Tag Archives: anthology

Review 136: Side Jobs

Side Jobs by Jim Butcher

“Hell’s Bells” count: 14

There’s a reason that clichés become clichés. That’s because, no matter how much we may hate them, they concisely describe some feature of human existence that is common to us all. The reason everyone uses them is because they’re just so… right, and there’s really no need for us to come up with something else. It’s like saying, “Yes, I could use a screwdriver to put together my new IKEA desk, but everyone does that. I’m going to invent my own, completely new tool instead.” So we use clichés, no matter how much we don’t want to, because there’s no reason not to.

A wizard with a gun riding a zombie tyrranosaur in the middle of a lightning storm? Puh-LEEZ. Not that old thing again... (Art by Dan Dos Santos)

Having said that: Reading this collection of Dresden Files stories is like visiting with an old friend. One of those people you’ve known for ages, never get to see often enough, and always know you’ll spend a good time with. From the moment you start reading, you know where you are, you know who you’re dealing with, and you’re ready to jump right into the story without a whole lot of character building, exposition, and the nuisance of trying to decide if this is something you’ll like to read. If you’re picking up Side Jobs, odds are that you already know The Dresden Files, and odds are that you’ll really enjoy these stories.

Most of them have been published before, in one form or another, but if you don’t follow the various anthologies that are put out from time to time, these’ll be new to you. They’re not especially necessary to understand the overall series plot, but they do help to flesh out some characters and ideas that have already been presented – and hand us a few new ones as well..

The first story, “A Restoration of Faith,” is a little rough, as Butcher himself admits. In the introduction to the story, he tells us that it was written when he was still in school, before he had really built up his writing chops and figured out his voice. And it does show, but in a kind of amusing way. As if, to continue on with our cliché of the day, you got to see the high school photos and videos of a friend you’ve only known in adulthood. It’s a little awkward and a bit weird, but you can see the person he would one day become. In the same way, we get a glimpse of the young Harry Dresden, just getting his start as a private investigator. Working with Ragged Angel Investigations to get his license, Harry finds himself in one of his classic intractable positions: find a little girl whose parents don’t particularly want her found. To make it more fun, she doesn’t really want to be found either.

The story looks at what Harry does and why he does it, and how no matter how dark the world gets, he sees himself as a person born to hold a light in the darkness. He saves the girl, of course, with his classic nick-of-time timing, and the story ends with the introduction of Karrin Murphy and a rather punny ending. It’s not really the Harry Dresden that we know, but we can see the Harry Dresden that he will become.

LARPing is like this, only moreso.

The other stories are good fun, too. In “It’s My Birthday, Too,” a story written for an anthology with a birthday theme, Harry sees the worlds of fantasy and reality collide. Violently, as usual. His brother Thomas has a birthday, and Harry has so few opportunities to do “normal” things – like celebrate birthdays – that he’s determined to see that his brother gets his present. He tracks Thomas down to a shopping mall which, after hours, plays host to a LARP club. For those of you not in the know, LARP is Live-Action Role-Playing, wherein people like I was a decade ago dress up in costumes and pretend to be vampires and werewolves and wizards and things. When done well, it’s good fun, and it’s a great way to put on another personality for a few hours. Unfortunately for this group, their session gets interrupted by some real vampires. Drulinda, of the Black Court, is out for some social revenge against her former peers, and she’s willing to kill everyone she finds in order to get it. Harry and Thomas work to bring her down, of course, while also bringing the rest of the mall down at the same time.

In “Day Off,” Harry tries to take a little bit of time for himself. With no cases to work, no calls from the Chicago police, and no official duties with the White Council, he is intent on having just one day to be somewhat normal – sleep late, go out with a girl, that kind of thing. Of course, things don’t work out that way, because he’s Harry Dresden. Instead, he ends up with a group of wannabe wizards who think they can take him on, a couple of bespelled, amorous werewolves, and an apprentice who is only moments away from blowing herself up. It’s good fun, and reminiscent of Dante in Clerks, who laments that he’s not even supposed to be there.

Of course, Michael isn't nearly this adorable.

“The Warrior” is, in many ways, a response to the readers who thought that Michael Carpenter got kind of a raw deal at the end of Small Favor. Michael had been a Knight of the Cross, a literal warrior of God, who had helped Harry fight the forces of evil many, many times. He’s very different from Harry in many ways, but their differences work well together. What’s more, Michael is a genuinely good man, of the Atticus Finch variety. He is honest, dedicated, and devoted to his friends, his family and his duty. That’s why, when he was nearly killed at the end of Small Favor and forced to give up his position as a Knight, a lot of readers were upset.

Why? Well, because horrible things aren’t supposed to happen to people as good as Michael, and yet they had. What’s more, without his strength and his sword, it was hard to see how he could continue the work that he so obviously loved. This story, then, is all about how the battle to make the world a better place isn’t always about the big fights and battles against entities of indescribable evil. It’s also about small gestures, about stopping to talk to someone when no one else will. It’s about a word or a gesture or a joke, and the way that these little things can have huge effects later. Michael may not be swinging a sword around anymore, but we know that he is still part of the fight.

Two stories that really stood out were “Backup” and “Aftermath,” mainly because they were told from the point of view of someone who wasn’t Harry Dresden. In “Backup,” we get a story told by his brother, Thomas. A vampire of the White Court, Thomas feeds off emotion, rather than blood. This doesn’t make him any less dangerous, of course. More dangerous, actually, in that so many of his potential victims give themselves to him willingly. but Thomas is trying his best to stay on the side of Good. Through his eyes, we not only get to see Harry from a new point of view, but we also get to see a lot more of a world that Harry never gets to see. Because of who he is, Harry will never really get a good look at the inner workings of the White Court and the Oblivion War – a concept that is fascinating and frustrating, because we know that Harry can never get involved in it. By telling a story through Thomas, Butcher expands the universe of The Dresden Files and makes it even more interesting.

Don't say I didn't warn you....

The other non-Harry story is “Aftermath,” which takes place after the most recent novel, Changes. Told from the point of view of Harry’s oldest friend, Karrin Murphy, it’s a look at what’s happened in Chicago in the hours after Harry’s disappearance (and presumed death). Without him (and without the now-destroyed Red Court of vampires), there is a huge power vacuum just waiting to be filled. Whether it’s the mafia or mermen, the absence of Harry Dresden is an opportunity for many. Murphy gets involved in the hunt for special people, anyone with a trace of magical nature, who are to be used for their power. Without Harry to rely on, she has to use her own knowledge and resources to save her friends. At the same time, she has to face the reality that Harry is gone, maybe dead, and that is more terrifying than all the monsters that might try to take over the city.

It’s a great collection of tales, one that’s quick to get through. If you’re just itching for the new book to come out, this should hold you over for a little while.

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Harry Dresden. Saving the world, one act of random destruction at a time.”
– Jim Butcher, “The Warrior”
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The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Side Jobs on Wikipedia
Side Jobs on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher’s homepage

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Filed under adventure, anthology, brothers, children, death, detective fiction, Dresden Files, family, fantasy, friendship, Jim Butcher, mystery, police, short stories, vampires, werewolves, wizardry

Review 86: The Illustrated Man


The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

As a newly-minted high school reading teacher, my introductory book to spoon-feed to the young’ns was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. It was a really good one to start with, as it had a fairly simple and uncomplicated storyline, a small cast of characters, and fairly well-defined themes and literary techniques. Therefore, teaching it to students who weren’t native speakers (but whose English was really good nonetheless) was a good experience.

I hadn’t read a whole lot of Bradbury prior to that, and really fell in love with the book. F451 was a great read, and something I’ll review here once I’ve let it settle down a bit in my head. After all, I’ve spent the last couple of months teasing every shred of meaning I could out of it, and that’s not the kind of review I write here, now is it? Reading the book gave me a new interest in reading Bradbury, so I picked up a couple of short story collections and started to make my way through them. While I was talking to my department head about it, she recommended that I read The Illustrated Man, a copy of which she just so happened to have sitting around.

The Illustrated Man is a collection of eighteen short stories, more or less unrelated, but brought together under the larger, over-arching story of the Illustrated Man himself. Our narrator, you see, meets a large man on the road. The guy is covered with tattoos, of the highest quality. Their colors are vivid, their details are lifelike, and the man says that, at night, the tattoos come alive. They tell stories, if you watch them long enough. And if you watch them too long, you may see your own future as well….

Well, the narrator decides to watch as the Illustrated Man sleeps, and what he sees are the stories that are presented in this volume.

By and large, the stories are unconnected to each other, which means we can go from a strange future where one family’s house takes care of all their material needs to a poor farmer who manages to avoid the end of the world by being in one of his own. Still, there are a few thematic threads that run through the book that are interesting to look at.

One of these themes is the way we relate to technology. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the first tale of the book, “The Veldt.” In this story, we meet a family who are completely dependent on their house. It’s a technological miracle, where everything is completely automatic. The thought of actually cooking a meal is tantamount to barbarism, and their idea of taking a vacation means just shutting down the more obsequious functions of the house. One of these is the children’s nursery. Akin to the holodeck, this room can replicate any environment that the users want. The children’s fascination with the savagery of the African savanna worries their parents, though, and the threat of having the room shut down eventually becomes more than the children – or the house – can tolerate.

In “The Concrete Mixer,” a Martian invasion force finds themselves overcome by the technology of Earth. Not the military technology, mind you, but the mindless, brain-destroying technology of leisure. Faced with TV and radio, casinos and bars, drive-in movies and fast food, the Martians discover that Earth is far more dangerous than they had ever expected. In “Marionettes, Inc,” Bradbury weaves a tale worthy of Philip K. Dick, telling about a very special service that will create an exact android duplicate of yourself. This robot will do all the tedious things in your life, such as go to work, do chores and tolerate your spouse. But what if the perfect robot duplicates are too perfect, and decide that they don’t really want to do the drudgery anymore? In “The City,” a self-aware metropolis wakes up after twenty thousand years with the arrival of human astronauts – and immediately begins planning its revenge on those who left it so long ago.

Another recurring theme in this collection is that of seeking happiness, through one means or another, and only occasionally finding it. In these stories, characters are looking for something that will make their lives worthwhile, or at the very least a little bit better. In “The Long Rain,” a group of explorers on Venus want just one thing – to get out of the eternal, unceasing rain that pummels the planet. The Sun Domes are their only shelter, if they can find one before they die or go mad. In “No Particular Night or Morning,” an astronaut searches for the only thing he can be absolutely sure of in this universe – nothingness.

In “The Man,” a group of interstellar explorers are looking for a being, who may or may not be Jesus Christ, going from planet to planet and always finding themselves just a little bit too late. In “The Rocket,” a poor junkyard owner wants more than anything to fulfill his dream of showing his children outer space, and manages to do it in a slightly roundabout way. And in “Rocket Man,” a father tries to find what he really wants – to live among the stars or to stay with his family on Earth, and ultimately realizes that he wants – but cannot have – both.

The stories in here are all pretty good, and there were a few I want to touch on in more detail. The one that I took the most notes on was “The Other Foot,” a tale of Mars and the shocking reversal of racial discrimination. In this story, Mars has been colonized by Black exiles from the United States, sent off-planet in an ultimate act of segregation. After decades of eking out an existence on that harsh planet, they learn that a rocket from Earth – probably containing a white astronaut – is on its way. The community reacts in a knee-jerk fashion, preparing a new apartheid on Mars – re-creating the worst of Jim Crow, only in reverse. When the rocket touches down and announces that nuclear war has destroyed everything the colonists had known and loved about Earth, and that white Americans had come to Mars to beg for the help of its citizens, the mob has a change of heart and decides to let bygones be bygones.

As much as I hate post-modernism, I couldn’t shut off my critic’s voice while reading this story. I wondered if a story about Black oppression written by a white author must automatically be racist in nature, and I wondered if Bradbury’s suggestion that Black colonists on Mars would, as a first reaction, try to re-create the worst conditions they had endured on Earth might not be rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of Black culture. Then the Intellectual Machine That Eats Itself (i.e. Postmodernism) began to ask if perhaps these thoughts were rooted in my own unacknowledged racism, at which point I had to just finish the damn story and move on. It’s a question that probably wasn’t asked fifty years ago, though, which makes the story an interesting one to revisit in our slightly more enlightened age.

Another story that I really enjoyed was “The Exiles,” which has also been titled “The Mad Wizards of Mars.” In this tale, the great writes of fiction – and their works – are living (where else?) on Mars. There you can find Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce living with Charles Dickens and Shakespeare. They’re on Mars because Earth has been systematically destroying their works, and thus depriving them of immortality. When a rocket arrives from Earth carrying the last load of books to be destroyed, the fictionauts launch a last-ditch attempt to save themselves. With Poe leading their armies, they pour all of their power into stopping the rocket. Shakespeare’s witches fling curses at the astronauts, and Poe summons all the armies of fiction to defend their existence.

It’s a story that you can tell Bradbury had a lot of fun writing, and is full of wonderful references to the authors he loves. Just the image of Edgar Allan Poe screaming defiance at the air is one that I will treasure every time I read the tale.

What’s really wonderful about this collection is that it’s aged well. Published in 1951, it does suffer from some of the mid-century sci-fi tropes of the day, and modern writers would never be allowed to get away with something like a rainy Venus or humanity calmly accepting the end of the world. But they’re still great stories, and well worth the read. So go read ’em.

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“I am a frightened and an angry man. I am a god, Mr. Dickens, even as you are a god, even as we all are gods, and our inventions – our people, if you wish – have not only been threatened, but banished and burned, torn up and censored, ruined and done away with. The worlds we created are falling into ruin. Even gods must fight!”
– Edgar Allan Poe, “The Exiles” (Ray Bradbury)
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Ray Bradbury on Wikipedia
The Illustrated Man on Wikipedia
The Illustrated Man on Amazon.com
Ray Bradbury’s website

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Filed under anthology, Ray Bradbury, science fiction