Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On "On the Weekends Sometimes" by Ben Greenman (2926 words) ****

Professional. That's how I'd describe the writing here. A really great writer can catch you with a first line and pull you on one sentence at a time and make it seem so easy that you're left stunned, not understanding how those ten or twenty or thirty minutes passed so quickly. Greenman's tale is about Boyd, a man in love with the wife of a sort-of friend of his, a man unwilling to take action for the obvious reasons. Instead, he wiles away his days with a pretend girlfriend, all the while he and the wife flirt around the obvious attraction, hoping to avoid what seems inevitable. Read the story here at Fifty-two Stories.

On "The Martian Chronicles" by Ray Bradbury ****

I didn't know what I was getting into when I started this book and was a bit surprised once I started reading it. What I'd long thought was a novel is more a collection of linked stories. Some characters reappear, and there is a general historical timeline that is stuck to chronologically, but this is not a novel in the sense of having the development of a character (unless Mars itself is the character) over the course of the work.

While Asimov's I, Robot seemed more interested in philosophical ideas about intelligence and ethics, Bradbury's work is more concerned with history. The latter is also more of a stylist, with writing that is memorable for its own sake. The history that Bradbury focuses on seems to me to be one of Earth, and most especially of the New World. The extended metaphor between the settlement of the New World and the settlement of Mars is made explicit more than once.

Bradbury's book begins with a story written from the point of view of a race of Martians. In that story, a woman has visions of men from Earth visiting the planet. And indeed, the next several stories revolve around attempts to explore and colonize the planet, with each little group of Earth men killed off in some way before they can bring back news of a successful landing to the people back on the home planet. But in time, Earthlings eventually establish a foothold, this made possible largely through a disease that wipes out Mars's original inhabitants (ala the American Indians).

Eventually, more and more people come to Mars, and it is increasingly seen as a place for young men to go off to make their fortune. And that is where Bradbury's work takes a dark turn, for as Mars begins to be settled, Earth finds itself enveloped in a world war, and new settlements drop accordingly--indeed, as the Martians disappeared, so it seems that humanity itself also will.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

On "Choose Your Own Adventure" by Matt Ferner (1868 words) ***

Here's a tale based on the familiar kids' series of books (although I guess there have been a few adult versions, though they never much caught on). In a way, the series itself seems somewhat antiquated now, since the idea for such a thing has been replaced by hypertext and that in turn by realistic video games that let you "live" the action rather than read it and decide from a limited set of possibilities. Still, what makes Ferner's piece unique is that this is CYOA written by a "literary" writer, meaning that the endings are generally nihilistic, epiphanic, or utterly inconsequential, mostly the latter. In other words, the story ends, but like most literary fiction, the ending is kind of open and suggestive--and in a way, not completely satisfying. Make your own choices here at Failbetter.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

On "The Idea of Marcel" by Marie-Helene Bertino (3679 words) *****

Another great story from Bertino's marvelous collection, this one involves a former couple going out with new people: their ideal others. Tired of dating that woman who is slightly overweight? Date her again, but this time, she's height-weight proportionate and exercises regularly. Tired of your man's bad taste in music and clothes? Date him again, but have him the way you want him. Bertino's story suggests that we don't always really want what we say we want, that ideal is more a dream that we like to have as just that, and that our unhappiness often stems from the fact that the dream always always always comes to an end. Read the story here at the Common.

Friday, January 17, 2014

On "Thumb Jello" by William J. Fedigan (884 words) ***

Days on a psych ward--not to mention a prison or many a job--trend toward a certain sameness punctuated by terror or emergency or just utter strangeness. Fedigan captures that with this short piece by using repetitive language and incidents (a man with a thumb he bites and then gets locked up for each day), but he builds toward a climax in which things are not quite what one might suppose. Read the story here at This Zine Will Change Your Life.

Monday, January 13, 2014

On "The Weightlifters" by Daniel Torday (5700 words) *****

Weightlifting can have many meanings--not just the physical aspect of it but the emotional. In this tale, Torday explores what it means to hold in one's feelings and thoughts about others, the kind of weight that adds to our lives, and the kind of weights that are added when we actually share those views with others. It's one family, the Klonfelders, as in the kids' books, all the love they have for each other and then not so much, the whys and wherefores never explained, like many a good date answered with no return messages, no acceptance or proffers for a second, the person just gone. Read the story here at Fifty-two Stories.

On "I, Robot," by Isaac Asimov ****

Asimov's robot book seems more like a set of stories on a theme involving one character that sort of weaves around them as a frame than it seems like an actual novel. And when I say they seem like stories, I could also say they seem more like philosophical conundrums that are explored using fictional devices. The conundrums are in a sense ethical ones, created when three basic rules of robotics are put into place: (1) robots are not to harm humans or allow humans to be harmed; (2) robots must obey humans unless that means disobeying the first law; and (3) robots must preserve themselves so long as that preservation doesn't interfere with laws one and two. What happens when one law seems to interfere with another? How does a robot interpret this law? And how do humans re-create robots to be most useful if a law seems to actually be interfering with a robot's function?

The stories are in more or less chronological order, as robots go from being less sophisticated to more. In the first tale, a robot is used for a nanny of sorts. The mother dislikes the degree to which the child has become connected to the robot and so tries to sever the relationship. The thing is a machine, after all, and has no concern for the child outside of what is was programmed with. But what, in the end, is the difference?

In the next tale, a more sophisticated robot gets stuck in a loop near a mine because of its need to obey rules two and three, but in doing so, it loses sight of rule one through miscommunication and nearly brings about the death of two humans sent to set up the mine.

In yet another story, a robot comes to believe that because it is superior to humans in physical strength, it must in fact be created by a being superior to humans. No amount of reasoning seems able to dissuade the robot of its point of view.

In the tale "Liar," a robot tells people what they want to hear in order to avoid offending them and to make them happier. This becomes a problem, however, when intersecting facts prove that the robot is just making things up, and thus making humans feel worse than they would have had the truth come out in the first place. Arguably, this robot is following the first rule, but it seems a rather dimwitted view of the first rule.

As we move toward the end of the book, the robots become more and more sophisticated till at the end, they stand far above humans even in terms of societal control. Rule one is tantamount, but robots have come to see their importance to rule one as so ingrained in societal structure that rule three has actually come to predominate (over rule two). In the end, it is the preservation of the robots themselves that will allow the preservation of the humans.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

On "The Believers" by Laurie Blauner (2256 words) ***

Before my first college creative writing class, I was largely a fan of writing that was simple and straightforward, at least on the surface. Think Carver, Hemingway. But my first creative writing teacher saw things differently. She wanted sentences, beautiful lines that had never been part of the English language before. She was a lyricist. And so, for a time, I became one too. Sometimes I wax wordy and poetic in my writing even today, but it's rare. I've largely returned to that more simplistic form.

But what I have gained is an appreciation for the writer who can string along sentence after sentence I have never heard before. Blauner does just that here, in this tale about a woman taking care of her mother at a rest home, a mother who has some form of dementia, and about the nursing home's trip to a faith healer that fails to heal much of anyone. But the tale isn't really the point here. The point is sentences and words, nouns taking on new verb forms; verbs taking on new noun forms. A woman enters a room, "soft parts first." "Unapologetic canes teeter" at doorways. Over and over here, language is reinvented, and I'm a little richer for it. Read the story here at Superstition Review.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

On "Awesome Like Us" by Elizabeth Ellen (1270 words) *****

I love a good love story, and this one is a beauty. It's about a couple that is splitting up or getting back together, out for one last hurrah or the very first. Things don't matter, once there's nothing at stake. It's just love, lust, passion, over and over and over. Who cares? Read the story here at Barrelhouse Magazine.

On "The War of the Worlds" by H. G. Wells ****

While Wells's Time Machine seemed silly to me, though it had certain philosophical ideas behind it that were interesting to think about, this work seemed the opposite. The plot was compelling, but there seemed to me to be a lot less in terms of interesting ideas behind it. Still, I'd take War of the Worlds any day, because a good story is kind of essential to a good novel.

A few things did strike me of interest in this book, however, beyond the plot. One was the matter-of-fact manner in which Wells reported the story. The novel reads like a true account by a man who was on the ground where aliens have landed. Hence, he's at times caught up in things that seem perfunctory, and beyond that, as a reader, one is left wondering what exactly is the deal with these aliens and eventually whether humanity itself will survive. In that sense, the book seemed like an account of war from the point of view of a civilian, and that was the sense in which the book seemed the most affecting to me. Life changes a lot obviously in such a situation--and quickly. And yet, misinformation and the slow spread of information means that many aren't aware of what is happening at any given moment. Hence, some continue life as normal even as an invading army begins to take its toll in part of the country; then later, people panic, not knowing exactly what is about to occur or what has.

The other thing that was of interest to me was how the novel plays out versus the way Orson Welles's famous radio play does. It was, in fact, quite an adaptation, for Wells's book is in many ways more of a standard book, matter-of-fact tone notwithstanding.

Beyond these things, another item of interest were the enemies themselves, whose technology is vastly superior to human technology and whose main goal is to harvest humans for blood, the means by which these creatures live. It's a gruesome idea fully described on a par with some other more-recent science fiction. In this sense, humans are reduced to something akin to farm and hunting animals, which makes for commentary, I suppose, on how we deal with nature ourselves.

The book is in the public domain and can be accessed here.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

On "Salesmen" by Tyler Sage (3451 words) ***

Sage's story is a bit of metafiction, a framed story within various other framed stories. It's also a story of morals, a story about things we learn from life: how fear holds us back, how lonely we are, and how we can be free in loving another. But with regard to storytellers, more often than not--salespersons of their own sort--the lessons remain unlived. Read the story here at Superstition Review.