52 Stories #13: “Catch That Rabbit” by Isaac Asimov

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For my second selection today, let’s take a look at story from Asimov’s classic 1950 short-story collection I, Robot, at the recommendation of Dave Hunt over at the “GOLiverse” Facebook page.

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The Pitch

On a distant asteroid, two employees of “US Robots” try to diagnose a peculiar glitch in their mining ‘droids that results in sudden work stoppages and impromptu dancing/marching.

The Payoff

“Catch That Rabbit” was pretty good, if a bit thin. The fact that it’s part of a collection of connected short stories makes me wonder if reading it in context would add some missing heft. (Then again, maybe not.) As it stands, this one was still a good read. The resolution of the “mystery” was funny, and I enjoyed the interactions of the main characters more than the plot itself.

The Takeaways

The best thing about this story really was the dialogue. The patter between Mike and Greg reminded me of the classic comedies of the 30’s and 40’s–that quick-firing, slang-filled dialogue that established immediately how familiar and comfortable these two were with each other. You get a bit of an “Odd Couple” vibe from these two, and it was fun to see them work out the problem they faced. In other words, the dialogue felt natural, not staged for exposition. It’s a good reminder that your characters are “real people,” not just authorial mouthpieces.

There was a nice level of humor in a story set-up that could have easily turned into a “menacing robot attacks” tale. From the sarcastic comments about the company’s tolerance of mistakes to the fact that the head robot “Dave” (DV-5) has enough personality to be a third character, the overall feel is playful. Even when the engineers get themselves trapped in a cave-in, I was never concerned that they wouldn’t get out okay (though that would have been the perfect point for the plot to turn). The tone was consistent throughout, which I appreciated.

Asimov also manages to tie this piece back into the overall story collection, not only by re-using these characters (who appeared in the previous story in the book, if I recall correctly) but also by maintaining the Three Laws of Robotics as a prominent discussion point. It didn’t feel forced, either. Fears about a potential robotic uprising were easily dismissed, because these rules still apply. As I’m thinking about my own plans for an interconnected short story collection, this idea of having consistent “in-world” rules/elements is a good reminder of how these stories hang together.

On the whole, I liked “Catch That Rabbit” but I think it may suffer a little by being read out of context.

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

52 Stories #12: “–All You Zombies–” by Robert Heinlein

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This week’s selection was recommended by Webster Hunt. (I’m still not sure if Web was trolling me…) I found this story in a collection of 20th century science fiction short stories from the library. I can’t find any legit sources online, so you’re on your own.

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The Pitch

A “temporal agent” (a.k.a. time-travelling…cop or something?) goes to ridiculous lengths to recruit a new agent for his organization.

The Payoff

Folks, when I asked my social feeds for recommendations, I hoped I would get some stories that would stretch me, take me outside of my wheelhouse. …Be careful what you wish for.

Heinlein’s story is a bonkers time-travel tale that just couldn’t be bothered with resolving paradoxes or explaining much of anything. The weirdly-forced sexual references left me feeling a bit grimy. As such, I didn’t like it much at all. But hey, here’s to new experiences, right?

The Takeaways

I have to admit, there’s just not much to this story. It’s not much more than a plot-gimmick (aren’t they all?), but I’m struggling to find any resonant themes or ideas. Maybe it’s just meant to be a bit of fluff to amuse and entertain. If you enjoy Heinlein’s writing, and you just want a silly yarn to pass the time, this might suit you.

The story seems like one giant time-travel paradox (though I guess that point is arguable), with some painfully-on-the-nose imagery and allusions and a dose of unnecessary sexual references. It seems like Heinlein got the hook for the story and didn’t really bother creating a world around it or even justifying it. I almost wonder if he was relying too much on the shocking and lurid elements of some of the reveals. (Ironically, what may have shocked or surprised 50 years ago now seems almost ordinary or boring.)

Who knows? Maybe I’m a big doofus and missed the gold that’s here. If you’ve read the story and liked it, let me know why in the comments. I’m willing to keep an open mind.

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

52 Stories #10-11: Two Stories About Consulting Detectives.

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This week, I’m delighted to discuss two stories about the most famous consulting detective in literature: Sherlock Holmes. The first is a tale by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called “The Red-Headed League.” The second is another unexpected delight from Neil Gaiman, titled “A Study in Emerald” (recommended by Pedro Jorba on the GOLiverse Facebook page). So, can I deduce some interesting insights from these stories? Elementary, dear reader!

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“The Red-Headed League” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Pitch

Sherlock Holmes is hired to find out why his client was paid to copy pages out of the encyclopedia. Naturally, the game’s afoot.

The Pay-off

This is a pretty standard Sherlock Holmes story–a curious case, a few interesting details, and a brilliant Sherlock deduction that’s almost too clever by half. I enjoyed it, but it doesn’t stick to the ribs. I’ll try not to give too many details, in case you haven’t read it before.

The Takeaways

I wonder if I’m a bit too familiar with the Sherlock formula, because as soon as one minor character was introduced, I knew something was up. I’ve read just enough Doyle to know to look for minor details and unusual characters. (Though I’ll admit, I totally passed over one key detail.) When it came down to it, I had basically figured out the broad strokes before the story’s climax. I wonder if this is more due to the fact that Doyle is essentially the gold standard for the genre, so his techniques have moved from innovative to perhaps a little cliched. Readers familiar with the formula know what to watch for, in other words. (Think of it as the detective-fiction version of the “Shyamalan Problem.”)

I feel cheeky to even mention it, but it almost feels like ACD makes Watson a little too dense in order to make Holmes look even more brilliant by contrast. I’ve always understood that Watson was no fool, and I think ACD sometimes does the character a bit of a disservice in order to make his hero shine. That said, oftentimes the resolution of a case depends on Sherlock’s encyclopedic knowledge of arcane details (very likely unknown to the reader) and his keen observation of details we must be told rather than shown. Frankly, it takes away some of the fun if there’s almost no way we could have worked out the solution ourselves. In those instances, the climax is basically “Oooh, look at the big brain on Sherlock.”

That said, if you haven’t read “The Red-Headed League,” it’s worth your ten minutes or so. It’s not a bad little tale, even if it’s not one of ACD’s best. Here are a few favorite quotes from the story:

  • When Sherlock walks a civilian through his deductive process and they respond that it now seems almost obvious, Sherlock quips, “I begin to think I make a mistake in explaining.”
  • “As a rule, the more bizarre a thing is, the less mysterious it proves to be. It’s your commonplace, featureless crimes that are really puzzling.”
  • And the source of one of my favorite Sherlockisms: “[German music] is introspective and I want to introspect.”

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“A Study in Emerald” by Neil Gaiman

The Pitch

The consulting detective and his military veteran sidekick are called in on a grisly murder scene involving a member of the royal family. Then things get…weird.

The Payoff

Oh my goodness, y’all. I was ABSOLUTELY DELIGHTED by this story. Gaiman turns the formula (and the reader’s expectation) on its head, as he spins this variation on Doyle’s classic “A Study In Scarlet,” filtered through the unearthly prism of H.P. Lovecraft’s paranormal horrors. This story is another entry in Gaiman’s collection Fragile Things, and I cannot encourage you heartily enough to read it. It’s my favorite #52Stories read so far, and will no doubt be in the running for top-five at the end of the project. If you have any appreciation for Sherlock Holmes, file this under “Must Read.”

The Takeaways

I’m loath to divulge much if any detail, so I’m going to go ahead and put up a SPOILER WARNING right here. I want so badly to talk about it, but I would hate to ruin the fun for you, reader.

I mean it: If you haven’t read the story yet, bookmark this page, go read it, and come back. I’m serious, do it. You really do want to read this story with no advance details other than what I’ve given so far.

We all caught up, class? Okay, good. Onto the bullets!

  • The last time we looked at a Gaiman story, I mentioned that the normal-seeming story veered suddenly off the rails with dialogue and details that made me do an actual double-take. This was no different: specifically, when the sleuth asked our narrator, “Was it the number of limbs?” Um, I’m sorry, WHAT?
  • I adore the “advertisements” between each section, which feature subtle allusions to other horror icons (though I had to do an internet search for one Anglo-centric reference in particular). It’s the type of added detail that might feel a little strange and disconnected to readers who aren’t familiar with classic literary horror, but for geeks like me, the references made me actually giggle.
  • “They call her Gloriana because she is glorious. They call her Victoria, because she was victorious in her conquest of us hundreds of years ago, and because her name cannot be spoken by human tongue.” Paraphrased from memory, but still my favorite line from the story. Making Queen Victoria one of the Great Old Ones was inspired.
  • Gaiman’s off-handed reveals of the religious and political realities of the story are stunning. What an effective way to leverage the reader’s assumptions in order to surprise.
  • There is so much deep Sherlock lore in this story. I’m not fully conversant in the Holmes cases, but I knew enough to catch the more obvious Easter eggs. I also freely admit that I looked up a few names or phrases that seemed to have meaning behind them. Gaiman employed a deep familiarity and obvious love and care for the source material when he constructed this gem.
  • THAT ENDING! I’m still “shook” by the final reveal, y’all. Remember the last scene with Paul Giamatti’s character at the end of The Illusionist? The sequence in the train station, mixing flashbacks, Edward Norton’s voiceover saying “Everything you have seen is an illusion,” and the shots of Giamatti, camera spinning around him as his middle-distance concentrated stare breaks into a smile of understanding and appreciation. He laughs once and claps his hands as the pieces fall into place. THIS, this EXACTLY, is how I felt when I read the last few paragraphs of “A Study in Emerald.” When Gaiman pulls off the final trick, revealing the identity of the murderers, I was gobsmacked. What a triumph. What a masterpiece of sleight-of-hand.

I loved it. I just loved it. AAAAHHH. So much fun.

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

 

 

 

 

52 Stories #9: “The Baptism” by Ron Rash

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This week, let’s take a step back from sci-fi (I promise, not *every* story I read will be sci-fi… just, ya know, most of them) and talk about something written in the last few years. I picked up a copy of The Best American Short Stories 2018, edited by Roxane Gay, and flipped through it to find something different to read. Truth be told, some of the stories in that collection weren’t really my bag. Several of them, in fact. But the title of today’s story caught my eye (understandable, being a Baptist myself). As it happens, “The Baptism” is a western, so no matter how I try to avoid genre fiction, I can’t stay away!

I looked briefly and couldn’t find a (legal) link for you to read the story online, but you can find the collection at your local library, if you’re interested.

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The Pitch

A Protestant minister in a small prairie town must decide if he can baptize a very wicked man in order to protect the man’s fiancee from harm.

The Payoff

Rash’s story challenged me to put myself in the position of the minister and answer the question: To what extent can I hold to fidelity in doctrine or practice, if doing so brings direct harm to another? (This question is more deeply and brutally examined in Shusaku Endo’s powerful novel, Silence.) Reverend Yates is challenged by Gunter’s open malice and arrogance, wrestling with his role as a protector of the flock. In the end, the plot resolution was a bit too clean, although the final paragraph or two leaves the reader with some lingering questions.

The Takeaways

(Spoilers ahead, FYI.)

  • Rash might be charged with pulling his punch a bit, as he uses a “Deus ex Remington” to remove Reverend Yates from his impossible choice. By doing so, he left the question of Yates’ decision open and difficult to answer, given how little the reader knows about the preacher.
  • That said, I half-expected Yates to push Gunter under the frozen water during the baptism and then hold him there until he drowns, allowing his body to float away under the ice. No doubt, the townsfolk present who were already alarmed at the possibility of Gunter and Pearl’s marriage would all agree it was an accident and walk away (much as they did in the actual resolution of the story). Part of me would have preferred that ending–something more decisive. Ambivalent protagonists can be frustrating. (Yes, yes, Hamlet, yada yada yada.)
  • Yates’ uncertainty about what to do made me uneasy, especially when he was making counter-arguments to the town elders. Rash effectively muddies the waters (pun intended) so that the reader isn’t sure what to expect when morning comes.
  • FWIW, I can understand wrestling with the hope that Gunter *could* change his ways, but obviously I disagreed with the minister’s suggestion that the waters of baptism could have any spiritual effect on an avowed sinner. (I can’t remember what denomination Yates is supposed to be a part of, but it’s not Southern Baptist!)
  • In the end, Reverend Yates seems to decide to accept the burden of guilt for his actions–whether that’s the guilt of providing apparent absolution to an unrepentant abuser and possible murderer, or allowing the man to destroy himself without a word of warning.
  • The story has as “happy” of an ending as it can, but even then, it comes at the cost of a dead man in a river. Depending on the story you’re writing, sometimes there’s no other way for justice to be done.

This was an interesting tale. Nothing that will stick with me for years, but Rash presents an interesting and complex situation, in terms of both justice and faith.

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

52 Stories #8: “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick

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This week, I wanted to talk about another classic tale from legendary sci-fi writer Phillip K. Dick. Thanks to my long-time friend Trevor Taylor for the recommendation of a PKD story!

I read this story in a PKD collection I checked out digitally from the library. You can find it here.

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The Set-Up

Douglas Quail dreams of having adventures on Mars and pays Rekal, Incorporated to convince him he’s been there.

The Pay-off

“He awoke…and wanted Mars.”

I’ve never seen Total Recall (either version), the famous film adaptation of this material. Going into this story, I had heard that it involved memory manipulation, Mars, and a woman with…unusual physiology. (That last one is apparently just in the first film version.) Nevertheless, the source material had a reputation as being one of PKD’s finest short stories, and it did not disappoint. I appreciated the details, the escalation, and the way the story resolves, though it was just oblique enough that I had to read the last few paragraphs again to make sure I understood what he was implying.

The Takeaways

Now, the hail of spoilery Martian bullets–and if you aren’t satisfied, we’ll refund half of your fee (that’s more than fair, Mr. Quail):

  • Let’s jump right to the big twists: first, PKD reveals that Douglas Quail actually *was* a secret Interplan agent, and then doubles-down by revealing that he is in fact the most important person alive, on a cosmic level. That’s…bold. One thing you have to appreciate about PKD, he just GOES FOR IT. No half-measures.
  • That said, there’s an almost quaint groundedness to his settings, as if he can’t quite fully imagine the great leaps of technology affecting every part of life. Example: This is a world of space travel and memory wipes, of 3-D hologram phones and cranial implants, but they still use “microtape phone books” and typewriters with carbon paper. Just a reminder, kids: you actually do live in The Future, with your email and Google and whatnot.
  • Buried in this pretty straight-forward science-fiction story is an interesting peek into the life of someone who just needs to feel important, as well as a brief consideration of the nature of memory and experience. Is having the memory of an experience a suitable substitute for literally experiencing it? You could draw a jagged line from Rekal’s pictures-and-props approach to the fragmented documentation of life we maintain on our social media feeds. “I don’t remember much about the concert, but I got some great footage on my iPhone…” Is it really that different? As Morpheus would say, “…Hm.”
  • Some of PKD’s grammatical construction got under my skin–to the point where I jotted it down. Example: “You remember,” the policeman said, “your trip…” There is no reason to break up that phrase, Phil. None. Stop it. Stop it now.
  • Was Kirsten an Interplan operative, in place to keep an eye on Douglas? It’s not explicit, but PKD implies yes, and that Douglas knew this all along, at least subconsciously. It reminded me for some reason of The Truman Show. (By the way, would you like some of this delicious Mococoa Drink?)

In a word, I liked the story–it was a tidy and effective sci-fi story that gives you just enough to be satisfying while leaving several questions unanswered. It doesn’t have any emotional resonance, but it’s well constructed and fun. You should read it.

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

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

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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!

52 Stories: 3 Stories about the Tyranny of Smart Tech

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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!

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

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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

photography of railway
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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!

52 Stories: #1 — “Gifts of the Magi” by O. Henry

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

The first entry in my #52Stories journal is a classic–“Gifts of the Magi” by William Sidney Porter, published under the pen-name “O. Henry.” (I always thought the title was “The Gift of the Magi,” but per the O. Henry collection I read last night [and Wikipedia], it’s was actually plural when published originally in 1905.)

I read this story in a collection printed in 1979, but you can read it for yourself here

Unrelated Sidenote: The introduction to the 1979 collection I was reading mentions O. Henry’s “problematic” racial references in his writings, and how later editors tried to clean up some of his antiquated and offensive stereotypes. Unfortunately, being a child of the Reconstruction, Mr. Porter carried a lot of mental baggage that later generations of readers would rightly find offensive. I have nothing to add; I just thought that was an interesting bit of trivia.

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The Set-up:

A housewife resorts to somewhat desperate measures to buy her husband a gift on Christmas Eve; soon she realizes that he has done the same.

The Pay-off:

The plot twist of this story is almost universally known, but I’ll still try to avoid spoiling it, just in case. However, knowing the ending didn’t ruin my enjoyment of this surprisingly short story. I had read it years ago, so it was fun to come back and appreciate it anew. It’s literary cotton candy–it’s sweet and a bit cloying, but there’s not enough substance there to be offensive or heavy. By the same token, it’s not going to “stick to your ribs,” either. It’s just…sweet.

The story’s final lines sum it up perfectly: this was a story of “two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house… They are the Magi.”

If you haven’t read it recently, I’d encourage you to take a few minutes, click the link above, and revisit this sweet literary trifle.

The Lessons:

  • OH’s most famous short story is a great example of how to get a lot of mileage out of a minimal number of pages. I was impressed by how economical the author (henceforth, “OH”) was in setting the scene and describing this couple and their financial situation in just a few paragraphs.
  • The story feels lived-in; the way the author capitalizes certain words (The Combs, The Watch) clues you in that this couple has a personal history that OH isn’t going to flesh out fully. These tokens become symbolic of that fuller life. He leaves just enough unsaid and unexplained that you’re curious about some of the details.
  • OH’s omniscient narration is effective in giving you a sense of who Della is and how she thinks. Jim, on the other hand, is idealized–seen almost entirely through Della’s adoring gaze; he appears in the last page or so and is only given a few lines of dialogue in the story, so we don’t really know much about his character other than through his (unseen) prior actions and his stunned response to Della’s decisions. Honestly, I almost wanted a little more from Jim by the end–he seems a little too perfect–but one wonders if what OH gives us is just enough.
  • OH’s narration overall is a bit heavy-handed in guiding the reader’s emotions, but that’s a style preference, not a problem. That era of American literature has more than a few examples of such narrative influence, I guess.
  • Signs I’m Fully Middle-Aged: Reading the story of the sacrifices this couple in their early 20’s made for each other, I couldn’t help but think, “That’s sweet and all, but you two are in a tight spot financially; wouldn’t it be wiser to buy a less ostentatious gift and save the money, just in case? We’re talking about half-month’s wages here!” Younger-me would be so disappointed.
  • The opening sentence is poetic in its simplicity: “One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all.” Reminded me instantly of “Call me Ishmael” or “Marley was dead”–an opening that sets the tone of the story effectively in just a few words.

The real strength of “Gifts of the Magi” is that it’s all about that moment when Jim comes home; OH doesn’t need to pad the front half of the story with a lot of detail or distraction. His goal is to get to the “twist,” and he does so as directly as he can, with straightforward narration and the barest skeleton of a plot. That said, nothing felt missing; it was just enough to feel true. And that’s why we remember it, more than 110 years after it was first published.

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