Saturday, May 12, 2007

Beam Us Home

by James Tiptree, Jr.

I th0ught "Beam Us Home" (collected in The Science Fiction Century, ed. by David G. Hartwell) did a wonderful job evoking an archetypal feeling I suspect many of us have had at one time or another--the feeling of being from somewhere else, of not belonging--and then showing how that archetypal feeling might manifest itself within a very specific time period and cultural mileu--the United States in the late 60s. Hobie, the protagonist, feels he is an alien, and meant for something different and better. Tiptree gives us this Hobie not just through the events of his life, the details about how he relates with his parents, or even through sharing the thoughts he has about those things, but also in the prose itself--Hobie seems strangely not present in the story. We never get a full sense of his internal life. We see him in a teen relationship with a girl, but never get a strong sense of what she means to him--Hobie often feels like he is going through the motions of life, without engaging in them, both to himself and to the reader.

What we do know, from the very beginning, is that Hobie is a fan of Star Trek. The show is never named, but it is placed in that Friday evening time slot (that those of us old enough to have watched it when it first came out well remember), and the characters on the show are referred to. The importance Tiptree saw in Star Trek as a cultural milestone is particularly prescient when we note that Tiptree wrote this story in 1969, before the word Trekkie, or any of the conventions, existed.

And so, in Hobie, we find both that ageless sense of not belonging, and a very specific depiction of an alienated teen of the 60s, grasping on to Star Trek as that message from somewhere better.

When Hobie leaves home, he joins the Air Force. This is against the desires of his family--here Tipree paints a marvelous picture of the sort of affluent family that would look down on the Armed Services as a career. (These little highlights of an aspect American society, or class consciousness, at the end of the 60s, which Tiptree gives us almost in passing add to the richness of the story.) However, we find that Hobie hasn't joined the Air Force as a rebellion, but because he wants to become an astronaut, and eventually fly away to the life he believes he came from, and is meant to return to, beyond the planet Earth. Unfortuantely, the US goes to war, the space program is put on hold, and Hobie is deployed to the battlefront. And so even US policy echoes Hobie's internal struggle--striving to rise to exploration of space, it is pulled into the struggle here on Earth.

Even though there is a "spoilers allowed" policy on the site, I won't talk about the ending, so you can go read the story if you haven't already. For me, this story is an excellent example of the kind of piece that can seem like less than it is on first reading. There is a surface simplicity to it. It has a leisurely pace--it doesn't pull one into a "my god what's going to happen next" rush to the end. However, it is a very expansive story, and I find my experience of the story increases as I spend more time with it.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Corpses and Gang Bangs and Bears

by James Swingle

A bit of a treat here: this one is by Jim, for a new publication, Black Ink Horror, billing itself "The Illustrated Digest of Dark Fiction." And it's a dark story, but with a bit of mirth that helps make the ending work. What this story can teach a horror writer is, I think, at least these three things: 1) The first horrible thing in the story need not be what the horror will ultimately be about; nor must the second horrible thing, either. 2) If you want to have a sly ending, you will make a friend of the reader if you have a sly beginning and a sly middle, too. 3) A horror story's horror is all the more horrible if its events could all come true.

By the numbers, then: 1) The necrophilia at the start put me off, a bit, but the story moves away from that into a less disturbing direction. However, even that new direction turns out not to be the heading the reader is on at the very end. Jim and I have long agreed that "There was a horrible monster and it ate everyone in a horrific way and that was really horrible" is not a horror story. Yet, one sees it all the time. Here, we have a piece that avoids that. 2) The ending is humorous, which is a challenge in a horror story because, well, funny horror is challenging. I think this piece meets the challenge by the simple, yet effective, method of sprinkling the same sort of humor over every scene. It's the difference between, say, having this dialog:

Joe: What the fuck was that?
Tom: Shhh, keep it down!

And having the same dialog with these extra lines:

Joe: I am keeping it down! You keep it down!
Tom: You're not keeping it down. You're telling me to keep it down.

Finally, 3) Horror stories are nightmares and they grip us because they are told as nightmares that have come true. Some nightmares can, some can't. For example, no monster is actually going to emerge from my son's closet. But, one actually can fall from a high place. Monsters seem more horrible than falling does, but falling can actually happen. This is a story about events that are truly possible. No monsters, but a nightmare that could come true, for real. That's scary.

There were some glitches in the prose, mostly alternations between third-person omni voice, and first-person subjective voice, that I found confusing. A bit of exposition, too. But an instructive, commercial piece.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Jack Duggan's Law

by George V. Higgins

This was kick-ass. A story about a hard-boiled lawyer fergawdsake. Snappy, witty dialog that helped me understand what the Wikipedia article meant when it related Higgins's notion that dialog must be representative, rather than literal. I doubt real people would ever talk to each other the way Higgins's characters do, but (and here's a secret) the point of fiction just might be to portray things that aren't real. It's possible to be "made-up" and "realistic" at the same time; "Duggan's Law" proves that "interesting" fits in with those other two.

I did lose track of who some of the characters were, but I always do that when there are more than four character and/or more than two plot threads. Still, I loved the noir of it all, and it was refreshing for a noir to be set outside of L.A. and Manhattan. Sad to learn that Higgins is dead, but I want to read more of his stuff. It has energy. Not only do things happen, they happen fast, which I'm starting to realize is a key ingredient of the stories I like best. Not much musing, contemplation, or birds standing around on one leg. Action! That's it! Action!

Probably not the formula for everyone, but it works for me.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Officers Weep

by Daniel Orozco

This was a novelty piece, in the format of a policeman's log book. Clever, though, and very funny at times. The bit about "Daddy's Sweet Bitch" was so out-of-the-blue that it made one of us (Stevens) genuinely flop over with laughter. Ending was a bit New Yorkerish, but what else could Orozco do? Very clever, and a fun one.

Vasquez Orbital Salvage and Satellite Repair // Captains of Industry

by Matthew Jarpe

Inspired by his zippy "City of Reason," we sought out and found Matthew Jarpe's Web site, where he has posted two more stories he sold to Asimov's. Both have a lot in common with "Reason." They pile on the unlikely events in a steady, but credible way. Both are whimsical at times and do a neat job of tranlating present-day experience (a junk man, a corporate legal battle) into an sf context (a junk man who collects space junk, a corporate legal battle waged from the gravity well of a black hole [maybe the ultimate solution to the slow turn of the wheels of justice 8-) ]).

Of the two, "Vasquez" is the better, we thought. It's more upbeat and has a faster pace. "Captains" mixed two themes, because it switched POV from the space station above the hole to the suface of the planet, and back. On the surface, Jarpe employs (as he does repeatedly, and usually successfully, throughout these stories) a familiar sf trope: in this case, a caste-based corporate culture. (Hmmm... this is similar to Mike McQuay's novel "Jitterbug." In a world where everyone wants to be the next, "next Heinlein," could Jarpe be the next McQuay? I'd be glad if that were true.) It's a workable idea, but it slightly conflicts with the rest of the tale by drawing attention to itself without adding much. We thought he had more material waiting to be developed back on the station, where the cultural effects of leading a vast industry from a location where time runs m-u-c-h more slowly than elsewhere should have been more visible. For example, the protag has lawyers reviewing on the station what his lawyers were doing in flat space. Why? By the time they're done, those flat-space lawyers wil be decades beyond the material reviewed. We thought there were lots of opportunities for exploitation of this, but maybe next time. (One idea we had: make the space station long enough that different floors' clocks run at different rates; each "slower" floor takes its reports from the next "faster" one, allowing the hierarchy to function in something like a traditional management structure, while still requiring that each floor only burden the next one with a summary of its work.)

"Vasquez" was more light-hearted and, at the end, even a bit too sugar-coated. Once again, where other writers would have lost us in the sequence of fortuitous/serendipitous events, this story didn't put us off with all of its unlikely events. Somehow, they still worked in a convincing way. Maybe there's no more reason to it than that it would be just so cool if all of this were real.

We'll remember this author.

Friday, April 13, 2007

City of Reason

by Matthew Jarpe

Finally, a real corker! This is a mix of Niven, Pohl, and the died-way-too-soon Mike McQuay. Jarpe piles on the tropes, but at a steady and exciting rate. It would have been dangerous to add more than he does (Kuiper Belt colonies; cyborgs; atomic space combat; super-science private eyes; replicants; data mongers; autonomous spacecraft; teenaged romance) or as much in a shorter story (Jarpe himself says that 8,000 words is a "sweet spot" for his style, which might limit the markets that take his stuff, alas). But, pretty much all of them are recognizable to the regular reader of sf, so none of it calls for much explanation. For some reason I can't nail down, it also doesn't feel like any of it is too convenient when it appears, or too "made up." When I read the work of wannabe sf writers, a problem I often see is that they feel obliged (or maybe just "allowed") to have helpful robots, super aliens, or secret weapons just appear out of nowhere when nothing else will move the plot along. This is almost always a bad idea, though, because it tends to show that the writer was stuck and couldn't think of a logical and convincing way to keep the story going. Jarpe's introduction of various gizmos and gimcracks skirts this danger, somehow. I need to think more about why it worked for him, when it usually kills a story for others, but I'll figure it out.

Anyway, this was a great story. I'm looking forward to the August, 2007 release of his first novel, "Radio Freefall."

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Travels with My Cats

by Mike Resnick

This was a pretty light-hearted piece, but in a poignant way. I was glad to read it after the awfully downish "So Help Me God." There was a point where Ethan seems to have the woman convinced she will live longer than she does, but later she refers to being "brought back," as though she knows she's dead, so I found that confusing. I also thought the ending was unsatisfying. Further, I thought it unlikely that Ethan would remain as calm and potentially accepting of seeing a "ghost" as he did. Still, maybe partly because I've tried writing stories myself that deal directly with this issue, if Resnick had spent much time on how Ethan would really have reacted, I suspect that probably be what the story would have been about entirely.

I did like the theme and the easygoing writing style. I met Resnick in 1994, at a "coffee-clatch" table at Worldcon 52. He's a very affable, level-headed guy. This story matches his personality, at least as far as I can tell. I wonder how much of this arises from his own experiences. Liz said she could see some recognizable moments. That is, bits here and there spoke to her as probably coming from the writer's own life. I think that helps a story, but I'm stumped as to how to do it myself.

In the end, not a bad story, but I think the basic idea has been used a bit often and, therefore, called for a more creative ending.

So Help Me God

by Joyce Carol Oates

Yeesh! A "New Yorker Dreadful." This was a relentlessly down-beat story with compelling writing, but I've really had it with this kind of, "it all sucks, it's all pointless, people are dirt" theme. Messrs. Penzler and Turow admit, right at the front of the book, that "mystery" is a very inclusive term. They use it to include any story with, or about, a crime.

Gentlemen, that's wrong! I read mysteries to solve whodunnits, follow the procedures of investigators, get inside the criminal mind, and generally experience something interesting about a crime. Merely watching a crime as it relentlessly slogs towards me is not what it means to read a mystery. There are many markets for this kind of thing, so why are you opening yours up to it?

I found this story depressing, rambly, slow, and uninstructive for the writer I want to be. Because it's about an abused woman, I'm sure it has its champions. But I am judging these things on the quality of the work, not my sympathy for the subject matter. This one, I judge a dud.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

The Shooting of John Roy Worth

by Stuart Kaminsky

From EQMM, this is a story that we (Liz and Stevens) thought could have appeared in "The New Yorker." That's because it is a linear work where the only event that occurs is that the protagnist gets shot (nearly) to death. Kaminsky has written a sly tale of a slightly simple man who is looking for a way to limited greatness (by killing a celebrity) and guaranteed security (by going to jail for it). Yet, it's a rambling piece with a few forced bits. The very last paragraph suggests that Wally (the protag) makes more choices than the reader might have known. Still, one is left to wonder if this story--by Very Famous Author Stuart Kaminsky--tests the theory that all fiction is treated equally when it lands on the editor's desk.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Lakes of Light

by Stephen Baxter

An entry in the author's "Xeelee" canon, where the human race of the far future is fighting a galactic war against an enigmatic and poweful foe. This short story doesn't require knowledge of the larger context, but it suffers somewhat from the need for exposition used to supply the backstory. Seems like what Baxter really wanted to do was get to the second half of the story, where Pala is driving pole-wards and--as Liz insightfully observed--undergoes something of a conversion to other-than-human status.

If you read Clement's "Mission of Gravity," you'll recognize one basic concept. Alas, I felt a bit of homage was called for by this fact, yet Baxter didn't deliver it; he just used the same idea. Nothing wrong with that, but the similarity was so strong, that I felt the omission hurt the story.

Kind of a hard-sf tale with lost opportunities for more character development. In my view, the lessons here are many, but chiefly they are: don't crowd with backstory an otherwise good idea just to make it part of a larger canon; get to the "sfnal" part quickly enough to grab the reader; pay your due respects to those who have gone before you.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007


This is a site for readers and writers (aspiring, rising, established, or otherwise) of genre fiction. There are plenty of sites for just one or the other (and, sure, lots that welcome both), but we wanted to create a site deliberately devoted to readers and writers who gain from talking to each other. We're going to read a story, meet in person with a few friends if we want to first, then talk about it here where all the world can share its thoughts.

Our choices are made with one thing in mind: to learn from the best. That way, the readers can be sure they'll have a good time and the writers will know they're studying the masters. We've chosen four recently edited collections of mystery and sf to get us started. Buy those, or even one or two of them, and you can be sure you'll have plenty of mugs (the "mugs" are the stories, get it?) to share with the rest of us for quite a while.

If you're new, please join right in. Tell us who you are if you want to, or you can remain wrapped in an enigma, if that's your choice. All we ask is for the kind of courtesy that would make your mother proud. Violators will be made to go stand in the corner.

If you see a story in one of the current collections we're reading and you'd like to see it become the next mug, please let us know right here (or in the comments to whichever post is current). We'll give it a look-see and maybe serve it up for you. Regardless, we hope you'll enjoy the mugs we do serve, and be part of our extended table.