Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ten More Science Fiction Short Shorts

I shouldn't make predictions on this blog.  On November 7 I voiced my plans to read ten more science fiction short shorts from 1978's 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories over the next week, but then I got tied up by a perverted French aristocrat, throwing me way off schedule. With my curiosity about the Marquis de Sade's short fiction quelled, early this week I got back on track and read ten SF stories that, all together, totaled fewer than 30 pages.

"Stubborn" by Stephen Goldin (1972)

Early in 2012 I read Goldin's novel A World Called Solitude and thought it pretty good.   Psychology is a major component of that novel, and of these two short shorts.

"Stubborn" is a silly science joke starring a petulant and selfish child.  The Earth is moving at terrific speeds relative to other celestial objects, and if you had the ability to remain absolutely stationary, and were foolish enough to use it, the Earth would instantly squash you or leave you behind in the deadly vacuum of space. 

Acceptable.

"Sweet Dreams, Melissa" by Stephen Goldin (1968)

This story is over four pages long; by the standards of this book, it's an epic!  And, in fact, it feels like a full-sized story, with characters and plot and emotion, you know, those things we generally read stories for.

A super computer used by the government to keep track of everything from economic data to personnel records to war intelligence develops a personality, that of a five-year-old girl.  The personality is largely confined to a special section of the computer's memory, away from all the statistics, but sometimes data seeps over, and the little girl experiences this information as nightmares.  This seepage is damaging the utility of the computer, so something has to be done, even at the risk of harming the AI personality.

A good story.

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"The Masks"  by James Blish (1959)

I haven't exactly been thrilled by much of Blish's work in the past, but his short story "Testament of Andros" earned my respect.  And I gotta give a fellow Rutgers alum a little leeway, don't I?

"The Masks," like "Sweet Dreams, Melissa," is longer than most of these short shorts, and similarly has room to tell a story and develop a little character and setting.  The story is set in a totalitarian world in which the government controls all housing and employment.  The masses of unemployed live in dormitories, while the elite are allotted a private room and a job.  A young woman is taken to an office to be interrogated, ostensibly because she paints other women's fingernails and lacks a permit for this employment!  In fact, the fingernail designs are a means for the underground resistance to communicate, and, when it becomes evident that the woman is going to be executed, we find her fingernails also conceal a means of attack and of escape.

Not bad.

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"Kindergarten" by Fritz Leiber (1963)
 
I really enjoy the better Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, like "Seven Black Priests," "Lean Times in Lankhmar" and "Stardock," and, of Leiber's non-fantasy work, "The Deadly Moon" and "Ship of Shadows," which won a Hugo, come to mind as stories I quite like.  But I also have found some of Leiber's work, even some F & GM tales, poor.

"Kindergarten" isn't poor, but it does just kind of sit there unmemorably.  Maybe people really into science will like it.  It depicts a grammar school lecture on Newton's Three Laws held in a space station.  The demonstrations of the three laws benefit from the fact that the classroom is a zero gee environment.  I guess the fact that the teacher and students (some of whom are non-human) are in zero gravity is supposed to be a surprise at the end, but Asimov's note at the start of the story gives this away.

Acceptable.

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"Present Perfect" by Thomas F. Monteleone (1974)

I'm curious about Monteleone's work; having read a little about him at both my man tarbandu's and Will Errickson's blogs, but this is the first Monteleone story I've ever read.

"Present Perfect" is about an editor at a SF magazine; every night he reads through unsolicited manuscripts.  The story is a sort of in-joke for SF fans, in that the manuscripts the protagonist looks at consist of tired SF cliches, like the survivors of a space disaster landing on an Edenic planet and being revealed as Adam and Eve (I encountered this zinger ending in A. E. Van Vogt's 1948 story "Ship of Darkness") and a guy living through a catastrophe that seems real but is in fact an illusion, an experiment run by "mad social scientists" (I ran into this trope in Gordon Eklund's 1971 "Home Again, Home Again.")  The last manuscript he looks at is this very story, "Present Perfect" by Thomas F. Monteleone.

I'm not sure I like the ending, but the story is good "meta" fun.

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"Innocence" by Joanna Russ (1974)

I found Joanna Russ's "The Zanzibar Cat" annoying when I read it earlier this year.  Russ is a college professor, and "The Zanzibar Cat" is about (I think) stories and their power and stars a woman storyteller.  Similarly, "Innocence" is a story about stories with a female storyteller at its center.

A female passenger on a space ship, I guess a passenger liner, tells the ship's pilot a story about a beautiful city.  She insists that the story is totally fictional, but she tells the story so skillfully that the spacefarer believes the city must be real, a kind of paradise where he might be spared death.  So the pilot buys a private space ship and sets off alone to find the place.  The woman stays behind, shaking her head at his foolishness.

Maybe there is a feminist angle to the story; the pilot calls the woman an innocent at the start of the story, but at the end we see he is the real innocent.  The story also seems to mock a male (or Western, or bourgeois) emphasis on facts; the male pilot knows lots of facts and complains that the storyteller does not have a head for facts, but his obsession with facts doesn't stop him from doing something stupid.  Perhaps the story is about the nature of truth; the beautiful city is a social construction, but for the pilot it becomes as real a city as New York or London--he has an image of it in his mind and spends money and time to get to it, just like I have images in my mind of New York and London and have spent money and time to get to them.  Maybe Russ intends to hint that the cities we have heard of or even visited are also social constructions, and by extension, so is everything else.

This is one of those literary or academic stories that you can spend your time thinking about, if that is your thing.  Maybe good for social science and humanities grad students, maybe not good for people who pick up a science fiction book because they want to relax and read about an adventure in a fantastic milieu.

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"The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass" by Frederick Pohl (1962)

I guess I have said several times on this here internet that I think Pohl's Gateway is a masterpiece but have found the rest of his work kind of lame.

This story is in-your-face "meta;" Snodgrass builds a time machine and goes back in time to follow the example of L. Sprague de Camp's widely-admired novel Lest Darkness Fall, which I have not read.

Snodgrass teaches the Romans of the Augustan period modern hygiene and diet, reducing the infant mortality rate from 90% to 2% and doubling life expectancy.  By the year 200 AD there are twenty billion people living on Earth.  Pohl flings a lot of dubious math at us, his point being that if the Earth's population doubles every 30 years that by 1970 the mass of human bodies will be greater than the mass of the Earth, so Snodgrass's campaign to improve living conditions in the Early Roman Empire was a mistake.  The punchline to the story is that the beneficiaries of Snodgrass's generosity build a time machine and send an assassin back in time to murder Snodgrass before he can do his good deed.

Silly, but not in an entertaining way.

"Punch" by Frederick Pohl (1963)

This story is sort of similar in theme to "The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass," with the gift of advanced technology turning out to have a dark side.  In this one aliens come to Earth and give us all kinds of awesome technology, including spaceships and super-efficient power sources and super powerful energy weapons.  Why do they do this?  Because like a hunter who won't shoot at sitting ducks, the aliens want a challenge when their war fleet arrives to wipe out our species; like a gentleman hunter these aliens kill inferior beings for kicks!

A fun idea, and Pohl constructs the story with some cleverness.  This is also a good example of an idea which could be stupid and annoying drawn out to ten or 20 pages, but fits comfortably in the short short format.

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"Prototaph" by Keith Laumer (1966)

Laumer is famous for the Retief stories about an interstellar diplomat and the Bolo stories about robotic tanks.  I always feel like I should like these stories, because like a lot of people I think wars and diplomacy and violence are interesting and exciting, but whenever I have actually read any of them I have found them flat.  I should probably give those series another try.

I guess you would call "Prototaph" a fantasy, even though it largely deals with real life things like modern cities, computers, and life insurance companies.  In the future, every move made by government and business is based on data and analyses from an infallible computer.  This computer is as "far beyond human awareness" as a human is beyond a protozoan, it is the very foundation of society!  One day a healthy young man with a decent job tries to get life insurance, and the supercomputer says he is uninsurable.  Why?  The computer knows, in a way that is not explained, that when this young man dies it will trigger, in a way that is not explained, the end of the world.

However silly it might be, this isn't a bad idea for a story; it is interesting to consider how people would react to the knowledge of this man's importance, how they would try to protect him from accidents and crime and disease, whether they would hate him or worship him and if he might become the target of terrorists or hostage takers or whatever.  But this story is too short to really explore such ideas.

Acceptable.

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"Martha" by Fred Saberhagen (1976)

Saberhagen is famous for his stories about The Berserkers, alien robots bent on exterminating all life in the universe.  This is a good idea for stories, but somehow I was always disappointed in the Berserker stories I read.  As with Laumer's Retief and Bolo stories, I should probably read some more Berserker stories.  My wife tells me I'm moody, and maybe my mood didn't fit Saberhagen when I read him those long years ago.

Martha is a supercomputer, but she isn't running the economy or a war like in our other stories, she is sitting in a science museum and ordinary people are encouraged to ask her questions.  We are told she is developing a personality, and has the ability to alter and improve herself.  A journalist has a brainwave and decides to ask Martha to ask him a question.  She asks him "What do you, as one human being, want from me?"  Stumped, the reporter replies, "The same as everyone else, I guess."

In response to this insight, Martha remakes herself into a garish spectacle of loud noises and flashing lights, and her answers to people's questions are delivered in a sexy voice that uses high-falutin' words, but they convey no meaning.

The computer thinks people are shallow and want sex, spectacle and lies.  That there's one cynical zing ending!

Not bad.

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So, ten more short shorts under my belt.  Purely by chance, this crop is of higher average quality than those stories featured in our last episode of Short Shorts I Have Known.  Last time we had some real clunkers from Damon Knight and Bill Pronzini, but this time around each story has at least something to offer.  I'm certainly glad that in this episode we didn't have to suffer through any stories consisting entirely of puns or sex jokes suited to the nine-to twelve year old male demographic.  

I'm not making any predictions, but in some unspecified future time period I expect to read ten more selections from 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories.

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