science fiction

The Skull by Philip K. Dick


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 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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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.

The Night of the Long Knives by Fritz Leiber

I know science fiction is usually relegated to the side of the room where the geeks cower in their corner, but I think it is a mistake to generalize this genre and dismiss it. Even I’ve been known to dabble (I love me some A Clockwork Orange or an outstanding brain-bender like Philip K. Dick, the latter which I taught to my undergrads last year which ultimately became one of my more disastrous syllabus choices. Valis might not be the best selection to teach to 19-year-olds).

If written by the right person, sci-fi can be both entertaining and a perfect example to look at for any writer. For the remainder of this post, I will group sci-fi with the broader term coined by Tzvetan Todorov: The Fantastic.

If done well, these kinds of fiction are valuable if you are looking at the craft and technique of writing. They are plot oriented, rely heavily on the imagination and character development, and usually take great measures to set the scene. Novels that fall into the fantastic category, including sci-fi, usually are dealing with a journey that is presented at the onset.

But let’s move on to The Night of the Long Knives by Fritz Leiber. I do admit that this novella was not the best thing ever written but the beginning was enthralling. Leiber just drops you right into the middle of an unknown world with an unknown narrator and hooks you in,

I was one hundred miles from Nowhere–and I mean that literally–when I spotted this girl out of the corner of my eye. I’d been keeping an extra lookout because I still expected the other undead bugger left over from the murder party at Nowhere to be stalking me.

The way I looked at this novella was in three parts. The first part (beginning) was the best. It captured the reader immediately. You soon find out that we are in some post-apocalyptic version of North America. People usually roam solo and their method of protection is knives. The narrator named his knife, Mother. The middle sort of lags but then the story picks up towards the end. In the very least, it’s worth taking a look at the first third. It also doesn’t hurt that the book is available in the public domain.

“They killed God in the kitchen that afternoon. That’s how I know he’s dead.” –The Night of the Long Knives