Posts Tagged ‘Short Stories’

Sy Montgomery, “The Soul Of An Octopus” (2015) & Italo Calvino (Trans: Jonathan Cape, Tim Parks, Martin McLaughlin , “The Complete Cosmicomics” (2002, 2009)

June 6, 2016

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The danger in anthropomorphism is that it not only removes the unique beauty of many non-human animals by simply turning them into a different version of us, with all the same foibles and none of their own, but also because the same effect hinders our ability to understand their own behaviour – the way certain species view the world would be very different, guided by the specifics of their evolution in the same way we were. So, expecting them to operate and react in a similar way to us in certain situations is wrongheaded, and in some ways is even dangerous to both human and non-human.

The Soul Of An Octopus tightly walks the line between degrees of anthropomorphism – the journey Montgomery has in the book is not simply to “humanize” octopuses, but rather to show the commonalities in our separate forms of intelligence. She never denies that the octopus’s mind works on a very different level than our own (she regularly reminds us that it is an “alien” entity with a heightened capability of taste and limbs that may well operate independently), but from her own experiences and further research sees so much evidence of certain things – curiosity, memory, personality, stresses (also mentioned in one of David Quammen’s columns in Natural Acts), and possibly even a sense of humour – the driving force of the book becomes finding how a very different sort of animal could seem to share so many things in common with humans. Over the course of the book, we see how many of those similarities come from differences – an octopus needs to be as clever as many of the more highly-developed mammals because of how vulnerable it is physically – but there remains as many questions about how their brains work as there are for the rest of us.

Of course, the scientific and philosophical inquiries are only part of the book – the rest, and maybe the majority, of it is a recounting of the author’s interactions with several octopuses, in captivity and in the wild, which is what spurs her interest in octopus intelligence in the first place. She also becomes friends with the people who are involved with octopus keeping – the staff members of the New England Aquarium (both veterans of the trade and younger volunteers), partners in diving expeditions, and cephalopod-focused scientists – who help Montgomery become increasingly integrated into the going on of the octopus realm, all of them sharing in the same enthusiasm and awe of these animals. The author documents the lives and personalities of the staff as thoroughly as the octopuses themselves (each of whom have their own distinctive personalities, as Montgomery always tries to demonstrate), and the relationship with all the animals they look after are some of the most interesting parts of the book. Whether or not they go a little too far in making their fish and invertebrate and reptile charges seem more “human”, the idea that these people can identify the distinctiveness of each animal is both practical for the daily goings-on in an aquarium and fascinating – even if our species isn’t exactly the same as all the others, there still seems to be a possibility for some kind of understanding, especially in these close, regular encounters.

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Speaking of anthropomorphism, Calvino’s Cosmicomics engage in that in a different way – characterizing processes both macro and micro, cosmic and terrestrial, as a series of fables driven by desire, an endless pursuit of perfection, and a tragicomic relationship with change. Vast, unknowable processes – the expansion of the universe, the creation of the moon, evolution, light speed travel – become a series of adventures of one character, who is almost always in the pursuit of the same goals (i.e. The love of a specific woman or female-coded abstract concept) and is usually prevented from achieving them (An interesting contrast are the stories in the “t zero” section, where the process is almost reversed – a human situation is written as a complex scientific algorithm offering alternate theories of time and probability.) The inevitable course of history is driven by the travails of often highly abstracted characters, who in their lives mix the everyday and the grandiose.

In including all of Calvino’s stories in chronological order, you also see how these themes recur and change over time – and specifically through his series of stories that follow the structure and theme of Orpheus and Eurydice, the most direct being the trilogy of “Without Colours”, “The Stone Sky”, and of course “The Other Eurydice”, a revised take on “The Stone Sky” which even includes slightly different versions of the same sentences. These three in particular feature the previously-mentioned theme of seeking a state of perfection only to be stymied by the development of our world – a world above the surface of the world, a world with endless colour – with the narrator Qfwfq railing against the new world that ruins his static one (which occurs in other stories such as “Nothing and Not Much”) and robs him of his endless, unchanging life with his one true love, who either is left behind (in “Without Colours”) or leaves him behind (“Stone Sky”/”Other Eurydice” – as well as more in a sillier fashion in stories like “The Aquatic Uncle”). The presence of a world beyond himself and his chosen love is the recurring bane of Qfwfq’s existence in many stories, whether it is other characters like Lieutenant Fenimore in “The Form of Space”, or against a generalized mass of noise in the far more angry and cynical “Other Eurydice” (modern life seems to be a pestilence that is destined for eradication) – the whole of existence outside the pair is an affront to the perfection the narrator seeks in many stories, a compromise to his closed loop. But of course, very rarely does Qfwfq ever consider what others, his chosen partner especially (who often, in his mind, end up as some prize for his self-selected battles and rivalries), seeks in their own lives – so he is baffled when in stories like “Stone Sky”, they seem unwilling to simply follow him back tho their old world, to regress with him – they are lost and he is now alone, no longer having to worry about being overcrowded.

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Kij Johnson, “At The Mouth Of The River Of Bees” (2012) & David Quammen, “Natural Acts: A Sidelong View Of Science And Nature” (1985, 2008)

April 5, 2016

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Many of the stories in this collection feature an imaginary intersection between humanity and the natural – an unknowable, unmovable force that individuals and whole societies build their identities around. Take for example, the longest (and probably best) of Johnson’s stories, “The Man Who Bridged The Mist”, which uses a fantastical and mostly unexplained concept (the titular mist, which isn’t even really mist) to demonstrate the extent of that intersection, as well as the tenacity of human progress – a public works project with both historical and individual significance. The people at the cusp of the mist have formed economies and individual identities based on their relationship with the mist (most importantly with the Ferry family, the names being the most explicit example of how important occupation and trade is in that society, an idea that reminds me of other books), and the building of the bridge will inevitably impact them both positively and negatively. Even more so, when one’s idea of death (as Rasali’s is, informed by whole generations of her family) is determined by seemingly insurmountable cosmic forces, the realization that it can and will eventually be “tamed” is a cultural shock – the full extent of which is only revealed gradually to the titular man, Kit. Most of the story devotes itself to more “mundane” tension of hiring and building, and the dangers that come not from poisonous foam or massive unseen marine monsters, but workplace accidents – and in those moments we see not just the contrast between the human ingenuity we know and the strange world that is established (and it is tense when they come together – the use of dynamite possibly attracting the attention of the aforementioned monsters, for example, even if it is only for a moment), but also how those accidental deaths are perceived by Kit (who assumes a high level of responsibility as the designer) and the locals like Rasali. There is a level of knowledge that comes with living so close to an untouched (or untouchable) natural world, but it’s also shown how an outsider can learn to appreciate it as well.

Characters defining themselves through a fantasy projection of nature is present in other stories as well, such as the title one – showing another unexplainable natural phenomenon, but one that brings willing individuals a “natural” way to handle grief (taking back its own, animal returning to animal, providing true comfort and peace.)The idea of this mysterious animal power being a gift is also present in “26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss” – it seems that allowing these representatives of the natural world a level of autonomy and privacy proves emotionally beneficial. More like “Mist” specifically, “The Horse Raiders” efficiently establishes a fictional society that seems to be undergoing radical changes (this time instigated not by human development, but by purely unguided changes in the environment), which in this case instigates violence between different groups – but, as with the other story, there remains possibilities for the future. Understanding and working within these dynamic ecosystems is important in those stories, much as they are in the smaller-scale ones.

The intersection plays out a bit differently in “Fox Magic”, “The Cat Who Walked A Thousand Miles”, and “The Evolution of Trickster Stories….” – the first two being told from the animal’s perspective (both are based in Japanese folklore as well), while the last one includes both human and animal sides of the story. These present whole animal mythologies and societies developed alongside humans, crossing paths out of necessity – “The Cat” requiring human assistance as it pursued its own goals, the “Fox” using its illusions to blur those lines out of love, and the dogs finding themselves outcasts once they learn to think and communicate as we do. While many of the other stories show a notionally optimistic outlook of how we and the rest of the animal kingdom can coexist, only “The Cat” seems to unambiguously fall along those lines – and likely only because its protagonist sees humans as just a part of its world. “Fox Magic” ends in tragedy, as even in love such subterfuge can only be temporary, and “Evolution of Trickster Stories” shows that the relationship between humans and animals they seem to care about can be strained when the terms of that relationship changes, revealing that there have always been grievances we refuse to acknowledge. What seems to be suggested in these is that while humans and other creatures can coexist, it needs to be based on (once again) understanding, and the coercions at heart of existing cohabitation are our primary obstacle.

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Interestingly, many of the columns reprinted in Natural Acts read like precursors to Quammen’s books – some of them are directly referenced (“The Megatransect” is referenced in Spillover, for example, and “The Post-Communist Wolf” covers some of the same ground as Monster of God in a reverse way, too, “Planet of Weeds” is a sort of follow-up to the previously published Song of the Dodo), but in terms of general subject and style they show Quammen’s talents and areas of interest. It’s not simply informing us of some quirky facts about animals or questioning humanity’s part in the natural cycle – Quammen loves context and loves specific, and the longer the columns run, the more he can indulge in both. The first batch of columns are able to quickly establish a unique angle – can a giant octopus be stressed out? How does a butterfly evolve to drink blood? How exactly does hypothermia work? – and in their (relatively) short word count find a sympathetic angle, one that balances the fascinating scientific and human sides of every story. As a regular columnist is wont to do, these stories can involve a personal angle as well – “Jeremy Bentham, the Pietà, and the Previous Few Graying” does this, as one example – but in most cases they focus on others directly involved in the subject in as much detail as the science itself.

There’s an equal fascination with the people who involve themselves in natural studies or who choose to integrate themselves into the wilderness in some way, or even the people on the margins. The articles demonstrate a knack for sketching out the personalities of the people involved – be they interview subjects, travel companions, or historical figures – the people involved are worthy of detail, seemingly independent of their impact on the topic at hand, just so we can get the clearest picture of the scope of each story, the micro and the macro. This goes for setting as well – “Ying and Yang in the Tularosa Basin” finds time not just for the curiousness of the White Sands, but also a local motorcade, the nearby site of the A-bomb tests during World War 2, and the stone art of the mysterious Mogollon people, all of which are important to understanding the beauty and history of the region. “The River Jumps Over The Mountain” is about poetry, a Grand Canyon rafting adventure, the shaping of the canyon itself, escape from a troublesome life, and the strangeness of going away and having the world change in your absence – the scientific, personal, historical, and human interest parts of the story seamlessly flowing into each other. None of these things need to be separate, treated as their own story, even though our need for compartmentalization and efficiency might dictate they be – all of these things inform each other, and one of the joys of Quammen’s writing is that it knows that, and exhaustively integrates the facts and questions of those systems – otherwise, we might not properly understand why these things happen and why we, or someone else, might care.

James Tiptree Jr., “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” (2004) & Larissa Lai, “Salt Fish Girl” (2002)

November 29, 2015

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There is a deep streak of despair underlining most of the stories in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever – there is very little sympathy for humanity in most of the stories, and a conviction that our darkest behaviours will inevitably show themselves. Despite being science fiction (for the most part), a lot of these stories are essentially horror as well, slowly building towards a sudden realization and the accompanying violence, and usually making one ask “what have we done?” Reading several of Sheldon/Tiptree’s stories in a row is a pretty unsparing experience, even if the level of shock varies between them.

The first story, “The Last Flight Of Doctor Ain”, gets to the point immediately – however, it’s short enough that it’s possible to miss the impact of the final punch. However, it is followed by “The Screwfly Solution”, which is certainly the most disturbing thing I’ve read recently – a gradually escalation of all-out hatred and inescapable violence, fusing both the uncontrollably natural with our tendency towards rationalizing things. By the midpoint, it becomes completely unrelenting, capping off with a coda that could be seen as darkly humorous, but without diminishing the horror of the previous pages. Importantly for the second story, “Screwfly Solution” introduces readers to the gendered violence that becomes one of the most important themes running through all of the stories in the book.

That theme is rather explicit in many of the stories (most distressingly in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” with its slow and subtle series of revelations), but one particular example of it is in the narration of stories like “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” and the first half of “With Delicate Mad Hands”, which seemingly goes out of its way to berate the physical and behavioural faults of its woman protagonists (Philadelphia Burke in “Plugged In” is repeatedly described as a beast, and it’s considered good that she is locked away controlling a more “palatable” girl); its the kind of thing that appears in the dialogue as well, but seems to be even more pronounced when the cruelty is coming from the author itself. In a lot of ways, this seems to culminate in “The Women That Men Don’t See”, which subtly reverses things by having the women able to escape that world of viciousness – which would seem like a victory, but because the story itself is narrated by a man who simply does not understand what they know, that seeming triumph is portrayed in a different light. Likewise, “With Delicate Mad Hands” ends a slightly happier note, if only in a fleeting way.

In “The Women Men Don’t See”, the sex-gender hierarchy is shown as a all-encompassing force that seems outside ourselves (although it may only SEEM that way), which is another major theme running through several of the stories. Humanity discovers that everything it knows could simply be a tool for some unknown force – as in the title story (one of the most bleak, introducing its fantastical element only to further that bleakness) or especially in “A Momentary Taste Of Being”, where humans are a disposable component part of something else entirely (which also mentioned briefly as a possibility in “Slow Music”, with the image of free human consciousness being ground up into cosmic sausage.) That story is one of the ones that ends a note of inescapable destruction that is also seen in “On The Last Afternoon”, “Slow Music”, “And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side”, and “The Man Who Walked Home” – natural forces seemingly destined to bring about the end, even when there’s a possibility for intervention. The most obvious example of this is in one of the more fantastical stories, “Love Is The Plan The Plan Is Death”, where a strange alien animal tries to break its own deadly life cycle – but of course, the natural system is far more durable than it expected, as it always seems to be here. If the plan seems natural, it seems resilient to subversion – and maybe its under that logic that the abuse of our gender-oppressing world seems equally inescapable.

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There are many running parallels throughout Salt Fish Girl, but one particularly interesting through line concerns ideas of homogeneity, both physical and cultural, which has a ominous omnipresence in both halves of the story. The worst thing that seems to happen to the protagonists in both time periods is a loss of varying degrees of distinctiveness, which begins in the very first chapter when Nu Wa gives up her non-humanity, which is accompanied by the searing pain of change that also ends up recurring throughout the book – and the pain is not just in the loss of one’s identity, but in attempting to reclaim it as well (when she steps back in the water.) The physicality of that opening act of conformity is also broadly seen in Miranda’s story as well – much of it taken up by her exuding durian smell, which threatens her place within the extremely stifling suburban world, and also required some painful and arcane methods to eliminate. A snake tail and the constant smell of pepper and cat piss seem like very strange traits to represent this idea, but they are ultimately symbolic of a greater need to hold on to one’s identity, even when one is confronted with the possibility of loneliness as its direct result.

The book’s conception of a homogeneous world is taken into the extreme with the introduction of cloning – physically identical people engineered to fit a predefined role. But where Miranda, by her own volition or others’, is forced to push herself towards conformity, Evie and her family (all clones of each other) as outsiders can subvert that by showing how they can still be distinct people – and along the way manipulate their own genetically manipulated origins to sabotage the corporations. She embraces her non-humanity, and by doing so allows Miranada to eventually do so as well, bringing the story back to Nu Wa

The cultural identity half of that theme is integrated a bit more subtly, but is just as important. It is the most obvious in the middle section of the China story, where Nu Wa is taken to the Island of Mist and Forgetfulness, which is a timeless place in more than one way (oddly removed from any time period, it is described like a culmination of the entire 20th century), but more importantly one that oozes corporate, western monoculture, and has the side effect of “cursing” Nu Wa into forgeting her own language, subsuming part of her cultural identity. But even before then, there are signs of that world – while Nu Wa lives a sort of free, if morally dubious, life as a thief, the Salt Fish Girl is forced to join the legion of poorly-treated workers in an increasingly industrialized South China, itself a sign of encroaching modernity that reaches its nadir in the Miranda chapters, where the Salt Fish’s Girl incarnation is literally a person made to work in a factory. But in the earlier parts of Miranda’s story, however, the same culture that produced that appears in other forms as well – it is emphasized that Miranda’s family is one of the very few Chinese families in the very white, capitalistic enclave of what was once the very multicultural city of Vancouver – which likely makes Miranda’s smell, and the threat it poses to her family’s stability in that social ecosystem, an even more demanding issue to her parents, especially her careerist father. At various points, there is a lot of emphasis in the text on food – from the durian that is central to the story to the some of the dishes served by other Chinese characters – and they signify some of the few places where distinctive culture can still exist apart from the manufactured one. It seems minor, but in that society, it’s an important place to start.

More so on a personal identity level is the songs written by Miranda’s mother, which are crucial throughout the book. There is a large focus on advertising in that corporatist/conformist culture in Miranda’s chapters – which involves turning something personal into something broad and robbed of specific meaning. Miranda selling the rights to the songs is seen as a great betrayal of that, which spirals further when she gets a job at an advertising firm and lets her own artistic visions be compromised in the name of selling, misusing both her and her mother’s artistic talents. Evie and the other Sonias again subvert that by using slogans embedded in foot prints (which also subverts that society’s increasing distrust of physical connection with the planet itself) as a form of protest. Personal expression is demonstrated as another important part of identity, and a powerful tool against encroaching sameness.

Sophie Goldstein, “The Oven” (2015); Andrew MacLean, “ApocalyptiGirl: An Aria For The End Times” (2015); & Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Birthday Of The World And Other Stories” (2002)

October 14, 2015

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For whatever reason, I’ve been reading a lot of short, post-apocalyptic comics recently. The Oven, as with Vacancy, uses colour to establish environment – the difference here is that rather than using a blend that gives off the impression of a mess left behind, everything is almost a stark monochrome, a place stripped of all but a few things. Everything is usually detail-less gray, strongly unnatural orange, or bleached white – all of which give off an oppressive feeling of a world where nothing is left, even though life is still obviously going on in the foreground. The outside world portrayed here has a ramshackle feeling like Vacancy as well, but rather than signifying a hasty retreat, it seems more like a place kept barely together with whatever remains. It is certainly harsh, but it still seems pretty lived in – the problem with a term like “post-apocalyptic” is that there is no end, just a shift.

In this case, the shift is a sort of sheltered dichotomy – an indoor city life and an outdoor rural life in a radioactive desert. There are attempts by the characters to define it as a freedom or comfort choice – the main characters leave the city in order to have children due to some unspecified government eugenics program, and the reinforced ideology is “freedom of choice.” But the narrative itself never really buys into it, even when one or both of the couple does (one of the first things said to them is “freedom isn’t free”) – as much “freedom” as the outside world provides, it still ends up reinforcing binary roles for the people (both men and women), and very little actual choice of what their lives can be, just one thankless job or another. There’s no government to tell you what to do, but the drive of basic necessities keeps you in place just as well, as well as numerous unstated community standards – it’s all a series of compromises, which doesn’t sound much different from the little we hear about the city.

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Even the “third way” Eric turns to by the end is a compromise – abandoning everything else just for the possibility of doing anything else in his life, still forced but slightly less claustrophobic. If one doesn’t take to the drudgery or find much solace in a nuclear family (which in turn is part of a far-off promise of creating a community, but one seems to require more of some people than others), it’s basically just drugs (numbing you in the same way the “screens” evidently do in the city) and running away as the alternatives, still kept in check by the inhospitable world around you. What “freedom” is seems to be either a slightly different set of standards, which some take to (as Syd does, after initial trepidation) and others (like Eric) do not – the outside people don’t seem unhappy, but there seems to be ideals that need to be in place for that community to work as it does. It’s a binary of hegemonies, ultimately, dictated by one harsh environment or another, and the delusion saying otherwise becomes part of it.

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Colour plays a part in ApocalyptiGirl as well, albeit in way closer to Vacancy than The Oven – this is another more disorganized world rather than a blasted one, but one that has an environment that has been able to move one. It’s always fascinating to me to see what kind of mark the leftovers of human society will leave when the daily commotion is gone – although built over the natural world, the natural world never really goes away, and it may yet find a way to reintegrate itself. That seems to happen here, as there is greenery, there are actual things to see and places to go in and around the ruined city – and because of that, none of the pages have the colour uniformity that The Oven used to set its tone. The only colour binaries that seem to exist are between the two warring tribes. There is a sense of reclamation in that world – even the mech suit Aria tries to reactivate has become dirt-brown, looking as much like a hill as some explicitly artificial thing. It immediately establishes the idea that there is something still there.

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The land’s acclimation to its destruction is not a wholly separate thing from the destructive events that preceded it, either. Aria tells herself the history of the place as a way to justify it – putting it in mytho-poetic terms in order to make it seem like a natural shift than a war over technology, but she has reason to want to make that argument – after all, the destruction led to the creation of the twin lakes that dominate the background, the natural deriving from the artificial. By the end, we see that the whole story was a lead-up to some kind of judgement – the planet abused its gift, but she decides to spare it because it was “home”, and the way it was portrayed at many points (going back to the colours and the other details) allows us to believe that. Despite the violence in its past and present, it still seems like a real, breathing world, one where life can still thrive. Having spent an extended period of time there, Aria knows that better than anyone else could.

As I mentioned before, apocalypse is usually just a hyperbolic term for massive change – it doesn’t necessarily have to be an end, just a transition to something else. It appears bleak now, in this story, but there is a potential for it to become something more appreciable yet – nothing is set in stone. In fact, the only real apocalypse in the story only comes up as a possibility at the end of the book, when a true end to the planet is proposed and rejected – a complete end to everything there, nullification, not just an end to human civilization or a clean slate. As long as there is existence, there is a chance for it to become something beautiful, and there all are the hints that Earth27 will yet reach that something.

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The stories in The Birthday Of The World continue most of the preoccupations of Le Guin’s other work (and returns to some of the same settings as well), but “free of a damned plot” as Le Guin puts it in the introduction (still my go-to place for additional context), they are allowed to be small, personal stories about the people in these societies. Stories like “Coming of Age in Karhide” (set on the same world as The Left Hand of Darkness) and “Unchosen Love” cover some of the same ground as her novels, but do so in a way that emphasizes the individual mindsets and smaller social mores of these places. While some of the longer stories in the book (which are grouped together as the last of them) show societies in some sort of transition, the others are content to simply demonstrate the life or lives in a place where sex is fluid, where marriage is a much more complicated series of traditions, or where solitude is the norm. Love and familial devotion and hierarchy seem to be constants, but each is always tied up in the specifics of the world, and the nuanced way the people these stories follow work with or around them.

The aforementioned “Coming of Age in Karhide” has an entirely sympathetic air, one that recognizes that fear and joy in discovery are all part of finding one’s way in life – by the end, there’s a celebratory feeling of growth, and a great optimism pervades it more than any other story in the book. This might be because of the way the story is presented – as Sov’s reminiscing, a recollection of such a torrent of varied emotions that would be difficult to process even without taking place in Karhide’s particular human-biological situation (this is also true with the more conflicted first-person narrative of “Solitude”.) It is simply a story of growing up in a science fiction setting, allowing it to feel both very familiar and highly specific, which is one of the recurring feelings throughout the stories that follow it, even as they attempt to be just a little bit more alien.

Or in the cases of “Mountain Ways” and “Unchosen Love”, more adult – those stories are also more interpersonal dramas that use the societal norms of the planet O to show characters dealing with the complexity of domestic relationships. Love and sex are part of it, but there’s the everyday interactions as well, and the way people’s unique personalities interact (it is possible to love someone deeply but still be irritated by things they do), as well as what family and society as a whole expects of your relationship. There is something about both these stories that make them feel more like traditional realist fiction, even with the supernatural (on top of the science fictional) aspect of the former, as they are “just” about people navigating complications in their love life, with outcomes more positive or negative.

“The Matter of Seggri”, which is composed of a variety of different “stories”, is the most experimental of the stories in the book because of that, but thematically it actually feels closer to “The Birthday of the World”, “Old Music the Slave Women”, and “Paradises Lost”, all of which deal with civilizations raised on specific truths going into transition. The difference here is that while the latter three show that transitions with specific characters as anchors throughout, “Seggri” is written like primary research – a smattering of first-hand accounts from those inside and outside the gender-divided world, and even a piece of short(er) fiction, which has an old-fashioned feeling and a delightfully specific writing style – that shows multiple eras of change. All of them are about not just the society, or the way that audience surrogate characters like the members of the Ekumen react, but the way changes within a system affect people of different walks of life, in ways that include both direct (sometimes violent) conflict and just in normal interactions – the stuff that colours all the stories in the book.

Chris Turner, “The War On Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada” (2013) & Ursula K. Le Guin, “Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences” (1987, 1990)

June 29, 2015

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It takes only a small amount of time and leverage for an self-ingrained ideology to be derailed, as Turner repeatedly hammers home throughout this book. Canada’s devotion to scientific study, and environmental sciences in particular, had somewhat modestly become part of its international image, and Turner argues it’s been part of this country from its founding days – unlike the rest of the continent, it never seemed imperative to stamp much of the wilderness, and with that much of it left, what better use than to preserve and study it? Even someone as seemingly middle-of-the-road as Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden did much to bolster the government-funded science in Canada, one of the examples (alongside later Conservative PM Brian Mulroney, who led while Canada was a world climate science leader in the 1980s) used to show the book is not a bipartisan screed. This is not an established political ideology of the Conservative party, but a very particular goal present in the current one, which Turner labels “the Harper agenda.”

It really doesn’t take much convincing that current Canadian government at the very least doesn’t put much value in the pure science model – almost every budgetary measure since gaining their majority (and even when they could get away with it as a minority) has lacerated the funding for projects like the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Factory and the Experimental Lakes Areas, and even Parks Canada. There are other revealing changes as well, such as the new bureaucracy surrounding communications between scientists and the public or the ending of the long form census, that show a combination of desperate message control and a general apathy (or possibly disdain) for hard data that pervades the government, with only lip service paid to internal and external criticism of how this has damaged Canada’s reputation on both scientific and environmental matters. And that’s just their actions – it becomes far more damning when Turner begins to quote members of the government, who disparage environmental activists and speak of science solely as an adjunct to economic development, making motivations all the more clear.

Following the large-scale protests by members of the scientific community Turner writes about in the first chapter (which likely served as the impetus for the rest of the book), there does seem to be a core belief that the way science and scientific thinking has been treated by the Harper government has not only been noticed by Canadians at large, but is readily opposed. This is not a reflection of how any regular citizen wants to see the country develop, but rather something entirely forced on them, sometimes among smoke and mirrors to keep its true purpose hidden from most of the public. In the final paragraphs especially, Turner argues that a respect for these things is a integral part of the country’s identity, and that the impositions of the Harper agenda will eventually be rejected. Two years after The War on Science‘s publication, and on the heels of a federal election, one would hope that is true – but the agenda has still stood its ground so far.

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Once again, I am thankful for Ursula Le Guin’s introductions for giving me some interesting context and other thoughts in which to read the stories that follow. Le Guin writes of a divide between humanity and the rest of animal-kind (or of the rest of the natural world in general) that is reinforced through literature – the story of animals, talking and non-talking, relegated to books for children, denigrated. There should be no such divide, these stories argue, especially in the titular story – the animals appear as human to lone human, but that’s only a thing of perception. In behaviour, the animals show variation and individual quirks (anthropomorphizing them too much would rob them of their identities), but in substance, they share enough in common that their community is possible – understanding the grander scheme of things. It is a community that humans once took part in, but through their own devices – building the closed-off homesteads and even the use of linguistic barriers (Myra, the human, is the only one with “two names”, her human one separating her from the “generically”-designated animals.) The human girl notices all of this quickly, once she becomes part of the animal world, and comes to despise it. But the animals do not encourage her to abandon humanity, even after it is responsible for the “death” of her friend Coyote, because cutting oneself off from everyone else is the problem – with her new knowledge and perception, there would be no separation at all.

Humanity, no matter how hard it tries, is never truly above or beyond the natural world, and will always share much with it. This is cleverly reiterated through a variety of stories – “Mazes” and “The Wife’s Story” through role reversals, where the presence of humanity is considered the monstrous thing, “Horse Camp”, which subtly shows humans and animals as one, and “The Author of the Acacia Seeds” and “She Unnames Them,” which posit alternatives to the lingual distance between humans and other animals. There are connections, and there are the things that we create that attempt to sever those connections, but there are ways we can reclaim them. This is also present in “May’s Lion,” in which a story of a more sympathetic and natural encounter with an animal is substituted for the more mundanely destructive one – once again, offering that alternative.

It’s not just animals, either, as Le Guin says in her introduction – her poems include many about plants and even rocks and mountains, and the stories “The Direction Of The Road” and “Vaster Than Empires And More Slow” focus on plants as well. Both have a nature-and-civilization motif, showing expanding modernity colliding with the silent, established world of flora, a usually unseen and unremarked-upon realm, but one with great importance. “Vaster Than Empires” brings this into a science fiction setting, offering a plant organism that is large and unknowable, yet entirely affected by the mere presence of humans, unknowingly changed, maybe even permanently – one of the often unrecognized consequences of our constant need for movement to new frontiers. If there is one real difference we have from the rest of nature, it is in the magnitude of the changes we can wittingly and unwittingly make on the rest of it.

Stanislaw Lem (Trans. Marc E. Heine), “Imaginary Magnitude” (1981, 1984) & Karen Russell, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves” (2006)

February 24, 2015

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Imaginary Magnitude feels like the transition between Lem’s science fiction and his experimental fiction like A Perfect Vacuum – all the latter’s cross of pastiche and parody of a variety of forms, while maintaining the tone of fiction like His Master’s Voice. This is clearest in the final section (and majority of the collection), “Golem XIV”, which is more less a short story in reprinted seminar form (just as the Vacuum piece “Non Serviam” was a short story in the form of scientific book review) – using the structure of non-fiction while still containing a recognizable narrative, putting a bit of science fiction into faux scientific literature. That has always seemed to be something that Lem was interested in, but this is about as direct an attempt to marry the two as anything could be.

As I mentioned, the recurring theme in these introductions (and the fake books they ostensibly represent) is the same recurring theme in many of Lem’s books – human intelligence, its context and its limitations. This is pretty explicit in “Golem XIV”, where Golem itself lays out the upper levels of different forms of intelligence, how humanity has plateaued, and how even Golem itself may have reached the same stage,unlike its non-speaking contemporaries. Golem speaks of many different constraints on intelligence, and the implication is that it has placed all of those on itself in order to communicate that very fact to its human creators, and that it is only by retreating into a self-sustaining, self-contained state like the computer Honest Annie that it can exceed humanity’s limitations. It speaks of both evolution as a scale of intellectual degradation – “The Construction is less perfect than what Constructs” – and the restrictions that a natural form itself places on humanity (unlike itself, with a technological existence that allows it to escape the cycle.) Humans can be on the cusp of understanding, but as in His Master’s Voice, will be undone by things inherent in what they are. Golem deigns to lower itself to that level to tell its human creators that, but can barely conceal its disdain (which the scientists writing the introductions attempt to explained away, motivated by their own relationships with Golem) – it would rather try to join Annie in Nirvana.

The other stories, while certainly lighter, also follow along the same idea, as forms of human intelligence are introduced to non-human things – be it bacteria in “”Eruntics” or artificial intelligence in “The History of Bitic Literature”, which are used as simulations of intelligence with their own set of consequences. There is a constant shifting between origins of intellect and perception, which seem to coalesce with what is discussed in “Golem XIV” – there would seem to be a clear hierarchy of non-human organisms (like the bacteria), humans, and then artificial intelligence, but that hierarchy is often muddled, and the things that we think define our civilization can be usurped, as in “Bitic Literature.” In the first introduction, “Necrobes,” all three are conflated – technology creates art at its most primitive, a recognition of our own natural state. Our imperfections are then skewered in “Vestrand’s Extelopedia”, with its attempt to create a technologically perfect encapsulation of human knowledge that leads to less than useful results. All this seems to do is reinforce the idea that we don’t actually know our place and our possibilities.
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The fantasy in Karen Russell’s stories is one where modern human civilization is more integrated into its natural world than ours ever have been – though that doesn’t mean its always well-integrated. After all, it’s mostly just that the animals and natural landscapes have been turned into more tourist traps, more pointless traditions, more businesses – all the negatives are there, just configured slightly differently. So we have a world of alligator wrestling parks, a beach full of massive prehistoric shells, and a social order based on sending children to sing down an avalanche – but the meaning of it is perfunctory to the people who experience it, and just another thing for the children protagonists to overlook and endure. The natural world is definitely part of the stories, but there is little harmony displayed. The readers are the only ones who get to appreciate the absurdity of the settings – as all the characters in the stories have already had those feelings dulled, or are in the process of having them dulled, nature as the fantastic rendered mundane.

The protagonists of most f these stories are children/teenagers, so they are still “outside” these invented social systems, allowing wonder and boredom to commingle. The adults in these stories are usually absent, or are fully engaged in some absurd facet of the Russell’s worlds (like the “blizzard” in “Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows”, which the children attempt to invade, only to discover its purpose as a facade) – and the adults that do get some modicum of respect are themselves shown to be outsiders (coming to a head in “Out To Sea”, which focuses on an elderly man.) Because they are just on the borders of assimilation into the realm of maturity, there’s a naivety involved in the younger characters’ interaction with the world, which is further confused by their own personal dilemmas. When the naivety and the dilemmas clash, its the former that ends up washed away, again and again – the process seems unavoidable.

This is more explicit in stories like the title story and “Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreams,” where the fantastic aspects of these characters’ lives are gradually removed, a delightful facet of their childhood ironed out by a society that considers it a condition to be remedied (as natural phenomenon – there’s also a recurring theme of those natural phenomenon being something to tame.) In some cases, like “ The Star-Gazer’s Log of Summer-Time Crime”, the abuse of natural phenomenon (in that story, the turtles and astronomy) is used as an attempt to steer the character’s life in a beneficial direction, that world considered secondary to finding friends and respect. The coexistence and conflict of the natural and the personal is not just about exploitation, either – nature can be used as a lens for loss, fear, and disappointment (as in “Haunting Olivia”) or can even reassert itself (in “Accident Brief.”) Russell uses her natural settings as a vessel, while still maintaining its essential powerful and mysterious quality – we see ourselves in the landscapes, but the landscapes are not just there for us.

Endnotes for 2014

January 17, 2015

I have some more focused book posts I’m planning to get around to, but on a whim I also wrote some paragraphs on many of the books I read in 2014, including a few that didn’t end up on the site, and some quick additional thoughts on ones that did. So, here is my 2014 Year In Review round-up:

The first thing I read this year was The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, something that I had been holding off for a while despite having no real reason to hold it off. I didn’t write a post because I didn’t feel I could flesh out any of my ideas into anything coherent or interesting. I found it particularly interesting to read a piece of historical fiction that essentially rewrites some of the history of something relatively minor, maybe something that many of the readers wouldn’t even notice. I still am parsing, trying to determine what I think about this in terms of a medium that still grapples with the truth of its own founding narratives.

I read two books about the natural world back to back – David Quammen’s Spillover and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. The things I learned from Quammen’s book, which was from a few years ago, turned out to have startling relevance a little bit later in the year. Despite being a 2014 book, the things Kolbert wrote about did not seem to have as much import this year when faced with some more immediate issues, although it is an ongoing condition that remains to be grappled with. Reading them together was one of my first thematic duets this year – the role of man in the precarious and hostile environment we have mostly engineered for ourselves, fundamentally changing the natural system in many ways.

I managed to write a short thing about a Michael DeForge comic I read this year, after failing to come up with a proper response to Mostly Casual last year. Ant Colony (which I followed in webcomic form as it was being posted the year before) seemed a little more straightforward, and I could find a couple dumb things I wanted to mention about it, but I’m still terrible at discussing comics in a half-intelligent way. I also read A Body Beneath, but obviously didn’t write anything about that for the same reasons as Mostly Casual.

I watched a little over half-dozen giant monster movies earlier in the year, and wrote about those as well. It’s a genre that I have a longstanding affection for, and falling for a multimedia blitz like the mark I am, I decided to use it to brush up on my stuff. This was supposed to lead up to me going to see the new Godzilla movie, but that didn’t happen because that would involve leaving my house. This also led me to read August Ragone’s Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, which is a beautiful, utterly essential book that reminds me on every page why I love these stupid movies.

One author I decided to begin reading this year was J.G. Ballard, and I started with one of his novels (Concrete Island) and a collection of his short stories. The short stories provided some crucial context to development of his style and themes – even when he was working with more standard genre trappings, he had a knack for finding jarring, inward-looking story angles, and crafting claustrophobic environments. By the time we get to the novel (which I read first), he had transposed those ideals from the science fiction realm to a contemporary “realist” one, but with essentially the same results.

I read another volume of the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files, 07, which I forgot to write about, to be honest. It’s way more of a procedural volume, without any real major developments in the series ongoing, but since it’s those kinds of stories that make up the bulk of Dredd (and allow for more of the stuff I like from it – namely, the dark humour), it’s good to see what the creators do with their “free time” between epic storylines. The art is all over the place, leaving some interesting stylistic changes (the haunted house story in particular) and some less-than-interesting examples (a lot of the latter part of the collection), with the regulars like Ron Smith putting out their consistently good work.

My light summer reading was Matt Taibbi’s The Divide, which like Quammen’s book, had a lot of material that became in-your-face relevant by the end of the year. Questions of how policing in America is used against certain classes of people has finally become one of the most important social questions for everyone, rather than just the direct victims, and The Divide provides many disturbing examples of how the system has been set up like this. It’s not the whole picture, to be sure, but it’s an important piece of it. Reading 2011’s Griftopia gave me even more insight into some of the systems Taibbi described in his later book.

For one reason or another, I decided to go crazy with my Stanislaw Lem reading this year – I read four different books by him: one novel, one short story collection, one book of criticism, and one literary experiment, all the different forms Lem is known for. It’s pretty easy to look at all four of them together as Lem’s mission statement for science fiction: His Master’s Voice is his take on “first contact,” Mortal Engines covers artificial intelligence using older literary forms re-contextualized as science fiction (mocking those conventions in the process,) Imaginary Magnitudes* (which, despite its gimmick, is pretty much a collection of science fiction short stories in its own right) demonstrates how the genre can be applied outside standard literary modes, and Microworlds well, states its purpose pretty openly, attempting to form a basis for actual literary criticism within the genre. Even without many of his more well-known works, one could easily understand many of Lem’s pervading themes and stylistic tics just from these four books.

*To be discussed further at a later date.

Stanislaw Lem, “Mortal Engines” (1977, 1992) & The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (1978)

September 29, 2014

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The robots in Lem’s futurist fairy tales are really more like people than machines – in their societies, in their whims, and even in the format of the stories told (going beyond the fourth wall) – just with some modifications. Modification is one of the central themes of many of the stories, actually – as the robots can be or become anything, and can seemingly also create anything, their forms and the changes they make to themselves are often shown to be folly, with the more adaptable (or sly) coming out on top, as in “How Erg the self-inducting Slew a Paleface” (which is one of the stories to end up as a parody of fairy tale moralizing.) This gets used to absurd degrees in “Uranium Earpieces” and “The Tale of King Gnuff”, where characters can change to become impossibly massive and all-encompassing, yet still are outwitted. In this way, despite the medieval setting, the robot tales become an indictment of our own modern times, showing how technological solutions to problems, and the arrogance of technological might, are tripped up, or in some cases create as many problems as they solve. This is even integrated into the origin stories like “How Microx and Gigant Made the Universe Expand” – Genesis reinterpreted as technology giants trying to one-up each other.

That the robots come to represent our worst excesses is clear, but they’re not the only ones – Lem uses the actual humans who appear in these stories, the fairy tales especially, to demonstrate much darker views of us. The contrast between the perfectly crafted machine-people and the (to them) disgusting and oozing biological form is played for laughs, but in stories like “Two Monsters” and “The White Death”, humans are portrayed as hate-filled destroyers of their robot creations (the last line of “Two Monsters” is “The universe is infinite and has no bounds, but their hatred also has no bounds and…it can overtake us too.”) While the tales show humanity more as a monstrous or trickster figure in the world of robots, the more traditional stories near the end of the book explore their relationship further – “The Sanatorium of Dr. Vliperdius” showing robots unable to adjust their own psyches in a shared world, and “The Hunt” a more standard adventure story with a rebellious robot worker that suddenly turns into a question of humanity.

The longest of those stories, “The Mask”, is also the most interesting, as it goes through some of the same ideas, but all from the robot’s perspective. Like “Dr. Vliperdius,” it has a machine who shows great difficulty adapting to its true nature (though in much different circumstances), and once it does figure out what it is, it constantly struggles with the after effects of its brief human existence once it becomes a single-minded killing machine. The robot constantly questions its identity, never being able to tell if its feelings are “real” or have been pre-programmed, and so it even becomes an unreliable narrator at points. Even in the ending, the narrator’s actual goals remain ambiguous – which actually makes it all the more tragic.

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The Ballardian wasteland always feel like the culmination of some human experiment, even in the few cases where it isn’t one explicitly – but the glare of some controlled disaster always seems omnipresent. In a few of the stories (“Manhole 69”, “Chronopolis”), its an experiment in attaining maximum human efficiency, altering biological and sociological situations to reach the potential – only for it to come crashing down, the unforeseen psychological after effects coming into play. “The Concentration City” feels the same – a landscape created to efficiently cram in as much of humanity as possible (as explored in the population explosion-based “Billenium”), so perfect that it turns out to be inescapable – new or created societies of such scope also being a regular feature of these stories. The destruction of freedom is inevitable in pursuit of these perfectly cyclical civilizations, and by the time the protagonists in Ballard’s story discover this, they too end up being destroyed by it. That theme recurs in stories of another tact, as any rebellion or attempted outmanoeuvring of the world in decline ends tragically – no human ingenuity can seemingly reverse it.

The common fate amongst the protagonists in these stories is an attempt at mastering their strange environment, either by the aforementioned subversion or understanding – their folly being their inability to accept a situation much larger and more powerful than themselves. One of the best examples is in “Thirteen for Centaurus”, where the scientist Francis finds himself battling for control of his wide scale social experiment, outside of it against his government backers and (as he discovers) inside from one of the younger test subjects, and ends up losing in both situations – having given himself that much power (and no longer able to justify it), it inevitably spirals out of control. Ditto for “End Game”, where the prisoner tries his best to manipulate his mysterious prison guard/eventual executioner – but realizes he is in a game where he cannot know what moves his opponent will make, or when, that he is utterly powerless in the situation, despite his best efforts to convince the guard (and himself) otherwise. These stories accentuate the smallness of the individuals, the futility of their attempts to overcome a natural world or societal mechanism – attempts to overcome them are futile, as they exist in a reality utterly outside their control.

On the other end of the spectrum, “The Overloaded Man” is about someone who has no control of his life finding a way to regain autonomy, by essentially dissolving concepts into their meaningless component parts – with horrific results. That theme ultimately culminates in “The Atrocity Exhibition”, where a man inundated with media images and broken landscapes attempts to reconcile them in his own mind (under the auspices of “starting World War III” – one important symbol the outside world has projected onto him), blurring the lines between internal and external in the process – as in “Overloaded Man”, modern life has reduced him to deconstruction of his environment to make any sort of sense of it. These are not dystopias like the other stories (although you’ll find enough literature about suburbia like “Overloaded Man” to suggest otherwise), but posit modern life as a very similar sort of thing – a deluge of outside forces with a jumbled meaning and nowhere to go, making the only solution disassociation and destruction, a fleeting but seemingly worthwhile way of finding meaning in a meaningless existence. No matter how scaled the fantasy is, from world-ending scenarios to small-scale personal breakdowns, it always feels like the whole of everything is fundamentally broken.

Various (Ed. Harlan Ellison), “Dangerous Visions” (1967, 2002) [Part three of three]

October 18, 2012

For this book, I’ve decided to take a different approach. Since I feel each of the stories is worthy of at least some attention on their own, I will try to get all my observations for each out there within 100 words, which for 33 stories would equal about three standard posts. Who needs all those extra words, anyway?

Sonya Dorman, “Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird”

A gripping little number where Dorman explores the logical conclusion of the utilitarian society. That this world is brutal should be obvious, but what really makes this revelation devastating is how betrayed the motherly protagonist feels when its her time to be “useful” to her offspring. A cycle of altruism is at the heart of how we humans imagine a family, and this is an ideal the mother clings to despite everything else. In the end, though, these ideals are futile in the face of desperation-led selfishness, which is portrayed as too sadistic and organized to even be animal savagery.

John T. Sladek, “The Happy Breed”

For years, the claim has been that our society is becoming increasingly infantilized, people willingly seeking to have adult responsibilities and considerations taken away and left to others out of laziness and in the name of “security”. Sladek essentially presents an early version of that idea here, with the threat of machines slowly taking away every semi-adult pleasure, even the simple ones like pet ownership, competition, and creativity. It starts off with this small-scale, and then slyly moves into much bigger issues (such as the removal of any sort of danger or challenge), before getting quite literal with its themes.

Jonathan Brand, “Encounter With a Hick”

Once again, we’re dealing with the issues of God and man, but in this case it’s a humorous deconstruction of the idea of human exceptionalism and “purpose”, reminiscent of what Douglas Adams would be doing later. Corporate construction, the main mode of “creation” in the modern age, is properly recognized as meaningless – the greatness of human ingenuity turned to the task of making products, entire structures built in the name of brief economic advancement; permanent impermanence. This acknowledgement is why, as seen here, it would be particularly demoralizing to find out that our entire existence was produced this way.

Kris Neville, “From the Government Printing Office”

It’s ironic that our increasing knowledge of psychology, which has freed us from the older superstitious interpretations of the mind, lead us to a new, more specific brand of human conditioning and categorization. This is the starting point for Neville’s story, where a parent’s hope for their childrens’ future becomes a series of technique to produce specific types of people. Much like the Dorman story, this is a utilitarian society where the emotional bond between parent and child is broken down for some “greater purpose”, this time shown from the child’s perspective, where this appears as a failure of authority.

R.A. Lafferty, “Land of the Great Horses”

There are many things going on in this story, even with its seemingly simple high concept. The idea of a true motherland, with that concept’s religious significations; how well-integrated people of many origins in society really are; and the question of whether a nomadic lifestyle is a constant search for the new or the old. We look at the modern nomadic people, the Roma in this case, as a strange throwback to an older time; but Lafferty sees them simply as a people in waiting – and then shows what happens when someone else ends up in the same situation.

J.G. Ballard, “The Recognition”

I am willing to take Ballard at his word when he says the story is about “a cordial distaste with the human race”. In our worst excesses, we become barely recognizable – as hinted by the narrator – and as shown with the subsequent taunting crowds, we are willing to be both victim and victimizer, as long as the attention is on us. The woman and dwarf who run the circus never seem too pleased with their line of work, the necessary task of putting up a mirror to every passerby – giving them the greatest freak show of all.

John Brunner, “Judas”

The last of the God and Man stories, Brunner’s particular take on the matter is one where man creates God rather than overcome Him (which might be the same thing, anyway). This leads to a strange inverted scenario where the robotic God takes its place as a figure of worship (supplanting its creators just as humans did in the early stories) and is confronted by its creator, which is then followed by the revelation that humans can very quickly rationalize irrationality, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. The attempt to preserve imagined “meaning” also connects this to Brand’s story.

Keith Laumer, “Test to Destruction”

I have a personal inclination towards stories that incongruously combine genres – in the case, a dystopian thriller and alien science fiction. The opposing forces (opposed both stylistically as well as narrative-wise) representing this blend both attempt to take control of the protagonist by subjecting him to a great internal challenge – which he succeeds in overcoming. But in victory, he has essentially become his enemies – both the human and the alien – taking their particular positions of power. And in his mastery, he loses the connection with other people, something that was frequently tested in his mental “trials”.

Norman Spinrad, “Carcinoma Angels”

A funny story about the lengths someone will go to get what they want, and what would happen if they were confronted with a no-win situation. As the author notes, we do tend to look at cancer as a sort of malignant entity to be fought, and not simply a strange biological quirk – thus the various mythological (and modern mythological) battles Spinrad imagines that Harrison Wintergreen is imagining (because the whole thing is simply his brain rationalizing itself). The cancer section of the story is entirely “self-absorbed” – literally- very similar to the nature of cancer…and to Harrison Wintergreen.

Roger Delazny, “Auto-da-Fe”

We’ve seen machines take over almost every other facet elsewhere in this anthology – institutions, humans, gods – so in this story, we have machines take over the role of animals. It’s a very simple image – a matador facing a car – which Zelazny imbues with many underpinnings. For example: how humanity uses its fellow organisms for challenge and glory (it’s less sad that a car is wrecked, but how is it treated any differently than a bull would?) and how important cars and other tools have become so important in our lives they are integrated into our traditions.

Samuel R. Delany, “Aye, and Gomorrah…”

Understand, we are very unsuited as a species to many things – which leads to stories like this, where people are physically altered, bits of their humanity removed for the benefit of human progress. But those alterations can have some weighty consequences on the people and society – thus this story about the genderless spacers and those who fetishize them. The spacers are completely objectified – both as workers in constant motion and figures of desire for the frelks – and must either exploit the situation or confront their own inhumanity. This establishes a tragic cycle of people using people.

Various (Ed. Harlan Ellison), “Dangerous Visions” (1967, 2002) [Part two of three]

October 3, 2012

For this book, I’ve decided to take a different approach. Since I feel each of the stories is worthy of at least some attention on their own, I will try to get all my observations for each out there within 100 words, which for 33 stories would equal about three standard posts. I don’t want to be short with you, but…

Fritz Leiber, “Gonna Roll the Bones”

This reads more like a modern fable, a strange but fitting entry. It follows the old European storytelling method of a normal person outmanoeuvring the supernatural through pure skill, something that lends itself well to fantasy in a modern setting, yet I don’t see it very often. In any case, I can really appreciate fantasy stories that eschews both the cliches of traditional stuff and the tweeness of most modern urban fantasy; and despite the Faustus backbone, the way the stories rolls along (heh) and the imagery are both entirely Leiber’s. The wife stuff, though, that passed right by me.

Joe L. Hensley, “Lord Randy, My Son”

I like how the title implies more than we get here: Hensley is positioning this as an opener for a larger story that will never be, colouring the whole reading experience. But in not getting to the “good stuff”, we actually have a more interesting, human story. The science fiction elements pop in mainly to emphasize the passages where Hensley’s actual point surfaces: the little resentments in life interacting with the larger injustices in the world. The father and son are paralleled in both the structure and content, their unknown similarities driven by their strained relationship that they barely recognize.

Poul Anderson, “Eutopia”

This probably has the funniest zinger ending in the whole book. Since you are dropped right into the story, what really drives this thing is the sense of always playing catch-up with Anderson’s mile-a-minute world building. I generally have a bit of a problem with alternate histories, as they often end up feeling myopic (as the direction of human civilization is built on many big and small events from all corners). But by examining several through his biased protagonist, Anderson seems to really be getting into what defines and shapes civilization in a way that most alternate history stories don’t.

David R. Bunch, “Incident in Moderan”

The more mechanized war and violence becomes, the less responsible we feel for it. This is process that has been going on for hundreds of years; hell, it started once we began killing from a distance. That “distance”, in many senses of the word, has vastly increased over time; now, little flying robots to do it for us. Bunch’s story, from when we were still devising schemes with nuclear rockets, is a comical reflection of this – war, at a distance, and involving our increasingly technological inhumanity, turns the whole thing into a game with morality and consequences safely removed.

David R. Bunch, “The Escaping”

Another war story from Bunch, which paradoxically has a narrator who embraces the technological turn of war, dreaming of escaping his captors with tanks, devising revenge strategies with oblique processes (coding?), and watching the world from above in his flying egg. Of course, that is all in the background; what is really important here is the fantasy of evasion, of getting away from a dire situation using only one’s wits. There’s joyousness in the way the narrator describes his plan, his return to the egg, but he also recognizes the futility. The situation is sad, but the dream is giddy.

James Cross, “The Doll-House”

A lot of the tension in the story only involves the fantasy element on the fringes – simply having the protagonist bet his life savings, even on what is essentially a sure thing, is gut-wrenching. What is a pretty shop-worn premise, this is another story where someone finds a symbolic secret to success and is destroyed by it, is often highly enhanced by these banal elements. What also helps make it all the more horrifying is that the ending doesn’t feel like a comeuppance; it is how all the pressures of real life can end up completely crushing a man.

Carol Emshwiller, “Sex and/or Mr Morrison”

Emshwiller writes a very lighthearted story that focuses on our societal inadequacies, our aversion to ourselves. It seems intentionally child-like, if only to get back to a sense of curiosity, to a mindset clear of all the learned nonsense, a complete rejection of adult prudishness (which her afterword is meant to demonstrate fully). After all, sex is obviously an interest in each other physically – so why should we be so afraid of our physical form? Emshwiller is saying that, whether in the fanciful context of her story or in our own lives, we shouldn’t hide away from each other.

Damon Knight, “Shall the Dust Praise Thee?”

As I mentioned previously, there is an undercurrent in many of these stories of humanity’s technological advances allowing us to surpass the feats of gods of. During the time of this anthology, there was a real fear of a global annihilation that seemed more real and devastating than biblical Armageddon. Knight reflects that here: God’s scheduled end to the world ends up occurring after the nuclear apocalypse, showing God as outdone even in the realm of destroying everything. If we are capable of such destruction, we should be capable of also preventing it, placing our fate in our own hands.

Theodore Sturgeon, “If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?”

Although there is a bit of quirky fast-talking and universe-building in the first half of the story, the rest of it is devoted to Sturgeon’s polemic, in which he uses an extreme position, in this case by having his utopian alien society argue in favour of incest, to make a slightly less extreme point. The incest angle is mostly there for effect, probably being the most polarizing taboo Sturgeon could think of logically arguing for; but while his ultimate point, that our taboos are often irrational and limiting, I don’t know if it can completely justify its choice of rhetoric.

Larry Eisenberg, “What Happened to August Clarot?”

Not knowing if and how Eisenberg has really influenced anything, all I can say is that I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. The rapid-fire jokes, appropriation of genre tropes for mockery (in this case, the mystery/detective story), and creative use of description feels to me like something that has become a staple of a lot of modern comedy, especially in the comedy nerd circles. Aside from that, though, it’s an interesting entry in this book – a bit of pure silliness in between far more serious works (even if they are also tinged with humour much of the time).

Henry Slesar, “Ersatz”

The whole story here kind of feels like a very elaborate set-up for what is a borderline gay panic joke, although Slesar has an interesting idea. Once again, we’re dealing with post-atomic war zones (making this a sort of companion piece to Bunch and Knight), and the experience of those remaining when there is essentially nothing left. Humans have many needs, and there is an attempt to placate those needs with a sort of fantasy (which the Santa Claus imagery invokes) – the “ersatz” of the title. That fantasy has limits, though, and the protagonist rejects it upon that realization.