Time Travel Tuesday: L. Sprague De Camp’s “A Gun for Dinosaur”

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This week’s Time Travel Tuesday story is particularly interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First, I love the idea of big game trophy hunters going back in time in order to bag a T-Rex head, or something similar, for their trophy rooms – especially when their own heads ends up becoming trophies that the dinosaur instead takes from them. The second reason that L. Sprague De Camp’s “A Gun for Dinosaur” intrigues me, though, has as much to do with Ray Bradbury’s “ A Sound of Thunder,” the story I featured here two Time Travel Tuesdays ago as it does with De Camp’s story. The two stories, you see, share an eerily similar plot, and I could not wait to compare the way these two masters of the science fiction genre approached their individual stories.

As it turns out, while Bradbury spent a good portion of his story explaining the nuts and bolts of time travel and exploring a time-travel paradox or two (the accidental changing of the present or future by a careless time-traveler), De Camp was much more concerned with his actual storyline and character development. Although Bradbury’s story was published approximately four years earlier than De Camp’s, the plot is not an unusual one in time travel stories, and I doubt that De Camp wrote the story because he remembered Bradbury’s earlier one. In any case, the two stories are very different from each other, and if I had to choose between them, I prefer De Camp’s “A Gun for Dinosaur.”

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L. Sprague De Camp

Two partners, one British and one Indian, run a business in which they contract with Washington University in St. Louis to use the school’s time machine on a regular basis to deliver them, their hunter-clients, and their support crew back to the age of the dinosaurs. As the story begins, our narrator (the Brit) has just turned down a potential customer who is too small and lightweight to handle the large guns required to bring down a dinosaur before the animal has time turn on the hunters and their guides. The guide feels bad about turning down the disappointed man and feels that he owes him a more detailed explanation. And what better way to explain this portion of company policy than telling the man a story of exactly what can go wrong when that company rule is bent or ignored?

As usual, on the hunt in question two hunters were chosen to time-travel with the guides and support crew. One of the two was a blustery loudmouth who got into an argument with our narrator even before signing the initial paperwork, the other a rather puny little man whose girlfriend begged him not to go on the trip at all. Shortly after being deposited on the ground by the time machine operator (where they were scheduled to hunt for the next month), the guides realized that bringing the loudmouth along with them had been a terrible mistake. The man insisted on firing when he deemed it to be to his own advantage to do so rather than waiting for one of the guides to give him the signal to shoot. Unfortunately, the boor was a poor shot, and he often spoiled the shot of his fellow hunter by unexpectedly shooting out of turn. The man was an obvious danger to himself and those around him.

The guides only found out just how dangerous he really was a few hours after they had returned to the present with the now very angry, and threatening, man in tow. But perhaps the hothead should have been more attentive when the potential paradoxes of time travel were discussed with him in the office and around the campfire at night. Let’s just say, that not every millionaire is particularly bright – this one certainly wasn’t.

Short Story Saturday: Sara Paretsky’s “The Curious Affair of the Italian Art Dealer”

517smtmudul-_sx329_bo1204203200_Sara Paretsky’s “The Curious Affair of the Italian Art Dealer” is the second short story I’ve plucked from the In the Company of Sherlock Holmes collection as one of my Short Story Saturday offerings. The other story I used, Michael Connelly’s “The Crooked Man,” took an entirely different approach in paying homage to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories than the approach chosen by Paretsky. Connelly decided to use Holmes-like and Watson-like characters in a modern setting, where Paretsky has chosen instead to use the actual Holmes and Watson characters in their natural setting. She even writes very much in the Doyle style to tell her story.

As the story begins, Holmes is in the midst of one of those dangerous moments when he is bored with life because he cannot find a crime investigation that challenges him, much less one that even sounds interesting. He is content to just stay at home, usually sleeping the day away until rousing himself in the early hours of the new day to annoy his neighbors with incessant hours of sawing away on his violin. And now Watson fears that Holmes’s drug habit is about to rear its ugly ahead again if he can’t find something for Holmes to tackle.

Coincidentally, Watson’s wife Mary has “been called to the bedside of the governess who had been almost a mother to her,” freeing Watson temporarily to move back into his old room inside Holmes’s apartment where he can keep a closer eye on his friend. Watson, though, has regular patients he still needs to see and an arrangement with a local hotel to call him when their guests need medical attention. As it turns out, it is one of those hotel patients, a man who claims to have been accosted in his room overnight, who presents Watson with just the crime mystery that might draw Holmes from his stupor.

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Sara Paretsky

The hotel guest is an American in the city to have an old family painting authenticated and appraised by a respected London gallery-owner. The family believes the painting to be the work of the sixteenth-century artist Titian, and that it is worth a fortune – a rather large fortune, at that. And now the painting is apparently in the hands of the unidentified thief who pummeled the American in the process of wresting it from his hands during the night. Fontana, the American, remembers Watson saying that he could be found at the Sherlock Holmes residence if any follow-up treatment were required, but when the man shows up on Holmes’s doorstep to ask his help in reacquiring the painting, Holmes smells a rat.

The case turns out to be a complicated one that sees Holmes having to pull out all the stops to solve it, including the use of disguises for himself and Watson and his gang of young “street rabble” to keep tabs of the various suspects. Holmes is even a bit shocked to meet his intellectual and investigatory match in the guise of Miss Butterworth, the godmother of one of the story’s victims.

(As the story notes at the very end, Amelia Butterworth was the detective assistant created by novelist Anna Katherine Green (1846-1935) to aid her detective character Ebenezer Gryce, an investigator who used methods similar to those of Holmes to solve his mysteries. It should also be noted that the first Gryce novel was published almost ten years prior to publication of the first Holmes story.)

Time Travel Tuesday: Richard Matheson’s “Death Ship”

 

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Richard Matheson

This week’s Time Travel Tuesday story was written by another of the genre’s great ones, Richard Matheson. Matheson began to make a name for himself in 1950 with the publication of his very first story, “Born of Man and Woman,” and he is probably still best known today for I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man, two of his earlier novels.

I have a real soft spot for today’s story because it so reminds me of my teenage years when everything was fresh and possibilities still seemed endless. Back in 1963, Twilight Zone was my favorite television series, and I doubt that I missed more than an episode or two during the several successful seasons the series enjoyed. As it turns out, one of the 1963 shows was an adaptation of “Death Ship,” the Richard Matheson story I am featuring today. The show also featured two of my favorite Twilight Zone actors, Jack Klugman and Ross Martin, so it is one of those that particularly stick in my memory. (I doubt, however, that I noticed at the time that it was from a Richard Matheson story.)

The story is about three future space explorers (way up in 1997) whose mission it is to find other planets upon which humans might survive. They are in the process of doing a low-altitude scan of a potential planet when a sudden flash catches the eye of one of the men. Deciding to land near the spot of the flash in order to see what caused it and to collect the usual surface samples, the men are about to get the shock of their lives.

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They discover that the flash of light that earlier caught their attention was a reflection from what seems to be the remnants of a crashed space vehicle much like their own. They are certain that no one could have survived the kind of impact that pushed the rocket’s main structure some fifteen feet below the surface of the hard ground they are standing on, but decide to explore the wreckage anyway. But almost miraculously, they find that the main cabin is still largely intact and manage to pry open its twisted door – where they find three dead crewmen.

Although all of this happens in the first six pages of this twenty-page story, I am going to end my plot summary here so as not to risk spoiling the story for those who have not yet read it. The remainder of the story focuses on the efforts of the three space explorers to understand the meaning of what they have discovered on this nameless planet. As the men consider several theories and the possible personal repercussions of each, the reader has to wonder right along with them as to what it all means.T

So is this a Time Travel story, or is it something else? You’ll have to read “Death Ship” (or watch Twilight Zone) to know the answer to that one.

Short Story Saturday: Ruth Rendell’s “A Dark Blue Perfume”

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The Rather Ominous Cover of Collected Stories

This week’s Saturday Short Story is from a favorite author of mine, Ruth Rendell, who died very suddenly in May 2015. “A Dark Blue Perfume” was part of Rendell’s 1985 short story collection The New Girl Friend, but it can also be found in the really wonderful compilation of her work titled Ruth Rendell: Collected Stories that was published in the U.S. in 1987. That collection encompasses the short stories from four previous Ruth Rendell collections: The Fallen Curtain, Means of Evil, The Fever Tree, and The New Girl Friend (38 stories in total).

“A Dark Blue Perfume” is the story of a man who, for over forty years, has been obsessed by the woman who left him for another man. Hardly a day has gone by that he has not relived the moment that his young wife came to him and told him that she was carrying another man’s baby. Now he is sixty-five years old, recently retired back to England, and finds that he cannot get the woman out of his mind even though he has not spoken to her since their divorce.

Should he surprise her with a phone call? Is she even still alive? What about the man she married – is he dead now? Where does she live? These are the thoughts and questions that dominate his days, and a simple check of the local phone book covering the area of the last address he remembers for his ex-wife answers some of them. Not only is she still alive, she is living in the same house she and her second husband first moved into, and the phone is listed in her name only, giving him hope that her husband is now dead.

Unable to resist the pull of that home address, he discovers a wooded area behind her house that includes a trail used by commuters to get from the local train station to their front doors. Already teetering on the edge of insanity, he sits himself down on a bench conveniently placed along the trail to see if she might come along one day. And she does. Or does she?

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Ruth Rendell

“A Dark Blue Perfume” is typical of Ruth Rendell’s crime fiction in the sense that she was always more interested in what makes a criminal do the things he does than in the crime itself. In this story, the author places the reader firmly into the head of a man who can think of only one thing: being rejected for another man by the only woman he ever really loved. The rejection may have occurred four decades earlier, but the pain he feels is as fresh today as the day it happened to him all those years ago. The reader senses that something has to give, that the man is on the brink of doing something crazy that he will regret, but we are just along for the ride he takes us on.

This little nine-page story has all the makings of a movie from another master of psychological suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. It would have been a good one.

Time Travel Tuesday: Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”

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This week’s Time Travel Tuesday story is a true classic from the pen of Ray Bradbury. Bradbury wrote fantasy and science fiction stories for more than fifty years and, as evidenced by his Grand Master Award, he is considered to be one of the finest writers ever to work in that genre. “A Sound of Thunder” first appeared in the June 28,1952, issue of Collier’s magazine and later was included in Bradbury’s story compilation The Golden Apples of the Sun (1953).

Time Safari, Inc. is ready to take its patrons back as far into the past as they need to go to bag the animal of their choice – and that includes all the way to back when dinosaurs dominated the earth. So when Eckels shows up prepared to pay ten thousand dollars to shoot a T-Rex, the game is on. It’s a bit of a celebration for Eckels because he is so happy that the country has just elected another president who believes in democracy, rather than the potential dictator the new president was running against. Even after being warned that twelve hunters and six guides have been killed on time safaris in just the past year, Eckels can’t wait to get started.

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Ray Bradbury

And then he gets his first look at the Tyrannosaurus rex that has been chosen especially for him – the guides already know it is going to die in just two minutes anyway when a huge tree will fall on it. This is also the moment that Eckels discovers that this animal is just too much for him, that he has more than met his match – and panic ensues. Without even realizing it, Eckels does the main thing he is forbidden to do; he steps off the floating hunter’s path and walks toward the jungle, crushing plant life all the way as he sinks into the muddy earth.

Can, as the guides of Time Safari, Inc. fear it can, the future be changed by something as minor as killing a few plants or insects while traveling sixty million years into the past? For his own sake, Eckels had better hope not, but now it’s time to see what awaits the hunters when they get back to 2055.

Short Story Saturday: “Red Eye” from Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane

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Michael Connelly

This week’s Short Story Saturday entry was co-authored by two of my favorite detective fiction writers: Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane. “Red Eye,” as published in the 2014 short story compilation FaceOff, centers around the premise that Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie find themselves simultaneously searching for the same bad guy.

FaceOff is a collection of eleven co-authored short stories that was published as a fundraiser benefitting the International Thriller Writers group. Because the group’s almost three thousand members are bound by contract to a variety of publishers, and the publishing rights were a little complicated, this one reminds me a bit of what sometimes happens when recording artists from different labels are allowed to collaborate on a single project.

By the time of this story, Harry Bosch is an elder statesman (although some who know Harry would not use such kind words to describe his relationship with the department) of the LAPD. Harry, with retirement staring him in the face, spends his days working cold cases that now have a chance of being solved because of new technology, such as DNA testing, available to the police. Meanwhile, young Patrick Kenzie is doing his thing as one of Boston’s many private detectives. (Note: Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro series, although abandoned by the author in 2010, is still missed by those Lehane fans who consider the six books to be his best work.)

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Dennis Lehane

Fate draws the two detectives together when Bosch decides to run some old fingerprints through the various crime databases again, and comes up with a match that did not happen when an old murder was first investigated. Bosch is always determined to close any cold case he works on, but because this one involves the murder of a young girl, he is even more determined than usual to get his hands on the person responsible. So, with a name and an address in hand, Bosch arrives in Boston with high hopes that he is about to catch a murderer.

Bosch is so anxious, in fact, to check out the last known address of the man whose prints he carries that he drives to the address even before his mandatory check-in with the Boston cops. And then, after an hour or so of watching the man’s house from his car, Bosch notices that someone else is doing the same thing from just down the street – or is he watching Bosch? This, of course, turns out to be one Patrick Kenzie, who is desperately searching for the abductor of different young girl who disappeared three days earlier.

The case worked jointly by Bosch and Kenzie turns out to be a rather straightforward one, but the real fun of “Red Eye” is in watching these two very different detectives bond as they get to know each other. Bosch is more than a generation older than Kenzie and he is an experienced big city cop; Kenzie is still in his mid-twenties and generally makes his living working the kinds of cases the Boston police don’t have time to take on. The two men may have very little in common, but by the end of the day each has earned the respect and friendship of the other. It’s easy to envision these two checking in with each other for many years to come.

Time Travel Tuesday: Steven Utley’s “Where or When”

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Steven Utley

This week’s Time Travel Tuesday story is from Steven Utley, an American writer who died from a brain tumor in 2013 at the age of sixty-four. Utley was a prolific storyteller whose work was often found in magazines such as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and Galaxy. “Where or When,” today’s story, is part of a series of time travel stories started by Utley in 1976 featuring a method of time travel he called “chronopaths.” This 1991 story first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and was also included in Where or When, the 2006 compilation of the chronopath stories.

As implied by its title, “Where or When” tells of a time travel trip that went wrong for two travelers right from the start. The two travelers, (one man, one woman) were part of a group expecting a soft landing in 1851 London, but after somehow getting separated from their fellow travelers, the pair experienced a rude crash landing in the middle of a thick forest. Now they no longer have any idea where they are – or, for that matter, when they are. What they do know is that two huge armies are fighting a pitched battle just a few hundred yards from where they are hiding amidst the thick trees.

wild03Our lost travelers are not at first particularly concerned about their predicament because they know that their guide will almost certainly be able to track them down as soon as he notices that they are no longer part of his group. But when bullets start scarring the trees near them, they realize that it is time to run for their lives – despite their guide’s instruction not to wander if they ever find themselves lost. And when the whole forest starts to burn (Civil War amateur historians will now know exactly where the lost travelers have landed), they can only hope it’s not too late to save themselves.

Despite the horrors of battle Utley describes in “Where or When,” the story is not without its humorous moments, especially the scene in which the male traveler is trying to extract the female traveler from the small tree into which she has crash-landed. The woman, already unhappy about the period undergarments she is wearing, is not feeling particularly cooperative at this point:

“Who in eighteen fifty-one’s gonna get to see what I wear under my dress?

“Well, you just never know do you?” and I gave her a wryly apologetic grin that absolutely failed to endear me to her, took out my trusty pen-knife again, and got around behind her. View from that side, she rather resembled an enormous blossom. Her legs, sheathed in long, lace-trimmed drawers, were the stamens, and her numerous petticoats, the petals.

I said, “Good God, how many petticoats are you wearing?

“Eighty or ninety.”

“There’s enough silk here for a parachute battalion”

 Steven Utley was a talented fantasy and science fiction writer, and “Where or When” is a good introduction to the author’s work. Utley managed to pack a whole lot of plot into this thirteen-page story that I have not touched upon here – curious readers can perhaps find the story most easily in the more recent (2013) compilation from Tor titled The Time Traveler’s Almanac.

Short Story Saturday: James Lee Burke’s “Uncle Sidney and the Mexicans”

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James Lee Burke

 

This week’s Saturday Short Story is a particularly interesting one to me because it is one of the earlier pieces of James Lee Burke’s writing to feature the Holland family that has become such an important part of Burke’s work since 1997. “Uncle Sidney and the Mexicans” was first published in the Atlantic in 1980 and is also the first story in a compilation of James Lee Burke short stories titled The Convict and Other Stories from 1985. From what I can tell, the only older Burke writing featuring one or another branch of the Hollands is the 1971 novel Lay Down My Sword and Shield.

The story is set close to 1947 Yoakum, Texas, and its narrator is a high school kid trying to earn some cash by spending his summer picking tomatoes in the fields belonging to the town’s only Baptist preacher. Hack, as he is known to his friends, also has his eye on a young Mexican girl working the same job, and finally finds the nerve to ask her to accompany him to the local root beer stand. But 1947 Yoakum is not ready to accept that kind of biracial relationship, and because Juanita’s father is also an organizer for the pickers union, it is inevitable that Hack will pay a heavy price for his tolerance.

convictIt doesn’t take long for Hack and his Uncle Sidney Holland to pay that price. One gets the tar beaten out of him; the other has a huge cross burned on his property during the early morning hours. Those familiar with the various branches and generations of the Holland family featured in Burke’s later novels already know, however, that this is not going to end well for the racist teens and their cross-burning elders. Just not going to happen.

James Lee Burke had been a published author since at least 1965 but in relative terms he had published very little (three novels and perhaps a handful of short stories) prior to “Uncle Sidney and the Mexicans.” Burke has become a fairly prolific writer since those early years, and is now known primarily for his long crime series featuring Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux. He has, however, not published a Robicheaux novel since 2013 and seems now to be focusing on standalone novels featuring various members of the Holland family (Billy Bob, Hackberry, or Weldon).

“Uncle Sidney and the Mexicans,” early as it is in the evolution of the Holland family story, holds up very well and should not be missed by James Lee Burke fans.

Time Travel Tuesday: E.F. Benson’s “In the Tube”

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E. F. Benson

This week’s Tuesday Time Travel story comes from the pen of E.F. (Edward Frederic} Benson, a British writer perhaps best known for his Mapp and Lucia series written between 1920 and 1939. Benson died in London in 1940 at age seventy-two. Today’s story, “In the Tube,” first appeared in a 1923 issue of Hutchinson’s Magazine.  

The story’s narrator recounts an evening he spent in the home of one Anthony Carling, a man known among his London acquaintances as a great storyteller and gentlemanly host. As the story begins, the formal evening has ended and all the guests but one are making their way home under terrible, icy conditions. The narrator is the only guest who will be spending the entire night in the Carling home. Now, even though it is very late, the two men are enjoying the warmth of a comfortable fire when Carling begins to tell his guest of a recent experience on the London Tube.

Earlier in the month, Carling tells his guest, on the last train of the evening he found himself sharing an entire car with only one other passenger, a man he feels he should somehow recognize. Arriving at the next station, the two men changed trains, and again they were the only two passengers in their car. Shortly after the train began to move, however, Carling realized that he was the train’s only passenger. The very next evening, Carling was astounded to meet the same man at his neighbor’s home and reminded him they actually met on the previous evening – but the man insists the he arrived in London from the country on this very morning and could not possibly have met Carling the day before.

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Scene from 1920s London Underground

The next evening, while once again catching the Tube’s last westward-bound train, Carling spots the same man standing near where the train will pull into the station. But to Carling’s horror, when the train does arrive, the man steps in front of it and is crushed to death. No one else, however, sees a thing – because Carling, he is certain, has somehow been granted a look into the future.

Now should he try to prevent the man’s suicide, or will confronting him with what he knows, only place the idea of suicide into the stranger’s head? Why does he have this special spiritual connection with a man he has only ever met one time? And what if their connection survives even death?

Benson is known as a writer of ghost stories, and the ending of “In the Tube” is probably more reminiscent of a ghost story ending than that of a time-travel story. But whichever type story you choose to call it, “In the Tube” is one thing for certain: an intriguing look at what the editor of The Time Traveler’s Almanac calls the “theory that time possessed a geography that could be explored.” And explore it, E.F. Benson does.

Short Story Saturday: Michael Connelly’s “The Crooked Man”

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Michael Connelly

Today’s Saturday Short Story comes from a short story collection that I picked up at a used-book bookstore this week called In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon. As soon as I saw that the fifteen stories included one each from Sara Paretsky, Harlan Ellison, John Lescroart, and Michael Connelly, I knew I had to have it. I was really pleased to learn last night as I began reading it that “The Crooked Man,” Connelly’s story, features his much-loved character (Former) LAPD Detective Harry Bosch.

Harry and his partner have been called to a murder scene in the biggest house either of them has ever seen. As they arrive, Bosch is pleased to see that the coroner he considers to be “a crime scene artist” is already there and in the process of examining the body. The man is so good at what he does that cops have taken to addressing him as Sherlock. And that’s how Harry gets his attention:

“Ah, Harry. Come in to our little circle here. The game is afoot.”

517smtmudul-_sx329_bo1204203200_The young deputy coroner then proceeds to tell Harry what he has discovered about the body already, including the exact weapon that killed him (which does not appear to be in the room); the exact brand of cognac in the dead man’s stomach (ascertained by manually burping the man); and what state of mind the man was in just before he was struck by the blow that killed him. Along the way, in conversation with Bosch, he illustrates the movements of both the murderer and victim just prior to the crime and announces that the murder weapon is still in the room somewhere. Oh, yes – he also takes a moment to diagnose an illness Bosch is unknowingly suffering from because he has been attributing the symptoms of the disease to the aging process.

This story is great fun and Sherlock Holmes fans will appreciate the numerous nods to the Arthur Conan Doyle character that Connelly delivers. My only disappointment is that almost none of the Bosch personality shows through here. It’s almost as if a generic police detective had had Bosch’s name attached to it instead. That said, the story itself does work beautifully and exactly as Connelly intended it to. Now I’m looking forward to reading other stories from In the Company of Sherlock Holmes.

Short Story Saturday: Shirley Jackson’s “The Third Baby’s the Easiest”

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Shirley Jackson

This week’s Saturday Short Story is Shirley Jackson’s “The Third Baby’s the Easiest,” a story that first appeared in Harper’s during the summer of 1949. Jackson was a popular writer during her lifetime but it was only after her death that literary critics really began to appreciate the literary quality of her stories and novels. The author died in her sleep in 1965 at age forty-eight.

“The Third Baby’s the Easiest” reads like a humorous, fictionalized version of Jackson’s own experience in giving birth to her third child, daughter Sarah, and begins with the narrator claiming that the third pregnancy is “the easiest because it’s the funniest, because you’ve been there twice, and you know.” She immediately sets the tone of the story by admitting that cynics say that women have a third child because, already having “two healthy, active children around the house (a woman) will do anything for ten quiet days in the hospital.”

As it turns out, the woman may be just a little bit overconfident about how easy it will be to give birth to her third child. Yes, she has prepared everything for the moment when she is to leave for the hospital: her bag is packed with exactly what she knows from experience she will want (not necessarily what she needs), a plan to call for a taxi in plenty of time for her five-mile trip to the hospital, and a good sense of precisely what will happen when she gets there.

But then reality sets in – and nothing is quite like what she imagined it would be.

1a292189645fa0ad8eb915c35f2ae799From the overcautious cabdriver who slows way down in order to avoid every bump in the road; to the nurse who refuses to record her occupation as “writer,” insisting instead on calling her a “housewife;” to the doctor and nurses who don’t really listen to her; to her husband who calmly spends hours reading the newspaper while she “has nothing to read, she is not finding the experience all that funny, after all. She is finding it all pretty damned irritating, actually – if anyone cares for her opinion – so irritating, in fact, that when the nurse with the hypodermic finally shows up, all she can say is, “Sure glad to see you.”

But despite all that she experiences this third time around, when while she is leaving the hospital for home and someone asks her what she had, she responds simply, “Girl. They say the third’s the easiest.” Nature has done its job on her memory, allowing her now to tell her friends in all sincerity that it really was easier this time.

Time Travel Tuesday: Pamela Sargent’s “If Ever I Should Leave You”

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It’s Tuesday, and that means it’s time for another Time Travel story…so let’s do it!

“If Ever I Should Leave You” is a story by Nebula Award winner Pamela Sargent that appeared in a compilation titled Worlds of If in 1974 before the author completely reworked it in 1984 for publication in another collection called Afterlives. Sargent, who has enjoyed a productive and long career in the science fiction genre, was awarded the Pilgrim Award for lifetime achievement in science fiction and fantasy scholarship in 2012.

As the story’s narrator somewhat casually reveals, at this point in the future the normal lifespan has reached three centuries, plenty of time to let everyone live out all their dreams by changing careers every twenty or thirty years as they become more and more bored with their current jobs. Science has found a way to keep the human body rejuvenating itself for that amount of time. But there is one catch: when the body suddenly loses that ability, aging comes rapidly and without warning. What seemed like an eternally-young body just weeks earlier, suddenly turns into a geriatric nightmare for its owner.

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Pamela Sargent

Yuri, our narrator’s partner has reached that stage of life, but he is working hard to limit the emotional impact his death will have on her. Yuri is using the Time Station to visit remote locales in the past where the couple can meet again after his death, thus easing his way out of her life rather than leaving it with the abruptness of his impending death. Even though she tries not to visit all the spots set-up for their meets too quickly, the narrator is down to her last set of time coordinates before she knows it. But then, just as despair is setting in, she herself begins to show all the signs of aging that marked Yuri’s rapid decline and death.

Determined to make the most of the time she has left, the narrator does the unthinkable by convincing an old friend who works at the Time Station to do something that is strictly forbidden: he arranges for her to visit a time she has already lived through. She just wants to see Yuri one more time as he was on the day they actually met.

But has she just made it impossible for her that meeting ever to happen? Or can she still do something to ensure that it happens just as she remembers it? She’ll know in four hours when she returns to the present…keep your fingers crossed.

Short Story Saturday: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Apollo”

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This week’s Saturday Short Story is “Apollo” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The author is a thirty-nine-year old Nigerian whose university education was largely attained in the United States. In addition to the University of Nigeria (where she studied medicine and pharmacy), Adichie studied at Drexel, Eastern Connecticut State University, and John Hopkins University. Today she divides her time between the United States and Nigeria where she teaches writing. “Apollo” was published in a 2016 issue of The New Yorker and can also be found in the short story compilation The Best American Short Stories of 2016.

The narrator of “Apollo” is an only child whose parents, both now in their eighties, are retired university professors. The narrator, himself probably close to sixty years old, marvels at how much his parents have come physically to resemble each other and, thanks to the Vicks VapoRub they share, how they even smell alike now. They seemed to him to be reaching that stage of life he calls “the childhood of old age,” and now even his mother’s nagging desire for him to produce grandchildren hardly bothers him.

Too, he is surprised at the willingness of his once staid parents to indulge themselves with rumors and stories involving stolen body parts and wicked relatives using weird poisons on certain family members. The man “humors them,” only half-listening to the stories his parents tell him – until the day they mention Raphael, one of (his demanding mother ran through the hired help quite quickly) the family’s many former houseboys. At this point, the story becomes a flashback to the narrator’s childhood days, specifically the period during which his family employed Raphael.

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Contains 20 short stories, including “Apollo”

Our narrator, never as bookish as his parents wished him to be, had an unhappy childhood in which he dreaded being tested on his day’s reading by his mother and father at mealtime. That all changes, however, on the day that the boy accidentally discovers that he and Raphael share a mutual adoration of Bruce Lee’s kung fu movies.   Raphael, although it hardly seems possible to him, is even crazier about the movies than the narrator and can even mimic most of Lee’s kung fu moves.

As the two boys practice kung fu together over the weeks that follow, all the while keeping their secret friendship hidden from the narrator’s parents, he begins to feel closer and closer to Raphael, and in fact, grows to love the other boy. But when a case of pinkeye (otherwise known as Apollo here) moves from one boy to the next, everything comes crashing down. Suddenly, in a moment of jealous anger, the narrator must choose between punishing Raphael’s perceived disloyalty or telling his parents the truth about what just happened to him. The choice is his, and only his – and he will have to live with his decision for the rest of his life.

Time Travel Tuesday: Henry Kuttner’s “Time Locker”

 hao_hc121212-1dp-mbThe Time Travel Tuesday story for this first Tuesday of 2017 was written by Henry Kuttner, a prolific author who died in 1958 at age forty-four. It should be noted that many of the stories and short novels published under Kuttner’s name were actually written by Kuttner together with his wife, C.L. Moore. The pair also produced work under the pen names Lewis Padgett and Lawrence O’Donnell. (Very obviously, this was a period during which female science fiction writers were not as likely to find the success or acceptance experienced by their male counterparts – note Moore’s use of initials even when she wrote under her own name.)

“Time Locker” is the story of a drunken scientist who has no ideas where his inventions come from because he does his best work when drunk – a state of mind he strives to maintain during all of his waking hours if at all possible. Over time, the scientist has developed a partnership of sorts with an unscrupulous lawyer in which the lawyer buys the scientist’s inventions outright and exploits them for his own profit. Needless to say, the scientist – who often cannot even remember what his invention is supposed to do – is consistently being taken advantage of when dealing with this thief disguised as an attorney.

That does not mean that the lawyer always knows what he is buying, because he does not. But because he always makes money on his purchases, he is willing to take a chance on anything the scientist is willing to sell him. And that is precisely how he gets his hands on a “3 X 3 X 5” locker capable of holding objects even larger than itself. The beauty of the invention seems to be that objects placed inside the locker shrink to a tiny fraction of their former size – and return to their full size when removed from the locker. Surely, someone as crooked as our attorney friend is can find a use for a small locker capable of holding everything he owns at the same time.

51swzzy42lBut what if the magic locker is not what he and the scientist believe it to be? What if the objects placed inside it or not really shrinking, but are, instead, moving farther and farther into the future? And the biggest question of all: what happens if you reach inside and damage any of the tiny items you see there?

“Time Locker” is fun. It can be found in The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century, a compilation of eighteen stories that was published in 2005 by Del Rey. The book is edited by Harry Turtledove (the dean of Alternate History storytelling) and Martin H. Greenberg.

Short Story Saturday: Charles Dickinson’s “My Livelihood”

51kw2zfrdwl-_sx365_bo1204203200_Today’s Saturday Short Story comes from Charles Dickinson, an author whose work I discovered in the mid-eighties. In fact, two of his novels from that decade, Waltz in Marathon and Crows, are still two of my all-time favorites. Dickinson’s third book (1987) was a short story collection called With or Without and Other Stories and its opening story is titled “My Livelihood.”

The story’s narrator is a man whose father owned a neighborhood grocery store but seemed to hate the store and every minute that he spent working in it. He told his children so many times that he hated it, that each and every one of them learned to hate it as much as he did. And because the entire family (husband, wife, and six children) had to work the business, they were an unhappy bunch. Our narrator tells us that:

“To the old man, work was a curse. Now it is to us, too. We may like the money, or maybe the people on the job, or the end of the day, but none of us gets anything from the actual work. It makes me angry. My father had no right.” 

A man with that kind of legacy is not likely to be upset when he loses a job that bores him nearly to death, one that he already despises. So when the narrator (whose father-in-law calls “the numbnuts”) learns that his dairy job has been eliminated, he is not particularly upset – even though his wife is six-months pregnant with their second child. It’s not the first time he’s been out of work, after all, and he figures that he’ll get around to looking for another job sooner or later.

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Charles Dickinson

Well, maybe not this time.

His wife’s family, seven brothers and her father, are all members of the carpenter’s union and the old man has enough pull to get his son-in-law into the union without him having to bother with trifles such as being qualified or waiting his turn in line. But our narrator, whose own wife and son have taken to calling lazy, declines the offer.

But he really loves to play golf, and 180 holes a week is just a start. Has the guy figured it all out? Is he the only genuinely happy person in his whole family?

Time Travel Tuesday: Adam Roberts’s “The Time Telephone”

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This week’s Time Travel Tuesday story, “The Time Telephone,” comes from Adam Roberts, a University of London professor of English literature and science fiction writer. The story was first published in 2002 in a compilation of stories titled Infinity Plus.

As “The Time Telephone” opens a mother and her sixteen-year-old daughter are talking on the phone, saying things that one would pretty much expect to hear in a conversation between a mother and her daughter of that age. But, as the mother explains to her daughter, there is one difference here: even as they are speaking, the mother is pregnant with the very daughter on the other end of the telephone line. Mom, you see, is calling from sixteen years in the past.

The girl is not at all surprised by this bit of information because she remembers once hearing that time-telephoning had been a big thing a decade or so earlier. She is excited that it is finally happening to her, though perhaps she should be more concerned by the question her mother has called to ask her:

“Are you glad you were born? Are you pleased to have come into the world?” 

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Adam Roberts

I don’t know about you, but if my pregnant mother calls from the distant past to ask me that particular question one day, I will have a hard time catching my breath long enough to make  sure that she clearly understands just how thrilled I am to be walking around today, thank you very much.

“The Time Telephone” is a reminder that time-traveling does not always go as planned. The story, in fact, ends with a telephone call that may have just gone very, very wrong for the whole human race.

Be careful what you wish for, all you wanna-be time-travelers out there. It’s not that simple, I’m afraid.

Short Story Saturday: Elmore Leonard’s “The Boy Who Smiled”

gunsmoke_195306_v1_n1Before he began writing the wonderful crime fiction for which he became so famous, Elmore Leonard wrote Westerns, mostly short stories that sold well enough to the magazines of the day to allow him to continue writing while he developed the style that would work so well for him later in his career. Elmore would end up writing some thirty Western short stories and eight Western novels before, as he puts it, “television killed the Western.” Fortunately, by the time that happened, Leonard was ready to move on to a very different genre – and the rest is literary history.

This week’s short story, “The Boy Who Smiled,” first appeared in the June1953 issue of Gunsmoke magazine, and I found it in a compilation titled The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard.” The book contains Leonard’s thirty Western shorts (assuming here that “complete” means “complete”), and for what it’s worth, it’s one I’ve enjoyed dipping into since I purchased it back in 2004.

The story’s narrator is a white man responsible for monitoring just over one hundred Apaches who are allowed to live off the reservation because they have always been “fairly peaceful.” The agent is also responsible for Mickey Solner, a white man living nearby who married an Apache and fathered a son by her. As the story opens, that boy, 14-year-old Mickey Segundo steps into the agent’s office and plops a couple of human ears down on the man’s desk.

The ears once belonged to Tony Choddi, the horse-thief who traded a stolen horse to Mickey’s father before running off. Unfortunately for all concerned, the wealthy rancher whose horse was stolen wanted to hang someone for stealing his horse, and Mickey’s father was the only one at hand. So now Tony Choddi has lost his ears, along with his life, and the agent wonders if the wealthy rancher will be the next to die.

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A Very Young Elmore Leonard (Campbell Ewald Company photo)

Five years later, nothing has happened and the agent is still embarrassed that he ever warned the rancher about Mickey Segundo. But then the day comes when a very different looking Mickey Segundo agrees to lead the rancher and another man across the desert on a pronghorn hunt. The agent can tell that the rancher doesn’t recognize Mickey, and even as it’s happening, wonders why he isn’t identifying the boy for the man himself.

“The Boy Who Smiled” is early Elmore Leonard but even this early on, it is obvious that Leonard is every bit as interested in his characters and what makes them tick as he is in the story’s action. His Western short stories were a definite cut above the bulk of what the pulps of the day usually printed.

Short Story Saturday: Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s “The Bears”

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Sarah Shun-Liem Bynum

This week’s Saturday Short Story is a relatively new one called The Bears that was written by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum. The story first appeared in Glimmer Train, but I found it in The Best American Short Stories of 2016, an annual compilation of the year’s best short stories (a series edited for the past ten years by author Junot Díaz). Bynum is a Los Angeles based writer born in Houston who is perhaps best known for her 2004 National Book Award finalist novel Madeline Is Sleeping. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and compilations.

Although “The Bears” begins straightforwardly enough, it is one of those stories that depend on its readers to work a little harder than they may have planned at the outset. These are the story’s opening sentences:

“Once, when I was convalescing, I was sent to a farmhouse in the country. No one there knew I had been sick. A woman came to cook in the evenings, and her daughter would appear at odd hours with a mop and bucket, keeping the place clean.” 

All plain enough and generally true, if a little misleading.

As it turns out, our narrator has recently suffered a miscarriage from which she is yet to have recovered either physically or mentally. And rather than having been sent to the farmhouse, she has actually been invited there, part of a small group of artists and writers asked to come to the isolated farmhouse to work on their various projects. The narrator is there, in fact, to finish a chapter for the book she is writing on William James. The moment she sets foot inside the farmhouse, however, her self-confidence vanishes, and she can barely remember who William James was, much less what she wanted to say about him.

burr_2-e1391115593262-2200x1200So rather than immersing herself in writing and research, the narrator spends all of her time on long walks along isolated roads and the even more-isolated side roads off those. One road, in particular, intrigues her by the way that every piece of property she passes but one is marked with clear warnings to trespassers to stay off them. The exception is a white colonial house belonging to someone, according to his mailbox, called Jerry Roth. In her eyes, the house and acreage it overlooks are, “Perfect as in a painting or a dream; as if all the charm and sentiment the countryside had been coolly withholding could now, at last, express itself, could gloriously unfurl…”

Despite never seeing anyone around it, the daily walk to and from the white colonial becomes the highlight of her day. And right up until the day, exhausted and bleeding from her decision to run down the road rather than walk it, she discovers the front door to be unlocked, she had never set foot on the property. She finds no one inside the home, but makes herself at home anyway, even to sitting at the large kitchen table while eating the breakfast toast she finds there. And then, through the window, she spots a bear of a man methodically approaching his home from the rear. But the huge man, when he spies her through the kitchen window, surprises her with his sudden burst of speed.

“Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” anyone?

Time Travel Tuesday: Nalo Hopkinson’s “Message in a Bottle”

 

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Nalo Hopkinson

Today’s Time Travel Tuesday story is Nalo Hopkinson’s “Message in a Bottle,” a story about a little girl who is not at all what she first seems to be. Hopkinson is a Jamaican now living in the United States whose story was first published in 2004 as one chapter of Futureways, a novel in which each chapter is written by a different author.

Greg, our narrator, is not a man who feels comfortable around children. He does not plan ever to have any of his own, but because he knows that he will “be pecked to death by the righteous breeders of the flock” for saying so, he is quick to point out that he doesn’t “hate them.” He just doesn’t understand them. And it doesn’t help that the little girl he has agreed to watch for an hour – the adopted daughter of friends – has a large head, that to his eye, makes her look more like an adult with a child’s frame than a child.

After his friends move to Vancouver, in part because they hope that their daughter will have better luck making friends in a new environment, Greg does not see them or Kamla for several years. By the time he sees them again, doctors have determined that Kamla suffers from DGS, Delayed Growth Syndrome (officially known as Diaz Syndrome in honor of the doctor who first identified the condition). The child’s oversized head and high degree of intelligence are two common symptoms of DGS.

a03666_lKamla is believed by her adoptive parents to be about ten years on the day they bring her to the art exhibit that Greg is in the process of installing. As he explains the working of the exhibit to Kamla, Greg is so impressed by her appreciation and understanding of his work that he develops a strong connection to the child. Her questions and remarks are so astute, in fact, that Greg has to force himself to remember that he is actually speaking with a child.

When Greg’s phone rings at 3:05 a.m. and Kamla is on the other end of the line, he begins to question the child’s mental health – but when she identifies herself as a time-traveler from the future and tells him what she has come back to find, she almost convinces Greg that she is telling the truth. Almost.

But what if what she says is true? What if she really is holding Greg’s “ticket to thefuture”?

 

Short Story Saturday: Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”

the_things_they_carriedThis week’s Saturday short story, “The Things They Carried,” is taken from Tim O’Brien’s award-winning collection of linked short stories that was published under the same title in 1990. This opening story sets the tone for the rest of the collection and serves as an introduction to the characters and events that are explored in the stories that follow. O’Brien served in the Vietnam War from 1969 to 1970, during which time he was wounded near Mai Lai. Of the many thousands of books and stories written about the Vietnam War experience, The Things They Carried and O’Brien’s subsequent Going After Cacciato are considered to be two of the must-read works of the genre.

The first sentence of “The Things They Carried” tells us that First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross “carried letters from a girl named Martha,” but by the story’s second paragraph, O’Brien is enumerating all the items that the troops carried, not out of choice, but out of necessity: “can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets…C rations, and two or three canteens of water.” It is when O’Brien starts assigning specific weights to items like these and turns to items considered “necessary” by individual soldiers that the story’s tone begins to shift to a more dramatic one, especially when he says “Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.”

And that is just the beginning, because the list of things being carried by the men and the reasons for carrying those things goes on and on. O’Brien tells us “what they carried was partly a function of rank, partly of field specialty,” and exactly how heavy all of it was. O’Brien, however, knows that he and his fellow Vietnam War veterans carried more into battle than the physical things he’s listed and weighed for us. Often, the problem was that the non-physical burdens outweighed the physical ones.

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Tim O’Brien

They all carried “ghosts” with them, memories of past skirmishes with the enemy, visions of buddies who would were sent home in flag-covered coffins, and superstitions they hoped would keep them from the same fate. They carried infections, “lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds.” As O’Brien reminds us, these men would “never be at a loss for things to carry.”

It is near the end of “The Things They Carried” that Tim O’Brien wrote one of the most devastating paragraphs on why young men are so willing to go to war that I have ever read, part of which is quoted, below:

“They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment” 

Let that last sentence sink in.