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Saturday, April 22, 2017

"The Examination" by Felix C. Gotschalk

First appeared in Robert Silverberg's New Dimensions IV. Reprinted by Harvey A. Katz, Martin H. Greenberg & Patricia S. Warrick, and Robert Silverberg. It was one of the stories that prompted his nomination for the John W. Campbell award for New Writers.

A psychologist interviews a seemingly slow-witted eight-year-old African American girl in order to assess her intelligence. As they progress, her command of language keeps surprising him. She not only scores well at her age range, but also higher. And higher.

The tables get turned.
Discussion with Spoilers:
As she scores well even for an intelligent adult, her voice loses its homespun pronunciations. She sounds more and more like a machine until she announces she's an alien and that she is conducting an examination of his and his species' intelligence.

He attempts to communicate with the secretary outside the office to escape, but she foils the plot. She says she is adaptable, mold-able, and impossible to destroy. She asks questions about him and these tests. When liberators arrive at the door, she warns him not to divulge her identity as she now looks like a girl to them. Nonetheless, he announces she's an alien with all the details, and police officers cart him away.

The words they select in the examination have some parallel to his thoughts and their discussion, cleverly commenting on the surrounding text. In fact, the whole tale is pleasurable apart from the too-easy ending. It offers a critique of current intelligence assessments although it offers no alternatives.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

On Dreams, Song, Alice, and a Lewis Carroll Poem

"A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky" or "Of Alice in Wonderland"

A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July —

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear —

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream —
Lingering in the golden gleam —
Life, what is it but a dream?


This was Poetry Magazine's poem of the day last week, and the last line struck me as familiar. Ah, but of course: 

Row, row, row your boat, 
Gently down the stream. 
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, 
Life is but a dream.

Wikipedia lists this song's first printing as 1852 (although it was possibly in existence before that). Which came first? Was he the originator or merely referencing the song? Carroll would have been 20. Possibly the phrase predated both. Carroll references Alice in Wonderland (published 1865 although he'd written earlier versions prior it's first printing. 1862 is listed as the date he first orally told the tale, so he had to have at least written that--likely later than 1862, then. Bartleby suggests the poem's first printing was 1895 under the above alternate title.

Carroll may have been referencing that song although it is an American song, which hampers that possibility a bit. However, if the poem was composed nearer 1895, then Carroll's likelihood of hearing the phrase from the verse seems probable.

When you hear "Life is but a dream," what does that mean? In "Row Your Boat", the use of "gently" and "stream" and the repetition of "merrily" four times (not to mention the lilt of the song itself) suggests that the song presumes "Life is unbearably wonderful." Is that wishful or hopeful thinking, or indoctrination of young minds? Who thinks of life being a dream? Beyoncé? At least she had a documentary called that. Songwriters in the fifties released sugar-coated songs with that title. It just seems odd or perhaps someone was born extraordinarily lucky and/or rich.

Carroll's use of the phrase seems quite different. His interpretation adds a bittersweet flavor, especially if it were composed so many years later. The persona's voice sounds wistful for the time he rowed the young ladies out ("Lingering onward dreamily") as well as for the Alice of the tale ("Still she haunts me"). Throughout, he mentions the end of things: evening, frost, Autumn, not to mention "Echoes fade and memories die").

In fact, he equates the dream with Alice herself: "Never seen by waking eyes." So a tale is a dream. When Carroll gets to his final line, he references the old song's blind devotion to believing life is unbearably wonderful, but ties to that idea that life is fleeting and story-like, perhaps due to the uncertainty of memory.

Interestingly, the poem that references a song became another song, which seems to mirror the moods mentioned here. The song (or poem?) is apparently famous enough to get riffed here and here.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review: Defender of the Innocent by Lawrence Block

Martin H. Ehrengraf is an attorney who almost never sets foot in a courtroom. Instead, clients pay one dollar to retain his services. Should he win, the client pays a steep fee, and it doesn't matter how the client gets cleared: They have to pay. Or they pay in some other way. And Ehrengraf never loses a case. Because his clients are always innocent.

Martin H. Ehrengraf is a well groomed with an eye for tasteful clothing. He has one celebratory tie he wears when certain of victory, and he comes calling for his fee. Sometimes he clients don't want to pay the full amount, which they may later regret.

Often, clients come in knowing they committed a crime, or they had some blackout, which prevents their knowing for certain (but the evidence is certainly stacked against them as if they had done it), and sometimes Ehrengraf himself arranged the case and positioned himself when they do get in trouble--a different kind of ambulance chasing.
Ehrengraf's methods are unorthodox, to say the least. Highly moral readers who don't read mysteries already may be horrified. Ehrengraf's ethics are all his own, and there may be few who would agree with him.

His personality is etched more for his lack of "proper" response than the upkeep of clothes or his desk. He is sharp and unconventional only in that he is the classic detective deducing conventionally but applying this in an unconventional manner.

That's where the series gets interesting. Ehrengraf is an interesting if not dynamic character, but it is his character that pushes up against our sense of justice. In so doing, he becomes a critique of the American criminal justice system and of reading mysteries in themselves. Anyone can be named the true criminal, whether guilty or not. The whole system of reading mysteries to see justice served is flawed in that it is a fabrication. So, by analogy, the reader is forced to question whether justice is ever served.

Now Block shows no hint in his commentary that this may be the case. In fact, he states a few times that Ehrengraf is the only lawyer who works in this manner--evidence can be manufactured and/or stacked in different ways--but it does bring the issue to mind by his existence. This isn't to say this is necessarily my view, but that reading the book highlights the idea: What is innocence but a construct? Who is truly innocent when they exit the courtroom?

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Star Trek: Season 1, Episode 14. "Balance of Terror"

Kirk officiates a wedding while Earth Outpost 4--one of several asteroid stations which monitor the neutral zone between Romulans and Federation--reports it is under attack. Enterprise goes to intercept but too late, they witness its destruction. They do pick up a visual on the culprit and who's aboard.
Analysis with spoilers:
Romulans! Navigator, Mr. Stiles, who has had family die at their hands, clearly hates them. He speaks of potential spies and hints that Spock, a Vulcan cousin, could interpret the signals.

Strangely, the episode freezes on and extends certain moments as if to give them more import or suspense than they have. Such as the confirming visual of the outpost or Romulan ship.

Convening a ship officers' meeting, they decide on attacking Romulans with Mr. Stiles confirming his reason and his hatred.

They attack when Romulan ship heads towards comet tail where they would become visible, but Romulan captain realizes that and evades tail at the last minute. When Kirk figures out what Romulans faked them out, he fires blindly. They hit, so Romulans uncloak to fire. Enterprise enters emergency warp to escape. The Romulan fire pursues, only phasers would detonate, but they are unoperational. The fire power dissipates and hits Enterprise.

The Enterprise pursues again. The Romulans note. Romulans attempt to hide and eject debris as if their ship were destroyed, but there's not enough debris. Both ships go silent (cloaking affects both parties). Spock fixes equipment but accidentally tips the Enterprise's location but sending out signal. Spock has been doing things accidentally that may seem to confirm his possibility as a double agent.

Kirk uses this to wait for Romulans and fires. Romulans eject debris again but this time with a nuclear bomb. The bomb rocks Enterprise but not permanently, yet Kirk wants them to look like a sitting duck. The Romulan Captain's underling sees weakness and wants to attack. They are safely in the neutral zone. Their captain wants to go home but yields to underling's decision.

Meanwhile, the Enterprise is down to forward lasers, which Stiles takes over and rejects Spock's offer of "help." However, the phaser coolant leaks and knocks out the operators just as they are needed. Spock rushes back and fires the phasers in the nick of time, saving the day, the life of enemy and his reputation.

When Yeoman Rand reports that Kirk's superiors would support whatever decision he has to make, they are too late to have affected the outcome, positively or negatively. Kirk smiles ironically.

Marriage cannot continue as the bride lost her groom in the skirmish.

This could be commentary on the WWII practice of assuming all Asian-Americans were Japanese spies (internment camps) [Spock and Stiles] as well as the fear that the cold war could become a hot one as seemed perilously close to occurring with the Bay of Pigs.

  1. Kirk: "Why me? I look around that bridge and see the men waiting for me to make the next move, and Bones, what if I'm wrong?"
  2. Romulan Captain: "You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you 'friend.' 
  3. Romulan Captain: "We are creatures of duty. I have lived my life by it. Just one more duty to perform."

    1. Equipment seems to fail right when it's needed.
    2. First encounter with Romulans.

    Friday, April 14, 2017

    Star Trek: Season 1, Episode 13. "The Conscience of the King"

    Prior  to episode beginning Governor Kodos of Tarsus IV or Kodos the executioner instituted martial after a drastic drop in food and killed fifty percent of the population. Kodos is presumed burn beyond all recognition.

    The episode begins with Tom Leighton, a witness and victim of Kodos, watching the play MacBeth. He suspects actor Karidian as being Kodos. He arranges a meeting with the actors. He winds up dead, leaving just Kirk and Lt. Riley the only living witnesses who have seen Kodos.

    Captain Kirk interrogates the daughter, Lenore, with pleasure. He arranges for transport of the actors aboard the Enterprise. Spock

    Analysis with spoilers:
    Lt. Riley listens to Uhura from Engineering room and happens to communicate his poisoning.

    Kirk confronts (see quotes), tests Karidian's voice. Close but perfect.

    Daughter admits to killing witnesses for father. Father appalled. She threatens Kirk. Kodos stands to protect Kirk from being blasted. They erase daughter's memory, even to the point that she believes father still alive. If that's a mercy. Strangely, her murders make less sense (at least, based on the information we're given) yet Captain Kirk is willing to spare her life, not Kodos's.

    Interesting dilemma--if food resources are limited, what do you do?--dramatically dynamic. But it does flatten the tricky dilemma, taking an easier resolution. Part of the problem is that rescue comes early. One would think that Karidian would have known how far away help was and calculated how far resources might extend. Better to have made the problem trickier.

    This somewhat parallels the Nazis, but there was no crisis of resources. At least the viewer can understand why Kodos chose what he chose (although how does one decide who are important in a society?). This is a classic problem in ethics: If you could divert a train to kill fewer people than it would if you let it go straight, what would you do?

    Mostly, this parallels the pursuit of war criminals, decades afterward when the criminals take on a normal life, seemingly repentent, as happened recently in Minnesota when residents and family did not want him extradited and out on trial and placed in prison. If people change and repent, are they forever criminals or are they normal? The daughter's own murders make the solution easy, yet more dramatic.

    Why she is named Lenore, presumably an allusion to Edgar Allan Poe's poem, is unclear. For Kodos, she is his life. For Kirk, she remains alive. Maybe she is dead inside (before and after the memory erasure but in different ways).
    1. Kirk: Are you Kodos? I asked you a question.
      Karidian : Do you believe that I am?
      Kirk: I do.
      Karidian: Then I am... if it pleases you to believe I am Kodos. I'm an actor. I play many parts.
      Kirk: You're an actor now. What were you twenty years ago?
      Karidian: Younger, Captain, much younger.
      Kirk: So was I. But I remember.
    2. Karidian: Here you stand, a perfect symbol of our society, mechanized, electronicized, and not very human.
    3. Karidian: Some had to die so that some might live.
    4. Karidian: Why not kill me now? Let bloody vengeance take its final course and see what difference universe of yours.
      Kirk: Beautiful words, well acted, change nothing.
      Karidian: No, I suppose not. They are merely tools.
    5. Karidian: Blood thins, body fails, and one is finally grateful for a failing memory. I no longer treasure life, not even my own. I am tired! The past is a blank.
    6. Lenore: You talked of using tools. I was a tool, wasn't I? a tool you used against my father.
    7. Lenore: You are like your ship: powerful and not human. There is not mercy in you.
      Kirk: If he is Kodos, then I've shown him more mercy than he deserves.
    8. Kirk: The play is over. It's been over twenty years.
    1. Kirk has another liaison. Hard to tell if it's business or pleasure. Maybe both, considering his final decision.

    Wednesday, April 12, 2017

    “Weyr Search” by Anne McCaffrey

    First printed in Analog, it won a Hugo and was nominated for a Nebula award. Reprinted in several major anthologies by editors Roger Zelazny, John W. Campbell, Jr., Charles G. Waugh, Martin Harry Greenberg, Isaac Asimov, Stanley Schmidt, Margaret Weis, David G. Hartwell, Kathryn Cramer, Jonathan Strahan, and John Joseph Adams.  Along with “Dragonrider”, “Weyr Search” makes up part of Dragonflight, a novel that has twice placed high in the Locus Awards’ All-Time Best Fantasy Novel.

    Lessa wants to wrest back control of the Ruath Hold from Fax, Lord of the High Reaches. The Hold has fallen into disrepair, and Lessa works to make it worse for when the Weyr riders come. She hopes the rider will challenge and give her back the Hold.

    What she doesn't know is that that is not what she wants.

    F'lar, meanwhile, comes to the Hold on a Weyr search. He expects Fax to be greedy, maybe even indifferent to F'lar's mission since Fax doubted the thread, but F'lar didn't expect insult.
    The hold is in disarray, thanks to Lessa. F'lar is offended that Fax cannot feed and let F'lar stay the night somewhere warm. F'lar challenges. Fax loses. Lessa gains although F'lar takes her on as Weyr woman, sensing her talent with dragons.

    Taken to the hatching of dragon eggs, she watches members get mauled by dragons, others get selected. The gold dragon selects her so that she is queen.

    This has the stuff of legendary SF wonder. One of the classics. If there's a flaw in the plot, this feels less like a novella than an episode in a novel yet one that, nonetheless, feels paradoxically complete. Likely, it was designed as a novel from the beginning, and the novella was carved out.

    Monday, April 10, 2017

    "The Ship Who Sang" by Anne McCaffrey

    First appeared in F&SF. Reprinted in major retrospectives by Judith Merril, Dick Allen, Lori Allen, Pamela Sargent, Frederik Pohl, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh, Josh Pachter, David Drake, Sandra Miesel, Edel Brosnan, A. Susan Williams, Richard Glyn Jones, David G. Hartwell, Milton T. Wolf, Applewhite Minyard, and Gardner Dozois.

    Helva would be born with genetics deformities. Her parents had the choice to terminate or place her in a ship. They opt for the ship. Her builders apparently hide her past from her, even curiosity about her personal past.

    Meanwhile, Helva adapts quickly to this new life, teaching herself to sing and paint microscopically. She needs to be paired with a partner, a Scout Service pilot, but she isn't assigned one, so she despairs until a prospect stumbles on her. He tells her to host her own party. She does, and suitors comes calling. She selects Jennan almost subconsciously to the chagrin yet acquiescence of the others.

    They engage in various picaresque adventures until they reach a feminist colony that initially refuses to evacuate their doomed colony due to an expanding sun.

    Discussion with Spoilers:
    The colonists belated realize Helva and Jennan are correct and rush to overload her ship. Helva is most concerned about losing her partner. They are packed, and the acceleration crushes some, including her love.

    She has to get a new partner. There is some initial concern she might go rogue, but she does not. She mourns.

    The idea both of incorporating humans into machines and of the need for including the disadvantaged seems fresh, ahead of its time. At one point, McCaffrey turns the most common scenario for the handicapped on its head:
    "I am currently reproducing the 'Last Supper' on the head of a screw.... Of course, some of my color values do not match the Old Master's and the perspective is faulty, but I believe it to be a fair copy."
    [One of her female visitors]' eyes, unmagnified, bugged out.
    "Oh, I forget," and Helga's voice was really contrite. If she could have blushed, she would have. "You people don't have adjustable vision."  
    There's a hurried compression of time and events that makes one wonder what the story might have been had it been written just seven years later during her award-winning period. She might not have had the clout to write and publish a novella this early in her career. In fact, had the cards been played right--developing each phase as a search for different kinds of love and what this singing resolves--this could have easily been a lovely novel. But it is what it is, and it helped establish her career, so she could eventually publish her award-winning novellas.

    She did revise this slightly, mostly to change whether Helva and her ilk could live indefinitely, which was probably to match it with later developments in this series.