Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Salvaged from the Signal: Recollections of Memorable Short Stories

Another piece from the archives of the dearly departed SF Signal: part of a Mind Meld.

The Mind Melds were a popular feature on the site where a question on an sf-related topic would be put to a panel of participants, with their written responses collected into a post. These would usually prompt lively discussions among other community members in the comments section, sometimes with further thoughts from the original panelists.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to contribute to a Mind Meld on memorable short stories. While I haven't included the notes from the other panelists (there were so many participants that it had to be broken up into two separate posts), here's my two bits:



MIND MELD: Memorable Short Stories to Add to Your Reading List (Part 2 of 2)
Posted on July 22, 2009 by John DeNardo in Mind Meld // 5 Comments
This week’s question is a simple one, but yielded lots of responses. We asked this week’s panelists:
Q: What are some of your favorite short stories in sf/f/h and what makes them so memorable?


Robin Shantz
Robin Shantz writes about all things SF on his site: bloginhood. He’s also a member of the editing team of the Internet Review of Science Fiction and is the author of “Passage” – the third place winner of the On Spec postcard fiction contest. When not babbling about science fiction, fantasy, etc, he works in communications for the non-profit sector in Vancouver, BC.
It’s a funny thing that my favourite short stories aren’t necessarily the ones I remember best, and those that jump immediately to mind when someone says “SF short stories” aren’t always the ones that mean the most to me. Sometimes a story will lock itself in my brain simply because of its visceral impact, or maybe because I really didn’t like it. Some just kind of hang around like old friends at a college or high school reunion – I like them well enough, even if they aren’t my favourites. As for the favourites, while some are beacons for the genre, others may just become one more tree in the forest as memories of other enjoyable reads spring up. In any case, for the purposes of this Mind Meld, here’s a selection of stories that for one reason or another were all memorable:
There’s no question that Ray Bradbury is the master of writing short stories that really hit home. There are a lot of his works that stick out in my mind, but the two that stand head and shoulders above the others are There Will Come Soft Rains and “Last Rites”. TWCSR is probably one of the best-known installments in The Martian Chronicles and is memorable for being completely emotionally devastating. The Earth is in wreckage, a family’s dog drags itself home to die alone (a scene guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye of just about anyone, especially pet owners), and after disposing of the corpse, the house itself malfunctions and is destroyed. The end of this story has literally scoured the Earth of any legacy, physical or emotional, of mankind. It makes you not only think, but feel what the ultimate price of mankind’s folly could be. Meanwhile, in his collection Quicker Than The Eye, Bradbury gives us a story full of deaths with a far different tone. “Last Rites” is a time machine story, but a very different kind of time machine story than we’re used to. The protagonist isn’t interested in launching himself forward or backward in time on a voyage of discovery; he isn’t off on a dinosaur hunt; he isn’t stacking the deck to grow his own personal fortune or create temporal commerce; he’s not even in it to alter the course of history. Rather, it’s a touching story about human connections, about a man who visits some of the greatest authors in the English language on their deathbeds to comfort them by showing them proof that their books continue to be printed and read and loved far into the future, thereby assuring them that their lives and their works have meaning. Admittedly, I may blank on the title of this story from time to time, but this gentle, good story itself is forever locked in my mind.
Arthur C. Clarke is another giant who has a lot of memorable short stories. Two of my favourites are “The Star” and “Superiority”. “The Star” stands out for being not only the story of a man struggling with his faith, but the idea perhaps a god may not be worthy of worship. It also paints a moving picture of a people making a heroic effort to be remembered, even as they face their extinction. When I first watched The Fountain a few years ago (and I was reminded of this when recently reading Pete Tzinski’s review of the movie here on SF Signal), the special effects shots of the nebula as Hugh Jackman’s character flies through it matched the image I had in my mind as I read Clarke’s description of the ship flying towards the star and the time capsule planet. “Superiority”, on the other hand, with its recounting of alien military R&D disasters amidst a war with Earth, is memorable for Clarke’s unexpected and funny finish.
Theodore Sturgeon’s “When You Care, When You Love”, about a young woman who uses her inexhaustible wealth to find any way possible to save her dying husband, is another one that really sticks out. On the surface it’s certainly love story with some charm, and yet I think it’s always stuck with me because there’s something a little unsettling about the idea of rules (in this case, even the rules of life and death) not applying to the ultra-wealthy. Sure, we see a little of this in real life: in communities where you might encounter spoiled rich kids growing up in lives free of consequence, or in the financial sector with corporate raiders and morally bankrupt execs despoiling businesses, annihilating the savings of the little guy, crippling the economy and leaving thousands without jobs, then walking away with fat bonuses and pensions. But science fiction has a way of showing us just how far this mentality could go. Sturgeon’s Sylva Wycke, though loving and benevolent, is none-the-less the literary ancestor of Asimov’s Solarians (in his Elijah Bailey Robot novels) or the Tessier-Ashpools in the Villa Straylight space station in William Gibson’s Neuromancer who are so rich and so far above the rules and challenges of the rest of humanity that they have in effect become alien. I’m no class warrior, but there’s something a little frightening about that, and it’s haunted me since the first time I read WYCWYL.
Speaking of stories that haunt, Philip K. Dick’s The Father Thing isn’t what I would call a favourite, but it’s always stood out for being very creepy. The story is about a boy who has to enlist the help of some other neighbourhood kids when he finds out that his father has been eaten and replaced by an alien android and that there are other dopplegangers being grown in the grove behind the house. In many ways, it’s the ultimate example of Dickian paranoia distilled into just over 10 pages – the question of what’s real, are people actually who they say they are or is it all a sham and are they actually out to get you? Certainly, having been published in 1954, it can be seen metaphorically as a product of its time: a typical Cold War we’re-gonna-be-subverted-and-replaced-by-reds scary tale. Looking at the kids, you can see them as an idealized America in miniature: the white kids (each from different ethnic backgrounds) working with the black kid; one representing emotion while one is brawn and one is the brains – ultimately, a coalition of different individuals contributing their unique talents to take down the enemy. You could also say that it’s a story of growing up; that as a child ages, he changes and his sense of who his parents are changes as well. He has to deal with crises himself, and, in a somewhat Oedipal kind of way (because he has to take out the Father thing, not a Mother thing), he has to overthrow the father figure. But what really works with this story is that it grabs you with the sense of deadliness and betrayal being associated with the most familiar settings and people that are supposed to be safe. The garage is where the killing is done, the stone walkway hides an alien, the grove behind the house (a bamboo grove no less, which one would think is a pretty alien thing in a typical US suburb of the 50’s and in fact harkens back to the battlefields of the Pacific in WWII and of the Korean War) isn’t a place to play because it’s full of garbage and rot and is where the dopplegangers are grown. Even the house itself isn’t safe, as the Father Thing chases the boy up to his room under the guise of going to have “a talk” with him. The fact that the aliens have replaced the father is particularly terrifying, because if you can’t trust your family, who can you trust? This taps into the primal fear all kids have of their parents being taken away from them, and the greater horror that some unfortunate children have of living with abusive parents who, to others, may appear normal on the outside, but within the home are monsters. Because it scares on so many levels, TFT is a story I won’t forget.
Another story that’s deeply unsettling, but for different reasons, is Spider Robinson’s “User Friendly”. The notion that a person can be, without warning, taken control of by alien minds who want to experience life on Earth through human senses but who have no concern at all for the human they’re occupying and no knowledge or care of how a human being can safely experience life on this world is obviously scary. What’s even worse is the thought of having to be a person watching their spouse go through this, being powerless to stop it, and being left in a position of worrying each time whether their loved one will come back alive, and if so how physically and emotionally damaged they will be.
“Outport”, by Garfield Reeves-Stevens, is a story that sticks with me both for the starkness of its landscape (or seascape, as the case may be) and the mindset of the people who are forced to survive in it by any means necessary.
Cory Doctorow’s cynical and funny The Super Man and the Bugout comes to mind anytime I watch a superhero movie or spend any time browsing in a comic book store. It’s portrayal of what a real Superman (or, in this case, Super Man) would have to go through in terms of navigating government bureaucracy and political opportunism, staying relevant if aliens eliminated crime and war, putting up with greedy landlords, and answering to a loving, if pushy old mother, and is in many ways the answer to the simplistic portrayal of costumed vigilante life served up by comics.

I’ll end on a light note with Dennis L. McKiernan’s “The Halfling House”, about a hobbit hole that travels TARDIS-like between fantasy universes, acting as a getaway resort for halflings, leprechauns, faeries and other wee folk. No deep metaphors or incisive views of humanity here, this story is just memorable for being really funny.
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