Friday, April 19, 2013

Short Story Read Aloud, Week 6

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Marissa Lingen, "Armistice Day": A race of monsters get called up by human magicians to fight a war, stick around after the war is over and take menial jobs. Only some of the humans want them gone and the monsters have started normal lives. An interesting way to show a contemporary ethical dilemma through fantasy tropes. The characters are a mite thin, but the story still works by presenting that ethical dilemma and the lengths people will go to to do the right thing.


Tobias S. Buckell, "Placa del Fuego": A pickpocket on a strange island (electronic dampener and wormholes in the sea nearby, so its both backwards and a hub of travel) gets involved with an interstellar cyborg hero and the thief capo who runs the island under-city due to her alien biological enhancements. A little hard to get into--I started listening to it many times--and the story is ultimately not all that interesting to me--when the pickpocket admits he was trying to target the cyborg in the first place, all I could do was shrug since it wasn't a very emotional betrayal. But the baroque world-building was very engaging and wide-thinking. Don't be afraid to be weird in your speculation, seems to be the lesson.

Escape Artists (Escape PodPodcastlePseudopod)

Vylar Kaftan, "The Suicide Witch": In Japan, a female slave's job is to prepare dead bodies for funerals, particularly (or maybe only) suicide's bodies. Her master's cruel son comes to bully her into helping him steal his father's intended bride by faking a death, but the suicide witch uses this opportunity to escape. Since EA has three podcasts, there's often some discussion about where some story belongs--is this horror enough, is the science here really magic, is there any magic at all, etc. "The Suicide Witch" presents a very clear problem for the protagonist--how to escape her bondage without sinking into beggary and prostitution--but it's such a mini-heist story that I don't see much horror in it. What other genres can the heist formula be applied to / sized for?

Ken Scholes, "Making My Entrance with my Usual Flair": An out-of-work clown gets a job transporting an alien, but decides to double-cross his employer and free the alien--who just wants to run away to the circus. An amusing, light story, with an oversized narrator, whose personality is nicely captured in the story.

Lightspeed and Nightmare 

Katherine Ann Goonan, "A Love Supreme": an agoraphohic nanotech doctor gives herself an experimental dose in order to go check on her dying father, a man who wasn't there for her growing up after her mother died. The POV of this story edges towards detachment, though maybe that's an effect of talking about people who don't communicate about their feelings all that well. There's also a strong undercurrent of haves vs. have-nots, which makes this story feel oddly double-headed: both a social story and a personal story. Maybe it's that detachment from the person that allows Goonan to have it both ways?

Tobias S. Buckell, "A Game of Rats and Dragon": In a near future of ubiquitous augmented reality games, a guy and his AI companion dragon have the job of rooting out rogue AI game elements--what we might call bugs but they call rats. A perfectly pleasant story that is clearly in discussion with Cordwainer Smith's "The Game of Rat and Dragon," about how humans and cats team up to destroy interstellar monsters and allow space travel. The image of near-future AR gaming is done well, including the necessity for low-paid people to act as NPCs.

Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project PulpTales to TerrifyStarship Sofa)

Jack London, "Love of Life": A man wanders in the wilderness, slowly starving. There's no great emotional hurdles here or character growth: when the man lets go of the gold he was carrying, it's not a big moment, just a practical concern. There's a certain dispassionate detachment to the POV, but the physical descriptions are so rich that it really makes you feel awful for this guy's situation. Like when he stumbles into a bird's nest and eats the just-born chicks, it's awful but you kind of nod along. As Stephen King and others have noted, when you're describing physical hardship, just describe it simply, with no need for metaphors or other figurative language.

Bruce Sterling, "We See Things Differently": In some alternate history where the US is sliding towards 3rd world status and an United Caliphate holds power, a fake reporter goes to kill an American rockstar/ex-academic. The POV from the worldly but outsider Arab secret agent/journalist is a very smart choice, but the heart of this story really seems to be that sense of difference, both between cultures and between our history and that history. In other words, it's a very talky story where the setting is more important.

Robert E. Howard, "Gods of the North": Conan fights some barbarians, sees an evil goddess and chases her, until her father knocks him down. It's funny how straight-ahead and low-stakes this story is: Conan kills a guy, chases a girl, kills more guys, catches the girl, gets knocked unconscious by a god. It's less a story than a chase; and less a chase than a showcase for how ridiculously great Conan is at everything. Still, when Howard describes Conan clenching his teeth so hard that blood starts from his gums, that certainly shows that things ain't so easy for our Cimmerian.

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