Trying to Get Caught Up on Scalzi (Review of Miniatures & Redshirts)

Miniatures
Miniatures was a very quick and fun read. The stories are short and very easy to speed through (I think I read the whole thing in two sittings). For fans who have read a lot of Scalzi in the past, this collection displays all of the trademark imagination and humor that we associate with a Scalzi novel. For people who have never read one of his novels, I feel that you’ll get a pretty good feeling for his style and what kind of stories he writes. Nothing in this collection was earth shattering but all of the stories were enjoyable and most made me laugh. If you’re feeling that you’ve been in a bit of a rut when it comes to what you’ve been reading, this collection will be a breath of fresh air.

Also, many of the stories were written a pretty long while ago. Around eight years ago and further back. It’s amazing to me how prescient they were reading them in 2017. Not in terms of technology that we have today (many of the stories don’t have really visible future tech), but in terms of subject matter. For instance one story was written in 2008 posits an alternate history in which Vladimir Putin is the first person on moon. Not sure what Putin was doing back in 2008 but he’s certainly relevant today. Another story (written in 2010) forms a scenario in which yogurt takes over the world. I think the mixed feelings of “How could this have happened?” and “Is this a joke?” perfectly reflect the way many Democrats feel after this most recent election. To think that it was written 7 years ago . . .

red shirtsMoving onward, I have been doing a bit of “catching up” in terms of Scalzi’s catalog. I just finished Redshirts but elected not to give it its own post as it’s a Hugo award winner and probably has had enough written about it. Needless to say, I enjoyed Redshirts a lot, but am surprised by just how critically acclaimed it was. A quick look at the other authors nominated that year show: Kim Stanely Robinson, Saladin Ahmed, Mira Grant, and Lois McMaster Bujold. Seems a strong roster. I’ve not read any of these other authors but am familiar with their work (except Bujold). I also feel that if Redshirts had been nominated for the most recent Hugo award, it would not have stood a chance. Definitely interesting to see how awards change and how “what’s popular” changes over time.

Looking forward, I may try to read Lock In quickly before Collapsing Empire comes out. I’ve been told it is very different from Scalzi’s other works which seem to all be Star Trek parodies in one way or another (with Redshirts being literally a Star Trek parody). I’m very interested to see what Scalzi would write about when he isn’t writing about shooting things in space. Until next time . . .

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Short Fiction Review: Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields

Well, it’s October finally, which means Halloween is fast approaching. It also means that for the next month, we (pop culture) will be celebrating all things that bump in the night. I enjoy a good ghost story, or a good werewolf flick. I can always be regaled by the tale of a lonely vampire or a Frankenstein’s Monster. However, one particular type of ghoulish creature (‘dead’ giveaway right there) has fascinated me as of late. He (or she) shambles. He’s dirty. Pretty dumb really. Hangs out with a bunch of buddies and roams around hoping to chance upon a rabbit or a deer, or better yet, a person if there are any of those still left. Yes, I’m not afraid to admit it.

I’ve fallen in love with Zombies!

Just can’t help it really. And while there will be all sorts of creepy crawlies and ghastly . . . other things that start with the letter G, I’ll be keeping my eye on the zombies. So, for my fiction review this week, I decided to go back to the source. Go back to where it all started: William Buehler Seabrook’s Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields. This piece (I believe) was originally part of a larger work by the same author called The Magic Island, and from what I can gather, is an account of Seabrook’s visit to Haiti, way back in 1929. I’m sure it was embellished some, and I’m sure that its contents were probably expanded upon and used by others who had a taste for the occult.

Great image from: http://survivingthedead.wordpress.com/

Great image from Mike Kloran via survivingthedead.wordpress.com

*Fun Fact: Apparently Seabrook had the taste for humans. Reportedly, he stayed with a cannibalistic tribe in West Africa, and eventually tried a ‘roast’ of actual human flesh back in America. Compared it to veal. Thought the tastes were so similar that all but the most discerning pallet would likely not be able to distinguish the difference. At least that is the myth.

 However, Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields is the first story to ever use the Z-word (zombie). The story isn’t long. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone with an extra half-hour to kill. Was really quite interesting to see the similarities, and differences, between this seemingly archaic conception of a zombie, and what we now perceive them to be.

A Master of Puppets is Pulling the Strings . . .

Seabrook’s zombies are the vacant, dumb, shambling creatures we are familiar with but with one very important difference: They are not their own vacant, dumb, and shambling creatures. What I mean is they must be told what to do. In Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields, the narrator (and through narration, the reader also) is told of corpses that are ‘dragged from their graves’ to go work in the fields. In Seabrook’s account, our precious zombies aren’t killers or cannibals themselves but simply work the fields and follow orders. Slaves really. They are kept away from the other workers because the master doesn’t want them to know that his workers are corpses. He’s afraid that someone will recognize a brother, sister, or other family member and demand (perhaps violently) that they be returned the afterlife.

Interestingly enough, the zombies are cooked separate food that has neither salt, nor meat in it. The superstition here is that should the zombies eat salt or meat, the food reminds them they are dead and they wail until they are back in their graves. Personally this seems like a rather silly picture in my mind but I’m sure it would be quite frightening to actually witness. I’m also wondering if the more modern, flesh eating zombies we are familiar with today are some kind of misappropriation of Seabrook’s own cannibalism and the horrific creatures he wrote about. No way to know for sure.

Zombie Keebler elves!

No, this is a Keibler elf, not a Keebler elf.

No, this is a Keibler elf, not a Keebler elf.

One similarity between Seabrook’s tale and more modern zombie sagas, is the presence of large corporations at work either creating the zombies, or using them in some way. In Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields, the narrator hears that Hasco or Haitian-American Sugar Company, is using the zombies to work their fields. The narrator then compares Hasco to Nabisco (ok not Keebler sorry) and some other large American corporations and announces his utter surprise  at hearing such strange business. I think about movies like Resident Evil and perhaps some others, which all use big corporations as the ‘bad guy’ who is responsible for the zombie outbreak. I marvel at the fact that this is the thing that stays the same when so many other zombie tropes have changed and mutated with time. I suppose if you wanted to get down to it, perhaps the essence of zombie fiction lies somewhere in the betrayal of big corporations. Not sure just yet but certainly something to think about as I read more zombie stories.

Anyway . . .

I suppose I’ve written all of this to say something much simpler and that is: “Get excited because it’s October and let’s talk about zombies.”

Give Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields a read if you have the chance. There isn’t a lot to it, but it is at least interesting to know what got this whole zombie thing started. I guess that is all for now. New story next week. Bye!

These guys still crack me up!

These guys still crack me up!

Short Fiction Review: A Cup of Joe

Well, it’s a new week which means a new review of short fiction.  This week’s pick is A Cup of Joe by Anita Ensal. Before we get on to talking about the short story, I want to take a moment to tell you how I came across this story. To put it simply, it was emailed to me. Zombies Need Brains LLC, is a fledgling publishing company using a Kickstarter to fund their first project entitled: Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs. Aliens. In general, I’m new to Steampunk as a genre, but I think Kickstarters are pretty neat and I wanted contribute something to this new company (even if it was only $15) and this seemed like a good place to start. I backed the project. As a reward they have been emailing stories, written by authors contributing to the anthology, to the backers. I don’t believe A Cup of Joe will be contained in the anthology but I found Anita’s website here and it can be purchased on Amazon for like three dollars or something like that.

Love this Artwork!

Love this Artwork!

It’s worth the money.

When reading the story, I was immediately struck by the author’s voice. It’s easy to read, almost conversational. I was struck next by the construction of the world and the role of each character. These constructions were not necessarily subtle but still very tastefully done. For instance, there is a character called the Mother Board. It is clear from her actions within the story that she functions similarly to what we might expect from a motherboard in a computer. She governs the other components of the city and ensures that the ‘program’ runs effectively and efficiently. However, there is a way in which she also feels like a Mother, attempting to look out for her child, in this case, the human race. Perhaps, she is a little overzealous (ok she’s bat shit crazy) but that human aspect is there. It’s is especially interesting considering the fact that she isn’t human at all.

This is a world in which the structure of society values the mechanical and routine, over disruption and creativity. Of course, this cannot stand.

From here, all sorts of philosophical and ethical questions are raised. Is it ok to kill a few to save many? Are our lives predetermined or do we truly have a choice? Is it better to be happy in our ignorance or always seek the truth even if that truth is disturbing and painful? And of course how do we treat the environment? It isn’t a far leap to imagine this rigid, structured society as our own.

Candy??

Candy??

However, I think my favorite aspect of this piece is the love story. It’s simplistic (as a love story should be) and somehow reassuring. Now I think back on everything this piece has to offer and another story comes to mind. It reminds me an awful lot of The Matrix. It doesn’t have all the guns and shooting, but a lot of same elements are persistent through the story. When I first made this realization I was a little bit upset. But now, I don’t mind at all. I think that the story is still enjoyable to read because of it’s aforementioned qualities. The writing is good. Fun to read with good pacing. The characters are easy to care about. In my mind, the distance between David, Mother Board, Emily, and the reader is a lot less than between the viewer, Neo and Trinity. You’re in a new world, but it isn’t that far from what you already know.

As a short, I think it was perfectly done. Not a complete mind bender (or mind-fuck for that matter) but an enjoyable tale that gives you the opportunity to think about some interesting questions, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with them.

So, in conclusion, go spend the three dollars. Also, keep and eye out for Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs. Aliens. 

Bye all.

Short Fiction: Sometimes it’s good to get “Literary”

True story. Sometimes you need something heavy to think about. If you’re in that sort of vein, I recommend William Faulkner’s The Bear. There’s a lot to swallow. Probably more than one blog post can suffice to say but . . . I want to talk about it anyway. I found The Bear in a summer English class, about two years ago. We were reading all sorts of ‘Literary’ books and stories. The Souls of Black Folk by W.E. Dubois, some poetry by Frost, and something by Joseph Conrad though I don’t think it was Heart of Darkness. I read that when I was younger and wished I’d had a professor there to help explain it to me. Still do.

Now, two years later I found myself thumbing (well I guess scrolling) through its pages a second time. I was taught in class that it was about ‘Modernity’ with a capital M. I find myself searching for meaning in that word even as the young boy hunts for Old Ben in the woods of the great . . . wherever. I still haven’t found him. I’ve crossed paths with ‘Modernity’, recognized its trail and ran its woods a thousand times but I don’t seem to be any closer to bringing home the kill.

As I read it this time, one passage really stuck in my mind:

“There was an old bear, fierce and ruthless, not merely just to stay alive, but with the fierce pride of liberty and freedom, proud enough of liberty and freedom to see it threatened without fear or even alarm; nay, who at times even seemed deliberately to put that freedom and liberty in jeopardy in order to savor them, to remind his old strong bones and flesh to keep supple and quick to defend and preserve them.”

Now read that passage again and take a shot every time you see the words ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’. Am I right?

All joking aside, I feel that this quote is in a lot of ways ineffable. I imagine the wilderness this bear must live in. It’s complete and utter disregard for rules or regulation (civilization?) because there aren’t any in sight. A time before the land was developed, sectioned off, built up and disastrously torn down. Before modern conveniences like roads and computers, Twitter or Facebook, cell phones and television.

It also says something to me about competition. The Bear is “playing the game” to its fullest potential. At war with those who would try to capture its independence and limit its fulfillment. I think this exists in the world we live in today with all of the modern convenience mentioned before (note that I’m not trying to argue any sort of lifestyle in which we give up these conveniences; I love them). To me, those boundaries seem like a new wilderness through which the bear must run and through which men will hunt and attempt to capture him.

I also find the hunters in this story interesting too, because in my mind they are the same as the Bear. The reason they hunt is to push the same boundaries and fulfill the same need as their target. To push themselves to life’s limit so that they may better appreciate that life and those limits. To give them motivation to reach and succeed at new challenges. It’s just the same as that which they hunt. It seems to me a very American mentality. Good thing the 4th’s tomorrow.

There is definitely more to this story. Of course there is more meaning in this story than can be properly expressed with another hundred posts of this quality, but I think this short was included in a larger work by Faulkner called Go Down, Moses. I seem to remember them capturing the Bear and a rather sad eulogy to follow. I also seem to remember another story which made me think that I was no less a man if I poured water into my whiskey . . .

I think I’ll be talking more about Faulkner in the weeks to come. Until next time . . .

Old Ben? Maybe?

Old Ben? Maybe?

This Week’s Short Fiction Review! Paladins of Shannara: Allanon’s Quest

I seem to be on a fantasy thing lately. If it has swords and magic then I’m game. I want to read it. I would say that I’ve read a lot of fantasy in my reading career and I keep coming back for more. Spend enough time in a genre and you start to know the major authors whether or not you’ve read them. But given the nature of Fantasy literature, it seems difficult to be well versed in the plethora of authors this genre has simply because it isn’t easy (for me at least) to hop between series, worlds, magic systems etc. Also, some of the volumes can be quite lengthy so if you’re going to try an author for the first time, you probably aren’t going to bother unless you get a pretty huge recommendation from someone you know and trust, that has similar tastes in reading as you do.

Oooh Cover

Oooh Cover

This is not why I picked up Paladins of Shannara: Allanon’s Quest. To be honest, I can’t give you a particularly good reason as to why I went ahead and jumped into Shannara at all. I think I’ve just seen the name Terry Brooks (and by association Shannara as well) around for many years and figured I should take a gander at the work. It’s funny though, now that I write this post, I realize that this isn’t my first exposure to Terry Brooks at all. I read his adaptation of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace when I was a younger (it came out in ’99 so that would make me exactly nine when I read it). I remember loving that book (I should probably read it again), so I suppose my expectations of Terry Brooks should have been pretty high.

But they weren’t. I had read a few reviews of Paladins and wasn’t expecting much. It turns out, Allanon’s Quest is the first in a series of shorts, set in the world of Shannara (the others being The Weapon Master’s Choice and The Black Irix). I’m told that long time fans of the series will recognize characters and gain a better understanding of the events happening in Shannara’s history (I’m also told these shorts contradict some of the other Shannara Novels but I don’t know this for a fact). For a newbie though, it was a good way to kill an hour or so.

It’s pretty classic stuff. There’s a prophecy, a sword (the sword which I’m assuming The Sword of Shannara Trilogy is all about), and an evil warlock bent on harming Shannara in anyway possible. Of course lineage is important and is the call to action for our formidable druid, Allanon. He must seek out the last remaining descendent of some king and protect him from harm until it is time for him to take up the sword and defeat the Warlock. Granted, this was only a short story, so all of these things don’t come to pass in the 30-40 pages which make up Allanon’s Quest. Really, all that happens is Allanon drinks at an Inn, interrogates an old man, is nearly killed by a Skull Bearer, and finally discovers that the lead he was pursuing was not meant to bear fruit but there is still another chance to succeed with a young boy named Shea who the warlock has not discovered yet. I’d say it was a pretty good appetizer and I’ll probably pursue the whole course later. Maybe I’ll take a few more samples before I dive in to Shannara full though. After all, there are still two more shorts that I can read to get my feet wet.

In all, as I said before, it was a good way to kill an hour, and if you are not familiar with Shannara at all (like I wasn’t) I think it could be a useful introduction to the world without having to commit to reading a full novel. I had heard some complaints about Terry’s writing style. Complaints that said that he was getting lazy and really only writing these shorts to feed the commercial side of what is now Shannara as a business. I didn’t feel that the writing was lazy or overly “commercial”. He has a good command of language and doesn’t dwell on unnecessary details. This seems important to me in a genre that is prone to over description. Perhaps his other work is better but Allanon’s Quest is good enough.

Lastly,  I really wished there had been more description of the Skull Bearers. These guys seemed curious and made me wish I had read more of the series so I could have had a  better picture of what these creatures were actually like. I suppose that was my only complaint.

I’d say if you’re into fantasy, take a look at this one. It’s only a dollar. Anyway, until next time . . .

New Short Fiction Post – Ross Rocklynne: Oh the 50’s

It’s Sunday. Which means you get to hear me blather on about some piece of short fiction I read this week.  If it’s any consolation, this week’s pick is free . . . and old school Science Fiction. So if you’re into either of those two things, I’d keep reading.

What? It's sci-fi gotta have a saucer.

What? It’s sci-fi gotta have a saucer.

The story this week is Ross Louis Rocklin’s (pen name: Ross Rocklynne) Sorry: Wrong Dimension. In terms of plot, this story didn’t have a huge amount of anything going on, so I don’t know how much I’ll actually be spoiling by telling you what happens (I think this was supposed to be more a piece that made you think. It does to varying degrees/definitions of thinking. Mostly it was cute). So here’s a basic outline:

— The narrator, Mrs. Weaver, and her neighbor/friend (not sure which of these is a better way to describe her) are sitting out on the front porch getting some much needed R&R. Mrs. Weaver is commenting, if not bragging, about how her child (called Baby throughout the story. Weird?) has been quite all day. She’s had time to do the ironing, clean, even catch up on three episodes of some detective serial that she enjoys. No small feat in the life of your 1950’s housewife.

–That’s when it hits her. Maybe something is wrong with Baby! And that’s why he’s been so good! Stranger things have happened . . . well not yet they haven’t.

–Mrs. Weaver and Mabel (the neighbor/friend) go inside to check on baby and find that he’s playing happily by himself with not a care in the world. Slowly they realize he’s not playing by himself. Baby tugs on his pacifier and something tugs back. Monster? An invisible monster? . . . Yes and yes. Call Harry right away! He’ll know what to do. No wait don’t call Harry, his boss will be pissed. Screw it call Harry!

–Mrs. Weaver picks up the phone and asks for Harry’s work and gets quite a strange reply: “Sorry. You must have the wrong dimension.” And then click. Well that’s the end of that. Only of course it isn’t. Mrs. Weaver (who I’m now remembering is named Stella) calls back, explains the situation and two gents show up at the door. Apparently, they were only ten years away. I suppose that’s no time at all.

–These guys agree to take the monster away from the house and proposition the two ladies (did I mention it was the 50’s). Stella gets wise and tells them to leave, that she’s decided to keep Baby’s Monster (called a Drinko). Finally the real cops show up, well the real inter-dimensional cops but the two gents (now proven crooks) are long gone. However, Stella is able to provide the dimension police enough information that they the crooks are caught and the day is saved. As a reward, Stella gets to keep the Drinko for Baby, and Mabel made it home with enough time to get dinner in the oven for her hubby. If that’s not a victory, I’m not sure what is.

Of course I imagine all housewives from the 50’s to look like this!

Anyway, what I find so fascinating about all of this is the way it depicts the 50’s and more specifically, housewives in the 50’s. For some reason I’m just obsessed with their plight. How terrible it must have been to live in a suburban neighborhood during this time. All of the juggling of responsibility. The managing and micro-managing but without any real say. And of course, the times were changing. Old ways of thinking about women in the household are making less and less sense. New technology is making things easier and more efficient, but also more uncertain and frightening. Mabel reacts to discovering the monster:

“Stella,” she said, with a quiver of that good-looking short upper lip of hers, “we’re trapped in. We’re in the middle of some kind of fantasy. It’s a crazy world we’re living in, Stella. A-bombs and H-bombs and flying saucers and space-flight–it’s all the fiction stuff coming true. Now we’re lost in some other dimension and I have to get dinner in the oven.

I’m not sure what to think is silly in all of this. Part of me thinks it is appropriate to point out that Rocklin (I found a list of his published works and a bio from wikipedia) is a male writer and if the general press about this time period is to be believed, than it’s possible that he’s quite mysoginistc and displaying women in what he feels is a comical and subversive light. Or he could be in on it and satirizing the time. Poking fun at the stereotype of women during that time. Or he could be trying to reflect what he feels is a genuine problem. That these women are trapped in a world they don’t understand and there only solace is to think about the things they understand like cooking and what’s best for Harry Jr.

There is another story, The Heat Death of the Universe, by Pamela Zoline which reflects a similar melt down. It’s more dramatic, and the tie-ins with actual science really elevate the emotion you feel at the end. Of course, Science Fiction isn’t the only mode of story telling that tells this story. We see it in Mad Men (I mean really. I already gave you January Jones’ picture) and it’s again reflected in music as well (check out the Rolling Stones link below).

Just seems to keep coming up. Anyway, if you haven’t read Sorry: Wrong Dimension you can pick it up free on Project Gutenberg here. I’d definitely also check out Pamela Zoline’s The Heat Death of the Universe which is here. I think it definitely helps get to what I’m trying to say, even if I can’t get there. Oh and here’s The Rolling Stones:

Enjoy!