I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream • 1967 • SF Horror short story by Harlan Ellison

★★★★

Synopsis:  Human civilization has been destructed a century ago by a world war between China, Russia, and the United States. Super computers have been created to run the war more efficiently, leading to one dominating antagonist, the sentient A.I. called „AM“, which eliminated all humans except four men and one woman. They live in a complex steered by the A.I. which keeps them immortal mainly to torture them endlessly. Their current quest is to get canned food, because they are always starving.

Review: Again, Ellison presents a huge spoiler with the given title: The protagonist sacrifices himself to rescue the others from torture. He is the only remaining human that the computer can act his hatred upon. His closing thoughts is the title. The story builds tension, develops the character of the main protagonist, and builds a terrific setting – all in Ellison’s graphic style. Nowadays, the humans would probably be set in a virtual reality, enabling more control and even more terror controlled by AM. But the story works also in the given setting.

Meta: isfdb. This short story appeared March 1967 in If, edited by Frederik Pohl. I’ve read it in German in his collection Ich muss schreien und habe keinen Mund, but it has been reprinted in a multitude of anthologies. It won the 1968 Hugo awards and is voted on place 4 of the best SF short stories in the 20th century by Locus readers.

 

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Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius • 1941 • Magical Realism short story by Jorge Luis Borges

★★★★★

A 17th century secret society „Orbis Tertius“ invents a fictional planet called Tlön and wills it into existence through cultural force. In this century long act, our culture changes also.

The main story is set in 1940 when the story itself was published in Argentinian magazine Sur. Borges and a literary friend solve a detective puzzle about a lost entry of an Encyclopedia where they find about a (fictious) land Uqbar somewhere near Iraq, uncovering the search to 1935. It feels like a Lovecraftian tale, where the narrator (in this case Borges himself) uncovers one clue at a time, that reality is a deception. An anachronistic postscriptum is set seven years in the future and, similarly to the footnotes, supports the fictious sources in a typical Borgesian way to lull the readers between belief and disbelief. It doesn’t contain a plot or action whatsoever but is a story of ideas, covering linguistics, metaphysics, and philosophy. It hasn’t got a tension arc but instead an arc of changing reality towards fiction, changing between these two layers. The ultimate goal ist to prove that mankind, like God, is able to create reality.

This story is worth a re-read, from back to front to really understand its inner workings. It is confusing, mind-blowing, and intellectually highly appreciated. Just don’t expect any pulpishness, action, or character development from it.

Meta: isfdb. Published May 1940 in Sur. Read in The Big Book of SF. Available online.

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Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind • 2007 • Post Apocalyptic short story by Rachel Swirsky

★★+

Summary: An asteroid ended human civilization, together with atomar fallouts and biological epidemia. This is the story of many lasts – the two last humans, one Aborigines girl and a man in Tibet, but also the last artist, the last music, the last scientific discovery.

Review: 53 repetitions of „last“ in a story with only a couple of pages – this is as repetitive as the morale hints. If you were drawn into the story by the New Waveish title and expected poetic narration, you will be disappointed. The story has its strong pictures and gives room for reflection about last actions and measures for selfishness. But it has no open ending and I didn’t like the staccato of changing POVs. Except for that, it is a very readable doomsday story.

Meta: isfdb. Published Summer 2007 in Subterranean Magazine. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online.

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The Seventeenth Kind • 2011 • SF novelette by Michael Marshall Smith

★★★+

Summary: A charismatic shopping channel presenter has to stretch the limits of his moderating capabilities when an alien calls in.

Review: The author shows his funny side in this QVC satire. It has been adapted as a half hour movie (which I haven’t watched). It works both as a comedy and as a tense intimate play focusing on that one midnight hour of product presentation with the host, his guest, and the alien.

Meta: isfdb. Published 2011 in Subterranean, Issue #8. Read in The Best of Subterranean.

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The Microscopic Giants • 1936 • SF short story by Paul Ernst

★★+

Summary: Mines are driven ever deeper because the world needs copper in the late phase of WWII. Shoed footprints of the size of three inches are found down there. Two engineers go down and discover one and half foot big humans swimming through concrete stone. They speculate that their bodies developed enormously dense under the huge pressure.

Review: A typical pulp fiction with an interesting trope of Hollow Earth providing an entertaining sensawonda like Old Mars stories. I found it interesting that the tiny humans are curious and dangerous explorers like us rather than dinosaurs. Not much of a plot or characterization.

Meta: isfdb. Published Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1936. Read in The Big Book of SF. Available online.

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Game • 2012 • Magical Realism novelette by Maria Dahvana Headley

★★★★

Summary: The narrator is a Shikari, an Indian big game hunter – in this case of man-eating tigers in the year 1950. 28 years after he lost a hunting friend to a tigress, he is called back to the same village. The villagers greet him „shaitan is waiting for you,“ and claim that the tigress is a vengeful ghost now.

Review: The framing story around the two time lines of 1950 and 1917 is a diary which never reveals the main character’s name. The author builds a very slow setup – think of one of those old style movies with lots of hunting in exotic countries. The tension develops as as the writer’s background which literally haunts him, is introduced. The plot twists, reader expectations are mislead perfectly.

Very satisfying, never creepy, highly recommended.

Meta: isfdb. Published 2012 in Fall Subterranean Magazine. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online.

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The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World • 1967 • SF Horror novelette by Harlan Ellison

★★★

Synopsis:  Serial killer Jack the Ripper appears in an utopian sterile futuristic city, committing one of his famous killings, returning to 1888 Whitechapel district in London where he continues killing. People from the future inhabit his mind to enjoy and comment the show like in a splatter movie. Recalled to the future, he runs havoc.

Review: When I read the story, it was taken out of context. Originally, it appeared in Ellison’s famous anthology Dangerous Visions which revolutionized SF in the late 1960s. There, it was a sequel to Robert Bloch’s „A Toy for Juliette“ where Jack the Ripper and Marquise de Sade’s Juliette are similarly set into a dystopic future. Ellison contrasted Bloch’s more suggestive narration with his graphic, and even poetic style. Some reviewers consider it as a kind of fan fiction. The Victorian London is contrasted with the futuristic city, and both are linked by the verbatim reported and extremely bloody acts by the killer. Although it is known that they happened in real, you have to stomach that narrative – I despise horror, and this is just splatter – so one star less for that one. Nethertheless, you can only admire the emotive, aggressive way Ellison expresses the acts, trying to shock and entertain his readers. The shock doesn’t come from the murders but from the nihilistic morale, the sociopathic voyeurs of the future which can be linked to our contemporary splatter movies.

Don’t miss the excellent discussion at the Ellison forum with loads of additional insights.

Meta: isfdb. This novelette appeared 1967 in Ellison’s anthology Dangerous Visions. I’ve read it in German in his collection Ich muss schreien und habe keinen Mund.

 

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Perfidia • 2006 • thriller novelette by Lewis Shiner

★★★★

Summary: On December 15, 1944, famous jazz musician Glen Miller disappeared over the English Channel on a flight between London and Paris. There are doubts on that official report and this story is telling a somewhat different tale.

Antiques collector Frank Delacorte won an ebay auction and finds out that it contains a wire recording from Glen Miller who plays his „Perfidia“ drunk in a Parisian whorehouse – only that it is taped three days after the mysterious flight. This would make it the discovery of the century and reveal a conspiracy of the U.S. Army to cover up Miller’s death. He sets out to trace back to the tape’s original owner and find evidence.

Review: I wasn’t able to put down those 40 pages, and they ended far too soon. Shiner used a straightforward, non-poetic narrative style with lots of details thrown in like the program’s name that was used to edit the records; you can easily take a walk of mind in his descriptions of picturesque antiques markets of Paris. He added several novelistic layers to the suspenseful thriller: a political exploration touching George W. Bush’s lies about the Iraq war comparable with Trump’s lies; a romantic affair; and links to his father’s background during WWII. It is certainly a different style than you might know from Shiner’s publications in Wild Cards or as a progenitor of cyberpunk with novels like Frontera – it isn’t SF at all but a contemporary thriller with only a hint of speculative fiction. As smoothly flowing as it is with believable characters you really care about, the relationship to Frank’s father and sister, and the uncovering of the central story, you’d have wished to read this as a longer novel. I recommend to let Shiner’s narrative power and imagination draw you in his Collected Stories.

Meta: isfdb. Published 2004 in the literary magazine Black Clock 2. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online.

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Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight • 1987 • Magical Realism novelette by Ursula K. Le Guin

★★★★★

 

“You fell out of the sky,” the coyote said.

Somewhere in the Southwestern US desert, little girl Myra survives a plane crash and drops from our ordinary reality into the mythic world of native magical animals. She becomes a part of the animal community and talks to trickster Coyote, wise matriarch Grandmother Spider, prince Horse, just to name a few of the so called Old People. The story isn’t exactly a tale for children – not only because of Coyote’s swearing, her talking with her shit, but also because of her fucking around – sometimes incestuous, just like in real life. Myra lost her right eye, and is shamanistically given a new eye made of pine pitch which gives her a twicefold strange vision of reality.

This intriguing story gives a lot food for thoughts and urges you to cross the border, just like Myra and Coyote. At the same time, it manages to stay on the light, humorous side. To get into that mood you might want to listen to the eponymous folk song which resembles the story’s style perfectly. It is one of the best examples of magical realism and true to Le Guins calm, and beautiful prose. Just don’t expect action in it. Alter your sight to get Western clarity and emotional depth at the same time: the human and the animal ways of seeing. It truly deserves the Awards of 1988.

Meta: isfdb. Published November 1987 in The Magazine of SF&F. It won the 1988 World Fantasy and the Hugo Awards, and was nominated for a couple of other awards.

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The Last Poet and the Robots • 1934 • SF short story by A. Merritt

★★

Narodny, the „last poet“, has evolved to a god-like state. He and a small, selected handful of scientists separated from the rest of the world and built a world of caverns where they create aesthetic experiments. Historical screen plays and futuristic art forms of every kind, are their thing. The outside world has been taken over by sentient robots with humans as slaves. Only when their music becomes distorted by an alien force, they take action, because „it occurs to me that the robots have never produced a poet, a musician, an artist.“

Abraham Merritt wrote for the pulps, and a typical pulp this story is: just ideas, no real characterizations, lack of believability, oversimplified plot resolution, and all the tropes: mad scientist, death rays, unlimited power, etc. What fascinated the readers are the ideas, here the conflict and marriage between art and science. Nowadays, A.I. is capable of producing very good haiku, e.g.

eons deep in the lake
I paint all time in a whorl
bang the sludge has cracked

They also create art, and music, and certainly will become better at it – just use your favourite search engine to dive into that fascinating subject.

Meta: isfdb. Published April 1936 in the Fantasy Magazine. Read in The Big Book of SF. Available online.

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