Archive for the ‘science fiction’ Tag

[50/50] Short Stories #10 & #11: Isaac Asimov

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

Short Story #10: The Ugly Little Boy (1958)
Short Story #11: The Dead Past (1956)

IsaacAsimovIsaac Asimov was astoundingly prolific, writing and editing hundred of books, and several thousand short stories and essays, all while teaching biochemistry at Boston University. (He also wrote a large chunk of his best known work — The Foundation Trilogy — while getting his Pd.D in his early 20s … slacker.) Asimov’s fiction is recognized more for its interesting concepts (such as his Three Laws of Robotics & Psychohistory) than its literary value; most of his novels and short stories are sweeping intellectual exercises, locked room mysteries, puzzles of logic, and celebrations of awful puns. What they are not known for is their depth of emotion.

This was not the case with “The Ugly Little Boy,” a time-travel tale that finds the good professor at his empathic best. A child psychologist is called in to care for a small neanderthal boy swept up in an early experiment with a time machine. She finds she spends more time trying to protect him from scientists who don’t consider him human, and a corporation that plans to exploit him in the media to get more grants. Due to the nature of the temporal device — a particularly clever and original idea of Asimov’s based on the Conservation of Enegry — the boy can never leave the room he is kept in. Asimov uses “The Ugly Little Boy” to raise all sorts of ethical questions about the intersection of science and business, but keeps the maternal relationship that develops between the woman and the boy at the heart of the story (including a kicker of a finish I won’t spoil here.) Needless to say, it is the only Asimov story you are ever in danger of tearing up over.

His most interesting short story, “The Dead Past,” also taps an emotional vein — and in a very real fashion, accurately predicts open source distribution, wikileaks, and modern surveillance issues 50 years before they became reality. It posits a future where the government keeps tight reins on scientific research — a position that is easy to maintain because everyone has become so specialized in their field they can only do one thing. When a historian, physicist and journalist team up to invent a chronoscope, a device to view the distant past, they run afoul of a government agent.

However, just when you think it’s going to be a straight-forward tale of “bad bureaucracy/good scientists,” it turns out everyone has ulterior motives: the historian is obsessed with finding out if he was responsible for a house fire that killed his only daughter decades before, an tragedy that has ruined his marriage and nearly driven his wife insane with grief. The physicist and journalist, frustrated by what they see as the oppression of knowledge, have released the plans for the chronoscope without thinking of the consequences, insuring anyone can build one and spy on their neighbors. And it turns out the government agent had everyone’s best interest in mind all along, hoping to protect the public. As he says in the closing paragraph:

“When people think of the past, they think of it as dead, far away and gone, long ago. . . . But when did the past begin? A year ago? Five minutes ago? One second ago? Isn’t it obvious that the past begins an instant ago? The dead past is just another name for the living present. What if you focus the chronoscope in the past of one-hundredth of a second ago? Aren’t you watching the present? . . . . There will be no such thing as privacy.”

[50/50] Song #42: “Science Fiction/Double Feature”

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

rocky-horror-picture-show lipsSong #42:  “Science Fiction / Double Feature” — Richard O’Brien, from the Soundtrack to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975)

With songs like “Sweet Transvestite” and “Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me,” The Rocky Horror Picture Show is strangely the one rock opera I can still take seriously — it’s also the only one that has held up over time. While I never got caught up in the costumes and the whole cult of it,* I also can’t tell you how many times I went to see it.

Strangely enough, the movie flopped when it first came out. Eventually, when the midnight showings caught on, it would help launch a half dozen careers, including Susan Sarandon, Tim Curry, and, yeah, Meatloaf. It’s appeal was obvious — the soundtrack fucking rocked. I remember driving back from a party in Philly one weekend with a carload of friends who belted out the songs as we careened down the turnpike (well, at least until the denouement … we all agreed the musical falls apart toward the end.)

The beginning on the other hand … the first number for “Rocky Horror” is still one of the greatest opening credits of any movie ever: just a red mouth and white teeth chomping in the dark, lip synching to the song “Science Fiction/Double Feature” and perfectly setting the mood:

*Ok, I did bring rice. And toast. And maybe a squirt gun. But that’s it.

[50/50] Short Story #17: “All You Zombies”

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

Short Story #17: “All You Zombies” — Robert Heinlein (1959)

beauchamp scifi books 615It is possible Heinlein will end up on this list more than most authors, and I’m not going to apologize for it. It’s not his fault libertarians and gun-nuts and “constitutional scholars” have glommed on to the guy for his (admittedly) libertarian beliefs. Of course, that makes it all the more hilarious when you consider Heinlein spent a good deal of time also writing (approvingly) about group marriages, cannibalism, incest … huh, maybe that’s the real reason Tea Party types like him…

Yes, Heinlein was the undisputed captain of crafting logical, well-reasoned fucked-up shit, and there is no better example than “All You Zombies,” the last short story he would publish. There are no undead in “Zombies,” just lots and lots of time travellers. In fact, Heinlein perfected the closed time-loop concept with this hardscrapple tale of a guy who both his own mother and father. A self-made man indeed —literally.

Want to know what you missed? — The Book Countdown so far

[50/50] Short Story #20: “Day Million”

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

Short Story #20: “Day Million” — Frederik Pohl (1966)

Boy meets girl in Frederik Pohl’s little ditty about a day 1,000 years hence, as the author proceeds to challenge the very definitions of love, sex, gender and the structure of the short story — all within five tidy pages. Whenever I see how sad and pathetic the Sci-Fi Channel has become, I want to point at this short story and say, “This. THIS is ‘Imagine Greater’.”

You can find “Day Million” in a number of short story collections, or you can read this here pee-dee-eff: