Category Archives: Short Stories

Stories Of Your Life And Others

Stories Of Your Life And Others by Ted ChiangReview: Stories Of Your Life And Others by Ted Chiang (Small Beer Press, 2010)

“Though I am long dead as you read this, explorer, I offer to you a valediction. Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so. I feel I have the right to tell you this because, as I am inscribing these words, I am doing the same.”

Finding an author like Ted Chiang is a rare occurrence. A writer who speaks not only to you personally but also serves to illuminate the works of others, revealing hidden depths you would never have stumbled across in works you’ve cherished for years. Chiang’s almost miserly output – a mere 14 short stories and novellas over more than two decades – cuts right to the core of the sci-fi genre, revealing its beating heart in all its imaginative glory and adding a shot of adrenaline for good measure. To have only discovered him now pains me. To realise that in finishing this collection I have depleted over half of his catalogue is unbearable. But at least I can do my best to tempt you to join me in the ecstasy.

Stories Of Your Lives And Others covers a bewildering variety of styles, subjects and eras. The collection’s opener for instance, Tower Of Babylon, thrusts us not into the future but the Biblical past. We join a team of miners on their journey up the mythical tower, learning the secrets of its constructions from fellow labourers as they go. Why would miners of all trades be required at the peak of this greatest of all monoliths? Because the vault of Heaven has finally been reached and mankind is ready to break through to the world of gods. The action takes place at a meditative pace, steadily ascending as the mechanics of this universe slowly reveal themselves. However, the gods of whom they are in pursuit seems mightily conspicuous by his absence. The story’s twist ending is pitched perfectly and will have you smiling and contemplatively stroking your beard (where applicable) for a time afterwards.

And so it is with the remainder of the stories. There’s a wonderfully novel mash-up of the time travel genre with the Arabian Nights style of story-telling, multiple story-lines and time-frames wrapping around each other to dizzying effect. I lifted the quote at the start of this review from a remarkably touching tale of a robot making the momentous discovery that his universe is approaching the equivalent of the entropic heat death which awaits our own. There’s the incredibly poignant and moving tale of a loving partnership in the process of disintegration, told through the lens of a terrifying mathematical discovery in Division By Zero. Yes, maths can be terrifying, trust me. Hell Is The Absence Of God drops us into a world where it’s taken for granted that Heaven, Hell and angels all exist – they’re there to be empirically verified by whoever cares to look. Given this premise, Chiang embarks on a study of blind faith versus rational investigation, managing to avoid appearing condescending to believers while still wielding his scientific skepticism like a scalpel.

And there’s the titular Story Of Your Life, of particular interest to the language teachers among us. Here Chiang grants us a unique twist on the first contact story, with alien lifeforms arriving on our doorstep and calmly awaiting communication. However, unlike other tales of this ilk, there is no universal translator available. Instead we join a linguist tasked with learning an alien language from scratch, painfully aware that we have not evolved to discern the sounds made by our visitors’ physiology and with an almost entirely unrelated written language to contend with. All the while the story is framed by an apparent series of letters to her daughter, speaking of events past as though they yet awaited in the future and leading us towards the time-twisting conclusion.

There’s nothing I’d like more than to get into a detailed discussion of each and every tale within these pages. They all merit extensive examination and there’s barely a wasted word anywhere. However I’ll simply leave it to you to find out, for the pleasure will be all the greater when you get there. I will say this though; if you care at all about science fiction, creativity, intellect and masterful writing then you would do yourself an enormous disservice by ignoring Ted Chiang.

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Sequel City Part 4 – The End Is Now

The End Is Now by John Joseph AdamsReview: The End Is Now by John Joseph Adams & Hugh Howey (ed.) (Broad Reach Publishing, 2014)

First off, apologies for the brief hiatus. I was first interrupted from my reading reverie by the fact that my countrymen, in a dazzling display of cowardice, naivety and gullibility, rejected the chance to decide their own future and decided instead to be ruled from another country by a party which the entire country has outright rejected for the past three decades. It was kinda like being in a sci-fi movie actually, a whole week of “Did that actually just happen…?” before I even began to come to terms with the enormity of it. And then there was the diving. I’m now officially a Rescue Diver which means if any of you happen to find yourself in trouble on the high seas you just have to holler, I’ll drag you out and CPR you back to life. Two week where my only reading companion was the PADI Rescue Diver manual. Anyways, back to business as usual so on with the show…

Rounding off the current spate of wonderful and eagerly awaited sequels in my reading pile has been The End Is Now, follow up to the stellar The End Is Nigh and midway point of the Apocalypse Triptych. Ably curated by anthology maestro John Joseph Adams and current post-apoc-fic darling Hugh Howey, the series shifts from impending armageddons to works in progress. Almost every story in the book is a continuation from the first installment but worry not, there’s just enough exposition and background to fill in new readers without annoying those already up to speed.

My review of the previous book was glowing to say the least so did the authors manage to keep up the pace for round two? The answer is a mighty hell yes. The majority of the stories pick up exactly where their predecessors left off, meaning with some you’re pushed straight into the action without a pause for breath. For example, reading Scott ‘Infected‘ Sigler’s The Sixth Day Of Deer Camp feels as though you just put the preceding chapter down yesterday. You’re right back in the same freezing North American cabin, with the same group of semi-drunk hunters and the same crashed alien vessel in the woods outside. The invasion is in progress and this gaggle of everyday Joes have to figure out whether to brave the snowbound road to the nearest town (if it’s still there), bunker down and hope it all blows over or go on the offensive. They’re Americans. They have guns. Guess which one they choose…

That tale in particular exemplifies one of the overarching themes which seems to have manifested in many of these, a focus on the humanity, loss and sadness rather than the gratuitous carnage which reduces much of the rest of the genre to Schumacher-esque pastiche. What starts out as a rather insane push for mankind’s survival turns into a deeply upsetting realisation that the fearsome, inhuman invaders are not all that different from us. I really didn’t expect the turn this one took and it’s all the better for it. Another winner in this field was Annie Bellet’s touching Goodnight Stars, one of the more down-to-earth tales (kinda literally) which opts for a heart-breaking family angle and absolutely nails it.

The rest of the book is a wonderful mixture of destruction, disease and death in all its splendour. Special mention for insanity goes to Charlie Jane ‘io9’ Anders’s Rock Manning Can’t Hear You. I have no idea where this idea came from or where it’s going but there sure isn’t another apocalypse like it out there. However, cream of the crop must surely Fruiting Bodies by Seanan McGuire aka Mira Grant. I’d like to state here and now that fungal fiction is definitely the ickiest, most flesh-creeping idea ever to crawl out of anyone’s warped mind. Between Seanan’s series and The Girl With All The Gifts (to be reviewed in a few days) I’d be happy never to eat a mushroom again. Or touch anything. Or even breathe. Seriously. Fruiting Bodies manages to combine an utterly revolting concept of a genetically engineered fungi gone wrong with a tragic tale of a mother and daughter fighting to survive in an incredibly hostile environment. I didn’t know whether to puke or cry.

While you may want to check out the first book before jumping in – and you really, really should – The End Is Now is a fun ride for anyone who just wants to see the whole word burn. Adams and Howey gave a shitload of matches and gasoline to some of the finest genre authors of today. Boy, do they know how to use them.

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North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud

North American Lake Monsters by Nathan BallingrudReview: North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud (Small Beer Press, 2013)

‘Apparently it was a beautiful day.’

But in truth, beautiful days are scarce in Ballingrud’s world. North American Lake Monsters is a small collection of his short fiction but a volume which packs a deceptively large punch for its size. Ostensibly horror stories, these hover at the fringes of the genre and eschew the typical gore and ghosts for something altogether more unsettling.

Well okay, maybe some of them veer towards the more conventional horror narratives. Wild Acre for example opens with three construction worker buddies enjoying a moonlight beer together. Their task of protecting the latest project from vandals has turned into more of a big boys camping trip. At least until the boss returns from answering a call of nature to find his friends sprayed across the interior of the half-finished house, some kind of wolf-like creature muzzle-deep in their guts. So far, so werewolf, but rather than follow this into hackneyed hunting/vengeance territory Ballingrud instead documents the mental decline of this struggling foreman. Following the attack his health, career and relationship all fall to pieces around him until there’s nothing but a husk left, in its own way far more terrifying than the initial carnage.

The rest of the tales take similarly skewed angles on what initially seem to be more traditional premises. There’s a wonderfully vicious vampire story in here, a stark warning not to be too greedy and never to trust strangers. The Way Station is a ghost story of sorts, a beautifully crafted tale of a man who lost everything he had to Hurricane Katrina and is now haunted by the ghost of New Orleans. Sometimes Ballingrud’s tales almost lull you into a false sense of security as with You Go Where It Takes You, an almost normal take on two lost souls meeting by chance, the sense of unease simmering away unnoticed in the background before the bubble finally bursts and everything falls apart.

Perhaps creepiest in my mind was The Good Husband, the only previously unpublished tale to be included here. It tackles the issue of depression and suicide in the most unnerving manner, raising the curtain to a scene of a husband witnessing the aftermath of his wife’s most recent and final suicide attempt. Suddenly reconciling himself to her mental state he divests himself of the urge to call for help and simply leaves her to find peace. The last thing he expects is to wake up to find her beside him in bed. What follows is so grim and bleak that it was simultaneously a struggle to continue but impossible to stop reading.

North American Lake Monsters succeeds largely on account of Ballingrud’s unique narrative style, twisting stories every which way and transforming the grotesque into the mundane and vice versa. His New Orleans background is dripping off every page and lends his work a gothic feel with a claustrophobic, sweltering atmosphere. It’s a quick read but one which will leave you wanting much more.

Buy North American Lake Monsters from Small Beer Press here.

 

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Zero And Other Fictions by Huang Fan

Zero And Other Fictions by Huang FanReview: Zero and Other Fictions by Huang Fan (Columbia University Press, 2011)

Since settling in Taiwan it’s been my great joy to discover that this tiny island has given the world two wonderful modern sci-fi authors in Charles Yu and Wesley Chu. The affinity I feel for this place makes me wish to claim them as my own kin, undeserving as I am to do so. However until now I had remained ignorant of any science fiction in Taiwan’s literary history. Fortunately I stumbled, by complete accident, on this collection of short fiction by Huang Fan, apparently a widely celebrated author on these shores. After rattling through the precious few pages at pace I’m glad to say my love for my new home’s creative past has only increased.

In order to fully appreciate many works of Taiwanese art it is necessary to have at least a basic understanding of the beautiful island’s turbulent history, particularly from the late nineteenth century to now. I’m no history scholar but I’ve been doing a fair bit of reading on the subject recently so here goes with a vastly oversimplified and shortened version…

Ignoring European intervention, the island played host to pirates, aborigines and settlers from China for many years. However, it was in the closing years of the 19th Century when things started to get interesting. China, having made a half-hearted attempt to claim Taiwan as its own, admitted that it controlled but a small fraction of the island and Japan stepped in. Life under Japanese rule was very far from perfect. They were strict masters and particularly harsh when it came to dealing with the tribal groups, by now pretty much limited to the mountains running down the island’s spine. However there is still a fondness for those years felt by many elderly Taiwanese and the Japanese did indeed bring many benefits, from growing the economy and building infrastructure to creating one of the finest education systems in Asia at the time. There is little doubt that Taiwan would still be in a pretty poor state without Japan’s intervention. However following World War 2 things fell apart. The peace treaty required Japan to return the island (among others) to its original owners. This itself is a sticking point as China admitted to never having truly owned the island. Furthermore the civil war in China resulted in the old guard, calling themselves the Republic Of China and represented by the modern-day KMT party, retreating from the Communist forces on the mainland to plan their eventual return and victory.

As soon as they arrived they were essentially installed by the allied forces as Taiwan’s new rulers, sparking off events which would soon lead to the darkest period this country has ever known. Life under the KMT was closer to East Germany than anything the population had ever experienced. While corrupt officials and troops from China proceeded to strip the country bare of assets in every crooked way imaginable they also suppressed any dissent. Anyone suspected of dissatisfaction with the government could be imprisoned and executed – this happened to people by the tens of thousands and the body count was racked up by the party which currently governs the country. Communist sympathisers and their acquaintances, like-minded or not, were subject to all manner of torture, as were those who advocated Taiwanese independence over subjugation under China. The country endured under martial law until very recently when a fledgling and very much imperfect democracy appeared. It was under these conditions in which Huang Fan wrote Zero and the three other stories in this volume, explaining why he remained unheard of until the lifting of martial law in the 1980s.

The short fictions presented here, translated with a wonderful eye for wit and satire by John Balcom, represent Huang Fan’s wide range of styles. The first, Lai Suo, is told through the eyes of the titular protagonist. The narrative jumps back and forth through his life, a man unstuck in time in a manner reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut. As the story unfolds we develop a picture of a man almost entirely lacking in agency, being buffeted back and forth by forces outwith his control. He is used as a stepping stone to higher places by an acquaintance and the razor-sharp prose really instills a sense of helplessness.

In An Intelligent Man we are shown an allegory for Taiwanese emigration around the globe. The man of the title builds an antique furniture empire in America but soon realises its limitations and yearns to spread further afield. Before long his operations stretch to Japan and China as well, but with unfortunate complications. His wife in America, unable to provide him with the son he desires, soon learns that his business trips aren’t all business. There’s a really light, humorous touch to the tale despite its dark subject matter.

How To Measure The Width Of  A Ditch is a delightfully playful and inventive absurdist piece in which Huang Fan breaks the fourth wall and drags the reader into the narrative itself. I’m not even going to begin to describe it, except to say that I had a wide grin on my face the whole way through.

However it is Zero itself which is the undoubted lynchpin of the collection and the longest piece by quite a way. A classic dystopian fiction in the vein of 1984 it even goes so far as to namecheck Orwell’s hero, naming him as the author of a mysterious text which the protagonist stumbles across following a series of dreams. Set in a near future world where near perfect harmony has been achieved and violence banished to the past we jump into the life of Xi De, a resource analyst in Taiwan. Having graduated from a superior academy, Xi De is one of society’s elite, never left to want for anything although the same is true to a certain extent of the entire population. However, Xi De soon realises that something is amiss, that there is a spiritual gulf in this paradise of equality. A kind of malaise sets in until he finally comes into contact with a friend of an old professor who confides in Xi De that he is right and there is something rotten at the core of their brave new world. Bleak and unforgiving, Zero is clearly a product of the time and conditions in which it was written and provides a deep insight into life under the vicious hands of the KMT and martial law.

On their own merit these stories deserve far more attention than they seem to have received in international circles. Huang Fan is clearly a gifted author who can turn his hand to many contrasting styles and who is not afraid to cut straight to the core of a matter. The extremely short length of the collection only serves to make it all the more accessible and the translation is a wonderful example of the art. However for anyone who has adopted Taiwan as their home and wishes to discover more of its culture, or for those with a passing interest in Asian history, I can’t recommend Zero And Other Fictions strongly enough. Required reading for anyone staying here more than a couple of years.

 

(Note – I have a sneaking suspicion that Wesley Chu might have gleaned a little of the inspiration for his Tao series from Zero…)

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The End Is Nigh by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey (ed.)

The End Is Nigh by John Joseph AdamsReview: The End Is Nigh (edited) by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey (Broad Reach Publishing, 2014)

“Post-apocalyptic fiction is about worlds that have already burned. Apocalyptic fiction is about worlds that are burning. The End Is Nigh is about the match.”

Well that kind of gives the game away, doesn’t it? John Joseph Adams, uncontested king of the sci-fi anthology and curator or the wonderful Wastelands, is back with a rather unique take on apocalyptica. In partnership with Hugh Howey, bestselling author of the Wool series, he has once more brought together some of the brightest names in the genre to give us the Apocalypse Triptych. Rather the the typical focus on the aftermath of whichever disaster happens to befall humanity he instead holds a magnifying glass to three distinct phases, gathered in three chronological volumes.

The End Is Nigh is probably the first ever collection of pre-apocalyptic fiction. It’s the beginning of the end, the spark which gives rise to the ultimate inferno. It’s also, perhaps surprisingly, the most disturbing period of Armageddon. Everything seems so normal, life going on as if nothing were amiss. But someone, somewhere, always knows, always has the inside track. Whether an agent of mankind’s demise or simply an unfortunate observer in the wrong place at a horrific time, these are the people who tell us their tales.

As might be expected, The End Is Nigh pulls together an impressive variety of apocalypses. Everyone’s used to the holy trinity of aliens, nukes and plagues (including zombies in that last category). This book covers all of the above and then some. The alien invasion tale The Fifth Day Of Deer Camp provides us with a wonderful cliffhanger as a group of ageing, beer-soaked hunting buddies stumble across a UFO beside their backwoods cabin. According to the radio, similar craft have begun laying waste to the rest of civilisation. It’s a classic “what would you do?” situation, leaving you standing shivering outside the hunting lodge, miles from anywhere, shotgun in hand and alien ship duly glowing.

There’s room in here for a couple of more realistic – even inevitable – cosmic catastrophes. Heaven Is A Place On Planet X takes us down the religious cult road, a group of eschatologically-fixated evangelists holding out in their commune and awaiting the end of days in their compound – the end heralded by the wandering Planet X. A familiar story from the newspapers, except this bunch happen to be right. In The Balm And The Wound another collision is imminent, this time with the moon. This most poignant of tales has the moonbase astronauts discover their fate, only to realise that precious few of them can make the escape to earth – and that even those who do return will still face almost certain death and unimaginable hardship. Despite opening the volume, this story stuck with me as the most moving by virtue of its relative realism and imposing yet almost banal bleakness.

And moving away from the Michael Bay mixture of explosions and carnage we have yet more vignettes featuring more subtle scenarios, no less deadly for their relative restraint. System Reset takes a new spin on the nuclear threat as a hacker underground determines to return mankind to the stone age by launching its nuclear arsenal yet having them explode safely far above the Earth’s surface. The resulting EMP bursts will fry any electronic equipment, except for the hackers’ own safe zone. Although that zone may not be as safe as they had anticipated. An the award for most outright eerie tale goes to Spores. Despite taking an anti-GMO line which earns it big minus points in my book it still manages to win favour through its superbly creepy and unstoppable fungal growth, one which still makes my skin crawl to recall it.

The rest of the tales live up to the same high standards of entertainment and originality as those already mentioned but that’s not all The End Is Nigh has to offer. This is just part one, remember? First installment of the Apocalypse Triptych. So not only are there two further volumes to anticipate with joy but Adams and Howey managed to convince most of the authors to participate for the duration. So what we really have here is the Epic Book Of Catastrophic Cliffhangers. It’s just as evil as it sounds. So please do follow up my recommendation to grab and savour a copy of this book, but be wary of your patience levels. I’m already counting the days to Vol. 2 with Song-Of-Ice-And-Fire-esque desperation.

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Crosslink: Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu

Longtime readers of this blog may remember that I posted a glowing review of Charles Yu’s debut novel, How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe some time ago. Well there’s more where that came from. Last year he released his second short story collection, Sorry Please Thank You and it blew me away. The tales range from conversations with selves in alternate universes to observations of zombies going late night shopping in mega-malls but the focus remains on the themes of loss, alienation and existential despair. Sounds grim but it’s a captivating and utterly beautiful read.

Check the full review at Mountains Of Instead.

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