Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Conan Doyle and Sherlock

The final episode of the first seasons of the British Sherlock showed (in rebroadcast) this past weekend; yesterday, I finished reading A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes story (a novella).

A Study in Scarlet is certainly an odd beast. Like The Hound of the Baskervilles, which I read more than 30 years ago, it's structured like a typical Holmes story but expends much more energy and time on the backstory to the mystery (and allows Holmes himself more room to be annoyingly voluble in his explanations). For Hound, you get the tale of the Baskerville clan, which is rife with intrigue. For Scarlet, you get a story of a dying man and child in the American West, an fortuitous (at least initially) encounter with Utah-bound Latter-Day Saints, and a slow-developing story of nefarious Mormons and long-term revenge. This backstory takes up the entire second half of the tale and, likely because Conan Doyle is unmoored from his usual scenic harbor, the prose becomes forcedly poetic and unconvincing. It's not bad writing, but it draws attention to itself the way prose shouldn't, as an attempt to tell me something. The landscape is mostly believable; the way the Mormons talk seems highly unlikely (they're like unhinged Amish without a sense of humor . . . which I suppose is possible); and the story itself, though it shifts protagonists, turns out to a good one. The problem comes when one returns to the mystery itself, which feels somewhat flat.

The first Sherlock episode, "A Study in Pink," picks up on one element of the tale, the poison pill, and makes that the center of both the mystery and the murderer's thinking. The ending plays out a bit stiffly (oh, the difficulty of third acts), somewhat like a comic book conclusion in its fragile motivations, but it's held together by strong performances. The third ep, "The Great Game," actually uses other elements from A Study in Scarlet, including Watson's complaint that Holmes doesn't know the Earth revolves around the sun, but it also (confusingly, if one knows the stories) tosses in references to several other Holmes tales, which left me struggling to follow the plot. (Near as I could tell, the second episode didn't draw on any Conan Doyle stories directly.) The conclusion included an incredibly tense confrontation with Moriarty (by a pool rather than a waterfall). Actor Andrew Scott (and the writer) takes the character into the psychotic realm, his voice not tied to the content of his words, his emotions wildly meandering from context. Great great fun.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

SF, Wells, Conan Doyle, storytelling

A variety of short fiction, that's what I've read.

Continuing with some stories from The Arbor House Treasury of Science Fiction Masterpieces:

"The Burning of the Brain," by Cordwainer Smith (Paul M.A. Linebarger)
A short piece with a science-fictional premise (people can travel between the stars, but it's a taxing psychic strain on the "Go-Captains" who pilot the beautiful craft) that's really about aging, love, vanity, and honor. Some fine writing, and all accomplished efficiently.

"Gehenna," by Barry N. Malzberg
The writing is certainly skillful, but the piece is more a stunt than a story—a relationship that ends badly is seen from four different perspectives, perspectives which differ profoundly—but its brief and plays with your head, so it's hard to complain. The real problem is that there's nothing science fictional about the story. Nothing.

"A Meeting with Medusa," Arthur C. Clarke
Engaging to read, the story concerns a ship commander named Falcon who, in the opening chapter, goes down with the ship—zeppelin—in a major air disaster. Following that, a reconstructed Falcon pilots a balloon-borne vessel through the atmosphere of Jupiter, where he has a strange encounter. The ending contains a twist that Clarke seems to have felt was worth concealing. I suppose it does add something to the story to delay providing information, but it feels like a cheap trick, and it's not as if the news really alters the story's larger plot in any significant way. What the story does well is give an air of breathless adventure to a tale of scientific exploration.

The Complete Short Stories of H.G. Wells, ed. by John Hammond

I see a pattern to the structure of these stories that doesn't fit our modern conception of a story, though I suppose it fits more what we'd call a tale: something odd happens, but there's no sense of a conclusion; the story is in the description of the odd event, and when one is done describing it, one moves on, using with some backward-looking comment on the affair.

A case in point is "The Crystal Egg," the story that inspired Borges' "The Aleph," which I recently read. At first, we wonder why the shopkeeper in this story is so bent on not selling the crystal object placed in his window; his family wonders why as well, but he keeps his reasons to himself. Eventually, everything is revealed, and it's wonderfully fantastical, creepy, and science fictional. The story ends with a frustrating search for the lost object and some reflections on its ramifications. (Has someone ever followed up on where Wells leaves the story?) The story doesn't so much conclude as back slowly away from its ending, leaving us to think, "Oh, dear . . . "

"The Empire of the Ants" is a sort of Heart of Darkness with ants standing in for the natives. Not that there aren't natives, who are fleeing the ants, but, given Wells's propensity for social and political commentary, it's easy to think he might be forming some fable about the revenge sought by the colonized—though the story doesn't really seem to push for such an interpretation. The long and short of it is that the characters make a river journey into the Amazon to investigate tales of rampant ants. The ants turn out to be far more insidious a menace than first imagined, and the story provides a host of haunting images and ideas. As with the previous story, there's no real conclusion, but more a report of the present dire situation. A terrific tale.

"The Thing in No. 7" is more of a lark than the other two. Wells still manages to disturb us, as one member of a group of friends accidentally makes his way into the wrong apartment to make a terrifying discovery. The solution is mundane, but the set-up is suspenseful and a pleasure, the whole thing less a complete story than a tale of, "Then there was the night we stumbled on . . .  My, wasn't that a shock!"

The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I'm about halfway through Michael Dirda's On Conan Doyle (which dismaying has already spent far too much time talking about other writers), and the book led me to a Holmes tale I hadn't read before, "The Adventure of the Dancing Men." It's one of those woman-frightened-at-a-country-house stories which, no matter how many times I run across them, never fails to interest me. I wonder if Conan Doyle thought the mysterious images left about on house and paper—glyphs of stick figures in various states of movement—presented an impenetrable mystery to his readers. To me, they were obviously an encrypted message, with the figures stand-ins for letters. Still, the author makes the story strange and suspenseful, even though it's largely ridiculous (the messages in odd places; an almost supernatural description of the figure who leaves one message; Holmes's relative inactivity until its too late). The writing, as usual, is a model of that clean, well-phrased English style that's also so appealing in Wells.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A few more SF stories read

It's puzzling to consider what landed any given story in The Arbor House Treasury of Science Fiction Masterpieces aside from Robert Silverberg liking it. If you're going to collect "masterpieces," it seems to me that the bar ought to be pretty high.

Philip José Farmer's "The Sliced-Crosswise Only-on-Tuesday World," from 1971, is one of those stories built around a punchline plot, summarizable in a single clause, that telegraphs its ending because it is all about its "shock" ending, which of course isn't a shock at all. To avoid problems related to overcrowding, individuals are awake and going about their business only one day each week; the rest of the days, they're in suspended animation, which people assigned to those other days do the necessary work. How any real work gets done is a mystery, but the story hinges on our protagonist falling in love with a woman assigned to a different day but who he can see in her sleep chamber, as she shares his house. As a result of his love, he wants to switch over to her day. His love is an adolescent thing, built on nothing but her looks, and the outcome of all this, even with a small twist tossed in, is obvious from the get-go. I have yet to read any Farmer fiction that I've liked, but I've only read a few things.

1958's "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed," by Alfred Bester, is a lark about time travel that's both entertaining and clever; unlike the Farmer tale, it does not telegraph its ending, though it certainly could have. Bester has fun with the idea: a man finds his wife in the arms of another man, so, genius that he is, he goes to the basement, slaps together a time machine, and goes back in history to remove her from his life. For some reason, this doesn't work, so he keeps heading back, knocking off various historical figures, both major and minor, in an attempt to, finally, see something happen in his present life. The conclusion is logical enough, but, more importantly, it's aesthetically and dramatically satisfying, given some elements that at first seem unrelated to the plot.

"The Man Who Lost the Sea," by Ted Sturgeon (and, with a glace back at the proceeding story, I should mention that there's even a third "The Man Who" story in the book), from 1959, is a bit of a slog at times, though there are, in retrospect, some clever touches. Written in a sometimes-effective, sometimes-strained literary style, the story keeps you guessing for quite a while as you follow the thoughts of a man lying, evidently in a space suit, on a beach. What's he doing there? Who's the little boy who keeps bothering him? What's all this about the time it takes a satellite to circle? Once all the pieces come together, it seems like Sturgeon should have stopped, so, for me, the very end feels unnatural and forced. At the time it was published, I'm sure it had quite an impact.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Astoundingly—to me, at least—I finished a readable draft, which is now out with three readers. The first reader (writer, editor) already got back to me. He seems to think the thing is pretty solid as is, with just some minor edits needed, but we're going to talk more, so maybe there's something larger that will need work. I worked on it for several hours straight last night and sent it off without a final complete read-through, feeling simply done and ready to get responses. What a long process it's been. Within a week, I should have all comments back; I can then turn it around in a day or two, I hope (assuming there are no huge issues); then it's off to Asimov's, which I hope will take this next chapter in my tale of the Old Man.

Also, the Asimov's Readers' Award ballot is up. If you enjoyed "Clockworks," please consider voting for it: