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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. 

Summary:
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.

Discussion:
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.

Summary:
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.

Discussion:
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.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

“Bite-Me-Not or, Fleur de Fur” by Tanith Lee

First appeared in Shawna McCarthy's Asimov’s. Reprinted in some major genre retrospectives by Alan Ryan, Leonard Wolf, Martin H. Greenberg, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg, Tom Shippey, and Otto Penzler.

Summary:
Inside a magic-fortified, erased-of-the-color-red castle, the inhabitants huddle away from the flying vampire beasts that will drink the blood of any being. Here, the Duke accepts Rohise, a scullery maid, as his own daughter since she is uncannily like her. Empathetic, Rohise has dreamed has dreamed of such a moment to help the Duke. Her empathy knows no bounds.

Meanwhile, a vampire beast, Feroluce breaks through a chance-cracked window. He is able to slip through, maiming his own wing. He spots the Duke's lion and drinks its blood, even as it maims his wing further that he has to sleep off the injury... and finds himself caged upon waking.

Rohise hears Feroluce's silver voice, enchanted. The Duke plans to sacrifice the beast to feed the Fleur de Fur, a vampire repellent.

Commentary:
Rohise frees Feroluce, which thinks of Rohise as its pet. It can drink of Rohise's blood. It cannot understand her love but only her passion.

The story opens:
"In the tradition of young girls and windows, the young girl looks out of this one. It is difficult to see anything. The panes of the window are heavily leaded and secured by a lattice of iron."
This suggests a primer for young women, who look out on the world, wondering about what's outside, but the view is obscured. Safe yet also trapped and uneducated. The primer teaches on men: fathers and lovers. Her father stumbles upon her, gradually comes to love her, if by accident. He despises the beast that Rohise comes to love fiercely. Her love frees the wild beast who cannot love her as she loves. But the beast, too, comes to a kind of love, if unlike her own.

Lee describes of Feroluce and his tribe:
"He is the Prince of a proud and savage people. The pride they acknowledge, perhaps they do not consider themselves to be savages, or at least believe that savagery is the proper order of things."

On the one hand, it may appear reductive to have only two types; on the other, it is a short story, not a doctoral dissertation. Moreover, this may be how men appear from the outside. The story shows as well an admirable acceptance of things or attitudes foreign to herself, which is becoming rare.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

"When the Clock Strikes" by Tanith Lee

First appeared in Lin Carter’s Weird Tales #1. Reprinted in various year’s best and major retrospectives by Marvin Kaye, Saralee Kaye, Jack Zipes, and Arthur W. Saha.

Summary:
A narrator introduces the reader to a story two hundred years old. As they await a carriage, the narrator and reader are also in our past. The city where they wait, was formerly prosperous, obtained by a Duke "treacherously." Except his thoroughness in destroying his rivals overlooked one person: a young woman.

The woman is a witch who poisons the Duke to suffer but not die. She wanted the Duke to observe the destruction of his son. However, the Duke catches her and her daughter in the act of witchcraft. So she kills herself and bids her daughter act as though her mother's witchery is a horrid surprise.

Everyone buys the daughter's mourning (supposed dismay over her mother). Though attractive, she dresses so dirtily that people gradually believe her ugly.

Discussion:
The narrator plays a little coy with the reader about which familiar fairy tale this is. I didn't figure it out until late in the tale:
"Possibly you have been told the story? No? Oh, but I am certain that you have heared it, in another form perhaps."
The tale is Cinderella. Like "Red as Blood," the young woman connives, but she is the protagonist in what has become a revenge tale. The source fairy tale treats this as a rags-to-riches: The unjustly abused are lifted up, the abusers abused. Lee's version mirrors the transformation of a Shakespearean into one of tragedy. She exacts revenge on the Duke and his son.

The clock is played up. The number 12 is Death and the narrator is death personified. And/or the protagonist. The facts that suggest this are that she is drawn to this place of destruction, and that she knows the old story so well, and that she says witches are long-lived. The reader presumably may be awaiting the carriage of death, to be hauled off to whichever destination.

Where we had Christian protagonist in "Red as Blood," here the protagonist serves Satanas. The tales counterpoint one another.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

"Red as Blood" by Tanith Lee

First appeared in Edward L. Ferman's F&SF. It was up for the Nebula, British Fantasy and Locus Awards. Reprinted in various year’s best and major retrospectives by Lin Carter, Garyn G. Roberts, Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh, A. Susan Williams, Richard Glyn Jones, David Drake, and Stephen Jones.


Summary:
In this Snow White retelling, we center on the Witch Queen as protagonist. Bianca, the step-daughter, is a vampire like her mother before her. The new Witch Queen is trying to rid the kingdom of the child since she is draining their people. When the huntsman takes Bianca out, she cons him out of his religious accouterments to entice him.
Commentary:
 Instead, she kills him. The Witch Queen becomes a hag in order to trick Bianca. Bianca falls into suspended animation until a prince comes. The prince is Christ (or a Christ figure) who redeems the young woman's red-as-blood for a white-as-dove. The title plays double duty.

Those, irked to find Christ in their fiction, should take pleasure that some Christian will be irked to find a Christian witch. (And vice versa.) Tomorrow's tale, "When the Clock Strikes," serves as an intriguing contrast.

It's useful to see how the source fairy tale has been inverted. The original warns young women that aging beauties might hatch jealousy plots. Here, Bianca is a beauty who may believe beauty gives her carte blanche to drain those around her. Nothing but religion may do the trick. The illustration on the right captures the tale's spirit, adding a ghostly hag temptress, perhaps signifying more of a moral conscience (not that the text suggests this, but it's an interesting reinterpretation).

Although this fairy-tale plot has lost its savor, Lee's version is still quite tasty. Since it is one of her more reprinted and award-nominated tales, others must agree.

Monday, June 1, 2015

"The Gorgon" by Tanith Lee

First appeared in Charles L. Grant’s Shadows #5. It won the World Fantasy Award, was up for the Locus Award, reprinted by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh, and Charles L. Grant. Read online.

Summary:
The writer/narrator vacations on the island Delphaeu for a writing retreat. Blocked, he wants to visit a nearby smaller island, Medusa's island. He's warned off but goes anyway after some difficulty.

After encountering statues, he meets a masked woman with whom he becomes briefly infatuated until she removes her mask.

Commentary:
With the recent passing of Tanith Lee, I revisited a few stories. This is one of my favorites. It choked me up and kept me thinking about it hours after I read it--at least the version I interpreted it as.

I don't read it as speculative fiction. In one interpretation, it is simply the unraveling of a man, turned to figurative stone due to a woman's ugliness and deformity. It suggests that perhaps these were what froze men back Greece's myth-wielding days.

The powerful version, though, is that the narrator meets a woman socially crippled. She must sequester herself on this tiny island away from humanity. When our narrator meets her, hidden behind a mask, he is smitten. Once revealed, her face repulses him. Rather than responding with sympathy (although he does to a degree), he worries about his own lot, his writing block. In this manner, he is turned to stone. He believes she despises him for his comparative lack of real troubles. It's hard to compare one man's troubles to another, but the narrator does seem petty, especially blaming his block on her when it had begun weeks earlier.

Is he an unreliable narrator? It's hard to say. Neither the opening nor closing gives clues. An islander calls him a "big writer," suggesting inflated ego, but he doesn't seem to see himself this way in his own thoughts. Maybe he has unwittingly represented himself this way, but it's never shown explicitly. The evidence is thin. Moreover, even Pitos thinks of the island as scaring away even fish. So maybe the lack of sympathy is society-wide; hence, the gorgon's solitude.

It may be Lee's modus operandi to guide the overall narrative thrust rather than the text itself to lead readers to this conclusion.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

"Military Secrets" by Kit Reed

First appeared in Sheila Williams's Asimov's. Reprinted in the novel, Where.

Jessie's father is MIA, missing in action, during the war. This wouldn't be so bad if other kids' parents had had a similar fate. She's stuck in a limbo, ever waiting for her father to return. As the only child missing her father, she feels

Without more context, this story is likely labeled interstitial. The finale resonates with palpable potency: These kids dispossessed of their fathers, trapped in a bus riding around nowhere, frozen in childhood, lost.

This does not enlighten the novel, Where, but it is a fine addition: People trapped somewhere they know not where.