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Monday, November 16, 2015

Souls and Other Stories by James Stevens-Arce

This collection is bound to unsettle. It starts with "Souls," a tale wthat first appeared in Michael Bracken's Fedora II. Two men gamble. One rattles off the ills of the world. The other plots the first's demise after losing, certain he's been cheated. The idea is that only so many souls exist in the world and, thus, violence. The off-hand news stories will  put off some, turning stomaches.

"Was Once a Beauty," from Cicada, employs a similar tone but switches to a younger female narrator, Milagros (or Miracles). She encounters a humped over "witch"--rather a bag lady, letting her see a tiny part of her past, from beauty to her current degradation. This spurs an unwarranted if small tragedy, which in turn spurs Milagros. This perhaps the most moving of the stories collected.

"Soulsaver" first appeared in Shawna McCarthy's Asimov's.  A novella version won the UPC award, and the novel version was up for the Locus Award. We step into a religious dystopia where suicides, on the rise, are restored to life when possible. Angela, the protagonist's partner in restoration, gradually becomes ill from her work and sees more than originally intended.

Appearing in Greg Bear's New Legends anthology, "Scenes from a Future Marriage" relates how a woman becomes disaffected with her husband after he unwittingly causes her to do twice what she didn't want to do once.

A unifying theme of life and death threads these together. Unwanted life, unwanted death--forced to accept both. Each tale feels larger than it is, as if they could all form parts of a novel. It leaves the reader  wanting more. In the case of "Soulsaver," the story is developed at greater length in a novel. Soulsaver has recently been re-released

Saturday, October 17, 2015

"Uh-Oh City" by Jonathan Carroll

First appeared in Kristine Kathryn Rusch's F&SF. It won the Imaginaire award, was nominated for the Hugo, Locus and World Fantasy awards. Brad Templeton reprinted it. Collected in The Woman Who Married a Cloud.

Scott, an English professor, and his wife Roberta hire Beenie Rushforth as their housemaid. She is a phenomenon. She cleans their house like none other. The couple walk around the house stunned.

Beenie dredges out objects they haven't seen in years. Some of them, though, carry memories they'd prefer to do without.

Commentary with Spoilers:
Beenie finds an unpublished novel manuscript from a student who killed herself when Scott pronounced it unfit for publishing. She also find love letters from a student that Scott burned in front of his wife, decades before.

It turns out that Beenie is one of thirty-six persons who represent god on Earth. Scott, it seems, has been chosen as her successor. With her, is the ghost of Scott's former student who killed herself. She wants to tongue-lash him every chance she gets.

But, surprise, Scott is not one of the thirty-six, but his former student. She uses her powers to show Scott how cold he's been--not just to her but his own family. She hadn't chosen a successor before she died. In fact, a number of thirty-six have been in the same situation, so god is diminishing.

We all feel that society is changing, that somehow these changes have become more dramatic. Why, for example, have school-shootings increased? or suicides? or certain illnesses? Carroll tries to place his finger on the pulse of society and describe our deepest fears. He also soothes us that our fates are not necessarily predetermined.

This one has a few reversals up its sleeve. Even though I'd read it before, it caught me off-guard. The title, however, leaves something to be desired. It comes from a cute if corny catchphrase Beenie says when she found something she thought worth discarding.

Friday, October 16, 2015

"Mr. Fiddlehead" by Jonathan Carroll

First appeared in Patrice Adcroft and Ellen Datlow's Omni. Nominated for the World Fantasy award. Reprinted in various major retrospectives by Ellen Datlow, Terri Windling and Peter Straub. Collected in The Woman Who Married a Cloud.

Juliet married Eric Rhodes while her friends Lenna and Michael Rhodes married. After Juliet divorced Eric, Michael and Lenna supported Juliet after the divorce, somewhat to her surprise.

On Juliet's fortieth birthday, Lenna gives Juliet fantastic earrings, which Lenna claims to have made. Except Juliet finds them in an expensive jewelry store.

Digging deeper, Juliet learns jewelry-store owners claim someone else has made them.

Commentary with Spoilers:
The creator turns out to be Lenna's imaginary childhood playmate, Mr. Fiddlehead, who appears when she's distressed and disappears when she's not. Lenna, immediately smitten by Mr. Fiddlehead, plots how to keep him around--despite how it will affect her friend.

With friends like this...? And who hasn't a few of them?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Not being a fan of generic apocalypses, I've been a fan of this series since I was a lad. They'd always managed to inject enough imagination to make these interesting. This one was no exception.

Mad Max is captured by Immortan Joe's War Boys and made a living Blood Bag for one his boys. Meanwhile, Furiosa tries to lead Immortan Joe's Breeders to a new life. After a car chase, Furiosa and Mad Max find one another uneasy allies, needing to use each other to their own ends.

Perhaps its greatest strength is its SFnal-ness, its scraps of world-building. The common people shout "V8!" The names invite a telling reading: Rictus, Furiosa, Immortan Joe, Breeders, Blood Bag, War Boys.

The heart-thumping visuals stun viewers equally.  A race alongside a giant tornado. Elaborate bone masks, with respirators, outlandish costumes and makeup. Shot of water cascading off a cliff into the desert.

The pacing is relentless, almost too much, yet the plotting sparks originality and cleverness, looping back upon itself for a more satisfying closure.

What works less well is the dialogue, excluding aforementioned world-building: "Treason! Betrayal!" etc. Since the dialogue is minimal, it gets a bye.

The world ecology does not make sense. If only one place in the world is capable of producing food, what was left of the population would congregate there and only. There'd be no separate bands and little roaming. A splash of water would not be enough to keep the common folk alive. They would either storm the citadel themselves or died inside two to four weeks. It would be foolish not to try to expand one's farming area, or else people would not be interested in breeding except as recreation.

If they live on half the average American's yearly diet--1000 lbs--how many acres would they need per person? How many persons can this "citadel" actually sustain?

They have war rigs, but what for? They seem to be at least nominal friends with their neighbors.

Where did that huge tornado come from? While tornadoes are not unheard of in Australia, they are not as common. Moreover, it requires warm and cold air masses, so how did this one grow so large?

Why does Furiosa have an American accent?

The main criticism, in terms of story, is that Mad Max is a sidekick. This should actually be Furiosa's story. It misleads viewers in its title and in starting with Mad Max. The main thread is Furiosa's. We should follow her more. Mad Max is the B story.

Despite these criticisms, it is worth watching. I probably lean toward IMDB's 8.3/10 rating, rather than Rotten Tomato's 97%.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

"The Judges" by Andrew Kozma

First appeared in Daily SF. Online here.

The narrator is persecuted by ever-present judges, rating all that he does.

This is one of my favorites from Daily SF--a near-genius short-short. It has humor and bite and a touch of resonance.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

"Common Time" by James Blish

First appeared in Robert A. W. Lowndes's Science Fiction Quarterly. Reprinted in several major retrospectives by Frederik Pohl, Brian W. Aldiss, G. D. Doherty, Robert Silverberg, Patricia S. Warrick, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, Isaac Asimov, and James Gunn. 

Garrard travels around the speed of light to reach Alpha Centauri. However, instead of experiencing the same relativistic time as his ship, his own time passes about two hours for every second on the ship. Movement is impossible. He projects himself to be a corpse by the time the ship returns to Earth. Just when he reconciles himself to his fate, something potentially worse occurs.

Time speeds up for him compared to the ship's, clocks whirring by. He ends up at Alpha Centauri and understands their strange way of speaking... until he returns to Earth. Garrard desires to return, but they cannot for fear of what the Centaurians might have done.

Apparently, Blish wrote this tale based on the above cover illustration. Controversially, Damon Knight in Mirror of Infinity had a theory that Garrard was a sperm traversing space and time. Blish said he unconsciously thought of the planets as testicles and yellow string between them as the vas deferens. Knight and Blish came up with substantiating data, using puns and language to point up the exegesis. Knight even said that the travel is reversed because "You can't go back again."

Robert Silverberg is dubious of the interpretation as it did not explain the astronaut's experience. I am similarly dubious since the gamete trajectory is generally a one-way trip, not a round trip with a desire to return.

A more complete interpretation might be encountering another culture. The language and custom barrier might steep, if not impossible (slowing time) until one suddenly begins to understand. That understanding is not always easily translated after one returns home. However, most cultural encounters, while pleasant, aren't often about love. On the other hand, people do tend to find other cultures exotic and find themselves attracted to people of other cultures.

Two phrases emphasized by the text, which would seem important to include in any interpretation would be: "Don't move." and "Common Time." The former might be a reliable cautionary approach to encountering a new culture: Let the natives show you what the new rules are. 

The latter phrase is more difficult. Common time refers to Gerrard's desire to share his ship's time as his own, but he keeps running ahead or behind it. Different cultures do have alternate expectations for how their spend time, such as the Latino penchant for flexible arrival times.

Blish's SF trope--relativistic time--seems problematic since Gerrard is carried at the same rate of speed as his rocket. But perhaps they might lag slightly as the rocket must accelerate and decelerate its occupants (just as you experience acceleration when you turn a corner and your velocity lags behind the car's). It might be worth throwing at physics students to chew on.

Monday, June 8, 2015

"Replacements" by Lisa Tuttle

First appeared in Dennis Etchison’s MetaHorror. Reprinted by Ellen Datlow, Terri Windling, Stephen Jones, Ramsey Campbell, Joyce Carol Oates, Otto Penzler, Paul Tremblay, John Langan, Jeff and Ann Vandermeer. Read online.

Stuart Holder spies a helpless if disgusting alien creature lying on the side of the street. His first instinct is to destroy it. He does. Then he spies another but refrains this time.

Meanwhile, his wife brings one home. She wants to keep it as a pet. He does not but wants to discuss it before making any decisions. It's too late, however. It is helpless and she wants to care for it. Stuart finds himself replaced by the creature into his wife's bed.

Stuart learns his own secretary has a similar creature to which/whom she is bound by a golden chain. As she refuses to give up the creature, she finds employment at another press. He is thrust out of his marriage and apartment. He feels attracted to another woman but sees she has a similar gold chain and creature. Stuart walks to his old apartment spies a toddler-like creature in the window. His ex-wife pulls the creature inside, closing the curtain.

In Greek mythology, Cronus ate his own children (to prevent the prophecy of his overthrow). Some men may feel this need to destroy the next generation. Lacing the Greek myth was probably a fear of mortality. And no doubt, some men find babies as women do. But for most, likely, it is a simple indifference. The kids show no human personality except crying and need. Women admit to a special attraction to (even a preference for) infants that most men do not share. Such men might feel temporarily displaced in their wives' affections as their relations change. From the outside, it may look like vampiric relationship: an "ill-proportioned" helpless creature who has nothing but need, drinking the blood of its caretaker.

Stuart is ironically named: "steward" or going back to the Old English, house. He is not able to steward, care for his house, or hold on to his family.