Friday, May 30, 2014

On "You Thrive Now" by Jordan Rossen and Paul Rossen (4928 words) ***

Vella is shaking, and so is her mom. Her mom is in an advanced state of Parkinson's, and Vella, not quite forty, fears that she is on her way toward the same. Meanwhile, she works trying to sell subscriptions to a theater, thinking back on a past in which she was sort of an actress, a past in which she might have had love, and trying to piece together what little of life might remain for her in the future. Settle for an alcoholic boyfriend? Sing for a convalescent home? Her mom's boyfriend seems to be doing much the same, clinging on to the memory of her mom more that the sick woman herself. Read the story here at Baltimore Review.

On "Second Foundation" by Isaac Asimov ***

This final book in Asimov's Foundation Trilogy is essentially a high-tech tale of hide-and-go-seek. It recounts the story of a band of fellows from the First Foundation attempting to find the location of the Second Foundation, and the Second Foundation attempting to remain hidden. Way back in the first book of the trilogy, a man named Hari Selden founded the Foundation as a means to maintain scientific know-how amid a crumbling empire so that civilization goes into the dark ages for a few hundred years rather than a few thousand. The Foundation is founded around men with a lot of physical scientific knowledge. Selden, himself, was a mathematician, but he used it to create sets of probabilities that could predict the future, and as becomes clear by the second book in the series, to control people's minds.

That there is a Second Foundation on the opposite side of the galaxy is a myth or rumor that has long existed. This Second Foundation, the rumor goes, belongs to people who can control minds and predict the future but who do not have any technical know-how.

A band of fellows come to the conclusion that such a foundation exists and decide that they must discover and destroy it so that the First Foundation will not falter.

Meanwhile, the Second Foundation is worried. It's worried because the future that has been foretold has been messed up by an individual. As a result, the probability that the galaxy will descend into complete chaos has risen to heights that demand action.

Since readers know that there is a Second Foundation, the book is intriguing mostly because readers don't know the actual location of the Second Foundation. Like the First Foundationers in search of it, readers move forward with excitement to see if the place where this foundation exist will ever be found. Asimov throws a number of twist endings in toward the last few chapters, as the First Foundationers reach various conclusions: that the Foundation doesn't exist, that it does and it's scattered or all among us, and so on. Each option seems plausible. But readers are in on an irony that the poor First Foundationers are not.

If the trilogy is seen as an exploration of fate versus choice, Asimov's answer seems to come down slightly in favor of fate. But to say that he wholly embraces fate would be difficult. After all, the probabilities, once the appearance of the Mule occurs in book 2, are stacked against what Selden had predicted mathematically, so to keep such events in line, they must be perennially fine-tuned by a set of men who pull strings. If so, then someone somewhere pulling the strings still have free choice, even if those being pulled along do not.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

On "Forecast" by Jen Bergmark (715 words) ****

The nervous preparation for a date--that's what this story is about, that anticipation and possible disappointment. OkCupid poses a question regarding whether a first date or an interview makes you more nervous. I choose the latter. Dates are supposed to be fun, so I don't tend to view them as something to be nervous about. The harder part for me is getting the date--that first call (will she answer?); that request (will she accept)--so if I'm actually going out, I'm quite relieved. But I know some people get quite nervous about dates, more than about jobs. What's interesting for me is once I'm on the date sometimes I'll feel a certain staidness, an inability to be myself--especially if I really like the girl and think there's potential. That's why not getting a second date makes me so depressed in such situations. But I'm sure that this woman, in making preparation, feels much the same way--only before the date even happens. Bergmark here does a magnificent job of catching that awkwardness. Read it here at Platte Valley Review.

On "Foundation and Empire" by Isaac Asimov **

This second book in Asimov's Foundation Trilogy covers the history of the Foundation as it rises to power and the Empire as it makes its final decline. Or rather, that is the story it tells in its first section. After that, the tale becomes mostly one about the Foundation.

Taking the story up where he left off, Asimov recounts how the Empire falls through means that are entirely predictable and beyond the control of any one person. A trader sets out to save the Foundation by destroying the Empire and learns later that his actions have no bearing on the Empire's eventual fall and Foundation's triumph. The seeds of the Empire's failure had already been planted and would flower no matter who came about.

Asimov debunks this idea, however, in the book's second half. Years pass, and the Foundation's rulers become greedy and selfish. A set of traders set out to overthrow this ruling class. However, in the midst of their planning, a mutant arises who goes by the name the Mule. This mutant has raised an army that quickly overwhelms the Foundation's strongholds, and now the traders throw their lot in with the Foundation rather than against it.

But the Mule is indominatable. Unpredicted in Hari Selden's mathematical proclamation of future history, this one man DOES make a difference, shattering the Foundation and bringing all under his control, including remnants of the old Empire. Society will not be what Selden had predicted, because one man can change history.

Asimov focuses then on a small cast of characters, including a clown who has escaped from the Mule and who chums along with some traders and a psychohistorian. They are on a quest to find the Secound Foundation, a set of psychohistorians (rather than the physical scientists of the First Foundation), both of whom were set up at the end of the previous Empire to guard society and bring about a universal government and peace faster than would be possible if chaos were let reign. The final chapters bring some surprises and major diagesis of the various ideas and themes. This is much more a book of ideas than of fine or interesting writing and characterization.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

On "Winner Take Nothing" by Philip Gardner (5849 words) ***

So the story seems a bit far-fetched--it's still good reading. The narrator is a musician whose band played around a bit in a not-so-distant past, played around enough that the musician has a paternity suit on his hands from a woman he can't remember. This is a tale that, like it's title, focuses on some not so well-off segments of society, everyone just getting by. Read it here at the Baltimore Review.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

On "A Hard Bed" by Princess Perry (6176 words) ****

Here's a bit of historical fiction for you. The Pembers are poor black folk trying to make a good of it on a farm. Joh Pember seduces Molly, and that's just the beginning of the end of any dreams they might have. Molly, pregnant, will not get to go to school to be nurse, if Namon, Joh's brother, gets to make the decision. What Namon suffers at the hands of the whites in town he turns on his own family. Read the story here at Kweli Journal.

On "Foundation" by Isaac Asimov ***

The first in a trilogy, this novel is more focused on plot than on individual characters, and more focused on theme than on much of anything else. Asimov essentially sets out to tell the history of a galactic society, and this history has smackings of the history of Western civilization. I'm reminded a lot of the history of the Roman Empire. In terms of novels, I'm reminded of multigenerational novels, like Naguib Mahfouz's The Harafish.

We begin at a time when a single empire dominates the galaxy. Unfortunately, its power is waning. But historical forces, at least from the perspective of the novel, are predictable. And one psychohistorian, as such people are called, has figured out, via math and science, what the future holds. Follow his advice, and when the empire falls, it will reestablish itself in a thousand years; don't follow it, and the empire won't return for thirty thousand years. Luckily, he's smart enough to have been able also to predict how the rulers of the empire will react. They banish him to the outskirts of the empire, but they allow him to create an encyclopedia, which will store all of society's knowledge (the idea of such a book seems, in a way, rather antiquated now, in our Internet age).

True to form, the Foundation, as it is called, does retain scientific knowledge. But it does so without much in the way of control over the planet where it is centered. Meanwhile, the edges of the empire have collapsed, and in its place, are now a set of warring planets. The Foundation remains, however, through clever politics, playing one planet against another--and also by forging a religion. The religion gives it power in a soft sense but not a hard sense (think Catholicism of the Middle Ages). The priests control the masses, and the ruling class dare not stray too far from what the heads of the religion (i.e., the Foundation) wants.

As time moves forward, however, religion's influence begins to wane in favor of traders (capitalism, mercantilism, etc.). Now it is these men who play one planet against another, introducing technologies in order to further the Foundation's control.

A book of ideas more than characters, the piece focuses on three main crises. One doesn't end up caring much about any of the people involved, but as a book of ideas, it is fairly interesting.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

On "Futures" by Matthew Burnside (668 words) ***

Okay, so you have some options here. You've just hit a jogger while driving. This isn't an easy topic to write about. I've tried. It's hard to put one's self in the mind of someone who's just done something so utterly life-redefining. Burnside manages to do it four times. You pick. Read the options here at LitnImage.

Monday, May 5, 2014

On "The Little Girl With Budding Breasts and a Bubblegum Laugh" by A. Igoni Barrett (5804 words) ****

A friend recently asked why I like the book Lolita and whether I sympathized with the main character. Does one have to sympathize with a main character? I'm not convinced one does. Still there's a certain sick hopelessness, a pitifulness, to such characters. Writing about subjects like incest or pedophilia is almost always of a disturbing nature, and this story is no exception. Here a man falls for his cousin fifteen years his junior. He's got no business living in the same house with her, and reading as the events unfold is downright icky. She's a spoiled teen; he's nearing thirty. The decisions he makes, mostly based around her, become increasingly more disturbing and also secretive. If you have the stomach, you can read the story here at Kweli Journal.

On "2001" by Arthur C. Clarke ****

Reading the prefatory material to this book, it sounds as if Clarke actually wrote the screenplay to the film with the director Stanley Kubrick before he wrote the book. So in a sense, this book is an adaptation or an extended treatment. And it's impossible not to compare the two works. One is a classic movie, engaging in parts and a mind trip in others. Clarke's book lays out the principles of the movie in my more dogmatic and thus less-interesting form. That's not to say that the book isn't intriguing in its own right.

Take, for example, the beginning sections of the film and the book, which deal with prehistoric man. I find those sections of the film rather dull. For one, one doesn't quite understand what's going on among these prelinguistic apes, and such doesn't make for the most-compelling viewing. In the book, the thoughts of the lead ape are described in detail, and you get the sense of discovery that early pre-man has hit upon: hunting, not just gathering; tools; killing others.

Skip ahead to the future, and man is out exploring space. When a strange monolith is discovered on the moon, similar to the one that the apes discovered, the United States decides to send men to Saturn to study the monolith's possible origins. Here, the film and book fairly well match each other, though the book goes into more detail. Clarke is masterful in predicting future technological advances, though some things seem strangely anachronistic as well (a video phone hooked up by cables?). Both the film and movie do a good job of explaining how technically some things might be accomplished, given enough manpower and will.

This middle section if the most-compelling part of both works, as a computer that runs the spaceship that is taking five astronauts to one of Saturn's moons decides that its human counterparts aren't up to the job--and that their presence threatens its own existence. Herein, Dave Bowman does all he can to save his crew, himself, and his mission, as the plot centers on man versus self-cognizant machine.

It's the last section that I was most curious to see "adapted." In the film, this becomes a masterful 1970s tripout. What in the world could Clarke have done in the book? Well, it becomes a description of the universe and of the possible origins of man--a lecture of sorts, of far less interest. And of the ultimate ending? In the movie, with less explanation, the scenes of Bowman hanging out in a room are mysterious and strange. In the book, all of this is explained. Strange, sure, but not as mysterious. In all the tripout is replaced with something much more in keeping with science fiction and with the thoughts of someone whose done a lot of thinking about the subject of intelligence, which makes for much less ambiguity and thus for something that is not quite as much of a classic.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

On "Bar Beach Show" by E. C. Osondu (3375 words) ***

I haven't read too much literature from Africa, but among that which I have read, there is often a kind of simplicity and sadness. The stories are of people struggling to make a living amid poverty and lack of work, of pride and joy in small things. In this tale, a young man defies his father in his desire to become a musician--and ultimately a crook. In a nation where there is little justice, the crook, depending on a person's point of view, may be considered a government critic or simply a barbarian beating up on who he can. Father takes on stand, son another. The results are expectedly tragic. Read the story here at Fifty-Two Stories.