52 Stories #7: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber

[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

My friend Betsy Montgomery on Facebook recommended this classic from the great James Thurber. I grew up watching the timeless Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo comedy based (loosely) on this story, and I even saw the recent (tepid) remake starring Ben Stiller, so I was happy to take a look at the short story that started it all.  Thanks to the folks at the New Yorker (where it was originally published in 1939), you can read it for yourself here.   Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa…

The Set-up

Mild-mannered Walter Mitty escapes domestic monotony via thrilling daydreams.

The Pay-off

The 1947 Danny Kaye comedy of the same name is almost an entirely different animal than the original story by Thurber, although you can see the family resemblance. That said, there is humor in this story but it’s much more understated, to the point of becoming tragicomic. But man, it works so well. Thurber’s character work is outstanding here.

The Takeaways

Brace yourself for the pocketa-pocketa-pocketa of bullet-point observations:

  • In the film version of Mitty (and for our purposes, I refer only to the superior 1947 film), he is engaged to a fretful young woman with an overbearing mother (or perhaps it was his mother who was so oppressive). He is surrounded by people who dismiss him, take advantage of him, or just run rough-shod over him. In the story, however, while he faces a few slights and disrespects from strangers, his wife is the laser-focused source of belittlement and oppression. It seems like the screenwriters copied Mrs. Mitty directly from the short story into the screenplay and fragmented her ire among several secondary characters.
  • Another difference from the film: Though Thurber doesn’t say it explicitly, Mitty seems to be middle-aged, even late-middle-aged. The interactions with his wife indicate a man who has been browbeaten for YEARS, whose daydreams are as much a rebellion against her as they are a bulwark against his mundane life.
  • While the repetition of the “pocketa-pocketa” noise in each of the dreams is a classic element of both the story and film, I was further delighted by the repetition of Dr. Renshaw’s name. The Dr. Renshaw that Mrs. Mitty said should be called for consultation immediately becomes an inadequate surgeon in Mitty’s next scenario.
  • Another great detail: Thurber shows us how Mitty’s mind functions, much as our own, jumping from idea to idea, with random thoughts triggering memories. For example, calling a roughhousing district attorney a “miserable cur” reminds Mitty he had to pick up puppy biscuits. I relate so much to this. Sometimes, to amuse myself, I retrace my mental steps to see how my train of thought bounces between several disparate subjects. …Okay, maybe that’s just me.
  • Thurber’s characterization of both Walter and Mrs. Mitty is done mainly through dialogue and internal monologue, with minimal exposition. However, through Thurber’s use of implication, you easily understand the broad contours of their relationship and can extrapolate what life in their house is like.
  • Obviously a film adaptation takes a short story’s plot and fleshes it out a bit, but what makes the two Mitty’s so different is the ending. In the film, Kaye’s Mitty finds himself flung into an actual adventure with a beautiful damsel in distress. In the story, Thurber’s Mitty gets no slam-bang action ending. Rather, he patiently endures the ceaseless nagging of his wife, with his only consolation being his own imaginary heroics. In the final daydream, he faces a firing squad with a defiance he could never quite muster in real life. Nevertheless, in his mind he remains “Walter Mitty the undefeated, inscrutable to the last.”

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a quick read and quite a lot of fun. If you’ve gotten this far and haven’t actually read the story, go back to the link above and check it out.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

The4thDave Reads: “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport

We’ve seen the blog posts and editorials for years: “How I Gave Up Social Media for 30 Days and It CHANGED MY LIFE!” “Why I Quit Facebook and Got My Life Back” “Quitting Instagram Helped Me Lose 40 Pounds and Run The Boston Marathon!!!” (Okay, maybe not that last one.) Hand-wringing posts about the dangers of online culture, social media addiction, and how often we contemplate quitting (or quit and then come back) are almost becoming a cliche lately. (Guilty.) But no matter how many productivity gurus talk about the power of “digital detoxing” and the benefits of set fasts from social media, many of us are still struggling with this form of addiction. (Yes, us, I’m a junkie just like you.)

I read these types of posts constantly. The most clear-headed thinker I’ve found on this topic is Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown and author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work. I’ve shared the link to his TED talk about quitting social media in the past. I heard sometime last year that his next book would deal with the idea of “digital minimalism” and was immediately intrigued. Well, it was well worth the wait.

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in A Noisy World is a persuasive call to reconsider the choices we make about our digital lives.

Newport challenges the reader not to throw away all technology–he’s no Luddite seeking a purely analog life–but rather to ask very pointed and thoughtful questions about why and how we use technology. He challenges the notion that a mere potential benefit of a device or service is a good enough reason to adopt its use, or that having more features is automatically better. He draws the reader’s attention to the fact that we are the product being sold by social media corporations, and that our time and attention have been monetized for someone else’s benefit.

Beyond a Simple Detox

Newport suggests a 30-day challenge: an intentional digital fast (with common-sense provisions for certain necessary work/life demands), followed by a slow and deliberate re-integration of tech. During this post-fast period, he suggests that we ask 3 questions of our devices and apps: Does using this tool support a belief or priority that I deeply value? Is this the best way I can pursue that ideal or value? Can I optimize the way I use this device or program in pursuit of that value?

For example, if we use social media for keeping up with our family, Newport would argue that what we’re doing when we like or share or comment is mere connection, and it doesn’t take the place of real communication. Instead, while we might still use social media in a very limited way (both in time and scope) to catch up on news about our loose circle of acquaintances, we should also pursue actual communication with people who matter to us via in-person visits, phone calls, or even video chats (for far-flung loved ones). The complexity of face-to-face and voice-to-voice communication, Newport writes, is what provides the richness of human interaction–a complexity that text-based communication falls short of providing.

Don’t Click “Like”

Throughout the second half of the book, Newport gives recommendations of practices one can pursue as part of the “Attention Resistance” pushing back against screen consumption. Some of these ideas are pretty simple (make time for solitude, go for walks, pursue an analog leisure activity that requires physical exertion), while others are a bit more challenging, at least for me.

One such challenge Newport makes is to stop clicking “like.” He talks about how social media introduced the “like” button as a way of providing a minimal amount of feedback that still stimulates the user (the “digital slot-machine” idea of irregular positive feedback conditioning). I struggle with this, because I use the “like” button a LOT (as those of you on my socials can attest). However, I see what he means. A real-world example: I just posted on Facebook 42 minutes ago that we were having another baby. As of right now, 3 people have actually commented (2 of which said “congrats!”), and 20 people have hit the “Like/Love/Wow” emoji. [Update: I’ve gotten more comments since then, but the ratio of reactions to comments is running about 4-5 to 1.] Now, I do appreciate that these folks reacted to the news (that’s how Facebook describes it–reacting), but the vast majority so far have only reacted enough to click a mouse or tap a screen and then likely moved on with their scrolling. And I can’t fault them; that’s just what we do, isn’t it? But Newport suggests we stop, because this isn’t actually communicating anything. It’s one bit of information, a blip on the radar. And it’s a far cry from actual human community.

(And for the record, if you are one of the “likes” on my FB wall right now, this isn’t a slam against you. Thanks for taking a moment to read this. But hey, gimme a call sometime, so we can catch up, yeah?)

One Weakness

The only critique I have of Digital Minimalism is a worldview issue. Newport is writing from a secular perspective, so when he talks about the evolution of man as a social animal, he is missing a glaring clue as to why we are social creatures. Mankind was created by a personal, social, communicating God, a God who speaks and interacts with His creation, and because we bear the imprint of His image, we are social and communicative beings. That’s part of the reason why this reduction in human interaction is so unnatural; we were made by God for community, but our community is being undercut by a digital counterfeit that steals time away from incarnated interaction. The spiritual element of this whole idea is missing from Newport’s thinking on this subject, which is why other books by authors like Tony Reinke and Andy Crouch are necessary and helpful supplements to the ideas Newport presents.

Final Review

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism does more than simply point out the problem of digital addiction and social media enslavement. Newport helps the reader consider how to use these tools in a way that is healthier and more intentional than simple consumption and constant attention. While I think there are some blind spots in his argumentation due to differences in worldview, I would happily recommend this book to anyone who struggles with the idea of giving up digital tech or social media but still wants to reconsider the way he or she approaches these tools.

Placing the Big Rocks.

20190311_084109My wife made this picture for me when we were dating. (One of her many gorgeous papercraft creations.) It’s based on the analogy of the rocks, gravel, and jar. In short: a teacher challenged his students to put several sizes of rocks, along with sand and water, in a jar, but they could only do it by putting the big rocks in first. The lesson is this: if we don’t prioritize the things that matter most, they will get crowded out by the lesser things that take up all the space.

Early on in our relationship, H. knew that one of my greatest challenges in our marriage would be trying to manage the big rocks, so she made me this as a reminder.

Lately, I’ve been focused on three big rocks in particular.

My Household: Thing have been going well at home. My wife and I will be married 5 years this summer, and married life is a blessing. We’re looking forward to a family beach vacation in a few months and making plans for the near future. The kiddo is now a year and a half old, and just brilliant; her mind is a sponge, and she’s got a goofy and playful personality.

But the biggest news on the family front is this:

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Baby girl #2 is set to arrive this summer, and we couldn’t be more excited. We have been duly warned that going from 1 to 2 kids is a game-changer, but nevertheless we’re eager to meet this little sweetheart.

My Church: Being an elder at my church is already rewarding and stressful. There are new and more challenging questions I’m asked to consider, more conversations to be had, more responsibilities to shoulder–but I love it, y’all. The biggest challenge for me currently is working through the vast amount of material and training for child safety and abuse prevention materials. As I’ve noted before, this is becoming a big ministry focus for me lately, as I work to make sure all of our policies and procedures are consistent and up-to-date. I’ve been filling up a legal pad with ideas and questions, and what I really need is a day or so to sit and synthesize all the information I’m learning. (Anybody got a spare day laying around that they could loan me? Because I’m time-poor at the moment.) Unfortunately, this isn’t an issue that can or should be put on the back-burner. The time to address these issues is now, and I want to make sure I’m moving forward with the intentionality the issue deserves.

My In-Person Relationships: One of the ideas kicking around in my head as a result of reading Cal Newport’s latest book (review forthcoming) is that in-person communication and relationship-building is more powerful and more meaningful that digital, mediated communication. What this means is that being in the same physical space as the people you care about and want to connect with is worth the time and effort to do so. Sometimes that looks like driving across town through the evening rush to visit a family member in the hospital, or meeting a long-time friend for breakfast whom you haven’t seen in a few months. Maintaining these connections takes effort and grates against the easy-everywhere connection of likes and comments. But I’m finding that it’s worth it.

That said, there are a few big rocks that I’ve neglected lately, like exercise and writing and prayer, that I need to work back into my life. The fun distractions like social media and movies are sand and water in my jar. They work fine as fillers, but if I don’t get ALL these big rocks in place first, they’re just not going to fit.

I’m chewing on some ideas about how to do this better. I’ll share those when I come to conclusions worth reading.

So there’s the update. Hopefully, you’ll see me back here sooner than 2 weeks from now, which appears to be my average time between posts lately. I bet we can do better than that, though, right? Let’s try.

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Your Turn: What are the “big rocks” in your life right now–the most important things you actively make time to pursue? Feel free to share below. See you next time!

Midweek Odds and Ends (2/20/2019)

man old depressed headache
Photo by Gerd Altmann on Pexels.com

[Above: How I’m feeling this week.]

Another one of these posts, Dave? Yeah, sorry about that. Lemme tell ya a little story:

My wife and I celebrated Valentine’s Day on Saturday, with a tasty Japanese / Korean BBQ fusion place (highly recommended), so our plan for the big day Thursday was to watch a Ramsey Solutions “Money and Marriage” event live-streamed, while we enjoy a delicious home-cooked meal. (My wife is an amazing cook. I’m double-blessed, y’all.) All was going fine until we put the kiddo down and discover she has a 103.6 fever. Onward we went to the pediatric urgent-care doctor. This poor baby, who had just gotten shots not a week before, flipped right out when she saw nurses in scrubs with rubber gloves on. Like, full-body-tremor terror. My heart broke over it. After the kiddo had to get her throat swabbed to check for strep, I rocked her in a chair and sang over her, while my wife was calling her sister (a nurse) about next steps. (There’s something special about singing hymns over your child, as they settle down after a good cry.)

The good news: we came home and gave the baby some OTC meds to break the fever, and she was right as rain. (She’s been a little iffy over the last day or so, unfortunately.) Her parents, on the other hand… Between a possible virus we got from the kiddo, and the roller coaster weather we’re having in our part of the country, my poor allergies didn’t stand a chance. I missed church on Sunday and will miss our mid-week meeting with our Care Group. (Work progresses unabated, unfortunately, so I’m just keeping to myself at work!)

My current status: feeling like hot garbage, thanks very much. But God is good, so we press on, yes? That said, I would appreciate your prayers for a quick recovery. Thanks.

Now, onto the hail of bullets!

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  • I read this Bloomberg article the other day and immediately went on a Twitter rant (now deleted). The idea here is that allowing the government to hold more of your money for a year before giving it back to you at no interest is a “good” thing–at least that’s the spin. And that’s exactly what it is: spin. Like him or hate him, you have to acknowledge that the current administration lowered taxes (and NOT just for the rich, no matter what the hype-train tries to tell you), which means less is withheld from people’s checks because they are paying less in taxes. This isn’t a bad thing, no matter what some presidential hopeful says about it. But the Bloomberg piece contains a pretty insulting assumption: many Americans, particularly lower-income Americans, must rely on Daddy Government to hold their piggy bank because they can’t control themselves enough to save on their own. Talk about the bigotry of lowered expectations.
  • So let’s change gears and think on something fun: Baseball is coming! Full squads are practicing, and spring baseball is on its way! Go Cubs! (And if you don’t like baseball, I have five words for you.)
  • I’m just starting Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s follow-up book to Extreme Ownership, called The Dichotomy of Leadership. Also on the nightstand is Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile. Waiting for me at the library (very excited about this one) is Cal Newport’s brand-new book Digital Minimalism. Hopefully all of these will spark some great thoughts (and posts!)
  • Still reading short stories, still making notes. One of these days I’m going to bust out with a bunch of #52Stories posts, just you wait.
  • Latest musical find: This one-hour symphonic medley of music from the smash-hit indie computer game Undertale. While the chip-tune version of the soundtrack got on my nerves just a bit, I *love* this.
  • If you’re a Christian, I would ask you to pray for churches in the Southern Baptist denomination. Lots going on this month. Lots to think through and do. Pray for wisdom, grace, fidelity to God’s Word, and the courage to act with integrity and honor. I’m trying to take in as much information as I can, so that I can serve our church by making sure we have policies and processes in place to protect our kids.

That’s all I have this week, gang. Thanks for reading and thanks for your patience. I know many of you are subscribed because you like certain types of content, and these kinds of TIWIARN posts aren’t that. Nevertheless, I appreciate that you read, and I hope you continue to do so. Have a great week.

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Your Turn: What’s your favorite restaurant to take your significant other (or closest friends) for a birthday or celebration? Post it in the comments below. (I may need ideas for my next date night!)

Midweek Odds and Ends (2/13/2019)

black business computer desk
Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com

Happy Wednesday, friends! What can I say, I can’t bear to stay away too long. 

I don’t have anything specific prepared for today, so I figured I’d provide a little “This is Where I Am Right Now (TIWIARN)”-style update.  Brace yourself for the hail of bullets!

  • My current season of work is uniquely challenging. There have been times when the vibe around the office has been pretty light, pretty loose. The current atmosphere is…decidedly not that. Nevertheless, we persevere. I’ve been reading Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin and have had opportunity to put their personal discipline and leadership principles into practice (thinks like “taking ownership,” “prioritize-and-execute,” and “simplify”). And if that sounds like cubicle-jargon…well, whatever, man. It’s useful to me. All this to say, work has been a beast, and my lunchbreaks have become times to shut off my brain for a bit (usually watching Youtube or reading fiction). The downstream effect of that is that I’m not writing as many posts during that mid-day break. Sorry.
  • Man, I am LOVING this #52Stories project. I’ve got notes on 5 or 6 stories that I’m going to turn into posts soonish, but just the actual reading has been a joy. Plus, as I had hoped, it’s getting my brain clicking on some short-form ideas of my own. At some point (the procrastinator said), I’ll share the fruit of that brainstorming with you. But for now, just know: this project was a great idea. (Though not an *original* idea; check out Jay’s yearly “Deal Me In” Challenge! Dude has been killing it for YEARS!)
  • Interesting and providential confluence of events: the Houston Chronicle’s heartbreaking series on sexual abuse and cover-up inside Southern Baptist churches, coming just one month after I become an elder in my Southern Baptist church. Needless to say, I see addressing this issue as a serious and urgent responsibility. While I’m not aware of any concerns in our church, I’m also not naive enough to think something awful *couldn’t* happen. We have plans and policies in place to vet our children and youth workers, but we can always do more. If you know of any good resources for churches who want to do more to prevent abuse, drop it in the comments or shoot me a message in one of my other feeds. I’m happy to read and learn so I can serve my church family well.
  • Married life is great. We’re coming up on five years in June, which itself is amazing to me–it seems so much shorter, and yet longer (in a really good way). It’s becoming harder and harder to remember daily life before marrying H. She’s so much a part of my day to day, I couldn’t imagine life without her. She has my heart.
  • Not only that, but our little baby isn’t so little anymore. She’s 18 months old, talkative, fearless (climbs on EVERYTHING!), and a sweet kid. She’s also getting a head start into the “terrible twos.” We need prayer, y’all. Kidding aside, this little girl–ugh. She’s my delight.
  • I will try to post something on Friday, but realistically, my next post may be Monday. Lots going on. Thanks for hanging with me.

Quick round-up of my “currently’s”:

  • Currently watching: Life Below Zero on Netflix — a BBC docuseries about people who live near or above the Arctic circle in Alaska. FASCINATING program about what it takes to live in such an unforgiving environment. The language is often harsh, and the footage itself can be unflinching when it comes to hunting/trapping for subsistence and survival. My wife discovered this one, and I started watching it with her pretty early on. This is the only TV show I’m watching these days. I lost interest in what’s currently on network TV–which is probably for the best, to be honest.
  • Currently Listening: My favorite Pandora channel lately is “Coffee Shop Covers” because I am a SUCKER for good covers. My favorite track on there right now is “Wish You Were Here” by the Milk Carton Kids. At work, if I’m not listening to podcasts, I’ll listen to video game soundtracks as background music–today’s selection was Assassin’s Creed, I think, but SimCity is my usual go-to.
  • Currently Reading: Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin; The Gospel and Personal Evangelism by Mark Dever; and a bunch of short stories!
  • “Currently” Playing: When I have a little bit of extra time once in a while, I fire up my SNES Classic. I’m about halfway through Super Metroid and a few hours into The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (my favorite video game of all time, I think). “Extra time,” however, is becoming more and more scarce.
  • Currently Thinking: Oh yeah! I have coffee brewed. See y’all later!

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What’s going on with you? Anything cool happening that you’d like to share? Drop it in the comments below!

 

#FridayFive: Five Books I Finished in January (2/8/2019)

Happy Friday, y’all! I’m back with five books that I finished reading (or listening to) in January. Hope you find something you might want to check out soon!

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Somewhere A Band is Playing, by Ray Bradbury

I’ve already written about this a bit. Technically, this was one of 2 novellas by Bradbury, published under the title Now and Forever (along with “Leviathan ’99,” a futuristic take on Moby Dick). After finishing Band, I wasn’t eager to keep reading Bradbury’s later work, so I stopped with the first novella. That said, if you like light science fiction, Somewhere a Band is Playing is a pleasant-enough diversion (though you could do better, especially with Bradbury).

The Tech-Wise Family, by Andy Crouch

This short hardcover volume by Andy Crouch is a must-buy if you have any concerns about how you and your family engage with technology. Crouch details ten commitments that he and his family seek to follow, so that they can learn to be more in control of their relationship with technology and social media. I appreciate that the author is also honest about how successful he and his family are at keeping those commitments. Using a large amount of research from the Barna Group, Crouch describes the typical family’s use of technology and helps the reader think through the potential dangers of its “easy, everywhere” promises. This is a book that I’m still thinking about, weeks after finishing it, and I encouraged my wife to read it as well, so that we can discuss how it may influence our household.

Them, by Senator Ben Sasse

In some ways, Senator Sasse’s book Them reminded me of Jonathan Leeman’s How the Nations Rage–a warning that life is more than politics and that we need connection and community to help address cultural issues as individual citizens. While Sasse is a professing Christian, what he proposes is not a theological solution as much as an ideological one: make the decision to see people who disagree with you politically as neighbors and fellow citizens, and work for their good as well. (Could you make the argument that you can’t do that well or effectively or for long without Christianity? I think so, but that’s not what he’s getting at in this book.) Sasse makes some pretty pointed observations about how our national conversation has become fragmented and fractured, and make suggestions about what we can do to try to shift course. I listened to the audiobook (read by the senator) and enjoyed it immensely. He gave me lots to think about and discuss with others. His chapter on political media and the monetization of outrage is stellar. He also suggests pulling back from overuse of technology by not only referencing Tony Reinke’s excellent book 12 Ways Your Smartphone is Changing You but also talking through Andy Crouch’s commitments from Tech-Wise Family. In other words, my favorite senator and I have a similar reading list. I wonder if he likes short stories…

All Things for Good, by Thomas Watson

This short-but-deep volume by Puritan pastor Thomas Watson is a 125-page meditation on one of the most misapplied verses in the Bible, Romans 8:28. However, in All Things for Good, Watson slowly considers each phrase (almost each word) and encourages the reader to meditate at length on God’s sovereignty and kindness. This was a rich and rewarding read, that I consumed a few paragraphs at a time before bed over several weeks. Just a page or so gave me enough to think about in the few minutes before I drifted off to sleep. As someone who struggles with nighttime anxiety, I can’t think of a better cordial (other than the Scriptures themselves) for soothing my worried heart.

Family Shepherds, by Voddie Baucham

I am reminded that there is no greater earthly role for me to take on than husband and father. Voddie Baucham’s excellent book Family Shepherds is a direct and bracing charge to men to be the spiritual leaders of their homes. In the book, Baucham looks at the man himself as a disciple, what it means to be a shepherd, the primacy of a man’s marriage in how he leads his home, how he should raise his children (with both formative and corrective discipline), and how he engages the world as a family shepherd. If you don’t know Voddie, I can’t recommend his preaching and speaking highly enough. Add this book to the list, especially if you are a Christian man who is or aspires to be a godly husband and father. In a culture that is currently debating the value and place of masculinity, it is imperative that Christian men seek to portray and exemplify Christlike leadership and care for their families, and so let their light shine.

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What have you read so far this year? Share your recommendations below in the comments!

52 Stories: 3 Stories about the Tyranny of Smart Tech

macro shot of water drops on leaf
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Today, let’s take a look at 3 science fiction stories about “smart tech” and the danger of AI that becomes a bit too independent.

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#4: “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury

I remember reading this story back in high school (more than 20 years ago!), specifically the concept of an autonomously-running house, so I decided to revisit it for this project. You can find it online here.

The Set-up

A “smart house” springs to life, in the stillness after war.

The Pay-off

My memories of this story were solely of the idea of an empty, automated house, but I had forgotten the actual reason why the house was empty. The line that most clearly explains what happens is almost a throwaway, but its simplicity and starkness caught me off-guard. This was part of Bradbury’s themed short-story collection The Martian Chronicles, which is an undeniable classic and a must-read for anyone interested in 20th century science fiction.

The Takeaways

  • While there were some limits to Bradbury’s imagination (would a robotic house still use film reels and spools of audio tape?), you have to credit him for foreseeing the popular uses of personal tech. (“Hey Alexa…”)
  • The idea of personal automation continuing to run after the demise of its owners is both tragic and a bit chilling. Plus, you factor in the contrast between an “easy, everywhere” life of household convenience and the sudden horror of atomic war, and it’s hard to see the future with quite as rosy a lens.
  • “August 2026” isn’t a story as much as a scene or vignette, a stack of photos (do anyone besides hipsters use actual film anymore?) depicting a society after its downfall. There is no plot or movement of action–just a description of slow collapse at the end of an era. If there is a message, it’s a warning against the threat of atomic war and the idea that no civilization is so advanced that it cannot still destroy itself.

#5: “Autofac” by Phillip K. Dick

My friend Leann K. on Facebook recommended this one to her feed, in light of our current cultural discussions on advancements in AI within social media. I had never read it, but I was a little familiar with the author, so I thought I’d check it out. I found it in a collection of Dick’s stories from the library, but you can find it online here. (And thanks to Leann for the link!)

The Set-up

A group of people seek to stop a factory on auto-pilot.

The Pay-off

Most PKD stories I’ve read are great ideas that never quite landed. It always seemed to me that he concocted great scenarios or set-ups, but they were better fleshed out by others. (Minority Report and The Man in the High Castle stand as evidence.) However, I have to give him credit on this one (and another story I’ll review soon): “Autofac” was a pretty effective yarn — lean, kinetic, and comes complete with that Rod-Serling-style gut-punch at the end.

The Takeaways

  • In the war of Man vs. Machine, PKD seems to argue that machines will win because they are single-minded, relentless, and unaffected by hope/disappointment. In “Autofac,” humans try to throw off the rose-petal shackles of a machine-run economy by force, by reasoning, and by subterfuge, but in the end, the machines’ innate drive toward self-perpetuation wins out.
  • I don’t know anything about PKD’s politics (and might just be scandalizing his devotees in saying this), but “Autofac” feels like a pretty effective allegory of statism’s eventual choke-hold on economic freedom. (For example, the machines say they will relent when the outside (human) forces provide the same level of  product output as theirs–yet they control all the materials for production.) Money quote: “We’re not children! We can run our own lives!” Throw in a “taxation is theft” meme and a Gadsden flag, and you’ve got a Libertarian protagonist.
  • Nanobots! How cute and absolutely terrifying! But seriously, though: PKD is writing about nanotech in 1955. Either he knows Dr. Emmett Brown, or he was WAY ahead of his time. Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman wasn’t talking about nanotechnology until 4 years later.

#6: “Digitocracy” by Andy Weir

I recently read a great piece by N.A. Turner on Medium about reading short fiction, and he mentioned how new short fiction is being written and shared on Medium, including new work from authors like Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian, one of my favorite novels from the past few years. Here is the short story by Weir that Turner mentioned.

The Set-up

A man on a mission to destroy the electronic “brain” controlling his city.

The Pay-off

…Eh. “Digitocracy” has a plot, such as it is, but again is little more than a scenario: a lone man stands against an “all-knowing” artificial intelligence, seeks to destroy it, and fails. I was looking forward to this story, based on my appreciation for the author’s longer works, but either the format didn’t give him space enough to flesh this out fully, or he didn’t have enough of a story idea to run with yet.

The Takeaways

  • I thought the idea of the city-computer-hivemind-entities taking the names of their locations (Wichita, Madrid, etc.) was fun, as was the fact that the cities discussed the events of the story after the fact as if they were a funny little anecdote.
  • I wonder if “Wichita” manipulating the events of Damak’s life to increase his “happiness” is Weir’s critique of the idea of a sovereign god. I have to admit, reading the story through my own theological lens, I couldn’t help but see Wichita’s dialogue about incorporating new events into an unfolding plan to bring happiness or satisfaction to its citizens as mimicking an “open-theism” style of Arminianism. On the other hand, Wichita’s grooming of Damak as a happy rebel could be argued as a weak critique of compatibilism. (I’m not sure Weir had any such thoughts beyond the conflict between free will and determinism, but hey, you ask a theology student to read science fiction… wait, you didn’t ask? Huh.)
  • Oh good, extended discussion about an unseen character’s same-sex relationship. Mark your social awareness bingo cards, kids!
  • The story left me a little cold. Damak was a cipher, and “Wichita” didn’t have the time or material to develop into a true menace like “HAL9000” did in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rather, it was a little too “aren’t-I-clever,” even as it started monologuing like a Bond villain. You could strain and draw an idea that Weir might think the war over control of technology has been lost, but that would be reading way more into the story that what was likely intended to be a fun little bit of scary-AI fluff. Judged on that standard, then sure.

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Agree? Disagree? Do you welcome the smart-tech overlords? Let me know in the comments!

I hate not posting.

 

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There was a time when I would go for weeks without posting anything and feel only a twinge of guilt.

These days, I feel kinda anxious when I can’t hit three posts a week.

Life has been super complicated and full and challenging and good lately. I’ll tell you about it sometime soon. In the meantime, you’ll need to bear with me.

So, in lieu of new content, a question for you, dear reader:

What’s one positive thing from your 2019 so far? Big or small, share your joy in the comments below and let us celebrate with you!

I’ll be back on Wednesday with more short-story talk and hopefully a return to regular posting!

52 Stories #3: “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

My third story in this series is “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman. (Thanks to Pedro Jorba on Facebook for the recommendation!) It’s part of Gaiman’s 2007 short story collection Fragile Things (and was apparently made into a motion picture).

The Set-up:

Two teenage boys crash a house-party hoping to meet some new girls and have a fun evening, but end up getting much more than they bargained for.

The Pay-off:

Wow, there’s a lot going on in this story. It begins as an everyday “boys being foolish on a weekend” tale and then slowly morphs into something else entirely. The protagonist’s matter-of-fact naivete is both funny and sad, as the reader picks up on what’s going on long before he does. In the end, this story is haunting, strange, and incredibly effective.

The Lessons:

  • This is a story that pays to read at least twice. Gaiman seeds the story with clues about the twist from the very start. When you begin to pick up on the references throughout, you have to shake your head at the author’s cheekiness.
  • What makes this story so effective is that Gaiman uses the science-fiction genre to explore the inscrutability of females to young men of a certain age and maturity level. The cliches about “Mars and Venus” are true in some sense when it comes to teenage boys who are both confused and intrigued by the fairer sex. Strip away the fantastic elements, and this is still a story about feminine mystique and masculine mistakes.
  • The title points to the recurring theme of talking without listening. The narrator’s inattention adds to the slow-burn reveal of the plot twist. Even when it seems almost incredible that he isn’t picking these clues up, I’m reminded again of how foolish boys are in high school. (And while I *hope* I wasn’t that clueless, I can’t be too sure.)
  • Although this collection of stories was published in 2007, you could probably draw some takeaways regarding the current #MeToo conversation, as well as discussions of masculinity and respect. But I’ll leave that to more skilled analysts.
  • I was just thumped by the sentence, “I bet an angry universe would look at you with eyes like that.” Well done, Mr. Gaiman. Wow.
  • The ending, and the implications of the ending, are well-served by what is left unsaid. I’ll admit, while I have an idea of what is implied by Vic’s comments, I’m not 100% sure. Truth be told, I’m happy to keep it that way, because what I’m imagining is bad enough.
  • Here’s the thing, though: not every story should be made into a movie. After reading this one a few times, I’m convinced that any movie treatment of this short story would likely destroy what makes it effective by adding anything to it. And though I have not seen the 2017 film adaptation, seeing descriptions of it that include the words “romantic comedy” and watching just the first 30 seconds of the trailer is enough to prove me 100% right. What a bizarre and lousy transformation it seems to have had.

In the end, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is a surprising and slightly-unnerving story about the dangers of not listening. If you’re looking for a quick read that’s creepy and strange, it’s worth a look.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #2: “Somewhere A Band is Playing” by Ray Bradbury

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

My second selection for #52Stories is Somewhere A Band is Playing by one of my favorite novelists from high school, Ray Bradbury. (Thanks to @ByronsShade on Twitter for the recommendation!) This 2008 story is technically a novella (clocking in at 115 wide-spaced paperback pages!), but I hadn’t read this one before, so I decided to fudge my own rules a bit to count it.

The Set-up:

A man on a mission jumps off a moving train at what appears to be an abandoned desert train station, in search of an idyllic community with a strange secret.

The Pay-off:

I have to admit, while I was intrigued as this one progressed, I was a bit underwhelmed by the ending. I don’t know if I was hoping for more of a supernatural/fantasy twist to the plot, or if it was actually an idea that could have worked better as a short(er) story. In the end, it felt a little padded, a little too wistful, and then it just sort of ended. I have found Bradbury’s later stories to be quite a bit weaker than his more notable early works, and this story just confirmed that opinion.

The Lessons:

I enjoyed Bradbury’s use of dialogue–particularly the banter between the protagonist and the delivery/taxi coachman who served as his guide through the town (like Virgil in the Inferno?). Their conversations were playful, with little bits of subtext peppered throughout until the big secret was revealed.

There seemed to be plotlines and characters that were introduced and then just left off or ended. (The whole business with the newspaperman was just ended abruptly, for example. The fact that he was still alive seems like a pulled punch from Bradbury to save the reader’s feelings about his main character.) It makes one think that keeping the story leaner and more focused would better help to emphasize the big ideas you want to communicate. There’s something to be said for providing atmosphere, but with shorter pieces, it would make more sense to make the scene-setting work toward the central concept (I’m struggling to working a joke about “Checkovian gun-cases” but it’s not quite landing.)

Somewhere a Band is Playing was an interesting idea that didn’t quite work in the prolonged execution. I have seen better from Bradbury, so I know what he is capable of, and I don’t think this was reflective of that.

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Agree? Disagree? Have suggestions for my next story to explore? Let me know in the comments!