[Reading Room] Surface Tension by James Blish

Verdict: Fabulous.

Surface Tension is a science fiction story originally published in 1952 and so qualifies as being either from (or near) the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of science fiction. (I found it in The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer.)

Fear not, this is not all heros saving damsels in distress and wearing silly outfits in space. It is very different from anything I’d ever read from that era, and from most sci-fi that I’ve read from later eras. Continue reading “[Reading Room] Surface Tension by James Blish”

[Reading Room] The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family by Usman T. Malik

I found this richly-detailed story in the Nebula Showcase 2016.

This story is structured in sections, each one headed up by a scientific description of one of the states of matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma). Each, loosely, represents a theme for the following segment.

The story is deeply personal and universal (dealing with the challenges faced by those living in modern Pakistan) and at the same time veers into a kind of magical realism that opens it up wide.

Reading this story brought home to me the difficulties and rewards of reading stories from different cultures:

  • It’s difficult because the language flows differently, and because cultural details and assumptions can catch you out.
  • It’s rewarding for all the same reasons, plus you get to challenge your own world view and assumptions. Best of all, you hear poetry in the language that you’d never encounter if you only read within your own culture.

This story slowed me down, and rewarded me for savoring it.

Read it online here

[Tuesday Reading Room] Durak By Anatoly Belilovsky

Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine LogoI found this story in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and I loved it.

It’s a sci-fi story set on Earth, on the RMS Titanic, to be precise. How can that be a sci-fi/fantasy story? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out.

The story takes place exclusively around a card table on the luxury liner. Four men are playing Bridge and talking in a wide-ranging conversation as people do: they talk about where they’re from, what they’re thinking about, each one interjecting something that a man of his time, class and geographical identity might know something about.

The whole piece is beautifully crafted. Each character has a distinct voice and a careful use of dialogue tags keeps us straight in case there was any confusion.

Since we were talking about openings in last week’s Writing Prompt, I thought I’d quote from the opening of this story. It is very clever and repays the reader for a second reading. It promises one thing, delivers something different and then comes back and plays with us again, so we’re not quite sure where the writer is going.

“Is dangerous, this ice,” said the Russian.

The great frozen mass approached slowly, the steward struggling to push the cart across the threshold of the card room.

“I agree,” said the New Yorker. He shuffled a deck of cards, rather listlessly. “Looks like it’s about to give our steward here a hernia.”

“I only wanted enough to put in my brandy,” said the Texan. “Why’d he bring the whole block?”

“White Star line is very prideful of her service,” said the steward.

“They don’t do anything small on the Titanic,” the New Yorker said. “Not in first class, anyway.”

And then the story moves away from the ice and the Titanic and follows the mens’ conversation as they range all over history, philosophy, linguistics and fantasy. It’s a great discussion in itself, which keeps you reading. (I like stories where I feel like I’m learning something, or remembering something I once knew. I like stories that make me feel clever, don’t you?)

As the discussion continues, it subtly, subtly becomes clear that they are closing in on one topic, that is going to be the point of this story. The author uses repetition and comic relief in a really skillful way, to set up the eventual conclusion.

At the end of this story I sat back and said “Ha!” out loud, in an empty room.

I love it when that happens.

Durak
by Anatoly Belilovsky
published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine No.54

Tuesday Reading Room – Live From The Continuing Explosion by Simon Kewin

This week’s story is “Live From The Continuing Explosion”, taken from Perfect Circles, a collection of previously-published short stories by Simon Kewin. (Full disclosure, Simon is a former StoryADay participant and co-founder of  Write1Sub1, a year long writing and publishing challenge that I highly recommend you check out. The new collection is available on Kindle and, at the time of publication, is priced $0.00!)

Live from the Continuing Explosion is a Big Ideas story.

Perfect Circles (eBook) by Simon Kewin

When I was writing about Dorothy Parker’s “The Standard of Living“, I spent some time talking about how short stories are fabulous for taking a tiny moment and using it to create characters and events that stay with the reader, regardless of scale.

This week’s story, Simon Kewin’s “Live From The Continuing Explosion” is, by contrast, a Big Ideas story. Yes, it starts with – and stays with – a moment in time, but the moment contains a huge, earth-shattering event that shapes not just the lives of the participants but grips the whole world in its fall-out.

I’m reluctant to say too much because this story unfolds gradually, but at its heart is a terrorist event and its effects on one person and on the world.

Kewin manages to share his big ideas while creating characters that grow more and more real throughout the story. He uses the event to talk about ideas as personal as the relationship between twins and as vast as philosophy, global politics and the nature of mankind.

The Dangerous World Of The Big Idea

This story, if categorized at all, would fall into the ‘sci-fi’ bracket. One of the attractions of sci-fi is its ability to deal with big ideas, even more than the appeal of technology, spaceships or characters in tight-fitting jumpsuits (only one of those three sci-fi staples appears in this story, and it’s not the jumpsuits!).

The danger of the big idea, however, is that it can hijack the story – that the author’s voice leans over your shoulder and lectures like a pompous professor. It’s hard to insert thoughts about gods and politics into a story without jumping up on a soapbox.

One of the ways “Live From The Continuing Explosion” deals with this danger is by giving various characters a virtual soapbox as part of the story. Right at the end, for example, one character makes a speech about “what has been learned”. It doesn’t jar, however, because it is an actual speech, in front of a crowd. As reader,  you’ve come along on the journey with that character as she moves from by-stander to reluctant figure-head, and you have a lot of sympathy for her. A lot of the action before the end is sketched out, implied, and I was happy to have the character tie everything together at the conclusion. Plus, that’s not the end of the story…

Beyond The Big Idea

If this story dodges the danger of using big ideas it is because the author spends time building up the characters, even the minor ones. He concentrates at times on descriptive writing so that the reader can *see* the set-pieces and isn’t just being lectured to. He does that with vivid descriptions – not of the height and weight of his characters, by how they move, what they look at.

 The two children run, screaming with delight. Around the legs of the adults in the crowd, legs like planted trees. They run in easy harmony as they veer left or right, speeding up or slowing down together without needing to watch each other. They laugh so much they can barely breathe. They hold hands, letting go only at the last moment as they split off to go around someone before reuniting.

A dog, watching them, barks excitedly, wanting to join in.

They run as if they have practised the whole set of manoeuvres beforehand. They run almost as one, a single being with two halves.

It’s a lovely, vivid moment and — given what follows — a really great opening to the story.

Staring Down A Cliche

It’s hard to describe the world in terms readers understand without stumbling into cliches. Of course it is. Cliches become cliches because they are good desciptions that we identify with.

Kewin deals with one of these in a way I really liked: he jumps on the cliche and expands it until it is no longer a cliche but an image that is all his own. He uses words that work exquisitely well to do this. When talking about an explosion Kewin takes the cliche “the blossom” of an explosion and expands it:

… vast, obscene flower billowing forth at demonic speed, black stigma deep inside red and yellow petals.

(By the way, use of ‘stigma’? In this context? Love it!)

He also takes the the idea of someone being inside a bubble and ‘owns’ it: making it the universal name for a phenomenon, not just a literary device. People all over the world begin calling the phenomenon ‘The Bubble’, as naturally as if someone had officially named it.

Short Story or Novel?

The other danger of the big idea is that you must devote so much space in your story to the ideas that the action and character development happen too quickly and the reader is left wishing the story had been a novel instead.

I think this story suffered a touch from this — which is not the worst thing anyone could say about a story 😉


Writer’s Lessons

  • If you can’t see a way around using a familiar image, try using one of Kewin’s techniques: expand the cliche with a clever twist, or weave it through the story so that it becomes natural.
  • If you ever feel that you have no ideas that are big enough to merit writing down, remember this. For the short story, tiny truths are even often just as valid, if not more,  than big ideas.

Have you written stories with Big Ideas behind them? Are they easier/harder to write? Do you feel they worked as well as stories based on smaller moments?

Daily Prompt – May 14: Skylab

Write a story using space or sci-fi elements

Daily Prompt LogoOn this day in 1973, the US launched the orbital space station Skylab.

Write A Story With  Space/Science Fiction Elements

Even if you’re not a big fan of science fiction, this doesn’t have to be a difficult assignment. Sci-Fi isn’t all about techno-babble or rockets.

Two of my favourite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation are:

1, Captain Picard is left on a planet, by a malevolent force, with the captain of a ship from a culture that communicates so strangely not even Star Trek’s wonderful translators can handle it. They are in peril and must work together. Gradually Picard figures out that the alien captain’s language is based on metaphors, but he doesn’t share the same culture so how can he find metaphors with which to communicate? It’s basically a stranded-on-an-island, must-work-together-to-escape-peril story, all about linguistics. In space.

2, Someone from Starfleet wants to take the sentient andriod Data back to HQ and take him apart to figure out how he works, for the greater good of the service (a fleet of Datas? We’d be unstoppable, Great!). Picard demands a tribunal at which he attempts to prove that Data is an individual not merely a piece of equipment. A wrinkle? Picard’s second in command and Data’s buddy, Riker, must act as prosector, and try to prove that his friend is merely a machine. This one is called “Measure of a Man” and is a long, fascinating philosophical argument about what it means to be human. Set on a spaceship.

Another example: the movie Moon, which came out last year. It is a psychological thriller set on the moon. It uses a sci-fi setting  to create an isolation you couldn’t realistically create in a story set on our planet these days. And it uses some sci-fi tricks to mess with the hero’s mind and throw obstacles in his path, and none of it is extraneous.

What kind of story could you write, that uses as space or futuristic setting? A mystery? A romance? A morality play?