Posts Tagged ‘short stories’

Short takes: ‘The Lottery, and Other Stories,’ ‘Oona Out of Order’ and ‘Monsters’

June 14, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 14, 2020

The Lottery, and Other Stories is an anthology that shows off Shirley Jackson’s versatility and talent.

The tales, all evidently published in 1948 and 1949, largely eschew the horror genre of the title story. They instead capture moments in the lives of ordinary women and a handful of men in early and mid-century America. Some of these people are quietly suffering; others are doing fine but are about to endure an unforeseen calamity. All too often, looming forces are poised to disrupt every last scrap of normality to which Jackson’s characters cling.

In the opening story, “The Intoxicated,” a drunk partygoer steps into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and has a straightforward conversation with a teenager girl about her visions of an apocalyptic future. The nameless protagonist of “The Demon Lover,” a 36-year-old Manhattan resident, awakens on what she believes will be the day of her wedding to Jamie Harris; when he fails to show up, she sets out to find him. She ventures first to his home address where, it turns out, he was apartment-sitting for a couple who have just returned from a trip. Matters devolve from there.

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Short takes: ‘The Iron Giant,’ ‘13 Ghosts’ and ‘Ad Astra’

April 27, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 27, 2020

The 1999 animated feature The Iron Giant is a science-fiction story set in the late 1950s in Rockwell, a quiet coastal village in Maine. The night after an immense robot plunges into the ocean during a major storm, it’s discovered and then rescued by a smart, lonely boy with the unlikely name of Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal).

The pair strike up a friendship, but this is the height of the Cold War, and foreigners — be they Russians, robots or extraterrestrials (let alone extraterrestrial robots) — are not looked upon kindly. When a haughty federal agent named Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) comes nosing around the farm where Hogarth lives with his mom, Annie (Jennifer Aniston), Hogarth is forced into an uneasy alliance with Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.), the beatnik artist who runs the local scrapyard.

The movie is loosely adapted from The Iron Man: A Story in Five Nights, a bedtime tale that Ted Hughes devised for his children and published in 1968. (The British poet, who died in 1998, is credited as a consultant on the film.)

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‘The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson’ showcases the author’s ambition and versatility

April 19, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 19, 2020

Roughly a quarter-century ago, I read a story in a science-fiction magazine or anthology about an American writer who had been commissioned to write an introduction for a volume commemorating the 20th century. The tale was published, I suppose, in the 1990s, and was set at least a year before the turn of the century. (Which technically began on Jan. 1, 2001.)

Two things about the piece have stuck with me for a very long time. One is the central character’s struggle with the station wagon he rents in England. The driver’s seat is on the car’s right or starboard side; cars travel on the left or port side of the road; and the clutch is on the driver’s left side rather than his right. And yet the clutch, brake and gas pedals are arranged in the same configuration as in America and the rest of the world.

The writer has a harrowing drive to an isolated part of the United Kingdom, which helps inform the second thing I recall about the story. The character, having researched the atrocities of the 20th century, is overwhelmed by pessimism about the coming hundred years. And yet, shell-shocked both by his research and by his trip, when he begins writing the forward to A History of the Twentieth Century, With Illustrations, the author borrows what turns out to have been ludicrously optimistic words first printed in A History of the Nineteenth Century, With Illustrations.

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Short takes: ‘The Devil in Silver,’ ‘The Third Lynx,’ ‘Odd Girl Out’ and ‘The Eagle Has Landed’

February 21, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 21, 2020

Victor Lavalle’s 2012 novel, The Devil in Silver, begins in the early weeks of 2011 with a large, powerful man named Pepper being committed to Northwest, the psychiatric inpatient unit of the fictitious New Hyde hospital in Queens. Pepper isn’t really crazy; he’s just hot-tempered, and a little socially isolated. Three cops bring him to the hospital because it allows them to bypass an hour or two of unpaid overtime that they’d need to book him in jail for scrapping with them.

The system is hard to escape, Pepper discovers, especially after two altercations indefinitely extend what could have been just a 72-hour stint in the psych ward. He loses two months after being heavily medicated; even when his mind has fought off the drug-induced fog, the 42-year-old professional mover still thinks and moves and talks like an unsteady nonagenarian.

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Ted Chiang puts societies to the technological test in his new collection of science fiction stories, ‘Exhalation’

January 27, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 27, 2020

Writer Ted Chiang has a relatively slender publication history. His debut book was the 2002 anthology Stories of Your Life; last year, he published a second volume of stories, Exhalation. The website Fantastic Fiction lists the New York native as having stories in four annual genre-fiction anthologies and in 1998’s The Mammoth Book of Fantasy All-Time Greats.

Despite this, Chiang is prominent enough to have merited a 2017 New Yorker profile. This was due in no small part to Arrival, the splendid 2016 Denis Villeneuve movie about first contact with aliens, which is based on the 1999 Hugo and Nebula award–winning novella “The Story of Your Life” from Chiang’s first collection.

I’m happy to report that Chiang’s second book, Exhalation, is full of engaging, thought-provoking tales. The title story is a monograph written by, it soon emerges, a member of a race of robots that breathes not oxygen but argon. “Every day,” it writes near the start of the second paragraph,

we consume two lungs heavy with air; every day we remove the empty ones from our chest and replace them with full ones. If a person is careless and lets his air level run too low, he feels the heaviness of his limbs and the growing need for replenishment. It is exceedingly rare that a person is unable to get at least one replacement lung before his installed pair runs too empty; on those occasions where this has happened — when a person is trapped and unable to move, with no one nearby to assist him — he dies within seconds of his air running out.

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Stephen King’s 2015 collection ‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams’ is a mixed bag

October 14, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 14, 2019

It was with no small interest that I began reading The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King’s 2015 short story collection. His 1978 anthology, Night Shift, gave me chills when I first read it back in the… well, a long time ago. And I found that it held up just fine when I reread the volume earlier this year.

Unfortunately, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a bit of a mixed bag when compared with its predecessor. There are some definite hits here, but also some big whiffs.

King is not just one of the most successful authors alive today; he’s one of the most successful in the history of the world. He’s also a vital presence on social media, especially if you enjoy reading sassy left-wing commentary.

But he often gets in his own way in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. His introduction struck me as rather silly:

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Short takes: ‘The Final Frontier,’ Denis Johnson’s ‘The Largesse of the Sea Maiden’ and Poul Anderson’s ‘Tau Zero’

October 4, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 4, 2019

The 2018 book The Final Frontier is a collection of 21 stories that share the topic of deep-space travel. My favorite entry in the book was the final one, which I’d read before: Peter Watts’s “The Island,” which is essentially a three-character narrative.

The tale is set aboard Eriophora, a deep-space vessel that set out millennia ago and whiles away the centuries ceaselessly building a network of teleportation gateways. Each gate empowers not its builders but the offshoots of whatever civilization launched the ship; each one also destroys anything near it, which is among the reasons why the vessel cannot slow or even change course by more than a tiny degree.

The unnamed narrator, like all of her crewmates, is carrying out a limited rebellion against Chimp, the deliberately hobbled artificial intelligence that ruthlessly hews to the ship’s original mission. Make that most of her crewmates — the third player in the story is Dix, the 20-something son she’s never met, who is suspiciously loyal to Eri’s brain.

‘The Final Frontier’ edited by Neil Clarke.

The narrator and Dix are awakened as part of a seemingly random rotation of personnel who shepherd the assembly of each new gate. As so often is the case, there’s a wrinkle, which is precisely why the ship has a crew. Chimp has detected an anomaly and wants to know if it will affect the build. The narrator discovers something amazing, something the AI likely would not have perceived on its own. In the end, though, she finds that her intuition — her uniquely human wisdom — may not be as well geared to comprehending the immensity and variety of the universe and its strange creations as she initially believed.

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Science fiction anthology roundup, including a major reason to visit ‘Old Venus’

March 31, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 31, 2019

Over the last month and a half or so, I’ve been reading a handful of anthologies. Notable among them were Galactic Empires, a 2017 publication edited by Neil Clarke themed on, well, exactly what the title says; and Infinite Stars, also from 2017, edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt and billing itself — rather grandiosely, I thought — as “The Definitive Anthology of Space Opera and Military SF.” I enjoyed both volumes but thought the former to be stronger overall.

It’s worth devoting a moment on Schmidt’s collection because it revisits some famous science fiction universes. Infinite Stars includes a new Dune story co-written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, which I found to be particularly weak, and an original “Ender’s Game” story by Orson Scott Card, which I didn’t much enjoy but felt arrived at a haunting ending. I particularly enjoyed Nnedi Okorafor’s “Binti,” which approaches space exploration and interspecies conflict from an African perspective, and “Night Passage,” an Alastair Reynolds tale set in his “Revelation Space” saga, of which (unlike “Dune” and “Ender’s Game”) I have no knowledge.

However, the real point of this post is to share a few thoughts about Old Venus, a 2015 themed collection edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.

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Horror maven Stephen King’s 1978 anthology ‘Night Shift’ still packs a powerful sting

March 23, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 23, 2019

Look, Stephen King obviously doesn’t need my help to sell more copies of his books — even though, as I recently established, he isn’t the best-selling modern fiction author of all (or even just of modern) times. But still…

I recently reread Night Shift, a 1978 anthology of King stories that I probably first read back in the ’80s. I’m happy to report that I enjoyed it as much as I did the first time round. Some of the passages that chilled me back then gave me the same shivers of horror more than two decades later.

The book contains 20 stories, which by my count directly inspired an eye-popping six movies: Children of the CornMaximum Overdrive (infamously known as King’s only directorial outing, based on the story “Trucks”), Graveyard ShiftThe ManglerSometimes They Come Back and The Lawnmower Man (although this film was so loosely based on King’s story that he successfully sued to have his writing credit de-emphasized).

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Seeking the summit: Dan Simmons offers five short science-fiction tales in ‘Worlds Enough and Time’

July 5, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 5, 2015

Worlds Enough and Time, the 2002 anthology by virtuoso author Dan Simmons, contains five short stories. (A few, in truth, are somewhat longish.) Two of the pieces are excellent; the other three are flawed but interesting.

The stories are presented in chronological order beginning with the oldest, “Looking for Kelly Dahl,” which was originally published in 1995. It begins as a cat-and-mouse tale about a dissolute former public school teacher named Roland Jakes who is hunting, and being hunted by, one of his former students.

Kelly Dahl was a largely unremarkable child when Jakes taught her; now, however, by some unknown process, she’s acquired godlike powers. You can get a sense of them by reading the story’s opening:

I awoke in camp that morning to find the highway to Boulder gone, the sky empty of contrails, and the aspen leaves a bright autumn gold despite what should have been a midsummer day, but after bouncing the Jeep across four miles of forest and rocky ridgeline to the back of the Flatirons, it was the sight of the Inland Sea that stopped me cold.

“Damn,” I muttered, getting out of the Jeep and walking to the edge of the cliff.

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Coffee aficionado, merchant, outer space adventurer: The philosophical meanderings of Angelica Gorodischer’s ‘Trafalgar’

May 18, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 18, 2015

Trafalgar is an engaging anthology of stories about the adventures and misadventures of Trafalgar Medrano. This mischievous space-faring merchant hails from Rosario, a key Argentinian port on the Paraná River. (The city, which is real, is about 185 miles upriver from Buenos Aires, the nation’s capital.)

The book was written by Angélica Gorodischer, a longtime resident of Rosario who won a World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement in 2011. Trafalgar was first published in 1979; an English translation by Amalia Gladhart appeared in 2013.

All of Trafalgar’s tales are literally that — stories told by the merchant. A few come to us secondhand — in one account, Medrano describes one journey to a group of men playing cards; in another, the narrator’s 84-year-old Aunt Josefina relates a story that Medrano told her the other day about a tragic love affair on a distant world. There’s also a monologue delivered to an unknown individual.

Most of the time, however, Medrano seems to be speaking to a woman in Rosario — typically, one presumes, the author herself, or at least someone who shares her profession. (The story told in the group setting, about a beautiful scientist who joins the mysterious frenzied dances of a primitive race on a remote world, appears to have been passed on to the author by one of those present, although it’s not clear whom.)

By framing her narrative this way, Gorodischer is exploring the experience of hearing stories.

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These are a few of my favorite books

March 15, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 16, 2015

Author’s note: Recently, a young acquaintance who was working on a school project asked me what my favorite book was. I sent this e-mail and then realized, Hey, this would make a great blog post. I’ve made a few relatively minor changes to the text, and — well, here it is. Enjoy! MEM 

“What’s your favorite book?” is a great question to ask someone! It’s hard for me to answer, however, because I love so many different books.

I am extremely fond of Tales of Pirx the Pilot, an anthology about a future astronaut written by the late Polish author Stanislaw Lem. (This book was published in Poland in 1968; it was translated into English and published in two parts. I refer here to the first volume, 1979’s Tales of Pirx the Pilot; the second volume, More Tales of Pirx the Pilot, appeared in 1982 and is also excellent.)

Pirx’s adventures are often kind of comical: In the opening story, a very persistent fly gets caught in Pirx’s capsule on his first solo rocket flight. Sometimes, they’re dull — Pirx’s first duty assignment in outer space is essentially watching two scientists who don’t really need any help at a very quiet observatory on the far side of the moon.

The protagonist is a bit bumbling and ordinary, but at the same time he is hard-working, stubborn and kind of charming in a quaint way. Also, Pirx manages to escape some genuinely dangerous situations. We can’t all be Captain Kirk from Star Trek (my favorite TV show when I was a kid), but I like to think that there’s a little bit of Pirx in everyone.

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Despite its overlong titles, strained premises and avant-garde structuring, Yann Martel’s ‘The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios’ is a marvelous anthology

December 26, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 26, 2014

Yann Martel is a Canadian author whose second novel, Life of Pi, published in 2002, was a best-selling critical success. It won the prestigious Man Booker Prize, awarded to the best English-language novel published in the United Kingdom, and was the basis for an excellent film adaptation directed by Ang Lee, which appeared in 2012.

Martel’s first book is an excellent anthology from 1993 called The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories. As the title story suggests, the edition has plenty of quirky elements. Two of the four stories are clearly experimental fiction, while the title story itself could arguably be classified as such.

That title story has a convoluted premise that shouldn’t work. The unnamed narrator launches the tale by describing his friendship with Paul Atsee, a 19-year-old freshman, which begins when the two meet at college. (The setting is the fictitious Ellis University in the equally fictitious municipality of Roetown, which Martel situates just east of the actual city of Toronto.) At the time, the unnamed narrator was a 23-year-old senior working as an orientation volunteer, but the differences in age and experience are no barrier to the relationship: “[R]ight away I liked Paul’s laid-back, intelligent curiosity and his skeptical turn of mind. The two of us clicked and we started hanging out together.”

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Prominent authors contribute original, mainly horror-tinged tales to ‘McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories’

September 13, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 13, 2014

McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories is a 2004 anthology edited by Michael Chabon with a notable bent toward horror-tinged tales of the supernatural. The book’s stories, all original, are penned by an impressive list of authors, but I found their quality to be a bit uneven.

Margaret Atwood contributes the first story, “Lusus Naturae,” narrated by a deformed young woman whose family fakes her death in order to mitigate their shame in her existence. (The title is a Latin phrase for “freak of nature.”) The tale is short, and its plot relatively unimaginative, but it generates sympathy for the shunned protagonist. Atwood also strikes an enjoyable sardonic note in the final paragraph.

“What You Do Not Know You Want,” by David Mitchell, is a mystery with supernatural elements. The narrator, a memorabilia dealer, is visiting Hawaii in order to locate the dagger his partner had acquired just before killing himself. The protagonist is disaffected — he’s engaged to be married but notably unenthusiastic about his fiancée. The story’s tone is naturalistic, but it ends with a disturbing otherworldly killing.

“Vivian Relf” is a curious short offering by Jonathan Lethem about a man who meets a woman a few times. Nothing happens between them, even though their lives seem to be intertwined in mysterious, indefinable ways.

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In Matheson’s ‘Legend,’ the build-up may often be slow, but the payoff is typically deadly

April 22, 2013

The premise of I Am Legend is almost primal in its appeal. To use the tag line on a recent edition of this Richard Matheson, in the eponymous novella, “The last man on Earth is not alone.”

So powerful is the concept of this 1954 story that I Am Legend has been filmed not once but four times, with varying degrees of fidelity. (I’ve seen none of these movies, the most notable of which have starred Vincent Price, Charlton Heston and Will Smith.)

The original story by Matheson centers on Robert Neville, a seemingly unremarkable suburban Los Angeleseño who appears to be the only man to have survived intact a plague that converted the world’s population into vampires.

Neville alternates between despair and resolve. Matheson follows him as he makes his daily rounds: Killing vampires in their slumbers and researching possible causes and cures for the plague on sunny days, maintaining and fortifying his home on cloudy ones.

The author deftly paints the psychological stresses his hero suffers. Neville is very much an Everyman, or at least he fits the image of John Q. Public that many 1954 magazine readers likely had. He’s handy with tools but has limited ability to absorb the scientific knowledge that could lead him to an antidote. Still, he makes do, fighting off the temptations of alcohol and suicide.

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Keats explores virtue and vice in ‘Book of the Unknown’

August 10, 2012

Jonathan Keats weaves intriguing and baffling fables about medieval Jewish society in The Book of the Unknown.

This 2009 collection, subtitled “Tales of the Thirty-Six,” revolves around the Kabbalistic notion that there must be at least 36 righteous people — the Lamedh-Vov, which is Hebrew for that number — at any time in order to justify humanity in the mind of God. “Without them, the world would be doomed,” the author explains.

Your preconceptions of sainthood are likely to be confounded by this American writer, however. The righteous folks described here include a fool, a liar, a gambler, a whore, a false messiah and a murderer.

Some of these characters find redemption through love. “Alef the Idiot” (as his tale is titled) achieves greatness both despite and because of his dealings with a demon, who persuades the mortal to surrender his soul; his intense bond with his wife helps erase his sins. “Chet the Cheat,” a professional sin eater, “Heyh the Clown,” an unusual circus performer, and “Yod the Inhuman,” a golem, all make sacrifices to alleviate injustices suffered by others. Read the rest of this entry »

The journey can be more enjoyable than the destination in Will Self anthology

July 8, 2012

There’s no question that Will Self is an able writer, but his 1998 collection of short fiction never quite came together for me as a reader.

Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys has eight stories in all. A pair, including the eponymous work, revolve around the dissolute, philandering psychologist Bill Bywater. Another pair, which bookend the anthology, concern drug-dealing London brothers.

These four stories were my favorite in the book, especially “Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys.” (It appears immediately before its companion piece, “Design Faults in the Volvo 760 Turbo: A Manual,” despite occurring at a later time.) “Tough Toys” describes Bywater’s epic single-day drive from the northern coast of Scotland to London.

The psychologist is both methodical and reckless. In the morning, he checks his fluid levels and repaired engine; then he lights a blunt and takes a large gulp of whisky from “‘the car bottle’ as he jocularly styled it — to himself” immediately before pulling on to the road. Read the rest of this entry »

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