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Monday, December 14, 2015

Ex Machina, a film review and discussion from three perspectives

A young programmer, Caleb Smith, wins a chance to not only visit a billionaire technology genius, Nathan Bateman, but also determine if Bateman has invented a machine, Ava, that passes the Turing test: Is it sentient? Ava enlists the Smith's aid in attempting to free it from its confines.

The film may not expand your thoughts on AI, but it may challenge your ethics. It's a simple film though that belies some of its complexity. Worth a watch to decide what you think. Avoid reading on if you don't like your movies spoiled.

Smith undermines Bateman's security system so Ava can get out. The electricity goes down, and Ava escapes. She has a conversation with another AI which may be to premediate murder. The Kyoko AI carries a knife. Ava attacks first. When Bateman gets the upper hand, breaking its arm., Kyoko stabs Bateman in the back. After he strikes off Kyoko's jaw, Ava stabs Bateman in the heart.

Ava tells Smith to wait for her. Since she has told him that she wanted to be with him, he waits. However, after she dresses in other machine's parts to make her look more human, she leaves Smith locked up and makes her escape without him or Kyoko or Bateman. 

Apparently, some critics love the movie as they deem it about feminism. This interpretation is problematic in at least three regards: 1) Ava is a machine. Most women would not choose to be considered machines. 2) Ava is a killer without conscience. Ava has doomed three beings to their deaths or imprisonment, without regard as to whether each deserves this fate: Smith, Bateman, and Kyoko. 3) Ava is created, rather than a creator.

A second interpretation is that Ava is successfully sentient and deserves freedom. We leave Ava on the street watching people as it has most desired. While it may be sentient, it has little or no regard for sentience other than its own. Plenty of sentient humans have chosen a similar path: "Destroy lives/careers of anyone in my path."

One might debate whether Bateman deserved death. Perhaps he was unaware of his machines' sentience. Yet he does have an ethos. He did not kill Smith or Ava or Kyoko. Rather, he disabled them. This may seem minor since he had destroyed earlier models. But what if they were problematic, such as AI models who lacked an ethical framework, unable to view other sentience as having as much right to exist as itself? In fact, Bateman's locking up and destroying his models seems to have some ethical backing, especially in light of Ava's behavior. Whether he ought to have destroyed their consciousnesses completely is one question, but maybe he did the world a favor. These AI were not ready for general circulation among humans.

This leads us to the third interpretation:  This is a horror story. What seems a kind and gentle AI is freed by a do-gooder. The only problem is that the machine lacks a conscience--something left out of Smith's equation. In fact, it smiles when Bateman has his back to Kyoko, perhaps anticipating a knife in the back with some relish. The story does not build up atmosphere like a horror story, but the implied doom of the world is there like any classic Lovecraftian fiction.

The movie title perhaps suggests the second interpretation: "Ex machina" (formerly a machine). It might refer to the Latin Deus ex machina as gods comes from machines although this possibility seems a little more remote as there is little discussion of gods. The British subtitle--"There is nothing more human than the will to survive"--points to the second interpretation, giving away the game entirely, if the director, Alex Garland, had a hand in writing or okaying this subtitle.

On the other hand, a great deal of time is spent on Ava's stripping old models of their human features to wear as its own. It seems unconcerned about stripping other models of their humanity (the third interpretation). Or possibly it is its moment to become human (second interpretation). But that begs the question of what it was before.

On the other other hand, the film's last moment seems to be a glorying in freedom, suggesting nothing in visuals or soundtrack that anything is awry, but maybe that is an intentional contrast. We do witness the world upside down, looking at shadows rather than human bodies. There is still a glass between the viewers and Ava... although no glass between itself and humans walking by. Perhaps we, too, are helpless to change events, trapped on the other side of the glass.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

"A Boy and His Dog" by Harlan Ellison

First published in Michael Moorcock's New Worlds. Nominated for the Hugo, it won the Nebula and was reprinted by Donald A. Wollheim, Terry Carr, James Blish, Charles W. Sullivan, Michael Moorcock, Jim Wynorski, Arthur C. Clarke, Walter M. Miller, Martin H. Greenberg, Jack M. Dann, Gardner R. Dozois. The film starring Don Johnson won a Hugo, the Golden Scroll and was nominated for a Nebula.

In a post-apocalyptic world where two more world wars have been fought, Vic and his dog, Blood, attend a pornographic movie. The dogs here are telepathic, and the women rare--at least, above ground. Blood smells a woman in the theater, so the pair pursue her to a YMCA where he plans to rape her as he has other young women. But the woman, Quilla June Holmes, refuses to be anonymous--courageously demanding humanity against the face of inhumanity.

Her gambit works. Vic doesn't want to rape her but soon has company that does want to do just that. The gymnasium is surrounded by a roverpak, which try to take them. They are outnumbered without escape.
 Vic, Blood, and Quilla burn down the gym while they shelter in the basement furnace to convince the roverpak they're dead. Quilla and Vic get know one another in a Biblical sense that makes Blood jealous, afraid he'll lose Vic. Quilla questions whether Vic knows what love is and escapes, leaving her card so that Vic will find it and pursue her. Blood, injured, does not like Vic's plan to visit her in her underground shelter, but promises to wait a time for Vic.

Vic's visit is unpleasant. The enclave has stopped reproducing for lack of fertile men. They had used Quilla to lure him in to be domesticated and become a stud. However, Vic doesn't take to the domestication and brings Quilla back with him to the surface where Vic is dying for lack of food.

Vic realizes whom he loves and feeds Blood the only food at hand--presumably Quilla though it is never explicitly mentioned, grilled over a smokeless fire.

This story probably could not have been published without, in part, Ellison's own Dangerous Visions anthology, not to mention Moorcock's chance-taking at New Worlds. Yet as times and mores change, the story might be more of a dangerous vision now than when it was published.

Like  "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," women are scarce but requisite for men to have. Vic's attitude is also problematic. Rape is the key. You get in and out quickly. Women are not expected to enjoy the experience. But Quilla alters his perspective. Vic slowly falls in love but not enough--we learn at the end--to overcome Vic's love for his dog.

Still, Vic's continued violence and repugnance toward domestication should have telegraphed the ending. The scenario is not unlike Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" where in an impossible scenario, a young woman has to be sacrificed for the greater good. In this case, to save the life of one who has already proved himself and would help Vic survive in the current world.

On the one hand, the reader admires Vic's sacrifice: offering up his newly minted physical love for the survival of his long-time friend. On the other, one imagines the scenarios where Quilla could have lived. Perhaps they could have sneaked off while others slept, fed the dog back to health, and then made their merry way.

But Vic is established as a not-too-bright kid, for whom violence seems to be the first solution. His solution is certainly not typical Hollywood fodder, which is surprising since it was made into a movie.

The story may be a reaction to conservative societal forces of domesticity, where the desolation and dog-eat-dog scrabble for life (where YMCA, or Young Men's Christian Association is destroyed) is preferred over the steady agrarian life of polite society (where Holmes is home).  Or it may just be the tale of a wild, young man--a tarzan--who could not be tamed for a world we presently assume as the proper norm.

A third possibility is that it reacts against feminist utopias where men are absent from society because they represent violence and women are peaceful if not technologically progressive. However, this interpretation is problematic, providing evidence for said utopia.

A fourth possibility is the antithesis of the third. It recognizes the problematic aspects in the title by calling Vic a boy.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

"The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World" by Harlan Ellison

First appeared in Harlan Ellison's collection The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World. It won the Hugo award and was reprinted in few retrospectives by Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg.

In a place where time does not exist as we know it, a seven-headed dragon is drained from a man so that he becomes sane. Semph, one of two observers draining the insane creature-man, "interposed himself," presumably stopping or impeding the job. He is sentenced to die.
This has one of Ellison's titles that intrigues, conjures the story and its theme if obliquely. When I first read Ellison, I imagined the title both conjured the story and its artist: spreading ugly truths (through violence or whatever unpleasant reality) with verve and joy. I'd not venture to say that now though, especially with an opening where a man does something terrible to people and then turns around to say how he loves them.

What the story seems to suggest is that our insanity--albeit, a destructive force--is a part of us, a part of who we are. To lose it is to lose ourselves, our identity. This insanity is ineffable. When confronted by it, no one knows what to do with it (see ending where Semph's memorial, which is amazing and may or may not have started WWIV, is quickly forgotten, let alone not understood). In the "center... there is no madness."

There is a slight allusion to Pandora:
"Friedrich Drucker found the many-colored box. Maddened... the man tore at the lid of the box.... But Friedrich Drucker had little time to ponder the meaning of the purple smoke, for the next day, World War IV broke out."
So like Pandora, while Friedrich Drucker might have unleashed evil forces on the world, something good like hope might have also been unleashed (love? but if so, it's a bizarre kind of love).

Semph says that this insanity could be drained, "[b]ut what we'd have left wouldn't be worth having." Our insanity makes us human or who we are?

The tale could be a little more lucid. The writing is at times Ellison Wonderous--"Cyclones and dark, winged, faceless shapes that streaked away into the night, followed by a last wisp of purple smoke smelling strongly of decayed gardenias."--and at times forgettable:
"Linah spread his hands in futility. 'Survival.'
"Semph shook his head slowly with a weariness that was mirrored in his expression."
 An interesting work, nonetheless, if not one of Ellison's best.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

“Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman

First appeared in Frederik Pohl's Galaxy. It won the Hugo, Nebula and Prometheus awards. Reprinted in several major retrospectives by Damon Knight, Donald A. Wollheim, Terry Carr, Frederik Pohl, Dick Allen,  Willis E. McNelly, Leon E. Stover, Thomas E. Sanders, Isaac Asimov, Daniel Roselle, Bernard C. Hollister, Charles W. Sullivan, Leo P. Kelley, Martin H. Greenberg, Patricia S. Warrick, Bonnie L. Heintz, Frank Herbert, Donald A. Joos, Jane Agorn McGee, Rich Jones, Richard L. Roe, Leslie A. Fiedler, Arthur C. Clarke, Jerry E. Pournelle, John F. Carr, Ben Bova, Martin H. Greenberg, Applewhite Minyard, David Hartwell, Orson Scott Card, David G. Hartwell, Jack Dann, Gardner Dozois, Rob Latham, Veronica Hollinger, Joan Gordon, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Arthur B. Evans, Carol McGuirk, John Joseph Adams.

The Harlequin is disrupting a future dystopia ruled by time or, rather, the Ticktockman. He holds the cardioplates of its citizens and can end peoples' lives prematurely if they are late to work, etc. The Harlequin slows schedules with a $150,000 in jelly beans gumming up slidewalks, badgers shoppers not to be slaves to time, and eludes capture (getting would-be captors caught in their own web).

This has one of Ellison's patent-pending titles that simultaneously intrigues, conjures the story and its theme if obliquely. This tale provides an intriguing contrast to "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," which has a similarly loaded title.

The latter story, however, at first appearance seems simple enough but proves to be thematically elusive or at least complex. This story's theme, on first glance, feels elusive but turns out rather simple if compelling. It is spelled out immediately from Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience":

"The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines.... there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement...they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones."
Men choose to become machines--as they did in "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," albeit to a different effect.

What surprised and disappointed as a lad yet empowers me as an adult--coming midway into the story--was that the Harlequin was an ordinary man, in love with an ordinary woman. They have a spat about his extracurricular activities and lateness (later, when he's told that his wife or girlfriend ratted him out, the exchange about whether she did or didn't takes on a different flavor).

Although the theme is somewhat clear, the ending is elusive. It involves at least three possibilities:
  1. Harlequin confesses, gets killed, yet somehow infects the Ticktockman with anti-clock mentality. This seems least probable since most in power would want to cling to that power.
  2. Harlequin somehow escapes, forces the Ticktockman to believe he is the Harlequin, gets the Ticktockman to confess as if he were the Harlequin and gets killed while the Harlequin becomes the Ticktockman. We aren't witnesses to this complicated event. While Harlequin might be trickster enough to pull this off, is the Ticktockman truly gullible enough to fall for an identity switch? Nothing in the story really leads us to this.
  3. Harlequin is the Ticktockman. Both mask their identities. The Ticktockman's irregularities at the end match the Harlequin's usual habits. We don't know if this is unusual for the Ticktockman, but being in charge, he could probably get away with it. 
Additional confirmation of the lattermost interpretation comes at the opening where to whom the narrator is referring--Harlequin or the Ticktockman--gets confused. We open with an unknown, unassigned "he" pronoun. In fact, even after the Ticktockman is introduced, most readers will assume the narrator is speaking of the Harlequin, yet the last "he" mentioned after the Ticktockman's mention is the Ticktockman. So grammar rules dictate that the Ticktockman should be the "he" referred to.

Finally, there is a temporary irony (or hypocrisy) that loses its meaning if Harlequin is the Ticktockman:
"[H]e was called the Ticktockman. But no one called him that to his mask.
"The cardioplate here in my right hand is also named, but whom named, merely what named."
We know what the Ticktockman is--the Master Timekeeper--but not who he is since he is masked.

The theme isn't much altered in the first two ending possibilities. But the third suggests that the revolutionary and the problematic cogwork-makers sprout from the same scarcely sane source. The theme alters considerably. It might be paraphrased by The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again":
"Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss."

Monday, November 30, 2015

"I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" by Harlan Ellison

First appeared in If. It won the Hugo and was reprinted in several major retrospectives by Donald A. Wollheim, Terry Carr, Robert Silverberg, Damon Knight, Total Effect, Isaac Asimov, Stephen V. Whaley, Stanley J. Cook, Thomas Durwood, Armand Eisen, Leonard Wolf, Clarkson N. Potter James E. Gunn, Eric S. Rabkin, H. Bruce Franklin, Thomas F. Monteleone, Frederik Pohl, Joseph D. Olander, Patricia S. Warrick, Charles G. Waugh, Martin H. Greenberg, Edel Brosnan, and Peter Straub.

Humanity has been slaughtered an artificially intelligent machine, built to fight WWIII. The last five humans are trapped, immortal but tortured in the belly of the machine. Any time they attempt escape, their fates are made worse.


Despite--or because of--his protestations to the contrary, the narrator is insane (he has to emphasize his own statements which he has not had to do elsewhere):
"I was the only one still sane and whole. Really.
"AM had not tampered with my mind. Not at all."
Note, too, that this is written in the past tense, so when we reflect back, it's hard to believe any of his past had much sanity or a lack of tampering. Strange, too, that the five should journey for months and still be inside the machine, with deck plates.

One might question the veracity of his tale, but the story would fall apart. If we were to buy into his narrative, we could understand why he might be insane.

"[D]eath was our only way out. AM had kept us alive, but there was a way to defeat him."
The narrator kills his companions to spare them of eternal horror. The computer--as much a creator as the created--transforms the narrator to be stripped of his humanity:

"Outwardly: dumbly, I shamble about, a thing that could never have been known as human."

The title comes into play. Like his creature/creator, the narrator cannot express himself, even his horror, which is what supposedly drove the AI insane:

"We had given AM sentience. Inadvertently, of course, but sentience nonetheless. But it had been trapped. AM wasn't God, he was a machine. We had created him to think, but there was nothing it could do with that creativity."
In other words--I suspect--the computer went insane because it couldn't move (or whatever feature that humanity has that the computer cannot have). Stephen Hawking's sanity despite ALS seems to disprove this theory (although maybe Hawking is too intelligent to display his insanity or lacks the omnipotence to destroy humanity and turn the rest of us into slugs, but let's assume he's sane). Moreover, if AM has this incredible omnipotence, yet is trapped in place, wouldn't his powers be enough to simulate movement or create a facsimile of himself that can move?

Also in the above passage, it negates an earlier comparison of the computer to God:
"Most of the time I thought of AM as it, without a soul; but rest of the time I thought of it as him, in the masculine... the paternal... the patriarchal... for he is a jealous people. Him. It. God as Daddy the Deranged."
But this machine god does not act like previous gods, but one of pure malevolence. Rather, the interesting part is the masculine aspect. In fact, he describes Ellen's having sex with the men as being "serviced." So perhaps what we hear described is what happens when men become machines.

It's hard not to feel for Ellen. She clings to or favors the man who favors men. Why? Because he presumably does not expect anything from her. She'd taken the narrator twice out of turn, which the narrator refers to with some pride. But this shows a number of aspects in their relationship: She mechanically does each man, presumably to keep them happy. Does it make her happy? The narrator seems to assume so. Four men, one woman. If the reverse were true, presumably the men would be equally pleased.

The narrator, however, is jealous of her affection toward Benny and describes her:
"Oh Ellen, pedestal Ellen, pristine-pure Ellen; oh Ellen the clean! Scum filth."
It's hard not to imagine this attitude slipping out in tone and/or subtext, even if it were not verbalized. It's at least partially understandable that she is not as fond of the narrator as Benny who was apparently gay. Despite this, for some reason, Benny has been making love with Ellen.

While this theme is critical, it falls behind the Luddite message, or maybe ties into it:
"two great machine with glass-faced dials that swung back and forth between red and yellow lines whose meanings we could not even fathom"
Like Ellen, the machine is the thing we cannot fully understand. When we create, we do not anticipate the later repercussions. We create relationships, machines, things we don't fully grasp. We end up down a long, painful road going somewhere we hadn't intended, unable to voice our horrors. Insane.

Ellison was a younger man when he wrote this, which may explain some of the above exaggerated story aspects. Behind closed doors, the technology-positive writers must have disliked the tale.

Ellison's writing is so full of inventive energy--and so admired--that it's strange that more writers didn't follow his lead. Maybe some tried, and their work rebuffed. Instead, the new speculative literature writers followed Brian Aldiss and J. G. Ballard. This is probably due to influential editors like Gardner Dozois, but still surprising that so admired a writer didn't create similar writers.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.
 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.

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.

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.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Fundraisers -- Free and Reduced ebook lunches

Fundraisers (include perks)
Bring Haralambi Markov to World Fantasy

CLOCKWORK PHOENIX 5: more stories of beauty and strangeness

Spider Robinson's GOD IS AN IRON: Taking the Stage Play to WorldCon

Free and Reduced ebook lunches
Timothy Zahn

(The Atlantis Grail Book 1)
Vera Nazarian

Nightingale Songs
Simon Strantzas

The Best Short Stories of Rick Hautala
Rick Hautala

Evil Eye
Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong
Joyce Carol Oates

The Clockwork Rocket
(Orthogonal Book 1)
Greg Egan

A Knot in the Grain: and Other Stories 
by Robin McKinley

Stories of the Raksura
The Falling World & The Tale of Indigo and Cloud: 1
Martha Wells

The Mammoth Book of Sorceror's Tales
(Note: this has two other titles for the same book--MB of Black Magic and MB of Dark Magic--each priced differently)
Mike Ashley, editor

Wonderful Town
New York Stories from The New Yorker
David Remnick

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Book excerpt: Where by Kit Reed

Kit Reed  

From the excerpt alone, this novel is difficult to categorize without reading further. It splits the narrative between two lovers torn apart by a mysterious event.

David Ribault, or Davy, is suspicious of a perfect-haired and -suited guy, whom Davy spotted stealing a Lexus from downtown Charlton, South Carolina. Later, at a party he learns the man's name is Rawson Steele, whom others seem attracted to. The stranger insists Davy meet up with him, and they set a five o'clock appointment the following morning.

The stranger doesn't show. Davy waits until traffic, sirens, and police commotion stirs him to leave. He feels guilt leaving Merrill, his girlfriend alone back home on the island without telling her his whereabouts, especially after their spat.

It turns out, however, that the commotion stems from the island. Bridges to it have been blocked. The residents have all disappeared. Davy will do whatever he can to get on the island and to his girlfriend.

Meanwhile, Merrill and the residents of the village find themselves watching their own disappearance on video news feeds, just outside a white replica of their own village--except surrounded by desert. When Merrill's father, formerly a respected judge, demands their unseen captors stop and explain themselves, the captors turn off the news feeds. As quickly the villagers turned rabid, they soften and file off to their respective homes.

This is a quirky bit of speculative fiction. This is familiar SF territory (if SF): aliens whisk humans off to a strange prison where the humans are meant to confront some vital aspect of their existence or humanity. The novel seems to take its speculation seriously, so it may not be interstitial, but whether it's SF, fantasy, or science fantasy, is unclear from this brief excerpt. What is clear is that this is a novel worth looking into. The only flaw is the leap into Davy's suspicions without a sense of Davy's character. But Reed quickly masters this qualm.

Note: A related short story, reprinted in this volume, appeared in Asimov's (discussed on the 28th).

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Review: Mystery, Inc. by Joyce Carol Oates

Mystery, Inc.  
Joyce Carol Oates
Open Road Integrated Media
Bibliomysteries are an ongoing mystery series from Open Road and  Mysterious Press (which offers a numbered edition of this book) about books and their places of habitation.

Mystery, Inc. is a fictitious bookstore that the narrator, who bills himself as "Charles Brockden*," is crazy about, jealous that the owner, Aaron Neuhaus, is able to weather bad times and good yet have a section dedicated to art, even. How does it weather tough financial doldrums?

As Brockden has done before, he concocts a murder, a poisoning, to buy the bookstore. But this bookstore has its own mysteries in store.

Mystery, Inc. is a novella, lovingly detailing a clear passion for classic mysteries and bookstores. The narrator is unsympathetic in the tradition of Iago. But Oates has a trick or two to play. First, the narrator sounds like Oates commenting on the writing of the story:
"I am very excited! For at last, after several false starts, I have chosen the setting for my bibliomystery."
It takes the readers a moment to reorient our perspective from reading about the author's production to the narrator's. Perhaps the idea here is that murder, in the eyes of the narrator, is its own creative act. He, too, is a kind of author.

This is less a literary classic to pore over, than a reader's pleasure, an entertainment. But a few games are afoot, including pop culture. Mystery, Inc. is the name of the Scooby Doo Mystery van and bookstore.

* Charles Brockden Brown was an early American novelist.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Fallout (book excerpt) + Cloudy with a Chance of Destruction

Lois Lane: 
Gwenda Bond  

Lois Lane: 
Cloudy With a Chance of Destruction 
(an official teaser short story)  
Gwenda Bond  
This novel has already received a big push on NY electronic billboards and Wal-Mart. From the looks of the excerpt, it should be a fun one.

Lois Lane, daughter of a general, is a new student, who no sooner sets foot in the school than she's meddling. She overhears and witnesses a kind of mind manipulation via a mob of students. The student's nonsensical complaint falls on deaf ears. Lane speaks up in the girl's defense.

Her meddling gets her in trouble with the principal but also lands her a job at the school newspaper.

The novel builds up her trouble-making antics--most of which make sense when she gets to explain her end of things.

The short story, found online here, relates how Lane foils the plot of a young man trying regain the love of his ex-girlfriend. He tries to impress her with his father's tabletop cold fusion experiment.

Like the other story teaser, Lane's troubles are actually someone else's. This is typical in detective fiction, but personal involvement in the tale tends to increase reader involvement. The story ratchets up more suspense than the last.

The stories (the other, "Lois Lane: A Real Work of Art," reviewed here) are interesting teasers, but reading the novel may be the best starting point and these stories a place to relive the novel, for those enchanted with Lane's world and can't get enough.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft

First appeared in F. Orlin Tremaine's Astounding (now Analog). Reprinted by August Derleth, David G. Hartwell, Robert M. Price, John Gregory Betancourt, Colin Azariah-Kribbs. The following reading lists recommend the novel: Anatomy of Wonder, The 5-Parsec Shelf, Fantasy: The 100 Best Books. Read online.

The narrator, Dr. William Dyer of a geology professor at Miskatonic University, treks with several men and dogs to the Antarctic. They discover a stone with unusual striations and see strange mirages. They uncover the bodies of the Old Ones and try to dissect. When the narrator and Danforth investigate what happened to one camp, their own camp is destroyed.
They discover a mountain range catacombed with tunnels and cave carvings. They read the history of the Precambrian aliens who lived there. They had their own animals brought during a time when Earth was thought only to have unicellular life. The Old Ones fought the Cthulhu lost--some moving undersea--and later won. The narrator and Danforth encounter giant albino penguins and other strange monstrosities. A greater evil lies just beyond. Danforth may have witnessed it.

The narrator and Danforth's goal is to steer away a new expedition headed down here--not to mention saying that humans are nothing in the cosmos.

Michael Chabon writes of At the Mountains of Madness as “One of the greatest short novels in American literature, and a key text in my own understanding of what that literature can do.”

When editors like David Hartwell, trying to capture the foundations of the horror field, reprint a short novel this long, it's got to be good. The chief rewards for those who admire sense of wonder come as the explorers enter the labyrinth of caves and examine the cave paintings around chapter six.  It gives some of the best description of Lovecraft's cosmology.

Reading his work, one appreciates a few literary attributes: brooding atmosphere and imagination. Lovecraft slammed Henry James's works of horror because of their lack of horrific atmosphere. James, though, was a master of character--something that Lovecraft runs low on. What do we know about our protagonist? How is his life shaped, transformed by events and other characters? Well, he's horrified, just as his companion Danforth and most of Lovecraft's characters.

What about plot? The shape is fairly simple. One encounters the strange; horrifying strangenesses pile up until the universe irrevocably horrifies the narrator. One reads Lovecraft for the same reason that readers read Olaf Stapledon: The writers are good at a few narrative traits--good enough that readers overlook flaws.

In his introduction to the Modern Library edition of the novel, China Miéville writes, "Genre writers, it is often claimed are uninterested in characterization, theme, or nuance, and instead vulgarly subordinate everything to the exigences of plot. This, of course, is nonsense. In fact many writers don't do plot either."

Miéville's point, besides humor, is that the genre has something unique outside of plot and character. In this field, writers like Lovecraft and Stapledon reap a bountiful harvest.

Miéville also claims that Lovecraft was on the cutting edge of science, pointing out his mentions of continental drift. Unfortunately, as S. T. Joshi points out in his annotations, continental drift had no proof at the time. Moreover, Lovecraft also mentioned ether, a hypothetical medium that light supposedly propagated through. The Michelson–Morley experiment decades earlier had proved this hypothesis false. Besides, Lovecraft's real point was to lower our estimation of human science and to suggest that universe contained more than puny humans can know.

And that's okay. Humans do sometimes overestimate their understanding of the universe. Moreover, Lovecraft's mind grasped onto the unusual, the stranger fictions--reality be damned. In fact, he treated his own, Edgar Allan Poe's and Clark Ashton Smith's fictional works as true within the fiction.

This is one of Lovecraft's cleaner works, told in a semi-academic style. Still, though many Lovecraft narrators are educated, they fail at words as soon as they confront the horrifying ineffable. Nonetheless, the writing is dotted with "things" difficult to see or experience. Note all the very different monsters illustrators created based on this novel (it may be, however, that the illustrators did not read the text in question).

Lovecraft often employs archaic spellings and words--not to mention neologisms--meant perhaps to create a dark, brooding atmosphere of the unknown. It not only makes for tough slogging, but also makes one wonder.

Miéville notes that "Lovecraft has... the transmogrifying vision of hysterical nihilism, from which his racism is inextricable."

Isn't Lovecraft's penchant of strange words, spellings like a foreign language, used to conjure horror--not unlike the speech of a foreigner? Now that I've stated the conjecture, someone will latch on to it as truth without further evidence, but it is a possibility worth considering.

Even when his writing seems concrete, we may still not know what he means. For example, what does a "tempest-scarred plateau" look like?

I analyzed this text for adverbs (actually, the "-ly" ending) versus Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and versus Ernest Hemingway's (roughly a contemporary of Lovecraft) "The Snows of Kilimanjaro". I chose the comparisons since Hemingway is roughly a contemporary of Lovecraft and Shelley is about a hundred years older than Lovecraft and writes in a similar genre as Lovecraft. Also, Lovecraft tries to write in an antiquary style, so it'd be interesting to see how closely he resembles the thing he imitates.

In terms of percentages, Lovecraft doubled Shelley's output and quadrupled Hemingway's (who also used his within quotes). I searched for the vague noun "things," and Lovecraft doubled Hemingway's output (also found in dialogue) and had fifteen times as many as Shelley. To an extent, this is what Lovecraft intended. The unknown and foreign are terrible (variants of "vague" appears twenty times in the text):
  1. "The effect of the monstrous sight was indescribable, for some fiendish violation of known natural law seemed certain at the outset."
  2. "[S]omething about the ridgy, barrel-shaped designs stirred up oddly vague, hateful, and confusing semi-remembrances in both Danforth and me."
  3. "[T]here was something vaguely but deeply unhuman in all the contours, dimensions, proportions, decorations, and constructional nuances of the blasphemously archaic stonework."
  4. "[T]he revived memories and vague impressions acting in conjunction with his general sensitiveness and with that final supposed horror-glimpse whose essence he will not reveal even to me - which has been the immediate source of Danforth’s present breakdown."
  5. "Something about this whole place, with its polished and almost glistening floor, struck us as more vaguely baffling and horrible than any of the monstrous things we had previously encountered." 
  6. "For a second we gasped in admiration of the scene’s unearthly cosmic beauty, and then vague horror began to creep into our souls."

Brian Aldiss parodies the style as swollen by adjectivitis in "The Adjectives of Erich Zann, A Horror Story":
"I was aware of fear welling up inside me in a cascade of adjectives."
Lovecraft's style has its defenders. Nick Mamatas, whose eloquent defense is worth reading, is buried somewhere in his blog. I cannot find the article at present. Indeed, Lovecraft does have his poetic moments, but usually when his prose solidifies in the concrete.

My only point, though, is that Lovecraft's prose strives to create a literary past that never existed. His prose reads nothing like Shelley's. His protagonists, too, were his contemporaries. So why were their writing and speech patterns antiquated? True that even into 19th century, some folks cultivated a King James speech pattern, especially when it came to piety and churches that used the King James Bible as their text, possibly even into the twentieth century. But Lovecraft does not follow King James. Who his antiquary literary antecedents are, remains unclear. Perhaps creating a literary past that never existed is his point. But for readers who prefer a smoother style or character or plot, it might make for challenging reading. If possible, one has to park one's notions of narrative at the book cover's front door.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Callahan Chronicals: pt 4 Callahan's Secret by Spider Robinson

Other discussions of The Callahan Chronicals:
  1. pt 1 Callahan's Crosstime Saloon
  2. pt 2 Callahan's Crosstime Saloon
  3. Time Travelers Strictly Cash 

Summaries and Commentaries with spoilers:

  • The Blacksmith’s Tale: First appeared in Analog. When no one is at the bar (a strange new staircase has appeared),  Jake ascends to stand naked in the rain on the rooftop. He runs into Mary--also standing naked in the rain--and, after uncomfortable pleasantries, makes love. They join the regulars below. Mick Finn is glum, not having a lover himself.
Commentary: Mary offers herself to the alien bot, to Jake's chagrin. Mary is Callahan's daughter. Mick Finn's story begins with "The Man with the Eyes" and "Unnatural Causes." It concludes with "The Mick of Time" below.
  • Pyotr’s StoryFirst appeared in Analog. Reprinted by Greg Cox, T. K. F. Weisskopf, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg and Martin H. Greenberg. Jake mourns the loss of his girl. Because of the last story, we assume it's Mary, but no, it's his guitar. He mourns the loss as it was a rarity. The only man who could work on it is dead. Meanwhile, Pyotr selflessly cares for drunks. And it's Jake's turn as he mourns and gets sloshed. But Jake, who normally doesn't get hungover, is. Are Pyotr's motives pure?
Commentary: Eddie kidnaps Domingo Montoya, master guitarist who is supposedly dead. He has been hiding because people ask him to repair their cut-rate guitars. But he does Jake's. Pyotr, as you may have guessed from the sore neck, turns out to be a vampire. He filters Callahan regulars' blood, often preventing hangovers, but Jake's metabolism is different. When discovered, the regulars take up a collection--blood.

This plays a nice contrast to "Mirror/rorriM" where a character is suspected to be a vampire, but is not.
    • Involuntary Man’s LaughterFirst appeared in Analog. Try as they might, Callahan's regulars can't help laughing at a young man, Billy Walker, Tourette's syndrome--even as they cry in sympathy. Billy tried to call, looking for his place in life, but they thought it was a crank call. He sent a letter to show how serious he is.
    Commentary: They place Billy in charge of riddles on riddle night via computer modem. Robinson seems to understand human foibles due to nature. Despite sympathy and the regulars' desire to help everyone, he might have gotten an earful. 
      • The Mick of TimeFirst appeared in Analog. It was up for the Analog Readers Poll award. Mick Finn is sedated just as his masters arrive in the solar system. Callahan and the regulars join minds to feign that they exceed the Masters' power. But as they think faster, they see through the sham and isolate each mind from the others.
      Commentary: Callahan is a time-traveler himself and uses this to think up a solution. He pulls the regulars out of their mental isolation (literal and figurative). They detonate a nuclear bomb with a newly conscious Mick Finn to shield them from the blast. They save the day, but this blows up the bar. The Callahans must leave, and Jake is put in charge of the bar. They realize that Calahan has been training the regulars to be empathic/telepathic.

      This is the collection's high point that wraps up everything, albeit on a few sad notes. It may not work well alone but rests on the stories that went before. I say this because it seems one of the stronger tales in the collection, yet only Analog readers gave it a nod. Maybe they have longer memories.
        Series Commentary:
        "The Mick of Time" is where I'll end. The next story isn't really a story, so let's skip it. Interestingly, though, the author does make an appearance, just as he does in some illustrations. See hatted and sun-glassed figure raising his beer to the right.

        These stories do a good job stitching together relationships developed in earlier stories into something more complex, into something that feels like a novel. The characters get a little more personal, their thread weaving together more with the other characters in Callahan's.

        The stories are often dual plots, the taste of which we got in "Fivesight" where Jake and other characters told parallel tales.

        Taken as a complete series, as happened in Starseed and Starmind, one witnesses Robinson's perfect society, just on a smaller scale. The picture here has a little more clarity since we spend most of our time inside the society.

        It does seem ideal--empathy, acceptance of other's flaws so long as they attempt change ("Unnatural Causes")--but is this somewhat akin to our internet cliques where one is embraced, groups supported financially and verbally while "evil-doers" are bullied into submission? sometimes even to the detriment of careers. Robinson's is gentler. Even when criminals are hauled away--the faux Santa alien in "Have You Heard the One...?"--they don't punish him. Still, I couldn't help but feel that they overreacted to the minor swindler, when they often accepted those with worse crimes. Perhaps Callahan's isn't exactly perfect, but it's better than the society at present.

        Some folks want more and more: The quality can change--just keep 'em coming. Some want the pure quill, the best of the best. The completists, the former group, have their book. For the latter group,  I offer the essential or classic Callahan stories:

        1. The Guy with the Eyes
        2. The Time-Traveler
        3. Two Heads Are Better Than One
        4. Unnatural Causes
        5. Fivesight
        6. Dog Day Evening
        7. Have You Heard the One ... ?
        8. Mirror/rorriM, Off the Wall
        9. The Blacksmith's Tale
        10. Pyotr's Story
        11. The Mick of Time 

        * If "A Voice Is Heard in Ramah ... " were expounded/expanded upon, throw it in here, too.

        Thursday, May 14, 2015

        The Callahan Chronicals: pt 3 Time Travelers Strictly Cash by Spider Robinson

        Other discussions of The Callahan Chronicals:
        1. pt 1 Callahan's Crosstime Saloon
        2. pt 2 Callahan's Crosstime Saloon
        3. pt 4 Callahan's Secret
        Summaries and Commentaries with spoilers:

        • Fivesight: First appeared in Omni. Reprinted by Ellen Datlow. Two regulars tell rather embarrassing personal stories where they learned better. A gal tells her story where Cass, her soon-to-be husband, helps prevent a migraine from an accident he foresaw. He has limits. If he tries to avoid an incident, something worse occurs. They marry and he side-steps or ameliorates various incidents. She's happy until her son Bobby died in a bus accident. He knew in advance but did nothing.
        Commentary: She makes a date with a supermarket stockboy, and finds a gun brought into the house. Murder? Hers? the stockboy's? She runs to the bar. Suicide, they learn. They help her date escape with an alibi.

        Jake finally tells his story--how he caused the death of his wife and child trying to save money doing his own breaks--to help her see he can empathize with her sorrow. In fact, it's the fifth anniversary, which was why other regulars told their embarrassing tales.

        This is the first we get much background on our narrator, Jake. The title is a pun. Cass is likely a reference to Cassandra from Greek myth, who foretells events no one believes. 
        • Dog Day Evening: First appeared in Analog. It was up for the Hugo and Locus awards. A German Shepherd and a man enter bar.  The man wants to prove his dog can talk. Callahan allows the bet so long as it doesn't follow the famed joke [see below]. Callahan puts an apple in the man's mouth. And the dog talks.
        Commentary: Not only does the dog talk, but the man is mute. So the dog talks for him (not the opposite the regulars had anticipated). They can't make a living without conning people. The Callahan regulars come up with jobs for both: Radio talk show for the dog and typing for the mute.

        Play on the old joke about a talking dog that goes into a bar. The dog answers questions about what's on top of a house? "Roof" Who's the best baseball player? "Ruth," etc. The joke's barkeep throws the man and dog out, and the dog asks his owner, "Should I have said Jackie Robinson?" Robinson cleverly inverts this joke.

        Title refers to a 1975 film, Dog Day Afternoon, about a botched bank heist to pay for a lover's sex change. Some loose correlation.
          • "Have You Heard the One...?"First appeared in Analog. It was up for the Locus and Analog Readers Poll awards. A Santa pretender--he says he's an alien in a Santa disguise since no one would question Santa--brings gifts: The Universal Panopticon. He has a machine the improves one's mood, etc. All at the cost of pennies.
          Commentary: No trick about the pennies. That's what he wants because he's actually a time-traveler who needs copper pennies to navigate his machine since the future lacks copper. His inventions, though, are all an illusion. Josie, the time-cop lady arrests him--a ten-dollar crime. She wants to prevent paradoxes. It's not clear why the time-cop gal wouldn't allow the guy pennies to time-travel [after all, she explains what he's doing to the past--the explanation of which, one would think, might create paradoxes as well], or why she waited to reveal herself, but so it is.

          Still a fun and semi-sophisticated tale, especially compared to the earlier stories. The protag-/antagonist feels something like the disruptive harlequin in Harlan Ellison's "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman."

          The last two stories present interesting scenarios where three people, backed into a corner, perform minor swindles. The dog and the mute not only get away with it despite the Callahan regulars' knowledge, but they also get full-time employment. Santa, on the other hand, gets hauled away. It's not clear why the different treatments. I point out a similar predicament that occurs at the end of  Starseed where two criminals attempt the same evil deeds yet get treated differently.
            • Mirror/rorriM Off the WallFirst appeared in Analog. There are no mirrors in Callahan's [to prevent vanity--ha, ha], but one appears, anyway. Meanwhile, where a stranger sits in the bar, the mirror shows the stool empty. The regulars move away, nervous about vampires. The stranger, Trebor, willingly trades great liquor for poor. Seeing a trick clock with the numbers reversed, Trebor tries to jump through the mirror. Callahan catches the fleeing figure for not paying his bill and paying with phony money.
            Commentary: Trebor is the reverse of Callahan's. He tricks the "Trebor" of Callahan's world to take the fall for a crime in a different dimension. He wants to swap irritating pollutants for non-irritants, but just as dangerous. Through a trick, they push him into the correct dimension. Interesting that they stopped the guy from exiting then forced him into it, minutes later. Still fun, though.

            "Pyotr's Story" nicely reverses the vampiric expectations.

              Series Commentary:
              Apart from "The Mick of Time," these may be my favorites in the series. Robinson combined idea well with milieu. He really hit his stride here.

              Tuesday, May 12, 2015

              The Callahan Chronicals: pt 2 Callahan's Crosstime Saloon by Spider Robinson

              Other discussions of The Callahan Chronicals:
              1. pt 1 Callahan's Crosstime Saloon
              2. pt 3 Time Travelers Strictly Cash 
              3. pt 4 Callahan's Secret
              Summaries and Commentaries with spoilers:
              • Law of Conservation of Pain: First appeared in Vertex. The meddler, a real time-traveler from the future [1995] arrives at 1974 Callahan's. He wants to save Bobbie Joy, a painful singer to save her from the destruction of the life, to spare her from future pain, which would also keep her from writing a famous song.
              Commentary: Consequences of his altering time may be that pain shows up. The bar flies come up with a peaceful solution to killing the cop that will rape Bobbie Joy. The time-traveling belt given to bar to destroy... although why he didn't do it himself isn't explained.
              • Just Dessert: Young men drink ungodly amounts of alcohol. Suddenly the ugly one barfs. His buddies eat it. 
              Commentary: Not SF. The barf is beef stew. Apparently, the act angers the barkeep. Doc, who guessed the outcome, happens to have a bottle of ipecac and slipped some to the boys. 
              • "A Voice Is Heard in Ramah...”: First appeared in Analog. A woman, Rachel, shows up at Callahan's. She puns and is accepted by the bar flies. She turns out to have lived 232 years. She weeps when she hears a toast to motherhood.
              Commentary: She says she's more aware of death since she's lived longer. Her case seems hopeless until Eddie offers that she clones via cryonics. This one has a great central conceit that could have used a few more specifics and development.

              The title quote comes from Jeremiah 31:15 and Matthew 2:18: "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more." The context of Matthew is Harrod's slaughter of Jewish boys to kill, fulfilling Jeremiah's prophecy. Jeremiah, employing the voice of God, concludes: "Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded.... They will return from the land of the enemy."
              • Unnatural Causes: First appeared in Analog. Michael Finn returns, says he's been working in agriculture, using his advanced eyesight, which sees into the IR range. Michael spots an alien like himself. Tony, a Vietnam vet, deals with his past: how he became a cold killer. 
              Commentary: Tony turns around after hearing his pacifist buddy, Steve, had been killed in a military prison. Trancedental meditation and Callahan's turned him around. Meanwhile, the alien asks for absolution for creating dissension among the humans to breed them for chow (humans did the same with their food). Earth is a game preserve. But without actions, without penance, none in Callahan's would forgive him.
              • Wonderful Conspiracy: People come to Callahan's when they need to. The regulars actually pay attention to their families
              Commentary: Not really a story but rather a talk of how different a bar this is. It presents one of two references to Fredric Brown's "The Weapon" [link to discussion].
              Series Commentary:
              Explanations spring up, saying that Callahan's doesn't create alcoholism, but it's opposite: moderation, or even abstinence from drink altogether. Callahan doesn't allow drunkenness, at least not without a cab. One suspects that Robinson might have received complaints about glorifying alcohol and addressed the matter as stated above.

              These stories extend the series' camaraderie. They have a few surprises and unusual circumstances, but they're the nadir apart from "Unnatural Causes" which provides a nice contrast to "The Guy with the Eyes." Other stories have interesting concepts, but don't build them enough. The series improves after this.

              The stories have a rhythm to them. 1) Group shenanigans: jokes, puns, tall tales; 2) newcomer looks bummed and is asked why; 3) newcomer's tale presented; 4) Group resolves problem; 5) Brief joke/pun related to newcomer (sometimes). This might be related to 1) status quo, 2) inciting incident, 3) conflict, 4) resolution, 5) denouement. However, these stories tend to linger on step 1. Expanding the sense of camaraderie is clearly seen as critical as the presenting and solving the problem itself.