Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Not-Really-A-Review: Short Fiction from the Not-so-Distant Past

Instead of reading a novel last week, I decided to read speculative short fiction from several of the collections I have in my possession. The last two novels I read were Embassytown by China Mieville and The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, both of which are thought-provoking, dense works that, frankly, left my brain a little addled. I thought I'd read something shorter for a week and pick off some of that crispy fried goodness left on my brain. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), these stories proved to be quite contrary to my needs. These were as dense and thought-provoking and downright entertaining as the aforementioned novels - some of them perhaps more so.

J.G. Ballard, from The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard - "The Concentration City," "Deep End," "The Garden of Time," "The Atrocity Exhibition," "Plan for the Assassination of Jaqueline Kennedy," "The Drowned Giant," "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan," and "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race." The earlier stories in this group - particularly "The Drowned Giant," "Deep End," and "The Garden of Time," - concern themselves with the greenhouse effect and/or global warming, though I don't know if such terms existed - or, if they did, if they were as much a part of the public consciousness as they are now, but perhaps it is so - when these stories first appeared in the magazines. Ballard's eye for detail in "The Drowned Giant" is magnificent; and "The Garden of Time," about a man keeping a rampaging army from his gates by picking time flowers, is simply one of the best stories I've ever read. Ballard's later work is more experimental, both in subject matter and style. These pieces illuminate the sometimes tenuous and strange connections between sexual arousal, politics, and psychopaths. They are difficult to read and to understand in one sitting, but can be "rewarding" (which is hardly the right word here, but "disconcerting" or "terrifying" might not entice you to read them even a first time) if read more than once.

Theodore Sturgeon, from Dangerous Visions - "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" I've heard many great things about Theodore Sturgeon and fortunately found what most in the field consider his masterpiece, More Than Human, a few weeks ago at a used bookstore in Chicago; however, I wasn't impressed with this particular story. It had nothing to do with the story's subject matter - which makes a case for the benefits of incest and, though offensive to our notion of sexuality, Sturgeon does his best to give an opposing argument to such notions - but because I thought the narrator of the story was inconsistent from beginning to end. It wasn't that he was unreliable, which is fine by me in a narrator, but that the narrator wasn't as fully realized as a character at the beginning as much as he had at the end. Again, that might've worked, but the story began near the end with the narrator relating the story to someone else; thus, he should've been who he was at the end at the beginning. How's that for convoluted?

Sonya Dorman, from Dangerous Visions - "Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird" The story begins with a woman running from something. She knows she is about die and does not want to. In her final moments, she sees "snapshots" of her life in the frightening post-apocalyptic world Dorman has created, a world of starvation and cannibalism and strange rites and stranger peoples. Dorman rules the word, and each sentence builds on the tension of the last, but she is also able to pack a wollop of emotional depth in the story's harrowing swiftness. This was hands-down a favorite in the Dangerous Visions anthology for me.

David R. Bunch, from Dangerous Visions - "Incident in Modern" and "The Escaping" In the first story, a momentary truce has been declared by warring machine-like peoples. During this interim, a person of the flesh thanks one of the machine people's officers for letting him bury his dead without the sounds of war, thinking the cease-fire was meant for respect. Of course, it was nothing of the sort and when the machine person explains this, the flesh person is angry and embarrased. In the second story, a prisoner escapes into a fantasy of flying, of going up and up and up. As Bunch says in his afterword, both stories say "something...about truth and untruth." They're very good and very ambiguous.

Roger Zelazny, from Dangerous Visions - "Auto-da-fe" Zelazny, like Sturgeon, has a near-mythical status as a writer (see: Lord of Light, one of the greatest works of fiction in the last 100 years, seriously) but, like Sturgeon's, I wasn't impressed by this story. Though Sturgeon's had an emotional heft to it, Zelazny's was a trite affair. The concept is this: in the future matadors perform with near-sentient automobiles. Zelazny, like Gene Wolfe (see below), writes well at the sentence leve and handles a turn-of-phrase nicely, but I really thought, while reading this story, if he hadn't written this as a kind of burn-you-at-the-stake joke.

Harlan Ellison, from Deathbird and Other Stories - "Neon," "Delusion for a Dragon Slayer," "Bleeding Stones," and "The Deathbird." At the beginning of the book, Ellison advises the reader not to read all of these stories in one sitting as it would likely prove too much to handle. He's probably right. Each of these stories considers gods, goddesses, God, blasphemy, fervor, and pretty much everything inbetween. The four listed above are the only four I've read in this collection. "The Deathbird" is an experimental work, asking the question, what if Satan wasn't the bad guy, and God was a madman? "Delusion for a Dragon Slayer" is one of the most upsetting - in a good way - pieces I've read in a while because it deals with a hero who just isn't good enough and, well, a lot selfish (something I think about constantly) and the consequences. "Bleeding Stones" is a fairly ridiculous and graphic affair of a gargoyles coming to life from the tops of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan. "Neon," about a man implanted with lungs that glow after a bad accident, was anticlimactic in my opinion, though this story, out of each of those I've read, had some of the most striking images.

Gene Wolfe, from The Best of Gene Wolfe and The Fifth Head of Cerberus - "The Island of Dr. Death," "The Fifth Head of Cerberus," "'A Story' by John V. Marsch," and "V.R.T." Around these parts, Gene Wolfe is known as "Commander Ambiguous" - in that, a lot of what happens in his fiction resides in that land of "was-it-or-wasn't-it-ness." Part of the reason for this is simple: Wolfe concerns himself with themes of ambiguity: self-identity, the role of the individual in society, social norms, post-colonial thought, etc. There is no definitive right or wrong answer in questions like what is the self? or how much do you really know who we are? or where do I fit in, and how, and when? etc. Any answers are left to the individual to sort out in his or her head and will most likely differ from person to person. Just as important, Wolfe is a master at the sentence level. Each of these stories were phenomenal.

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