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.
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