The Devil’s Disciple by Shiro Hamao

Two very entertaining thriller/mysteries by an author you’ve probably never heard of translated here by J. Keith Vincent.

Both stories, “The Devil’s Disciple” and the novella length “Did He Kill Them” are really psychological studies as much as noir detective thrillers. In both, the “killer” has already been caught so there’s not that much of investigating to be done.  However, in each the confession is highly suspect. There is much more going on than first meets the eye.

They are each interesting as mystery/thrillers and for the portrait they present of 1930’s Japan when they were written. They are not a happy, fantasy, Japan; there is murder in both stories so we are entering dark territory not suitable for tourists, but the look inside the Japanese justice system of the day and the glimpse of Japanese society’s more sensationalist side made for interesting reading.

I enjoyed both stories, in fact I hope to find more of Shiro Hamao’s 17 novellas and three novels translated into English.

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

It’s long been my belief that you should never revisit the things that most impressed you when you were young.  My number one object lesson for this belief is the 1972  science fiction movie Silent Running starring Bruce Dern.  (I’ve posted the trailer for it below.) I was nine-years-old when I saw it.  The special effects, the ecological message, the robots, the final shot of one robot caring for the plants with a battered watering can, it all blew my mind.  I never saw it again, but I have always remembered it.

In college, late one night when the dorm conversation turned to classic made-for-television movies the way it often did, I brought up Silent Running, the movie with that guy alone in space who teaches the robots to play poker, you know, the one with the forests inside the domes…..  Turns out I was far from the only nine-year-old to fall in love with Silent Running in 1972.

I warned the group, don’t watch it again.  You know it’s going to look cheesy compared to Blade Runner and Star Wars and you’re just going to end up being embarrassed to admit you ever liked it.  Keep the memory alive. Don’t ever watch it again.

A few years later I heard from one of my college friends.  She had watched the movie.  I was right.

In spite of this long held belief, when Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man came up on Kindle’s daily deal for 99 cents, I bought it.

The stories in The Illustrated Man are not as good as I remembered.  While some of them have stayed with me since I first read the collection, probably 35 years ago, I can’ argue that many of them are particularly good.  Kaleidoscope about a group of astronauts spinning off into space each in a different direction after the explosion of their rocket; The Rocket Man about a poor father who buys an old rocket to stage a fake trip into space for his children’s amusement; The Exiles about the ghosts of dead authors like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain who live on Mars with the spirits of all the characters they created hiding from a now bookless earth, all moved me profoundly the first time I read the book much in the same way Silent Running did.

This time around, I have to admit that while I still admire the ideas behind Ray Bradbury’s short stories, the only one in The Illustrated Man that I can really defend as being a very good short story is The Vedlt about two children who have become far too attached to their high tech television room.

All of Ray Bradbury’s work has a slightly dated feel to it now, but it always felt a little bit dated, didn’t it?  He spent his career in a stage of futuristic nostalgia, writing stories about people in the future who long for a world they left behind somewhere in their collective past.  One of the two episodes for The Twilight Zone Ray Bradbury wrote, I Sing the Body Electric is about a robot manufacturer who creates android grandmothers to provide comfort and care for children who have lost their own mother.  Technology so advanced it still remains yet to come used to create a grandmother figure from so far back in the past even people in the 1960’s only knew it as fictional.

The stories in The Illustrated Man are a lot like that.

It seems fitting to have read The Illustrated Man on a Kindle.

Here’s the trailer for Silent Running.  I swear to you that back in 1972, this movie was amazing.

 

I first ran this review back in 2013 on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. I’m still a fan, though I admit reading this does make he hesitate before going back to read more by Ray Bradbury. 

Tournament of Short Stories, Science Fiction Edition: “Lot” by Ward Moore vs. “Break! Break! Break!” and “Rock Manning Can’t Hear You” by Charlie Jane Anders.

file_000-15The least likable character wins.

The losing set of stories was still very good though.

For this round of my tournament of short stories I read two from The Apocalypse Triptych by Charlie Jane Anders. Both feature the same set of characters, young people who become famous for the on-line movies they make featuring absurd stunts that typically end with the main character getting himself hurt.

The Apocalypse Triptych features a wide range of contributors, some of whom have contributed a story for each of the three volumes The End if Nigh, The End is Now and The End Has Come.  I enjoyed Mr. Anders story in part one more than enough to follow up right away with the continuation in part two.  In fact, I’ll be ordering the third volume so I can find out what happens in the end very soon.

While I’m not all that interested in the whole movie making aspect of the plot, I do like the focus on people who are not at all involved with the events bringing about the end. They are just a bunch of kids, really, who are trying to become filmmakers as the world crumbles around them.

Which is a perspective these stories share with Ward Moore’s story Lot” collected in The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Brian Aldiss.  However, while the young people in Mr. Anders story are generally good people who look out for each other, Mr. Moore’s hero is a pragmatist, one who knows not everyone will survive the collapse of civilization. If he is to make it, he will have to make some very tough decisions.

The first is to abandon the family dog.

Did I mention that the least likable character won this round?

We do not discover what has brought about the end of the world in Mr. Moore’s story, but it doesn’t really matter here.  The story starts with the main character loading the family car with supplies.  There’s not enough room for his wife, three children and the family dog, so he insists they say goodbye to Fido. Then they join the mass exodus out of Los Angeles.

Though this story was written in 1962, I was reminded of the evacuation of New Orleans.  One side of the highway jammed with traffic, the other, the one leading into town, empty. A man who would leave behind the family dog wouldn’t hesitate to hop the meridian and take advantage of the empty lanes on the wrong side of the highway.  He’s pulled over by one of the remaining policemen, of course, but this is just a pause.  He takes the ticket, promises to be good, and continues as before.  It’s the end of civilization, only those who leave behind laws and morality will survive.

When the family arrives at a gas station far outside the city, he realizes he has an opportunity to increase his own chances of survival once his wife and two of his three children have gone inside to buy what food they can.  He’ll take his younger daughter with him.  She has the right attitude to make it in the harsh world they’ll face.

There’s no excusing this behavior, though we should have seen it coming with the story’s title.  But of the stories I read for this round, Mr. Moore’s has haunted me.  What would you leave behind if it came to that? Who would you leave? Is what he’s doing something we can defend even if we don’t support it?

So The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus advances to the next round, but I’ll be keeping my copy of The Apocalypse Triptych.  Keeping it and adding one more volume to complete the set.

 

Tournament of Short Stories: Robert E. Howard vs. Cordwainer Smith

Strike one up for the barbarian.

So often, you just need the right story at the right time.

I first read Cordwainer Smith last year and loved him. He’s excellent.   However, the two I read for this round just didn’t do the trick.

For some reason, Conan the Barbarian, did.

The two by Robert E. Howard that I read for this round, “The God in the Bowl” (1952), and “Rogues in the House” (1934), follow the exact same formula though they were written nearly 20  years apart.  A crime has been committed, a murder probably.  Conan the Barbarian is on the scene, probably hired to protect someone or to commit a different crime, most likely a robbery.  There is an investigation led by a powerful man, often a man with magical powers.  Turns out the culprit is a supernatural being hiding in the room or the next room all along, sometimes behind a curtain.  Conan kills it, then kills the bad people in the room, the ones worse than him at least, and maybe a few guards who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Sometimes Conan takes a treasure and leaves town, sometimes he just leaves.

It’s not art; it’s a good time.  

I enjoyed both stories more than I thought I would, once again.  I’ve read six in this volume so far.  While they have not always advanced to the next round, they have always entertained.

So, Robert E. Howard moves ahead in my tournament of short stories.  I look forward to seeing just who, or what, Conan goes up against next.

 

Tournament of Short Stories SF/F Edition: Ted Chiang vs. The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Vol. VII

I’ve devoted this round of my tournament of short stories to science fiction and fantasy tales.  I’ve just enough anthologies to make it interesting, though I’m going to stretch the genre to include magical realism and people who included some SF/F in their books.

It may be a challenge, but it should be fun.

Science fiction and fantasy, even at their darkest, are fun.

For this round I ran the first two stories in The Best Science Fiction of the Year Volume VII (2012)  which are The Contrary Gardner” by Christopher Lowe and “The Woman who Fooled Death Five Times”  by Eleanor Arnason against the first two in Ted Chiang’s anthology Arrival, which was originally called Stories of Your Life and Others

While I liked both of the stories in The Best Science Fiction of the Year, especially Ms Arnason’s story, the round goes to Ted Chiang.

The first of Mr. Chiang’s stories, “The Tower of Babylon,” follows a new worker assigned to the upper portion of a giant construction project, a Tower of Babel.  I enjoyed the story for the remarkable world building it entailed.  Just how would such a project, a tower aiming to reach heaven, work.  The logistical support needed, how materials and messages would move upwards, all sorts of details are “realistically” imagined in Mr. Chiang’s tale.  When the workers finally do break through and reach heaven, what they find there both surprised me and came as something I should have guessed all along.

The second Ted Chiang story “Understand” may not be his own take on the Daniel Keyes  “Flowers for Algernon”  but it’s hard to read it without thinking this.  The story concerns the discovery of a compound that increases human intelligence by replacing the parts of the brain destroyed due to severe injury.  One man is given a dose which makes him so intelligent that he becomes a national security threat.  Before the scientists can stop him, he gives him self several more doses making him into a kind of super brain, capable of figuring out how to control people by reading their behavior to discover what their triggers are.  While I expected him to meet his end like the hero of Mr. Keye’s novel does once the treatment begins to wear off, instead he meets another patient who is even smarter than he is.

I’ve read a lot about Ted Chiang lately but never read him before. He really is as good as they say he is.

So, Ted Chiang advances to the next round.

When You’re Down By The River by Christopher Lowe

file_000-4I was drawn to this book by the cover.

When You’re Down by the River was published by BatCat Press in a hand bound edition of 100 numbered copies, each featuring a unique cover, that’s the marbled paper you can see inside the “RIVER” cut out on the cardboard casing the book comes in.

Mine is #85.

It’s a small work of art as well as a collection of four excellent stories.

Mr. Lowe’s stories are more rural versions of those found in Raymond Carver’s work.  Son’s trying to understand fathers, uncles with issues they hope to work out through their nephews.  Searching for that moment of epiphany that doesn’t quite come they way you expected.

I enjoyed them all. They were an added bonus to the beauty of the book itself.

 

 

Tournament of Short Stories: Patrick Ryan’s “The Dream Life of Astronauts” vs. Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”

Raymond Carver wins! Patrick Ryan beat out Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories in the semifinal round, but I don’t think anyone in the English-speaking world could have done better than the final three stories in Raymond Carver’s collection Cathedral.

For the last couple of years I have been reading short stories from different authors in competition with each other, a tournament of short stories sort of thing.  I choose a winner who advances to the next round while the other author, or book if it’s an anthology, goes back on the shelf for next time. This has worked for me as a way to read short stories.  I find it very challenging to read a short story anthology cover to cover.  The stories become repetitive the way novels would if you read 12 novels by the same author in a row.  So rounds of competing short stories in tournament fashion has worked for me.  This time Patrick Ryan and Raymond Carver are the two who made it to the top.

The final two stories in Patrick Ryan’s The Dream Life of Astronauts were “Earth Mostly” and “You Need Not Be Present to Win.”  “Earth Mostly” featured two characters from Mr. Ryan’s wonderful novel Send Me which everyone should read, believe me. However, as much as I love Send Me, I don’t think much was gained from revisiting the character  in this story.   But they do work here in the way the overlapping characters in David Mitchell’s terrific book Black Swan Green do.

The final story in Mr. Ryan’s collection “You Need Not Be Present to Win” was much better.  The structure is very simple.  A woman now living in a home for the elderly awaits the arrival of her son’s visit.  The son visits regularly though she is a very difficult woman. The son has something he wants to tell her, so he seeks a place where they can have some privacy. What he tells her will devastate him and had a powerful effect on this reader though his mother is past the point where she can be moved by his news. What happens if you betray someone who is no longer able to understand that she has been betrayed?

You Need Not Be Present to Win” was a winner, a story that illustrates why those of us who love Mr. Ryan’s work love his work.  More please.

Then there is Raymond Carver.

Raymond Carver is one of my big discoveries from 2016.  He didn’t make my year-end list of top ten favorite reads only because I didn’t finish reading Cathedral until yesterday but he’ll be on the list for 2017.  And I expect another of his collections will soon find its way into my tournament of short stories.

For this final round I read the last three stories in Cathedral: “Fever,” “The Bridal,” and “Cathedral.”  Wonderful, wonderful and Oh, my God that was something!

Mr. Carver’s stories tend to follow a standard pattern.  We’re introduced to one or two characters, usually a couple in some sort of long-term relationship. A new character or set of characters arrive.  The new arrivals have an impact, sometimes passing sometimes profound, on the original characters.  What makes the stories so wonderful is that they have the same impact on the reader.

“Cathedral” features a couple who have been married for quite some time, though they are still a young couple.  The wife has a long-term friend, a blind man, whom she once worked for.  For years she has exchanged cassette tapes with the blind man.  Eventually the blind man shows up on their doorstep as an overnight guest. The husband does not want the blind man to stay with them.  He is slightly jealous of the blind man’s close friendship with his wife and he does not think he will have anything to say to the blind man.

The three sit quietly watching television after a mostly silent dinner.  The husband and the blind man drink beer as they watch a television program about cathedrals.  The husband asks the blind man if he has any idea what a cathedral really is since he has never seen on.  The blind man asks the husband to draw a cathedral while they both hold the pen so he can get a sense of what a cathedral is.  The wife sits sleeping nearby while the two draw.

Then something happens.  The two men enter a kind of reverie that I still don’t really understand, but I was there with them.  The one draws, the other follows along.  It seems like they become each other for a moment in a strange type of understanding or empathy. As the blind man gains an understanding of what a cathedral is so does the husband. When they are finished drawing the blind man asks if this is what a cathedral really looks like.  The husband says yes but he has closed his eyes.  He sees what it is to see without vision through a physical/spiritual connection.  I don’t know. I’m not sure what has happened.  But that’s the case with so many of Carver’s stories.  I’m not really sure what has happened, but I have the sense that something has.

So Raymond Carver for the win.