Tag Archives: short story

“The Toynbee Convector” by Ray Bradbury

I wasn’t very impressed by this collection of short stories by Bradbury.  I wonder if works by a famous author generally decline in quality once they achieve a certain level of notoriety … they know whatever they churn out will sell well, so don’t make much of an effort like they used to.  Not sure if that is the case in this particular instance; maybe I just don’t like Bradbury (I remember reading and enjoying “Farenheit 451” back in high school; but then again I once tried “The Martain Chronicles” and hated it….)

The majority of these (truly short – less than ~10 pages each) stories have a a twist — sometimes clever, most of the time not really.  Several times just “huh?”

The stories I liked best were a few “what’s up there lurking in the attic” type horror stories.  The title story was also decent, but kind of predictable.  A guy created a time machine and traveled several decades into the future.  His widely reported stories of gleaming cities, peaceful nations, and general prosperity inspired a generation.  Years later, the world resembles very much the world the time traveler prophesied.  The world awaits the arrival of the time traveler from the past, but the time and date come and go with nothing.  Turns out he had faked the whole thing — his whole goal was to inspire the world with his vision of what it might become.

Clever … although I don’t think the scientific community would blindly accept the word of a single “time traveler” and never test out his claims….


“The Cyberiad” by Stanislaw Lem

This is basically a collection of short stories, each starring one or both of a famous pair of “constructor robots,” named Trurl and Klapaucius, who can build machines to do pretty much whatever they want.  Frequently their creations have unintended consequences.  Here’s a list of some of the more memorable / clever stories:

  • “How the World Was Saved” – Trurl creates a machine that can produce anything beginning with ‘n.’  Disaster narrowly avoided when Klapaucius asks it to create “Nothing…” for true Nothingness cannot exist while anything else does.
  • “The Trap of Gargantius” – Atrocitus and Ferocitus are rival kings.  Our two constructor robot heroes separately enter the employ of one of the kings.  Their plan for peace is to network all the machines and soldiers of each army, basically creating a single, gigantic consciousness.  The kings think it is great – no more unnecessary delay and confusion due to too many cooks stirring the pot; maybe finally this will give them the edge they need to crush their enemies!  But finally, when the two giant army-consciousnesses meet on the field of battle, they want to do anything but fight.  Funny how it is easier for two individuals to come to peace but so difficult for nations….  [First of all this story reminded me of the Army’s recent FCS program – maybe it’s a good thing that didn’t work out too well!  Second, it is reminiscent of the Christmas Day truce and other such incidents from WWI and I am sure other conflicts – the soldiers on either side generally have more in common with each other than either side’s soldiers do with their own politicians back home who command the fight.]
  • “Trurl’s Electronic Bard” – Trurl’s machine must simulate the entire history of the universe in order to create decent poetry.  [That poetry is the product of the whole chain of events in the universe leading up to the present moment says a lot about the difficulties of creating thinking machines.  Also interesting to me as one who has done a bit of modeling and simulation – simulating the universe is an amusing fantasy that would likely require more resources than the universe itself contains.]
  • “The Mischief of King Balerion” – funny story about a half-crazy king who likes to play hide-and-seek and a device which permits its wearer to switch bodies with anyone else.  Hilarity ensues, obviously!
  • “How Trurl’s Own Perfection Led to No Good” – A cruel king has been exiled to an asteroid and is very bored.  Even though his punishment is just, Trurl feels sorry for him and so creates a simulated civilization-in-a-box to rule.  But his simulation is so perfect it amounts to sentencing the whole population to enslavement.  When Trurl realizes this and hurries back to the asteroid, the people have already rebelled.  [Thoughts about video games – at what point is murder of an AI in a game morally wrong?]
  • “Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines of King Genius” – Lots of layers; stories within stories and at least one of those about dreams within dreams.  “We should like the first to tell stories that are involved but untroubled, the second, stories that are cunning and full of fun, and the third, stories profound and compelling.   In other words, to (1) exercise, (2) entertain and (3) edify the mind.”  [I like that kind of classification … maybe I should choose books to read in the future in such a fashion…]  One story “profound and compelling” is that of Mymosh, a robot who spontaneously comes into being on an abandoned scrap heap planet due to a highly improbable but random configuration of junk.  Quickly immobilized, but with a mind fully formed, Mymosh imagines a whole civilization, populating generations upon generations.  Finally, after many years, rust breaks through to his ad hoc processing unit, water shorts his circuits, and it is all over in an instant.
  • “Altruzine” – Klapaucius creates a machine to simulate the universe [hmmm sounds familiar] in order to interrogate a member of the H.P.L.D. civilization – the Highest Possible Level of Development.  All the H.P.L.D.’s do is sit around doing nothing – for nothing is left to prove or strive for.  But why don’t they help others?  They relate many instances of trying and always failing due to imperfection of mortals.  As an example, they give him formula for Altruzine and tell him to see for himself.  The potent drug causes one’s own emotions to be transmitted telepathically to all those within a certain radius.  The goodly intention is to cause universal peace and brotherhood, since rational individuals would only treat others very well, since they themselves would experience the emotions of those whom they interact with.  However, instead of peace and goodwill, the opposite occurs – for example, when a cook burns his finger, a nearby soldier cleaning a gun causes it to discharge, killing his wife and kids.  The soldier’s grief is so strong that a neighbor burns down the whole building just to be free of it all.  Which doubtless creates further ripples of disharmony and discord.

Entertaining stories which make you think.

The translation from Polish must have been monumental task – good job, Michael Kandel.  There are an incredible number of coined words and wordplay like alliteration and rhyming — all pretty difficult to translate.  Here’s an example passage, describing members of a particularly well-off civilization:

…<each> sat in his palace, which was built for him by his automate (for so they called their triboluminescent slaves), each with essences anointed, each with precious gems appointed, electrically caressed, impeccably dressed, pomaded, braided, gold-brocaded, lapped and laved in ducats gleaming, wrapped and wreathed in incense streaming, showered with treasures, plied with pleasures, marble halls, fanfares, balls, but for all that, strangely discontent and a little depressed.

“The Call of Cthulhu” by Howard Phillips Lovecraft

Quite a famous short story.  (Not a book perse … but, hey, gotta pad my 2011 “books read” numbers before the end of the year!  🙂  Also this is the first book I read entirely on my fancy new Android phone via Aldiko reader … nice to be able to read a few minutes in the grocery store line, another few waiting for the baby to fall asleep, etc.  But I digress.)

The first person narrator discovers a letter from his recently late (suspiciously so) uncle detailing the investigation into a strange, secret, ancient cult that seems to exist in similar form across many cultures, from Greenland to cajun Louisiana.  Furthermore, several creatively-attuned individuals simultaneously experience, for a few days, a bout of strange dreams and visions of ruins with impossible, odd-angled architecture and a huge, horrible, tentacled, mind-bending monstrosity.  The narrator continues his uncle’s studies and tracks down what happened during those days – deep in the South Pacific, a luckless steam ship crew are accidentally witness to the culmination of the cult’s existence – the reawakening of Cthulhu, one of the ancient gods of the world.  Whether the Earth’s sanity may be preserved is undecided at story’s end, but seems to be intact for the time being.  Cthulhu can afford to take his (its?) time…

I liked Lovecraft’s consistently creepy writing style – somehow there is a sense of foreboding and impending doom wrapped up in each sentence.  Some choice quotes:

“I will tell its gist enough to show
why the sound the water against the vessel’s sides became so
unendurable to me that I stopped my ears with cotton.”

“There was a bursting as of an
exploding bladder, a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish, a
stench as of a thousand opened graves, and a sound that the
chronicler could not put on paper.”

“I have looked upon all that the universe has to
hold of horror, and even the skies of spring and the flowers of
summer must ever afterward be poison to me.”

“Ficciones” by Jorge Luis Borges

The volume “Collected Fictions” contains pretty much all of Borges’ short stories, but I just read the 15 or so stories that make up 1944’s “Ficciones.”  I’d heard a lot about Borges and how influential he was for many authors, particularly sci-fi (and I see why now).  Also heard that “Ficciones” contains his best work, so I wanted to read at least that.  I liked about half the stories I read – some cool ideas – but the rest were hard to understand or kind of boring.  Both reactions are probably due to my lack of knowledge of Borges’ contemporary Argentine authors or some other culture gap.

So anyway, Borges was kind of a disappointment to me after looking forward to reading him for a while.  But like I said there were some of the stories I liked.

  • Lottery in Babylon – a normal lottery, over time and subtlety, by degrees, expands to a system where positively everything is determined by chance.
  • A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain – reviews the books of a fictional author.  One book starts with the final chapter.  The following three chapters could each precede the first chapter – different ways the first chapter could have come about.  The final nine chapters each present possible predecessors to chapters 2 – 4.  So in the end there are nine different stories (of nine different genres) which all end in exactly the same way.  Kind of a reverse many-worlds situation – convergence rather than divergence.
  • Library of Babel – a (seemingly) infinite library contains all possibly permutations of characters to make every possible book.  Librarians living (stuck?) in the library wander and wonder about the meaning.  (As many others have pointed out, the library is not infinite, just very very big.  I thought it would be fun to show off my combinatorial chops and calculate the number of books and rooms in the library.  I’m not the first – the wikipedia article has a synopsis and someone even wrote a book about it!  Anyway….  there are 20 shelves per room, 32 books per shelf.  Each book has 410 pages, each page has 40 lines, and each line has 80 symbols.  There are 25 possible symbols (including punctuation and space).  Therefore there are 410*40*80 = 1,312,000 symbols per book.  All possible permutations of those 25 symbols are contained in the books in the library.  So there are 25^1,312,000 books and 25^1,312,000 / 20*32 rooms in the library.)
  • The Garden of Forking Paths – contains a story within a story.  Outer story: a (Chinese, working for the Germans) spy in WWII Britain is on the verge of getting caught and has to somehow warn his handler what town on the continent should be bombed to take out a major British artillery offensive before it happens.  Inner story: the spy visits a Sinologist named Albert who tells him about a literary work written by the spy’s ancestor.  The work is basically the many worlds theory.  (Again!)
  • The Secret Miracle – might be my favorite Borges story.  A Jewish playwright is arrested by the Germans in WWII.  He is sentenced to die by firing squad.  In the days before his sentence is executed, his over-arching anguish is not that he is to die, but that his greatest work will remain unfinished.  He pleads with God for one more year to complete it.  The day of the execution comes, and the soldiers fire.  But he doesn’t die – in fact nothing happens, everything is still.  Time has stopped – but the playwright’s mind has not.  He deconstructs and recomposes his play repeatedly, entirely in his mind.  Finally, one year later, he is finished and rejoices in his masterpiece.  Suddenly time restarts, the bullets rush to his chest, and he dies.  But he is satisfied and happy.

I kind of wondered if the title “Fictions” is not just a descriptor indicating that the volume contains fictional stories, but maybe an allusion to the content of many of those stories.  A lot of the stories deal with branching choices, “what-ifs,” or the idea of parallel universes …. Aren’t all fictional stories parallel universes?