable, though gets overly long and the characters are a little too familiar and flat.

Currently #95 on the ISFdb Top Short Fiction list, as voted by users.

That Hell-Bound Train by Robert Bloch     8/10
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September 1958
Martin, an orphaned son of a railroad man living destitute along the tracks, encounters that Hell-Bound Train, on which passengers are headed to that great depot in the underworld. The devilish conductor and Martin agree to a set of terms, where Martin is given a watch that can stop time for him, to be used when he is at his happiest, and in return Martin agrees to eventually ride the train at the end of his days.

An excellent story that manages to mix a morality tale in with a good, suspenseful plot.

The story is unfortunately printed here under the lesser erroneous title "The Hell-Bound Train," most likely a blunder. In the author intro, Asimov also refers to the story with the article rather than the preposition, and the error is probably his own.

Currently #92 on the ISFdb Top Short Fiction list, as voted by users.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes     10/10
Astounding Science Fiction, January 1955
Charlie Gordon, mentally disabled, agrees to take part in an experimental operation that promises to make him smart well beyond the average individual. Among my favourite science-fiction stories. My recent review of the story can be found here.

Currently #1 on the ISFdb Top Short Fiction list.

The Longest Voyage by Poul Anderson     6/10
Astounding Science Fiction, January 1955
On an Earth-like planet at a time when the inhabitants were first beginning to understand the nature of the solar system, and that the planet is not flat and revolves around the sun, a ship is attempting to circumnavigate their world. Its crew exhausted and ready to mutiny, the ship encounters land, and soon locates a small, primitive village. The villagers claim that among them lives a man who has come from the stars. The story is told through the point of view of the youngest officer, an observant and trustworthy youth who looks up to their cunning captain.

Overall a decent story though it does drag at times, just like the other novelettes in the anthology aside from "Flowers for Algernon." Currently the only story in the anthology not included on the ISFdb Top Short Fiction list, as it needs one more rating/vote to be eligible.

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

Friday, March 3, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #20: The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft, H. P. "The Call of Cthuulhu." Weird Tales, February 1928.

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:    9.08/10
My Rating:         7/10

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents."

Following the death of his grand-uncle, Prof. George Gammell Angell, Francis Wayland Thurston inherits the man's papers. Prof. Angell was a celebrated authority on ancient inscriptions, and among his papers was a locked box that included what were possibly lunatic ramblings. Included also were some hieroglyphs of a strange monster, and some papers labeled "Cthulhu Cult." Thurston researches the items, and "The Call of Cthulhu" becomes a document he adds to Prof. Angell's papers.

The story is split into three sections: an introductory portion outlining the find as well as describing some interlinked dreams suffered by a handful of sensitive people, a police case involving the Cthulhu Cult in New Orleans, and finally a sea encounter with a horrible creature.

Though overall I enjoyed the story (this was my first read), I had some issues with the narrative. Narrator Thurston informs us that the final section is quoted from the Norwegian sailor's journal, claiming the man writes in a straightforward sailor's pen. However, during the watery climax the narrative becomes poetic, very unlike a straightforward sailor's pen, and we can imagine that here Thurston is embellishing the Norwegian's text, which would be unfortunate since as a historical document it would therefore be greatly flawed. Or perhaps the Norwegian sailor found his muse and elevated his style, which is highly unlikely. Essentially, despite the fact that these documents do exist, and among them are police accounts, Thurston here becomes unreliable, and because his own account, which encompasses his grand-uncle's experiences, become a document added to his uncle's papers, is itself not entirely factual, which in turn makes one wonder if the uncle's documents, or the sailor's journal, or any other narrative of Cthulhu within this narrative, is at all accurate. In other words, the melodrama Lovecraft inserts into the last scene weakens the credibility of the thirty or so pages I have just read.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #19: Mimsy Were the Borogoves by Lewis Padgett

Padgett, Lewis (Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore). "Mimsy Were the Borogoves." Astounding Science-Fiction, February 1943.

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:   9.08/10
My Rating:        8/10

"There's no use trying to describe either Unthahorsten or his surroundings, because, for one thing, a good many million years had passed since 1942 Anno Domini, and, for another, Unthahorsten wasn't on Earth, technically speaking."

In the distant future, a man experiments with a time machine and sends some of his children's discarded toys into the past--to 1942. There a seven year-old boy named Scotty finds the box and takes it home where he and his two year-old sister, Emma, play with the toys, not realizing how educational these odd, advanced toys are. These toys of the future educate children differently than children of today--or of 1942--are accustomed to, and hence the children evolve more rapidly. Moreover, they appear to be developing their own method of communication. While the parents are both curious and concerned of their children's behaviour, they act slowly, and by the time they recognize potential danger, the children have moved too far ahead with their plans that incorporate, as the title suggests, Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and it's nonsense poem "Jabberwocky."

A clever story, highly entertaining, and even tragic.

Lewis Padgett is the combination of the husband/wife writing team Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore.

Like Alfred Bester's "Fondly Farenheit," "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" was selected by the Science Fiction Writers of America to be included among the thirty best science fiction stories published before 1965, and as a result was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One (Doubleday, 1970).

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #18: Fondly Fahrenheit by Alfred Bester

Bester, Alfred. "Fondly Fahrenheit." The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 1954.

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:   9.11/10
My Rating:        10/10

The cover is by Mel Hunter, and was re-used for 
The Best from the Magazine of Fantasy and
Science Fiction
(Doubleday, 1955).
"He doesn't know which one of us I am these days, but they know one truth."

James Vandaleur, the playboy son of a wealthy man who recently died ruined, inherited only an advanced android from his father's estate. Now they are both on the run since the android has evidently committed something which an android is, theoretically, unable to commit: murder. They flee from planet to planet, as the android continues to exhibit violent tendencies, despite Vandaleur's attempts to settle, and yet he must bring the android with him, as he is unprepared for work and the android is his only means of income.

An extraordinary story on many levels, and among my favourite sci-fi and sci-fi/horror stories. Like other popular works by Bester, this story is driven by an unstable, unlikable protagonist. It flows quickly through a solid sequence of events, and the disturbing psychological inclination of Vandaleur is the driving force behind the horror, and not necessarily the homicidal android. The two are intertwined, and as in the opening sentence quoted above, their consciousness is inseparable, and Bester toys with pronouns as consciousness moves swiftly between the two fugitives. In addition, for a short novelette, there is quite a bit of interstellar world building, as the pair spend the story repeatedly attempting to make a life on a different planet. The psychology is the important component of the story, for if we replace the planets with cities and the android with a human or animal companion, the piece would be just as compelling. And of course there is that great title.

This android is not from Asimov's world of robotic laws and reason, nor is it a simple unthinking piece of machinery. The droid is an augmented personification of its owner, and therefore nearly human. It comes with all the foibles and emotional reactions of a human, with its quick mood shifts and heightened sensitivity, yet it lacks a moral core, and acts accordingly.

The story was selected by the Science Fiction Writers of America to be included among the thirty best science fiction stories published before 1965, and as a result was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One (Doubleday, 1970).

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #17: The Little Black Bag by C. M. Kornbluth

Kornbluth, C. M. "The Little Black Bag." Astounding Science Fiction, July 1950.

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:   9.12/10
My Rating:        8/10

"Old Dr. Full felt the winter in his bones as he limped down the alley."

Disgraced alcoholic GP Dr. Bayard Kendrick Full finds himself in possession of a medical bag from the future. With the help of Angie, a materialistic girl from his downtrodden neighbourhood, Dr. Full manages to construct a clean, ethical career for himself as a respected GP. Assistant Angie, however. is less than satisfied with how they are making use of the bag, wanting instead to enter the more lucrative area of plastic surgery, and when Dr. Full is preparing to retire, Angie proves she can go to extremes to realize this goal.

Though the story is set primarily in the present, Kornbluth gives us a glimpse of a future where intellect is minimalized as a result of advanced technology. The instruments in the little black bag heal on their own, so that the practitioners of the future need only to follow the simple instructions included in the bag. There are instruments with which to operate, and medicines with which to heal, pretty much everything. The doctors themselves, in light of this advanced machinery and medicine, are presented comically as buffoons. The comedy in these sequences is, however, distracting from the more interesting dynamics of the present. Dr. Full is admirably attempting to reclaim his former status as respectable GP, to make amends for the awful twist toward alcoholism that his life had taken. There is less characterization of Angie, who comes off as simply a manipulative materialistic opportunistic blonde. Poor Dr. Full thinks she has become more humane, that she has a good heart, and this inability to see her true nature is his ultimate downfall.

"The Little Black Bag" was successfully filmed for an episode of Night Gallery, adapted by Rod Serling and starring Burgess Meredith as Dr. Full. The adaptation replaces Angie with a male vagrant, a character which works better in this scenario than the opportunistic blonde. In addition, the final brutal comedic-tragic scene is played out on a more public arena, which adds to both the comedic and the tragic elements.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Peter Haining, ed., First Book of Unknown Tales of Horror (1976)

Haining, Peter, ed. The First Book of Unknown Tales of Terror. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, June 1976.
______. The First Book of Unknown Tales of Terror. London: Mews Books, October 1976. (pictured)

The First Book of Unknown Tales of Terror at the ISFdb
The First Book of Unknown Tales of Terror at Goodreads

Overall Rating:     6/10

Mews Books, 1976

This small collection is part of a series of three books assembled by prolific anthologist Peter Haining, collecting little known works from a combination of popular and lesser known supernatural fiction authors. Haining writes in his introduction that there has been an inundation of horror anthologies in recent years (1976), and that the same stories are being reprinted repeatedly, and that "the endlessly patient readership has accepted this in the hope, too often vain, that amongst the familiar there might occasionally appear the unfamiliar."

The idea is a good one, and yet there is usually a reason most neglected stories have not been often reprinted, and that is mainly because they are not very good. Had they been of better quality, they would not have been neglected, or published/re-printed only long after the author's death (as is the case with the Bram Stoker and Robert E. Howard stories). The anthology is, however, far better than I expected it to be. While it is not brilliant, it does include some stories I am happy to have read. It is of interest primarily to those who generally enjoy supernatural tales, but a casual reader would likely not care for most of what Haining has put together. The stories are not bad by any means, though there are a couple of weak ones included. My favourite is the first, H. Russell Wakefield's "The Sepulchre of Jasper Sarasen," while I also enjoyed the Arthur Machen story, "The Cosy Room," and the next-to-last story, which has no supernatural element but some good writing and fine suspense, Francis Clifford's "Ten Minutes on a June Morning."

The Sepulchre of Jasper Sarasen by H. Russell Wakefield     7/10
Fantastic Universe, August/September 1953
Ornithologist Sir Reginald Ramley comes across a sepulchre containing six coffins. The burial grounds are decrepit, likely the result of a bomb from the recent war. Speaking with the cemetery warden, Ramley learns that the coffins belong to a woman and four children, and the husband/father who is believed to have murdered them, and who died mysteriously shortly afterwards. For some odd reason, Ramley is drawn to the coffins, dreaming of the sepulchre and when awake, feeling drawn to return.

Very much a Victorian ghost story in style and tone, the story is quite engaging and creepy,

The Crystal Cup by Bram Stoker     6/10
London Society, September 1872
An artist captured and imprisoned so that he creates a thing of beauty for the upcoming Feast of Beauty, suffers and pines for his lost love. He builds a splendid crystal cup, and dies. The Feast of Beauty is held, and revenge, as expected, is meted out. Split into three sections with three points of view, the story is interesting enough, but for the melodramatic over-writing of the first and third sections. In the introduction Haining mentions the story has not yet been collected, and it is likely because it is not very good. Not Stoker's best work by a long shot, but there is evidence of talent in this early story.

The Cosy Room by Arthur Machen     6/10
Shudders, Cynthia Asquith, ed., 1929
A young man rents a cosy room in a small English town, having fled Ledham after committing murder. He plans to wait for things to cool off then take the train to South London where he would find work and disappear in the crowd. But as he waits, his mind plays tricks on him. An interesting psychological suspense story, well written, but lacking a strong finale.

The Little People by Robert E. Howard     4/10
Coven, 13 January 1970
An American brother and sister are visiting the English moors, and the older brother explains to his sister that the "little people" stories of Arthur Machen are based on tribes that existed a long time ago. To prove that the idea of little people is "rot," sister Joan decides to spend the night out on the moors. Then the expected happens. Really not very good, and not surprising that it remaining unpublished during Howard's lifetime (1906 - 1936). Like the Stoker story included in this anthology, it was resurrected in order to give hungry readers something new.

Scar Tissue by Henry S. Whitehead     6/10
West India Lights, Arkham House, 1946
Our narrator Gerald Canevin takes in a young man named Joe Smith, who has "ancestral memories," memories of former lives. Smith proceeds to tell of his memories fighting in an arena, and provides proof via a scar left from what should have been a fatal wound.

Surprisingly interesting. I enjoyed the arena re-telling, whereas high adventure normally bores me, and I feel overall the idea is well presented, with no real resolution. But I suppose that scar tissue points to the truth in that final scene.

The Hero of the Plague by W. C. Morrow     7/10
The Californian, January 1880, as "The Man from Georgia"
A disheveled yet honest-looking man named Baker appears one day at a hotel, asking for work. Though ridiculed by the porter, the sympathetic hotel owner takes him in. A victim of wrongful imprisonment,  Baker is distracted and confused, but recovers over time with the comforts of the hotel. One day a guest infected with cholera dies at the hotel, and the doctor, with the help of the owner and Baker, administer to the sick.

This is a well written story with some fine dialogue that borders on the comically ludicrous, a style I quite enjoy. There is predictability and pathos, but Baker is well drawn and I very much enjoyed reading this. I much prefer the more appropriate original title, "The Man from Georgia," as the title used for the anthology covers only a minor portion of the tale, and sucks the pathos marrow.

The Horror Undying by Manly Wade Wellman     7/10
Weird Tales, May 1936
Lost in the woods in the middle of a snowstorm, a man takes shelter in an abandoned cabin, and finds under the floorboards a documents that tell stories of what appear to be cannibalism.

Though predictable through and through, the tales within the pamphlets and clippings are interesting and engaging. We are expected, however, to believe that the narrator, who reads and then destroys the documents, is able to quote their entirety verbatim.

The Machine that Changed History by Robert Bloch     7/10
Science Fiction Stories, July 1943
Hitler's scientists have constructed a time machine, and Hitler has Napoleon brought from 1807 to present day 1942. Hitler hopes that the brilliant strategist can help undo his errors and bring him world domination, promising to share the spoils with Napoleon. But Hitler does not count on this story being written by a young Robert Bloch, so there is a twist on its way.

The Candle by Ray Bradbury     6/10
Weird Tales, November 1942
Unhappily married Jules Marcott spots a decorative candle amid the weapons in an old shop, and instinctively decides to purchase the item. The shop proprietor tells Jules that if he lights the candle and whispers the name of a person, that person will immediately die, and demonstrates this on a frisky cat. The price to rent the candle is three thousand dollars. Desperate and yet without money, Jules steals the candle to seek revenge on the man who stole his wife away.

Predictable, but a fun early Bradbury read.

Unholy Hybrid by William Bankier     6/10
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September 1963
Sutter Clay is an excellent gardener, able to grow the best stock in the region, and able also to create some exceptional hybrids. When he murders the woman who has spent the winter with him, he buries her amid the pumpkins on his land. A good read but the ending could have been so much more effective, as it delivers the expected rather than offering up somtehing different, or a twist on the expected.

Ten Minutes on a June Morning by Francis Clifford     7/10
Argosy (UK), April 1970
Revolutionary Manuel Suredez, sentenced to death, is reprieved while on the scaffold with the noose around his neck. The Colonel tells him that he was saved because of his excellent marksmanship, and because of this skill he will be sent to the town of Villanova to murder a man. If he fails, his parents and sister will be killed. The man he must assassinate is the personal envoy to the President of the United States.

A surprisingly good story, with a great deal of suspense. Clifford is patient with his story, focusing on its details, and delivers a genuinely tragic end. Francis Clifford was born Arthur Leonard Bell Thompson (1917 - 1975).

They're Playing Our Song by Harry Harrison     5/10
Fantastic Stories of Imagination, December 1964
A very short story about a rock quartet, The Spiders, their obsessive fans and an expected twist.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #16: Light of Other Days by Bob Shaw

Shaw, Bob. "Light of Other Days." Analog Science Fiction--Science Fact, August 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:    9.14/10
My Rating:         7/10

"Leaving the village behind, we followed the heady sweeps of the road up into a land of slow glass."

A pregnant and unhappy couple travel from London into the rural townships, where they come across a farm selling slow glass. Slow glass is a process of leaving a special pane of glass aimed at a scene for one year, and the glass would capture the image and reflect it for the next year. "If the glass was then removed and installed in a dismal city flat, the flat would--for that year--appear to overlook the woodland lake." This particular slow glass farmer has in stock glass that is "ten years thick." Garland is ready to make a purchase, thinking that introducing something different to their lives might help his marriage, but his wife Selina is skeptical.

A good story overall, though predictable. I also wonder if the story intends to inform us the unhappy couple will see things differently and save their relationship in light of the farmer's tragedy, so that rather than the glass reflecting a special view, the farmer's life is reflecting potential happiness for their future, in contrast to the darkness of his past. This is a nice notion, but the bitterness between Garland and Selina seems to me too deep to salvage, and people do not change so easily, particularly ones as heard-headed as these two urbanites.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #15: Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith

Smith, Cordwainer. "Scanners Live in Vain." Fantasy Book, Vol. 1, No. 6, January 1950.

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:         9/10

"Martel was angry."

In the distant future, as humans explore the galaxy and settle on other planets, special provisions must be made for space travel. Namely, selected humans must undergo a procedure that transforms them into scanners. A scanner must be present during space travel, as they are the ones who carry the burdens of flight, who must remain awake to properly steer and who suffer the torturous pains of space. It is the presence of these scanners that enables the colonization of other planets, and scanners are therefore held in high esteem, as these men sacrifice themselves and a comfortable life for the progress of humanity. Yet the procedure to become a scanner is drastic, as most senses must be severed from the brain, while the body must be partially mechanized, so that scanners become more machine-like, and less than human. Scanners can occasionally "cranch," a process that allows them to reconnect with their senses and become more human, but only for a limited time.

As protagonist Martel is cranching, an emergency call is put out to all scanners not in outer space, and a meeting reveals that a man named Adam Stone claims to have solved the problem of the pains of space travel. If this were true, scanners would no longer be needed. A senior scanner insists that it is a lie, and proposes that the man be assassinated. Martel is immediately outraged, but is the only cranching scanner at the meeting, so cannot vote, and his emotional appeals become almost vulgar among the mechanized and rational men. The vote goes by way of murder, and a cranching Martel vows to intercept the chosen assassin, but must proceed as an emotional, sense-filled human against a powerful, cyber human.

A unique and formidable story, particularly for the period. Smith gives us a world in which humans separated from their senses, from what essentially makes them human, are over-rational machines, and hence notions of morality have been erased. Most of these scanners are rationalizing murder for self-preservation, and even those that vote against the assassination do so not out of a feeling of right and wrong, but with cold reasoning, and nonetheless stand aside when the verdict to murder is reached. Only the cranching human is willing to sacrifice himself for what he believes, emotionally and rationally, to be the right thing.

The technology in "Scanners Live in Vain" is fascinating. There is a cold logic to space travel, and a cold acceptance of these mechanized humans. The story imagines a dirty, unromantic space travel, unlike much of the facile forms of travel found in early sci-fi stories. Technology is a human necessity, as space travel is needed for humans to survive and to evolve, but the increase on our reliance on technology makes us less human. Technology as presented in the story is more believable than the technology presented in stories published a decade later, as there is purpose to the technology presented, and much of it is grittily pragmatic, even unattractive, such as the machines that are attached to the torsos of these men, and the entire cranching experience. There is even a precursor to texting/messaging, as scanners use "tablets" to communicate with one another over distances, and even use a form of shorthand not unlike texters of present day. Without the emojis, thankfully.

It is interesting to note that the story is set up as a kind of paradox. Martel is presented to us in his mechanized scanner form, prior to cranching, and yet the first sentence is "Martel was angry," introducing the character with a high emotion. Clearly Martel is on the verge of change, his humanity already revolting against the machine that he has become.

I first read this as a kid in one of the sci-fi anthologies that got me reading sci-fi anthologies: First Voyages (Martin H. Greenberg, Damon Knight, Joseph D. Olander, eds, Avon, May 1981). I clearly recall reading and being amazed by this story. I think for me it was quite unique, and I genuinely felt for the character who would soon be without purpose. The story holds up incredibly well, and my first re-read three decades later was nearly as intense. Different in an adult's eye, but still quite impactful.

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As of 24 December 2015