Book Review: Dial M for Monkey

3 of 5*

Only 60+ pages; this quick read can be started and finished in well under an hour, and that alone makes it not a waste of time. The stories are a mix of “high impact” and “needs an editor” – I kept wanting to revise or strike his last lines, over and over.

Maxwell sticks to a format of “Here’s the story, wait, no there’s a twist coming up, TWIST”, expanding it sometimes to “Here’s the story, wait, no there’s a twist coming up, wait for it, wait for it, really I mean it, keep waiting, TWIST, he he he” for most of the collection. Most of the characters are middle-aged, blue collar, London-area blokes, and a lot of the humor is crude (“He got hit in the balls with a block, lol” type of stuff.)

Probably the best are “I Almost Spanked A Monkey”, “Sprouts” (which is one of the few near-genre stories in the book), and “Is That To Go?”. All use Maxwell’s preferred format successfully, and none go on too long.

The longer pieces aren’t quite as good as the flash, IMO, but at the same time Maxwell brings in an earthy, working class, feel to his fiction that I don’t often see in lit flash. It’s an important perspective because it’s not often published, and some of the pieces do work very well. Don’t read it because it’s the best ever (it’s not) but it is a valuable use of an hour, even if you’re only learning what not to do yourself.

What SF Wished It Was: a review of “Transit of Earth”, a Playboy Science Fiction collection (1971)

Overall: 3 out of 5 stars, with individual stories rated differently below. All male authors; anthology published in 1971, with stories originally appearing in Playboy Magazine from 1958 to 1971.

This is an excellent read for anyone wondering about this “classic” SF that certain members of SFWA and the genre community so desperately want to hold on to. It is, much like you’d expect, filled with reasonably well-off white males of middle age and up, who fancy themselves smart, well-read, charming, and wise in the ways of liquor, business, and women. There are a few gems — both in speculative literature and hard science — and a few that fall flat, with most in between. There are a couple of stories (including two by Ray Bradbury) which are decently written but not SF in any way, at all.

Of women, there are only a couple of stories which include them. Two with the “typical” flawed wife, causing her husband’s downfall; one prostitute, one burlesque dancer who refuses to be bought, one stewardess (with a mention of a couple others); one judge; one teen girl. All are mentioned briefly, all are devices around which the story maneuvers but never centers on. One is — implied — eaten by aliens, one causes her husband’s death, one inspires her husband to murder (her, he hopes, but not her, as it turns out). Two are murdered. The man with the prostitute is relieved when she asks for money so he won’t have to worry about the stress of either wooing or leaving her. The burlesque dancer is murdered because she doesn’t agree to become a prostitute. The two married women and the judge get full names; the prostitute, dancer, and teen girl don’t get named at all — though the men are fully named in every story.

Aside from the mutant human “toys” in “Cephalotron” and the undescribed maybe ethnicity of “Dr. Ramos” in “Speed Trap”, everyone in the entire book is white — though variations of Irish, California Irish, Italian, Canadian Italian, and Jewish are made clear, as if that’s just enough diversity, thank you, but no more.

For the most part, the tales are sprinkled with words big enough to ensure the readers had a college education, or at least the kind of respectable book learning that comes from being poor but a constant in the library, or having associated yourself with academics as part of your business. Lots of first person narration; emphasis here on “I am a man’s man, a smart, science/business savvy man that you wish you could buy a drink for, let me tell you my story ” with a few “let me tell you the story of how some other man failed to be as awesome as me as suffered for it” types thrown in.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything to love in this collection! A couple of these stories serve as master classes in how to do that sort of story right, and are worth the price of admission for them alone. Even if you’re not interested in learning to be a better writer, read this collection for the history lesson, and increased awareness in what women/PoC/QUILTBAG/international authors/anyone different have to overcome when trying to write — or find themselves in — American science fiction.

5/5* “Transit of Earth” – title story. 1st person narrative. Starts with statement of inevitable death, comparison to historical figures. Placement in time and space. Excuse for narrative (final thoughts before death). Story begins by contemplating 3 options for death (1 inevitable, 2 choosing earlier deaths) and explains why none suit hit. Also reveals he wasn’t quite right for the mission because he’s afraid of underwater suffocation. Via narrative, it’s revealed he started training in his 20s. It’s May 11, 1984 now. He’s on Mars, awaiting the transit of Earth. 4 other crewmen stranded with him but they’re dead now; 10 others took off for Earth already. End hints at possible rescue he’s ignoring, also strange deaths of his comrades. Did he kill them so he could live long enough to see the transit? Grand finale, exit stage left.

2/5* “Button, Button” Average punchline horror story and mid 20th century misogyny. Typical grasping wife feels she deserves more. Noble but distant husband refuses to trade a stranger’s life for $50k but the wife takes the deal behind his back. “For us,” she says, but really, for her. Husband killed, wife gets $50k insurance and a message (when she protests it was supposed to be someone she didn’t know): “You didn’t really know your husband, did you?” *yawn* Credit given for the fact this is an early example in SF, but isn’t even the 1st. (more…)

Current State of the To Be Read Pile, May 2014

I spent part of the weekend sorting and assembling my current reading list. I’m limiting myself to actual print books at the moment because my backlog is enormous, and because my ebooks tend to be fiction: short story collections and novels. Right now, I want to focus on reading to fill in the gaps in my education, support my academic research, and finish a bunch of reviews for books I’ve already read (which means going over them again).

Some of these are books I’ve had for a couple of years; a big group of them are from my recent excursion to the annual library book sale. I’ve sorted them by my goals, not by the order in which I expect to read them.

Literary Studies (aka, Carrie’s Build Your Own MFA Program)

The Aleph and Other Stories, Jorge Luis Borges
The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer; trans. by Frank Ernst Hill (1932 edition)
The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain, ed. by Charles Neider
Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics, volume 1
The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics, Dennis O’Neil
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
Virtual Unrealities, the Short Fiction of Alfred Bester
12 Classics of Science Fiction, ed. by Groff Conklin
The Best American Noir of the Century, ed. by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler
Bradbury Stories, 100 of his most celebrated tales
Colonial & Postcolonial Literature, Elleke Boehmer
A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, 2 volumes, ed. by Anthony Boucher
Black Noir, mystery, crime, and suspense fiction by African-American writers, ed. by Otto Penzler
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm
Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges
English Literary Criticism: The Medieval Phase, J.W.H. Atkins (1943)
English Literary Criticism: The Renascence*, J.W.H. Atkins (1947)
English Literary Criticism: 17th and 18th Centuries, J.W.H. Atkins (1951)
An Age of Criticism, 1900-1950, William Van O’Connor (1952)
The Complete Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
Future Imperfect, James Gunn
The Best of Judith Merril
Orbit 2, ed. by Damon Knight
Strangers in the Universe, Clifford D. Simak
The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing, ed. by Tara L. Masih
Ellison Wonderland, Harlan Ellison
Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
The Female Man, Joanna Russ
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
Mindswap, Robert Sheckley
Stories From the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling
The New Weird, ed. by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer
The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
Horror, Filipino Fiction for Young Adults, ed. by Dean Francis Alfar, Kenneth Yu
Demons of the New Year, an anthology of Horror Fiction from the Philippines, ed. by Karl R. De Mesa, Joseph Frederic F. Nacino
The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebub Wristlet, ed. by Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, ed. by Kate Bernheimer
Other Worlds, Better Lives, a Howard Waldrop Reader
War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells
On the Beach, Nevil Shute
Watership Down, Richard Adams
So Long Been Dreaming, ed. by Nalo Hopkinson & Uppinder Mehan
The Age of Fable, volumes 1 to 4, Bullfinch
The Golden Bough, Frazer
Stars Fell on Alabama, Carl Carmer
French Realism: The Critical Reaction, 1830 – 1870, Bernard Weinberg (1937)
A Treasury of New England Folklore, ed. by B.A. Botkin (1947)
The Rise of The Novel, Ian Watt
The Art of the Novel, Critical Prefaces, Henry James
Beowulf and thee Finnesburg Fragment, trans. by John R. Clark Hall, preface by J.R.R. Tolkein (1911)
Intersections, ed. by John Kessel, Mark L. Van Name, Richard Butner
Lost in the Funhouse, John Barth
Edmund Spenser’s Poetry, ed. by Hugh Maclean and Anne Lake Prescott

(and about 100 lit magazines)


Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, Douglas Keister
Old Books & New Histories: An Orientation to Studies in Book and Print Culture, Leslie Howsam
Book History, Volume 14, 2011
An Introduction to Book History, David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery
All In Color For a Dime, ed. by Dick Lupoff & Don Thompson
The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, David Hajdu
How Pathogenic Viruses Work, Lauren Sompayrac
The Circus Age, culture & society under the America big top, Janet M. Davis
The History of Japanese Printing and Book Illustration, David Chibbett

To Review

The Future is Japanese, ed. by Haikasoru
Interfictions 2, ed. by Delia Sherman & Christopher Barzak
SuperNoirTural Tales, Ian Rogers
North American Lake Monsters, Nathan Ballingrud
Manila Noir, ed. by Jessica Hagedorn
MIND MGMT, volumes 1 and 2, Matt Kindt
Asimov’s Science Fiction, April/May 2014
Project 17, Eliza Victoria
Now, Then, and Elsewhen, Nikki Alfar
Demonstra, Bryan Thao Worra
Mockingbird, Chuck Wendig
Blackbirds, Chuck Wendig
Through Splintered Walls, Kaaron Warren

*spelled as titled

Note: the DIY MFA list isn’t meant to be a recommendation, or all-encompassing. It’s the place I’m starting to read through a wide range of material. When I’ve finished a text, I’ll review it here, and if it’s something I’d suggest you read, I’ll add it to my DIY MFA page.


What I’ve Been Reading: Rickert, Burstein, Sharma, Tobler

This week’s reading was a collection of stories I randomly discovered online, either because someone recommended it, or because I stumbled it across it while looking for something else.

The Mothers of Voorhisvill”  by Mary Rickert, (novella)

5 out of 5 stars

There is a grandeur to Rickert’s work which is almost immediately obvious but not overwhelming. You begin to read the tale she’s written, sentences unfolding simply, with hints of strangeness, until a few paragraphs in you start to see the edges of the world she’s created — and it hits you. It’s never “let me tell you about every aspect of this setting for three pages before anything happens”. It’s not “this happened and then this happened and then this happened”. She understands her characters, where they live and how they move about in that place, so well that when she writes the story, it’s just you (the reader) and them (the fictional characters), having a dialogue.

Reading Rickert is like listening to the chatty neighbors you’d never noticed until they happened to be the most fascinating people you’ve ever met. You’ll find everything you’re looking for by the time it’s done.

The shape of this story is as a series of interviews conducted with various women who’ve, they admit at the beginning, done something terrible, or wonderful, and now they’re explaining why. There’s contrast between the things they’re admitting, the events they’re saying didn’t happen quite that way, and and the moments of “well, sure, it did happen, but she’s completely wrong about the way she describes it”. We read how the women see not only the events of the story but their own worlds so differently from one another. All the pieces of “Mothers”, not disparate but simply not the same, weave together until what you finally have is so large, so monstrous and beautiful and greater than you’d imagined, that “grandeur” is the best word to describe it.

There are definite hints of Witches of Eastwick, and Nightvale, but there are sensual details — the hundred scents, the beauty of light, of women, of creative arts — which swell as the women do, breaking free from other influences. Those details carry on as the story changes, gets darker and more desperate, breathing life into individual moments with the names of board games, the color of jam. It’s real without being weighted down; terrible in the way that it makes perfect sense. I continue to be in awe of Rickert’s ability to tell a complete story, full without going on for too long, like a ripe peach on the last day before it’s plucked and eaten.

Kaddish for the Last Survivor” by Michael A. Burstein, Apex Magazine.

2 out of 5 stars

A SF tale about Holocaust deniers? You might think it would be preachy, pointed, too invested in its message, and Burstein’s story is all of those things. It was also nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2001, and it’s worth figuring out why. (more…)

What I’ve Been Reading: Essays

So far in January, I have read:

Am I Black Enough For You? Rumpus, Retha Powers, January 2014:

“I was black. I wasn’t black enough. I was too black. Sometimes I was so upset there was nothing to do but sit down and eat a pack of Oreos—alone, of course. But for years I wouldn’t feel comfortable eating the crème-filled sandwich cooking without pausing for the fleeting impulse to turn and see if anyone was looking. Oh look, an Oreo eating an Oreo! (It’s still not my cookie of choice). I was being pigeonholed; and as Jessye Norman said, pigeonholing is interesting only for pigeons.

Not-Knowing, by Donald Barthelme.  Not Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme. Ed. Kim Herzinger. New York: Random House, 1997. Barthelme says, “Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing; a forcing of what and how.” It is, at least in part, definitely that.

Ethnography and Speculative FictionEthnography Matters, Claire Anzoleaga – explores speculative fiction from a communications studies and ethnography angle:

“For those of us who write ethnography, it is widely known that the truths we encounter and write about will never have a capital “t” in its purest, most-reducible sense. Ethnography written as speculative fiction fits smoothly into this understanding of interpreted truth-painting. It is an analytic approach which interprets data collected from the field and reimagines that data through narratives of fantasy, horror, and utopian/dystopian adventures with academic theory.”

Read it as part of the discussion on inclusion, diversity, and how/whether to write the “Other”. The rest of the site has a lot more to say about ethnography, which I studied as part of my History of Art degree, and keep in mind when I write fiction myself.

Biotechnology and Speculative Fiction, Brian Stableford – argues that writers have a moral obligation to write optimistic futures. Well, I disagree, but I think this essay gives a nice overview of biotech in SF pre-2000.

Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, Esquire, Gay Talese, April 1966 – this classic profile of a hostile subject is considered one of the best pieces of creative non-fiction ever published. Recommended because of the way Talese uses language, bringing color back into journalism to liven up a field of writing that had gone from sensationalist gossip to “just the facts” and was now edging into something reminiscent of literature:

“He wore an oxford-grey suit with a vest, a suit conservatively cut on the outside but trimmed with flamboyant silk within; his shoes, British, seemed to be shined even on the bottom of the soles. He also wore, as everybody seemed to know, a remarkably convincing black hairpiece, one of sixty that he owns, most of them under the care of an inconspicuous little grey-haired lady who, holding his hair in a tiny satchel, follows him around whenever he performs. She earns $400 a week.”

It also famously recalls an incident between Sinatra and Harlan Ellison; of note to SFF fans and historians. (more…)