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.


Calvin said...

I love Cordwainer Smith, at least his short stories. Haven't really tackled his novels. He takes SF tropes and cliches and manages to remake them into something truly original, in a genre that often suffers (as do most genres, now that I think about it) from tedious imitations.

Although I've read a fair fraction of the Sherlock Holmes canon, I've often felt that many of the stories were a cheap trick, or a rather lucky solution. It's always some conveniently maimed criminal who thoughtful walked with his wooden leg through the mud. Of course, Doyle was one of the early mystery writers, and pioneers can get away with this lazy stuff. I prefer the Nero Wolfe mysteries, which are a reworking of the Holmes model, with Wolfe even more bizarrely eccentric than Holmes, but sidekick Archie and police inspector Cramer have, to my mind, more agency than the Doyle originals. That's a matter of taste, of course, and there's still a lot of fun in the Holmes stories.

William Preston said...

The element of the Holmes stories that leaves an unpleasant taste for me is their reliance, often, on information to which the reader isn't privy, some obscure fact that Holmes pursues because he alone has the information and background. There's not much of a mystery to the "Dancing Men," and what mystery there is is irrelevant to the obvious imminent danger of the situation, which no one works to actively avoid. The culprit is someone who hasn't been previously introduced, and of whom only Holmes has heard. The strengths of the piece are the characters, the setting, and Conan Doyle's writing.