Tag Archives: short stories

Review 160: The Day After and Other Stories

The Day After and Other Stories by Wil Wheaton

If you had asked me, back in 1988 or so, – when I was a Trek fan who hadn’t quite figured out the real reason I liked seeing Wesley Crusher on screen – what Wil Wheaton was doing at any given time, it would have sounded like a completely irrational question. How should I know? He’s probably doing whatever it is actors do in their free time, which my mind generally rendered as some sort of eternal cocktail party where all the famous people knew each other and none of them would be caught dead with a prole such as myself.

And this isn’t just Wheaton – the idea that I could know what any of my favorite creative people were up to at any given moment was just impossible back then. It was just a fact of life. I am over here, and they are over there, and the chances of our two spheres of reality intersecting were precisely nil. They were members of America’s elect, and I was, well, me.

Absolutely true. (image from Zazzle.com)

Now it’s the future, and we have connected our lives online to an extent that would have been almost unfathomable twenty years ago. Wheaton has greatly expanded his creative repertoire, and I am an Internationally Famous Podcaster and Book Reviewer. [1] For those who have access to it, the internet has democratized creativity in many ways. People who otherwise might have gone unnoticed in the world now have a chance to shine, and the daily workings of the famous are laid bare to everyone with a Twitter account.

Suddenly we can see that these people aren’t as special as we thought they were – they’re not living the eternal cocktail party of the gods. They’re working and juggling their careers and their families. They’re getting upset about politics and worrying about paying the bills. They’re having great ideas that never quite work out and massaging small ideas until they bloom. The creative process is now open to everyone, and the potential for your work to be noticed is that much greater.

Of course, the caveat is that your creative work has to be that much better. If you’re a short fiction writer, for example, you no longer have to shop around for agents and wait for the big publishing companies to take on your book. You can publish it by yourself and see what happens. But if that’s the route you’ve chosen to take, then you’d better be damn good. There are a whole lot of fish in that pond, and you’re only going to end up on the internet’s dinner table if you are big, juicy and succulent.

And then this fish is me... (photo by Corey Johnson)

Okay, I don’t know where that particular metaphor came from. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Wil Wheaton is definitely one of those big, succulent fish. He’s got his years of work in film and TV to support him, and he has become one of the stars of the 21st-century internet. As of this writing, he has over 1.9 million Twitter followers and runs a very successful blog. He’s a darling of the summer convention season and probably the TV guest star that I most look forward to seeing. He makes a living writing and blogging and acting, has a gorgeous wife and two sons that have turned out to be fine young men.

So, with all that, why should he be scared to publish this book, his first collection of short fiction? After all, it’s a limited print run, and if it fails then so what? It’s not like this will be the end of the Vast Wheaton Empire, right? Why should this be so important to him?

There are also things he wishes the world never saw, but that clown left the clown car years ago...

It’s because he understands the new dynamic between the creator and the consumer. He understands that his creative work must live or die on its own merits, and not just because it’s Wil Wheaton putting his name on the cover. He knows that he’s no better than anyone else who loves his craft and puts it out for the world to see.

The Day After and Other Stories is a very short collection of four stories that Wheaton has written – his first published collection of fiction. The title story takes its name from the movie of the same title, and is an exploration into what it might be like to be a survivor of the end of the world. Tim, a young man just out of high school, is living among the dead. The walking dead, that is. Zombies have taken over everything, and he and a few people from his town are holed up in a high school gym in the hopes that things might someday get better soon. Of course, they won’t. Tim knows that, the girl he loves, Erica, knows that – everybody knows that. But they have to try and hold on anyway, because there’s nothing else they can do.

“Room 302” is a bit of flash fiction, inspired by a photograph. Most of it is a pretty straightforward analysis of a mediocre photo, and an explanation of why it can’t be used in a news paper. Fine, a nice scene and some good dialogue – with a creepy twist at the end that, much like “The Day After,” makes me wish there was more story to read.

Wheaton tells us that “The Language Barrier” was inspired by a real event – overhearing a couple of ladies having a heated conversation in a mixture of Russian and English. In the story, the conversation is exactly that, but the eavesdropper, Mike, does what we wish we all might be able to do – he steps in and says what most needs to be said. It’s one of those moments where l’esprit d’escalier is beaten to the punch.

It turns out that Wil is actually the monkey's lucky charm.

Finally, “Poor Places” rose from Wheaton’s love of poker. I never was able to get into poker, probably because I am really risk-averse when it comes to money, but there was a time in the mid-Aughts where poker was the trendiest game to be had. In this story, a couple of players in their local Hollywood bar proceed to fleece some tourists in a back-room poker parlor. It’s probably the weakest of the four stories, but I grant that not knowing poker lingo really doesn’t help.

All in all, they’re four good stories. Wheaton has a good ear for dialogue and a way of making characters sound believable, even if the plot structure is a little weak in points, or the narration tries to carry more weight than it can bear.

Probably because it is the longest of the stories, “The Day After” is the most guilty of this – Tim is described by other characters as “kind of an asshole,” but his actions don’t really match that so much. He complains a lot, sure, but who wouldn’t be a bit bitchy after human civilization has gone to the zombies? When he’s told it’s his time to fill the generator, he goes. When the girl he’s crushing on offers a bit of apocalypse-sex, he considers turning it down, the way he did when they were in high school to protect her reputation. We don’t see the guy that the other characters do, which makes me wonder what else we’re not seeing. Internal conflict is a great hook upon which to hang a story, but the conflict between others’ view of him and his view of himself isn’t developed nearly as well as it should be.

In addition, his internal narrative tells us things that would be better shown, and overall the whole thing could stand to be tightened up. I also have some questions regarding the gas can (a full one left next to the generator? Who would have left that there?) and their discovery of Alvin (the guy camped out only about twenty feet from the school gym and never noticed that there were survivors living in there?) While interesting, adding a mini-quest to the story – get gas, then fill the generator – would have been fun, and the dead guy just served to heighten the sense of loneliness that was already there. A sense that was about to be mitigated once they got back into the gym with the other survivors. It’s nitpicking, but sometimes that just has to be done….

Maybe the lives of the Famous really are different after all...

All that said, it looks like the beginning of a much longer story, albeit a bleak one, which I hope he works on more. [2]

If you haven’t bought this, you’re probably out of luck – the print run lasted for a very brief window of time, but I reckon an electronic version of it will be up at some point. If it is, scrape a few bucks together and pick it up. It’s a quick read, and I feel like it’ll be something to hold on to if Wheaton decides to pursue more fiction. If he does, I’m sure he will approach it with the same honesty and humility that he had when he released this book, which means that I’ll certainly be willing to pick it up.

—————————————————————
“I’m terrified that nobody’s going to like it, but the goal isn’t to be perfect; the goal is to be creative. I’m going to keep saying that until I don’t feel like I’m going to throw up.”
– Wil Wheaton, from his blog
—————————————————————

[1] Source: Me

[2] When I was in college, my creative writing teacher told me exactly that – the short story I had written was actually the beginning of a novel. The whole thing immediately dried up under my fingers and turned to dust, and the novel he thought I was writing never came to be. I hope Mr. Wheaton is made of sterner stuff than I was.

Wil Wheaton on Wikipedia
The Day After on Amazon.com (Kindle only)
Wil Wheaton’s blog
Wil Wheaton on Twitter

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under anthology, fiction, short stories, Wil Wheaton, zombies

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.

——————————————————
Harry Dresden. Saving the world, one act of random destruction at a time.”
– Jim Butcher, “The Warrior”
——————————————————

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

2 Comments

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

Review 100: Machine of Death


Machine of Death, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !

How would you live if you knew how you would die?

The premise for this collection of short stories was introduced back in 2005, in an installment of Ryan North’s popular Dinosaur Comics. In it, he presents the following premise: there is a machine which, with only a small sample of your blood, can tell you how you will die. But there are no dates, no details, no explanations. Just a few words, and that’s it. The Machine is never wrong, but it is annoyingly vague and has a decidedly un-machinelike love of irony. So you might get OLD AGE and think you were set, right? Not necessarily. You could be murdered by an octogenarian while trying to steal their TV. Or you might get PLANE CRASH and decide never to fly again. Fine, but that won’t stop the single-engine Cessna from plowing into your house one fine spring afternoon. Pulled GUILLOTINE, did you? Hope you know to stay away from heavy metal concerts.

But it doesn’t matter. The Machine, while perversely misleading at times, is never wrong, and like most prophets, its predictions often only make sense after the event has already happened.

With that premise, hundreds of writers across the internet set to work. How would this Machine affect people? How would it affect society or business or politics? Would we become slaves to its predictions, or simply shrug it off and live our lives as we did before, knowing that we were going to die someday anyway?

In “Flaming Marshmallow” by Camille Alexa, we see how the existence of the Machine has begun to shape youth culture. Carolyn is about to turn sixteen, the legal age at which one can be tested. A milestone equivalent with getting one’s driver’s license or being able to vote, kids monitor each other’s fates with scrupulous detail. Your eventual manner of death brings you together with those of similar fates, and new cliques begin to form. Kids who are going to die violent deaths sit together in the lunch room, far away from the ones who get OLD AGE. The kids with DRUG OVERDOSE and fates like it all mill about with each other, and nobody talks to the ones who get SUICIDE. By finding out one’s manner of death, a teenager gets what teenagers always want: a sense of belonging and inclusion. But will Carolyn’s fate bring her closer to her fellow students or just leave her an outsider?

“After Many Years, Stops Breathing, While Asleep, With Smile On Face,” by William Grallo, continues that idea out into the adult world. Ricky is dragged out on the town to a nightclub where people flaunt their deaths. They wear fake toe tags with MURDER or HEART ATTACK on them. Or, if they’re feeling impish, NEVER, or BOREDOM. But while everyone else is mocking their deaths, Ricky is in the odd position of knowing that he’s got a good end to his life. What he doesn’t know is what will happen between now and then, or with whom he will share it.

David Malki ! explores the darker side of society’s reactions in “Cancer.” James is a young man whose father is dying of cancer. It’s what the Machine had predicted, and it was all coming true. Despite the Machine’s infallibility, however, his father was seeking out a cure, a way out from the fate that had been given to him. And he’s not the only one – a new generation of hucksters and faith healers has sprung up, all claiming to be able to defy the predictions of The Machine. It gives James’ father hope, but whether that hope is worth the price or not is something James is unsure of.

“Nothing,” by Pelotard, is a touching tale of a young woman who discovers a family secret that never would have been revealed before the Machine was invented. “Despair,” by K.M. Lawrence, is an examination of how paralyzed people might become by the ambiguity of the predictions, unable to act lest they inadvertently fulfill them. “Improperly Prepared Blowfish” by Gord Sellar is an entertaining moment of secrets and betrayal among a group of yakuza in Japan, and Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw has some fun with the politics of Machine predictions by giving us a politician whose fate is to die from EXHAUSTION FROM HAVING SEX WITH A MINOR.

Some stories are funny, others are touching, but they all center around that most existential of questions: how do we live, knowing that we will die?

Without The Machine, we still know we’re going to die. Every one of us has, somewhere in the back of our mind, that constant reminder that our lives are finite, that there is a limit to the amount of time we can spend on this earth. And, for the most part, we choose to ignore it. After all, if you spend your whole life obsessing over your own death, then you can’t have much of a life, now can you? But add to that fundamental knowledge of finitude the extra awareness of the manner of your death. If you get CAR CRASH, what can you do with that knowledge? You know it’s inevitable, that The Machine is never wrong, but you may still struggle with that fate. You may cut up your driver’s license, move out to Amish country and vow never to be within striking distance of a car again. The entire course of your life will shift drastically, based on the two words printed on that card, but the end result will be the same: CAR CRASH. Knowing that, is it better to act on the knowledge you have gained, or to ignore it?

Even worse, sometimes the very act of finding out your fate leads you right to it. In “Suicide” by David Michael Wharton, characters learn about their deaths only moments before experiencing it. Had they not gone to get tested on The Machine – had they not gone to that machine – would they have avoided their fate? The Machine would say no, but you’d have to ask it first. The best expression of this paradox is contained in the book’s shortest tale, “HIV Infection From Machine of Death Needle” by Brian Quinlan, wherein the very act of discovering your fate causes that fate to happen, whereas you would never have had it if you hadn’t gone looking for it. It’s kind of a mind trip, if you think about it.

What if you get something fairly straightforward, like CANCER, and you decide to, say, jump out of an airplane without a parachute? Will that even be possible, or will random events conspire to keep you safe until your proscribed end? And if you get SUICIDE, the one form of death you have absolute control over, do you fight against it or give in, knowing that nothing you do will change the outcome?

And what could this tell you about the future for everyone? In “Heat Death of the Universe,” by Ramon Perez, teenagers who reach the legal testing age start getting NUCLEAR BOMB as their means of death. The government springs into action, testing, re-testing, and vowing to corral all these kids into one place. But if their deaths are inevitably by NUCLEAR BOMB, what does that mean? It means that whether they’re all in one place or dispersed across the country, that is how they will die. Acting on the information doesn’t change its outcome, only what the manner of that outcome will be.

Conversely, it might be impossible to predict anything from the predictions The Machine gives out. As was pointed out in the same story, the 3,000 victims of 9/11 probably wouldn’t have all had TERRORISM printed on their little cards. They might have had FALLING or FIRE or PLANE CRASH – all true, but none of that would have helped anyone prevent that event. Even something as clear and unambiguous as GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR creates problems, as Cassandra finds out in the story of the same name by T. J. Radcliffe. If you tell people about this future, will they even believe you? Or will the actions they take to prevent it instead be what causes it to happen? There are no easy answers, at least not without electroshock.

It’s a fascinating group of stories, illustrated by some of the internet’s best artists – Adam Koford, Kevin McShane, Aaron Diaz, Kate Beaton, Christopher Hastings, and too many others to mention. It will do what all really good writing should do – make you think. As seductive as it sounds, knowing the means of your death is information that you really can do without. It is the end to your story, whether you know it or not, but everything until then is still up to you. While you may not have any choice over how you die, you still have plenty of control over how you live. You can live in fear or hope, make plans and take risks and hope for the best.

Just like we do now.

I’ll leave you with a joke from Steven Wright, one that was running through my head as I read the book: My girlfriend asked me if I could know how and when I was going to die, would I want to know? I said, “No, not really.” She said, “Okay, forget it, then.”

Thank you, he’ll be here all week.

——————————————————-
“What good is knowing the future if you can’t do anything with the knowledge?”
Dad, from “Friendly Fire” by Douglas J. Lane
——————————————————-

Machine of Death homepage
Machine of Death on Amazon.com

1 Comment

Filed under David Malki !, death, existentialism, humor, Matthew Bennardo, Ryan North, science fiction, short stories

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.

——————————————————
“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)
——————————————————

Ray Bradbury on Wikipedia
The Illustrated Man on Wikipedia
The Illustrated Man on Amazon.com
Ray Bradbury’s website

Leave a comment

Filed under anthology, Ray Bradbury, science fiction

Review 49: Comrade Loves of the Samurai


Comrade Loves of the Samurai by Ihara Saikaku

At last, the book you’ve been waiting for – a book of gay samurai love stories! Woo-hoo! Hot Bushido love! Awwwwww yeah…..

No, seriously, it’s short stories of gay samurai love.

You see, here’s the thing – prior to the modern era of Japan, the attitude towards gay love was similar to that of ancient Greece. Women were fine for having children and securing alliances and building property, but if you want real passion, real true love, you needed a bright-eyed young boy. This kind of relationship between an older man and an adolescent boy, generally known as pederasty (which is often wrongly confused with pedophilia), was considered a natural and healthy bond in those days, and assuming that both parties acted honorably and respectfully, it was mutually beneficial.

As in many other world cultures, this kind of bond was a common one, especially amongst the religious and ruling classes – people who were less interested in breeding large families and more interested in the aesthetic aspects of romance and eroticism. It wasn’t necessarily a lifelong bond, but it could be, and some of these pairings have inspired love stories as passionate and heartbreaking as any other.

This being Japan, of course, most of the love stories in this book don’t end well. About half tend to finish with seppuku, ending the lives of the lovers and, occasionally, other people who are unlucky enough to be in the area. The story All Comrade-Lovers Die by Hara-Kiri is a case in point – it’s the story of Ukyo, Uneme and Samanousuke, three youths bound together by a deep, passionate love. When Ukyo murders a romantic rival in order to prevent the deaths of his friends, he is ordered to kill himself to pay for it. His beloved Uneme joins him in death, and Samanousuke, unable to live without either of the men he loves, takes his own life soon after.

Then there’s Love Vowed to the Dead, in which young Muranousuke fulfills the dying wish of his best friend Gorokitji by giving himself to Gorokitji’s lost lover. In He Died to Save his Lover, young Korin allows himself to be tortured and executed by one lover to save the life of another, and of course, He Followed his Friend into the Other World, After Torturing him to Death, which is pretty much what it sounds like. Let it be said, though, that Sasanousuke didn’t mean for Hayemon to freeze to death, it just kind of happened that way.

In my favorite, The Tragic Love of Two Enemies, a man, Senpatji, falls in love with the young son of the samurai that he had been ordered to kill many years before. The boy, Shynousuke, is ordered by his mother to kill Senpatji, and thus avenge his father, but the boy cannot bring himself to murder the man he loves – especially since Senpatji had been acting under the orders of his lord. He convinces his mother to give them one more night together, which she does, because she’s not completely heartless. She finds them dead the next morning, both impaled through their hearts on Shynousuke’s sword.

Who says the Japanese aren’t romantic?

There are happy(ish) tales, too. Tales of constant dedication, of loyalty and hidden desires in the courtly world of the ruling classes of Edo-period Japan. Men and boys endure great hardships and risk their lives to be together, and on occasion get to spend the rest of their lives together.

These stories were all written back in the 17th century and the author gained great notoriety writing these kinds of soft romances. One of his books was titled, Glorious Tales of Pederasty, which I would really love to see on a bookshelf at Borders someday. Just to see the reactions…. There’s a whole lot of, “They lay together through the night” kind of language, and a general avoidance of sordid detail. Still, they’re well-written, and well-translated, so you can get a very good sense, in these short, short stories, of the kinds of relationships that popped up among the samurai class way back before Western prudishness got its claws into people. In the preface to Glorious Tales, Ihara says:

Our eyes are soiled by the soft haunches and scarlet petticoats of women. These female beauties are good for nothing save to give pleasure to old men in lands where there is not a single good-looking boy. If a man is interested in women, he can never know the joys of pederasty. 

So that should give you an idea of the cultural divide you’re working against when you pick up this book. It’s tough for us modern folks, whose culture is dead set against cross-generational homosexual relationships, to really be comfortable reading stories like this. Usually when you hear stories about a grown man and a teenage boy, it’s immediately classified as “abuse.” Images of windowless panel vans, sweaty gym teachers, NAMBLA meetings rise up and…. Yeah.

Speaking from an American perspective, I can’t think of any situation where a relationship such as the ones in this book would ever be considered acceptable, despite the purity of the feelings involved. The characters in these stories, it must be noted, are not leches. They’re not Herbert from Family Guy. But no matter how pure my intentions might be, if I were to start hanging around the arcades, chatting up fifteen year-old boys, my life as a respectable citizen would be effectively over.

Even assuming that a relationship built on pederasty can be mutually beneficial – and it could be argued that it can – it’s still a) illegal in most places and b) massively creepy. So that makes it an interesting challenge to get into these stories. Life was different back then, after all. The extended childhood that we take for granted in our teenage years pretty much didn’t exist. As soon as someone reached the age of sexual maturity, they were basically proto-adults, rather than lingering children, and were therefore fair game. So as much as I hate to invoke cultural relativism (because I find it wishy-washy and noncommittal), I have to just say, “It was a different time.” In times gone by, pederastic relationships worked, but our culture has moved to a point now where even if it were legalized, the emotional and experiential gulf between the older and younger party would probably make it impossible to go beyond a relationship built on physical eroticism.

Still, the feelings in these stories are just as valid and pure as “traditional” romances, the obstacles they overcome and risks they take are just as real and just as difficult. If you can set aside your more judgmental self, you can appreciate the depth of feeling that existed in these relationships, and recognize the universal themes of all great love stories – discovery, love, loss, betrayal, redemption…. They’re all here. So get reading.

————————————-
“The fairest plants and trees meet their death because of the marvel of their flowers. And it is the same with humanity: many men perish because they are too beautiful.”
– Ihara Saikaku, Comrade Loves of the Samurai
————————————-

Ihara Saikaku on Wikipedia
Comrade Loves of the Samurai on Amazon.com
Pederastic couples in Japan on Wikipedia

Leave a comment

Filed under homosexuality, Ihara Saikaku, Japan, romance