Monday, April 17, 2017

DMI2017, Week 15: "Darkness Box" by Ursula K. Le Guin

This week I was led back to Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder by the selection of the Three of Diamonds. However, the resulting story choice, “Darkness Box,” is anything but a masterpiece, in my opinion. I had high hopes for this story because, even though I have never read anything by Ursula Le Guin, I knew of her status as one of the most famous living science fiction and fantasy writers. However, this story did not do her justice, I’m afraid (or let’s say, I hope!).

 

The story opens as a little boy, Dicky, finds a box that has washed up on the shore. Dicky’s mother, a witch, asks what is in the box. “Darkness,” he replies, and she tells him to be careful with it.

Meanwhile, in another part of the land, Prince Rikard is fighting off his rebellious brother’s forces, and none too successfully. Retreating back to his father’s castle, he passes by the witch’s hut, and meets up with her. She calls for Dicky who offers the box to the Prince, but the Prince refuses it, saying all “seagifts” belong to the king. So he takes the darkness box to his father, who is horrified by the gift. It turns out that the box belonged to him once, and he threw it into the sea to get rid of it. He won’t take the box back, and warns his son to keep it locked and never open it. It is no spoiler to tell you that the Prince does open it, but the effects of the box are not exactly what one expects.

This was not a horrible story, but it’s not one to which I’ll return. I will note that, according to the copyright information in the anthology, this story was first published in 1963, which appears to be near the beginning of the time Le Guin began publishing her stories. So perhaps it is a youthful effort that is not terribly representative of her larger body of work. It’s a story that rates only three stars with me.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

DMI2017, Week 14: "Chicken Little" by Cory Doctorow

The Ten of Diamonds was the card for this week, and it introduced me to a most intriguing story by Cory Doctorow from the collection 21st Century Science Fiction.

 

We all know the story of Chicken Little and "the sky is falling." It's one of those folk tales whose origins have been lost in the mists of time. What is most interesting is how the basic premise of the story (don't overreact to insignificant events and fall into paranoia and hysteria) has been reworked and reimagined over the centuries.

This story is a fine example of a futuristic scenario in which mass eradication of fear and uncertainty (via pharmaceutical means) is finally a possibility -- but of course the fundamental question is, is this ethical? Is this even good for the human species, understanding that much of our evolution and development has been shaped by that very same fear and uncertainty?


The story's protagonist, Leon, has begun work at an ad agency called Ate. This agency, like many others, seeks to cater to ultra-wealthy individuals who have achieved a version of immortality. As their bodies fail, they move into vats, and are kept alive by the latest scientific developments and hundreds if not thousands of employees who become their "bodies." Still perfectly conscious, they continue to conduct business in this way and become even more wealthy and powerful. So if an ad agency such as Ate can sell even one thing to these individuals, its reputation (and income) is set for life.

This is what has happened to Ate. Long ago, the agency made a sale to one vat person, and the income from that sale has kept the agency going for a long time, and not just with bare-bones accommodations. Ate's offices are in a lavish, state-of-the-art complex and no need of its employees is ever denied. They don't actually have to ever make another sale, that's how good the first one was. The employees do whatever they want to, and are free to pursue any kind of lead that might lead to another sale. And if they could make one more sale, it would cement the agency's existence forever, So this has become the holy grail of the agency, and many employees have come and gone in what has turned out to be a fruitless pursuit. When a person such as one of the vat people needs literally nothing, what can you possibly sell them? So Leon's goal, as is the goal of everyone at Ate, is to figure out what that could be.

One day Leon meets with Ria, an envoy of one of the vat people. She represents Buhle, who went to his vat at 103, the youngest age ever for one of these individuals. It was apparently due to some kind of "accident," and as the story unfolds, this accident becomes critical to the climax of the story. Also, as it turns out, Leon is actually being courted by Buhle, who knows of his past history and also has an idea of what Leon can sell him. During his grad school days, Leon hit upon a new type of drug that allows humans to make cold, rational calculations about events. Taking this drug, no one would ever buy a lottery ticket, for example, because they would know instantly that their chances of actually winning were almost zero. Buhle's idea is that the drug would release humanity from its fear and uncertainty and usher in a new era of optimism and progress. But Leon's resistance to his own creation is that it would also take away many of the things that make human existence so ultimately rewarding in the first place.

I don't want to give any more of the story away, of course, but there are many, many layers to this excellent story which makes it well worth reading. It's definitely a five-star story.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Friday, March 31, 2017

DMI2017, Week 13: "Evil Robot Monkey" by Mary Robinette Kowal

This week's card, the Eight of Diamonds, leads us to a very short and intriguing story from the collection Twenty-First Century Science Fiction.


"Evil Robot Monkey" is one of those stories that gets into my Deal Me In roster solely due to its title. Who could resist wanting to know what that title means? However, having finished the story, I am still not sure.


The story centers on Sly, a chimpanzee who has been altered with some kind of brain transplant that makes him hyper-aware of his interactions with humans. In fact, the story is told from his point of view, showing that he very much has what we would recognize as human consciousness. He even creates beautiful pottery on a pottery wheel in his enclosure. But there's the rub -- he's a fully conscious animal in what appears to be a zoo. One day he's startled by a group of schoolchildren and ruins the pottery he's working on. He flies into a rage and acts out, scaring and embarrassing the children and their teacher, who complains about the "evil robot monkey."

One of Sly's keepers, Vern, is sent to talk to Sly (through sign language) and explain that he has to be disciplined for his behavior, which involves taking away the clay for his pottery. Their conversation reveals that Vern actually "gets" Sly, unlike most people, which makes Sly trust Vern and accept the punishment. But between them, they figure out a way to get around the punishment so Sly can still make pottery.

In the brief introduction to "Evil Robot Monkey," the collection's editors make the statement that this story is "a reminder that it's possible to tell a fully-realized SF story in fewer than a thousand words." That may be true in general, and this story is definitely short, being just a couple of pages long, but I am not sure it succeeds in being a fully-realized story. It's an interesting story, but it seems very bare bones and left way too many unanswered questions for me, with the result that it feels very incomplete. However, it's well-written so it gets four stars from me.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Monday, March 27, 2017

DMI2017, Week 12: "A Southern Landscape" by Elizabeth Spencer

This week we embark on my reading list of Mississippi authors, thanks to the Ten of Hearts. I don't have any particular anthology from which to pull these stories -- instead, I made my list of authors and cobbled together some of their stories from various sources. (It gave me a good excuse to buy more anthologies, in a few cases.)

  


This week's story, "A Southern Landscape," comes from the anthology Growing Up in the South, and was the first story by Elizabeth Spencer that I've ever read. After this one, I think I need another anthology for my library! Spencer is possibly best known for her novella "The Light in the Piazza," which has been the basis for both a movie and a Broadway musical.

"A Southern Landscape" focuses on the story of Marilee Summerall, a teenaged girl who lives in the small town of Port Claiborne, Mississippi. Interestingly, the Port Claiborne of the story is a thinly-veiled stand-in for the real-life town of Port Gibson, Mississippi, which I visited a few years back. It's a beautiful, historic town that, despite figuring prominently in the Civil War as the site of a battle that was probably the beginning of the end for the Confederacy in Mississippi, was remarkably preserved throughout the war. Reportedly, this is because Ulysses S. Grant himself said that the town was too beautiful to burn, so it wasn't. In the story, Spencer makes mention of the famous golden hand pointing to Heaven atop the steeple of the First Presbyterian Church, and some of the action of the story takes place at the nearby ruins of Windsor.

The famous Golden Hand on the top of the
First Presbyterian Church steeple in Port Gibson, MS

The iconic ruins of Windsor

These sights and many others make up the "southern landscape" referred to in the title, a landscape not only in reality but of the heart and soul as well. Spencer's beautiful, evocative writing makes this clear:

Coming down the highway from Vicksburg, you come to Port Claiborne, and to get to our house you turn off to the right on State Highway No. 202 and follow along the prettiest road. It's just about the way it always was -- worn deep down like a tunnel and thick with shade in summer. In spring, it's so full of sweet heavy odors, they make you drunk, you can't think of anything -- you feel you will faint or go right out of yourself. In fall, there is the rustle of leaves under your tires and the smell of them, all sad and Indian-like. Then in the winter, there are only dust and bare limbs, and mud when it rains, and everything is like an old dirt-dauber's nest up in the corner.

So set against this landscape we have Marilee's story and her brief infatuation with Foster Hamilton, a boy a few years older than her. She calls him "Benjy" after the "big, overgrown idiot" character in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury -- not because he's necessarily so big or overgrown, but he does often behave like an idiot. Mainly, Foster likes to drink, and it gets him into some awkward and embarrassing situations. The biggest situation occurs when Foster takes Marilee to her senior dance, and he's already two sheets to the wind, They leave the dance after about ten minutes because he's teetering "like a baby that has caught on to what walking is, and knows that now is the time to do it, but hasn't had quite enough practice," Outside, Foster falls into a ditch because he is so drunk, and Marilee has to drive him around in his car (not actually knowing how to drive before that night) until it gets late enough to go home without anyone being suspicious that the evening didn't go exactly as planned.

There's much more to enjoy in this pretty humorous story, especially Spencer's writing and her many Southern turns of phrase. The story is written in Marilee's voice, so it feels exactly like she is sitting down with you on the front porch and telling this story. It's worth five stars for sure.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

DMI2017, Week 11: "God's Gonna Trouble the Water" by Dominiqua Dickey

This week the Five of Clubs took me back to the collection Mississippi Noir and a gut-wrenching story by Dominiqua Dickey.

 

The story takes place in Grenada, Mississippi, a small town in north Mississippi, in 1936. Most people are well aware of Mississippi's long and difficult racial history, and that history infuses this story in a powerful way. The story begins as the main character, Elnora Harden, gets a panicked visit from Cissy, her young cousin. Cissy has lost her baby Hattie, who has actually been taken by her father, Graham Lee. The problem here is that Cissy is African-American and Graham Lee is white, and this is 1936 Mississippi. 'Nuff said about the million and one ways that sets this plot spinning.

Cissy and Graham Lee are under the impression that no one in the town knows about their romance and child, when of course everyone does. So when Hattie goes missing, it's not hard for Elnora to recruit help, mainly from Graham Lee's uncle, Rayford. To complicate matters even further, it's clear that he and Elnora have some kind of history, but it's not exactly clear what that history might be.

Elnora and Rayford finally find Hattie after a desperate search in a raging storm. She's found safe, but Graham Lee and Cissy are making plans to leave town, to find somewhere that they can be a family without judgment from others, and they ask Elnora to take care of the baby until they can come get her. She does of course, and this makes a happy ending for Hattie, but no one else in the story gets their happy ending. And after all, it is noir.

This would be an interesting and dramatic story all by itself, but it is made ten times more so by the background events, namely that much of the action takes place in a terrible storm that sets the mood perfectly. The storm also plays a major role in the climax and denouement of the story. At one point, one of the characters says of the storm, "It ain't letting up," and that could certainly describe Elnora and her actions as well.

The title of the story speaks volumes to the plot, and it is a reference to an old spiritual, "Wade in the Water," about the children of Israel being led out of Egypt by Moses. Here's an interesting take on the song:


This was a long and sometimes complex story due in part to all of the relationships (both stated and implied) between the characters, but I enjoyed it immensely. It definitely rates five stars with me.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

DMI2017, Week10: "Children of the Corn" by Stephen King

This week I had another blast from the past with another story from the Stephen King collection Night Shift, chosen for me by the Five of Spades.

  


Burt and Vicky Robeson have a marriage in trouble. They're ostensibly in the middle of a road trip to see Vicky's brother, but in reality they are trying to save their marriage by being cooped up in a car together for 1500 miles plus. And it's not going terribly well when they leave the turnpike and get lost somewhere in Nebraska, "three hundred miles of corn," as Burt quips.

But lest we get too mired in the Robesons' marital problems, King almost immediately turns up the heat. While arguing about the road map with Vicky, Burt hits something in the road that he hopes is a dog. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a young man whose throat has been cut. Although they are definitely freaked out at this point, Burt and Vicky decide to take the boy's body to the nearest town and alert the local police.

Here's where the weirdness begins, however. The nearest town is called Gatlin, and immediately upon arriving there, Burt and Vicky know something is very wrong. For one thing, it appears deserted, and not just recently deserted -- like 10 or 15 years deserted. Prices on gas pumps are way out of date, and a calendar Burt and Vicky find in a diner reads August 1964. And yet, on the way into town they heard a local radio preacher broadcasting, and the sign on the town church has a sermon title dated the Sunday before. So there ARE people in Gatlin, but something is off for sure.

When Burt goes into the church, leaving Vicky alone outside in the car (his second mistake, right after the one where he stops in Gatlin), he rapidly understands what is wrong. The town is in the clutches of a religious cult that worships someone -- or something -- that lives in the cornfields surrounding the town. And judging from a book he finds in the church, this cult makes regular sacrifices to this something, with the result that there is no one in the town older than 19. Everyone else has been murdered or sacrificed.

And now things really heat up, as a flock of murderous children (the Children of the Corn in the story's title) descend upon the car outside the church and try to kill Vicky. Burt tries to help her but is chased into the cornfields, where he eventually comes across some very disturbing things, including the something that lives out there.

This is a suspenseful, horrifying story that is classic King in every way. The story was the basis of a 1984 movie by the same name, and which spawned eight sequels according to Wikipedia. I haven't seen any of them, but the original movie is readily available on YouTube, as well as the trailer:


Anyway, I highly recommend this story and it's well worth five stars.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Friday, March 3, 2017

DMI2017, Week 9: "Most Things Haven't Worked Out" by William Boyle

Nine weeks in, the Three of Clubs takes me to a new collection for the first time. Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin, is a collection of noir stories set in various places in Mississippi. It's a volume in the Akashic Noir series, which was previously unknown to me. This series started in 2004 with the publication of Brooklyn Noir, with stories all set in and around Brooklyn. The series has expanded to dozens of titles at this point, covering cities and locations all over the globe. Methinks it's excellent fodder for future iterations of Deal Me In!

  

This week's story, "Most Things Haven't Worked Out," takes place in Holly Springs, Mississippi. It's a small city in north Mississippi, just south of the border with Tennessee. The protagonist, a 15-year-old named Jalen, is a loner and outcast who spends a lot of his time watching movies at the library. But one day an employee from the nearby Audubon Center (a real location in Holly Springs) comes to the library and gives a presentation on birds. This is Miss Mary, who becomes the object of Jalen's fascination. Part of the fascination is the fact that she has moved to Mississippi from New York, a magical place in Jalen's mind. Mary befriends Jalen and invites him to the Center for a day of fun activities, just the two of them. He takes her up on the offer and they spend the day together, talking about their lives and experiences. It turns out that Mary is something of an outcast and loner as well -- she has moved to Mississippi for a reason, and it wasn't a good one, evidently.

It's not long before we begin to get an inkling of what that reason was. Mary's mother, Edna, suddenly shows up, and she's not happy. She has tracked Mary all the way from New York, so we learn that Mary is in hiding from something bad. Mostly that something bad is Edna -- she's a rough character who killed Mary's father for insurance money. But then Mary took the money and made off with it to Mississippi. She tells Edna she has buried it on the Audubon Center's property somewhere, so Edna embarks on a mission to "convince" Mary to tell her where the money is hidden. Mostly this involves torturing Jalen, who is suddenly caught up in the middle of all this darkness.

The story spirals downward, of course, being a noir story, and there's no redemption for anyone except possibly Mary, who does finally get away with her money. But it becomes clear that this episode was the beginning of the end for Jalen, as the title of the story suggests. So even though this was a good story, it was still pretty depressing. However, for the excellent writing and the way the author sucks the reader into the story, I'm happy to give it five stars.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.