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Friday, January 30, 2015

Top five stories from the last year at Nanoism.net

As always, plenty of interesting work here, but these stood out:

624 [untitled] 
by John Pugh XI

Pugh renders a creepy SF world in two sentences.

***

603 [untitled] 
by Meredith Hatcher 

A semi-subtle portrait of a woman who didn't get what she's expected to enjoy.

***

596 [untitled] 
by R. Gatwood 

A tale of two lovers, possibly grown older, memory slipping--and plans for their future.

***

588  [untitled] by Sylvia van Bruggen 

This one hints a larger story that begs to be written.

***

586 
by Mathew Loudon 

It begins touching, ends on a different note.

***

Runners-up:

A pair of mysteries:
  1. 578 by Foster Trecost
  2. 577 by Daniel Galef 

***

Best line:

Monica Wang's "a future disappointment left her fallopian tube"

***

Other top stories at Nanoism.net:

  1. Top three of the last 100 or so posts at Nanoism.net 
  2. Top 3 posts of the next 75 posts at Nanoism.net
  3. Top 3 posts of the third 75 posts at Nanoism.net 
  4. Top 3 posts of the fourth set of 75 posts at Nanoism.net 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

"Seven-Day Terror" by R. A. Lafferty



First appeared in Frederik Pohl's If. Reprinted in two Year’s Bests and a genre retrospective by Judith Merril, Laurence M. Janifer, Isaac Asimov, and Martin H. Greenberg.

Summary:
A boy makes a disappearer with a beer can--from a cat to a fire hydrant and hats. Pieces of flesh disappear but nothing too serious. Police are sure the Willoughby family are to blame but have no proof. Eventually the cause comes to light.

Discussion:
This one's lighter fare than previous tales. It is what it is: A younger brother tries to take credit for his sister's invention she'd written about in her diary, and she promises more of the same in the future. However, a thing's disappearance becomes more grave as days become years.

The disappearance occurs with a beer can, and the family sells comfort in the form of liquor, so this may suggest the real-life method of disappearance. Two examples don't build an interesting interpretive case; neither do they augment other tale aspects such as the sibling rivalry or the light-hearted tone. It may be, though, that Lafferty intends for readers to read about a light situation yet project this out into serious consequences. A harmless child's game becomes sobering.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

R. A. Lafferty on the Hugo Award

"Winning the Hugo Award for 'Eurema's Dam' puzzled me completely*, and I'm still puzzled by it. It was a pleasant little story, but I had four or five better stories published that year.... Still, I was glad to have a Hugo. I don't believe it had much effect on my career. I think the effect of Hugos is greatly exaggerated. And I've heard four or five different writers express puzzlement over winning Hugos with stories that were pretty ordinary and being passed over on stories which they really believed were earth-shaking."
-- R. A. Lafferty interview with Tom Jackson

* I explain why it probably won here

Regarding the award's effect, he might be singing a different tune today. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

R. A. Lafferty on Terry Carr on Getting and Keeping a Reader

"Terry Carr taught me that a story must begin with a bang.... Terry also told me that, 'You can lose a reader, completely and forever, in fifteen seconds. Never leave him even a fifteen-second interval without a hook to jerk him back.' Anything else Terry told me is contained in those two very good pieces of advice."
-- R. A. Lafferty interview with Tom Jackson

Monday, January 26, 2015

"In Our Block" by R. A. Lafferty

First appeared in Frederick Pohl’s If. Nominated for the Nebula and reprinted in a Year’s Best and genre retrospectives by Donald A. Wollheim, Terry Carr, Robert R. Potter, and Martin H. Greenberg (picked by Neil Gaiman as his favorite fantasy story).
Summary: 
Two gentlemen wander a little known block visiting shanties that weren’t there not long ago. One small shack has trucks enter and leave despite being much smaller than the trucks. One, a stenographer recalls an entire conversation and can type it up in seconds... with her tongue. Another offers to restore hair to any color (though one assumes that any creature could do such a thing one his own. Another cold beer, despite having nothing around.

Discussion:
This seems like a typical if clever little SF story of its day, where aliens have visited Earth and are trying to fit in and improve our lot, yet be evasive about being aliens.

But the title gives a few pauses.

1. “Our”
The story opens:
“There were a lot of funny people in that block.”
So if it’s their block as well, they are one of the funny people, one of the aliens or folk with strange powers (whether supernatural or science beyond our understanding, is unclear).

The stenographer confirms this although its ostensibly a joke that only makes sense after you examine the last word in the title:
"Hi, cousin!"

2. “Block”
Relevant definitions include a) a residential area bordered by streets on four sides, b) something that impedes flow, and c) slang for head.

A is clear. B is relevant as there is a slight memory and understanding problem going on here. It's not just the impossible or improbable are occurring, but people's understanding of it is muddled:
"This is the first steel tape I ever made. Just got the idea when I saw you measuring my shack with that old beat-up one."
If that's true, how did this guy offer one up for sale without knowing what it was?

Likewise, the stenographer says:
"No sense mix up two things at one time.... The ungrammar of the letter is your own, sir." 
She is the one with problematic grammar. Or is she?

The character are blocked mentally from their own reality and identity. Jim Boomer's identifies himself as of the Shawnee tribe headquartered in Oklahoma but his last name indicates a group of settlers who came to farm Oklahoma territory. It's paradox that's solvable if extended out of the past, into the future--where Shawnee and Boomer children intermarry. This becomes a more distinct possibility as the stenographer "cousin" names herself of the Innominee tribe. This derives from the Latin innominatus meaning "nameless."

Note how easily the protagonists succumb to the "alien" reasoning by the end. We assume that the protagonists do not buy the stenographer's explanation of the shack that allows larger trucks to pass through as being able to "cut prices."
"Like the girl says, he cuts prices," Boomer said. 
Boomer closes with this opening idea of funny people being in the block.

What do we make of this lost identity and reality for these characters? Possibilities:

  1. In the future we lose ourselves. 
  2. Aliens take on our identities and forget themselves.
  3. Maybe identity places arbitrary and unnecessary logic limits on the imagination and, therefore, one's ability.
  4. Or life is nonsense when examined closely.
A fifth possibility: That all is illusion, but this seems unlikely as the story events would lose relevance.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

“Nine Hundred Grandmothers” by R. A. Lafferty

First appeared in Frederik Pohl’s If. Reprinted in several Year’s Best and genre retrospectives by Donald A. Wollheim, Terry Carr, Robert Silverberg, Frederik Pohl, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, Ursula K. Le Guin, Brian Attebery, Ellen Datlow and Gardner Dozois. Online.

Summary: 
Ceran Swicegood, a promising young Special Aspects Man, studies the curious species, the Proavitoi. They do not seem to die but rather retire to a sleeping state where they slumber the rest of their lives except to awake now and then.

Ceran’s name may have something to do with his personality as he is nice. His choice to keep his name is to his commander's consternation:
"Only Ceran kept his own [name]—to the disgust of his commander, Manbreaker. 
" 'Nobody can be a hero with a name like Ceran Swicegood!' "
According to the anonymous narrator, Ceran "had one irritating habit. He was forever asking the questions: How Did It All Begin?” Ceran sees the Proavitoi as a way to answer this question.

Discussion:
When Ceran gets his conversation with the oldest Proavitoi, she evades his questions about the beginning as it is a joke and that he should delight as they do in the evasion. He does not. He wishes he had a tough name like Manbreaker's, so they'd supply answers or he'd kill the Proavitoi ancestors, one by one.

He does not but is frustrated. He leaves, changes his name, and becomes the conqueror of a small island for ninety-seven days and presumably meets an unpleasant end.

We have three groups represented here:

  1. The Proavitoi, who delight in the mystery of life,
  2. Manbreaker and his ilk (perfect name) who willingly destroy others to get what they need. Also, they seem to be a more practical sort. What can you do with knowing the beginnings of things? More practical is immortality. Swicegood frustrates Manbreaker as much as the Proavitoi frustrate Swicegood.
  3. Finally, Ceran Swicegood, the outlier of his species who are out to conquer people and their lands. Ceran wants to conquer the ineffable, but his methods are peaceful but require answers in a way similar to Manbreaker, demanding and immediate. He does not have patience. When his is used up, he becomes like the rest of his species.
Manbreaker is a name that cuts both ways. Yes, they break other men, but they also break themselves as happens to Ceran: When he breaks other men, he breaks himself.

This is probably one of my favorites of Lafferty's.

Friday, January 23, 2015

"Eurema’s Dam" by R. A. Lafferty

First appeared in Robert Silverberg’s New Dimensions. Reprinted in several Year’s Best and genre retrospectives by Lester del Rey, Terry Carr, Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, and Orson Scott Card. It won the Hugo and Seiun awards and was up for the Locus.
Summary:
Albert, about the last of the dolts, is thought of as the only idiot in a society of human perfection. Albert, though, invents things to make up for his lacks since "Necessity is the mother of invention": a machine for hunches, for understanding women, etc. In fact, in the last thirty years, the major inventions all belong to Albert.

Discussion:
The story opens nearly majestic (the word "about" undermines the majesty):
"He was about the last of them."
Lafferty then plays on the readers' expectations, allowing for grand possibilities, but slaps the reader's face with a dead-fish surprise:
"No. No. He was the last of the dolts."
Although he and his society seem to agree Albert is a dolt, he is anything but. When listing his defects, astute readers will note the creative genius turning the gears of his mind. Although he can't tell time, he isn't interested in time. He must understand a litany of strange aspects of Nature--things most mortals do not understand--in order to differentiate his left hand from his right. Not to mention all of his inventions that no one else has come up with. All because of his flaw of being "a dolt."

This must have touched the then-zeitgeist of the SF'nal mind: in what was Lafferty’s only major award-winner. It is the nerd-song, the tune of which must have rang more melodic in its day with the then-denigration of any who lie outside cultural norms. The quotes below touch on what must have triggered the passion.

The story ends:
"We'll inaugurate a new era!... We'll gobble them [the ordinary] like goobers."
The Twenty-First Century began on this rather odd note. 
Although it may not be as Lafferty's vision, there's a predictive truth here. Nerds or societal outliers have been more closely accepted as societal norms.
Quotes: 
  1. "Some things would always be beyond him--like whether it was the big hand or the little hand of the clock that told the hours. But this wasn't something serious. He never did care what time it was."
  2. "Were we all well adjusted, we would ossify and die."
  3. "The world is kept healthy only by some of the unhealthy minds lurking in it."
  4. "Only a crippled calf makes a new path."
  5. "Dolts!... What will you do for dolts when the last of us is gone? How will you survive without us?"

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Slow Tuesday Night" by R. A. Lafferty



First appeared in Frederik Pohl’s Galaxy. Nominated for a Nebula award and reprinted in several Year’s Best and genre retrospectives by Judith Merril, Frederik Pohl, Robert Silverberg, Willis E. McNelly, Leon E. Stover, Martin H. Greenberg, Edward L. Ferman, John W. Milstead, Joseph D. Olander, Patricia S. Warrick, Gardner R. Dozois, Pamela Sargent, Terry Carr, James E. Gunn, Ellen Datlow, Rob Latham, Veronica Hollinger, Joan Gordon, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Arthur B. Evans, Carol McGuirk. Online.
Summary:
Economics, inventions and trends come hourly. Someone's fame can wax and wane within minutes. Fortunes can be won and lost four times in a day. Marriages dissolve as men and women follow trends of what's popular.

Discussion:
In what is considered another of Lafferty’s classics, this expands Moore's Law--computer transistor power doubling every two years--to include people and society. However, this story appeared in Galaxy before Moore announced his theory. Perhaps it was in the air: steam-engine time.

This satirizes popularity, economics, and trend-watching to make societal decisions. By rendering the timeline for trends down to hours or minutes, all such decisions based on trends appear absurd. The title punctuates the satire by calling all the events as occurring on a "Slow Tuesday Night."

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

“Narrow Valley” by R. A. Lafferty



First appeared in Edward L. Ferman’s F&SF. Reprinted in several Year’s Best and genre retrospectives by Terry Carr, Judith Merril, Robert Silverberg, Martin H. Greenberg, Edward L. Ferman, Jack M. Dann, David G. Hartwell, Kathryn Cramer, Gardner R. Dozois, Stephen R. Donaldson, Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, Brian M. Thomsen, Ellen Datlow, and Gordon Van Gelder. Online.
Summary:
In order to keep his land after taxation took it away from him, Clarence Big-Saddle puts a curse on the land to make it seem less than it is. Several homesteaders have tried to occupy the land but failed. Scientists come to explain the phenomena of a land that looks like a ditch but whose length is longer than it seems.

Discussion:
The latest family to occupy the land seems to succeed although the Rampart father has to be carried bodily into the land. Some scientists come up with hypotheses and are self-satisfied with their validity while others simply scratch their heads--perhaps with a shade more honesty.

The latest Native American son, Clarence Little-Saddle, seeing the Ramparts adjusting to the difficult perspective, puts another curse on the land that flattens the Rampart family into two dimensions. This links it to Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland dimensional masterwork.

However, a stronger dimension is that between Native Americans and the homesteaders who took over their lands. While many gained lands through a kind of verbal trickery, Lafferty turns the tables. The Native American Saddle family literalizes the flat perspective the pioneering Ramparts family have of Native Americans on to their persons.

While clearly considered one of Lafferty’s classics, aspects of the tale get over-gnawed. Interestingly, this story is classified as fantasy by some, SF by others as the story achieves its SF-ness through spells.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

R. A. Lafferty Fan Club

Items of interest for the R. A. Lafferty fan:

  1. R. A. Lafferty Facebook Page
  2. appreciation website
  3. magazine,
  4. interview,
  5. quotes,
  6. and online stories.
His popularity has waned, but it's nice to see his loyal cult following carrying on.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

"Beautiful Boys" by Theodora Goss

First appeared in Sheila Williams' Asimov's. Reprinted by Jonathan Strahan in his Year's Best and John Joseph Adams in Lightspeed.

Summary:
The story is rather simple. A PhD professor studies "Beautiful Boys" which are aliens come to Earth who mate with women and leave. The professor herself gets intimately involved with one and eventually has a child with one herself. He, predictably, flees.

Discussion:
Despite mentioning aliens and being publishing in Asimov's, this probably shares more in common with interstitial fiction. Yet one can squint and call it SF as it nominally investigates aliens. These aliens, though, are more of dissection of the real-life male who never settles down--with work or women, dabbling in varieties of both.

One might anticipate a scathing diatribe. Instead, it's a rather light-hearted poke at the male type, alternating between an academic discussion and the professor's engagement with a member of this species.

Friday, January 9, 2015

"PRESS ENTER []" by John Varley

First appeared in Shawna McCarthy's Asimov's. It won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Science Fiction Chronicle Readers Poll, Seiun (Japanese translation) awards. It was reprinted by Gardner Dozois, Donald A. Wollheim, Arthur W. Saha, Terry Carr, George Zebrowski, Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, Sheila Williams, and Orson Scott Card.
Summary:
Victor Apfel gets mysterious automated phone calls that eventually lead him to investigate the home of his reclusive neighbor, Charles Kluge. He left a suicide note and his property to Victor. Enter Lisa Foo. Like Kluge, she is a computer hacker, talented enough to funnel any funds her way. She's the only person who knew something of what Kluge was up to. She also knows that Kluge would

Discussion:
In their investigations, Victor and Lisa stumble on the possibility that the responsible party is not alive, strictly speaking. It will go on to kill others.

Computer-takes-over-the-world stories were not new. Harlan Ellison famously had "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." But at this time, computers were becoming ubiquitous--in schools, home and work. Ellison's was an omnipotent behemoth. Varley's lurked on the edges of a nascent world-wide web. The first-person narrative also lends a possible unreliability although the reader is never really lead to buy into such a possibility. In a sense, this nebulous SF monster becomes a shade more sinister.

Orson Scott Card lauds this tale for its believability. Strahan, on the other hand, believes it hasn't dated well. I tend to side with Strahan (who wrote fifteen years or so after Card, after all). Probably the mention of 8-bit computers in the context of artificial intelligence erodes the modern reader's suspension of belief. Likewise, Asimov's spools and microfiche haven't weathered well. But technological possibility isn't what's interesting in older SF. Rather, it's what has been done for its time period. One must plant one's self in that day.

"PRESS ENTER" was a common command in the software of the day. It indicates penetrating deeper within a program, or entering anything, really. But what specifically?

The 80s, especially for SF fans, were never far removed from the 70s and their revolutions. Varley pushed that a little further, with stories that pushed the conventional-morality envelope. Many in the field questioned what morals were necessary. This attitude brought those who felt on the fringe into the SF fold.

Here, Kluge and Foos are also on the moral edge. Maybe they've already taken the leap. Their financial dealings are at least unconventional and suspect if not illegal. Foos, in addition, has no real emotional connection with people. She has had sex with an older man in exchange for education. She is okay with this. Her relationship with Victor is itself problematic, legally speaking, and would rile up many on the political right and left. That this story won so many awards indicates a different political climate than the present.

I submit this amorality is what the reader is entering. Not just the new human world, but also a newer amorality, which is not afraid to murder to protect its existence. And where would a new-born artificial intelligence gain such human morality?

This story isn't meant to frighten its readers that the computers are coming, the computers are coming! Rather, it pushes them into a deeper discomfort on one level or another. At least, that is its intent. No doubt, some rare readers will not respond to it. But for most--no matter how liberated from conventional morality they think they are, how understanding of other cultural practices, how numbed by the horrors of war--there may exist an amorality that repels you, even forces you to hide in the woods.

Note: I tried to get out of the story's way and present it in its most meaningful light. I do not mean to comment on its morality, one way or another.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

African SF films, and writing African-American SF


Near-future SF in a world without water. From dystopia to hope. Worth checking out.



First part in an imagistically inspiring invasion tale. It leaves questions open such as why, but it is the first in a series, which would presumably be answered later. Meanwhile, enjoy the unusually mythic invaders.

- - -

Storytelling through a Speculative Lens:


Steven Barnes, Adrienne Maree Brown, Tananarive Due, John Jennings, Sheree Renee Thomas discuss African-American SF with an eye toward writing it. I may have posted this one before.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Search for Self & Others

Self
Missing woman unwittingly joins search party looking for herself

Search For Self Called Off After 38 Years (The Onion) *

CCTV police officer 'chased himself' after being mistaken for burglar. 
"An undercover police officer 'chased himself round the streets' for 20 minutes after a CCTV operator mistook him for suspect."
* Possibly true but intentionally humorous

Others
QUIZ: Can You Read People’s Emotions?
Assess you ability to read emotions through the eyes alone. Answers not given if incorrect. Little discussion.

How to Read People Like Sherlock Holmes: 4 Insights From Research
I'm a little dubious of some of these "insights," but interesting, nonetheless.