All Summer In A Day by Ray Bradbury, 1954 Continue reading
Escape From Spiderhead by George Saunders, 2010
The magic trick:
Using a sci-fi world to comment on an aspect of our society’s real-world behavior
I praised Saunders last week for inverting the science-fiction paradigm in “Semplica-Girl Diaries:” he took an otherwise normal American society and blasted it into emotional outer space by inserting one surrealistic element. I guess that’s not really that novel, come to think of it. That’s pretty much the basis for all of magic realism. OK, whatever. I never claimed to know what I was talking about, and I’m sure as hell not going back and editing last week’s Semplica entry to account for this realization. Point is: Saunders is sticking to the sci-fi template in today’s story, “Escape From Spiderhead.” And that’s great, because it works.
“Spiderhead features a foreign, futuristic world filled with real-life emotions. As such, it recalls Saunders’s story, “Jon.” I was most impressed by the way the story comments on modern America’s propensity for rapid-fire sexual relationships. Jeff, our narrator, is forced to engage in a series of sexual encounters with two women early in the story. The experimental drugs all parties are on create the illusion of love and joy, only to be followed by disappointment and indifference. If that isn’t a shot fired at the way we fall in and out of love and lust, well, I just don’t know. And that’s quite a trick on Saunders’s part.
That is to say: a desire would arise and, concurrently, the satisfaction of that desire would also arise. It was as if (a) I longed for a certain (heretofore untasted) taste until (b) said longing became nearly unbearable, at which time (c) I found a morsel of food with that exact taste already in my mouth, perfectly satisfying my longing.
Every utterance, every adjustment of posture bespoke the same thing: we had known each other forever, were soul mates, had met and loved in numerous preceding lifetimes, and would meet and love in many subsequent lifetimes, always with the same transcendently stupefying results.
Jon by George Saunders, 2003
The magic trick:
The litany of cheap, hilarious product placements
Welcome to George Saunders Week on the SSMT site. It’s gonna be a weird trip.
We start with “Jon,” a story that’s otherworldly tension recall previous SSMT favorites, “The NRACP” and “In The Penal Colony,” among others. I’m most dazzled by the humor. Saunders is never not funny.
Here, my favorite running jokes are the product placements that turn up throughout the story. Jon is trying to escape some kind of terrifying near-future world that only mostly resembles our modern society. Among the key conncetions between the story’s dystopia and our world? The cheap name brands. And oh man, are they cheap. I love it. Saunders isn’t taking down Coke or McDonald’s here. That would be too easy somehow. Instead, we get references to intentionally doomed-to-be-dated-very-quickly brands like Honey Grahams, Old Navy, RE/MAX, Handi Wipes, Tommy Hilfiger, Baby Gap. Oh, and I guess Coke actually is in there too. Anyway, it all combines to create a strange alternaverse that is part terrifying, part hilarious and all parts commodified. And that’s quite a trick on Saunders’s part.
Then came the final straw that broke the back of my saying no to my gonads, which was I dreamed I was that black dude on MTV’s “Hot and Spicy Christmas” (around like Location Indicator 34412, if you want to check it out) and Carolyn was the oiled-up white chick, and we were trying to earn the Island Vacation by miming through the ten Hot ‘n’ Nasty Positions before the end of “We Three Kings,” only then, sadly, during Her on Top, Thumb in Mouth, her Elf Cap fell off, and as the Loser Buzzer sounded she bent low to me, saying, Oh, Jon, I wish we did not have to do this for fake in front of hundreds of kids on Spring Break doing the wave but instead could do it for real with just each other in private.
And then she kissed me with a kiss I can only describe as melting.
The Star by Arthur C. Clarke, 1967
The magic trick:
Turning a science-fiction story into a comment about religion and philosophy
Well, I tried. This is the fifth – and mercifully final – day of Science Fiction Week here at the blog, and I can say these stories have done little to win my heart. I did enjoy “The Skull” quite a bit, but today’s entry – “The Star” – confirms my worst impressions of the genre. Not content to merely entertain his audience, Clarke loads his starship adventure with heavy doses of philosophical pontificating and religious guilt. And that’s quite a trick on his part. I give him credit, and should be so lucky to make such intelligent points in anything I ever write. It’s just not my cup of tea.
The Rubens engraving of Loyola seems to mock me as it hangs there above the spectrophotometer tracings. What would you, Father, have made of this knowledge that has come into my keeping, so far from the little world that was all the Universe you knew? Would your faith have risen to the challenge, as mine has failed to do?
The Skull by Philp K. Dick, 1953
The magic trick:
Building suspense through the protagonist’s ignorance
Limited third-person narration is a great way to build suspense in a story. Case in point: “The Skull.” The reader takes the story in through Conger’s perspective, which would be fine except that our man Conger doesn’t have a clue about much of what is going on around him. As a result, we the reader is left trying to solve the mystery one step at a time along with our protagonist. And that’s quite a trick on Dick’s part.
Conger sighed. His lips twisted. “All right,” he said. “Leave that out. Get to the point. Who do you want me to kill?”
The Speaker smiled. “All in proper sequence,” he said softly.
Jokester by Isaac Asimov, 1956
The magic trick:
Twisting a common sci-fi theme into a new idea
The joke may be on me, here at SSMT HQ. After all, the whole point of “Jokester” is to be wary of over-analysis. In the story, by trying to compute where jokes come from and why humans enjoy them, Meyerhof inadvertently ruins any and all sense of humor for the human race. So I’m pretty sure the very idea of analyzing this story is laughable. Nevertheless…
This isn’t a totally foreign theme for science fiction – the idea of humanity pushing technology too far and then receiving a nasty comeuppance. Usually that kind of idea focuses on weapons or military industrial complexes; maybe an overreliance on computers or overambitions in the field of medicine.
“Jokester” is unique in that it makes this point with something that on the surface seems far more innocuous than a nuclear weapon: jokes. But when you think about it, the stakes are in some ways much higher here than in your standard sci-fi morality tale. Humanity losing its sense of humor forever? That is an extreme end, and certainly one that is original and thought-provoking. And that’s quite a trick on Asimov’s part.
Meyerhof said sharply, “Why is that funny?”
Trask sobered. “I beg your pardon.”
“I said, why is that funny? Why do you laugh?”
“Well,” said Trask, trying to be reasonable, “the last line put every thing that preceded in a new light. The unexpectedness—”
“The point is,” said Meyerhof, “that I have pictured a husband being humiliated by his wife; a marriage that is such a failure that the wife is convinced that her husband lacks any virtue. Yet you laugh at that. If you were the husband, would you find it funny?”
The Other Foot by Ray Bradbury, 1951
The magic trick:
Coming up with a groundbreaking concept
I praised Bradbury for a similarly top-notch concept last October in his story, “The Veldt.” Whereas I was impressed by Bradbury’s ability to take the concept and execute it perfectly in “The Veldt,” I would argue that the actual story in “The Other Foot” does little to expand upon its initial idea.
Let’s be clear: the idea is a great one. Bradbury deserves much credit for his remarkably progressive social conscience. He imagines a future in which much of Black America has escaped an atomic war on Earth for a new, more peaceful life on Mars. As the story begins, a white man is visiting the planet for the first time in 20 years. The setup allows Bradbury to make a mockery of segregation and America’s attitudes toward race.
Unfortunately, the plot falls flat, with characters playing out more as types than as individuals, and the storyline taking predictably sappy turns. Too bad. Bradbury might have had a classic in the works. As it is, “The Other Foot” is a better idea than story. There is, of course, a lot to be said about a good idea. And that’s quite a trick on Bradbury’s part.
And Willie began the stenciling in yellow paint. He dabbed on an F and an O and an R with terrible pride in his work. And when he finished it the conductor squinted up and he read the fresh glinting yellow words: FOR WHITES: REAR SECTION. He read it again. FOR WHITES: He blinked. REAR SECTION. The conductor looked at Willie and began to smile.
The Enormous Radio by John Cheever, 1947
The magic trick:
Dropping one piece of science fiction into an otherwise realistic setting
We open Science Fiction Week at SSMT with an unlikely author. John Cheever was the master of a certain kind of New York fiction; a world of the white, white-collar slaves to normalcy. “The Enormous Radio” allows Cheever to stay true to his roots while also branching out into the realm of, yes, science fiction.
It’s a very clever trick. The magic radio allows his white, white-collar married couple to listen in on their New York apartment neighbors. Cheever uses elements of humor in some of what they overhear, though it’s always a thin veil obscuring a great sadness.
Cheever stresses early in the story how much the couple has built its life together on the notion that blending in to the Middle Class is the best way toward happiness. So when we see how the radio reveals the couple to be desperately unhappy, it isn’t simply a comment about one doomed marriage; rather it is a condemnation of America’s entire Middle Class.
It might not be the stuff of robots and spaceships, but the science fiction element in “The Enormous Radio” makes for some heavy-duty social commentary. And that’s quite a trick on Cheever’s part.
The Westcotts were going out for dinner that night, and when Jim came home, Irene was dressing. She seemed sad and vague, and he brought her a drink. They were dining with friends in the neighborhood, and they walked to where they were going. The sky was broad and filled with light. It was one of those splendid spring evenings that excite memory and desire, and the air that touched their hands and faces felt very soft. A Salvation Army band was on the corner playing “Jesus Is Sweeter” Irene drew on her husband’s arm and held him there for a minute, to hear the music. “They’re really such nice people, aren’t they?” she said. “They have such nice faces. Actually, they’re so much nicer than a lot of the people we know.” She took a bill from her purse and walked over and dropped it into the tambourine. There was in her face, when she returned to her husband, a look of radiant melancholy that he was not familiar with.
The Veldt by Ray Bradbury, 1950
The magic trick:
Maximizing the story’s horror and suspense
“The Veldt” has more than one magic trick going for it. Certainly, the satire, the social commentary, and the eerie-accurate portrait of a future over-reliant on technology, all bear mention. Those are the tropes, however, of the best science fiction. Bradbury is so much more than a genre specialist. He is a master storyteller, regardless of categorization, and his craft shines through in “The Veldt.”
Every sentence, every word, is expertly placed, building toward the terrifying conclusion. Bradbury is in complete control, giving enough clues to the reader to illuminate the path but never totally throwing light on the destination until we get there.
The pacing of the story is remarkable. The reader gathers that things are a little “off” in the fifth sentence when Lydia Hadley suggests her husband call the psychologist in to look at the nursery. The madness builds slowly from there – first the notion of the nursery door buckling under pressure from the lions; later, the saliva-soaked wallet. Along the way, the reader perceives the Hadley children as innocent angels or perhaps typically mischievous youth or perhaps seriously deranged murderers.
It’s quite the trip, and one that is authored with supreme efficiency and craft. And that’s quite a trick on Bradbury’s part.
George Hadley walked through the singing glade and picked up something that lay in the comer near where the lions had been. He walked slowly back to his wife.
“What is that?” she asked. “An old wallet of mine,” he said.
He showed it to her. The smell of hot grass was on it and the smell of a lion. There were drops of saliva on it, it bad been chewed, and there were blood smears on both sides. He closed the nursery door and locked it, tight.
Welcome To The Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., 1961
The magic trick:
Giving the reader a no-win sympathy situation
The reader, much like the characters in this story, has nowhere good to turn in this monkey house. Vonnegut’s picture of the future is pretty bleak. Now perhaps this is an immature, even stupid, approach to art, but I find that when I read fiction, I need a character, or at least an idea, with which to sympathize. I need to know right from wrong at least. I’m guessing this is a not-uncommon expectation. Vonnegut, though, has no patience for readers like us.
Consider the options he provides here. You can sympathize with the suicide nurse who believes in a sexless life of robot efficiency. Not so great, right? Well, the “hero” – the advocate for sex and passion and emotion – believes kidnapping, imprisonment, and rape are the only means for his message. It’s very difficult to read those passages, let alone sympathize with his agenda.
So where does that leave us? Well, I’ll tell you. It leaves us alone and anxious and fearful and full of disdain for both sides of the sexual revolution. In other words: exactly where the author wants us. And that’s quite a trick on Vonnegut’s part.
“I never listen to a woman till the pills wear off,” sneered Billy. That was his plan, then – to keep her a prisoner for at least eight hours. That was how long it took for the pills to wear off.
“That’s a silly rule.”
“A woman’s not a woman till the pills wear off.”
“You certainly manage to make a woman feel like an object rather than a person.”
“Thank the pills for that,” said Billy.