MIND MELD: Memorable Short Stories to Add to Your Reading List (Part 2 of 2)
This week’s question is a simple one, but yielded lots of responses. We asked this week’s panelists:
Read on to see some great reading suggestions, then check out Part 1. And be sure to tell us your own favorites!
When I took a creative writing class in college, way back in 1991, we used one of the Norton anthologies. The professor asked us to pick a couple of stories to read and write about, so I of course scoured the table of contents for any science fiction stories at all. I found just a couple among the Cheevers and the Updikes and the Carvers: Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star” and Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas”. The former I had read before and found heavy-handed. (The teacher thought it was grand!) The latter story by LeGuin has stuck with me since. I suppose one could argue that it too is a heavy-handed polemic, but I had never seen science fiction deal so strongly with moral questions. It was quite moving to that 23-year-old fellow…
I think I’ll go re-read it now!
Here are some of my favorite SF stories. I selected these only by memory, without reference to any research material online or off, to be sure I picked the ones that were most significant to me, and they are presented in the order I thought of them.
You are, as they say, what you eat, and these are representative of the stories I ate and enjoyed the most in my formative years. I was born in 1961 and started reading SF as a kid, but I was reading from the collection of my father, who’d been an SF reader as far back as the 40s.
“Black Destroyer“ by A. E. van Vogt (1939), which I first read in the seminal Golden Age SF anthology Adventures in Time and Space edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas. The alien point of view was an eye-opener to me, the wise and ancient hunter with his own needs and priorities, who seems from the humans’ perspective to be nothing more than an animal. This story manages to be simultaneously a straightforward conflict with an alien beast from the humans’ perspective, and a tragedy of hubris from the alien’s. And it was van Vogt’s first sale!
“Neutron Star“ by Larry Niven (1966), which I first read in Niven’s collection Neutron Star. (How skinny paperbacks were in those days!) Many things about this story grabbed me: the extremely inhuman aliens with their unique psychology, the ship’s hull and stardrive, which were unlike anything else I’d read, and the use of cutting-edge astronomy and physics as a source of story. It was because of this story that I later pounced on Ringworld (“Hey, look!” I said, “a whole novel with Puppeteers!”). This story was Niven’s twelfth sale, but it is the first story in his first collection and the first story in the Beowulf Schaeffer series. It won a Hugo Award.
“Rescue Party“ by Arthur C. Clarke (1946), which I first read in Clarke’s collection Reach for Tomorrow. What I remember about this one is not the climax, in which humanity proves its pluck by escaping the dying Sun in a fleet of slower-than-light ships, but the body of the story, in which a wide variety of highly-inhuman aliens are working peaceably together, and have been working together for a long time in a galactic civilization. This was Clarke’s first sale, though not his first published story.
“Medic” by James White (1960, not available online), which I read in White’s collection Hospital Station. In an interstellar multi-species hospital under construction, a space roughneck must care for an orphaned infant of an extremely alien species. Again, here we see a wide variety of very different alien species working peaceably together; the plot involves a human using technology to solve a puzzle of alien physiology and psychology. This is the first Sector General story by internal chronology and is the first story in White’s first Sector General collection.
“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes (1958, not available online). It has been reprinted a million times and I probably read it in some textbook when I was in middle or high school. The thing that makes this story so memorable for me is the way it puts the reader right into Charlie’s shoes. The journal format and subtle changes in voice actually make you feel your brain changing, heightening the tragedy as Charlie slips back to his previous self (but not without losing the knowledge of what he had been). This story is unlike any of the others on this list, but it’s no surprise that I remember it so fondly because it’s widely acknowledged to be one of the best SF stories of all time. It was Keyes’s fifth sale and won a Hugo Award.
“The Moon Moth” by Jack Vance (1961, not available online). This one has also been reprinted a lot, but, amazingly, I believe I read this in a copy of its original magazine publication (Galaxy, August 1961) — though it was already an old magazine at the time I read it. I remember that another story in that issue, “Lochinvar,” was illustrated by Don Martin, “Mad’s Maddest Artist.” The thing that makes this story so significant for me is that it was the first story I read that really drove home just how alien an alien culture could be. In this story, an Earth human traveling to another planet completely underestimates how alien it is, and winds up being overwhelmed and nearly killed by his inability to cope with the cultural differences. The weird thing is that I cannot recall, or discover through online research, whether the natives in the story are nonhuman or merely culturally alien.
Looking over this group of my favorite and most memorable stories, I think it says more about me than it does about the SF field. For one thing, all but one was published before my birth, and the exception came out when I was five, which explains why my fiction is often described as having an old-fashioned flavor. I’m struck by the prevalence of alien cultures, especially multiple-alien societies, in this list. I’ve written a lot of stories about alien cultures and cultural or linguistic shock; my own story “Tk’Tk’Tk” has often been compared with “The Moon Moth.” And I’m astonished by how many of these stories are the author’s first sale and/or first in a series by internal chronology. Beginnings are a great place to make an impression, I guess.
I have over an hundred favourite stories, so I’ll pick some of the less well known. I’ve put the full list here.
“Hallucigenia” – Laird Barron
An accident at a deserted property results in a serious injury to a wealthy man’s wife. This does descend into Lovecraftian horror when he hires a hardboiled investigator to look into it. A work from a brilliant writer good enough to kick-start a jaded horror interest.
“Black Amazon Of Mars” – Leigh Brackett
Hardboiled science fantasy on a dry planet with lingering supernatural (or science) menaces. Hard to ask for anything more perfect than that. Her hardboiled style is also effortlessly evocatively sensual. One of the very few writers that comes close to matching Robert E. Howard for sword-wielding action. The combination of style and flair for adventure is quite astonishing as this decades old tale eventual teams the title warlord and the extremely dark-skinned Eric John Stark. Something rare for the time.
“Colouring the Captains” – Terry Dowling
This Tom Tyson cycle of stories has been described elsewhere as a cross between Cordwainer Smith and Ballard. Set in a future Australia, after some sort of collapse. The aboriginal tribes run the country now, with technology and access to large parts of Australia limited. Except to the Captains named by an AI in the Great Passage Book, for whom the tribes must allow access. Tyson and the pro-AI faction face a power hungry Ab’O warlord who wants to stop any more Captains being created and enhance his position. Dowling throws you into this strange future, a technique that I greatly enjoy.
“Sergeant Chip“ – Bradley Denton
An enhanced dog and its handler, serve in the military. If anyone is familiar with Grant Morrison’s We3, it is definitely along those lines. Questioning when do you follow or not follow orders, whether you happen to be human or not. Told very effectively from the point of view of the titular animal.
“Luminous” – Greg Egan
Two lovers at university hypothesise that mathematical axioms might have been a bit wobbly at the beginning of the universe, leading to other realities with different mathematical underpinnings. Having implemented their research, they are on the run with corporate agents after them, wanting their work. One of those stories where you just think ‘Wow!’, how did he come up with that? Cyberpunk chase and science.
“Rain Season” – Leanne Frahm
A man running a small advertising business in Queensland is on the verge of a landing a big job, until it starts to rain, and doesn’t stop. His wife left at home with two daughters, until he comes to terms with the fact things have changed. Creepy and chilling.
“Computer Virus“ – Nancy Kress
Stephen King would have been happy coming up with this one. A woman and her children are trapped in a house with intelligent programming, trying to escape.
“Verthandi’s Ring” – Ian McDonald
An extremely long-running posthuman intergalactic war is about to enter a new phase. Luckily, one of their most brilliant Clade strategists has just returned. Her plan to win is staggeringly audacious in concept.
“Radiant Green Star“ – Lucius Shepard
A lot of American SF etc. is very insular, as for various reasons lots of Americans don’t often go anywhere. Shepard is the opposite, having been everywhere. Therefore he gives you get a cornucopia of authentic settings. Here, Vietnam. In the future a circus boy comes into conflict with the plotting of his ancestors. Some of whom have been uploaded.
“Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons“ – Cordwainer Smith
Old North Australia as a planet controls the only source of a longevity drug. This makes them immensely wealthy, but obviously a target for criminals. A robbery is planned in this story. Such wealth, however, is not unprotected. Very unexpected defences.
“The Green Leopard Plague“ – Walter Jon Williams
A future posthuman investigates via online research the brief disappearance from the historical record of an interdisciplinary academic. He was responsible for a discovery and presentation that changed the world. You also get the story from his point of view at the time, interspersed throughout. What happens if you radically change the economic situation of the planet?
“Shell Games” – George R. R. Martin
“With A Little Help From His Friends” – Victor Milan
“Comes A Hunter” – John J. Miller
“Pennies From Hell” – Lewis Shiner
“Relative Difficulties” – Melinda M. Snodgrass
“Thirty Minutes Over Broadway” – Howard Waldrop
“Witness” – Walter Jon Williams
“The Sleeper” – Roger Zelazny
A group mention for Wild Cards, a superhero shared world anthology series with SF leanings. An alien virus is introduced on earth, mostly killing, sometimes disfiguring and very occasionally, empowering those it comes in contact with.
I’ve always been a fan of short stories. As a kid I drowned myself in Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allen Poe. In my slightly rebellious teenage years, I hungered for Harlan Ellison and Stephen King. This is not to say I don’t love reading novels, because if you could see the stack of books waiting next to my bed, you’d know better. Short stories are special all by themselves, a delicious literary snack the reader can gobble in a short time. There are many excellent stories that have touched me over the years, but a few have been exceptional. Those are the stories that left me wishing I could have written them, that terrified me, that hit a nerve I never knew I had. I could ramble on for days on the best stories to read, but in the interest of time, I’ll just offer two of my most favorite tales.
In The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (Vol.10), I found Graham Masterton’s “The Secret Shih Tan”, a tale of love, ambition and fine dining. Chef Craig Richard couldn’t be satisfied with even his most wonderful culinary creations, not as long as the mythic cookbook called The Secret Shih Tan existed. The book was filled with recipes made from unspeakable ingredients so exotic they led the eater to feel he had tasted God. No chef could have resisted, and neither could Craig, when rich restaurant patron Hugo Xawery offered to let him read the book. The offer came with a condition, that Craig prepare one of the extraordinary recipes. At first Craig agreed, until he realized what the main ingredient would be, and he began to question whether or not he could go through with the bargain. If you’ve ever wondered what could be better than the best sushi or the tenderest steak, this story takes you on that adventure, although it’s not for everyone.
I held a subscription to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for many years. The May 1990 issue opened with “The Spiral Dance” by R Garcia y Robertson. Anne, formerly the Countess of Northumberland but lately a traitor to Queen Elizabeth, is living in exile in Scotland under the protection of an outlawed border lord and a handsome stock thief named Jock of the Syde, who isn’t an ordinary man. After the May Day festivities, the Protestant minister accuses Anne and her maid of witchcraft, tortures them hideously and condemns them to death. Only when Anne is pressed to her limit does she understand that true salvation and abiding love can be found in the release of the dance. I’ve loved stories of the British Isles all my life, and this story drew me in the same way Celtic pipes will force my feet to leap into dance. Not only does this story stir the soul, but it also depicts love not as an idealized fantasy but as the difficult and complicated process it must be to be real.
It was easy for me to recall a number of genre short stories that I love, from some of the tales that got me hooked in high school to some more recent favorites. I thought of nine stories pretty quickly, but then came the hard part: figuring out why I loved them so much! So, I chose five of them to highlight because the elements that make them so memorable emerge from different parts of my fannish/writerly life.
“If This Goes On…” by Robert Heinlein: Yes, technically, a novella, but I first read it in The Past Through Tomorrow, which is a short story collection, so I include it here for that reason, and for the powerful influence it had when I read it in 1981. I had just started reading SF beyond the Star Wars novelization/pulp stage and Heinlein was both accessible and thought-provoking to me. The story is memorable partly because of my strong identification with John Lyle’s conflicts, and partly because it appealed to my own growing dislike of authority and religious arrogance. As a sophomore in high school whose family had recently broken with a fundamentalist church, the story’s theme of rebellion was extremely resonant for me. It gave me some food for thought (which was greedily consumed when, a few months later, I saw a second-run showing of Life of Brian and finally shook off my feelings of guilt and duty towards the church I had been taken away from) and was also very entertaining. Heinlein’s prose flowed well, which I appreciated more as I got older, and it is hard to read it without looking back at my teenage years and reflecting on how stories like this kept me sane and gave me other worlds to ponder in an otherwise horrid adolescence.
“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” by Harlan Ellison: This was my first encounter with Harlan Ellison’s work. It scared the crap out of me. I couldn’t read it again for months after, because of the sense of utter powerlessness and insanity that is shoved into your eyes by the story’s words. Unsparingly cruel details, humans degraded to the point of inhumanity, and no happy ending. After reading several years’ worth of SF and Fantasy where the heroes usually won, even at great cost, I was genuinely disturbed by this tale of an omniscient supercomputer taken over by hatred. When I finally did re-read it I tried to find the silver lining in the protagonist’s fate, some little glittery pebble of hope in the sea of torment, but it wasn’t there. And that was the point. It took some time for me to realize that this was a valid point, but once I did, I saw that I could look at the unhappy endings in my own life in a way that helped me deal with them, rather than flee from them. SF changed from being my sanctuary of escape to being a place of reflection, and Ellison’s work became a major influence on my writing, teaching me more about life and wordcraft than just about any other author.
“The HORARS of War,” by Gene Wolfe: This is not my favorite Gene Wolfe story, but it is the most memorable one for me because it deals with so many issues deftly and sparely, with no preaching and with a cleanly-written story that moves quickly and keeps you wondering what Wolfe is up to as the tale unfolds. It is deceptively easy to read even as it twists reality for the protagonist, and despite its appearance of being straightforward there is a lot for the reader to unpack and ponder. It is not just a story about war, but about the struggle to know one’s role in life, and it still resonates after a dozen readings. To maintain those qualities after so much review is a rare thing for a short story, and the story inspires me to emulate those qualities as well as look at all fiction with a more careful, appreciative eye.
“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” by Ursula K. Le Guin: Another masterful short story, but one that takes a very different approach to its theme. This is a beautifully-constructed fable, with precise writing and a sharp point at the end. Like Wolfe’s story it reads smoothly and it draws the reader deep into the world of Omelas quickly, with a combination of evocative detail and a narrative voice that guides and interrogates at the same time. It is easy to call Le Guin’s writing ethnographic, given her background, but this story gets under the emic skin of the people of Omelas as it frames a view from the outside. It renders its judgments through their actions, not through overlaid assumptions, and succinctly frames a moral quandary that exceeds the life of the story’s subjects. It takes some of the tropes of an anthropological account, or a traveler’s tale, and enlists them in the tale, while allowing its subjects’ actions to make the story sensible. It is a near-flawless story, and its combination of impact and artistry makes it one of my favorite fantasy tales.
“How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” by Neil Gaiman. I like to sum this story up by saying that it is the most bittersweet story about an angry universe that I have ever read. Gaiman is a magician with phrasing, and I think this story exemplifies that. It also, however, packs a lot of humor, teen awkwardness, and longing for connection into its brief pages. What I love about this story is that it is both clever and deep. It’s not as weighty as some of the other stories I’ve written about here, but it does a lovely job of making you think about the weirdness and uniqueness of the human condition, of how idiotic we can be about recognizing the most beautiful, profound things because we’re just thinking about snogging at the wrong moment. The characters remain very real even in the strangest circumstances, and we glean little slivers of insight from each moment in the story, often from what does not happen or what the characters miss. The story tells me a lot about the way in which mistakes and missed moments can shape our lives just as much as successes and seized opportunities can. It’s even better in the audio version, where Gaiman makes the story more wry and heartbreaking with his inflections and enthusiasm for telling the tale.
Isaac Asimov’s mysteries are special, only a brilliant writer could combine scifi and mysteries to create such powerful stories. I was lucky to find an audio recording of a collection of his mysteries read by the author himself. His enthusiasm added to the wonder of the stories.
Robert Heinlein’s short stories pretty much ensured I’d be a scifi reader for life.
Some of the first stories that made a big impression of me were from the Silver Age of the 1950s that were just being anthologized when I was a kid growing up in the 1960s. Some of those stories included:
“The Nine Billion Names of God“ by Arthur C. Clarke. Well-written with a clever as well as awe-inspiring ending, it made a big impression on me. Same goes for his story “The Star.”
“Disappearing Act” by Alfred Bester. In retrospect, Bester was my favorite author when I was young, and this was the most memorable story for me, again, because of the ironic ending.
“The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin. A story that made a big impression on me because of how much I hated it, I’ve come up with a dozen ways over the years in my head how the problem in the story could have been solved without killing the stowaway. I guess I’m a humanist at heart; I feel science was made to serve man, not the other way around.
I read very little original s-f in the 1960s and 1970s while I was in junior high, high school and then college. “Eyes Do More Than See” by Isaac Asimov, published in 1965, is one story I remember. It is a very sentimental story that made helped me realize that I am, at heart, a very sentimental person.
I was a big fan of Omni in the 1980s and one of the stories I liked the best from that era was “Wild, Wild Horses” by Howard Waldrop. It is a magnificent piece of droll secret history, with some wistful twists, and it helped me realize what kind of fiction I might write myself one day. “Flying Saucer Rock and Roll”, another Waldrop Omni story from that era, is one of the most fun things I’ve ever read.
“His Power’d Wig, His Crown of Thornes” by Marc Laidlaw, another Omni story from the ’80s, impressed me at the time with the potential of alternate history.
More recently, I’d cite “The Lincoln Train” by Maureen McHugh, published in 1995. Another great alternate history story that centers on the seminal event of American history, the Civil War.
“A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows” by Gardner Dozois. Published in 1999, it impressed me with a realistic vision of the perils and promise of Transhumanism, with the humanity of the protagonist at the very core of the story.
“The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-o” by Michael Swanwick, published in 2000, was a very clever tale on the creation of archetypes. As a journalist for over 30 years now, I see the same crazy stuff over and over again, and it struck a chord with me.
Stories from this century I find memorable include “Sergeant Chip“ by Brad Denton (F&SF, Sept. 2004), a well-written futuristic story with a canine protagonist who was honestly depicted; both Sergeant Chip and the story had a lot of integrity; “Just Like the Ones We Used to Know“ by Connie Willis (Asimov’s, Dec. 2003), clever, compelling, entertaining and extremely well written; and “Tearing Down Tuesday“ by Steven Francis Murphy (Interzone, May 2007) which impressed me with how there are brand new writers out there who can still write the Good New Stuff.
Here’s one that might not come immediately to mind: “To See the Invisible Man” by Robert Silverberg (1963). It’s a near-perfect exploration of the One-New-Idea rule of thumb; in this case, criminals are declared invisible. They can still be seen, but must be shunned by everybody, even in a medical emergency. Apparently Silverberg took the idea from a throwaway line in Borges’ “The Library of Babel.” Silverberg thinks it through and dramatizes just about every twist you could have thought of in 1963.
For me the story is noteworthy for a lot of reasons: Silverberg’s society seems more interested in convicting thoughtcrimes than violence or theft (our protagonist is punished for the crime of emotional coldness). It also strikes me as marking the transition from Silverberg the pulpmeister to Silverberg the bold explorer of inner space. Here you can see a young writer challenging his own limitations and struggling to find a new voice. The author apparently likes it, at least enough to have reprinted it in many of his own collections, most recently Phases of the Moon (iBooks, 2004).
It was adapted into a decent episode of the Twilight Zone revival of the 80s. It seems like the kind of story Hollywood could completely ruin by turning into a major motion picture.
It’s a funny thing that my favourite short stories aren’t necessarily the ones I remember best, and those that jump immediately to mind when someone says “SF short stories” aren’t always the ones that mean the most to me. Sometimes a story will lock itself in my brain simply because of its visceral impact, or maybe because I really didn’t like it. Some just kind of hang around like old friends at a college or high school reunion – I like them well enough, even if they aren’t my favourites. As for the favourites, while some are beacons for the genre, others may just become one more tree in the forest as memories of other enjoyable reads spring up. In any case, for the purposes of this Mind Meld, here’s a selection of stories that for one reason or another were all memorable:
There’s no question that Ray Bradbury is the master of writing short stories that really hit home. There are a lot of his works that stick out in my mind, but the two that stand head and shoulders above the others are “There Will Come Soft Rains“ and “Last Rites”. TWCSR is probably one of the best-known installments in The Martian Chronicles and is memorable for being completely emotionally devastating. The Earth is in wreckage, a family’s dog drags itself home to die alone (a scene guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye of just about anyone, especially pet owners), and after disposing of the corpse, the house itself malfunctions and is destroyed. The end of this story has literally scoured the Earth of any legacy, physical or emotional, of mankind. It makes you not only think, but feel what the ultimate price of mankind’s folly could be. Meanwhile, in his collection Quicker Than The Eye, Bradbury gives us a story full of deaths with a far different tone. “Last Rites” is a time machine story, but a very different kind of time machine story than we’re used to. The protagonist isn’t interested in launching himself forward or backward in time on a voyage of discovery; he isn’t off on a dinosaur hunt; he isn’t stacking the deck to grow his own personal fortune or create temporal commerce; he’s not even in it to alter the course of history. Rather, it’s a touching story about human connections, about a man who visits some of the greatest authors in the English language on their deathbeds to comfort them by showing them proof that their books continue to be printed and read and loved far into the future, thereby assuring them that their lives and their works have meaning. Admittedly, I may blank on the title of this story from time to time, but this gentle, good story itself is forever locked in my mind.
Arthur C. Clarke is another giant who has a lot of memorable short stories. Two of my favourites are “The Star” and “Superiority”. “The Star” stands out for being not only the story of a man struggling with his faith, but the idea perhaps a god may not be worthy of worship. It also paints a moving picture of a people making a heroic effort to be remembered, even as they face their extinction. When I first watched The Fountain a few years ago (and I was reminded of this when recently reading Pete Tzinski’s review of the movie here on SF Signal), the special effects shots of the nebula as Hugh Jackman’s character flies through it matched the image I had in my mind as I read Clarke’s description of the ship flying towards the star and the time capsule planet. “Superiority”, on the other hand, with its recounting of alien military R&D disasters amidst a war with Earth, is memorable for Clarke’s unexpected and funny finish.
Theodore Sturgeon’s “When You Care, When You Love”, about a young woman who uses her inexhaustible wealth to find any way possible to save her dying husband, is another one that really sticks out. On the surface it’s certainly love story with some charm, and yet I think it’s always stuck with me because there’s something a little unsettling about the idea of rules (in this case, even the rules of life and death) not applying to the ultra-wealthy. Sure, we see a little of this in real life: in communities where you might encounter spoiled rich kids growing up in lives free of consequence, or in the financial sector with corporate raiders and morally bankrupt execs despoiling businesses, annihilating the savings of the little guy, crippling the economy and leaving thousands without jobs, then walking away with fat bonuses and pensions. But science fiction has a way of showing us just how far this mentality could go. Sturgeon’s Sylva Wycke, though loving and benevolent, is none-the-less the literary ancestor of Asimov’s Solarians (in his Elijah Bailey Robot novels) or the Tessier-Ashpools in the Villa Straylight space station in William Gibson’s Neuromancer who are so rich and so far above the rules and challenges of the rest of humanity that they have in effect become alien. I’m no class warrior, but there’s something a little frightening about that, and it’s haunted me since the first time I read WYCWYL.
Speaking of stories that haunt, Philip K. Dick’s “The Father Thing“ isn’t what I would call a favourite, but it’s always stood out for being very creepy. The story is about a boy who has to enlist the help of some other neighbourhood kids when he finds out that his father has been eaten and replaced by an alien android and that there are other dopplegangers being grown in the grove behind the house. In many ways, it’s the ultimate example of Dickian paranoia distilled into just over 10 pages – the question of what’s real, are people actually who they say they are or is it all a sham and are they actually out to get you? Certainly, having been published in 1954, it can be seen metaphorically as a product of its time: a typical Cold War we’re-gonna-be-subverted-and-replaced-by-reds scary tale. Looking at the kids, you can see them as an idealized America in miniature: the white kids (each from different ethnic backgrounds) working with the black kid; one representing emotion while one is brawn and one is the brains – ultimately, a coalition of different individuals contributing their unique talents to take down the enemy. You could also say that it’s a story of growing up; that as a child ages, he changes and his sense of who his parents are changes as well. He has to deal with crises himself, and, in a somewhat Oedipal kind of way (because he has to take out the Father thing, not a Mother thing), he has to overthrow the father figure. But what really works with this story is that it grabs you with the sense of deadliness and betrayal being associated with the most familiar settings and people that are supposed to be safe. The garage is where the killing is done, the stone walkway hides an alien, the grove behind the house (a bamboo grove no less, which one would think is a pretty alien thing in a typical US suburb of the 50’s and in fact harkens back to the battlefields of the Pacific in WWII and of the Korean War) isn’t a place to play because it’s full of garbage and rot and is where the dopplegangers are grown. Even the house itself isn’t safe, as the Father Thing chases the boy up to his room under the guise of going to have “a talk” with him. The fact that the aliens have replaced the father is particularly terrifying, because if you can’t trust your family, who can you trust? This taps into the primal fear all kids have of their parents being taken away from them, and the greater horror that some unfortunate children have of living with abusive parents who, to others, may appear normal on the outside, but within the home are monsters. Because it scares on so many levels, TFT is a story I won’t forget.
Another story that’s deeply unsettling, but for different reasons, is Spider Robinson’s “User Friendly”. The notion that a person can be, without warning, taken control of by alien minds who want to experience life on Earth through human senses but who have no concern at all for the human they’re occupying and no knowledge or care of how a human being can safely experience life on this world is obviously scary. What’s even worse is the thought of having to be a person watching their spouse go through this, being powerless to stop it, and being left in a position of worrying each time whether their loved one will come back alive, and if so how physically and emotionally damaged they will be.
“Outport”, by Garfield Reeves-Stevens, is a story that sticks with me both for the starkness of its landscape (or seascape, as the case may be) and the mindset of the people who are forced to survive in it by any means necessary.
Cory Doctorow’s cynical and funny “The Super Man and the Bugout“ comes to mind anytime I watch a superhero movie or spend any time browsing in a comic book store. It’s portrayal of what a real Superman (or, in this case, Super Man) would have to go through in terms of navigating government bureaucracy and political opportunism, staying relevant if aliens eliminated crime and war, putting up with greedy landlords, and answering to a loving, if pushy old mother, and is in many ways the answer to the simplistic portrayal of costumed vigilante life served up by comics.
I’ll end on a light note with Dennis L. McKiernan’s “The Halfling House”, about a hobbit hole that travels TARDIS-like between fantasy universes, acting as a getaway resort for halflings, leprechauns, faeries and other wee folk. No deep metaphors or incisive views of humanity here, this story is just memorable for being really funny.
See also: Part 1.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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