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Out of This World Mini-Challenge

January 18, 2009

outofworldI’m skipping Sunday Salon this week in order to participate in Carl’s Out of This World mini-challenge, which encourages us to read science fiction short stories in memory of Dewey. It’s also connected to his Sci-Fi Experience, which I have just decided to participate in and will be picking up a couple books for later this week. It seems weird to not be doing a Salon post, but since I’ve actually reviewed all of the books and stories I read this week (yay! I consider that a huge achievement!), you won’t be missing out on any of my book-ish thoughts. :)

On to some science-fiction short story thoughts! I read all of these stories online, so each title is linked to a place where you can read it for free. These are going to be very brief, paragraph-at-most, thoughts on the stories, since I’d like to read quite a few. They probably won’t include a plot summary or anything-just my immediate reactions. They’re listed in the order I read them, but my very favourites have an asterickbefore them in case you want to just read about those. And for those of you reading with a feed reader, I think this is one of those posts where the formatting on my actual blog makes it a lot easier.

*“The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin (1954)
Read because Carl recommended it. This was an incredibly well-written, incredibly depressing story. It was interesting to me how it combined uber-technical elements (there are explanations of how and why various ships fly through space) with uber-human elements (I can’t explain this one without telling you the plot, which I don’t think I’m going to do)-I think that’s the aim of science fiction writers (I don’t know much about the genre, so I could be wrong), and Godwin does it quite magnificently. To talk about it more, I’d have to talk about the ending, but really this is one you should read for yourself Here’s my favourite passage (don’t worry-there aren’t any spoilers):

Existence required order, and there was order; the laws of nature, irrevocable and immutable. Men could learn to use them, but men could not change them. The circumference of a circle was always pi times the diameter, and no science of man would ever make it otherwise. The combination of chemical A with chemical B under condition C invariably produced reaction D. The law of gravitation was a rigid equation, and it made no distinction between the fall of a leaf and the ponderous circling of a binary star system. The nuclear conversion process powered the cruisers that carried men to the stars; the same process in the form of a nova would destroy a world with equal efficiency. The laws were, and the universe moved in obedience to them. Along the frontier were arrayed all the forces of nature, and sometimes they destroyed those who were fighting their way outward from Earth. The men of the frontier had long ago learned the bitter futility of cursing the forces that would destroy them, for the forces were blind and deaf; the futility of looking to the heavens for mercy, for the stars of the galaxy swung in their long, long sweep of two hundred million years, as inexorably controlled as they by the laws that knew neither hatred nor compassion.

“The Father Thing” by Philip K. Dick (1954)
Read because of reviews by Carl and Debi. This was a fun, scary story exploring that old ‘body snatcher’ theme; Charles, a young boy, realises that something is pretending to be his father, and in order to beat it he enlists the help of two neighbourhood boys. I really enjoyed it-it creeped me out in parts, I had good guys (well, boys) to root for and bad guys to root against, and the action was great. Since it was written in the 1950s, I was glad that one of the boys was African American, and in fact he turns out to be the most competent of the three. Favourite passage, for the way language is played with (it’s from the second page, so not a spoiler):

“He’s in the garage,” Charles said. “But he’s-talking to himself.”
“Talking to himself!” Mrs. Walton removed her bright plastic apron and hung it over the doorknob. “Ted? Why, he never talks to himself. Go tell him to come in here.” She poured boiling black coffee in the little blue-and-white chian cups and began ladling out creamed corn. “What’s wrong with you? Go tell him!”
“I don’t know which of them to tell,” Charles blurted out desperately. “They both look alike.”

“All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury
Read because of Rusty’s recommendation, and because I loved Something Wicked This Way Comes. Quite a short story, that takes an age-old theme (how cruel children can be to an ‘outsider’) and puts it in a sci-fi setting. I enjoyed this one, but it’s so short I don’t see how I can talk about it without giving anything away. :)

*“The Menace From Earth” by Robert Heinlein (1957)
Read because of reviews by Carl and Debi. And of course because I adored A Stranger in a Strange Land in high school. This one is my favourite so far! Its narrated by Holly, a fifteen-year-old Moon native who is very intelligent and also an awesome flier. I loved it for two reasons; the first is teenage, high-school love. You know that guy in high school, that you were such good friends with and who knew all your secrets and you had to keep insisting to everyone that you two *did not* like each other, but if another girl started smiling at him too much you secretly plotted her death? Yeah-well, Holly has one of those too. :D The other reason is the flying itself; it’s described in loving detail, and who doesn’t secretly wish they could fly? Favourite passage, for the flying magic of it:

But when you’re really flying, you scull with forearms as well as hands and add power with your shoulder muscles. Instead of only the outer quills of your primaries changing pitch (as in gliding), now your primaries and secondaries clear back to the joint warp sharply on each downbeat and recovery; they no longer lift, they force you forward—while your weight is carried by your scapulars, up under your armpits.
So you fly faster, or climb, or both, through controlling the angle of attack with your feet—with the tail surfaces you wear on your feet, I mean.
Oh dear, this sounds complicated and isn’t—you just do it. You fly exactly as a bird flies. Baby birds can learn it and they aren’t very bright. Anyhow, it’s easy as breathing after you learn . . . and more fun than you can imagine!

“The Egan Thief” by Gord Seller (2007)
Read because I like time travel, and it was under the time travel tag at BestScienceFictionStories.com. This story is about an author who’s using time travel to steal other writers’ science fiction stories and novels. I liked the premise, but I didn’t really like the execution. Maybe it was written for sci-fi ‘insiders,’ or something. Anyway, I did like this passage:

He was at his regular place, in the little Second Cup cafe on Ste-Catherine’s near de Bleury, tapping out the last of his structural adjustments on the story. “Structural adjustments”: he liked the ominous, developing-world-economics sound of that. The keys clattered noisily. He was in the habit of bringing his laptop to cafes and writing there. It made him feel… futuristic, even if it sucked being offline so long at a time.

*“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang (2007)
Read because I wanted to find a better time travel story at BestScienceFictionStories.comand this description was irresistible: “It is about a fabric merchant in ancient Baghdad who discovers a time portal.” Ok, this is my new favourite story! If I hadn’t found it on a science fiction review site, I probably wouldn’t think it would count for this challenge, but who am I to question those who know the genre better? Anyway, you know how that one-sentence description and the title are so full of promise and potential? The story completely, utterly lives up to it. Chiang only has one book published, a collection of eight short stories called Stories of Your Life, and Others-I’ll definitely be reading it. Favourite passage:

He offered an explanation, speaking of his search for tiny pores in the skin of reality, like the holes that worms bore into wood, and how upon finding one he was able to expand and stretch it the way a glassblower turns a dollop of molten glass into a long-necked pipe, and how he then allowed time to flow like water at one mouth while causing it to thicken like syrup at the other. I confess I did not really understand his words, and cannot testify to their truth. All I could say in response was, “You have created something truly astonishing.”

“It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby (1953)
Read because it was under the ‘scary’ tag at BestScienceFictionStories.com, and the summary mentioned an evil kid. I always get most creeped out by evil children (The Omen-the original-anyone? El Orfanato?). For some reason, I’ve had trouble finding books and stories that truly terrify me. This one didn’t give me the shudders, but it was definitely creepy and disturbing, so it gets two thumbs up from me! Favourite passage, because it tells so much without feeling like exposition (it’s from the very beginning, so it’s not really a spoiler):

Bill Soames hurried past Anthony and reached the front steps, mumbling. He always mumbled when he came to the Fremont house, or passed by it, or even thought of it. Everybody did. They thought about silly things, things that didn’t mean very much, like two-and-two-is-four-and-twice-is-eight and so on; they tried to jumble up their thoughts to keep them skipping back and forth, so Anthony couldn’t read their minds. The mumbling helped. Because if Anthony got anything strong out of your thoughts, he might take a notion to do something about it–like curing your wife’s sick headaches or your kid’s mumps, or getting your old milk cow back on schedule, or fixing the privy. And while Anthony mightn’t actually mean any harm, he couldn’t be expected to have much notion of what was the right thing to do in such cases.
That was if he liked you. He might try to help you, in his way. And that could be pretty horrible.
If he didn’t like you … well, that could be worse.

*“The Fluted Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi (2003)
Read because Rusty recommended it on his post about the mini-challenge, and the title intrigued me. This was a mesmerising story-one of those where it’s impossible to select an excerpt, because the whole thing is written in such a perfect way that all of the sentences rely on one another. Does that make sense? And it has one of the best endings I’ve read in quite awhile. I shall definitely be reading more Paolo Bacigalupi in the future (he has a short story collection called Pump Six and Other Stories), and I’d highly recommend this story to people.

“The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
Read because I figured I needed to include such a famous sci-fi author and found this one at BestScienceFictionStories.com. This is a very short story involving a super-computer, the Western company who runs it, and the Tibetan monks who are renting it. And yes, it’s as fun as that sounds! The monks have decided to use the super-computer to determine the name of God…or at least, print it out, along with 8,999,999,999 other possibilities. It’s an east-meets-west, clash of philosophy kind of story that made me smile. :)

“Jimmy’s Roadside Cafe” by Ramsey Shehadeh (2008 )
Read because I saw it mentioned on BestScienceFictionStories.com, and as you know I can’t resist a foreign-sounding author name (lol)! This is a humorous little dystopian story, dealing with how people might react in the face of a devastating plague. It has a light touch, and I enjoyed it. Favourite passage, because I agree with Jimmy:

Jimmy said: For me, the best thing about New York was the crowds. Lots of people don’t like that, the crush, but I loved it. It’s hard to be alone in New York.
Patrick snorted. Easy to be lonely, though.
Oh, you can be lonely anywhere. I’d rather be lonely in a crowd.

*“Lambing Season” by Molly Glass (2002)
Read after suddenly realising I hadn’t read any women authors, so I looked for some on BestScienceFictionStories.com. This is a ranching story with a delicate sprinkle of sci-fi to add a little flavour. I really liked it-it has a quiet dignity about it, and an appreciation for the bonds between people and nature. Favourite passage, for the image it conjures up:

She studied the sheep for the language of their bodies, and tried to handle them just as close to their nature as possible. When she put out salt for them, she scattered it on rocks and stumps as if she were hiding Easter eggs, because she saw how they enjoyed the search.

“For Solo Cello, op. 12” by Mary Robinette Kowal
Read after suddenly realising I hadn’t read any women authors, so I looked for some on BestScienceFictionStories.com. This one deals with what we value most, and the choices we make to get what we want, and how we live with those choices. But it feels like a sketch, and an abrupt one at that. It’s too black-and-white, too rushed for it to be truly powerful. Which is too bad, because the concept is an interesting one.

“Darwin’s Suitcase” by Elizabeth Malartre
Read after suddenly realising I hadn’t read any women authors, so I looked for some on BestScienceFictionStories.com. This story has a little bit of time travel, but it’s mainly about the relationship between science and religion, specifically how religion has suppressed science. The tone is quite didactic and charmless, and I can’t imagine this story winning over anyone who believes natural selection should be censored from schools. And what’s the point of preaching to the choir?

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2009 5:34 am

    Oh my gosh, Eva…I sure hope the kids don’t want the computer today (yeah, right!), because I’m now dying to read tons of these!!!

    But I have to say I couldn’t disagree with Jimmy more! Not much makes me more “mentally distressed” than crowds!

  2. January 18, 2009 7:54 am

    I read some great short stories today (non sci-fi) that you might be interested in reading sometime, my review
    http://katrinasreads.blogspot.com/2009/01/sunday-salon-indonesian-short-stories.html
    includes links to eack of the stories, and also a great web magazine to access international short stories.

  3. January 18, 2009 10:23 am

    If you’re reading science fiction stories, try “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates; it’s the story on which the original film version of “The Day The Earth Stood Still” was based, although it’s actually quite different and with a remarkable surprise ending that’s not in the film (I’m not seen the remake, but suspect it’s even farther away from the published story than the first film).

    http://thenostalgialeague.com/olmag/bates.html

  4. January 18, 2009 10:23 am

    Eva,

    Wow – you have been busy! I think you picked some great stories to read, but I am especially happy that you liked “The Merchant and The Alchemist’s Gate” and “The Fluted Girl.” I loved both of those stories, and it is nice to see that someone else liked them too. Both of the authors have written some great stories, I’m definitely planning or reading some more of their stuff. Anyway, thanks for reviews!

  5. January 18, 2009 11:19 am

    These all sound like terrific reads, I’m most intrigued by “The Menace From Earth”. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on these shorts and for linking to the stories themselves, that’s really cool to be able to read them online :)

  6. January 18, 2009 11:31 am

    I’m going to read quite a few of these – I love Bradbury and Clarke. Have you read “The Pedestrian”? I don’t know if it’s available online, but I had my tenth graders read it last week to see if it would convince them that reading is better than watching t.v. It didn’t completely work, but it made them think.

  7. January 18, 2009 11:46 am

    Woo-wee!!! You did some reading!!! I am so glad that you enjoyed the stories that I recommended and/or posted about. Your mini-review of all these are very well done, I am impressed and learned a little something…always a good thing! I’m so glad you participated in this one and am thrilled that you spent some time over at Best Science Fiction Stories. I think Rusty is doing a real service over there in promoting the short story genre and so I really want to do all that I can to get people over there.

    Several of the stories you have mentioned here are ones that are on my radar to read.

  8. January 18, 2009 1:45 pm

    I usually shy away from science fiction but I think that I’m going to check a few of these out. Great reviews!

  9. January 18, 2009 1:58 pm

    Wow! You got through a lot of stories. I’ve only made it through one so far. I love sci-fi, but my family keeps me busy and away from the computer on the weekend.

    It’s fun to read about authors and stories I haven’t heard about before though!

  10. January 18, 2009 1:59 pm

    Also wanted to let you know: I have an award for you! :)

  11. January 18, 2009 6:00 pm

    Thanks so much! I bookmarked them all to get back to later this week. I am trying to read outside my comfort zone a little and this fits the bill perfectly.

  12. January 18, 2009 7:58 pm

    Is “The Fluted Girl” in Paolo Bacigulupi’s collection “Pump Six”? In any case, I’m going to read him. Thank you.

  13. January 18, 2009 9:21 pm

    I’m most interested in The Cold Equations, which reminds me of the Japanese cartoon I watched as a kid. By the way, I’ve got some Margaret Atwood books and they’re classified as literature and sci-fi.

  14. January 18, 2009 9:42 pm

    I love “All summer in a day”. I read it in grade 7, I think, and have never forgotten it. Like Jessi suggested, “The Pedestrian” is also quite interesting…but I love Bradbury. ;)

  15. January 18, 2009 9:46 pm

    Debi, maybe you could print them out! I don’t always like crowds, but I’d rather be lonely in one. :)

    Katrina, thanks for the link!

    Hedgie, thanks for the suggestion.

    Rusty, thanks for making such a great resource!

    Joanne, “The Menace From Earth” was a ton of fun. :) I like reading stories online too!

    Jessi, I haven’t read “The Pedestrian”=I’ll look into it.

    Carl, thanks so much. :) And Rusty’s site is definitely a great resource!

    Samantha, thanks-I usually shy from sci-fi too. All of the astericked ones are great, though. :D

    Alyce, I’ve been sick all weekend, so there’s not much I could do!

    Jessi, thanks! :D

    Frances, I was moving outside my comfort zone too. :)

    Sharman, it is in that collection. :)

    Matt, “The Cold Equations” was good!

  16. January 18, 2009 9:49 pm

    Excellent post. I’ve read many of these and will have to look for the rest. Thanks for stopping by Short Story Sunday, too.

    Mr. Linky Rules!!

  17. January 19, 2009 6:37 pm

    Wow Eva! You really read some stories! And now have added to my very long list of short stories to read :p

  18. January 19, 2009 8:24 pm

    Great reads! I think I will be taking more time to read short sci fi stories this year. I always enjoy them once I actually sit down to read them.

  19. innerfreq permalink
    September 23, 2009 6:34 pm

    So I look for random blogs my first time through here, and this is what I find. Huhzah! I shall read a short sc-fi tonight.
    You are the cool.

  20. Wesley permalink
    October 17, 2010 6:41 pm

    Heinlein’s “Requiem” is also a story you should check out. I can point you to a radio broadcast of that story at: http://www.archive.org/download/OTRR_X_Minus_One_Singles/X_Minus_One_55-10-27_ep022_Requiem.MP3

    The story makes a refrence to Stevenson’s “Requiem”

    Under the wide and starry sky
    Dig the grave and let me lie:
    Glad did I live and gladly die,
    And I laid me down with a will!

    This be the verse you grave for me:
    Here he lies where he longed to be;
    Home is the sailor, home from sea,
    And the hunter home from the hill.

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