“The Stolen Church” by Jonathan Carroll (2009, free at Conjunctions, also in The Woman Who Married a Cloud: The Collected Short Stories)
Tina and Stanley, married for five years, are in the lobby of a nondescript apartment building, waiting for an elevator to take them up to visit his parents. The only problem is, Stanley’s parents are dead. Tina can’t understand what Stanley is thinking, whether he’s serious or not. She’s about to walk out when a man in full clown costume and make up shows up with two yapping pugs and introduces himself as Stanley’s father Alfons.
It’s a surreal story, one that takes a turn toward the commonplace that lulls the reader into thinking the factual key to the story has been revealed, and then suddenly takes another turn to become surreal again, in a completely different but conceptually compelling way. Jonathan Carroll loads his fiction with brilliant writing and offbeat fantastical elements. In “The Stolen Church,” despite the disparity between the two halves of the story, they work together to disclose uncomfortable truths about relationships and the secrets we keep from each other. ~Tadiana Jones
For a classic SF blast from the past, we have Philip K. Dick’s “Second Variety,” a gripping tale set in a post-apocalyptic world where a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the American bloc has turned the earth into an uninhabitable wasteland. The two sides are still fighting, though there is little left to fight over. The West, which was losing the war, have developed lethal, self-replicating robots that they call “claws,” spinning spheres of blades that ambush and kill any living thing, except those people carrying radiation-emitting tabs that temporarily turn off the robot claws (yes, you can tell this was written in the 1950’s).
The Western forces receive a written message from the Russians, urgently requesting a meeting. Major Hendricks travels by foot to the meeting. On the way, Hendricks meets a vulnerable-looking young boy, David, who carries a teddy bear. David tags along with Hendricks to the meeting ― where Hendricks gets the shock of his life. But it’s only the first of several shocks for him. The West’s robots have taken self-replication to a whole new level. Some of their new varieties are known, but the second variety hasn’t yet been identified. And that could be lethal to all humans.
“Second Variety” is a fine example of classic science fiction, one in which there’s actually a strong and intriguing woman character. It managed to remind me of both the Alien and Terminator movies. It’s an action-filled story that nevertheless asks important questions of humankind, questions that remain relevant in our day, when the countries warring have shifted somewhat, but armed conflicts continue and have become increasingly high-tech.
“Second Variety” was loosely adapted into the movie Screamers in 1995. If you click on one of the Gutenberg links to this story, skip the versions that include images, since the original illustrations show up too early in the text and spoil some of the surprises. ~Tadiana Jones
Like Ballroom Blitz, reviewed by Skye below, “The Green Knight’s Wife” is a retelling of an old tale in a modern day setting. In the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which the Green Knight, carrying a large axe, challenges King Arthur’s knights to a friendly “Christmas game”: whoever will strike a blow at the Green Knight will win the axe, provided he accepts a blow in return in a year and a day. Sir Gawain accepts the challenge and beheads the Green Knight with his blow, but the Green Knight picks up his head, which reminds Gawain to honor the challenge and meet him at the Green Chapel in a year and a day. Gawain does so, but on his way to the chapel stays a few days at the castle of a lord (who is actually the Green Knight), where he undergoes more challenges to his honor and truthfulness when the lord requires him to give to him anything that he is given while at his castle, and then the lady of the castle, his wife, appears in his room to tempt him with kisses and romantic advances.
In Kat Howard’s version of the tale, the Green Knight’s wife gives her side of the story. Her husband has been playing this same dangerous game with men for centuries ― but now it’s usually at corporate parties, with television crews filming the confrontation. The wife has been playing along all these years, but she’s getting tired of the game, and the blood and death. And then one day the challenger doesn’t show at the end of his year.
This story loses much of its impact unless you’re familiar with the plot of the original tale, but a review of a summary of the poem was enough to make me appreciate “The Green Knight’s Wife.” It’s a rather straightforward tale, but I liked the modern twist to it, especially the reality television angle. ~Tadiana Jones
In a modern retelling of the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” the novelette Ballroom Blitz concerns twelve brothers who have been cursed to live in limbo at a night club. Every day they do as the bartender says, and every night they dance to forget the predicament they are in.
Our story picks ups after the brothers have been at the club for an indeterminate, yet quite long, amount of time (they aren’t sure, but it has probably been years). Suddenly hope arrives. There is one way to break the curse and the brothers think it just walked through the door.
Ballroom Blitz deals with themes of alcoholism, mental health struggles, and the strength (or lack thereof) in familial ties. Although I was interested in how the author interconnected these ideas, I felt that it was a surface overview in all cases. Alcoholism comes up almost casually in this novelette, which I felt neither strengthened nor detracted from the story as a whole. It served as a small bit of world-building, with the characters living in a club and all, but wasn’t strictly important to the arc of the plot. Where I was really looking for more depth was in the discussions of mental health. The toll of various mental health problems on the characters was mentioned, and fueled a large part of the plot, but it felt like a very superficial understanding.
Besides the eldest brother, none of the other siblings took on much shape beyond a number, and rarer still were named. Though it didn’t impede my reading of the story at first, I think the ending would have been more convincing and powerful if those relationships were given more depth.
These aspects added up to me not loving Ballroom Blitz. The twist on the tale and the few deeper characters kept me going, and provided an engaging ― if not as nuanced as I’d like ― story. ~ Skye Walker
“Water Can’t Be Nervous” by Jonathan Carroll (2012, free at Subterranean Press, also in The Woman Who Married a Cloud: The Collected Short Stories)
A man tells his girlfriend about his unauthorized excursion into another apartment in their building, which is under renovation. Their dialogue reveals the tension in their relationship, the various things they say and do that irritate each other. The story abruptly ends when the man pulls two hand puppets off his hands and sets them down on the table. His girlfriend gave him the puppets as a breakup gift, and now he uses them to reenact old scenes and discussions between himself and his ex-girlfriend, analyzing where things went wrong.
“How long have you felt this way?” the female puppet brought her short arms together again and again as if clapping to get his full attention.
The little man on his left hand turned away from her just like he had done that night when she asked that question. “I don’t know; for a while.”
“For a while? And you didn’t tell me?”
In situations like this there is almost always at least one moment of absolute annihilating clarity: A moment when you see things, people, or a situation so clearly that afterward there can be no doubt of the truth. But as significant as the epiphany can be, even more important is what we choose to do with the knowledge once we have it. Acceptance is logical but denial is so much easier and more comfortable.
While reading this, for the longest time I wondered whether this was actually a speculative story. But Carroll’s writing is so strong, and his observations on relationships so insightful, that I really didn’t mind whether it was or not. When the fantasy element finally appeared in the final paragraphs, an otherwise excellent story went off the rails. It simply didn’t mesh well with the rest of this tale. Despite my love for fantasy, in this case I think that if Carroll had left out three paragraphs that contain the fantastical reveal, it would have greatly improved the story. But the rest is good enough that this story still well worth reading. ~Tadiana Jones
In Bangalore, India, pollution has become an ever-increasing problem that affects the health of the people living there. Moena Sivaram, a brilliant and wealthy young bioremediation scientist who is especially vulnerable to the many deadly pathogens, has created an airtight home, her own individual biome, that protects her health but seals her off from the rest of humanity as well as from microbes. When one of the panels of her home breaks down, Moena meets and falls in lust with Rahul, a handsome repairman who is also working as a volunteer with a group trying to reduce the effects of pollution. Tempted from her safe home, Moena risks her health and life to get to know Rahul by volunteering to help his ecological group, creating a fake identity to better match her apparent station in life to his.
The world-building is interesting in this story, especially Moena’s biome home, but the superficiality of the relationship pulls it down, especially when compared with the more complex relationships and insights in Jonathan Carroll’s stories. And from a scientific point of view, the solution Moena develops ― and unilaterally implements ― to assist with polycarbonate breakdown in the waters of Bangalore is alarmingly untested. ~Tadiana Jones