Collection

Collection of short stories, artwork, or articles by one (or two – in case of collaboration) authors.

The Shores of Space

The Shores of Space - R. Matheson; Berkley, 1979

The Shores of Space – R. Matheson; Berkley, 1979

The Shores of Space by Richard Matheson (1926 – 2013) was a quick read for me. The thirteen stories zipped by in no time at all.  Originally published in 1957, the book collects some of Matheson’s stories from the early 1950s.  Matheson seems most well known for his horror stories, including:  I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, and What Dreams May Come – all of which were adapted (some multiple times) into film.  It is not really fair to lock authors into one category or another. While there may be some “genre authors,” many writers pen works in a variety of genres/subgenres. Nevertheless, I confess I am not really into horror fiction and so I have never really delved into any of Matheson’s works.  This collection does contain some stories that might qualify as “horror” and few that would be “science fiction,” so it typifies the so-called speculative fiction genre.

One of the things that had me reading this collection, besides the push to get through the 1950s, is that Matheson’s works are so often plumbed by pop culture.  It seems like when a screenwriter/scriptwriter/producer does not know what to do – they all turn to Matheson’s stuff. I do not even know that most people who are pop culture nuts even realize how much material seems to get pulled from Matheson.  Well, in order to familiarize myself, I grabbed this early collection of his works. On the whole, I was not incredibly impressed – and it is difficult to say if my lack of enthusiasm was due to a latent unconscious familiarity due to the popularity of Matheson’s work?

  • Being3 stars –  1954
  • Pattern For Survival1 star – 1955
  • Steel2 stars – 1956
  • The Test2 stars – 1954
  • Clothes Make the Man3 stars – 1951
  • Blood Son2 stars – 1951
  • Trespass3 stars – 1953
  • When Day is Dun3 stars – 1954
  • The Curious Child4 stars – 1954
  • The Funeral 4 stars – 1955
  • The Last Day3 stars – 1953
  • Little Girl Lost3 stars – 1953
  • The Doll That Does Everything2 stars – 1954

Being was a good piece to put at the front of this collection. I think it is very well written and though I feel the basic story has been told or shown to us a million times, this was still rather gripping and harrying.  Starting off with Being really lets the reader know that this is not goofy, silly stuff. The stories in this collection are scary and sometimes even dark.

I did not love the second story, Pattern For Survival. It is one of “those” stories where you are supposed to close one eye and consider the whole thing after you read it. Sometimes that is okay. Sometimes, I could do without. This was a time of the latter.

As soon as I started reading Steel, I was reminded of the 2011 movie starring Hugh Jackman. I later checked this out and yes, the movie was allegedly based on this story.  I am somewhat grumpy because since 2011 I have wanted to see Real Steel, but have not had the opportunity.  Because: Robots.  What can I say, I am a child. Anyway, the story itself I only gave two stars, mainly because it tends to focus on the human-side of things.  The main characters are fighting losing battles against technology and refuse to give up the “glory days.”  I am not impressed by futile stubbornness.

Interesting to note,  Steel was also made into a Twilight Zone episode. The main character of interest was played by Lee Marvin (1924 – 1987), one of Hollywood’s more interesting actors; you may know him as Liberty Valance. Anyway, the Twilight Zone episode is in Season 5 as Episode 2.

The Test is a disturbing drama.  Several of the stories in this collection carry a heavy drama involving family. I think The Test is a good story but I did not enjoy reading it. And frankly, I have to say, the solution to problems for a number of characters in these stories is often suicide. It is not a comforting or gentle scenario.  However, Matheson writes these stories with a lot of skill. He really drops the reader right into the scene and every tick of the clock, every ambient sound in the story seems realistic and tangible.

I think Clothes Make the Man is my favorite story in the collection, though I was not able to give it the highest rating. The way it is written as it gradually reveals its plot twist just tickled me. I really enjoyed this one, though it is short and slightly obvious. I think the best part is that the “main character” is so snarky.

Blood Son is a definite horror. I do not think it was written well, I do not like the storyline, and it ends ridiculously. I feel instead of being truly horrific – like it begins – it turns comedic or stupid. Pass on this one.

Trespass is one of the longer stories in the collection. The storyline itself is obvious from the start, but the point of it is for the reader to have to watch the horrific struggles of the characters. I am not sure that I am so cruel as to enjoy watching the characters suffer and struggle like this. At the same time, the story is well-written because Matheson really gets into the character’s guts and presents their struggles with twisting, wrenching feeling. Again his skill in drawing the reader into the scenes, so that we are frustrated and restless and angry along with the characters, is demonstrated here.

When Day Is Dun is well-written, as is expected by this point. However, I found it disturbing and miserable. Sometimes, it is not easy to look at humanity qua humanity. And some authors do take a dismal view of the subject. Here is another theme found in several of these stories:  end of the world (hence the title).

The Curious Child is another of my favorites in this collection. This is the kind of horror that I can read and enjoy. I appreciate the psychological/existential horror a lot more than the blood and guts monsters stuff. So, in this short story we follow the main character as his day falls apart into a chaos that only he experiences. This is really “fun” and gripping. With Matheson’s ability to put the reader in the scene, this story works really well.

The Funeral is the comedic episode in this set. This story takes place in a funeral home.  A quite unusual client arrives to make funeral arrangements – for himself.  Very expertly written, I love Matheson’s descriptions and directions of the character Morton Silkline. Seriously, his work here in presenting this character is magical.  There is a lot to like about this story, particularly its light-heartedness that gives one a break from some of the dismality in some of the other stories in this collection.  Matheson’s ability to describe the character’s voices and their mannerisms is expert level. Aspiring authors need to read this to get schooled….

The Last Day is a tough story to get through.  It involves family drama and also the miserableness of end of days. If that is not enough, it begins in a sordid, foul scene.  This contains suicide and murder and general human decay.  Not that it is entirely out of place – if it was indeed the last day, this is likely how humans would react. As I said earlier, it can be difficult to look at humans qua humans.  Also, the undercurrent of mother/son relationship is strange and when juxtaposed with the chaos of the plot, it is disturbing.

Little Girl Lost again contains some comedy, heavy doses of characters struggling, and also family drama. It also highlights Matheson’s ability to make the reader panic and stress alongside the characters. This short piece takes place in a small apartment in which we find the husband, wife, young daughter, and pet dog.  My main complaint about this story is the very sudden, without explanation, inclusion of an outside character (Bill).  It is jarring when he is introduced because it interrupts the storyline – the reader is busy being confused as to why Bill was summoned. Still, it is a nice, tight read.

The Doll That Does Everything is really bland. It is totally skippable. Especially because it is very obvious and I would say it is the most heavy-handed of the collection.  A husband and wife, who are focused on their hobbies, dislike the demands their young son places on the household. So they get him a playmate. Things go poorly.

The best thing about this collection is the display Matheson puts on with his ability to put the reader in the scenes. And, perhaps, that is why a lot of his work ended up being made into film – the whole concept of reaching the audience, etc.  Matheson also likes looking at characters who are frustrated and struggling and making the reader watch these battles. I am not so sure I like this style of entertainment, however it works well within the horror/speculative fiction genres. One can safely read The Curious Child, Clothes Make the Man, and The Funeral and be rewarded for their time spent.  Reading the other stories is a good idea as long as the reader can take a little of the gritty, dismal stuff.

Average:  2.69

Most: 3

Advertisements

Untouched by Human Hands

Untouched by Human Hands - Robert Sheckley

Untouched by Human Hands – Robert Sheckley

Untouched by Human Hands by Robert Sheckley is a collection of stories published in 1954. I believe it is his first collection published. I have also read his collections:  Pilgrimage to Earth and Citizen in Space.  Just like in those collections, Sheckley’s stories are witty, wry, unique, and very readable.  These were all published in 1952/53 so they were collected soon afterward.  The stories remain very contemporary and I could pass them off on unsuspecting non-science fiction readers as this month’s best stories.

On the back of the book is a short paragraph of praise comparing Sheckley to John Collier and Shirley Jackson. The blurb calls the stories here “delightfully fresh in concept, development, and writing.”  It is signed H. H. Holmes. Now some trivia:  H. H. Holmes is the assumed name of an infamous pre-1900 killer. It is also the sometimes used penname of Anthony Boucher (1911 – 1968).  Boucher was a well-known editor and reviewer of mystery and science fiction writing.

  • The Monsters – 2 stars – (1953)
  • Cost of Living – 2 stars – (1952)
  • The Altar – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Shape – 3 stars – (1953)
  • The Impacted Man – 4 stars – (1952)
  • Untouched By Human Hands – 3 stars – (1953)
  • The King’s Wishes – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Warm – 4 stars – (1953)
  • The Demons – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Specialist – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Seventh Victim – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Ritual – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Beside Still Waters – 4 stars – (1953)

Several of the stories in this book deal with first contact scenarios – but not the usual “aliens invading earth” story. Therefore, as can be expected, several of the stories also hinge upon the ability or inability to communicate. I like this little problematic. Communication, miscommunication, and knowledge-sharing are key components in The Monsters, Ritual, Beside Still Waters, and Specialist. In each of these, the problem of communication is faced and dealt with differently; in some cases by using ingenuity of the characters’ wit to circumvent the issue.

I have seen that many readers liked The Monsters. I liked it, but it seems too obvious. I guess after you read enough Sheckley you start to expect more and better. It is a rather disturbing first contact environment juxtaposed with cultural habits. Sheckley presents it in a tidy, light amusing way. A good story, but I expect better!

Cost of Living is another story wherein the basic idea is okay as a topic/plot, but I just felt like the story was flat. Maybe a little too heavy on the morality. I am fine with authors using ethics as a skeleton in their work, but this was a little too shoved in the reader’s face. Maybe not pure ethics, but it contains that questioning society/guilt-factor that the reader is supposed to pause and consider. I did not like the ending, either. So I only gave this two stars.

The Altar is good average fare. It is creepy and puzzling and mysterious, which I like in stories. It may not be science fiction, though. It probably fits that other category – speculative fiction. Mr. Slater lives in North Ambrose, which is a small town where the residents find safety, security, and contentment in their very basic “plastic” lives. One morning, en route to work, he runs into a dark stranger looking for an oddly named place: The Altar of Baz-Matain. Obviously, Slater is at a loss and cannot help the man. Later that evening, Slater tells his wife and she says that she does not think the Better Business Bureau or the P.T.A. would allow such things in their town. Slater continues crossing paths with the stranger……… In any case, I enjoyed the story, the ending was a little less than perfect; I actually like everything up until the ending a lot more.

The stories Shape and Ritual are both average stories. They are both from the viewpoint of alien species who meet humans. The gulf in this meeting is pretty vast, so the humans are less characters than plot devices. In Shape, Sheckley gets a little bohemian on us and the main character alien questions the culture and habits of his species upon visiting Earth with his ship and crew. In Ritual, there is a small power struggle among two aliens regarding the proper way to welcome (using dance) the gods (humans) who have landed on their planet. In both cases, the alien race is the point of view and in both there is a questioning of the authority of the species’ traditional norms. Solid stories, but not much wow-factor.

The Impacted Man is my favorite story in this collection. I like that it is told from a “bird’s-eye view” as well as from a human standpoint. The “bird’s-eye” is a construction contractor who builds galaxies and meta-galaxies, which is really cool. He has built one and is demanding payment for it. The controller is refusing payment due to some anomalies and at least one impacted man. The impacted man is Jack Masrin (and by association, his wife and landlord). I really like the usage of parallelities in this story. And I like that this is sort of a lightweight-action story that kept me a lot more engaged than the other stories. This is good writing all-around and I found the resolution sudden and witty. I recommend this one to all readers.

Untouched by Human Hands and The King’s Wishes both deal with two humans facing a strange, difficult scenario. In the first, two rather annoying characters are forced to land on a strange planet in search of food. In the latter, a djinn-type creature appears in the humans’ appliance store and whisks major appliances away with him. In both cases, the humans face the serious damage to their lives/livelihood and seek out solutions. In the former, the two humans find a warehouse, but cannot comprehend the writing on the stores there in order to determine if there is food and potable water. They end up unleashing things that worsen their predicament. In The King’s Wishes, one human tries one method, the other human tries another. The solution is somewhat lame and the story fizzles out. Very readable stories, just nothing outstanding or vibrant.

Warm is easily the most esoteric story of the collection. It is also nihilistic, existential, and psychological. Unlike most of Sheckley’s other stories, this one does not contain any humor – and in places it is quite dark. In fact, if the reader is particularly existential, it has terrifying elements to it. Not for the casual science fiction reader and not for those who prefer action scenes. I found the “story” gripping and disturbing. Sure, there are some (let’s call them…) holes in the “plot,” but the general thing is creepy and metaphysically well-written. I feel like there are a lot of edgy writers who attempt things like this, but either try too hard or make it too heavy handed.

The Demons is a quirky story told from various viewpoints. I really liked the different viewpoints, no matter how brief some of them were, and I really enjoyed how the story just rolls around without seeming disjointed or confusing. It is a super skill of Sheckley’s that I have seen him use before. He combines elements without being plodding or chaotic, which keeps his stories light and fast. This one involves demons conjuring demons; sort of a twist on the rubbing of Aladdin’s lamp. Or “demons.” And the ending is a witty chortle. This is a really original fun story.

Specialist is a very unique story. I really liked it because the characters are so unique and the problem they face is one of those “usual science fiction space problems.” This story is another where the ability to communicate and understand foreign/alien cultures and norms is a key component. For whatever reason, I was drawn in to these bizarre characters who compose their cooperative “ship” and had concern for them. Generally, that means a well-written story. I even liked some of the seemingly sensible (or realistic) reactions the characters have. Definitely four stars.

Seventh Victim is a really unique read, too. It has a lot of things going for it. For one thing, its noir-dirty and not at all science fiction. For another point, it has a dose of resentment and criticism regarding the violent human race. In some sense, it is a partial “study” of drawing this violence out to the absurd. So, here again we have a strange cultural norm that has been established. Now, overall, the female characters in Sheckley’s stories are rather dumb and flat. Or just plain non-existent. However in this story, that changes a lot. And it changes in a wry manner, as well. The female character is just as stupid and simple as one would expect her to be in any vintage story by a male author. But that is not exactly how this one ends. Perfectly written.

Beside Still Waters is a very maudlin piece. It really is sad, although in a contemplative, gentle way. I do not know what to make of this one. The elements of communication are definitely there, albeit in a different way than just alien vs. human miscommunication. And the ending is far more serious than how Sheckley’s stories usually end. I’ve only read one thing comparable: Contraption by Clifford Simak. This is a good story, but only on rainy, introspective, lonely days, I think.

Overall, easily a four star collection. I read this Ballantine edition and I really think the cover is a hoot. Again, expand this cover to poster-size and I surely have a print of it on one of the walls around my home.

4 stars

Pilgrimage to Earth

Pilgrimage to EarthPilgrimage to Earth is a collection of short stories written in the 1950s by Robert Sheckley.  The collection of fifteen stories was first published in October of 1957.  This is the second Sheckley collection I have read; I can comfortably recommend both collections to readers.

The back of the book has a blurb by New York Herald Tribune stating: “No one in recent years has vaulted so promptly into the first rank.”   I keep imagining Sheckley vaulting promptly… with no lagging or sluggishness.  For a bit of trivia, the book is dedicated to Harry Altschuler.  Altschuler (1913 – 1990) was Sheckley’s literary agent. In fact, he was a fairly significant player in publishing during the 40s, 50s, 60s.

Pilgrimage to Earth • 4 stars
All the Things You Are • 4 stars
Trap • 3 stars
The Body • 3 stars
Early Model • 3 stars
Disposal Service • 3 stars
Human Man’s Burden • 4 stars
Fear in the Night • 4 stars
Bad Medicine • 2 stars
Protection • 2 stars
Earth, Air, Fire and Water • 2 stars
Deadhead • 2 star
The Academy • 2 stars
Milk Run • 4 stars
The Lifeboat Mutiny • 3 stars

Well, I started this collection in June, but only finished it now, in November. I made it halfway through and then my cat drooled on the front cover – an entire house for him to destroy and he purposely seeks out something valuable like a book. I was disheartened, though I cleaned the cover (and it did not suffer much damage, really), so I read other things. Finally, I decided I’d better finish this collection.

I mention this rather stupid story to sort of explain why I do not remember all of my thoughts that I had in June regarding this collection.  Luckily, I’m trained well-enough to write down one or two words as I go along for each story, but that does not mean a thorough review of the works.

One of the things that I remember from Citizen in Space and also is apparent in this collection is Sheckley’s wry sense of humor.  There are keen senses of humor, off-color senses of humor, dry/deadpan senses of humor – but rarely do I really find someone with a truly wry sense of humor.  Just like the dictionary says, his stories contain clever and often ironic tidbits.  For the most part, this keeps the stories fresh and interesting.  After having read two of his collections, I am slightly, very slightly, less impressed with this wryness. I mean, maybe he’s overusing it a bit? Well, even if he is, it surely is not any amount that would dissuade me from reading his work.

Sheckley combines that wry sense of humor with his studies of humans. I think he was only about twenty-nine years old when this collection was published.  But throughout, it contains a feeling that he is poking fun at humanity just a little. He seems to have some degree of  the “understanding people” skill that was so massively developed in great authors like H. L. Mencken and G. K. Chesterton. The combination of this skill with his wry wit makes his short stories readable – and then, re-readable.

The stories Pilgrimage to Earth, Disposal Service, and Human Man’s Burden are very much worthwhile; containing the wry little twist to make them amusing and a little surprising.  They also seem to demonstrate humans at their core.  Pilgrimage to Earth and Disposal Service are actually somewhat disturbing stories if you really consider the heart of the story [pun intended].  The former involves Alfred Simon returning to Earth whereat anything he wants can be bought – including love. But is it really love, like the poets of old would name it?  Disposal Service centers on the 17-year marriage of the Ferguson’s and a unique service that the couple uses. Both stories hinge upon the freedoms and scientific advancements of mankind, but show that mankind is still governed and tossed about by emotions and whim.

That is probably a theme for the majority of the stories in this collection. I recognize that theme in Deadhead and Earth, Air, Fire, Water – both stories that I did not consider to be more than average works.  Nevertheless, there is that theme that no matter how “advanced” mankind seems, he is still the animal, from Earth, that can be whimsical, irrational, over-confident, and foolish.  Maybe the lesson, if there is one, that Sheckley wants to show us is that the key characteristic of humans is that they are both scientific and silly.

Based on my ratings for the individual stories, I clearly like the first half of the book more than the second. I think the stories that I rated below 3 stars all seem to suffer from the same problem:  just a little too much is left unsaid, unsolved, and/or unexplained.  This lack makes the stories seem a bit underdeveloped and not fully written.  Bad Medicine is one example, The Academy is the other. The story has potential, but just doesn’t completely work.

Finally, the last two stories in the collection are part of a “series.” By this I mean, a common element is found in these stories and then in other stories (not part of this collection) by Sheckley.  Here we meet the proprietors of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service.  Basically, some fellows trying to make some money in a universe of highly competitive businesses, corporations, and smugglers.  This “series” is definitely interesting and I really got a kick out of Milk Run.  Both of these AAA Ace stories are fun adventures for all those readers who want some amusing space pulp fiction.

3 stars

Twenty-One Stories

Twenty-One Stories - Graham Greene; Penguin, 1983

Twenty-One Stories – Graham Greene; Penguin, 1983

Twenty-One Stories is a 1954 collection of Graham Greene’s (1904 – 1991) short stories/novellas. As expected, it contains twenty-one stories, which is an expansion of the collection published in 1947 aptly named Nineteen Stories. All of the editions that I have come across have the stories in reverse chronological order, which (according to Wikipedia) is typical. I  read the 1983 Penguin edition with cover illustration by Paul Hogarth.

My overall impression of Greene is that he is an excellent writer. He knows what he is doing and he has plenty of published works to prove it.  He is definitely in the top ten list for most influential/important authors of the 20th Century. I also think Greene is difficult to pigeon-hole into some narrow category. I cannot tell you if he wrote noir, espionage, religious-themed, etc. The diversity of his writing is subtle but wide. I also feel this is somewhat descriptive of Greene himself. It seems critics and readers have always debated on Greene’s personality, career, and lifestyle. Regardless, Greene is certainly not some hack writer.

Nevertheless, I cannot give this collection (or, really, any of the stories in it) fantastic ratings.  This is tough, because I can see the quality and effort and skill in these stories. I also understand the symbolism and the contextualization of many of the stories. However, as far as entertaining reads – gripping, thrilling, stunning, or invigorating…. well, I cannot say that these stories fit the bill, so to speak. Most of the stories are good, none of them are great.

  1. The Destructors – (1954) – 3 stars.
  2. Special Duties – (1954) – 4 stars.
  3. The Blue Film – (1954) – 3 stars.
  4. The Hint of an Explanation – (1948) – 3 stars
  5. Greek Meets Greek – (1941) – 2 stars.
  6. Men At Work – (1940) – 2 stars
  7. Alas, Poor Maling – (1940) – 1 star
  8. The Case for the Defence – (1939) – 2 stars
  9. A Little Place off of Edgware Road – (1939) – 3 stars.
  10. Across the Bridge – (1938) – 3 stars.
  11. A Drive in the Country – (1937) – 3 stars.
  12. The Innocent – (1937) –1 star.
  13. The Basement Room – (1936) – 2 stars.
  14. A Chance for Mr Lever – (1936) – 2 stars.
  15. Brother – (1936) – 3 stars.
  16. Jubilee – (1936) – 1 star.
  17. A Day Saved – (1935) – 1 star.
  18. I Spy – (1930) – 3 stars.
  19. Proof Positive – (1930) – 3 stars.
  20. The Second Death – (1929) – 3 stars.
  21. The End of the Party – (1929) – 2 stars.

The Destructors is probably one of the most famous of all of these stories.  It has all the post-war angst and societal symbolism one could want.  Nihilistic, fatalistic, and dark, this is not an easy read.  Well, it is not easy if you have any sort of positive view of humanity and society.  Still, this should not be surprising – the story is titled appropriately. I gave it three stars because I do not think I will forget it, but I do not really want to remember it, either.

Special Duties was a fairly good read. I have to admit, it being about a female secretary’s duties for her fussy male boss – I could not help but think this was going to be an entirely different “dutiful” secretary. I guess in 2015 my mind is as corrupt as yours. Kidding! Anyway, this was an interesting piece – cynical all over the place.  I know that a lot of people probably think this is Greene being critical of the Roman Catholic Church, but that is missing the point. The true cynicism is directed straight-as-an-arrow at humans. Which character is more devious in this story? And, because of that corrupt morality, which one is more likeable in spite of it?  Maybe the characters are not as bad as we think.  Don’t they both just want happiness?

The Blue Film is also a very good read. I would have to say that this is the most introspective and deepest story of the bunch.  Greene manages to give us a rather superficial and bare story, which someone contains a wealth of emotion and psychology.  Of course, it also contains that cynicism and pessimism that we have seen so far in Greene.  If you can only read one story in this collection, I suggest this one.

The Hint of An Explanation is the fourth story. It is one of the most religious-themed stories in this collection.  However, even though the religion is a bit more overt, there is a depth to it that focuses, again, on the human condition and psychology.  If you have heard good things about this story, let me confirm them.  This is definitely worth reading and I would re-read it.

After these first four stories, I felt the rest were not as good.  I found the suggested “humor” of the seventh story (Alas, Poor Maling) to be cruddy. The most popular and well-known story seems to be The Basement Room, which I must admit I found unappealing.  I found the child to be absurd and I felt no sympathy for him. I also felt no sympathy for Baines. The story itself was too long.

At one point, I woke in the middle of the night and could not return to sleep, so I figured I would read whatever story was next in the book. It happened to be Jubilee. Now, I don’t know if it was because I was drowsy or if the story is that odd, but I kept thinking: “what the heck am I reading here?” It was funnily ridiculous. I guess its an “interesting” story, though. Definitely different (particularly in 1936).

Overall, these are good stories. Nothing here is truly awesome. A couple are very worthy reads.  My rating will seem low – numerically. I think that this is an important collection to read. It reads longer than it seems, too, so you get your money’s worth.  While the stories do not get rated super highly, I do think that anyone needing to access Greene’s style and writing, this is a very good starter set.  Reading these stories should let the reader know if they want to commit to any of his novels. Greene is an interesting thinker/writer, even if his stories are not the most entertaining ever written.  He has a distinctive voice and style. And his stories (n.b. I do not say Greene qua Greene) have a recognizable cynicism and pessimism.  I think it is a major point, though, that you understand I do not think Greene has the bitterness that others possess (Cp. Céline).  Greene doesn’t hate humanity and he actually still likes it. A lot.

2.38 stars

Autobiography of a Corpse

Autobiography of a Corpse - S. Krzhizhanovsky; nyrb

Autobiography of a Corpse – S. Krzhizhanovsky; nyrb

Autobiography of a Corpse is a collection of eleven stories written between 1922 and 1939 by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (1887 – 1950).  Krzhizhanovsky’s stories were mostly unpublished during his lifespan and nyrb has published several new translations and collections of his works.  Autobiography of a Corpse was published in 2013, but Memories of the Future was published in 2009.  Both collections were translated by Joanne Turnbull in collaboration with Nikolai Formozov.   Turnbull was the winner of the 2007 Rossica Translation Prize for her translations of 7 Stories (seven stories by Krzhizhanovsky).  The publications received reviews from a number of literary sources.

Krzhizhanovsky, of Polish descent, was born in Kiev, where he attended University.  In 1922, he relocated to Moscow, where he more or less spent the rest of his life. Throughout his life, his writings did not get published for a variety of reasons including:  bankrupt publishers and Soviet censorship.  He was writing roughly around the same time as H. P. Lovecraft in America, but Krzhizhanovsky’s stories are much more cosmopolitan and urban.  Generally, he is compared to Borges, but Borges comes much later in history.  Kafka, too, couldn’t have had an impression on him.  Likely, influences were E. T. A. Hoffmann, Poe, Gogol, and the theatre director Alexander Yakovlevich Tairov.

Krzhizhanovsky is not afraid to philosophize in public. His stories are fatalistic, fantastic, and satirical.  These are stories that are full of shadows and trees and city streets.  Repeatedly, Krzhizhanovsky investigates “I” and “the other” (or the “not-I”); reminding readers of Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (1923) and Levinas’ concept of alterity.  Krzhizhanovsky tries to explore the difference between the real and the not-real using architecture and personhood, etc.  He was a contemporary of Mayakovsky and it feels that way.More than anything, however, Krzhizhanovsky loves wordplay and language.  Lacanians and linguists might enjoy these stories for the wordplay.  Somehow Krzhizhanovsky is a master satirist, but without the savage bitterness that seeps through many satirists’ writings.

  • Autobiography of a Corpse – 3 stars – (1925)
  • In the Pupil – 4 stars – (1927)
  • Seams – 3 stars – (1928)
  • The Collector of Cracks – 2 stars – (1927)
  • The Land of Nots – 2 stars – (1922)
  • The Runaway Fingers – 4 stars – (1922)
  • The Unbitten Elbow – 4 stars – (1927)
  • Yellow Coal – 3 stars – (1939)
  • Bridge Over the Styx – 3 stars – (1931)
  • Thirty Pieces of Silver – 4 stars – (1927)
  • Postcard:  Moscow – 3 stars – (1925)

The title story (Autobiography of a Corpse) was an average read – honestly, I wanted more out of it.  My expectations were set fairly high because I had never read this author previously, so I did not know what to expect.  I actually re-read this story a few times before moving onward through this collection.  I admit that my appreciation increased after reading this story again.  Still, with this sort of title, a reader wants an awesome story, not one that is just average.

In the Pupil is my favorite story in this collection. I am giving it four stars, but truly, I could easily give this one five stars. I may have been feeling excessively critical to give it only four stars.  I think this is one of the most original and unique stories I have ever read.  It is also extremely heartfelt – and heart-rending – and also shows the depth of understanding that Krzhizhanovsky has regarding time and space.  This is a lover’s story, a philosopher’s story, and a rueful comic’s story. Excellent.

Seams, The Collector of Cracks, and The Land of Nots were all roughly of the same ilk.  These are a bit obscure and inaccessible.  “I” and “not-I” are used here, as well as being and not-being. But do these ideas come to fruition? Sometimes it feels like there is some interesting philosophical concept being investigated.  At other times, it feels like Krzhizhanovsky is just babbling in a stream of consciousness.  One is slightly reminded of Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake – but without all of the really bizarre Irish musicality.

The Runaway Fingers is another entirely fun and unique story.  It is macabre and thrilling and again shows Krzhizhanovsky’s familiarity with the physicality of cities and streets. I really liked this one and I would think that it is one of his most well-known.  If you are gonna read any of Krzhizhanovsky, I would definitely recommend this one.

The Unbitten Elbow is the most macabre and bizarre of the collection.  It is another unique and interesting read. The satire in it is extraordinary.  Krzhizhanovsky is definitely making some comments about contemporary society – trends and government involvement and, above all, profiteering.  He even tosses some of his scalding water on the academics like scientists and philosophers.  Yellow Coal, however, is even more satirical and sharper.  It is really well written and utilizes excellent concepts about society.  There is plenty of witty wordplay, particularly on “yellow” and the symbolism of it.  This story presents the downfall of society via the demand for economic and natural resources, which outweighs good morality. Moral turpitude seems to overcome society in a revaluation of matters.  People live better now that “love” is an archaic notion.  They live better right up until they become lazy, enfattened, and deadened. . . Hearts Versus Livers.

Thirty Pieces of Silver is also exceedingly satirical – but I feel this is less of a commentary on the greed and slime of mankind’s money-grubbing and more of a statement on how “schools” of writers in Krzhizhanovsky’s time adjudicate how/why works get published.  Soviet censorship and cliqueish writer-groups came to my mind while reading this.  Judas’ blood money is used under the guise of a writing prompt for this story. What is the silver itch – and are we all victims to it?

3 stars

Citizen in Space

citizen in spaceI finished the short story collection Citizen in Space by Robert Sheckley (1928 – 2005).  It was first published in 1955 and contains twelve stories – the majority of which had appeared in Galaxy Magazine.  I have recently been stuck in the 1950s as far as my reading goes, and the cover of this book looks so colorful that it always catches my eye.  Richard Powers created this cover.  Anyway, this is the first Sheckley I have read, although I have heard from a variety of sources that he is one of the “grandmasters” of science fiction short story writing.  I reviewed a collection by Kornbluth and then one by Sturgeon not too long ago, so I feel I was really into the swing things with short stories.  Sometimes, a reader feels like a great novel, sometimes just shorter works are perfect for the day.

In all of these stories, Sheckley is critical of society.  He questions the current conceptions of civilization qua civilization.  His best questioning, I think, comes when he highlights the paradoxes and contrary outcomes of intentional ethical scenarios/acts, etc.  In other words, when Sheckley presents characters whose acts conclude in unexpected – unintended – ways, his stories excel. In many places, Sheckley plays on the idea of concepts that are heavily influenced by a limited perspective.  And sometimes, this even results in peeking at simulacra, which I find super fun in science fiction.

Here are the stories in this collection:

  • The Mountain Without a Name – 3 stars – (1955)
  • The Accountant – 3 stars – (1954)
  • Hunting Problem – 5 stars – (1955)
  • A Thief in Time – 2 stars – (1954)
  • The Luckiest Man in the World – 3 stars – (1955)
  • Hands Off – 5 stars – (1954)
  • Something for Nothing – 4 stars – (1954)
  • A Ticket to Tranai – 5 stars – (1955)
  • The Battle – 2 stars – (1954)
  • Skulking Permit – 4 stars – (1954)
  • Citizen in Space – 3 stars – (1955)
  • Ask a Foolish Question – 4 stars – (1953)

The Mountain Without a Name is the first story in the book.  I gave this one three stars because I felt it was precisely what a science fiction story should be; a solid start to the book.  The frustration of the main character, Morrison, is evident and the environmental ethics of terraforming as a commercial enterprise drive the storyline.  Primitives and magic also play a role here – juxtaposed against the final quote of the book “Where do we go from here?” (a question the primitives wouldn’t know how to ask).

The Accountant is more fantasy than science fiction.  It is a relatively “cute” story – the main character is interesting.  Here is a witty, critical commentary on society.  However, like all of Sheckley’s critiques and complaints – done in a gentle and oblique manner. Again, three stars.

Hunting Problems did not start too highly in my esteem. I really do not go in for “coming of age” stories.  However, the occasional alien terminology/vocabulary interested me.  I’ll be honest:  I loved the ending.  The human characters are a bit “plastic” and “stereotypical,” but maybe that’s okay for this story.  Sheckley’s got a little more obvious disdain here for the humans than he usually shows in other stories. Still, five stars….

A Thief in Time was only a decent, basic read.  I’m not a fan of time-travel paradox stories.  Too much jammed into this one made it annoying and made me wonder why authors ever attempt time-travel paradox stories.  Of note, this is a story wherein Sheckley explores the concept of utopia, however here it is the stereotypical one. Only two stars for this one.

The Luckiest Man in the World is the shortest work in the book.  It presents an oddly optimistic, pro-science post-apocalyptic scenario.  This is not a new story, per se, but the positivity and optimism seemed “new.”  In any case, it is important to see that of all the challenges mankind faces, it seems the need for society/companionship is one that cannot be conquered by mere science.

Hands Off is one of those “cautionary tales” that one remembers and worries about even if the story isn’t particularly great.  Because in the case in which one finds oneself in an alien environment, all these warnings seem valid and crucial.  This story did seem slightly more heavy-handed than the previous ones, but no matter how overt or blatant, it still had a couple quirky twists and turns.  A good one to have young undergraduates read in their beginning Ethics courses.  Four stars.

Something For Nothing is supremely ironic and witty.  It suggests that greed, haste, assumptions lead to ruin.  But also that man cannot isolate himself from the bigger entity – government, IRS, society, civilization, etc.  There is also a fun quote:  “When the miraculous occurs, only dull, workaway mentalities are unable to accept it.”  Anyway, something for nothing / something out of nothing.  Either way, this is a unique piece. Four stars.

A Ticket To Tranai is one of the longer works in this collection.  It is creative and thought-provoking. Sure, the characters are a bit wooden (in all of these stories, they tend to be – but the main character here is actually named ‘Goodman’), but this is a curious look at intentions and ethics within society.  In this story Sheckley questions the concepts of (again) utopia, ethics, social change, and feminism.  The science fiction takes a backseat here – even though we have gone to the edge of the galaxy – this story is best enjoyed by those who like to play conceptual engineer. I gave this five stars and recommend it for all readers.

Skulking Permit is one of those unpredictable stories where the omniscient reader has to keep shaking their head at the silly characters.  The story is about a long-forgotten Earth colony that has recently been re-contacted by Imperial Earth.  Earth demands that the colony be up to “Earth standards” (which have long since lost any meaning to the colonists). This results in a bit of a farcical comedy. Definitely a unique piece, so I gave it four stars.

Citizen in Space is the title of the collection and though I gave it three stars, I cannot say I was really thrilled by the story.  It is good fiction, also a bit light on the science and a bit heavier on the “criticize society” parts.  Nevertheless, it is all couched in a lovely witty amusement that is good entertainment. Three stars.

Finally, the collection ends with Ask a Foolish Question.  This is the most esoteric of pieces in the collection.  Many readers who are not given to contemplation or introspection may not tolerate this one.  However, philosophers will be amused by this. The underlying suggestion is valid, if not obvious.  It is interesting and novel to see this wrapped in any kind of science fiction.  Four stars.

Overall, this is a great collection of really good stories.  The science fiction is present but not overwhelming.  All of the characters are wooden – like any true 1950s science fiction – but the concepts and the ideas are priceless.  Above all, entertainment is not sacrificed for any sort of ideology-mongering or attempt to seem philosophical.  These are amusing and clever and should be enjoyed by most (if not all) readers. I am definitely going to read more Sheckley.

4 stars

Caviar

CaviarCaviar by Theodore Sturgeon (1918 – 1985) was first published in 1955.  Once again, I completed a 1950s book.  This is a collection of 8 stories ranging from 1941 – 1955.  The cover art for the copy that I read (1977 Ballantine) is by Darrell Sweet. Though Sturgeon did publish several novels, it is my understanding that he is famous for his short fiction.

Therefore, when I came to this collection I had really high hopes because this should be fairly representative of the author’s lauded style.  I cannot say that my expectations were met, although I was not completely disappointed.  The ratings I gave each story are all over the place.  I am glad that I read the collection, but only one story in this collection is something that I think will stick with me.  Of the eight stories, I would say one is definitely not science fiction whatsoever, one is definitely science fiction, and the other six are vaguely “speculative” fiction.  None of this is a bad thing, but it does perhaps suggest a change in the reader’s pre-read expectations.

Sturgeon has a very glib and casual writing style.  I am not completely thrilled by it.  It works best when he utilizes a nifty narrator main character to do the work.  The stories wherein Sturgeon has to do the talking are decent, but nothing about this style makes it truly incredible.  In fact, for most of the stories, I felt they may have gone on for a page or two too long.  I think casual writing does lend itself nicely to short fiction, but usually overlong short fiction can kill any storyline.

  • Bright Segment – 2 stars – (1955)
  • Microcosmic God – 4 stars – (1941)
  • Ghost of a Chance – 2 stars – (1943)
  • Prodigy – 3 stars – (1949)
  • Medusa – 4 stars – (1942)
  • Blabbermouth – 3 stars – (1945)
  • Shadow, Shadow On the Wall – 2 stars – (1951)
  • Twink – 1 star – (1955)

Interestingly, you can see that the stories run the gamut from 4 stars to 1 star.  The stories that I rated the highest are the most “science fiction” of the stories.  The lowest rated involve children somehow and were – to me – too vague and weird.

Bright Segment opens the collection and is definitely not speculative fiction or science fiction.  It is actually quite a noir read, but not one that I really enjoyed. One of the things that Sturgeon does really well in this piece is to build up a lot of empathy and sympathy (concern) for both of the characters – and then he flips all of that emotive investment around.  I appreciate this – but cannot say I liked the result.  The voice of the main character was done well.

Microcosmic God is the most science-y of the collection.  I do think it was a bit too long, because toward the end, some threads of the story kind of slipped slightly.  Nevertheless, it is excellent SCIENCE fiction.  I love the Neoterics and the whole ratio which brought the main character to the conclusion of developing the Neoterics is the “answer” to time/space/invention.  I really am jealous of James Kidder – rich, brilliant, and lives unfettered by annoying humans on his own little island. Oh, how I would love to be Kidder.  Now, the plot-device of the power plant and the devious banker didn’t thrill me, so that’s why this does not get five stars.  Nevertheless, this is one I would recommend to other readers.

Ghost of a Chance was first published in 1943 and I do not see the need for it to have been republished. I gave it two stars and really feel like it just was not worth republishing, unless they needed some “filler.”

Prodigy is a good, solid read.  I gave it 3 stars because I felt that it represented some good speculative fiction ideas.  I really did like the twist at the very end of the story.  However:  I am not really sure that this twist is actually supported by the story itself.  Seems forced, even if it is fun and can be appreciated. Overall, it is a relatively interesting read.

Medusa was my favorite read of the collection. I know why it was named “Medusa,” but I would have named it Xantippe. Xantippe is a really good horrifying planet-concept.  And Medusa is a metaphor with a jellyfish, which I think is a strained and needless metaphor.  But Xantippe and the Navy ship sent to deal with it is an awesome concept.  All true fans of science fiction should read this one.  It also includes some of the psychological horror and mystery that really gripping deep space stories should include. Easily four stars.

Blabbermouth gave us a decent, sharp narrator with an interesting concept to tell his (rather mundane) story.  He falls in love with Maria, who has a predisposition to be possessed by poltergeists. Well, she brought this problem onto herself because of her occult “studies.” And now she affects people’s lives.  She’s a “blabbermouth,” so to speak.  I really dislike the genesis of Maria’s “skill,” and I feel that this story had so much potential wasted. As I read, I kept considering what it could have been – so much better than what this story is.

Shadow, Shadow On The Wall – The reader does feel a bit heartbroken for main character, Bobby – a small child who has a mean step-mother.  The story itself plays upon all of our fears of the dark and our capacity for pretend-play as an escape.  Still, the corner-shadow-country is unconvincing and I do not feel the story itself is on par with all of the emotional drawn the reader is presented.

Finally, Twink, which I hated. Just junk. I wish I had not read it. 1 star for being better than cleaning the litter box.

2.6 is the average for this collection.  I do not use numbers like this, so I will round up to a 3.  I am more or less okay with that, but I know that I recently reviewed C. M. Kornbluth’s The Explorers and that averaged out to a 3.  That collection was a lot better than this one.  So, let us call this a secret low 3 rating

3 stars