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.
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