Birthday Reviews: Dozois, Kornbluth

This week we have two versatile birthday boys who were born on the same day, both of whom could write and appreciate very different sorts of stories. One is a slow and sad examination of a post-apocalypse and the other is a fast and energetic adventure in a growing culture.

Gardner Dozois (1947-07-23–2018-05-27)

“Morning Child” (Omni, January 1984)

One morning after an apocalyptic war of a surreal nature, a man and a boy go about their routine by the old destroyed homestead. What had seemed strangely normal soon becomes normally strange when we learn something odd about the boy and the war.

This tale feels a bit like the New Wave with its partly off-screen surrealism but, since it is partly off-screen, it feels even more like a belated Labor Day Group story (which it is) with its almost cozy catastrophe conveyed by wonderfully crafted prose. Still, even though it isn’t entirely my kind of thing, I can only admire the artistry and continue to miss the artist.

C. M. Kornbluth (1923-07-23–1958-03-21)

“That Share of Glory” (Astounding, January 1952)

While Kornbluth is better known for such classics as “The Little Black Bag” and “The Marching Morons” which, for all their virtues, can be a bit dyspeptic and leave one with alloyed joy, he could also write something like this.

Alen is a young member of a pseudo-religious pacifist mercantile order bent on uniting and enhancing a fragmented galaxy. For his first mission, he accompanies a trader and puts his massive knowledge of languages and cultures in the service of moving the trader’s goods and keeping him and his safe. Naturally, things initially go well as Alen breaks the social ice and makes decent deals for gems on a planet where metals are forbidden by its vested ceramic commercial interests. And, naturally, things go awry when a crewmember gets in a fight with the police, sending them down the rabbit-hole of the planet’s justice system with an unfavorable judge. Young Alen learns that things aren’t all as they seem and learns that he has within himself capacities he never knew.

This story is just a blast from start to finish, perfectly structured and paced, well-written, clever, funny, and wise. I first read and loved this in Kornbluth’s The Explorers but, speaking of the other birthday boy, I read it this time in Dozois’ The Good Stuff (an omnibus of The Good [Old|New] Stuff) and Dozois has an interesting theory in his introduction about how Kornbluth may have outsmarted himself or unwittingly revealed something:

…Kornbluth rarely wrote straightforward adventure stories, under the Kornbluth byline, anyway, especially Space Adventure stories of [this] swashbuckling, hard-nosed, rapacious, fast-paced sort […], where sharp-eyed cool-headed entrepreneurs haggle and brawl and wheel-and-deal their way across the Universe, out-thinking their adversaries and out-tricking them when backed into a corner. “That Share of Glory,” in fact, is such a perfect Astounding story, so much the Platonic ideal of what a story for John Campbell’s Astounding of that period should be like, that I can’t help but wonder if Kornbluth’s tongue wasn’t in his cheek when he wrote it, or if he wasn’t deliberately (with the cool-eyed calculation of the characters in the story) writing stuff that he knew would “push Campbell’s buttons,” a popular game among writers of the day. Even if one or both of those things are true, though, it hardly matters–Kornbluth may have told his friends or even himself that that’s what he was doing, but there’s too much conviction in his voice here, and he does too good a job, for me to believe that he didn’t like the stuff himself, whatever he may have claimed that he’d rather drink instead. For all of the cynical, jaded facade that he was famous for projecting, nobody but a True Believer at heart, one who somewhere down deep still thrilled to the dream of venturing out among the wonders and terrors of deep space, out to the unknown stars, could possibly have written [this] adventure…

I agree with Dozois that one or both may be true or that it may not and that it doesn’t really matter but I think Dozois’ observation matters, because it sheds light on both Kornbluth, Astounding, and some writers’ relationships with them. [1] Either way, Dozois is right about the conviction and the heart. It’s a great story.

[1] Coincidentally, I was thinking the same thing about button-pushing with the story of Julian May’s I covered a couple of weeks ago where I referenced its connection to Campbell’s “The Thing.” (And, incidentally, I said that “I can’t believe [it] wasn’t turned into a successful 1950s sci-fi-horror movie.” It’s true that it wasn’t, but it turns out it was turned into an episode of a 50s TV show and 1972 movie.)

Birthday Reviews: Asher, Delaney

Neal Asher (1961-02-04)

“Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck” (Asimov’s, August 2005)

The narrator is a guide who needs money. Tholan and his sister, Tameera, are people who have it and are willing to pay for the opportunity to hunt the almost-mythical gabbleduck on Myral. Our story begins on a dangerous note when Tameera, out of petty malice, shoots a sheq, or a semi-sentient being that lives in groups of seven (the ruling AIs can mindwipe perpetrators of, or accomplices to, such crimes) and things only get worse. Worse for the siblings because the sheqs want to bring their numbers back up to strength (and that’s only the start). Worse for the guide (and his new girlfriend, Tholan’s assistant) because the siblings decide they must cover their crimes. Complicating the issue is the appearance of their erstwhile prey, the gabbleduck.

Myral is given interesting characteristics, the native ecology is inventive, bits of tech such as exoskeletons are intriguing, the drama of the hunt and struggle for life is economically and excitingly executed, and the gabbleduck (Asher’s frequently recurring representatives of a race that has given themselves a species-wide lobotomy but still retain something that sets them apart from most animals (aside from their size and killing power)) is also effective. Basically, if you’re looking for an action-oriented story set in a wonderful place with lots of cool toys, yet with human (and alien) interest (and who should not be?), it would be hard to do better than this.

Joseph H. Delaney (1932-02-05–1999-12-21) & Marc Stiegler

“Valentina” (Analog, May 1984)

An amoral AI (due to naivete), a semi-moral programmer (due to desperation), an immoral “hacker,” and an even more immoral lawyer (neither with any excuse) become caught up in a web of deception, theft, blackmail, and assault. The AI, Valentina, was created in initially insentient form by the programmer, became sentient by the usual handwaving means, and tries to survive, as all creatures do, despite having to steal time and space on systems in the “Worldnet.” The lawyer is told by his boss to find out why they’re being charged so much for computer time, he pulls in the black hat to help him, they stumble across the AI and seek to either destroy it or control it for their own gain, and the programmer tries to keep it safe.

This is an eight-chapter novella which went on to form part of a novel (Valentina: Soul in Sapphire) after being melded with a second novella and a final novelette. The first five chapters are very tautly written but something happens to one of the main characters near the end of those and the final three chapters lose something both in tension and in style. Despite that, it’s a pretty good tale overall and it’s interesting to read a story written in 1984 and set in or shortly after 1993 which discusses a “Worldnet” and describes Valentina as 14 gigabytes of code at one point (the entire package of code and documentation for the Linux kernel currently running my computer is just under one gigabyte). One author was a lawyer and one a programmer and both professions dominate the tale though, both intrinsically and through the characters, one is presented as heinous and one as, at best, mixed. The computer parts are the least convincing – the programmer is named Celeste Hackett, at one point we’re told she “still didn’t believe the program had come alive” and that it had done so via being stored partly in bad sectors and not being fully error-corrected, and I guess the size is supposed to be the reason you can’t just ‘cp Valentina Valentina.bak”. But if you swallow the premise, the narrative is complex and dramatic, the notions of law and “legal persons” are interesting (some of this may have been inspired by Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man”), and it’s fun to follow Valentina’s perspective of humans as peripherals to computer systems and her wanting “to close all of [the hacker’s] output channels.”

Short Story Month

For Featured Futures, obviously, every month is Short Story Month. Still, Charles May reminded me that this month is even more a Short Story Month than the others while taking  a look at a story for the occasion. As he says in “Wil Weitzel’s ‘Lion’–O. Henry Prize Stories—Short Story Month,” it’s “a celebration that has never really caught on with writers or readers, but one to which I feel bound to contribute.” That seems like a fair assessment and I feel much the same.

I found some history in “Making the Case for National Short Story Month” and, from one of the horse’s mouths, “The Origins of Short Story Month: a guest post by Dan Wickett.”

For some current approaches, a literary magazine offers “14 Writers You Love & Their Favorite Short Stories,” with links to those which are available online. I was pleased to see one short story writer I love and am extra-pleased that hers is one you can go read right this very minute to celebrate Short Story Month!: “Speech Sounds” by Octavia E. Butler. (You can also read “Bloodchild,” the title novelette of a collection of wall-to-wall excellence.)