Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 37: Arena by Frederic Brown

Brown, Frederic. "Arena." Astounding Science Fiction, June 1944.

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

"Carson opened his eyes, and found himself looking upward into a flickering blue dimness."

At the edge of our solar system, just beyond the (once) planet Pluto, humans are battling beings from another galaxy. They have named these beings "Outsiders," as they know nothing of the aliens, having never captured any of their technology nor ever having even seen one of the creatures. Despite this, humans and Outsiders are caught in an ongoing war that has no end in sight, and no clear victor.

A soldier awakens on a bed of hot blue sand, in a dome that has drawn him and an outsider into its confines. The "Entity" that has trapped them informs Carson telepathically that to end their forever war, he and the outsider must fight to the death, and the losing being's entire species will be wiped from existence. The Entity explains that there will be no end to this way, as they two are equally matched, and that there is no hope for peace, so in order to end the war and allow the progression of one race, the other needs to be destroyed.

"Arena" then becomes a battle of wits between Carson and the Outsider, a round blobbish creature with extendable arms. As such it is entertaining and has a decent ending. Reading this in 2023 I cannot help, however, to have some major qualms about the story. Namely, the Outsiders are presented as cruel, bloodthirsty creatures, and humans are human, so that we must root for Carson and the human race. Yet the Outsider is seen only through Carson's eyes, and we must accept its bloodthirst via two points: it kills a lizard and can project its hatred toward Carson. These, however, are interpretations of a being we know absolutely nothing about--a being so different from us that we should not be trying to project our own human limitations on it. Perhaps it killed the lizard to absorb nutrients, or perhaps it is testing its environment as it is also aware that it is engaging in a battle to save its entire species. Its projection of hated can be related to the perceived threat of the human to its race, or the intense emotion is merely its way of expressing fear, or like a boxer before a fight, trying to intimidate its opponent. Regardless, this is not a reason to so easily accept the destruction of another species. We understand, from Carson's point of view, that the Outsiders invaded our galaxy, but as in Starship Troopers, it is possible that the humans were in some way the original aggressors, but that Carson, a mere soldier, would be unaware of this. The motive is unknown, yet the perception is that these are evil creatures out to destroy us, without actual evidence.

Interestingly, the story was published in 1944, near the close of World War II. While the general public was not at that time fully aware of the genocidal extremes experienced during the war, presenting humans here as participating in genocide, justified by Carson and the Entity, is still a somewhat uncomfortable. In the 1960s, Gene Roddenberry and the producers of Star Trek were more aware of these allusions, and in their adaptation by frequent ST contributor Gene L. Coon, for the short story for its season one episode also title "Arena," the threat was diminished. The losing party of a battle between human Captain James T. Kirk and alien lizard creature Gorn would see its warship and crew destroyed, and not their entire species.

"Arena" recalls some of those adventure survival stories I read as a kid, and though I grew tired of them as I grew older, there is something compelling in Brown's version. The solitariness of Carson, the strangeness of his environment, and the predicament itself, more so than the alien foe, kept me rapt.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 36: And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side by James Tiptree, Jr.

Tiptree, Jr., James. "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side." Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 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:   8.83/10
My Rating:        8/10

"He was standing absolutely still by a service port, staring out at the belly of the Orion docking above us."

In the distant future, humans have expanded into space and interact with a variety of alien species. A reporter is at Big Junction waiting for alien ships to dock, hoping to encounter his first alien, when he begins a conversation with a station engineer. The engineer tells him of his own obsession with aliens, and his life-long pursuit of a subservient sexual relationship with a member of another species. This desire led him to abandon a career in medicine and return to school to instead pursue a career that would eventually allow him into space. He soon discovered that while aliens want nothing to do with humans, his obsession drives him to continue seeking what he can never have. This obsession, it turns out, is common for humans, and the engineer believes that it is our natural sex drive and need to seek out new experiences that is the root cause. He tells the reporter his story in the hopes of dissuading the other from further pursuing contact with aliens.

A surprisingly sad story in the way it relegates some species, not just humans, to the bottom of a many-tiered social ladder, and the desire for recognition while barely existing in the eyes of most other species. But what is ultimately sad is that humans are presented as chasing the impossible in the most pathetic, unabashed way. Stay away, we warn each other, but we are destined to take on this pursuit as it is fundamentally in our nature. The engineer is a representation of humanity, and we know the route that the curious reporter will take, now child-like beside the older, deeply depressed engineer. Short and with a straightforward point, the story nonetheless gives us many fine moments, such as the appearance of the engineer's wife and the treatment of a baser alien species by the engineer himself.

While I do not agree with Tiptree's thesis, I do find it compelling and well presented. We can interpret the story as a case of interracial sex, or even simply the complexities of sexual relationship as a whole. I don't think this was Tiptree's intention, though, since within the text it is clear that she has created both a complex and detailed universe, and strong character elements that are reflected in the story's individual moments.

A master of storytelling, it is difficult not to engage with the story, and to re-read as there is so much in even this short piece that we can infer. There are the more obvious moments, such as the engineering looking at his wrist, clearly indicating that he had sold his watch as part of the expensive pursuit of alien love. Then there are the more subtle moments. We learn the engineer's marriage is loveless, one of convenience as space stations hire only couples. This rule of couple hiring was likely implemented in a doomed attempt to ensure that employees would not pursue relations with aliens as they would have sexual partners alongside them. The rule is easily skirted, however, as the engineer and his wife, it turns out, have conspired in their roles as each is on the quest for alien love.

The reporter mentions briefly that he catches the scent of tallow. This is in reference to the engineer's body odour, a mixture of unwashed flesh as his obsession precedes even basic hygiene, and also infers the animal desire of which he cannot be rid. Adding to this baseness, we learn that aliens who agree sleep with humans are referred to as perverts. Human sex, or sex with a human, is universally considered unnatural, heightening the notion that the pursuit for alien sex is unattainable. As humans are being debased by the most noble of aliens (noble from a human perspective), humans in turn attempt to debase those aliens in lesser regards (as we see the engineer's treatment of the station's helpful alien). This pattern, we learn, began with the engineer early in his career, as when describing his first meeting with an alien in a bar, he refers to the bartender as a "snotty spade," as derogatory as it is racist.

This scene at the bar invokes much of the latter part of the story, and of the engineer's fruitless quest. The obsessed human woman in the bar is covered in bruises, we learn from sexual acts with aliens. This woman is likened to the engineer's wife, but we know these are not the same women as the one in the bar kills herself, but the obsessiveness is shared by the two women, as the engineer's wife too is described as having similar sexual scars. At the bar the engineer mentions seeing an expensively dressed man with "something wrecked about his face." This is how the reported first describes the engineer, who indicates that the description "fits." The scene in the bar is a foreshadowing of the engineer and his wife; he essentially sees his fate from the outset, sees his future in these two characters: the bruised woman and the wrecked man.

The fact that the characters are nameless indicates that the affliction discussed is not individual, as argued by the engineer, but that these characters merely reflect all of humanity. In addition, we learn that the engineer is from Nebraska whereas the reporter is an Aussie, indicating that the affliction is global.

Finally, the reporter is not good at his job. He complains that no one will talk to him, and his comments and opening questions are elementary, not learned on journalism school but by watching generic newscasts. His generic remarks while "greedily" trying to have a peek at a docking ship reveal that he is not there for a story, but driven by his desire. Like the engineer, he probably chose a profession that would allow him to visit a space station in order to pursue his desire. This is the story's greatest irony: the engineer reveals what would be unique and fascinating story about humanity's desires and the sharp drop in today's birthrate, yet the person in a position to bring this story to the world, and thereby potentially bringing journalistic glory upon himself, is like a child stuck to the station glass, and finally a puppy dashing off to catch sight of an alien.

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

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.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 28: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Leguin

Leguin, Ursula K. "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." New Dimensions 3, Robert Silverberg, ed. New York: Doubleday, October 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:   8.93/10
My Rating:        9/10

"With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city
Omelas, bright-towered by the sea.

The land of Omelas is a beautiful utopia, where all the inhabitants are happy. All except for one child who is locked away and neglected. It is the abuse of this child that is the cost for all others to be happy.

An effective take on the moral conundrum of one person's eternal suffering resulting in the happiness of the multitude. The story presents a moral thought experiment: Can we allow a single individual to exist in perpetual squalor, to be tortured and shunned and isolated from all others, so that all others can live in peace and plenty? And yet the story moves beyond thought and debate, as Le Guin appears to be giving the reader an answer.

In Le Guin's version of the debate, the idyll is a seaside village celebrating its summer festival, while a child is locked away in the dark and damp of a broom closet. Le Guin's narrator reports on the village activities, and after painting the utopian picture, tells of the child. This is followed by the varying responses of the villagers to the child. The narrator's tone, though reporting, is not altogether removed. There is an underlying sense of judgement, and the voice indicates that the people of Omelas are, in effect, just like the reader, average people with a certain level of intelligence.

There is also a dark underlying element. These intelligent people, for the most part, do nothing for the child, and accept the word that the child's suffering is in effect their happiness, and yet there is no proof given, neither concrete nor heresy, that freeing the child would result in suffering for Omelas. The narrator tells it as fact, and we, like the citizens of Omelas, are expected to accept it as such, like the traditional stoning of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" and other truths or realities whose origins have been lost, and whose practices should be questioned.

Moreover, the narrator tells us early in the story that not only are these people intelligent, but "there is no guilt in Omelas." The idyll in Omelas includes not just material comforts, but the added benefit of being guilt-free. We are also informed that everyone in Omelas, as soon as they reach a certain age, are informed of the child and of the reason for its captivity, and moreover, are allowed to visit and witness the child's suffering in person. The citizens of Omelas are not morally upset by the captivity of the child, or if upset, they quickly accept the situation and move on: "Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it."

(While the ending is not transformative, it is impressionable, and I must here discuss that ending. So if you have not read the story, please do so now.)

The ones who walk away refers to those who witness the child and, as a result, leave Omelas, never to return. No one knows where these people go, only that they are never seen again. At least not in Omelas. The ones who walk away presumably feel guilt, and cannot dry their tears and move on, and therefore cannot stay. They are the morally enlightened members of the society, and abandon all the happiness and material plenty of that world to walk away on their own. This enlightenment results in their self-banishment, as they would rather be challenged by the hardships of the outside world, unable to accept the wealth provided through the suffering of one child.

A powerful story, exquisitely written.

The short story has been a favourite of critics and editors over the years. It received the 1974 Hugo for best short story, and has been included in an impressive number of major (and minor) anthologies. There are the "Best of..." and "Greatest..." collections, such as The Best Science Fiction of the Year #3 (Terry Carr, ed., Ballantine, July 1974), The Hugo Winners, Volume Three (Isaac Asimov, ed., Doubleday, August 1977), The Best of New Dimensions (Robert Silverberg, ed., Pocket Books, November 1979), The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of the Twentieth Century (Martin H. Greenberg, ed., NewStar, October 1998) and Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century (Orson Scott Card, ed., Ace,  November 2001). Then there are the noted fantasy anthologies such as Black Water: The Anthology of Fantastic Literature (Alberto Manguel, ed., Picador, 1983), The Fantasy Hall of Fame (Martin H. Greenberg & Robert Silverberg, eds., Arbor House, October 1983; later reprinted as The Mammoth Book of Fantasy All-Time Greats), and The Big Book of Modern Fantasy (Ann VanderMeer & Jeff VanderMeer, eds, Vintage, July 2020). There are even anthologies for horror (Wolf's Book of Terror), female horror authors (Mistresses of the Dark), dystopias (Brave New Worlds), general literature (Thirty American Stories from the Last Thirty Years) and academic literature (Backpack Literature). And several others... It was of course included in many of Le Guin's collections, initially in her first collection, The Wind's Twelve Quarters (Harper & Row, October 1975). The story is also a staple in readings for courses on literature, sociology, and philosophy. And likely others.

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

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 27: Kaleidoscope by Ray Bradbury

Bradbury, Ray. "Kaleidoscope." Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1949. pp 129-134

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:   9.00/10
My Rating:        7/10

"The first concussion cut the ship up the side like a giant can opener."

A dozen astronauts are launched into space when their rocket ship breaks open. They are each hurtling toward a different direction and a separate destination, away from one another, with about an hour remaining before they can no longer hear one another. In a brief space of time they contemplate mortality and whether a life fully lived meant anything more than one that was not, now that they will soon all be corpses.

Bradbury is in existential mode. While this is not among his best thinking stories, it is nonetheless quite good. I did find myself more affected with the thought of spinning dizzyingly across space with not a shred of control--an absolutely horrific thought--than the idea of reminiscing and regretting minutes before death. Published in 1949, the story is as dated as one would expect, with a primitive take on space travel, and an all-male cast whose envy is aimed at the one man who had experienced many women and much comfort in his lifetime. With humans colonizing Jupiter, you would think their ships and their suits would be more advanced and better equipped, but in all fairness that was not Bradbury's aim. And humanity does not evolve as quickly as technology, and the main idea is still relevant and will continue to remain relevant as our rocket ships continue to improve.

The title is well thought out. It refers to the image of one of the astronauts carried off by a small meteor shower and the metal and rock that surround him. Yet it refers simultaneously to the kaleidoscopic view of one's life, that it can be viewed at different angles and can contain beauty regardless of its experience.

Bradbury's prose is distracting, His overuse of similes (the opening brief three-sentence paragraph contains three similes, with another close behind, and then another, like a barrage of meteorites, or like thoughts flashing quickly through one's mind, or like...). 

Not my favourite Bradbury (though it's his highest ranked on the ISFdb), but nonetheless a solid story, well worth reading..

"Kaleidoscope" was among the stories selected for inclusion in Bradbury's famed The Illustrated Man. It has been reprinted excessively over the years.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 26: Enemy Mine by Barry B. Longyear

Longyear, Barry B. "Enemy Mine." Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, September 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:   9.00/10
My Rating:        9/10

"The Dracon's three-fingered hand flexed."

On an unexplored planetoid, a human and a Dracon (or "Drac") have crash landed during a battle between the two species. They must survive both the inhospitable landscape and their hatred for each other.

Reads like the premise of many a Hollywood script, and as expected, the two learn to work together and eventually develop a strong bond during their long months of confinement. However, unlike many stories that follow this plot-line, interracial or not, "Enemy Mine" has an engaging plot and is ultimately a genuinely touching story. The interracial aspects are strong, though they are to be expected (the racist human later experiences racism directed toward him when visiting Dracon society, etc.), but the friendship and commitment to another's cultural responsibilities is what I find mostly intriguing.

Along with hefty thematic elements, Longyear builds an excellent environment on Fyrine IV, the planet on which the two are stranded. The pair of enemies begin by struggling against the extreme elements, and then must build a life for themselves by seeking proper shelter, food and making clothes and other necessities with the little they have at hand. The details in which they learn to build and stitch are reminiscent of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, who also eventually discovers a companion. The story can be expanded by discovering more of Fyrine IV, and Longyear did expand the novella into a full-fledged novel in 1998 as "Enemy Mine: The Author's Cut," published alongside new stories set in the same universe, as The Enemy Papers (Borealis, 1998). I have not read the works but will likely do so at some time.

Another aspect of the novella that I quite like, though it is not discussed too much, is the notion that the war between humans and Dracs is for naught, as our human mentions at the story's opening that the battle was essentially pointless, in a part of space no one really wanted. This is elaborated later on, but only slightly, and we are to understand that the hatred between the two species developed from a chance encounter as they were each attempting to expand their species. Yet there is no value in that part of space, so the war is driven partly by pride, the desire to conquer and perhaps the need each species has to burrow unhindered into deeper space. One thing we discover later in the story is that Dracons and humans are, despite their obvious differences, essentially the same species. Like humans they tend to other those who are unlike them, placing themselves on a higher rung. They have religion, a kind of caste system, and a knack for bureaucracy. Not entirely original, but it serves to drive home much of the story's thematic concerns.

"Enemy Mine" swept the novella awards for stories published in 1979, being awarded the Hugo, the Nebula and the Locus in the novella category. Six years following its publication it was released as a major motion picture, Enemy Mine (1985), directed by Wolfgang Petersen, and starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr. I first watched the movie, in French, around 1987 or '88 with my brother, and read the novella not too long afterwards in the anthology Nebula Winners Fifteen (ed. Frank Herbert, Harper & Row, 1981). My brother and I both enjoyed the movie, and I loved the novella, so much so that I gave it to my mother to read, who, an avid reader, disliked science fiction. She too loved the novella, and may have shed a tear if memory serves. I re-read the novella a couple years ago and enjoyed it once again then, and re-read it yet again a few days ago, and it holds up nicely.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 25: The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster

Forster, E. M. "The Machine Stops." The Oxford and Cambridge Review, Michaelmas Term (November) 1909.

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:   9.00/10
My Rating:        8/10

"Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee."

In the distant future, humanity has reached a climax in their evolution, as humans have nestled into a stagnant existence. Some time before, people believed that it would be to their benefit to construct a great machine that spans the globe underground, and in which now are contained many cells that are home to individuals. Society is controlled by what appears to be artificial intelligence (as viewed in 1909), and humans are kept at bay: distracted by ideas, made to fear the outside, controlled birth and weaning, while babies born with special abilities, such as advanced athletics, are "destroyed." It appears the Machine is looking out for the interest of the people, but the people are instead being trained to worship the Machine.

People rarely leave their cells, and have access to an assortment of buttons, each of which, by being pressed, provides the person with their immediate need: feeding, bathing, communicating with others in primitive audio or video, listening to music, attending lectures, and so forth. Like today's internet, people can also access information, texts and music of the past. Thanks to the Machine (now capital M), humanity no longer progresses, and people pursue frivolous acts, seeking new ideas and preparing to share them with others either through private communication or public lectures. This pursuit of "ideas" is intended to prevent humans from accessing true Ideas--those associated with their existence. Like television and the internet which distract more than they educate, Forster manages to foresee a future that is close to today's reality. The story seems to have had a resurgence during the pandemic lockdown, as we were living in cells and pursuing frivolous activities.

The novelette focuses on Vashti, a woman content to be a part of the Machine. In a moment of pure irony, Vashti encounters the greatest form of ideas in the use of her imagination, as she views the clouds while riding in an air-ship: "Their shapes were fantastic; one of them resembled a prostate man. 'No ideas here', murmured Vashti, and hid the Caucasus behind a metal blind." This need to distance oneself from the outside world is an act of limiting thought and imagination. True progress is technological, not social, as "progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine."

Vashti receives a call from her son, who is interested in the outdoors and in the stars, concepts that make Vashti uncomfortable. Her son requests a visit from her, and reluctantly she agrees. In person, he admits to having committed a great crime: he has found a way to the outside world, and gave in to his need to pursue it, even though the act can result in "homelessness": being left outside to die.

An extraordinary story and well ahead of its time. The story appeared during a time of transition for dystopian fiction. We are moving away from the fantasy dystopias of Sir Thomas Moore, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Butler, and toward more technological and science fiction dystopias. Forster apparently wrote the story as a response to the utopian fiction of H. G. Wells, who frequently wrote positively about technological advance, and believed that technology would bring much good to mankind despite potential dangers. Forster's vision is evidently darker. Later twentieth century dystopian novels have clearly borrowed or were influenced by "The Machine Stops." Forster himself was familiar with the precursors to dystopian fiction and early science fiction writing, and forged his work entirely around technology, replacing leadership with artificial intelligence and the dystopian hero who was an outsider and, with Forster, is now born into the dystopian world, rather than the Gullivers of the past who wander into their dystopian realities, whether they be lost lands or a present figure awakening in the future.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 24: The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Cask of Amontillado." Godey's Magazine and Lady's Book 33, November 1846; New England Weekly Review, 14 November 1846.

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:   9.00/10
My Rating:        10/10

Illustration by Arthur Rakham,
for Tales of Mystery and Imagination,
J. B. Lippincott, 1935

"The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge."

One of literature's strongest opening sentences launches the reader into the confession of narrator Montresor's horrible act of vengeance against the insulting Fortunato.

As with "The Tell-Tale Heart," Poe does not directly state the motivation for the need to commit murder, and we can only speculate as to what this single insult was to drive Montresor to commit the crime, when a thousand other injuries did not. While the "thousand" is hyperbolic, it is understood through Montresor's descriptions that Fortunato, a well-to-do elite Italian with pride and an ego, is capable of injuring others in an offhanded way. Fortunato makes flippant comments without thought, and is entirely dismissive of the only other person mentioned in the confession, another Italian wine connoisseur by the name of Luchesi. In the brief narrative, Montresor is able to portray the arrogance of Fortunato, who sits atop social circles and despite regularly committing offences, appears otherwise friendly and accommodating, so that his behaviour, kind or offensive, is simply his natural self. He may not have disliked Montresor and simply caused injury in the wake of his stumbling, not always sober path, via flippant remarks not meant to injure others but instead to uphold his own pride. And yet this last insult must have been a doozy, as Montresor reveals himself to be a man of conscience and, unlike the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart," of moral awareness. (More on this later.)

Montresor chooses to seek his revenge on carnival day, knowing Fortunato, a connoisseur of wine, would be inebriated and hence off his guard. He would lead the drunken Fortunato with the promise of some pure amontillado, a high quality Italian sherry. Montresor plays on the other's vanity, telling him he needs an expert to be able to identify whether he has purchased true amontillado or wasted his money on mere sherry, and plays on the man's ego by mentioning that he can instead seek the advice of competitor Luchesi. Clearly Fortunato is prideful and egoist.

In contrast, Montresor is overly sensitive. He refers to Fortunato as "my friend" and treats him as a  most beloved companion, though admits early that this treatment was part of his great plan. As they stumble through the catacombs, he says to Fortunato, "you are happy, as once I was," as though poking at him, insinuating that his own happiness left him at the moment of Fortunato's insult. A sensitive man, Montresor, who over an insult plots to kill a man, claims the insult is the reason for his unhappiness, and following the murder suffers a half-century of guilt. The man's disintegration is his sensitivity.

Despite leading Fortunato through his family catacombs, patiently and with intent, Montresor soon suffers pangs of guilt, and maintains that suffering for fifty years. After immuring Fortunato, Montresor is stricken with guilt over what he has done. "My heart grew sick," he says, just as the last stone of his plan has been laid. He attributes the feeling to the dampness of the catacombs, but the wiser reader is aware that the sickness he experiences is moral. Montresor concludes his narrative with: "For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!" Rest in peace. This solidifies the notion that Montresor, though he acted cold-heartedly, is now burdened with remorse. As some wise critics have indicated, by walling up Fortunato, Montresor has walled himself up, as he narrates this tale half a century after the events, and in that half a century has been burdened by the guilt of his actions.

At the time of its publication, "The Cask of Amontillado" was not among Poe's most popular stories. In fact, it was reprinted only once in his lifetime (compared with at least ten printings of "The Tell-Tale Heart" between 1843-1845, or fourteen printings of "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, 1845-1849). However, it has become among the most anthologized of his short stories, finding its way into anthologies for young adults, as well as horror, crime and literary anthologies for adults, and anthologies used in colleges and universities. For a glimpse of its popularity over the years, visit the story's ISFdb page. Its growing popularity may be that the story needs a closer reading to uncover the narrator's guilt, which is where the emotional impact of the story lies. The emotional impact in "The Tell-Tale Heart," to compare, lies perhaps in the dichotomy between the narrator's love of the old man, and the passionate need to kill him, which is more readily available than the subtler heart of "The Cask of Amontillado."

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #23: The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Tell-Tale Heart." Pioneer, January 1843; Dollar Newspaper, 25 January 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:   9.00/10
My Rating:        10/10

"True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?"

Artwork by Virgil Finlay,
from Fantastic, Fall 1952

A man tells of a murder he has committed, attempting desperately to convince the listener of his sanity. The narrative is driven by a combination of character and plot, as the narrator's skewed judgement drives his actions. The main plot point--the narrator has killed a man--is quickly revealed, as Poe is interested in the teller more than he is in the tale.

The narration centres around the murderer's mental state, with emphasis on his heightened senses, and the detailing of the two major scenes: the murder itself and the police interrogation. Everything else is up for conjecture, and there is much conjecture to be sought. The narrator is more focused on the quieter, indistinguishable sounds, the heartbeats rather than the shrieks. This ends up being his eventual undoing, as he misinterprets ticking for the beating of the dead man's heart. The title emphasizes this, but it is ironic, as the heart is obviously silent, and cannot tell a tale, nor tattle tale (as was Poe's intention for the title). It is not the heart that tells, but the mind, the same mind that led the narrator to commit the horrible deed.

"The tell-Tale Heart" is among Poe's shortest stories, and its brevity is the result of the stripping of much detail. Poe also employs his own form of minimalism, and motive for the crime and the relationship between the killer and his victim are not directly revealed. As a result there is a good deal of work to be done by the reader in order to understand the relationship between murderer and victim, as well as the motive for the crime. Poe does sprinkle the test with hints for both, and over the years several interesting theories have been developed.

Many interpretations suggest the narrator is related to the "old man," either a son-father or nephew-uncle relationship. However, Poe inserts a few small clues to dissuade the interpretation that the two are related. We assume an age gap as the narrator refers to his victim as an old man. Beyond this, the relationship appears to be more business-like, somewhat formal as they live together and yet all of the old man's belongings are stored in his own room, and the narrator examines them without an emotional response, as though the objects are foreign to him. We are given the impression that the narrator owns the house, as it is he who answers the door when the police arrive, and it is he the police is interested in. He gives the investigators a tour of the house, accessing all of its rooms. The old man, then, is possibly a lodger. That his single room is filled with all his belongings, as mentioned above, we can assume the other rooms in the house are off limits to him, at least to a degree, or at least not in his possession as he would have his little trinkets all over the place, not just in the single room he occupies. Poe is also specific that the house is in the midst of an urban setting. This is an important point, since at the time houses along urban streets were built side-by-side, attached to one another. Poe reveals that it is a neighbour who calls the police, having heard noise. This tight-housed urban landscape is used in many of Poe's stories, notable "The Black Cat," whose geography is also integral to the story's plot.

Given these details, my interpretation of the story is that the men are unrelated, yet have been living together for some time, as there is an intimacy between them. "I loved the old man," says the narrator, and we have no reason to not believe this statement. The "old man" is used as a form of endearment, and is repeated each time without disdain. So why would this possible landlord want to murder a beloved old man whom, so he tells us, has no money or valuables, and whom he professes to love?

The narrator claims he wanted to destroy the old man's eye which he sees akin to that of a vulture. The narrator separates the eye from the man, so that he loves the man, but hates the eye. He is unable to harm the man, and it is the eye that he wishes to destroy. He is in this way excising himself from committing murder, as he is destroying an object and not a person. But why would he want to destroy this eye? It is "a pale blue eye, with a film over it," and every time the eye "fell upon" the narrator, his "blood ran cold." It is a creepy, ugly eye--the eye of a buzzard. The old man would watch the narrator, we suspect, and that look perhaps held a hint of judgement or disapproval, or simple wariness as the narrator has heightened senses and likely behaves daily with this defect. Perhaps there is no specific look given by the old man, but the narrator's heightened senses and paranoia may lead him to believe that there is. Described as a vulture's eye, we understand that a vulture is a scavenger, seeking carcasses rather than hunting and gathering, so that it is possible the narrator believed the old man was coveting his home or his belongings, as the old man in his advanced age had so little, and was forced to be content lodging in the home of this madman.

And so the conjecture can run on. Why Poe left us so little detail in this story is not problematic. He is interested in the character, his voice and the irony of his own undoing. Yet the food for thought left behind is of value to the reader, as we have such a short but rich text to appreciate.

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

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Louise Penny, The Best American Mysteries Stories 2018

Penny, Louise, ed. The Best American Mysteries Stories 2018 (Otto Penzler, series editor). Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

The Best American Mystery Stories 2018 at Goodreads

Overall rating:     6/10

In my attempt at reading more contemporary fiction, I selected this book for mystery (with another "Best of" anthology for contemporary horror, and some modern literature for a novel). So much reading to get through, I had little time for writing. Now that I am the end of that stint, I can write about it all, beginning with my least favourite of the batch.

The selection of stories in The Best American Mysteries Stories 2018 is somewhat varied, though there appears to be a slight shift toward more adventure or thriller stories, where the mystery transforms into a climactic showdown or chase, and where the mystery element feels almost secondary to the action, like a standard Hollywood movie. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but for many of these stories, such as David Edgerley Gates's "Cabin Fever" and David A. Hendrickson's "Death in Serengeti," we know how it is going end, so other elements need to be elevated and the action shortened. Though I understand many readers may prefer the adrenaline brought on by the action, this is not my sub-genre of choice.

Less varied is the gender of the authors. Of the twenty stories in the anthology, a whopping two are written by women. Ten percent. According to the UN, there is a greater representation of women in parliament than there is in this anthology.

(I wonder how much the selections in these best-of books are influenced by the stories' authors, so editors & publishers choose entries not on the individual story merits, but on their author or a combination of the two, to help increase sales. The best stories here are not necessarily by the more recognizable authors. Both women are big names.)

As usual I prefer the stories that are character-based, and the real stand-out for me is T. C. Boyle's "The Designee," which I read as a modern tragedy. Other strong stories are Rob Hart's "Takeout," the excellently titled opening story by Louis Bayard, "Banana Triangle Six," Scott Loring Sanders's "Waiting on Joe," and "All Our Yesterday's" by Andrew Klavan. I also like the the Joyce Carol Oates novelette, though I feel it does not belong in this book. The rest are pretty forgettable.

Banana Triangle Six by Louis Bayard     7/10
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, July/August 2017

Eighty-four year-old Mr. Hank is living out his days at the Morning Has Broken home for the elderly. He is grumpily abandoning his lunch and heading to his room for a nap. His memory seems to be fading, and he barely recognizes the woman, Dr. Landis, who appears unexpectedly in his room to run a few small tests. A touching story, tightly written, and a good one to launch the collection.

Y is for Yangchuan Lizard by Andrew Bourelle     7/10
D is for Dinosaur, edited by Rhonda Parrish, Edmonton: Poise and Pen, 2017

To pay off a debt, a young man sells drugs from a bar for the Chechen mafia. When his friend gets ahold of a rare bag of coke mixed with dinosaur bones, the mafia is prepared to commit murder in order to get their hands on the stash. A pretty good read with some standard twists, elevated by a nice dark undertone of hopelessness.

The Designee by T. C. Boyle     8/10
The Iowa Review, 47:2, Fall 2017

I have yet to read a story by T. C. Boyle (author of "Greasy Lake") that I do not like. In this one, a retired elderly professor is caught in a mail scheme that sees him slowly sending his life savings overseas. A painful read, as we know what is transpiring and must be content to continue amid frustration and outrage. This story's designation here as a mystery is arguable: while it has elements of mystery, so does every short story, yet this one doesn't hinge on any moment of discovery or climax. It is more of a character study and a portrait of a very real scheme that has seen so many retirees taken for so much money. Very well written with a heartbreaking finish.

Smoked by Michael Bracken     6/10
Noir at the Salad Bar, edited by Verena Rose, Harriette Sacker, and Shawn Reilly Simmons, Level Best Books, 2017

In small town Texa,s Beau James is running the Quarryville Smokehouse. When his photo appears in a local paper, he fears he has been outed as he settled in town via the witness protection program. A fairly average story with a noisy climax.

The Wild Side of Life by James Lee Burke     6/10
The Southern Review, Winter 2017

Oil driller has an affair with the wife of Louisiana bigshot who runs the local police. Some familiar events, focus on PTSD following a tragic event many years before, and a rushed and dwindling finish. The title refers to a country song.

Too Much Time by Lee Child     6.5/10
No Middle Name, Delacorte Press, 2017

While walking through a plaza minding his own business, Jack Reacher witnesses the snatch-theft of a handbag and gets involved in the investigation, the cops pulling him in as a key witness. This novella is my first Jack Reacher, and I did enjoy it, though it could have been shorter. I guess it took just too much time reading this...

The Third Panel by Michael Connolly     6/10
Alive in Shape and Color, edited by Lawrence Block, 2017

Police investigate a brutal crime scene at a model home in an abandoned development area seventy miles from Los Angeles that was being used as a meth cookhouse. An FBI agent arrives to determine if it matches other similar crimes attributed to a group calling themselves The Third Panel. Pretty good short story with a minor, semi-expected twist.

Gun Work by John M. Floyd     6/10
Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, edited by Andrew McAleer and Paul D. Marks, Down & Out Books, 2017

A western tale of mystery. Investigator Will Parker is sent to uncover the truth about a twenty-two year incident involving a retired sheriff and the shooting of a wanted criminal. Average story with an expected finish

Cabin Fever by David Edgerley Gates     6/10
Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2017

Ranger Hector is caught in a storm in the midst of the wild, while a pair of cold-blooded murderers are on the loose after a prison bus turns over. The story shifts between Hector and the two escaped convicts who take him hostage, and the FBI and the ranger's girlfriend medic who try to locate him, while coordinating a wildfire triggered by lightning. This is a common formula and I was not too invested in this one, as we can guess early on how it will turn out.

Small Signs by Charlaine Harris     6/10
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, November/December 2017

High school principal and former trainer of government operatives Anne DeWitt is surprised by a visit from former colleagues. It appears money has been laundered from the training camp, and Anne's replacement at the camp is desperate to discover the culprit. This is part of a series of short stories featuring Anne DeWitt with her new identity. This one was alright, but the quick scenes needed to be interspersed with so much background information for those unfamiliar with the series (such as myself), that it only became interesting half-way through.

Takeout by Rob Hart     8/10
Mystery Tribune, Issue No. 2, Summer 2017

To pay off a gambling debt to the Chinese gambling house and restaurant, The Happy Dumpling, Harold makes special takeout deliveries for owner Mr. Mo. He does not, however, deliver food, but rather messages in the form of seemingly random items. Harold wants out, but behind on alimony payments and wanting to get on the good side of his former wife and their six year-old daughter, he has no choice but to continue. Until an option comes to light.

A character driven story that also presents a great situation and environment, this story is a slice of life, a few days amid a hefty sequence of events. Well written and well framed, each moment is both necessary and interesting, and honestly I liked the scenario so much, with its not-too-likable protagonist, I would have read a good deal more. In addition, it has something many of the stories in the anthology do not: a great ending.

Death in the Serengeti by David H. Hendrickson     6/10
Fiction River #24: Pulse Pounders Adrenaline, edited by Kevin J. Anderson, July 2017

Senior Serengeti park ranger Makinda comes across the carcasses of several elephants, their ivory tusks sawed off. Shortly thereafter his jeep explodes, followed by additional explosions in the distance as the vehicles of the other rangers in the district also explode. Makinda becomes aware that he has just evaded being murdered, and that there are dangerous poachers in the vicinity who have likely killed his colleagues, leaving him alone to fight the threat.

The most interesting aspect of the story is the tragic and cold-blooded poaching business, which genuinely enraged me as I was reading. While this made me emotionally invested in the story, this is the kind of adventure story in which I am not normally interested. Also, because I was emotionally invested, I was hoping for a better finishing off of the culprits, something more poetic and long-lasting, whereas they were simply done away with all too quickly.

The story received the 2018 Derringer Award for "Best Long Story" (4,001-8,000 words).

All Our Yesterdays by Andrew Klavan     7/10
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2017

During the First World War, Brooks is injured during a charge from his trench, and is sent to England for a lengthy recuperation period. He finds that everything has changed--not just the world around him, but his own self as well. He experiences blackouts and sudden, strong bouts of fear and anger, often associated with inexplicable rage. He longs for a former time, during the late nineteenth century when times were easier and women, in particular, were purer. He befriends his older doctor with whom he feels the need to reminiscence, yet while Dr. Haven tries to explain that it was not a better time, that there was darkness even then, Brooks's desire to talk about the past does not dampen, and his blackouts, which he keeps a secret, seem to become more severe.

What a long description for this excellent story that had me glued. A great finish as well that links the details nicely.

PX Christmas by Martin Limón     6/10
The Usual Santas: A Collection of Soho Crime Christmas Capers, (no credited editor), Random House, 2017

In the Korean demilitarized zone, a pair of American army officers investigate the abuse of the military PX shop, a shop designed for the military and their spouses where imported items can be purchased at low cost. Some wives abuse the shops by making their purchases and selling them in Seoul for great profit, and one of these is sighted by our officers.

The premise of the story is its strongest aspect, as the plot to re-take the wife and make sure Huk leaves everyone alone is less interesting than the mechanisms of the US military in the DMZ.

Windward by Paul D. Marks     6/10
Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, edited by Andrew McAleer and Paul D. Marks, Down & Out Books, 2017

Private investigator receives a visit from no-nonsense successful film producer claiming his wife has disappeared and that the police believe she has simply run off. PI investigates, theorizes, things happen and mystery is resolved. Fairly average tale with fairly average PI.

Phantomwise: 1972 by Joyce Carol Oates     7/10
Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, September/October 2017

Undergraduate student Alyce is seduced and impregnated by one of her young instructors, who soon thereafter distances himself from her. In the meantime, Alyce befriends visiting professor and successful poet Roland, who hires her to help collect his papers.

While there is a clear element of mystery, and even crime, these are relegated to the backdrop, as the story focuses on Alyce and her complicated relationship with Roland. This is also the most interesting element of the story, so that as a mystery it is weaker than as a character study. I sympathized with both Alyce and Roland, and would even have liked to see their relationship continue to develop. The ending moves away from this and does its own thing.

Rule Number One by Alan Orloff     7/10
Snowbound: Best New England Crime Stories 2017, Shawn Reilly Simmons, Harriette Sackler, Verena Rose, editors, Level best Books, 2017

A thief helps his aging, retiring mentor by allowing him to take part in one final heist. And of course, there is much double-crossing. A familiar set-up, and you can figure out the ending at the last leg, but it is nonetheless an enjoyable, well written story.

The Apex Predator by William Dylan Powell     6/10
Switchblade #1, Scotch Rutherford ed., 2017

Professional diver is hired to help police locate sunken cars in an attempt to close unsolved disappearances. When preparing a sunken Camaro and its pair of police corpses for ascent, our diver notices there are hundred dollar bills floating around in the vehicle. Down on his luck, he decides to keep the stash for himself.

Pretty good, but the first half is far more interesting than the second, and I didn't care for for the jokey ending. I really liked the concept of recovering sunken vehicles and would read more on that topic.

Waiting on Joe by Scott Loring Sanders     8/10
Shooting Creek and Other Stories, Down & Out Books, March 2017

Christmas tree plantation worker loves his dog, so much that he whittles wood into little mutt statues. That mutt digs close to the house and comes up with a human foot. This leads to so much, and sets up expectations which it nicely tears down as the narrative progresses. Highly enjoyable, not only in plotting but also in tone. The narrator's voice is a blast and the story ends as well as it begins.

Breadfruit by Brian Silverman     6/10
Mystery Tribune, Fall 2017

Former firefighter and current bar owner in St. Pierre, Len Buonfiglio, finds a pair of local breadfruit on his bar. Shortly thereafter he is visited by a man claiming interest in exporting breadfruit. A great opening wanes as the story gets into its final action sequence, with which I am less interested. However the focus on breadfruit and the conversation between the men, as well as the locale and surrounding characters, all work well.

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As of 24 December 2015