A robot programmed to learn and experiment breaks out of storage and his handlers have to scramble to contain him.
(from Soviet Science Fiction, 1962, translated by Violet L. Dutt)
Urm was bored.
Actually only man and a few animals are capable of boredom as a reaction to a monotonous situation or inner dissatisfaction with oneself, when one loses interest in life. To be bored, there must be something that gets bored — a delicate, perfectly organized nervous system. One has to know how to think or, at any rate, to suffer. Urm had no nervous system in the ordinary sense of the word, and he could not think, still less suffer. He could only perceive, remember and act. And yet he was bored.
Alternately wickedly interesting and desert-dry, this funny little story didn’t really go anywhere, plot-wise. I have a totally unsubstantiated notion that the dull, protocol-is-best, vaguely jingoistic conclusion is a symptom of this story’s Soviet origin, but I could be wrong. In any case, “Spontaneous Reflex” will be memorable for its odd pace and a few brilliant little scenes — like Urm trying to use his 15 built-in sense organs to make sense of a mirror. Urm stands for Universal Robot Machine, although a character blurts out Uliana-Robert-Mama at one point and I’m not sure why (maybe it’s an odd translation of the acronym in the Russian phonetic alphabet).
Did some Googling, but I couldn’t find the version I read anywhere online. Instead, check out this very different translation, wherein Urm is Utm. According to Wikipedia, the Strugatsky brothers wrote together for some 30-plus years, and wrote far more novels and stories together than solo.
I picked up this sharp, pocket-size collection at Port Richmond Books here in Philadelphia the other day. Five bucks, a bit musty and just enough wear to tell me it had been read before. It is, by the way, an amazing and amazingly cluttered bookstore built in an old movie theater. Recommended.
A divorcee ditches dream control camp to wander around a resort at the edge of a volcano.
(from Best American Short Stories 2012)
Growing older had proved a formidable calamity.
I’ve been thinking about volcanos recently, probably after listening to this edition of The Straight Dope. Among other things, the podcast/article pointed out that bubbling open-faced volcanos — a la Joe Vs. The Volcano — do not exist in the natural world. Which means this hilarious bit by Kyle Kinane about how to barbecue via volcano is kinda moot. But it’s still a very funny take on insomniacal brain rampages, which this story is concerned with as well.
In Lawrence Osborne’s story, the volcano is just a glowing, restless thing in the distance, probably a metaphor for something or other (aging, sexual unrest, inescapable everyday life, whatevs). Martha never puts the metaphor into words, but she can’t take her eye off the volcano, and it draws her to it in one of those literary ways you just have to put up with. We’re privy to her agonies over where she is in life, and how much she dreams and thinks about “phalli,” but when she decides to rent a Vespa and take a mini-vacation from her vacation, her though process is suddenly smoky. Why does she do it? Because she does. Which is, yeah, the way dreams tend to work: We become observers to our own actions.
Of course, one of the many things this story concerns itself with is dream control. Martha takes a drug that a self-styled Hawaiian dream guru says makes it easier for people to control and remember their dreams. And while Martha escapes this new agey adventure early on, it doesn’t leave her thoughts. So, are we supposed to think her trip to the volcano resort was just another dream? I don’t think so, but there’s room for doubt. This is a strange and beautifully written story. Unpredictable, too.
Silk-spinning mothgirl slaves look to change their situation.
(from Vampires in the Lemon Grove)
The Agent boasts that he has made us the most productive machines in the empire.
Obviously this is a work of delicate and remarkable literary fiction — with some savvy things to say about exploited mill workers in developing economies — but it’s also a fun and freaky piece of sci-fi. In fact, I’ve just started this collection, but so far Karen Russell’s two-for-two when it comes to stories with supernatural/hypernatural characters. So cool. Along those lines, I decided to crop the book jacket so you could get a good look at that freaky looking bat. It’s weird, right?
I couldn’t find this story online; buy the book and read this interview.
Eternity is a long time stay in one place sucking lemons and pretending everything’s benissimo.
(from Vampires in the Lemon Grove)
I study her neck as she says this, her head rolling with the natural expressiveness of a girl. She checks to see if I am watching her collarbone, and I let her see that I am. I feel like a threat again.
These aren’t the emo glitter-suckers of Twilight or the gnarly, ravenous virals of The Passage. The vampires in this lemon grove are kinda old-school: worldly but trapped everywhere they go, civilized but driven by embarrassingly brutish apetites, imortal and unhappy. There are some twists, of course — Clyde and Magreb abate their thirst by sinking their fangs into lemons — and Russell’s uniquely suave and thoughtful prose takes the myth into interesting philosophical places. I’d almost forgotten how confident and lovely her sentences are, how comfortable they are in their own skin. I know what I mean.
You can read the story here.
A soldier returns from the war to find that things are pretty screwed up at home, too.
(from Tenth of December)
Like in the old days, I came out of the dry creek behind the house and did my little tap on the kitchen window.
“Get in here, you,” Ma said.
Inside were piles of newspapers on the stove and piles of magazines on the stairs and a big wad of hangers sticking out of the broken oven. All of that was as usual. New was: a water stain the shape of a cat head on the wall above the fridge and the old orange rug rolled up halfway.
“Still ain’t no beeping cleaning lady,” Ma said.
How shall I praise George Saunders today? How about this: Stories like “Home” make the contagiousness of their cynicism optional. If you want to, you can read this story from a safe distance, and never let the horribleness of its heightened reality poison your mind. That’s pretty much how it is for the characters, so beaten down are they by the grim violence and carelessness of their existence. It’s funny-sad or just funny, depending on how much you believe these are real people in a real world.
And now a thought exercise: Imagine the novelization of Idiocracy, as written by George Saunders.
A refrigerator salesman and his lovely automaton refrigerator assistant travel around dazzling crowds and selling fridges.
(from While Mortals Sleep)
Jenny was radio-controlled, and those controls were in those trick shoes of George’s — under his toes.
This was an impulse buy. I’ve read pretty much everything in Vonnegut’s bibliography, so I knew I’d pick up While Mortals Sleep eventually, but these posthumous collections give me pause. I’ve found it’s best to go into them knowing that these are often early and lesser works, sillier stuff, sometimes, with lower stakes. “Jenny” fits that mold. It’s got some things to say about how people get attached to non-people, but mostly it’s just a fun little yarn from the, I wanna say, ’60s. Still better than most things in the world.
A man writes letters to the man whose letters and things he found in an abandoned town.
I think there will be lightning tonight; the air has that feel.
Please, write back.
Today was one of those early spring days where everybody dresses light and sits outside and pretends it’s not actually still pretty chilly out. I read this one in Rittenhouse Square. It was unexpectedly heavy at the end. I am too tired to think about why I liked it, but I did. I bet this was inspired, partly, by the one segment I remember from This American Life, although it’s actually pretty different so maybe not. Read ”The Last Thing We Need” here. And here are some pics of Rhyolite, the abandoned Nevada town at the center of this story.
The nerds are up to something.
Mom’s messed-up universe started with one bad star: a nine-month marriage to the man who was my father. He brought her to the States, a living knickknack from his military days. Their union, brief as it was, spawned me and all my biological peculiarities. “You’re like Aquaman,” Luc said when I told him the story — “cool.” But Aquaman’s mother was a mermaid, his father a human being. Nothing is human within the man who was my father. He disappeared from her life just hours before I was born. What I imagine, what I’ve even dreamed, is that he is a sinister breed of assassin, with white hair, white skin, and white eyes, invading alien streets, sent to find and fuck my mother and then finish her off. When she is drunk, she talks about my origin, sticking the sick story in my head, panel after panel after panel.
I’m a lapsed comic book fan, so this story about high school geeks burying themselves in Green Lantern hit home. Of course, I never took things as far as these kids do. As a starting point I’ll call this story Unbreakable meets Elephant. Actually, I’ll leave it like that. Everything I try to write about “Superassassin” ends up giving away too much. Read this story here at the Atlantic, where it was originally published in 2000.
A young woman’s life is all tied up in the history of Reno, Nevada, from the Comstock Lode to Charles Manson.
About once a year someone tracks me down. Occasionally it’s one of Charlie’s fans wanting to stand next to Paul Watkins’s daughter, to rub up against all that’s left, to put a picture up on his red-text-on-black-background website. Far more often, though, it’s someone with a script. Producers, usually legit ones—I Google them: True Lies, The Deer Hunter. They offer to drive down from Lake Tahoe, take me out to dinner. They never want my permission to make their movie or input on who should play me (Winona Ryder); they just want to know how am I.
“How are you?” they say.
“I’m a receptionist,” I say.
“Good,” they say, long and slow, nodding as though my being a receptionist has given them everything they came for.
Claire Vaye Watkins read an excerpt from this story at the Philadelphia Free Library last month and I made sure to buy a copy of Battleborn afterward. The prose in “Ghosts, Cowboys” is swift and dark, and even its history lessons are mysterious, with unspoken things glaring in the shadows between dates and names. And the character of Razor Blade Baby is just awesome, a friendly ghost (Not literally. I think.) and a thin tether to the narrator’s past that doesn’t so much haunt as linger, hoping to hang out, maybe say a few things that need saying. I have no idea whether Claire Vaye Watkins the author has the same connections to Charles Manson as CVW the character, and I won’t be Googling it anytime soon. This is a spooky and affecting piece of work. Loved it.
You can read it here. More on CVW here.
A middle class family struggles to keep up with the affluent neighbors. Also, their indentured lawn people get away.
(from Tenth of December)
Just reread that last entry and should clarify.
Am not tired of work. It is a privilege to work. I do not hate the rich. I aspire to be rich myself. And when we finally do get our own bridge, trout, tree house, SGs, etc., at least will know we really earned them, unlike, say, the Torrinis, who, I feel, must have family money.
Last night, after party, found Eva sad in her room. Asked why. She said no reason. But in sketch pad: crayon pic of row of sad SGs. Could tell were meant to be sad, due to frowns went down off faces like Fu Manchus and tears were dropping in arcs, flowers springing up where tears hit ground.
Note to self: Talk to her, explain that it does not hurt, they are not sad but actually happy, given what their prior conditions were like: they chose, are glad, etc.
At first I mistook this for a story about basic middle class-envy and suburban ennui, etc., but I shoulda known better. Parts were a Desaparecidos song made flesh, parts were way stranger and sci-fi-ish. This might be the longest piece in the collection. You can read it here.