Tuesday, February 28, 2012

On "The Last Call" by R. A. Keenan (4593 words) ***

In this story from the Guest Quarters series on the Edge of Propinquity, a man somehow finds himself transformed into the grim reaper--and this not by his own will. Nor does he get to decide who dies. He's just someone's minion, out to harvest bodies for the dead. The situation of this story is really quite unique. I could see this as a movie somewhere, some kind of M. Night Shyamalan piece. Read the story here at Edge of Propinquity.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

On "Dead Man's Curve" by Seanan McGuire (6986 words) ***

Edge of Propinquity publishes linked stories of the uncanny nature. I was skeptical but the magazine--such fiction is not my usual domain--but the Edge does a good job of presenting well-rendered tales. In this piece for the Sparrow Hill Road series, a woman helps out a set of ghost hunters, who, it turns out, are in over their heads. Don't mess with the supernatural--a cardinal rule around these parts. The plot hums along at a good pace. Read the story here at the Edge of Propinquity.

On "Now Wait for Last Year" by Philip K. Dick ****

At heart, this science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick is a love story. Having read a biography of Dick, I find it hard not to see elements of his own life scattered across the novel--and elements of his own wishes and desires. Eric Sweetscent has a wife who is mentally unstable. Does he stick with her or does he leave her for an easier path? In real life, it was Dick who was the more unstable one (though he did once have a wife committed), and he never did manage to stick it out with one of his women, though at base, that's what he wished for: a stable middle-class American family.

The waiting for last year referred to in the title has to do with time travel, which forges a major portion of the novel. Sweetscent is an organ transplant doctor. Early on in the book, he is drafted by the head of the United Nations as one of the man's personal physicians. The man is not in good shape--he seems to intuit others' sicknesses as his own. And perhaps this too is a kind of wish fulfillment, a death wish, because years before, he brought Earth into a war with another civilization, a long-lost set of aliens whose ancestors are actually the same as humans. They're at war with a buglike race on yet another set of planets. The problem: The Starmen, Earth's allies, are not the good guys humans thought them to be.

Meanwhile, Kathy, Eric's wife, goes to a party where she takes a drug called JJ-180. Created as a weapon of war, the drug is instantly addictive and guaranteed to eventually kill you. It also allows you to temporarily transfer to other times--or other universes. For some people, those times are the present in parallel universes; for some, those times are in the past; and for still others, those times are in the future. (It's this latter possibility that becomes essential to the plot, since it is by going into the future that an antidote is found and brought back to the past--a nice loop, no?)

Kathy hates her husband, and Eric hates his wife, and yet neither of them seem able to ultimately break away from each other. Duty calls. So too does duty call for Molinari, the head of the UN. The will to live outpowers the will to die, just as the will to do one's duty outpowers the desire to do as one pleases. Marriage is a war, Dick seems to be saying. You're comrades to the end. Or so it is in this particular universe that Eric inhabits, even if not Dick's own.

The novel is full of surprises; I haven't given away the whole of them here. And it's that which made for it such interesting reading. As for the characterizations, some of the characters do things that seem, at times, utterly nonsensical--except that such actions are needed for the plot. Let's just say women don't come off looking too well in this book.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

On "Innocence" by Summer Block (2904 words) ***

Summer Block's story is about a nun who keeps watch over infants, a nun, I suspect, who would have loved to have children of her own--in fact, in a way does. She is possessive. She is obsessive. She is fascinating. But what really makes this piece shine are the little moments in between, the snatches of insight, like this one, about white flight and the dominance of immigrants in a neighborhood (and at the mission where the nun works): "I worry when I see the faith recede to the ends of the world, all those new converts like the whirl in the last dregs of bath water before it runs down the drain." Or there's the nun's claim that she can love a child just as much as a physical mother, that carrying a baby in one's body is not so important, because "the body is a passing thing." For more such beautiful passages, read the story here at Emprise Review.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

On "Good Grief" by Sue Walker (1186 words) ***

LinkWalker's story captures a southern voice--but also a unique voice. The narrator is dead--or so the newspapers say. I could see a number of good stories coming out of this--great ironic pieces on bureaucracy. Instead, Walker goes for something slightly different, letting the woman talk about the meaning of her life and about the value or lack thereof of the countless husbands she's had. Read the story here at the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.

On "The I Ching" by Peggy Jones **

Not a book I would have ever expected to have found myself reading, the ancient book of divination, The I Ching, finds a new, more modern voice in the words of Peggy Jones. It is precisely for this reason that I chose Jones's version: it seemed more interesting than standard editions. Jones, in addition, is a Jungian analyst, which means one gets a perspective that fits well with C. G. Jung's own work. And, I would have hoped, Philip K. Dick's.

In the biography written by his wife, however, she had noted not only the influence of the I Ching on Dick's life but the lack of influence on his writing. He said the I Ching was a waste of time, yet he used it at times almost religiously. Other than that the two novels of Dick's on this list I've read so--Martian Time-Slip and Dr. Bloodmoney--center, in part, around attempts to read the future, I didn't really see much connection to Dick's work.

What I did note was how useful it is to me that a book has a narrative or a clear argument. Without those things, as in a work like the I Ching, I have a have hard time keeping focus. Jones's I Ching had many interesting lines and comments, but I couldn't order them into any kind of schema that would help me to be able to keep them in mind. The next to last hexagram "After Completion," for example, encourages us to enjoy the moment after something has been completed. That one would come upon this by luck (or fate, I suppose, if one actually believes in the I Ching system) suggests to me that every moment is a moment after completion, a moment to be appreciated. And a moment that cannot be hung on to--nothing stays completed.

There was a thought about fire, how it devours and yet is not anything "real" in the sense that we can lay our hands on it. This seemed somehow profound to me at the moment I read it, but I can't think of why so now.

The system itself can be put into practice by the tossing of coins. A certain number of heads versus a certain number of tails leads to a broken line or a solid line. Six lines compose a single hexagram, which leads us to the book for the interpretation.

Alan Watts suggests that the real point of the I Ching isn't so much the divination principles but that it is an expression of the rather spontaneous and from-the-gut nature of all decision making. We might think that we reason out our decisions, but we never have full information, and in the end, we are choosing by feeling, by the moment, haphazardly--and as such, we might as well be tossing coins.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

On "Dali's Clocks" by Dave Hutchinson (9379 words) ***

"Dali's Clocks" reminds me of a story by Robert Abel. In that story, a man sets off for regions in the Far East, discovers a mystical drug, and never returns, unable to enjoy life in its "regular" sense any longer. The writing is powerful, the situation intriguing. In this story, a man with a friend in pharmaceuticals has a similar drug experience, introduced to him by the said friend. But the drug turns out to be something deeper than that, something that is really aiming to change the nature of the world and of humanity. I'm not sure I share Hutchinson's view of creativity. I happen to think all people are creative, just in different ways, which means the will to be creative is not something we need to foster in people nor is it something that would bring world peace (creation of a new deadly weapon, after all, is its own form of creativity). Still, the concept here, of a drug that could alter civilization is intriguing, and I'm left to ponder what medical advances we've already experienced might fit into this same category. Read the story here at Daybreak Magazine.

Monday, February 13, 2012

On "Villa Monterey Apartment, Burbank" by Meg Pokrass (368 words) ***

A shame that Pindeldyboz ceased publication in Spring 2010, as it was a source of so much great literature on the Net. But I can understand the editor's exhaustion, the desire to lay down and let other, younger journals take over the role. Here's one of the stories one of the contributing editors chose as a favorite, by one of the best writers doing flash, often online. In this tiny piece, a girl spends time with her older sister and that sister's boyfriend. Like Los Angeles, things are splashy and nice but something sinister and not quite right lurks underneath, even if we can't see it. Read the story here at Pindeldyboz.

Friday, February 10, 2012

On "Don't Be Like That" by Andrew Pippos (1886 words) ****

A friend of mine prefers stories that meander, that aren't the usual ride up toward an epiphany or a climax. Indeed, a break from the formula can be nice, but there's a reason the formula exists. Without it, we often have little to carry us along--or we feel let down by the ending.

Pippos's "Don't Be Like That" has a certain random feeling of going nowhere to me, but it doesn't fail to be interesting, and that randomness is part of what, I think, Pippos is aiming for. This is a story about being eighteen, nineteen, twenty, about not knowing where life is going but being fully engaged in what life has to offer. The narrator works, quits, travels, hangs out with a girl he might be dating, squandors his time in things that seem like they might be important--squandors it in thinking about things that might seem important. Read the story here at N+1.

On "Dr. Bloodmoney" by Philip K. Dick ***

This was one really odd novel. "Dr. Bloodmoney" refers to a certain physicist who is either insane or had superpowers, such that he can rain down fire from heaven in the form of nuclear war. The book itself is a postapocalyptic one, with multiple characters and storylines. In this post-nuclear-war world, civilization is slowly recovering. Without oil refineries, horses once again are the main form of transportation. Most live without electricity. Water is a precious commodity. And meat is a rare treat for a meal. But in addition, radiation has set in motion evolutionary changes such that some animals can now talk or fly that before couldn't and some humans have gained extrasensory powers that allow them to perform magical deeds (or did they have these powers before the war and kept them secret, in an age when machines could perform our magic).

Most of the plot revolves around a Hoppy, a legless and armless handy whose dexterous use of his metal extenders allows him to work wonders on machines and other things that need fixing. But Hoppy has other powers. He can see into the future (in characteristic Dick style, during epileptic fits). And he can, as we learn later, also control things with his mind far beyond the reach of his physical body. And it is there, in this spirit world, that most of the story's plot unfolds, for Hoppy isn't the only one with such powers. A man by the alias Dr. Tree, for example, also has such powers, as does a little girl's brother, Bill. But like Hoppy, Bill lacks full use of his limbs--in fact, he lacks a body completely and lives as a growth inside his sister's body. But he can communicate with the dead, and with that power, is able to wield control over others in the living world, a power that proves useful once Dr. Tree decides to cause the world war to resume and Hoppy sets his site on world domination.

The most poignant part of the novel is played by Walter Dangerfield, an astronaut to Mars. It is during the trip to Mars that the world erupts in global war, and as a result, Dangerfield is stuck in space, his rocket having lost communication with the people who control it on Earth. He'll never get to Mars, but he'll never get back to Earth either. And so, he spends his years broadcasting pleasant messages back to Earth's survivors, reading to them literature and playing music for them. It is Dangerfield's indominatable spirit that keeps the world hopeful. And it is a spirit that is in danger of being snuffed out by illness and greed.

It is hard to say what Dick was aiming for with this book. Most of the characters, especially the women, come across as selfish hooligans. But it isn't that war pushes them toward that. Rather, they were that way to start, and the war simply gives them even more opportunity to exert their base instincts. It is only in believing in the power of someone above us (i.e., Dangerfield) that we can survive, and is only through the aid of psychoanalysts who can draw out the stories of that someone above us that we have any hope.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

On "It's Not Becoming" by Nathan Leslie (2920 words) ***

I read too many articles about improving one's self to find a significant other. At this point in my life, I really don't know what to do. Being myself doesn't work, and being something else doesn't seem to either. I question where I went wrong each time a relationship doesn't come to be. Did I try too hard? Did I not try hard enough?

And this is what Nathan Leslie's story is about, but to the upteenth degree--the absurd degree--which is what many a short story does: take a situation and take it to the limits. Here the narrator is a woman with a boyfriend who sets out to improve her. Another article comes to mind, on how to date a fixer-upper. Of course, in that article, the key is to recognize the potential in someone. And the potential is certainly here. Or is it? Read the story here at Dark Sky Magazine.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

On "Drive-By" by Robin Messing (3436 words) ****

Halfway into Robin Messing's exploration of a marriage that has settled into a peaceful kindness, we learn that Herbert just wants to be left alone. He loves his wife, but in this moment where she has lost her parents, where they are visiting her childhood home for the last time, he wants her to take the home in, to allow him some time to think on her parents by himself. Her parents, the narrator notes, weren't terribly kind or generous, but they'd become Herbert's parents, after he lost his own. He wants time to think of them himself.

But that's the beauty of Messing's story. There is no time by himself. Locked in a car with his wife, he is locked also in this marriage. He has duties he performs and things he wins for performing them--usually, unless, of course, he fails to do something he was supposed to, and then, the light goes out, and the sex promised when the nightlight is on is forbidden. Something is changing in Herbert's life. The couple has become familiar to one another--and that in turn is breeding, as the saying goes, contempt.

Contrast that to the parents who are gone. Items that Sylvia used to hate she now loves. Histories "change"--we appreciate things we didn't appreciate in the past, things we could have had at any time. What is this appreciation and familiarity? How do we reconcile what we have and don't have? Why are we never happy when we have it? These are the questions Messing poses. Read the story here at Drunken Boat.

On "Symbols of Transformation" by C. G. Jung *

Not easy or enjoyable reading in any manner, Jung's classic text at least manages to provide some interesting observations to think on and to pretty thoroughly relate a wide set of various mythological, religious, and literary images. In fact, in reading this book, I often thought not only on how widely Jung must have read but also on how much early psychological ideas rested in literary criticism.

In this book, Jung sets out to discuss symbols and their importance to our understanding of dreams and various psychological states (namely, the conscious versus the unconscious). He does this largely through an extended interpretation of one woman's written fantasies, a Mrs. Miller. To interpret these fantasies, he draws on similar images that show up in Christianity, in myth, in philosophy (Nietzche), in drama (Cyrano de Bergerac), and in one extended discussion in American poetry. Quotes from the latter, in fact, proved so interesting that I am tempted at some point to pick up Longfellow's Hiawatha.

The point of all this thought is, as Jung notes in his epilogue, to try to abolish the dissociation of the unconscious and conscious. By drawing these two spheres closer together, people will be less neurotic, less prone to schizophrenia. And this in turn takes us back to the book's start, where in Jung points out two ways of thinking. The two lists run something like this:

Conscious Unconscious
Directed Subjective
Adaptive Inner motives
Uncertainty Dream
Human knowledge Myth
Verifiable experience Prophetic
Will Autism
More individual Schizophrenic



No control



Less individual


The list, is of course very rough. In other passages, Jung points to schizophrenia being related to a nonintegration of the two spheres, but he also seems at times to relate it to an active fantasy life, a living in the world of fantasy.

On the conscious side, we have uncertainty, which at first seems odd. But it in fact makes sense. The conscious side is continually verifying things, whereas the unconscious works on gut, on feeling, on faith--and as such, there is a kind of raw certainty that one can't have when all things must be verified by experience and facts. For Jung, the unconscious side is also less individual, because he believes in a collective unconscious. When we delve into the unconscious, we are in fact delving into a consciousness shared with the universe, the source of "symbols"--and of myth.

These symbols are not allegories or signs. There is no one-to-one correspondence in a symbol to something else in life. A symbol is not like a word. Rather, a symbol is an image whose contents transcends consciousness. A sign points to s specific thing; a symbol points to a general idea and remains, essentially, unknown, indefinable.

Some random thoughts of Jung's: The libido is a kind of psychic energy (not necessarily sexual), and it is commonly symbolized by fire or as a demon or a hero. This psychic energy creates the God image via archetypal patterns--man worships the psychic force within himself as a divinity. We can also call the libido desire or lust (without reason); meanwhile, will is wanting with reason.

We gain illumination or revelation while under or having just passed through distress. The distress corresponds to an archetype in the unconscious. The archetype has a specific energy that when transferred to consciousness is what brings about that revelation.

Love is the energy that connects man to God, the conscious to the unconscious, the outer to the inner. Christianity protects us from animal desire or instinct.

Secrets cut us off from others.

A schizophrenic mind is one that is unable to assimilate the unconscious/myth with consciousness, and thus the mind splits. "The more a person shrinks from adapting to reality, the greater the fear that besets his path"--this in turn is what creates neurosis.

The self is a ruler in the collective unconscious or inner world. The hero figure (in dream or myth) does what the unconscious wants to do but which consciousness won't allow.

I read Jung's book on symbols mostly because of its influence on Philip K. Dick. In what way does Jung relate to Dick's work? Not having read too much of his work yet, I can't say for sure how it permeates the writer's texts. That said, in Martin Time-Slip, which I finished fairly recently, there's quite a bit about schizophrenics. In that work, those with autism or schizophrenia are more tuned into the dream world and are, in fact, even able to foretell the future. In turn, however, they are unable to live in the everyday world with the rest of humanity. No doubt, as I turn to other works by Dick, my thinking will turn back to what I've learned about Jung.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

On "Centzon Totochin" by Cat Rambo (4932 words) ***

If this weren't in a fantasy and science fiction journal, I might have found this story more surprising. It starts off as a tale about partying down in Mexico. It has an almost Hemingway feel. Men drifting nowhere, filling in their life as they can. And then, well, let's just say there are some things best left unsaid. Read the story here at Crossed Genres.