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.