Sunday, 17 April 2016

Short Story Sunday 17: John Moore and Harry Turtledove

This is an exciting installment of Short Story Sunday. Well, maybe not for you, but it is for me. This marks the first collection that I’ve reviewed in its entirety (except for all of the non-fiction articles). I hope to review many more science fiction and fantasy stories and I hope you stick around and get inspired to read a few of your own.

For a long time I completely ignored short fiction, but in recent years it’s become an important part of my life. Due to an increasingly busier schedule and new responsibilities, I’ve got less time to read novels. I was sad about that at first (and I still kind of am) but I decided to view this as an opportunity to explore another part of literature I didn’t pay much attention to before. Like everything else, not all of the short stories I read are good. Some, even with their short length, aren’t even worth my time. Still, I’ve read plenty of good-to-great stories to remind me of how satisfying short fiction can be. Below are just a couple of good examples.

“Freeze Frame” by John Moore
Read in New Destinies Volume VI/Winter 1988 (1988), edited by Jim Baen
Originally published in New Destinies Volume VI/Winter 1988 (1988), edited by Jim Baen

There is something important to be said about brevity. In the right hands, a story can be more effective and is served better by being told in a shorter length. That length can help the writer, the story, and the reader focus on the important aspects of a given story while eliminating any distractions. “Freeze Frame” is a good example of a story that I believe is aided by it’s shorter than average length. At a mere ten page, Moore is able to create a realistic portrayal of a genius artist trapped in servitude to a family of incredibly wealthy businessmen and how that artist manages to find new meaning in the creation of a self-destructive masterpiece. Also, he’s essentially gained some form of immortality and doesn’t care.

This is a story with a punchline, one that I didn’t see coming but thoroughly enjoyed when I reached it, mostly because it had been setup nicely. My reaction and appreciation of “Freeze Frame” changed considerably as I read it. My initial reaction was that it was bland and barely qualified as science fiction (which disappointed me for a moment because I was in the mood for a particular flavour of science fiction). By the time I read the last page, I was more than sold. I want to champion this story, but a part of me knows that it’s not a masterpiece. It’s a solid story with no fat to trim away and I think that’s why I enjoy it so much. There is some room to expand which is something you can’t always say of short stories, especially today, since so many of them tend to run longer than they should or act as a springboard for a longer, novel length narrative. By the time I realized just how much I liked it the story was over. And that’s a good thing.

While Moore was brief in telling his tale, I have a few more things I want to add. “Freeze Frame” had plenty of really interesting ideas playing well together. They weren’t a series of idea hazardously thrown together, they really worked well in combination and that contributed to the success of the story. Things like the use and creation of colours for painting, how things change, either gaining or losing value, over time, the legacy of an artist. There are also themes are play such as financial success vs. recognition vs. self-satisfaction. For such a short story there is a lot more to chew on than I originally thought and I’m really satisfied with what I read.

Ranking: 4 stars
There is a good amount of subtlety to be found in “Freeze Frame”. It’s might not be mind-expanding or life-changing, but it’s clearly a solidly constructed and well written pieces of short fiction. I’d recommend it, in part because it has a nice amount of substance for its length, and because Moore presents his story in a way that benefits its themes and show offs its strength.

“King of All” by Harry Turtledove
Read in New Destinies Volume VI/Winter 1988 (1988), edited by Jim Baen
Originally published in New Destinies Volume VI/Winter 1988 (1988), edited by Jim Baen

“King of All” is a not-so-sci-fi, mostly alt-history tale of illicit drugs. In this case: caffeine. Inspired by comments from Jim Baen in New Destinies Volume IV about the legalization of drugs and their subsequent taxation, Turtledove takes this idea and expands it in a very short story about that same subject.

Instead of focusing on the politics and economics of such a scenario, Turtledove makes the case that change is really what we’re talking about when discussing the legalization of drugs. The title is taken from a passage from Herodotus:

During his reign, Darius summoned some Greeks who were present and asked them how much money it would take for them to eat their fathers after they died. They said they would not do so for any amount of money. Afterwards, while the Greeks were there and listening to what was through an interpreter, Darius summoned the Indians known as Callatiae, who do eat their parents’ bodies, and asked them how much they would take to cremate them. They set up a great outcry and told him not to talk that way . . . And so it seems to me that Pinda was right when he said custom was king of all.” –Herodotus, III, 38

With this story Turtledove argues that being the agents of change in our world is really what’s scaring some of the most vocal parties against the legalization of caffeine (or ).

Ranking: 3 stars                 
A very on-the-nose analogy which could have easily been a bore to read, but Turtledove manages to avoid an overly preachy tone. Instead, he uses a very functional and unchanging character to reframe the issue in an attempt to find the underlying concerns of the real world debate on legalizing recreational drugs.

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