Weekly Read: The Illustrated Man

I think my first exposure to Ray Bradbury (on the page, at least) was Fahrenheit 451, which was a mistake.  Not because that book isn’t a classic – it is – but because novels really weren’t Bradbury’s thing.  He was a short story writer and he cranked them out at a furious clip.  Although I knew that, the only collection of his stories I’d ever sat down and read was The Martian Chronicles, in which the material is related enough that it’s sometimes considered a novel.

The Illustrated Man has no such pretensions.  Sure, there’s a frame story (about a man whose tattoos come to life and predict the future), but it has nothing to do with the stories themselves, each of which rises and falls on its own.  Most of them, naturally, not only rise but soar.  Highlights are too numerous to list completely, but include “The Veldt,” which must have been one of the first stories to deal with virtual reality, massive TV screens, and artificial intelligence.  There’s “The Man,” which takes the concept of being in constant pursuit of perfection to a different level.  “The Rocket” uses a nice bit of sleight of hand to tell a story about a father who’d do anything for his children.  The version I have even includes one of my favorite of the Martian stories, “Usher II,” in which a eccentric brings to life many of the horrors of Poe and visits them on those who would censor such things.

My two favorites in this collection surprised me.

The first was “The Long Rain,” which is essentially a survival story, which is generally not my kind of thing.  But the description (of a Venus that probably doesn’t resemble the real one) is so rich and the layer of madness on top so palpable that it really works.  How nobody has made this into a move yet is beyond me (it was one of a few stories adapted for a 1969 film called The Illustrated Man, but it wasn’t received well).  I’m thinking Alien meets Aguirre, The Wrath of God – somebody get Herzog on the phone!

The other, “The Fox and the Forest,” falls into one of my least favorite of sci-fi categories – time travel stories.  Such stories generally lead to me tearing my hair out.  I can’t really say why – maybe it’s because such stories normally deal with the byzantine rules of time travel itself and tend to disappear up their own backside.  But this story, perhaps because it’s a short story and doesn’t have time for such things, sidesteps that, as it deals with a couple who flee into the past to escape a dystopian future.

To be fair, one of the other time travel stories I really like is Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” so maybe he was just on to something when it came to time travel.

My wife isn’t a fan of short stories.  She prefers novels because she likes the longer work that allows her to get deeply involved with it.  I see her point, but short stories – good ones – dip you into another world so efficiently and effectively that they seem longer than they really are.  Certainly when you’re in the hands of a master that’s true.  Bradbury doesn’t disappoint.

“The Last Ereph” – Excerpt

Another little taste, this time from the title story of the new collection, “The Last Ereph.”

It’s not about a dragon. Obviously.

The cobblestones that paved these byzantine back alleys were not as clean as they appeared. Kol discovered this when his left foot, rather than pivoting him crisply to the right towards the open alleyway, instead slid out from under him. He did not fall. He managed to catch himself with his right hand. It stung, but was not broken.

More pressing, the slip caused him to lose momentum and provided the chance for one of his pursuers to loose an arrow towards him. It missed, but not by much, flying close enough that Kol could hear it zip past his left ear. Too close.

Kol took just enough time to glance over his shoulder and count–only two of them now. Still enough to catch him. Still enough to kill him. He regained his footing and sprinted down the alley.

Why did he always let people talk him into these things? On the surface they were wrong, but his friends always managed to convince him. “It’s for the best,” they said. “It must be done,” they said. “It is the right thing to do,” they said. If that is all true, then why did the duty to act always fall on him? Why would none of his friends ever risk their own skin? No one could ever explain that, on the few occasions Kol was bold enough to ask.

And this time, doing the “right thing” had the Corps of Constables chasing him like hounds after a hare. Whoever this gem belonged to, they were close enough to the His Eminence to have all his power deployed to retrieve it.

He could not outrun them. Kol knew, as a petty thief, that most of his marks, if they pursued him all, had no stomach for a prolonged chase. They would give up in five minutes at the most. It had already been fifteen minutes since Kol snatched the gem and the hue and cry went up. Two of his immediate pursuers had fallen away, but others would no doubt appear from who knows where.

What he needed was to disappear into one of the locked doors of the shops that lined the alley. All were closed and empty, thanks to the feast day. And Kol had never been a lock picker, only a thief. Picking locks seemed so much worse to him than merely taking something that was already available. He would be angry if someone picked the lock of his small room by the wharf. If someone took something because he left the window open, however, he could hardly blame them.

He kept running. The alley jogged left then right, so Kol followed, deftly clipping the apexes of the corners. The next turn lay about two hundred feet in front of him, a sharp right around which the alley disappeared from sight.

Directly in front of him, sunken into the wall at the end of the alley, was a door. This would be Kol’s best chance. If it did not work, at least the attempt should not slow him down too much. The jog, about 150 feet behind him now, should provide him some cover if the door did give way. If it did work, he would disappear as if into thin air, for all his pursuers knew.

Kol took a deep breath as he reached the end of the alley and flung himself into the door. As if by a miracle, it gave way. The surprise of success caused Kol to fall face first onto the dark, cool, stone floor inside. He had just enough time to recognize his good fortune before leaping towards the door, back first, to slam it shut.

He sunk to the ground, back against the closed door and the street outside. He held his breath, even though his heart was pounding, listening. There were footsteps. They did not stop. Instead, Kol heard them come and go, taking the turn and continuing down the alley. He was safe.

Kol exhaled and closed his eyes. Only for a moment, he told himself. Just to catch his breath.

The Last Ereph and Other Stories – available March 2, 2015.

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Weekly Watch: Enemies of the People

My wife and I recently returned from our belated honeymoon in Cambodia. It’s a fascinating place, filled with beautiful landscapes and wonderful people, but it’s still laboring to escape one of the greatest calamities of the 20th Century.

In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge – a radical faction of a one pan-SE Asian communist movement – stormed into Phnom Pehn. Over the next three-plus years (until the Vietnamese rolled in), the Khmer Rouge regime embarked on a brutal plan of forced ruralization to complete their revolution. Anyone seen as a dissident or potential traitor was killed. Starvation swept the countryside. Millions died, although the exact number will never be known.

Enemies of the People is a film by Thet Sambath, whose mother, father, and brother were all killed by the Khmer Rouge. Earlier this century he spent years gaining the trust of a small group of Khmer Rouge functionaries and getting them to talk about what they had done. A few were the lowest level foot soldiers, the ones who did the actual killing. But the big target was Nuon Chea, also known as Brother Number Two, the Khmer Rouge’s second in command. After years of rapport building talks, he finally confesses to ordering the killing (along with Pol Pot, aka Brother Number One).

The film is thus both about how a victim of the Khmer Rouge has come to terms with this history, but also how the killers themselves have done so. Unlike the subjects in the similar film from last year, The Art of Killing, the responsible parties here all express regret for what they did. Perhaps understandably, the ones who did the actual work – which they relate in horrifying detail – are the most contrite. Nuon Chea himself is sympathetic (particularly after Sambath reveals his family’s history), but still clings to some ideology that suggests it was something he had to do for the sake of the nation.

A formal apparatus for dealing with the Khmer Rouge’s crimes didn’t arrive until the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia were formed in 1997 (the post-Khmer Rouge unrest in the country didn’t end until 1998). Progress at the court has been slow and both of our guides questioned whether it would ultimately bring any kind of justice to Cambodia. Nuon Chea, at least, has had his day in court – he was convicted of crimes against humanity in 2014 and sentenced to life in prison. It’s clear that the country as a whole is still struggling with this bloody legacy.

Enemies of the People is a small film. Sambath begins by wanting to answer the question of why the killings happened, but he never really gets there. The best he can do is get answers from the men with (literally) blood on their hands (they would have been killed had they not followed orders) and the higher up who equivocates enough that you can see the monster behind his eyes. That it doesn’t find the answer to the big question doesn’t make it any less powerful.

“The Dragon of the Bailey” – Excerpt

Here’s a taste of “The Dragon of the Bailey,” one of ten tales from The Last Ereph and Other Stories.

This one is about a dragon. Obviously.

Lhai sniffed the water in his trough. Was the poison in there? He couldn’t tell. He cursed, not for the first time, that the Maker had given dragons such a poor sense of smell. What if he just didn’t drink it? How could they make him? He was as large as any of the guards. Bigger, if one counted his tail. His rough grey hide would be difficult for spears or swords to pierce. What could they do if he would not drink? But how could he refuse when he was so very thirsty?

He extended his wings, stretching nearly six feet from end to end. The cobalt blue feathers had come in fuller and thicker this time. It had been easy for him to swoop up to the perch yesterday afternoon, probably too easy. If he had resisted the urge to be away from these humans for a while, to sit above them and keep watch on their activities, maybe his keeper would have forgotten about the clipping. Another few days and perhaps he could have flown over the wall and away from this bailey. But his regular water and food disappeared a few days ago and the keeper would not let Lhai out of his sight. The clipping was near. His keeper was not so forgetful.

But now it was too late, and he was so very thirsty. He drove his head into the trough and gulped furiously, knowing that a deep sleep would soon overtake him.

~~~~~

When he woke up, Lhai could feel the cold iron and leather muzzle that had been wrapped around his face for the ceremony. It took a few moments before he realized where he was and for the throbbing pain in his wings to come to the fore. He gritted his teeth and tried to stand, but was stopped by a sharp yank on the chain that lashed him to the stone pedestal.

To one side, keeping a safe distance, was a priest. He held a large, worn, brown book in his hands and smiled nervously at Lhai when their eyes met.

To the other side, at the same distance but looking much more certain of himself, sat the one they called Lord Kala. He looked bored by the state of affairs, as if he had something better to do. Lhai hoped his unconsciousness had delayed the proceedings, just to be difficult.

Out in front of him, Lhai could see the crowd that had gathered in the courtyard below, huddled together against the chill of the damp morning mist that was so prevalent in these parts. There were a few dozen people, ringed by another dozen guards in polished armor, creating a makeshift fence out of tall, golden spears. What the Maker had taken from the nose, She had given to the ear, but the crowd murmured to itself, making it difficult for Lhai to hear the contents of any one conversation.

The crowd hushed when the priest raised the book high over his head and began to intone the prayer. Lhai had heard it six times before, every year on the anniversary of his capture, a day that also happened to be Kala’s birthday. For Kala, the coincidence made Lhai’s captivity all the more auspicious.

“And so the Maker, who is just and gracious,” the priest said, slowly and deliberately, “did promise that should any dragon come to your castle, then should you know peace and happiness.”

“Get on with it,” Kala said, slumped in his chair.

The priest picked up the pace, as ordered. “And so long as the dragon remains in your castle, the lord of that castle shall rule, with justice and mercy to his people.” The lines were well worn and got little reaction from the scrum.

As the priest continued, Lhai’s eyes caught some movement near the back of the crowd. He focused on a young boy, no more than nine years old, tugging urgently on the arm of the old man who stood beside him.

“Grandfather,” the boy said, in a loud whisper that was drowned out by the priest’s speech for everyone save Lhai. The old man tried to shush him, but the boy kept on. “Why does it wear a muzzle? Why is it chained down? If it wants to stay, why does it . . .,” the boy asked, before the old man put an end to it with a swift smack up the side of his head.

Lhai grinned, as best he could.

The Last Ereph and Other Stories – featuring “The Dragon of the Bailey” – available March 2, 2015.

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Weekly Read: The Leftovers

I came to The Leftovers via the HBO series that launched last year.  It took a lot of shit – most, I think, because it involves a central mystery that none of the characters are trying to solve – but I really liked it.  It was dark, kind of funny in a creepy way, and seemed like a more interesting take on the “Left Behind” phenomenon.  I decided the book would be a good way to pass the time on my recent long journey to Cambodia.  Naturally, the book is not the TV show and vice versa, but it’s interesting to contrast the two.

The most glaring difference is that the main character, Kevin Garvey, is the mayor of the small town in the book, whereas he’s been made the police chief in the TV show.  While that does let him be a bit more proactive with the town’s simmering conflicts, it robs the show of a character who is really doing his best to move the town past the trauma of the departure (a prime example of what a military history prof once referred to as the “Chamber of Commerce mentality).

Which is important, because it allows the Guilty Remnant cult to make a whole lot more sense.  On the show they’re always talking about not forgetting, but it doesn’t look like anybody is.  The book has a little more forward momentum, which makes the GR’s focus more logical.  They manage to come off as less aggravating but more purely evil on the page, however.

Another idea that gets much more developed is the charismatic Holy Wayne, including his rise and fall.  To be honest, that whole part of the TV show never really jelled, but it makes much more sense here.  Wayne comes off less as a truly supernatural healer and more of a New Agey con man who leaves a trail of hurt in his wake.

But overall, what struck me about the book is that it’s funnier than the show.  Not in a knee slapping “this is really hilarious!” kind of way, but just in the tone Tom Perrotta uses.  It comes off more as wry observation, as opposed to dark foreboding.  It’s enjoyable, which isn’t something I’d say about the show, no matter how much I like it.

The real question is where does the show go next?  The first season basically tracks the book, so the show runners are on their own as they go into the future.  Maybe with a little more freedom to explore their own creation they’ll find some of the lighter tone from the book.

On Influences

In the introduction of his new short story collection, Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman writes that “We authors, who trade in fictions for a living, are a continuum of all that we have seen and heard, and most importantly, that we have read.”  This is undoubtedly true of everyone, not just authors, but is has a particular resonance for creative types.  For one thing, talking about influences is a good way to suggest to readers or listeners what your own stuff might be like.  Except it doesn’t always work that way.

Years ago, when I first started putting music online, I was filling out a profile on the website that included a place for “favorites” that had influenced me.  I dutifully laid out an array of my favorite musicians – Genesis, King Crimson, Mike Keneally, Frank Zappa – and then realized that the music I was making didn’t sound a damned thing like any of that.  Regardless, somewhere deep in my brain, the synapses triggered by “Firth of Fifth” or “Watermelon In Easter Hay” were leading to the electronic bloops and blips I was pooting forth.

And so it is with writing.  On the front page here I’ve got a list of links to favorite writers.  It includes old favorites, like Asimov and Adams, and more recent discoveries, like Atwood, Martin, and Banks.  I like to think that some of those folks, at least, have had a profound influence on me.  But does that mean what I write sounds like them?  I hope not.

Part of that is because I’m not sitting down trying to write like anybody else.  I suppose if I just wanted to make some quick cash I could try to whip out an imitation Scalzi or Le Guin. But, aside from whether or not I could actually do such a thing, I write because I want to tell my own stories with my own voice.  I don’t want to sound like anyone else. Yet, I freely admit that what I do is backed by the work of so many others.

More so, by this point in my 41-year old life, I realize that my brain is such a mush of influences that it would be hard to pinpoint any one of them when it came to a particular story. Everything I’ve read, heard, or seen goes into my stories. Don’t believe me? Check some of the titles in The Last Ereph and Other Stories. If you’re a progressive rock fan, a couple might ring a bell. It’s fruitless to try and figure out what the accurate mix of things is.

Which is only to say that if you look down the links of favorite writers and think, “I like those writers, too” and “I hope he sounds like them,” you’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment. Without those expectations, however, I hope you’ll find an enjoyable reading experience, anyway.

Weekly Read: King Leopold’s Ghost

Yeah, I know, I should really start this feature out with a work of fiction, right?  But this is the last book I read and it was so powerful that I wanted to highlight it.  Besides, it could be worse – I could talk about a progressive rock album!

In 1877, Leopold II, king of Belgium, essentially bought what today is the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  For the next three decades, he ruled it like a fiefdom, exercising the kind of control he couldn’t in Belgium itself (pesky parliament!).  Along the way, he made a fortune exploiting the land and the native people, particularly once demand for rubber increased.  It’s estimated that half of the native population died, through direct violence, forced labor, and other means.

King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild, traces the machinations of Leopold in obtaining the Congo and the international movement that sprang up to oppose his rule there.  It was one the first, if not the first, modern human rights campaigns, waging an international battle in the press and halls of politics on behalf of an oppressed group of people.  Hochschild also does a good job of highlighting the horrible abuses of the Congo (severed hands feature prominently) without falling into simply cataloging them.  There is such a thing as atrocity overload, after all.  Nor was it limited to the Congo.  As Hochschild points out in the end, a lot of what happened there happened, in various forms, in other parts of Africa and Asia.

One interesting thread that runs through the book is the impact of the United States on the Congo.  The US was the first nation to recognize Leopold’s claim on the Congo (although we might have been duped, somewhat) and, while the Congo reform movement was born and led from the UK, major players also came from the United States, including George Washington Williams, an African-American historian who had the bright idea to actually go talk to Africans about all this.  Sadly, the thread runs all the way through Congo’s colonial days to the birth of the modern DRC and includes a CIA backed assassination of the country’s first democratically elected Prime Minister (too socialist) and the support of multiple presidencies (from Kennedy to at least Bush the Elder) for the military strongman who eventually replaced him.  Both the good and bad, then, of Congolese history is bound up with our own.

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