52 Stories #18: “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut

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Next up on “#52Stories Sprint Week” is Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 story, “Harrison Bergeron,” recommended by friend-of-the-blog Matthew Tuck! Thanks for suggesting this one, buddy!

What did I think about Vonnegut’s story? Let’s get into it!

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The Pitch

In a society where fairness is enforced, the exceptional are considered a threat to order and happiness.

The Payoff

Oh man, this one was fun. What a great concept. Vonnegut’s subversive wit shines here as he gives a glimpse of a society gone mad with equity. The focus of the story isn’t so much on plot as on fleshing out the brilliant concept–how a government might enforce “equality” by driving everyone toward a common middle. It’s a bit ironic that Vonnegut, who was personally sympathetic to the ideas of socialism as a way of benefiting the common man, describes a kind of ideologically and characteristically socialist state. At any rate, this story is a hoot. Definitely find it and check it out.

The Takeaways

Let’s not waste any time. On to the hail of spoiler-filled bullets, which by government mandate will not be any longer or more wordy than any other post’s bullets:

  • First line: “The year was 2081, and everyone was finally equal.” From the outset, Vonnegut’s sardonic voice sets up the reader for what’s in store.
  • [AH! I’m having a hard time organizing my thoughts. I want to talk about everything at once! I apologize for repetition and stream-of-consciousness points. Blame it on these infernal headphones.]
  • The story describes an equality-by-government-fiat, held in place by multiple constitutional amendments and by the iron will of the Handicapper-General of the United States, Diana Moon Glampers. Over the course of the story (which is not only short but fast-paced in its humor and movement), Vonnegut describes the pursuit of “equality” as the intentional flattening of excellence or personal exceptionalism. Success, brilliance, and genius are privileges (if you’ll forgive the modern label) for which the gifted should feel shame (e.g. a ballerina apologizing for having a beautiful voice and going on to speak with an exaggerated squawk) and be willing to be penalized. The goal in this society is to be as close to average as possible, so as not to offend others who are less gifted than you. I don’t know about you, but this seems a bit…relevant, almost 60 years later.
  • George and Hazel Bergeron are sitting in their living room, distracted and dazed by television. This seems like a pretty clear commentary on media-obsessed culture, but that could just be a surface level reading since it’s such low-hanging fruit. Their passivity in the light of the screen is demonstrated when they barely register the exciting and tragic events that unfold before their eyes. Nevertheless, Vonnegut takes that trope up a notch by noting Hazel’s sudden bursts of tears–as if awareness and understanding are trying to fight through the fog. Very likely, her tears at the beginning are in part for their son, who was stolen away by the government for being too gifted.
  • The satire of the “handicaps” (a word always used to describe the arbitrary encumbrances placed on people, never actual disabilities) takes on an absurd degree. George’s noise-headphones to prevent extended deep thought, the masks and weights worn by the dancers, the burdens placed on Harrison by the state, all demonstrate how far well-intentioned people will go in the name of equality. This takes a more ridiculous turn when men with actual speech impediments are shown to be the newscasters of this society. Hazel’s response to a frustrated news anchor who can barely get words out perfectly encapsulates this thinking: “That’s all right–he tried. That’s the big thing. He tried the best he could with what God gave him. He should get a nice raise for trying so hard.” This is “everyone-gets-a-ribbon” thinking at its fullest.
  • By contrast, George refers to the age when people competed with each other all the time as “the dark ages.” People are afraid of being better than anyone else, of succeeding if others fail.
  • The namesake of the story is George and Hazel’s son, Harrison. Though he’s said to be only 14 years old, he’s described as an Adonis. The reader seems to be encouraged to visualize him as older, more powerful and self-possessed, a seven-foot-tall superman who breaks free of his bonds and declares himself to be the Emperor on live television before he and a beautiful ballerina he proclaims will be his queen are shot and killed, live on air, by a shotgun-wielding Handicapper-General.
  • To be honest, the only real critique I have for this story is that when Harrison himself shows up, he’s just a little too much. He’s described as an almost epic figure, which makes his original stated age ridiculous. His aggrandized statements are completely silly (although that, to be fair, is age-appropriate), and the description of the dance became too fanciful for my taste. I was all-in for the biting social satire, but the gravity-defying ballet dancing took me out of the moment.
  • In the end, Harrison is dead, the TV broadcast is interrupted, and George and Hazel miss the whole thing. George was distracted and Hazel was dazed, and they exchange a tragic bit of dialogue. George asks why Hazel has tears in her eyes, and she says she doesn’t know–perhaps there was something sad on the television before the program stopped. “Forget sad things.” “I always do.” “That’s my girl.”
  • One wonders if a society full of Hazel’s and George’s is destined to be ruled by a bureaucracy that demands an average populace. If a people can be lulled into complacency, and discouraged from striving for excellence, they would be pretty docile in the right pair of strong hands.

This one was a delight to read. And as an added bonus, I hear there is a short film adaptation that was made recently. I’m planning on seeking that out. I’ll let you know what I find!

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

 

52 Stories #17: “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

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Happy #52Stories “Sprint Week”! (One day late, sorry–yesterday was a “day off” spent running household errands!)

We’re kicking things off with a classic from 1948–Shirley Jackson’s lighthearted and whimsical tale of ritual small-town murder.

What did I think? Let’s find out! (Does everyone have their names in the box? Good.)

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The Pitch

Townsfolk gather to find out who “wins” the yearly drawing.

The Payoff

Stories like this are tricky, because the twist is so well-known that it’s hard to approach it with fresh eyes. Even not having read the story until now (surprising, since it’s often included in high-school curricula), I was still well aware of the broad strokes of the plot, such as it is. It took a second reading to pick up on some of the subtleties and allusions Jackson works into the piece. Nevertheless, it’s a quick story that’s worth your time, so if you haven’t read this story, and somehow don’t know about the ending, definitely seek it out and enjoy.

The Takeaways

If there are any sweet souls unfamiliar with the story, I’ll go ahead and give a SPOILER WARNING from this point forward. Go read the story and then come back.

On to the barrage of bullets, like so many scattered stones!

  • Opening line: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full summer day.” Definitely sounds different the *second* time you read the story.
  • Jackson makes a few brief allusions to the history of the Lottery–the transition of pieces of bark to strips of paper, the practice of chants or salutes, the battered old box handed down from generation to generation. There are references that those foolish young folks who want to end the Lottery would likely prefer going back to “living in caves.” In just a few sentences here and there, Jackson gives the reader a sense that this village (the location of which is merely described as south of “the northern village”) has been doing this for a long time, and that the progress of the Lottery mirrors the advancement or progress of “civilization,” such as it is in this context.
  • If you’re familiar with the Old Testament, you likely would pick up on the similarities to the judgment against Achan: the community is gathered, the clan is chosen, and then the guilty party is singled out, taken away, and stoned by the community. I don’t know enough about the author to discern if this story is meant to be on some level a critique of what seems like arbitrary or cruel mob violence framed as divine judgment in the Biblical version.
  • “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” The first time I read the story, I skimmed right over this line, but on second look, I realized that this is the “why” that seems shockingly absent in the rest of the story. The Lottery isn’t just a random practice of communal violence–it’s a ritual to secure a good harvest. Though the story is set in the twentieth-century American heartland, it could have easily been any other culture in millennia past. Perhaps this is a statement about the nature of human superstition being the same across time and space.
  • There is a certain sad irony that Tessie Hutchinson, late to the party, “forgetting what day it was” (perhaps as an indication of her hesitation to participate), ends up being the “winner.” Or the fact that Old Man Werner, who has defied the odds for 77 long years, is the most adamant supporter of the Lottery, and bemoans how folks have “changed” and are sometimes less enthusiastic than he’d like. One wonders how he would have reacted if he was the one to draw the black mark.
  • I first wondered if this story, published just 3 years after the end of the second World War, is meant to be a subtle examination of anti-Communist anxieties and the growing concern about a changing world. However, I think my earlier thought on the universality of human superstition and fear is more on the mark (no pun intended). Jackson isn’t writing about a mob trying to ferret out a subversive or dangerous element. It’s a story about tradition: a tradition that too many are afraid to question, even if year after year, on a bright and sunny summer day, they must put to death one of their own.  Sometimes, the darkness of men’s hearts is monster enough.

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

A #52Stories Update.

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Happy Friday, friends!

So you may have noticed that my initial plan of reading and reviewing a short story every week hasn’t quite panned out. Point of fact, this is the end of Week 32 of calendar year 2019, and I’m only 16 stories in!

Well, your faithful-if-inconsistent correspondent is going to put himself on the spot by declaring next week “#52Stories Sprint Week“!

Starting Monday, expect to see a flurry of posts reviewing and discussing short stories from my #52Stories list, including such notables as Asimov, Vonnegut, Tolkien, Bradbury, Jackson, Hemingway, and more!

I don’t think I’ll be able to get caught all the way up to Story #33 in my list by the end of next week, but I’m gonna make a good run at it.

If this project isn’t really your bag, that’s fine–just bear with me while I catch up over the next few weeks, and then we can settle into our normal (inconsistent) blogging on other subjects after that. Maybe sign up for email updates, so you can just check in when a post interests you? That link is on the right or below, depending on your browser configuration.

That’s it for now. See you next week, friends, and happy reading!

 

52 Stories #16: “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler

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Happy Thursday, readers! I’m (finally) back with another #52Stories selection, this time from sci-fi legend Octavia Butler. This recommendation comes from a friend named Jessica. I’ve never read Butler before, though I have heard her name many times in discussions of great modern sci-fi. This selection comes from a collection called Bloodchild and Other Stories, first published in 1995.

So, does this story live up to the hype? Let’s find out!

The Pitch

On a far-off world, a teenage human refugee faces a terrible but inescapable choice in order to protect his family.

The Pay-off

Ugh. This story.

As I told the friend who recommended it, this one left me shook. Frankly, it felt creepy, especially on a second reading. The idea of humans adrift on an alien world having to be physically “colonized” (think “Alien” but worse) by an insect-like alien race is uncomfortable at best, but adding the relationship/power dynamics and the sexual subtext of egg implantation makes it even more unnerving.

The story is well-written, there’s absolutely no doubt about that. Butler knows what she’s doing. But I wouldn’t recommend this to most readers, and to those who are still interested, I would definitely advise bracing yourself before you dive into this one. Yowsa.

The Takeaways

As this project continues, I’ve been trying to refine my approach, so I’m not just telling you what I liked or didn’t like, but what lessons I’m learning as a writer examining other writers’ work. (If you are finding this helpful, let me know! If you have suggestions for how to do this better, let me know that as well!) Despite my discomfort as a reader, I found some interesting technical elements here.

On to the creepy-crawly bullets!

  • Butler aptly demonstrates the aliens’ language and grammatical structure in her use of names and terms. I was impressed by how well she made it make sense in such a short time. The otherworldy names and terms maintained a linguistic logic, so I was able to make notes of how their naming conventions functioned. That was really well done.
  • The setting was both foreign and yet familiar, a “human” environment set on an alien world, in which any type of story could have been told if it weren’t for the presence of the aliens. This helps the reader visualize the locations well. I had to remind myself that this wasn’t Earth.
  • I’ve become of connoisseur of first lines in short stories. This one stings: “My last night of childhood began with a visit home.” Oof.
  • Butler describes the appearance of the Tlic (sentient beings similar to a snake-centipede hybrid) slowly, over the course of the story. You get “glimpses” as it were, but she doesn’t front-load the story with this description. But the most uncomfortable detail is that the Tlic communicate with and relate to the “Terrans” (Earth-folk) telepathically. There’s a confusing and strange relationship between the Tlic and the Terrans, at times feeling like patron/protege, master/slave, owner/animal, and matriarch/family. But then it changes into something more intimate and horrifying.
  • While there are noble themes like self-sacrifice in this story, the gross sexual subtext spoils the experience for me.
  • What’s most interesting about this experience was actually reading the author’s commentary after the end of the story, in the edition I was reading. I was shocked to find out that, according to Butler, this story is NOT about slavery–even if it seems to be a slam-dunk allegory for it. Instead, she called it a “love story between 2 beings” (gross), a coming-of-age story, and a [SPOILER] pregnant-man story inspired by a real-life insect that lays its eggs in a living host animal. She said she used this story to work out her fears from learning about that last bit. She also called this a story about “paying the rent”–what we would trade for a livable space in a world that’s not our own (which belies an ideological subtext of race-based power inequity, if nothing else). This is a perfect of example of author and reader getting completely different ideas from the same text. Typically, I’m in the camp of the author’s intention being supreme, but this story could be argued as evidence to the contrary.

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

52 Stories #14-15: Two Stories about the Problem with Utopia.

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Whew! I’m a bit behind, aren’t I? Well, today we will be considering two stories about the underbelly of Utopia–“how the sausage is made” when it comes to “perfect” societies.

The first story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” was recommended to me more than 15 years ago by my friend Ben Doudt, and the second, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” was a surprising discovery of mine as I hunted for new short reads.

Obligatory spoiler warning: If you haven’t read either of these stories, skip over the “Takeaways” sections to avoid plot details.

Okay, no more chatter–let’s go!

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#14: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula LeGuin

The Pitch

The writer presents an idyllic vision of a peaceful and advanced society, and then reveals why anyone would think of leaving.

The Payoff

This isn’t a story so much as a fable or vignette (much like Bradbury’s “August 2026”). There isn’t a plot in the story proper; it’s all description and one-sided dialogue, as the narrator escorts the reader through the scene, providing commentary and clarification. In the end, when the final twist is revealed, the reader is left to question whether they would want to live in Omelas themselves–and whether they currently do.

The Takeaways

I first read this story about 15 years ago and then again this spring, and to be honest, then as now it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. The descriptions are beautiful, vivid and full of color. The reader can “see” the scene quite clearly. But it’s little more than a moving painting. The narrator is openly non-committal on details of their societal advancement, which is smart if you’re trying to make a story timeless; however, it also becomes more abstract, like a parable. It almost feels as if she’s making it all up on the fly, more than describing something with a history and weight to it.

LeGuin paints the picture of a humanist utopia, without king or creed, where the sun is always shining and everything is perfect–but that’s the problem. It’s too perfect. (My mind went immediately to the plot of “The Matrix”–we naturally reject a dream world that is too perfect.) So she introduces the child–a “feeble-minded” child, locked away–“born defective…or become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.” A child whose pleas are ignored. “They all know it’s there, all the people of Omelas.” All the perfection of their utopia relies on keeping the broken child suffering. “Those are the terms.”

Here, LeGuin pulls her final trick. She presents “the terms” and leaves the reader to grapple with the question: can such a society be considered good, just, or perfect? Can the suffering of a single child be tolerated in exchange for a utopia in which everyone else thrives?

But here’s my problem with the climax of the story: these “terms” are utterly arbitrary. LeGuin never seems to clarify why these are the terms: is it that all children born with disabilities are “put away”? She only mentions the one child–she specifically describes him/her as “the” child, one single child. It’s the knowledge of this one child that drives some citizens to abandon this utopia in pursuit of something else, something that provides more peace of mind, perhaps.

I don’t know. This story is hailed as a classic, but it just doesn’t land for me. An interesting concept, but if it’s trying to be a morality tale, the premise is stretched to a breaking point.

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#15: “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” by N.K. Jemison

The Pitch

The writer presents an idyllic vision of a peaceful and advanced society, along with the hard choices required to protect it.

The Pay-off

I decided to read this story as soon as I found out it was written as a kind of response to LeGuin’s, but I have to admit I was not quite prepared for what awaited me. Jemison’s story is a counterpoint, a challenge, a provocation. While it could be read as a stand-alone story, I think it’s best taken in concert with LeGuin’s original. “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” is a well-written tale that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. It was unclear as I read it if it was meant to be satire or straight-forward, cautionary or aspirational. And there’s the rub.

The Takeaways

There is a LOT to unpack here.

“It’s the Day of the Good Birds in Um-helat!” NKJ opens with this line and unspools a beautiful description of this African jewel of a city. The name of the city is an obvious wink at Omelas, but NKJ exceeds LeGuin in terms of vivid descriptions. My imagination was transported. For a little while.

The author emulates the narrative voice of ULG’s story, but takes it to the next level. There is also a great deal of fourth-wall breaking, making the narrator another character in the story. However, rather than the narrator being a guide for the reader, the narrator quickly becomes an antagonist to the reader. There is frustration in the narration, anger, resentment. When describing the disparity of pale-skinned executives and dark-skinned workers and the policies implemented to address that, the narrator says this is not to promote diversity, “a grudging pittance of respect.” The narrator disdains such passive change. The narrator describes “the treason of free speech” by saying “We hesitate to admit some people are [expletive] evil and need to be stopped.” (Yet, the narrator never clarify who defines what is evil.) Later: “This is Um-helat after all, and not that barbaric America. This is not Omelas, a tick of a city, fat and happy with its head buried in a tortured child.” Yowsa.

At this point, the narrator turns her attention to the reader, declaring any feelings of recoil or provocation as evidence that the reader actually approves of the evil of Omelas, or even our own world. The narrator assumes the reader is responding, “How dare you…”

And this is where I actually got annoyed–not at the society being described (as the narrator suggests), not at all–rather, what irritated me was the unbearable condescension and accusations of the narrator.

According to the narrator, our world is a “benighted hellscape” compared with the bright and shining Um-helat. And just how is the utopia of Um-helat preserved? Essentially, there are “caretakers” who look for people consuming or spreading hateful or wrong ideas, and then the caretakers murder them. Yep, that’s it. “They will bury him in a beautiful garden…[that] holds all the Um-helatians who broke the law. Just because they died as a deterrence doesn’t mean they can’t be honored for the sacrifice.” So, a mass grave of social dissidents executed by the agents of the state? Cool.

The narrator justifies this behavior as being a necessary “blood sacrifice to keep true evil at bay.” The story ends with the narrator calling the reader to join the dream and build Um-Helat in our world, even if that means war and the “purging scourge.” And that’s it.

There’s part of me that really, really hopes this is just masterful satire of a totalitarian progressivism…but I doubt it is. While some reviewers and readers online rightly call this a cautionary tale, others defend it, saying that a just society must be fought for by any means necessary. Yeesh.

My 3 biggest takeaways from this story (and to a lesser degree from “Omelas”) are as follows:

  • The problem with Utopian visions is that they are built on a faulty understanding of human nature. To the humanist/materialist mind, man is perfectable with the right social settings and the right information. This is a flawed premise. Mankind is by nature corrupt, selfish, sinful. We need new hearts, not new societies.
  • Utopia requires conformity at all costs. No outside voices are tolerated, no dissenting views are allowed. Thought and speech must be policed and controlled in the name of freedom, tolerance, inclusiveness, and justice. Utopia is a prison without bars and locks, but a prison nevertheless.
  • A very astute observation from my beloved, as I was discussing both stories with her: In order for man to create his perfect humanist society, someone always has to die for “sin.” This statement gobsmacked me. See the wicked parodies of the Passion in the death of the innocent in Omelas, the slaying of the subversive in Um-helat. See in our own “hellscape” as the Molech of Freedom and Autonomy fed day and night by the broken bodies of the unborn. Whenever mankind seeks to build a perfect world, they always lay their bricks upon the bones of those who stand against them or get in their way.

The evidence of good writing is sometimes that it evokes strong responses, either positive or negative. If that’s the measure, then N.K. Jemison is a talented writer.

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

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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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

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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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

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!