Friday, June 28, 2013

Short story read-aloud, week 15 and 16

Escape Artists (Escape PodPodcastlePseudopod)

Leonid Andreyev, "The Abyss": An older and very lyrical/metaphorical story about a pair of young lovers wandering through a wood, until some men attack (and rape?) the woman. Somewhat shocking to think of this being printed in 1902 Russia. More of a tone story than character/plot story.

Rudyard Kipling, "At the End of the Passage": A bunch of Englishmen in India get together for a game of cards, one of them dies later of terror of the country--which may be curse-related. For Kipling, I thought this was somewhat less structured and interesting than his usual--fun to hear the language of the Englishman ("bumblepuppy" and "punka-wallah"), but not enough arc to the story.

Dixon Chance, "Beware the Jabberwock, My Son": A dad watching his son discovers this old mirror (his wife wanted) gives access to some horrible monster. Fine, but nothing really memorable.

Scott M. Roberts, "The End-Of-The-World Pool": Two boys discover this decrepit pool (attached to the house their dads are rehabbing) has some monster/lure; the focus on this is all about the boys' relationship--their fighting and their making up. Which gives it a nice grounded topic when the language sometimes gets away.

Nathaniel Katz, "Beyond the Shrinking World": When the world is being pulled apart, some magic knight has to go kill the source (or rather the demigod who is using the world-pulling-apart power). Started out interesting, but lost steam for me as it settled into that epic quest groove.

Liz Argall, "Mermaid's Hook": A fun inversion of mermaid tales as a mermaid rescues a slave who gets tossed off a slave-ship. That inversion was just about all I got from this. It's possible I'm just not listening closely this week.

Megan Arkenberg, "The Copperroof War": A house that is also a city that is also a kingdom starts to get into a strange new war with itself--and the protagonist has to track down the culprit and all of the various love triangles. Fun but also serious with an inventive setting.

Arthur C. Clarke, "Rescue Party": Aliens come to earth just before the supernova to see what they can rescue. A very old story with some issues and some interesting out-there aliens. Not the mundane sf we've got a lot of now.

Claudine Griggs, "Growing Up Human": Robots study human info to become more human. Funny, as they don't really understand what's going on; and only a little tragic, with none of the melodrama of "Now I understand your tears," etc.

Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project PulpTales to TerrifyStarship Sofa, Crime City Central)

Cordwainer Smith, "The Game of Rat and Dragon": A fine audio version of story that I'll cover in my Cordwainer Smith reread next monday.

Ben Ames Williams, "A Voice From the Fog": A man defends his no-swimming opinion by telling a classy little ghost story. In some ways, this 1917 story fits very well with the "club story" tradition: a bunch of dudes sit around and one tells a story. Only, rather than being in a club, these dudes are camping out. The ghost story is pretty predictable--businessman kills his partner and is drawn back to scene of the crime where he is himself killed by drowning--but since this story is narrated by a character within the story, he can give some deft characterizations without raising too many objections. So when the narrator says that there's nothing sadder than a man who smiles all the time, we don't want to argue, as we might if it was an omniscient narrator telling us the way it is--this is just one guy's opinion.

Christopher Fowler, "The 11th Day": A truly horrific and wonderful story: a woman without many connections in the world gets stuck in an elevator with a man who doesn't have many connections. I actually couldn't listen to this when I was falling asleep because I could take the dread engendered by the day-by-day countdown of how they're stuck and no one's coming to rescue them--especially with the title which gives away how long they'll be stuck. Here's a spoiler: At the end, the woman is dying and the two confess their love now that they are close, and I so wanted it to end there, with that beautiful and horrific moment... and then the man repairs the elevator and leaves, since it was all a scheme of his to create that beautiful shared moment. It doesn't ruin the story, it merely recasts the entire thing as horrific rather than just terrible.

Alastair Reynolds, "Sledge Maker's Daughter": Here's another story nominated for the BSFA 2007 best short story award and another story where I feel like shrugging. The opening is interesting, following a woman on her errands in some medievalish setting and her run-in with a powerful villager who wants to coerce her into sex. But then she goes to the old woman's house and the crone explains the whole world--the ice age they're coming out of is due to the space war sucking out energy from the sun and here's a technological marvel from some nice man in armor. So at the end, we have this woman who now has great tech to protect herself. But the entire second half of the story is info-dump from the old woman, with no conflict.

Jeff VanderMeer, "Shark God vs. Octopus God": A very silly name with some little silliness throughout--like the Shark God living in this mythic time and constantly cursing--but so well done, with a reader-satisfying comeuppance for the Shark God.

Elizabeth Bear, "And the Deep Blue Sea": In a post-apocalyptic landscape, a motorcycle courier debates giving up her cargo to a satanic figure, in payment for getting more years of life. I enjoy the mix of sf tropes and horror tropes--Satan transforms the landscape so that, instead of the fantastic apocalypse of the future, the motorcyclist travels through real environmental disasters of the past. I very much felt the burning heat of the southwest, but that might have more to do with my current location (the burning southwest) than with the writing. Also, the debate doesn't really have teeth for me since we don't really know the stakes.

Joe Haldeman, "Graves": A story I've read before, in which a Vietnam War forensic team goes to check out a weird corpse; they get fired on, killing a soldier; and then they go back to find the US soldier eviscerated and the weird corpse gone. There's no definite answer that, yes, this is a type of Vietnamese undead. And the story itself is so slight and prosaic in the Vietnam War genre: guy goes out, sees something horrific. But here's a story where the unglamorous details really sell it, from the guy smoking near the flame thrower to the transportation of beer as necessary rations.

Gwyneth Jones, "La Cenerentola": In the future, rich people will have new technologies to reproduce, which seem to go beyond simple genetic reconstructions to something more holographic; on vacation in Europe, an American couple meets up with a woman who has two perfect twins and one horrible little child, who may or may not be abused (as "la cenerentola"--Cinderella). There are a couple twists here that seem more confusing, including the narrator's wife's anger when the narrator discusses the twins one time too many.

Spider Robinson, "Distraction": A light tale with excellent voice: two criminals--one experienced, the other a novice--break into a house that weirdly fights back; but the wrap up is the silly "we broke into a writer's house," which deflates any actual feeling of story.

Kage Baker, "Likely Lad": A teen with a mutation that lets him control computers/electronics has normal teen urges, but can't act on them because of legal issues around teens; so his AI playfriend program, which (a) has the personality of a pirate and (b) has his moral restrictions removed by the teen, tries to get the teen into smuggling to distract him from sex. A light and fun story, featuring sugar smuggling and an over-zealous anti-smuggling patrol-captain. It's fun and low stakes, and it keeps our sympathy on the smugglers by representing the teen somewhat realistically--he's never had sex, all he knows is what he's seen on the holo-tv. There is one dangerous note in the fact that he's a mutant and the breadth of his abilities are as yet unknown.

Steve Aylett, "Gigantic": A strange story where a scientist-crackpot has visions of death and aliens; at the end, the aliens come and drop all the dead bodies that people are responsible for. Now, I might quibble with this notion of singular responsibility--all the Holocaust victims fall on Berlin, which seems to be forgetting all the help that came outside of the capital--but it is a striking image. Aylett reliably brings the weird.

Lawrence Block: "Keller the Dog-Killer": I have just subscribed to the Crime City Central podcast, which starts with a story about the hitman Keller: he gets hired to whack a dog by two women who turn out to have ulterior objects in mind. Block keeps Keller sympathetic by making his victims petty, back-stabbing, and/or monstrous (the original dog's owner gets off when her dog kills another); as well as presenting Keller as a man who is noble and tough enough to do the hard job (of killing the dog himself).

Marilyn Todd, "Something Rather Fishy": A Britain-set story about an ex-con-woman who realizes her con-woman friend is actually a black widow. There's a happy ending where the ex-con kills the black widow--whose first victim was a friend--and marries her old sweetheart. Todd does a fun thing to mark the long timespan by noting what bands were popular at the time; which more-or-less fits the narrator since she was friends with a band back in the day--and yet, the music angle is only tangential.

Chris F. Holm, "A Simple Kindness": A man sees a pretty woman on the subway leave a bag behind, so he grabs it, and finds himself caught up in a blackmail scheme (the bag is full of pictures). A very old-fashioned "the lady was trouble"/"I'm a sucker for a pretty face" story. A little too simple and old-fashioned for my taste.

Cheryl Wood Ruggiero, "Eleven Eleven": A homeless girl with a memory problem something something something. The POV/voice work here is fine, setting us within that girl's mind; the only problem is that she has a very limited view of the thing. At the end, when she has some memory of what happened, I got lost at the sudden revelation and confusion of the girl's POV.

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