Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #22: The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Pit and the Pendulum." The Gift, a Christmas and New Year's Present for 1843, 1843.

This brief 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.

Kobo ebook edition,
cover from an illustration by
Arthur Rackham

ISFdb Rating:   9.00/10
My Rating:        8/10

"I was sick--sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me."

In the latter stages of the Spanish Inquisition, a self-proclaimed innocent man is sent to Toledo where the truly brutal tortures of the Inquisition are rumoured to take place. There he is deposited in a dungeon, left awaiting his fate. The waiting increases his anxiety, as he can only imagine what the inquisitors have in store for him. He studies his pitch black surroundings, and discovers a pit at the centre of the dungeon. Adding to this discovery, and o his anxiety, he awakens tied down with rope, and descending toward him is a sharp scythe on that infamous pendulum.

To be expected from Poe, a well-written narrative providing much horror. Yet worse than the razor sharp pendulum, the moving walls and the fiery pit, are those nasty accompanying rats. Ingenious of Poe to bring such well detailed and horrible rodents to swarm the protagonist while in such a desperate state, and how those rats are utilized to help save him, a moment that inspired many scenes in popular film.

More ingenious is Poe's attention to detail, as the story takes place in such limited space and with a limited sequence of events. His use of alliteration, particularly in relation to the sweeping scythe, the waking-sleeping delirium and the attention to the senses, gives much body to a tale with so little plot.

The Spanish Inquisition had officially come to an end a few decades prior to the publication of "The Pit and the Pendulum," and periodicals over the years were reporting on the various events that were coming to light as details of the tortures, survival stories and such were being uncovered. Poe, having worked for many of the periodicals, became fascinated with the events of the Inquisition, and came up with his own, wholly invented, method of torture. Just as "The Black Cat" came about with a report of the discovery of a skeleton in the walls of a house, "The Pit and the Pendulum" was the result of other printed articles.

This has never been my favourite of Poe's most famous stories, but the craftsmanship is evident and nonetheless makes for an excellent read. One of those stories that is so cemented in popular western culture that we need not have to read it to know exactly how it plays out.

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

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.

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