Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 39: The Veldt by Ray Bradbury

Bradbury, Ray. "The World the Children Made." The Saturday Evening Post, 23 September 1950.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   8.82/10
My Rating:        7/10

" 'George, I wish you'd look at the nursery.' "

Cover by George Hughes
George and Lydia Hadley have invested in a Happylife Home, where all their daily comforts are met. Their home will prepare and serve their meals, and even switch their lights on and off throughout each part of the home they are passing, as they are passing. Yet they believe that the best decision they made was to include in their home a nursery for the children. Very much like the Star Trek holodeck, the nursery can create whatever is on the minds of the children--it can produce their very desires. In the case of ten year-olds Peter and Wendy Hadley, who are currently interested in Africa, the nursery has created a veldt, an open space within a jungle, which includes a herd of lions in the distance who seem to always be chewing up some prey.

Yet something is off, the Hadleys notice, as the children's obsession begins to make them uncomfortable, as does the veldt and the ever observing lions. They decide that the children--and even they--have become too spoiled with the comforts of their new home, and make the ultimate decision to be less reliant on modern comforts. But are the children prepared for this great change?

Included in Bradbury's popular collection The Illustrated Man, "The Veldt" is one of his most read stories, and it is overall a really good one. The message is straightforward, as is the plotting which is paint-by-numbers, but the story works well as it places the reader on edge, is short with good pacing, and those looming lions--the looming dangers of technology and its ties to indolence--drive the narrative forward. There is nothing subtle or surprising, and its theme is well worn, even for 1950, but it becomes more prevalent each year so is never dated. The story predicts motion sensor lights and the holodeck, though we don't yet have tables that apologize to us for forgetting the ketchup. In fact, any smart gadget that would "forget" a pre-programmed step would today be considered faulty. In this world the table gadget is given personality, perhaps a little joke by Bradbury, or to indicate that those lions are not smoke and mirrors, but have desires of their own.

The story was originally title "The World the Children Made," but "The Veldt" is a more appropriate title. While the children made the world inside the nursery, the world that made a nursery that could drive the irrational drives of children was made by a society seeking comfort. The story's central focus, and where the tension lies, is in the veldt.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 38: The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson

Robinson, Kim Stanley. "The Lucky Strike." Universe 14, edited by Terry Carr. New York: Doubleday, June 1984.

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

This story is available online at Strange Horizons.

"War Breeds strange pastimes."

In an alternate World War II, pilot Colonel Paul Tibbets crashes the Enola Gay on a practice run, killing the entire crew. This tragedy leaves Captain Frank January in charge of the replacement crew and its plane, The Lucky Strike, on her voyage to drop a new kind of bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

An interesting story that explores the anxieties and doubts of January, aware of the destructive power of the atomic bomb, and struggling between his duty and the desire to abandon the mission. A good story with a strong first third, an overlong middle section, and a good but unsubtle finish. Essentially, the story presents an alternate scenario to end the war, to not drop the bomb on a populated area, but rather send a message by dropping the bomb onto an unpopulated area and force the Japanese to surrender as they are witness to the potential devastation that a nuclear strike can potentially wreak on a city. Of course, we can never know exactly how this would have played out in our reality, but Robinson is confident as to what the outcome would have been, and idealistically envisions such a scenario quickly leading to worldwide disarmament.

The historical elements and the crew's flight and its details were what I found most interesting, and whether accurate or not (though it probably is), the flight sequence is believable and creates more tension than January's anxieties, though undoubtedly heightened by those anxieties. I did wonder why a person like January would be selected as crew leader for the most important flight of WWII, since these high level decisions are made with scrutiny. There is a brief interplay with a psychologist early on, implying that it is easy to deceive medical officers, but this is slight and in itself not terribly convincing, or perhaps a scenario too familiar in war stories featuring conscientious officers. January is presented as more of an average American who would denounce the practice of a nuclear strike, than a soldier who would unwaveringly follow such an order.

The last section plays out conveniently for Robinson's message. January is sacrificed but Hiroshima and the rest of Japan are saved, and nuclear disarmament is to follow shortly. Harry S. Truman is depicted as the villainous leader who pushed for the strike, and the scientists behind the nuclear bomb are presented as military realists whose mission is to end the war without concern for civilian life.

For more of this week's Wednesday Short Stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.
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As of 24 December 2015