sci-fi

In the Year 2889 by Jules Verne

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I must admit that I originally began reading this short story based solely on its title and that said title’s similarity to the song, “In the Year 2525.” When I began reading, the preface notified the reader that this Jules Verne story was in fact not written by the great Nineteenth century French science fiction/fantasy author, but by his l’enfant terrible son, Michel, who occasionally wrote fiction but published it under his famous father’s name.

The prose is not entirely eloquent, but the intrigue is found in how Michel describes his version of the future. At times, it is both amusing and oddly prophetic. Like me, I’m sure anyone fond of The Jetsons will enjoy the pneumatic tubes which people travel by or the flying cars that line up at your window (or the very George Jetson automatic dressing machine you just step into).

In the Year 2889” focuses on Mr. Fritz Napoleon Smith, an extremely wealthy newspaper magnate (apparently, in the distant future, newspapers are money makers with thousands of employees). He owns the Earth Chronicle that has 80,000,000 subscribers,

“Smith’s wealth went on growing, till now it reaches the almost unimaginable figure of $10,000,000,000.”

I wonder if the younger Verne would be disappointed in the state of newspapers in the year 2014. However, the newspapers of 2889 aren’t read: “Instead of being printed, the Earth Chronicle is every morning spoken to subscribers, who, in interesting conversations with reporters, statesmen, and scientists, learn the news of the day.”

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Michel Verne uses what I assume is exacting technical language to give a futuristic feel to 2889. Besides being delivered by tubes and flying cars, there is a Skype of the future, which Mr. Smith uses quite frequently to speak with his wife when she’s away (“the transmission of images by means of sensitive mirrors connected by wires”–this is how I assume Skype works). The above image is an artist’s interpretation of their shared meal, even though he is in Centropolis (one must imagine this is what NYC is going by in the future) and she is in France.

There is an oddness to it all, however, in that phonographs are often used in 2889. Every subscriber of the Earth Chronicle has one. It’s so endearingly antiquated as it’s mashed into the future.

The story might not have the same pizzazz of an authentic Jules Verne story, but the imagination is there. It’s pretty marvelous to read what Michel Verne was coming up with in 1889. “In the Year 2889” is definitely worth a read and especially so, because it’s free in the public domain.

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“The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere” by John Chu

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Starting just a few weeks ago, any time a person utters a lie, water falls down from the sky onto them. It could be a light mist or a strong pour–it all depends on the strength of the lie. It isn’t necessarily the drench that cause great anxiety for Matt, the narrator of John Chu’s short story, it’s the idea of letting a lie slip out. He is keeping secrets and showing the truth is causing him great angst.

It is Christmastime and like many families, Matt’s is no different. He is invited to his parents’ house, where his sister, her husband, and her in-laws will be staying as well. Now over 30, Matt’s parents–described as traditional Chinese parents–are often poking him about when he will marry and give them a grandson. The problem, however, is that Matt has a boyfriend, Gus, and his family knows nothing about this. Even though he hasn’t outed himself, Matt takes Gus with him to the family Christmas.

There is much anxiety in this story, but Chu still maintains a level of humor about it all. When the two men arrive at Matt’s parents’ house, they are met with a bustling home readying itself for a large feast. Everyone speaks at least two languages, but the entire group doesn’t share one common language to converse in. When Matt realizes the trouble of it all, he thinks, “Repeatedly slamming my head against the handrail now would send the wrong message, so I don’t.” Besides being lost in translation, Chu occasionally places the original Chinese into dialogue, including retaining the characters and not transliterating into English. This makes the reader also feel lost like the characters.

Matt’s parents are not as stereotyped as one might first think when they are told that the characters are “traditional Chinese.” They are more layered, especially his mother, something that Matt learns throughout the story as he worries about revealing his relationship with Gus.

The idea of water falling on liars is an interesting one. Matt explains ways people have gone about getting around the possible waterfall, but these are not foolproof. People might still know that you lie.

“Phrasing things in the form of a question. That and weasel words work as insurance against the water that falls from nowhere. They just make it extremely obvious that you’re hedging against the truth.”

The added dread of being totally soaked with even the smallest white lie is enough to add panic. I really enjoyed this being a foreboding presence. However, it would’ve been nice to see the author use this hook a little more. After a while, it felt merely like that–a hook. Yet, it was quite an interesting take on the idea of a dreaded family gathering. Chu was able to use the device somewhat to show characters’ actual meanings beneath their words. However, this fantastic concept and John Chu drawing Matt with struggles sprinkled with humor were delightful.

According to the author’s bio, he “designs microprocessors by day and writes fiction by night.” I’m sure he is extremely happy to have this story nominated for a Hugo Award this year. In honor of the nomination, the publisher has just provided a free e-book edition and it can also be read in its entirety online and through Zola Books.

**Anytime I read the title of this short story, I can’t help but imagine it being the name of a Star Trek episode. Captain Kirk would be drenched immediately while surrounded by green sexy aliens.
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Sleep Donation by Karen Russell

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Summer is slowly creeping its head out and isn’t it time to put the old dusty tomes away and reach for something fun? (The answer is yes, by the way). A new publisher called Atavist Books just released Karen Russell’s newest novella, Sleep Donation. This publisher seems a little different and Russell’s book is its inaugural release. There’s an interesting article in PW about Atavist Books.

Known for her mingling of magical realism in her fiction, Karen Russell doesn’t disappoint as she tries her hand at a story that is toeing the line with sci-fi. We’re somewhere in the near future where an international Insomnia Crisis is widespread. People are literally going out of their minds as their weary eyes might potentially pop out of their heads. At first, I definitely got a sense that here is a metaphor for our over-worked, under-rested, highly anxious society addicted to the various lit screen devices that are available, but it’s more than just that. It’s really a story and one that is gripping.

We can see a little bit of our own world in the plot, but Russell sprinkles in lovely detail. As the insomnia crisis spirals out of control, healthy sleepers are asked to donate their sleep for the afflicted. Similarly to donating blood, they are given a questionnaire to fill out and tick off if they have experienced any of the “contagious nightmares”:

Abomination, horned
Ambulance, frozen yellow siren
Anthill, no queen
Ants, flesh-eating
etc.

I was waiting to read my repetitive nightmare–teeth following out–alas, that didn’t make the abbreviated list. It is with these details that make the novella so bold and in Karen Russell style, the humor is still held even when the terrible is running rampant. I briefly mentioned this novella in last week’s post: An Amateur’s Field Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. Although, the sleepless are not explicitly labelled “zombies,” I kept having the image of gaunt half-humans with their eyes sunken in with an unquenchable thirst for brains sleep.

Sleep Donation was such a fun read. I’m looking forward to future publications from Atavist Books (they plan to publish one book a month). The novella was priced just right too ($3.99), so you can’t go wrong. Time to get a hop on the summer fun.

The Skull by Philip K. Dick

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The 1952 short story, “The Skull” by Philip K. Dick, opens with some of the best lines in fiction,

Conger agreed to kill a stranger he had never seen. But he would make no mistakes because he had the stranger’s skull under his arm.

If that doesn’t draw you in, what will? “The Skull” is set a couple of centuries in the future (where we also live on Mars, of course) and a violent criminal named Conger is recruited to go back in time to dispose of the nameless man officials have concluded is the Founder of all of their problems. In this future world, the ominously lone religious institution called The Church holds the skeleton of the Founder and is ready to give over the skull to Conger so he can make a positive identification of the man who they have very little information about. All they have to go on was that he spoke a few sentences in a small town in Colorado in December 1960, which ignited The Movement, a thorn in the side of the authority. The Movement preaches that the greater technology applied to war will be the downfall of man and that with each new war breeds another more cataclysmic war. The authority needs the elusive Founder taken out before he is even able to speak those mysterious words in 1960 Colorado.

To enjoy anything to do with time travel, I think one must forget about dwelling on the fundamentals and paradoxes. Dick even makes a comment in the story that “[t]here’s some philosophical doubt as to whether one can alter the past.”  So don’t even bother with it and enjoy the story.

Of course, it couldn’t be as simple as the authority is making it out to be for Conger. The moment he arrives in the small town outside of Denver, the people know he’s an outsider (he is sporting a beard in a place where all men are clean-shaven) and because Dick is known for his paranoia, the Red scare is on many of the minds in the town (he was writing this in the 1950s). Conger tries to blend in while also trying to find this man whose name and appearance he knows nothing of.

Like he is known to do, Dick is commenting on a few things with this story: the Communist scare, religion, and war, just to name a few. The story is entirely compelling from beginning to end and when Conger is given a strange stare by a resident of the Colorado town, the reader is never sure what is going on in his or her mind. Will he be ratted out as a Red (he does have one of those big beards like that fella Marx–noted by one man) or is something even stranger afoot with locating the unnamed Founder?

“The Skull” is available for Free in the public domain: Feedbooks | Project Gutenberg

**I stumbled across this article from 2011 on i09.com featuring “10 Great Philip K. Dick Stories That Hollywood Hasn’t Filmed Yet” — which confirmed my long-held perplexity over the lack of film adaptation of Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.

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The Abduction of Bunny Steiner, or a Shameless Lie by Thomas Disch

robotic alien

Down and out sci-fi/fantasy writer Rudy Steiner is approached by his agent Mal Blitzberg, who offers him the chance to write a UFO abduction book. The fact that it is April 1st isn’t lost on Rudy, but he soon believes that Mal isn’t playing a joke on him. Apparently, previous books presented as true life alien abductions have gone over well and sold many copies. An editor at Knopf, Janet Cruse, is eager to have Rudy write the next big thing. What does he have to lose? He’s overweight, perpetually in AA, three months into a wicked writer’s block, and a frivolous lawsuit is all that Rudy has going on.

With the help of editor Janet Cruse, Rudy writes about the completely “true” alien abduction of his imaginary daughter, Bunny. The fact that Rudy has no children to speak of is not a problem; Janet will take care of everything.

“Oh, I think you’d always have written it, Rudy. The only difference now is that you’ll sign your name to it.”
“You think I’m shameless.”
She nodded.
She was right.

And who can pass over a Knopf payday? Everything seems so perfect–an easy gig for a writer fallen on tough times–but while he’s halfway through writing the manuscript, the real truth begins to unravel. Janet Cruse isn’t representing who she first says she is, the mysterious and imagined Bunny Steiner, blonde curls and all, is starting to pop up on television interviews, and there is a vengeful cult called The People who have their hands deeper in these events that one should feel comfortable with.

When he starts to become aware that not everything is okay, Rudy awakens in the middle of the night and has “an obscure sense that something terrible had just happened to him but he didn’t know what.”  For a short story, so many unsettling things are happening in “The Abduction of Bunny Steiner, or a Shameless Lie.” There is the obvious lie snowballing into something completely out of the control of the protagonist and the even more uncomfortable UFO cult that is more prominent than Rudy is first led to believe (aside: The People are an interesting example of strange UFO cults that were featured on the 5 o’clock news in the 1990s and the ones that still persevere today like Raëlism and Scientology).

Although, Thomas Disch’s story first appeared in April 1992 (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine), there is an element that rings so relevant to some of today’s publishing schemes and the desires of the book reading public. When Rudy is first presented with the idea by Janet Cruse of writing the true tale alien abduction, she tells him,  “Strieber’s book shows that the audience is there, and Hopkins’s book shows that anyone can tell essentially the same story.” She is referencing recent releases that had captivated readers and made a killing for the publishers (whether they are truthful or not isn’t relevant). Why not jump on the bandwagon is her initial pitch to Rudy. This feels entirely in line with the recent smorgasbord of dystopian youth novels that are invading bookshelves. You can’t go on the internet without reading about some new post-apocalyptic trilogy’s breakdown of a not-so-distant future society (and just a few years ago, you couldn’t go two feet without bumping into some teenager vampire romance). Even in Disch’s story, when a publisher sees a lucrative venue, they’ll milk it till it’s bone dry.

“The Abduction of Bunny Steiner, or a Shameless Lie” is not a science fiction story onto itself. True, the protagonist is a sci-fi writer and he’s penning an alien abduction book, but the story is completely set in reality with the horror and anxiety coming from very real, albeit, bizarre sources. As Disch stacks one more bit of the strange on top of another, the reader will be hooked until the final page.

Further Information…
  • Thomas Disch (1940-2008) was extremely prolific. He wrote novels, short stories, plays, and poetry.
  • On TheMillions.com, David Auerbach writes of Disch: “He was as fine a prose stylist as his genres had seen, but he also possessed a nightmarish imagination that combined J.G. Ballard’s apocalyptic despair and Philip K. Dick’s nightmares.” You can read the complete article here.
  • Update: This story pops up in a few anthologies. I read it in Decades of Science Fiction (ISBN13: 9780844259956).

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“Beyond the Door” by Philip K. Dick

That night at the dinner table he brought it out and set it down beside her plate. Doris stared at it, her hand to her mouth. “My God, what is it?” She looked up at him, bright-eyed.

“Beyond the Door” is a 1954 short story by Philip K. Dick that appeared in the January issue of science fiction magazine, Fantastic Universe. This story is not what you think when you think sci-fi or other of Dick’s works like ValisMinority Report, or Flow My Tears the Policeman Said. Like Wikipedia describes, it is a story that falls in the low fantasy category. I didn’t know what this was, so when I finished reading the story I looked it up on their site: “[N]onrational happenings that are without causality or rationality because they occur in the rational world where such things are not supposed to occur.”

Dick’s story concerns itself with Doris, a housewife, and her husband, Larry. He gives his wife the lovely gift of a Bavarian cuckoo clock, but ruins the moment by babbling on about how he got it wholesale. Doris is annoyed with her husband and as the days go on, Doris who dotes on the cuckoo bird, sees the tiny timekeeper pop out every fifteen minutes, where the grumpy Larry who constantly winds the clock, never sees the bird lurch forward. He ponders about the cuckoo “inside the clock, beyond the door, silent and remote.”

What’s so fascinating about this short story is that Dick is able to cover so much humanely tension with layers of the fantastic in only a few pages. Clearly, every sentence is important, every small movement is chosen for a reason. Returning back to the definition of low fantasy, I think about of some of the best stories of the fantastic are those that start in a normal place or space, but the rules are quickly built notifying the reader that something is amiss. I would definitely paint this story in terms of the fantastic and horror.

Dick has taken the familiar tale of domestic melodrama and added the strange concept that the cuckoo bird inside a clock lives with his own awareness. In the world of “Beyond the Door,” it is part of the story’s landscape that it is totally acceptable to have such a cuckoo clock. The behavior of the mechanical bird also reflects the jealous eye that Larry has for Doris’ friend Bob, an antiques lover who Doris invites over to the house to see the clock.

I am always impressed by writers who can bundle up so much in such a small space. The trend in literature now in the US is to produce massive tomes (I recently read about a novel sold at auction for $1m and comes in at over 900 pages). There is something to be said about being wrapped up in a lengthy, complex tale, but I generally feel more blown away by less is more.

“Beyond the Door” could also be marked as a horror story. Read plainly, the bird terrorizes Larry. At one point, after holding the clock, he investigates a nick on his hand and being left alone in the house with the cuckoo doesn’t end well for him either. There is clearly something deeper going on in the story between Doris and Larry and Bob…and the cuckoo. I have no doubt that writers like Stephen King have read “Beyond the Door,” because it does so well to take a plain object and transform it into something that is waiting to unnerve us.

Available for free in the public domain…

Solomon the Peacemaker by Hunter Welles

“You see, this is why I need to tell my own story…I’m not going to make sense to you. Not at first.”

Solomon the PeacemakerThese words are uttered by Vincent Chell–sometimes known as V.– as he is being mysteriously held by unidentified captors over unknown reasons. It’s the late Twenty-second century and the world has an unsteady relationship with technology. Beyond the day-to-day of robots and other machines, there is The Peacemaker–a very powerful computer that has been operational for half a century, whose job it is is to keep peace between nations. The Dicksian nightmare of it all, however, is a human being is required to be attached to the Peacemaker, a human being that is replaced every seven years. The reasoning being that the computer needs to have a connection to humanity and its memory. But like any good speculative fiction, nothing is perfect and could it be that the authority is lying to us?

I rarely get a chance to review genre fiction and I was completely pulled into Welles’ novel for the entire read. Vincent is a man held captive over something the reader doesn’t know till the bitter end. At first, his story seems to be concentrated on that of his late wife but then he finally concedes to his captors and agrees to tell his tale from the beginning. His wife, Yael, an experiential historian, whose field of study requires her to study the entire life and beyond of her subject, contacts a living relative of his. This relative ends up being the Preacher, a second generation Incarnationist, who despises the Peacemaker. Vincent and Yael attend the Preacher’s church out of curiosity but soon find themselves swept up in his underground cult-like sect that seems bent on ridding the world of the Peacemaker.

I’m hesitant to write more about the plot and would just simply recommend to you to read the book. The construct that Welles has setup with Vincent speaking one-sidely during a series of “sessions” is simple in its execution but lends the perfect means for telling his tale. The narration is able to ground itself when it could have had the possibility of being a tangled mess. Also, with his first person narration and revelation of a subplot concerning pharmaceuticals that aid in forgetting, Vincent is the type of narrator that I have professed love for in the past–the Unreliable. He is the only word we have on all of these events, yet, I can’t help on occasion to second guess him. Vincent even goes so far to tell his captors “I’m not certain that anything I’ve told you so far is true.”

Solomon the Peacemaker is captivating. It has an intense ability to keep you glued to every page and, as someone who can normally piece together some part of a mystery, I was kept surprised even till the very last paragraph. Welles’ strength lies with detail and fluidity. However, a chunk midway through where the scope of events became wide and global felt muddled and lost. When Yael is avidly watching a mass event on television, I felt overwhelmed by the terminology and hazy to the reality I had been so easily able to keep track of outside of this moment. Unlike other science fiction novels that also rely heavily on tech speak, as a layman, I felt right at home in this off-beat future. With the exception of the aforementioned chunk, most moments felt intimate and this is where Welles as a story teller lets his imagination shine and his language absorb the reader in this frightening future.

Mark your calendars for the January 2014 release of Solomon the Peacemaker. I know I reviewed this one a bit early, but I’m a sucker for cults (I love them like you wouldn’t know). I wish I could provide more info about this debut novelist but all I can offer is what is on the press release. This book is the first release by a new indie publisher out of Minnesota called Cowcatcher Press. Although my galley was digital, according to their website they plan to have their hardcopies handmade and inspired by the novels, which I’m looking forward to seeing. I love this small trend of making high quality handmade books.

a new translation of Solaris by Stanisław Lem

What good news!

A new translation of Stanisław Lem’s 1961 classic science fiction novel, Solaris, has come out. Although a favorite book of mine, English readers without the ability to read the original Polish or translated French had to suffer with what his website calls,

[C]hildren’s “broken telephone game”; initially the book was translated from Polish into French. Then the French text served as a basis for the English edition.¹

The novel is not yet available in book form but you can find it as an Audible audiobook or for a special ebook price of $1.99 at Amazon. If anyone has seen this translation anywhere else for sale, let me know so I can add some links.

¹ I don’t know what the actual term for this type of translation is but I love the idea of referring to it as telephone translation.