Monthly Archives: April 2005

Douglas Adams, "Young Zaphod Plays It Safe"

Zaphod Beeblebrox is hired to help locate a supposedly uncrashable ship at the bottom of an ocean.

(From The More Than Complete Hitchhiker’s Guide, 1989 edition)

Yeah, I Read A Short Story Today is playing it safe too. Although I haven’t yet seen any commercials, and the only trailer I saw was decidedly low on footage, I know the Hitchhiker’s Guide movie will be out soon and I’m starting to get this feeling it might be good. I was and am a fan of the books not just for the dorky wordplay and satirical sci-fi, but also for the heartless chaos. It wasn’t the books which were heartless, mind you, it was life, the universe and everything else. Or maybe I just haven’t ever gotten over what happened to Marvin.
Anyway, despite my inarguable geekdom, I never got around to reading this story tucked in at the end of my enormous four-book volume. I was saving it. For today, I suppose.
So. Given that it’s so short, and that it stars the nearly unlikeable Zaphod, this wasn’t the most remarkable entry in the “increasingly innacurately named triology.” But it was funny, and scary, and made me miss the author all the more.
How’s this for sci-fi?:

 Aorist rods were devices used in a now happily abandoned form of
energy production. When the hunt for new sources of energy had at one
point got particularly frantic, one bright young chap suddenly spotted
that one place which had never used up all its available energy was -
the past. And with the sudden rush of blood to the head that such
insights tend to induce, he invented a way of mining it that very same
night, and within a year huge tracts of the past were being drained of
all their energy and simply wasting away. Those who claimed that the
past should be left unspoilt were accused of indulging in an extremely
expensive form of sentimentality.

The infinite web, where all Douglas Adams fans have surely ended up, of course has the story available for your reading pleasure. Here.

Steven Millhauser, "Balloon Flight, 1870"

Our narrator escapes the Prussians by hot air balloon, hoping to organize a counter-offensive away from Paris.

(from The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, on loan from Ryan Godfrey and Jessica Lowenthal)

It starts as booksmart historical fiction, but ends up dipping its toes in The Edgar Allan Poe Wading Pool of Psychological Torment. In a good way. And not without its humor. I found this interview wherein Millhauser, a Pulitzer Prize winner, compares this story to another thusly:

This contrast between realms of air and earth is carried into “Balloon Flight, 1870,”
where it’s made even more explicit. My narrator begins his flight with a clear,
practical, indeed political objective, but he soon finds himself in unearthly regions
that threaten to break his bonds with human things. He returns to earth with a
feeling of gratitude and joy, like the boy in “Flying Carpets” before the final two
paragraphs of that story.

He also had this to say:

The historical details in “Balloon Flight, 1870″ are taken from histories
of the Franco-Prussian War and the brilliantly detailed journal of
Edmond de Goncourt, but the thoughts and feelings of the narrator
are of course my invention. But even in stories that require no
research, stories that are, so to speak, entirely invented, many
details of setting are based on my memory of particular streets
and houses and rooms — and because memory is itself a form of
history, these stories too may be said to have an historical basis.

Things that make you go ahem.
Anyway, this story is excellent. Although a final twist would have been a bit more satisfactory, I enjoyed the unpredictability of the slow action. And the imagery was top notch, too. Good call, Pulizter people.

Stuart Palmer, "Green Ice"

Can maiden schoolteacher Miss Hildegarde Withers help Inspector Oscar Piper find the jewel-stealing cop-killer?

(from Alfred Hitchcock’s Daring Detectives, on loan from the RyanJessica Library)

Yeah, she can. Apparently these two teamed up to solve several mysteries over the years. And at the clever end of this caper, Inspector Piper delivers a crash course in cop-speak to the young sergeant whom one of the crooks had a crush on. I typed it up, so that you may study it and insert it into your everyday speech:
“You’ve been monkeying with a buzz saw, Romeo. This dame is the one who drove the getaway car, in blonde wig and glasses. Then she hopped out and came back to give us a wrong steer on the description of her boyfriend. Didn’t you, honey chile?”
I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but I know some people who are into them. Smart people.
It was actually fun guessing how the crime was perpetrated — admit it, you miss the interactive fiction of a good ol’ choose-your-own-adventure — but the who was never in doubt. A story this short has little room for a wild goose chase. If it turned out to be some guy named Ray who turned himself in at the end but otherwise made no appearance in the story, I’d be pretty pissed.

This was a 1982 softcover edition of a 1962 compendium, which also features stories by Agatha Christie, Eller Queen and John Dickson Carr. Nothing by Hitchcock himself; he’s more of a curator. Did you know how Alfred Hitchcock died? Interesting story, just heard this: Some guy named Ray killed him.

Hasanthika Sirisena, "The Call"

Dunstan must go to New York City to identify the body of his murdered niece.

(from Night Train, issue V)

This is one of those stories where human frailty is explored and discussed warmly. The difficult situations Dunstan finds himself in are a lot like the ones he puts himself in with his mistakes and weakness: out of his control. You might as well blame yourself for the things that are not your fault as much as the things that are. Nothing you can do about any of them now. A warm, kind story about a cold, harsh world. Sad and beautiful.

I had never heard of this author. Besides a mere 12 results, the oft-helpful Google asked me: Did you mean: “Hasanthi Sirisena” [?] Hmm, did I? I clicked on that. Your search – “Hasanthi Sirisena” – did not match any documents. Thanks, Google, you nut.

Rachel Sherman, "The Reaper"

A girl born with unhideable birthmarks on her face pins her fancy on her dirty-minded soldier-pen pal.

(from N+1, number 2)

Kind of a sad little story with no subplots but plenty of moments that leave you wondering and invested. Not much more to say, except it was well-written and left you rooting for and understanding the main character better than the other people in her life.

I had never heard of this magazine (web site here), but Lori Hill gave me a copy because, hey, it’s got some fiction in it. Not too shabby. N+1 describes itself as “a twice-yearly print journal of politics, literature, and culture.” Of course it is based in New York City, because very few people who write or publish also want to ride a bike to work. Man. Look at that big ugly generalization.

Robert Boswell, "Long Words"

Maybe if they move, they’ll put off the break-up.

(from Night Train, Issue V)

Didn’t do much for me. I mean. The disco stuff was fun. The pace was swift. Like yesterday’s story, it’s a story speckled with music trivia, and that is a good hook. And some of the snappy dialogue was endearing and entertaining. But the flat characters and familiar drama didn’t hold my attention. This story, like its main character, tried to hold my attention with sudden sex. It worked for a little while. Ah well.

Lewis Shiner, "Perfidia"

While his dad is in the hospital, a fifty-something record collector sets off for Paris to find the source of a mysterious Glenn Miller recording.

(from Black Clock issue 2, Fall ’04, Winter ’05)

I had trouble early on trying to determine whether this was a short story or some kinda first-person investigative adventure piece. What made me suppose it was the latter?
1. The mostly straightforward non-fictiony tone. Tangents pop up in ways more common in articles, particularly ones where the readers need to be taught some basics to understand the technical stuff that follows.
2. The curious details. Like, the narrator names which programs he uses to edit music files on his computer. Generally, short story authors shoot for something a little more timeless than that. This story is set in the now, or the recent then.
3. It’s very believable, or at least it is for many many pages.
4. I’ve never heard of Lewis Shiner. Maybe he does what this narrator does.
5. I don’t know anything about Black Clock magazine. It doesn’t tell you whether something is fiction, or fact, or fixed by a faction of fit fractions. Not a lot of front-of-the-book info. Mystery! Excitement!
6. Perhaps I wanted it to be real, because rediscovered musical gems and dusted off archives are limitlessly wondrous to me. Alan Lomax is Indiana Jones for music nerds.
But, after finishing “Perfidia,” I have concluded that, yes, I did read a short story today. And a good one. Because of the unpolished, untamed writing, I was engrossed by the action. I felt like I was in the hands of a writer untainted by artsy short story conventions. That there was no arc, no predestination, no promise that loose ends would be double knotted. Anything could happen.

Here‘s Lewis Shiner’s web site.

Walking, wounded, I went to Barnes and Noble to treat myself to some literature, even though I probably own enough unread stories to propel this site into the new year. I bought
1. Black Clock #2, as you know. I now know that Black Clock is a literary magazine. Here‘s a press release for the issue I bought. Here‘s the site for the magazine itself.
2. Night Train, issue #5. I don’t know much about it. It contains stories. Here‘s where we’ll all find out more.
3. Literary Review, Dec. 2004/Jan. 2005. It contains no stories. But it looked different. It is. Parts are all monocles and pinkies out, but mostly it’s smart and down-to-earth and British. Here‘s an article on their priceless Bad Sex Awards. It’s ribald, but not dirty. It’s possible, probable even, that a magazine this self-assured in its voice and purpose has no web site of its own. I couldn’t find one, anyway.

Ryan Harty, "Why The Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down"

A couple is divided on the issue of whether to leave their defective robot son as-is, or go for the upgrade.

(from Best American Short Stories, 2003)

I love sci-fi that reminds me of regular old real-people fiction. And I love artsy, real-people fiction with sci-fi machinations. I would like to read more of it.
I read this outside. The days in Philadelphia have been beautiful.

Last night was awful. But I was happy to share some horrible moments with really good people. My best friend and I have experienced a lot of disasters together. Good company in bad times can’t be overrated. Yeah, maybe we’re just bad, bad luck, but it’s worth it.

Toni Cade Bambara, "The Lesson"

The educated lady takes the neighborhood kids to FAO Schwartz to show them how the other half buys toys.

(from More Stories We Tell: The Best Contemporary Short Stories By North American Women)

Told from the perspective of a child badass know-it-all due for a reality check, this story is entertaining in its snarky narration and dazzling in it details. The moral of the story is apparent from the begining, the drama comes from whether or not our too cool for school narrator will recognize it.
How’s this for a first line?
Back in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar were the only ones just right, this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup.

This story, which you can read here, was written in 1972. A wee Google search reveals a great deal of scholastic papers on and interpretations of “The Lesson,” and examinations on the author, Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995). Here‘s one from a site advertising “free essays,” and believe me the price is right.

Mary Yakuri Waters, "Mirror Studies"

An aging scientist with heart problems contemplates his own fragility and humanity’s place in nature.

(from Best American Short Stories 2004)

I’m a sucker for science slipping into a story like a ninja through an airduct. I like recognizing that the science lesson has already happened, instead of as it’s happening. Look at all the bodies, the stars sticking out of closet doors, the windows once closed now gaping in the night air — a ninja has been here.
“Mirror Studies” — with its myriad primatology lessons — is not covert in its metaphors. And why should it be? The notion of people being or not being like confused monkeys is not a new one, so why waste time trying to bury the concept?
With well-chosen words and a sharp eye for detail, Waters lays bare the weakness of science, the weakness of humanity, the silliness of civilization. At times, it’s satire except it’s only the context that makes it so. Nothing has been exaggerated or reduced to heighten the senses. It’s a vivid reflection.

I read this story a mere four days after knocking the book into the toilet. I was shaving. My mind was already two hours north of here. My elbows were closer by, but not close enough. Down it went, no backboard. There was nothing but cold clear water and millions of swimming, possibly self-aware little microbes in the toilet at the time. I swiftly plucked the book out, wrapped it neatly in a bath towel and placed it on the living room radiator, which was on, because it’s always on, because the lady on the first floor controls the heat. I open my windows a lot. I placed my iron — Still boxed. Why did I buy that? For this, maybe? — on top of the swaddled book. And waited. Today I am happy to report that the book is only slightly warped, its pages only a bit crispy. Now the microbes will have to face me on my turf. Bring it.