Saturday, December 26, 2015

Gregory Benford: two short stories from the Galactic Center Universe

The Galactic Center series consists of six novels, ranging in time from the late 1990s to 30,000+ years in the future, and from Earth to the center of our galaxy.   To be brief, it is the story of the war between the Mech civilization, ruled by almost godlike AIs, and all organic life forms, especially the sentient species, including humanity.  In the 30,000+ years, humanity has managed, in spite of the conflict, to spread throughout the galaxy, including locations close to the black hole at the galaxy's center.
Gregory Benford to this point actually has written three short stories set in the Galactic Center universe. One, "Hunger for the Infinite," published in Far Horizons, edited by Robert Silverberg, explores the Mantis' obsession with the inexplicable human propensity for art.  I have posted a very brief commentary which can be found at this address:

The other two stories, "Aspects" and "At the Double Solstice," are set on Snowglade, the setting for the third novel in the series, Great Sky River.  While the stories do not have dates, internal evidence in the stories indicate that "Aspects" takes place a decade or more after the end of events in Great Sky River, while "At the Double Solstice" is set many decades later.

The third novel in the series, Great Sky River, is the story of the Bishop clan's struggle to survive after the destruction of their civilization on the planet Snowglade.  (For more detailed information, see my post at  The two stories are set after the conclusion to the novel Great Sky River and follows those members of the Bishop clan who did not follow Killeen Bishop.

Both stories open with a battle with several mechs, in which one or more humans are killed.  Eventually the mech (possibly a lancer or a marauder or worse, a mantis type) is also destroyed.  However, the cost to the humans is far greater in that they have now lost irreplaceable knowledge and experience, while the mech factories can simply turn out one or two or more marauders.  This battle  is followed by the discovery of a mech production facility which the Bishops attack.  They grab what nutrients and equipment that can be easily carried and leave before more mechs arrive.

While the pattern here is similar, the third element demonstrates that a change has taken place in the thinking of the Bishop clan.  In both stories, the humans come across a human artifact, a large structure whose purpose has long since been forgotten.  In "Aspects,"  the humans are happy to find such a place:  "We built it," a younger said. "We made something...beautiful."  They rest there and discover that it's a cache, a storehouse of information from the past which will help them survive in their struggle with the mechs.  Some of them were old enough to have lived in their great cities and consider it a Golden Age.  They would go back, instantly, if they had the opportunity.

In "At the double solstice," decades? later, however, the reaction to the structure  is quite different.  The Bishops have difficulty in believing humans could ever have built such a mechlike thing.  Only the mechs created things that were rigid, with corners and straight lines. Natural things were very different, far superior, and their way was the best way.

"If humanity had been mechlike in the far past, even to the point of making things of stone that trapped feeling. . .Agaden curled his lip.  If that was true, then he felt no reverence for those benighted ancestors.  He was suddenly glad to live in a holier and wiser time.  Humanity today knew the true division between the sweet passing beauties of things human, and the cruel hard mech ways."

What began as a necessity for survival has now been transformed into the best way for humanity.  The Bishops have adopted the nomadic way, not as a bitter choice for survival, but now as the best way, the holiest course for humans.  They now have the disdain that all true nomads have for fixed, artificial structures and a settled way of life. 

Truth in whateveritis: I have received free digital copies of both short stories.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Jack Finney: About Time (short stories)

Jack Finney
About Time

About Time is a collection of short stories, many of which, unsurprisingly, focus on time.  It is a quiet, relaxing collection of tales, some tragic, some arguing that this really is a just universe, and others with a more cheerful resolution, but all entertaining.

"The Third Level"
This may be his most well-known short story or at least it's the one I  most often remember reading in various anthologies.

      The presidents of the New York Central and the New York, New Haven and Hartford railroads will swear on a stack of timetables that there are only two.  But I say there are three, because I've been on the third level at Grand Central Station."

I think you can extrapolate from these opening lines the nature of the tale.  It's something many, including me, have indulged in, what the psychiatrist later in the tale tells him is a "waking-dream wish fulfillment."  It's a very enjoyable tale, which I never skip whenever I encounter it, unlike so many other tales, even though I know the twist at the end.


"I Love Galesburg in the Springtime"
Something strange is happening in Galesburg, Illinois.  A business man from Chicago came to town to build a factory, which would have meant tearing down some very old buildings and increasing traffic along some quiet residential streets. He had the town council's promise to make the necessary zoning changes and was ready to build.  Then, one night, he goes for a walk down a quiet street and almost gets run down by a streetcar, or so he says. The problem is that there are no longer any streetcar tracks because the streetcars disappeared years ago. Was he drunk?  Hallucinating?  In any case, the deal is off.  No factory will be built, by him anyway.

And, what about the old, old mansion that didn't burn down because the fire was put out by someone, only no one will claim credit for it.  However, a neighbor who was obviously dreaming at the time tells a story that the fire was put out by the fire department which used horse-drawn fire engines.  Of course, those engines had been retired years ago.  It's unfortunate that the place didn't burn down, says local developer, because if it had, he would buy the property and get it rezoned for an apartment building.  But, now, it would cost too much to tear it down, almost as much as to restore it, in fact.

And, those fine old elms on Cedar Street won't be cut down after all, or at least not for some time, because the man who had the power saw and had planned to cut them down is in the hospital with a broken leg.  He was run down by a car that hadn't been made for many decades.  It's appearance is so striking, the police are sure they will find the car involved in the hit-and-run accident very soon.   

Perhaps.  .  .


"Such Interesting Neighbors"
This is one of the classic themes in time travel stories.  Anyone who has read a number of  time travel stories will figure this one out within the first couple of paragraphs.  New neighbors appear:  they seem to lack knowledge of the simplest things, they have a strange accent, and they are vague about where they came from.  They also have some interesting ideas about what the future will be like.
Enuf said?


"The Coin Collector"
Ever wonder what would have happened if you had made a different decision, such as not going to college or going to college, or married someone else. "The Coin Collector" suggests one way of handling the problem--find an alternative universe.  Finney later expanded this into a novel titled The Woodrow Wilson Dime.

Al's marriage is suffering a bit--loss of interest on his part--and his wife is getting upset at the way he seemingly pays her little or no attention.  An ad about the fun and profit that can result from coin collecting intrigues him for a time. After making a routine purchase of a paper at the newsstand, he finds himself in a slightly different universe.  It was the coin that triggered the transfer--well, the coin and his recognition of it as being different somehow.

Fortunately, habit guides him to his home which is in a different location.  There he discovers that something else is different--his wife.  She is someone he never met in the other world, and she is gorgeous. His interest in her reawakens her interest in him--same problem as in his other world.  His gradual lack of interest (the honeymoon is over, he told his first wife) caused her to react the same way his first wife did.

 However, after a brief period, his interest begins to wane and .  .  . and then .  .  .


"Of Missing Persons"
What happened to Judge Crater and Ambrose Bierce?   Charlie Ewell thinks he found out.  What seems fascinating and possible after a couple of beers and late in the evening seems quite different in the bright light of the next day.  But, Charlie is curious, so he decides to visit the Acme Travel Bureau anyway.  If they decide he's the "right type,"  they will bring out a folder from beneath the counter, a folder they just made up as a joke.  It's about a trip, one-way, to a planet called Verna.  Why go to Verna?

Life is simple there,  and it's serene.  In someways, the good ways, it's like the early pioneering communities here in your country, but without the drudgery that kill people young.  There is electricity.  There are washing machines, vacuum cleaners, plumbing, modern bathrooms, and modern medicine, very modern.  but there are no radios, television, telephones or automobiles.  Distances are small. and people live and work in small communities.  They raise or make most of the things they use.  Every man builds his own house, with all the help he needs from his neighbors.  Their recreation is their own, and there is a great deal of it,  but there is no recreation for sale, nothing you buy a ticket to.  They have dances, card parties, wedding, christenings, birthday celebrations harvest parties.  There are swimming and sports of all kinds.  There is conversation, a lot of it, plenty of  joking and laughter.  There is a great deal of visiting and sharing of meals and each day is well filled and well spent.  There are no pressures, economic or social, and life holds few threats.  Every man, woman,and child is a happy person.

It almost sounds too good to be true, and that's what bothers Charlie. 


"Lunch-Hour Magic"
Ted likes to go prowling around the various little shops in the vicinity during his lunch hour.  Then, one day, he discovers a little store he hadn't seen before--The Magic Shop.  Inside, he finds the usual merchandise expected in a "magic shop,".  .  . except for a pair of magic glasses. These glasses allow one to see through one layer of cloth.  With them he can see people outside walking around in their underwear.  Naturally he asks if there are stronger glasses, one that could see through two or three layers of clothing.  The store owner says that he gets a lot of requests for those glasses, and he will ask the salesman the next time he comes in.

On subsequent trips Ted discovers other "helpful" items, and he tries them out on his fellow employees, who are helpless against the power of those talismans.  All goes well, until Ted discovers that Frieda, a fellow employee, is also a lunchtime prowler and has discovered The Magic Shop.


"Where the Cluetts Are"
Harry is an architect, who has some strange ideas about houses--they have souls--and he doesn't work with clients who really aren't interested in working with him in designing their home. The Cluetts are rich and have decided there are no limits on the cost of building their new home.

The problem is that the Cluetts are not interested that much in building a home, but in building a showpiece for their yacht-building business.  They will live mostly in New York City and only spend time in the house, throwing grand parties for the rich and influential.   In this way, they hope to make an impression on the rich and influential so that when they are interested in getting a yacht, they will remember the Cluetts. 

Harry has just about decided that he's not going to take them on as clients when Ellie Cluett discovers a set of blueprints for a Victorian era house designed by Harry's grandfather.  Sam and Ellie fall in love with the house instantly and tell Harry to build it, regardless of the cost.

All goes well and the house is built, but then.  .  .

I think the title is wrong.


"The Face in the Photo"
Inspector Ihren is a very determined and persistent police officer.  So, when a number of petty crooks, suspects in various crimes, can't be found, he gets upset.  What upsets him most is that they seem to have completely disappeared and for a long period of time.  Inspector Ihren knows that they have hiding places and can stay hidden for a while, but for many months?  Not a clue, whisper, rumor, gossip?  Something is wrong.

Then, one day, he discovers an old photograph with a familiar face and acting on a hunch, he begins viewing old films about sporting events and discovers another face. But this suggests something that is inconceivable.   However, the projectionist makes an offhand comment about someone else who just viewed that film--a Professor Weygand from the university.  A bit of nosing around and the Inspector discovers the good professor gave a paper recently about some aspects of time, and while he didn't understand most of the paper, the inspector got the idea that the professor thought time travel might be possible.

Perhaps it was time to talk to the professor.

"I'm Scared"

Unlike Charles Fort who collected information about strange and inexplicable happenings that seemed unconnected and that had no apparent effect on the world, the anonymous narrator in this story finds that his collection of odd and anomalous events may point to something far more serious.  It almost seems as though people and events sometimes come loose from their appointed place in time and appear elsewhen, sometimes with tragic results.  And, they are happening more often lately.   

"Home Alone"
Charley is home alone as his wife and daughter are off somewhere.  On the sixth day he glances upwards and sees a hawk in the sky, motionless as it lays on the updraft from the warm concrete below.  Suddenly Charley wants to do just that: not fly in a powered plane but just hang there quietly and see what's below.  And, the only way to do that is with a balloon.  So, Charley begins to study up on balloons and then decides to make one.

Sometimes one's dreams do come true . .  .

"Second Chance"
The anonymous narrator is a young man who is obsessed with a classic automobile:  the Jordan Playboy.  He finds one, battered and beaten, and spends most of his time (left over from school, chores, and part-time job) restoring it.  Finished, he takes it out for a drive along a deserted stretch of an old two-lane road that's been bypassed by the new four lane highway.  And, then some strange things begin to happen.  But, the strangest doesn't happen until months later, long after his first (and ultimately last) jaunt in the restored Jordan Playboy.

It's too bad the universe isn't really like this.


"Hey, Look At Me!"

Peter Marks may have discovered why some people come back as ghosts. 

This is not a book to be raced through and then put aside.  It is best taken in small doses and savored before moving on to the next tale, a few days or weeks later.  It has a long shelf life and won't spoil if ignored for a day or two or three.  Read each story and then let your mind play with it for a while.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Robert Grudin: Time and the Art of Living


"One need only to try to remember the dishes one ate for dinner on each night of the week past to realize that the things we desire as future and enjoy as present are not necessarily the things we value for all time.  In this sense memory sits like an incorruptible judge, oblivious to the minor pains and pleasures of the past even as we unreasonably overvalue identical pains and pleasures in the present and future."

Remember dinners for the past week?  I have problems remembering one dinner from the past week, or even a few days ago.  It is sobering, though, when I think of the times I have gone out, looking forward to a special meal at a restaurant, and now look back and try to remember when I went to that restaurant and what I had there.

Grudin also calls memory "an incorruptible judge" and seems to imply that it judges what's really important and what isn't.  That would mean that I remember only those things that are important and forget only those that aren't.  Yet when I do remember something that I haven't thought of in years, I am frequently perplexed as to why that has remained in my memory as it seems so inconsequential, so unimportant.  

I think it was Pascal who said "  "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of."   Well, maybe memory has its reasons also. 

The things you remember--are they always the important things?

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain LIII

This is another of the quatrains that first appeared in the Second Edition.

Second Edition:  Quatrain LIII

A moment guess'd--then back behind the Fold
Immerst of Darkness round the Drama roll'd
    Which, for the Pastime of Eternity,
He does Himself contrive, enact, and behold.

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LII
A moment guess'd--then back behind the Fold
Immerst of Darkness round the Drama roll'd
    Which, for the Pastime of Eternity,
He doth Himself contrive, enact, and behold.

As far as I can tell, there's only one minor difference between the Second and Fifth Editions:  "does" in the Second becomes "doth" in the Fifth Edition.  Why?  Perhaps he prefers the more Biblical or at least archaic sounding "doth" to the more contemporary "does."

This is the fourth in a series of linked quatrains that began with Quatrain L. It's "The Master"  who takes all shapes throughout Creation and then retreats back into the "Darkness."   The Master is the Dramatist who creates, enacts, and then watches the drama unfold.

It's a bleak answer to the perennial questions that have plagued humanity from the beginning:  why are we here?  where did we come from, and where are we going?  Is there a design or is it all chance? 

We are mere puppets, created to entertain The Master, to ease the boredom of eternity or the loneliness of being a solitary being.  This certainly relieves the burden placed upon us by some who insist that this immense, incredible universe was created solely as a testing ground for us, a means of determining whether we shall spend eternity in divine bliss or cursed by divine displeasure.  If we are just puppets, created for entertainment, then eating, drinking, and making merry seems a reasonable course of action.