Deal Me In, Week 16 ~ “The Billiard Ball”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Billiard Ball” by Isaac Asimov

Card picked: King of Clubs
From: Asimov’s Mysteries

Thoughts:

Pool-playing scientist frenimies.

One is James Priss, a pale, slow-talking theoretical physicist, a two-time Nobel prize winner (both in science). The other is  Edward Bloom, a charismatic, college drop-out innovator, a multi-billionaire who has made his fortunes on the back of Priss’s theories. Their rivalry comes to a head as Bloom attempts to create an anti-gravity device based on Priss’s two-field theory. After a skirmish or words in the press, Bloom tricks Priss into demonstrating his new invention with a billiard table, ball, and cue. Unfortunately, a terrible accident occurs and Bloom ends up dead with a billiard ball-shaped hole through his chest. Freak tragedy? Or did Edward Bloom set himself up to be murdered?

There’s always a question in hard science fiction about how accurate the science is. Most general readers will assume the writer is knowledgeable enough to get it right. I don’t know enough about Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity to be too discerning, but Asimov knew his stuff (in his day) and it all *sounds* pretty good to me. It’s definitely my favorite of this anthology thus far.

 

Deal Me In, Week 15 ~ “Marooned Off Vesta” & “Anniversary”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Marooned Off Vesta” & “Anniversary” by Isaac Asimov

Card picked: Nine of Clubs
From: Asimov’s Mysteries

Thoughts:

This draw was a double story in the anthology. The first, “Marooned Off Vesta,” is a reprint of Asimov’s first published story, written in 1939 by a teenaged Isaac. It tells of three men trapped in a portion of their space ship, Silver Queen, after the majority is destroyed by an asteroid hit. The remains of the ship is in orbit around the asteroid Vesta. The men have three days of air left, as well as a week’s worth of rations, one space suit, a heat ray, a detonator, and, since the remainder of the ship includes the water storage, a year’s worth of water. If only they could jar themselves out of orbit and land on the inhabited Vesta…

“Anniversary” is a continuation of the story, written and set twenty years later. **Spoiler alert!** The three men survived but now face the middle-aged fear of their legacy being forgotten. “Anniversary” provides a little bit of mystery as the men try to discover why Trans-space Insurance is still looking for parts of Silver Queen wreckage.

The most amusing part of this second story is Multivac:

[Moore]…doubted if ever in his life he would meet any of the handful of technicians who spent most of their working days in a hidden spot in the bowels of Earth tending a mile-long super-computer that was the repository of all the facts known to man, that guided man’s economy, directed his scientific research, helped make his political decisions, and had millions of circuits left over to answer individual questions that did not violate the ethics of privacy.

Not quite Wikipedia and cloud storage…

Mini Reviews, Vol. 2 ~ The Woods (Real, Figurative, & Fantasy)

MiniReviews

alt text A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson, read by Rob McQuay

I’d been meaning to finally read something by Bill Bryson and I was happy to find that my local library’s digital collection includes lots of his titles in ebook and audio formats. I’m not an outdoors person, which is exactly why I chose A Walk in the Woods.

Bryson does a wonderful job merging an entertaining narrative with lots of information about the Appalachian Trail, its statistics and history. I laughed out loud, a welcome diversion from some of the other reading materials I’m lately engaged in (not those below). I did find some of the environmental asides a bit heavy-handed, only because they seemed pushy in light of the rest of the tone. But this is definitely not the last book by Bill Bryson that I’ll be reading.

© 2016 Galen Dara, Now that I’m beyond the Triple Dog Dare, I’m back to reading online fiction. So far, there’ve been two great stories in April from Strange Horizons:

“This Is a Letter to My Son” by KJ Kabza – I always have an eye out for KJ’s fiction. Luckily, he’s on Twitter! What if we had a choice about how we intrinsically think about ourselves? Would we change? Should we change? Even if we seem to have a really good reason? This is a concise, beautiful near-future science fiction story about those questions.

“The Right Sort of Monsters” by Kelly Sandoval – Conversely, Kelly Sandoval was completely new to me (I think…). A fallen god (literally) and a grove of trees that provide a very special type of fruit for childless families. Of course, a sacrifice is required. (Art at left by Galen Dara.) Together, these two stories would make a great Mothers’ Day issue. And I’m counting “The Right Sort of Monsters” as my first official Once Upon a Time read.

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Deal Me In, Week 5 ~ “The Talking Stone”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Talking Stone” by Isaac Asimov

Card picked: Two of Clubs
From: Asimov’s Mysteries

Thoughts:

Larry Vernadsky is the lone current inhabitant of Station 5, a way-point between the asteroid belt and Earth. He’s a jack-of-all-trades engineer with “an isolation-sharpened bump of curiosity.” He is overly excited when the mining ship Robert Q docks needing a diagnostic and a few repairs. After a wrong turn on his way to the engine room, Vernadsky discovers that the three-man crew have a “pet” silicony—an intelligent, talking, mind-reading silicon-based life form that is often found on asteroids.* Except that this silicony is about ten times bigger than any previously known specimen. The crew of the Robert Q are tight-lipped about its providence and nonplussed by its uniqueness. Which gets Vernadsky with his bump of curiosity suspicious. In his spare time, he’s read the works of famous extraterrologist Wendell Urth on the subject of siliconies.

If siliconies need gamma radiation to live and grow, then this one must be from an asteroid with a lot of radioactive materials… And if the crew of the Robert Q is so secretive and a little hostile about their pet, then they might be…uranium smugglers! If Vernadsky can prove it and locate the asteroid, an Earth-side promotion could be his reward.

He proceeds to sabotage the smuggler’s ship and contact the authorities. Of course, an accident keeps it all from going smoothly. In the end, it’s the job of H. Seton Davenport to locate the asteroid, with Dr. Wendell Urth “helping” by pretty much continuously telling Davenport that he’s a dim-wit. This is the second story with these two characters, but in story chronology and in my reading chronology.

At several points in this story (and I fear this may occur more in Asimov’s mysteries), a character figures out something by following some thought process and then slyly alludes to it. But the reader has no idea what he’s** alluding to, at least not immediately. I see no good reason for this. Asimov could have shared the entire thought process and it wouldn’t have taken away from the plot of the story.

Better use of a silicon-based alien in a murder mystery? Gene L. Coon’s Star Trek episode “The Devil in the Dark,” written a decade later.

* This is actually a slang term for the creature. Asimov does provide a more scientific name for the species.

** Since I’ve recently had long conversations with Eric about he/she/they, I will point out that “he” is completely accurate. Asimov isn’t big on female characters.

Deal Me In, Week 23 ~ “Chuck’s Bucket”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Chuck’s Bucket” by Chris Offutt

Card picked: King of Clubs

From: Mc Sweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, edited by Michael Chabon

Thoughts: After a few not-so-thrilling tales, this is more like it.

Offutt goes meta with this story. The narrator is (presumably) Chris Offutt. He’s the son of genre writer Andrew J. Offutt and has been asked by Michael Chabon to write a genre tale for a McSweeney’s anthology even though he’s spent his entire career as a writer trying to be as little like his father as possible. Things are not going well for story!Chris. He’s recently divorced, he’s stepped on his glasses, his car has crapped out, his bike has a flat, he can’t finish the damn McSweeney’s story (about clones…maybe?), and he’s being haunted by ghost.

It’s the ghost aspect that piques the interest of physicist Prof. Charles Andrews, a poker buddy of Chris’s. Since there are no such things as ghosts, it’s obvious that Chuck’s newly built time machine has worked and that Chris has volunteered to be the first human subject. Why on earth would Chris volunteer? Because maybe the time machine can dump him in a future “bucket” and Chris can read the end of the story he’s supposed to be writing.

The last story I read from Thrilling Tales was Michael Crichton’s “Blood Doesn’t Come Out,” which has a similar starting point: a guy for whom things are not going well. It occurs to me that I might have been unfair to Crichton. He took crime noir to its inevitable blood-spattered conclusion. Offutt goes a pulpy sci-fi route. What’s more pulpy and sci-fi than time travel? And it might be that I simply prefer sci-fi to noir.

About the Author: I had deja vu as I looked up Chris Offutt’s biographical info. I had googled him before and recently. Why? And why hadn’t I added some of his books (involving rural Kentucky) to my TBR-eventually list? (Probably because that list is already stupid long.) A time-based Google search revealed all. I had read “Trash Food” back in April.

Review ~ (The rest of) Don’t Look Now

Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier

Cover via Goodreads

Five long stories about unremarkable people caught up in situations beyond the boundaries of their experience.

Venice, Crete, Ireland, Jerusalem, East Anglia. The settings of Miss Daphne du Maurier’s stories are as varied as the plots. A married couple enjoying a holiday in Venice are swept helplessly into a tragedy played out against a backdrop of murky canals and back alleys. A middle-aged schoolmaster gets involved with an American couple whose fishing expeditions are very far from being what they appear. A young actress, setting out on an impulsive but innocent quest, blunders into a situation which sweeps away all the roots of youthful self-confidence. One story, subtly mocking, follows the vicisitudes of an ill-assorted little party of pilgrims in Jerusalem. Another explores the meaning of life and death in a brilliantly original tale. Such unremarkable people, following their unexceptional paths, yet all caught up in situations beyond the boundaries of their experience and outside their control. Compelling, exciting, this collection shows once again what mastery of the short story Daphne du Maurier has. (via Goodreads)

For me, Daphne du Maurier is this year’s Steven Millhauser. Last year, I delved into a collection of Millhauser’s (The Barnum Museum) and found that I was torn. I really *loved* some of his stories. Others…not so much. I’m still not sure if I’d call myself a Millhauser fan, but I’m going to repeatedly give him chances. My opinion of du Maurier is shaping up similarly. I didn’t care for Rebecca, but there were some aspects that were enticing. Luckily, I had more du Maurier on a more compulsory reading list.

Don’t Look Now is a collection of five novellas originally titled after one of the other stories in the collection, “Not After Midnight.” The change came after “Don’t Look Now” was turned into a film in 1973 with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. That story was included in my Obscure Literary Monsters list and I reviewed it a few weeks ago. Since I didn’t immediate pull “The Birds,” which is on my Deal Me In list, I decided to finish off the anthology. And it is definitely a mixture of great and meh from me.

The second story in the collection is “The Breakthrough.” The late 60s and early 70s spawned a number of novels and movies that dealt with science investigating the supernatural. I didn’t expect to find such a story from du Maurier. “The Breakthrough” is a solid, right out of the Twilight Zone. “Not After Midnight” continues with an atmosphere of unease as a fairly insufferable character gets caught up in what may or may not be an archeological dive. There’s one incredibly tense scene that caused me to jump out of my skin when an outside noise intruded.

But then there’s “A Border-Line Case.” I have a theory that I might not like du Maurier’s female main characters. Like the second Mrs. de Winter, Shelagh came off as flighty. Maybe that’s uncharitable. Both of these characters make her own decisions (both involving older men), but they’re such bad decisions. Then, the reader is left to suffer through an extended period of whinging from the character.

“The Way of the Cross” is the only story of which I had a neutral opinion. It’s populated by (figuratively) many the characters we’ve already encountered: the annoying, the skeptical, the swinging, the delusional, and the completely unsure. In the end, I’m not sure what point there is to “The Way of the Cross,” but it wasn’t an entirely unpleasant journey.

Publishing info, my copy: Doubleday, 1974, hardback
Acquired: PaperbackSwap
Genre: all over the place

Deal Me In, Week 20 ~ “The Albertine Notes”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Albertine Notes” by Rick Moody

Card picked: Queen of Spades

From: Thrilling Tales, ed. by Michael Chabon

Thoughts: At week 20, I have come upon my first DNF story of the year. More of a novella than a short story (weighing in at 61 pages), I gave “The Albertine Notes” twenty pages to keep me interested. Honestly, I only made it seventeen pages.

The premise seemed good: After an atomic bomb is detonated in New York City, many disenfranchised people turn to the drug Albertine. Albertine allows for perfect and immersive recall of memories. And even the ability to “remember” the future. I was willing to suspend disbelief; memory doesn’t work like this, but I’d go for a speculative fiction ride. Unfortunately, the telling of this story is really muddy and repetitive.

Kevin Lee, our narrator, is a journalist tasked with investigating the claims that surround Albertine. There are long circular explanations of how the drug might work and how it might have been connected to the bombing mixed in with paranoid conspiracies involving the government and drug dealers. It reminded me of Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but without the weird feeling of impending doom. It just didn’t work for me.

About the Author: Rick Moody is pretty notable in the realm of literary fiction. Alas, I’m only familiar with his works via a movie adaptation. The Ice Storm is rather good.