Sunday, March 30, 2014

On "City Girls" by LiAnn Yim (4116 words) ****

I love this seeming randomness of this story, the way we start off with this absurd idea that there's a man going around town cutting off women's hair, that this is terrifying, a reason to avoid salons. I thought I was reading some kind of absurdist story, and then, no, I wasn't. I was reading a story about the kind of games, the kind of obsessions, the kind of misunderstandings, that children sometimes have, the kind that make me wonder, for example, now whether my memories of the 210 freeway in Pasadena not being finished until I was about age four and about that trench being used, for a time, to catch floodwater are simply my child fantasies confused with real history of the place I grew up. Then Yim wanders off into fights between friends and fallings out and some growing up that happens and all of this somehow once again brought back to hair, which is what's important to these girls. Read the story here at Fwriction.

On "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" by Robert A. Heinlein ****

I'd been told to read Starship Troopers by people in the know, this more than Heinlein's classic Stranger in a Strange Land. I ended up reading neither, as both were out of stock at the library. And I can  say that the choice of this book was not a bad one. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is essentially a story about the founding of a nation, a fight for independence--but with many odd social and technological considerations included.

It starts off more or less as a story of friends, a man and a computer--a very intelligent computer, with access to records that affect an entire colony. This computer appears to have self-awareness. (Having just seen Her, I had to think often about how many other people this computer was pretending to be "specially" linked to. It was Mike to the narrator, Michelle to a later friend. Events in the book suggest it was not playing both sides, friends to both rebels and approved government.)

The narrator, Manuel, is not particularly political, but somehow he gets drawn into a meeting that seems vaguely communistic--though as the text goes on, the eventual government that emerges appears to be more inclined toward anarchy and then finally something more like the U.S. government in its early days. There he meets a couple of folks, a man and a woman, who draw him into their attempts to free the moon from its owners on Earth (essentially, a UN-type board--ownership shared by all peoples). The issue is that the moon grows food for Earth, and the people of the moon are essentially treated like slaves (they see little in return for their work, though they don't pay taxes, and because they live on the moon, which has less gravity, they are not really free to return to Earth without health consequences). Manuel introduces the two agitators to Mike the computer, and together they all begin to hash out plans to sever ties with Earth.

Eventually, the novel becomes an account of war, one in which Mike takes a major role, saving the Lunies from encroachments of troops sent from Earth and plotting out large rocks to send to Earth as asteroid bombs that eventually convince the Earthlings to grant the Lunies their independence. Strangely, by the novel's end, one has a certain amount of feeling for the computer, who becomes a very real type of character.

Also of interest in the novel is Heinlein's take on families. With a lack of women on the moon, families take on a group form: one woman with several husbands, and then eventually several men and women together. I've read of the former in certain Asian cultures where women are in short supply, but I don't think I've read any anthropological works that would feature something akin to what Heinlein describes.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

On "Nora and Paul at the Coffeeshop" by Peg Alford Pursell (417 words) ***

A falling set of coffee mugs takes on metaphorical significance in this flash piece by Pursell. Nora and Paul are a couple out for coffee, but Nora is about to discover something about Paul that puts her mind at disease. Originally published at Staccato, you can read the story here.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

On "Accident" by Iheoma Nwachukwu (1071 words) ****

This rather simple piece of fiction excels not in plot or even so much in characterization but in bold descriptiveness. It is, as the title notes, about an accident--two girls driving along when a tire goes out and the car goes spiraling out of control. Nwachukwu packs the short piece with metaphors that are utterly original and yet don't seem forced. This is not an easy thing to achieve. Read the story here at Flywheel Magazine.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On "Envy" by Alyce Lomax (2180 words) ***

"Envy" tells the story of A Star Is Born in a way. In that film, one star takes a dive while the other rises; here, one never quite rose, but as the other person in the couple sees career success rise to ultimate heights, it's too much for the other. Read the story here at Summerset Review.

Friday, March 14, 2014

On "An Unusual Case" by Bruce Dodson (1876 words) ***

This strange piece of noir starts off normal enough. The narrator is hired by the usual oddly compelling to look at woman. He ventures to a bar, asks around, looking for a suspect, a man. But what I like about this piece is how things circle around in a kind of mind-numbing way. Let's just say that everything he's searching for shows up. Read the story here at the Applicant.

On "The Stars My Destination" by Alfred Bester **

This is supposed to be one of the best science fiction novels of all time. As such, it has, as SNL's Stephan would say, "everything." Unfortunately, I don't mean that in a good way. I felt like the novel was a bit too much of a mix of every plot one could think of.

It starts off well enough. Bester can write a great sentence. But once the lead lines peter out, we're dropped into what seems much more like the pulp world that Bester was writing to.

The world in which Bester writes is one in which people can "jaunt." That is, they can think about where they want to go and end up there. Jaunting is limited to places one knows intimately and usually to small spurts.

Next, after a history on the subject, we find our main character Gully Foyle in a space ship (Nomad) out in some forsaken place. He is a lone survivor, and he sends out a distress signal when another ship comes by, but he is ignored. This sets the events of the novel into orbit, so to speak. Abandoned, he crashes the ship onto an asteroid. The inhabitants of the asteroid tattoo his face and marry him to a local.

He vows revenge for his face--he will punish whoever ran the ship that ignored his distress signal. And so it is that he goes in search of the person running the ship, torturing various crew members he's able to find along the way to get the information he needs.

In the process he runs into a woman with telekinetic powers he hires to speak to him when he's among rich people (since he can only speak lower-class dialect). He becomes a magician of sorts. He recovers a treasure hid on the ship he was abandoned on that he crashed into an asteroid and becomes rich enough to seek who he will get revenge on. A radioactive detective comes chasing after Foyle (radioactive because he was caught in a horrible accident at one time and now can only be in proximity to people for about five minutes before they get sick). Everyone is looking for the riches--and more important for something called PyrE, which is an explosive that can be blown up by mind action (for use in a war).

Foyle eventually finds out who ordered him to be ignored, but in the process he learns also the meaning of forgiveness and redemption. And jaunting across a vast degree of space time.

More happens, of course, in between all this. The whole thing seemed very convoluted, and the only thing missing, it seemed, was a vampire.

Monday, March 10, 2014

On "Dinner Date" by Abigail Wheetley (3040 words) ****

Here's a straightforward tale about a blind date gone bad. The obvious connection here is to how we can make bad decisions or have things happen to us that we never would have expected and how it is we cope. I suppose I've been a few dates with others' kids around; it does make for an interesting, if sometimes uncomfortable, dynamic. A gal last week was telling me about some truly horrendous dates she's had, one of which I'd have to say might well be the worst I've ever heard of. I said I'd never had a bad date, and she said something about it being obvious because I was so charming. I think, however, that maybe it's a combination of both happenstance (I've yet to go out with a truly horrible woman) and a willingness to give the other person the benefit of my doubts, to simply accept what is and who I'm with. A date like the one described here would not have gotten high marks, but it is what it is, you know? We all struggle in our own ways. Read the tale here at Flywheel.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

On "Last Girlfriend" by Chris Vola (1982 words) ***

I'm not sure exactly what to make of this story. A lesbian whose ex is now an ex goes out on the town and picks up a boy--or maybe she just imagines it. No matter. The writing itself here is really cool, drawing us into this collegiate world of too much booze and a little too much self-confidence masking an internal lack of it. Read the tale here at Volume 1 Brooklyn.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

On "That's Him! That's the Guy!" by Dan Chaon (605 words) ****

If I were to write about creating a short story, I might just this as an example of the perfect form. Chaon starts with an image, an idea, and circles back around to it at the end but with a different meaning, and that, in essence, is what many stories, many poems, do in some way. Here, a family deals with the death of a father, grows apart, and years later reunites around the same event (of sorts). Read it here at Wigleaf.

On "A Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter M. Miller Jr. *****

This is a friend of mine's favorite science fiction novel. When I decided to do a whole reading list of classic science fiction, he emphasized that this was one I had to read. I don't think it would have been on my list initially if he hadn't, so I'm glad that he emphasized its importance. I'm also glad he emphasized its importance so that I would stick with it. A book about Catholic monks didn't particularly seem like something I would fancy, and the early going portions of the novel seemed very much concerned with that religious world.

But something is much different about this world. We've reverted to the Dark Age. In fact, Miller tells essentially the story of human history here. An atomic war has taken back into an era pretechnology, where superstition reigns. The masses (one has to believe these are the same masses who let their anger stoke illogical choices in political elections) blame scientists and knowledge for man's destruction and set about to destroy virtually all higher learning. The Church is the one that saves a few precious documents. And it is these documents that astound here in the early-going portions of the book, for among them is the work of an atomic engineer named Leibowitz, and his scratch pad of formulas is pondered over by many a monk. He is, in fact, accorded among the saints.

The novel splits into three sections, each of them ending in death. In the first, Francis, a novice monk, discovers a bomb shelter with relics of Leibowitz's. There is much anguish over whether the relics are genuine or fake and over how best to position the discovery so that the Church will accord Leibowitz sainthood. A counterfeit set of relics would actually set back Leibowitz's cause.

There is much irony in the second section, set many hundred years later, wherein a new enlightenment is coming into being. During this period, science is again beginning to find its own--and questioning the value of religion. Now Leibowitz's work is called into question for its actual usefulness. Modern minds surely know more than their predecessors. And when a scientist comes to deliver the fatal blow to Leibowitz's papers, showing that they are worthless, he is surprised to find in them things of actual value, things that he as a scientist is just discovering. This unleashes new theories: That Leibowitz and the supposed advanced civilization of the past was actually an alien race, and that this race left the planet, leaving in its place an inferior race with too much technology on its hands and not enough brains to know how to use it properly (i.e., to not blow itself up with it). Meanwhile, war lurks on the horizon.

The last section finds us in a very modern world, more advanced than even our own at the present time. Men are traveling across space, just beginning to colonize distant planets. But war still looms, and unfortunately, as before, technology proves to be man's undoing. All the material capabilities in the world do us no good if we don't have the ability to love one another. It sounds like a trite lesson, but Miller draws it out into one compelling novel.