Sunday, March 28, 2010

Some short reviews of some short fiction

Originally posted Nov 17, 2009

I came to the happy realization yesterday that no matter how many science fiction stories I read there will always be more. Previously I believed that soon I'd run out of good ones.

This month I've focused on short stories. I got "Galaxy 30 Years of Innovative Science Fiction." And have read the stories at random, going wherever the spirit moved me. I thought I'd share some short thoughts about each story. They will be spoiler free unless otherwise noted.

However, before I explore those stories I would like to say a few words about "Mindworm" (spoilers ahead), this month's short story. It was written by C.M. Kornbluth who despite his short life made a lasting impact in Science fiction. On the one hand this story is kind of silly and the ending was spoiled since I knew it was in vampire story collections from time to time. On the other hand it isn't a vampire story because it concerns a man who is literally sustained by sucking emotions out of people not blood. On the gripping hand, it was an interesting idea and an attempt to bring the fantasy idea of vampires into the science fiction age as a mutation. It is somewhat disappointing that few other authors go this route.

I also found the story to contain some amusing irony. The Mindworm goes to the small West Virginia town to disappear, but he's unknowingly arrived at the one place where he will be found. The Eastern European population of the town has seen his kind before and they are almost nonchalant in resolving the matter by immediately exterminating the "Wampyir."

Where as a more "civilized" society might have put the Mindworm on trial and discussed the possibility of rehabilitation these people thought of the Mindworm as a monster, or mutation, or a rabid animal; certainly something no longer human that was to be destroyed immediately.

The first stop in the "Galaxy" collection is "To Serve Man" by Damon Knight. This story's ending was familiar to me even though I'd never read the story or seen the Twilight Zone episode, though I have seen the parody in one of the Simpson's Halloween episodes. It's just one of those stories that's firmly in the pop culture. The story is also on the cover of this collection, and it is just about the worst cover ever. Almost every line of text on the left side of the cover has text the carries onto the following line. What were they thinking?!

Anyway, "To Serve Man," I think the story which features linguists working for many weeks to discover the terrible secret of the alien's books, makes a lot more sense then the Twilight Zone episode, where I believe they just kind of stumble upon the truth. Someone correct me if I'm wrong.

"Coming Attractions" by Fritz Leiber

New York City was hit by a nuclear bomb, but you can't keep the Big Apple down. The population has just gone about their business and does their best to avoid the ground zero area known as the Inferno. The protagonist, a visitor from England, carries a meter around to see how much radiation he's been exposed to. But all of that is sort of in the background, the main focus of the story is a kind of social examination; In this future, all woman in America wear masks over their faces and the human form has been banned from all advertisements. It was
interesting to see how Leiber imagined American culture changing since this kind of modesty is currently only associated with Middle Eastern culture and for lack of a better word completely foreign to current American culture.

"Cold Friend" by Harlan Ellison

Ellison just seems to be one of those authors you either love or hate, mostly because Ellison strikes me as nuts, I mean what kind of a guy copyrights his own name? (as Harlan did in 1980). What kind of a guy writes a whole book about how he didn't like the changes that were made to City on the Edge of Forever? (Especially since most people consider it the best hour of Star Trek ever). That said I'm slowly moving firmly into the love category because he may be a son of a bitch in real life, but he does know how to craft great stories.

Cold Friend is a story about a man that wakes up in a hospital after he clearly remembers dying. He soon realizes he's the last man on Earth. Though Earth is only roughly 3 square blocks and the rest complete darkness.

Note: Anyone know how popular Ellison is these days? I was disturbed to not be able to find a single one of his books in Barnes and Nobles the other day.

Philip K. Dick does not disappoint with "Oh, to be a Blobel!" a Sci-fi story whose ending mirrors "The Gift of the Magi." In the story Earth went to war with these kind of giant amoeba aliens from Titan called Blobels. During that time both Earth and Titan genetically altered some of their soldiers so that they became the opposite species in order to act as spies. Some years later there is peace, but not for ex-spies, they were told there would be no lasting effects
but for 12 hours of the day former permanent human George is a man and for 12 hours he is a Blobel. He has nothing to live for until a robot psychiatrist introduces him to a beautiful woman who is really a former Blobel Spy. She is a woman 18 hours of the day and a Blobel the other 6.

Asimov's "Founding Fathers" was a short story Asimov wrote as a commission. It was based on a drawing Horrace Gold gave him of that month's cover and told him to make a story around this.

The story concerns shipwrecked astronauts trying to survive on a planet with a nitrogen-carbon dioxide-ammonia based atmosphere. It's an interesting idea and made me think of another strange atmosphere story, Clement's "Mission of Gravity" where the aliens floated their ship on a methane sea.

Going Down Smooth by Robert Silverberg is a great little story about an AI computer used as a therapist that begins to become as crazy as its patients.

"All the Myriad Ways" by Larry Niven is kind of a satirical review of the absurdity of the theory that there are an infinite number of dimensions where your every action and decision are played out with similar or different results.

I thought it was neat that someone called a rich guy committing suicide, "pulling a Richard Cory" because I know and like the Simon and Garfunkel song.

The Holes Around Mars by Jerome Bixby (Spoilers) was supposed to just be a fun little story full of puns, but it was kind of interesting scientifically too, even if the science in it is impossible. In the story astronauts discover a tiny, but extremely dense moon that travels around the surface of Mars and cuts through anything in its path even several miles of solid rock.

"The Gift of Garigolli" by Fred Pohl and based on notes and bits of story and dialogue by himself and C.M. Kornbluth. (spoilers) This one confused me, it's a story about a down on his luck guy and some fly sized aliens that continuously attempt to communicate with the man. The alien's perspective is shared in the form of an alien's letters to his commander. In the end the aliens turn out to be formed from chemicals in the man's garbage? Or maybe they create the organic
chemical ooze the man finds in his garbage, I couldn't tell.

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