Friday, July 5, 2013

Short story read-aloud, week 17

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

James Lecky, "The Bone House" (BCS 018): A sorcerer and his son hide out from a war, which naturally finds them in the person of a cute woman soldier. Some fine description here, but ultimately, though it's presented as the story of how the sorcerer's son decides to use magic to kill everyone, the story features almost no decisions from the protagonist: he saves the woman, hides her without knowing anything about her (so, not really a hard decision), and then it's all out of his hands.

Harry R. Campion "Walking Out" (BCS 019): In some desert city full of exiles (but also somehow at the center of international trade?), some people are haunted by these living ideas of Death and Madness. An interesting, weird setting; and I like the meditation on how these ideas are personified--why is Death  "sweet"?; but I think the story could have been plotted more/structured. For instance, the protagonist starts out leaving a lover--but what significance does that have?

Aliette de Bodard, "Blighted Heart" (BCS 020): In a civilization that sounds Mesoamerican--blood sacrifice to a corn god--a woman who is about to have her heart given to the corn god goes off and has sex before the sacrifice, which ruins the rains. Since priestly magic keeps these heartless women alive after the sacrifice, she goes around feeling cold and eventually coming up with a way to bring the rains by eating the corn god's heart. An interesting story that might bear re-reading to track its themes of sacrifice and innocence and feeling.

Emily M. Z. Carlyle, "The Prince’s Shadow" (BCS 021): A blind woman gets recruited as the playmate of the prince, thus throwing her into courtly intrigue--the king shtupping his half-sister, the brother-in-law in the prison, the war against the pope, etc. Which is curious: this story might take place in our world (plus some minor magic) or not--and I wish it were clearer on that. Also there's a turn at the end where the woman regains her sight, which I wish was clearer. But otherwise this story follows the well-worn path of showing the blind as superhuman in other senses, so everything gets described from her POV.

Christopher Green, "Father’s Kill" (BCS 022): I'll be honest: there are so many podcasts out there (and so many stories) that I'm getting to the point where, if a story doesn't interest me, I might not pay all that much attention to it. Here's an example: it's a werewolf story that just didn't grab me.

Lightspeed and Nightmare 

Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, "Alive, Alive Oh": Husband and wife go to terraform a planet for a few years, but some disease/poison gets into them so they can never return home; and the wife's stories of the earth to their rebellious child lead to her dying by eating poisonous shellfish. Although the voice and nostalgia here were strong and direct, the whole "death by exoplanet clam" angle seemed silly to me; and all the weight of the protagonist's decision was on the end, where she chooses to commit suicide by poison sea.

Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project PulpTales to TerrifyStarship Sofa)

James Cooper, "There’s Something Wrong with Pappy": A really atmospheric piece about a family that's torn by the mother's death, with the daughter becoming interested in a model house that has some magical powers and the father slowly going bonkers / being replaced with a monster version. I'm not entirely sure I followed the plot, but the atmospherics are really good.

John Shirley, "Isolation Point": Some mysterious disease makes people want to kill each other when they get within 19 paces; but a guy who lives behind a fence meets a nomadic woman who wants to try some aversion therapy, which almost works. Curiously, Shirley mixes in the protagonist's journal entries, but I'm not sure why.

Terry Bisson, "Bears Discover Fire": Here's a story I can unabashedly recommend: an old-fashioned brother (he fixes his old, pre-radial tires) narrates his mother's slow fading while bears seem to be evolving. Here's a story that bucks a lot of trends: the sf element is on the fringe, the protagonist makes very few decisions (he cuts wood for the bears because he feels a connection)--and yet, it all works because of the deep character and thematic issues.

Ann Littlewood, "Scales Justice": A woman's brother is eaten by his prize python--so was it an accident or murder, by the ex-wife herpetologist or the new girlfriend, the snake charmer? I'd like to formally state that I dislike crime stories that end with the criminal being goaded into confession while cops wait in a backroom. But I like the protagonist detective's interest in her birds and dislike of her brother's snakes.

Ray Banks, "The Kindness of Strangers": A school photographer gets a girl out of a bad home-life, but his interest is dangerous. I heard this on Crime City Central, but it feels like a horror story--the crime at the end is simply one murder among many, as the protagonist goes on with his obsessions.

Scott Nicholson, "How to Build Your Own Coffin": A man spends a lot of time building a coffin for a test he pulls on women who want him to help him rob: they rob a place, then he asks the woman to nail the coffin shut on him--and when she says there's no reason to let him out, he knows he's found the perfect women. I like that end, but there's some unnecessary "what's he going to do with that coffin?" moments.

C. Hall Thompson, "The Eagle of Kuwahl": This story was printed in Indian Stories in 1950; and without knowing the particular magazine better, I still think the host is right to note how interesting it is that we have a story here where just about all the villainy is on the side of the white Americans and all the sympathy is with the Native American Cherokee. (There were only three issues of Indian Stories and this story appeared in the last, which had a cover featuring an Indian maiden protecting a white man from her dangerous tribe. So there's that.) The story itself is also curiously complex, with the protagonist and title character being torn between his hope of living in peace and his hope of keeping hold on his ancestral ground when white miners come for the gold.

Muriel A. Pollexfen, "Conjuror of the Clouds": One in a series of anti-British sky-captain and his pro-British nemesis. This was published in 1911; and the host makes much of the flying fortress issue (missing Verne's 1886 introduction of Robur and all the dime novel flying machines), probably because there isn't much else of interest in this simple piece of adventure fiction.

H. P. Lovecraft, "The Colour out of Space": A typical Lovecraftian yarn in some ways: mysterious meteor carrying some vague monster destroys isolated farm, poisoning the land and disintegrating/draining the family. It's a long but good example of Lovecraft's fusion of outer space science fiction and horror; and as with some stories, there's very little danger to the narrator. All the terror comes not from "it's going to get me" but from "this is very wrong."

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