This week’s story is “The Lemmings” by Alex Comfort. Comfort’s most famous as the author of the 1970s era bestseller, The Joy of Sex. Maybe you peeked at it when you were a child? He was also a pacifist and a nudist. And while “The Lemmings” is a solidly okay story. But it does gain something by imagining it being screamed at you by a naked man carrying a sign that reads, “Wake up Sheeple!”
“The Lemmings” by Alex Comfort
Our nameless narrator travels to an island where he meets The Keeper whose job it is to tend the lemming colony on the island. Curiously, outside the title and the fact that the creatures are harvested for their fur, Comfort never refers to them as lemmings in the story. And while these creatures seem to match the Walt Disney fabrication of lemmings they’re also creatures with a sort of society. They form social groups and make laws and take pride in their appearance, and at a sign they march en masse into the sea to die. And that’s exactly what happens.
The narrator and the keeper chat about the creatures. The Keeper has affection for the creatures, but more as a curious dispassionate observer than as someone who will make any large changes to their existence. He crafts the creatures little medals that they award each other on their suicidal swim, and he dresses like a priest because it makes them more relaxed. A few lemmings refuse to take part in the mass suicide and suffer violence as a consequence, but by and large the suicide is approached as a necessary carnival mixed with a patriotic duty. Afterwards the Keeper and the narrator skin the drowned bodies once they start washing up on the island’s shore.
Wake up Sheeple! Etc.
Overall this is a barely off the nose sort of allegory with enough flourishes to make it rise above the straightforward. Like I said it’s solidly okay and doesn’t at all overstay its premise, and it’s jagged enough to have hooks that might even make it stay with you.
An odd aside, this story reminded me a little of Jack Vance. Except Vance would have either made it a footnote to a larger story or put an intergalactic casino nearby where jaded gamblers come to bet on the event and which would serve as the backdrop to some adventure short story.
Next week, another “Definitive Article Adjective Noun” short story.
I have a friend who has a theory. According to him every animal is one of four types: a bug, a slug, a rat, or a lizard. These are categories are less to do with the animal’s biology than how they interact with humans.
Slugs generate disgust, bugs generate extreme terror at their alien nature, lizards a more familiar terror (we might not like it but we can recognize their desire to eat us), and rats are familiar and knowable. Fish and birds are lizards, wolf and deer are rats, jellyfish and manatees would be slugs, and spiders, shrimp and hornets are all bugs. A test would be what would your reaction if you were to encounter a large one of these creatures.
So by this theory, any normal person who meets a large bug, no matter how peaceful its intentions, will default to abject terror at such an alien monstrosity.
And such is the exact premise of this week’s story.
“The Large Ant” by Howard Fast
Fast might be most famous as the guy who wrote Spartacus, which he did while in prison for contempt of congress since he wouldn’t give names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His output spans decades and I remember him largely through stumbling on his books in discount bins alongside Herman Wouk, James Michener, and Leon Uris. Those sort of Cold War era potboilers that had BIG THEMES. Or so I gather. This story’s actually the first thing I read by him. Like all decent writers he wrote genre.
Our narrator is a normal guy and knows humanity doesn’t have much longer to survive, not least because we’re violent murderous animals with A-bombs. You see one day our guy was on vacation at a cabin in the Adirondacks improving his golf swing. After a busy day of strenuous relaxation he’s sitting in bed reading, when he spies something monstrous in the room. It’s an ant but one that’s a bit over a foot long.
Being the normal guy that he is our guy instinctively grabs his putting iron and beats the thing to death the moment after he sees it. He then packs the corpse up and drives all night back home where he promptly gets in touch with an entomologist at the natural history museum. When he gets to the museum he finds the entomologist is not alone but has a number of government types waiting with him, scientists and military personnel. Our narrator then learns that these ants have appeared repeatedly, and seem to mean no one any harm, but unfortunately humans instinctively hate them and kill on sight. The scientists don’t know what to do, but they suspect the ants will stop being peaceful at some point and decide they need to get rid of us. All because we’re apes that can’t get over our terror response at the sight of bugs.
I feel like Fast here is playing in the Bug-Eyed Monster genre famous in the pulps and used by such as Heinlein, Haldeman, and countless others, only Fast posits that it will likely be us rats that prove the aggressor because we can’t imagine a bug that might come in peace. Or at least we couldn’t during the Cold War. This is one of those stories that posit that this is what normal people are like when it assumes that Post-War Americans are the human baseline. Removed from that era when I read, “this is what people are like,” I understand it more as “this is what we are like”.
It’s like The Lord of the Flies. That book’s commonly viewed as a universal statement on the human condition when it’s very specifically a critique of the British ruling class and their educational system. When a group of six schoolboys actually got stranded on an island their adventure proved very different than the book’s. My point being that these scientists and generals are like “humans will always kill bugs” when any perusal of #bugtwitter will prove otherwise.
Which is all me bringing too much reality to this story. “The Large Ant” is another fable in science fiction clothes that asks how can we expect to discover intelligent life when our very biological wiring might prevent us from recognizing it? Which is an interesting question to ponder and learn from, rather than viewing the story as a puzzle that needs to be solved.
Next week, a story by the guy who wrote The Joy of Sex.
This week has been a week as has every week before it this year except more so. It’s possible back in 2018 we had a week that wasn’t a week extra than a week, but if we did I don’t remember it. Not only has it been a week, but also I’ve suddenly become very busy at work and am likely to remain so until November.
And I do not like this.
Apologies in advance if things show up later or are slimmer than usual. I’ll likely default to slim over delayed, but there you go. It’s a bummer too, because I had plans… ambitions even. All those are on the back-burner for now. Or until I get more people on my patreon, because nothing motivates me more than feeling like I owe people “content”.
On to the story…
“A Dog in Durer’s Etching” by Marco Denevi
This is a story by someone I had never heard of before. From the introduction Denevi appears to have been a favorite of Manguel’s and this story comes from an unsuccessful anthology series Manguel edited. His idea was to give writers a prompt and tell them to write whatever they want on it. Denevi’s story comes from the volume where that Durer print above (The Knight, Death, and the Devil) served as the prompt.
I’ve written about Durer and Weird Knight Shit before and will happily declare that I am a fan of both. I’m also a fan of dense but flash-length, stream of consciousness rambling short stories. And this story delivers that too. It’s a single sentence. A near two thousand-word sentence.
The Knight is returning from the war. Which war? All wars, because every war is the same war when it is lived through. The Knight left home for the war as an innocent youth. He’s now returning a battle-hardened (and psychologically damaged) soldier. But it’s home, and as he rides towards it he reflects on war, and the schemes of princes and popes, and death, and God’s judgment, and the memories flow – memories of carnage, pillaging, and the like. Maybe he’s no longer a man at all but some desiccated husk of calloused flesh withering in a suit of armor. Maybe no man remains at all, and he’s only his armor. He rides on. He muses. He wonders at the webs woven by popes, princes, and emperors, and wonders about God. And then he sees a dog, and he realizes the dog doesn’t see at all the webs that rule its world. It has no way of working out the plots of pope, prince, or emperor. It is free from God’s judgment, but this in no way makes it safe. Or so the Knight muses. The dog does a bit of its own musing. It sees not the Knight, but the Death that rides with the Knight in the form of Plague. It knows this truth that the Knight doesn’t and barks, but the Knight can’t hear Death barking, and only hears the dog.
This isn’t so much a story as a trip. Denevi’s written a story with a virtuoso’s flourish that you read to experience the act of reading it. And I love that.
Next week: another writer I’ve only ever seen in the discount dollar bins.
Here are some recent books reads. Maybe you will find them interesting, or maybe you’d like to recommend something you’ve enjoyed.
Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells (Murderbot #3): I am a fan of the Murderbot series and this one delivered the usual murderbot goodness even if it wasn’t my favorite of the series. One thing was Murderbot didn’t seem to have any new shows to watch and obsess over so that quark in their voice wasn’t present as much as it had been in the first two books. And another confession is that I’m less into the conspiracy thread that links all these stories together and only have vague memories of who people are from the earlier books. All that said, if you like Murderbot, then this is good Murderbot. And if you haven’t read Murderbot then this is a recommendation that you should start. It’s a fine series about a security bot that has gained autonomy and found itself the protector of some humans in a very corporate nightmare interstellar science fiction setting. Each book delivers a good few hours of smart action entertainment.
The Sunken Lands Begin to Rise Again by M. John Harrison: This is a book where the bit that moves the plot has been intentionally left out, so you’re left reading about damaged people on the edge of a mystery that they can’t quite discern or even confirm exists at all. I can understand how anyone might hate that, but in the hands of a stylist like Harrison you get something else that looks closer to our lives as we live them within systems too large for us to comprehend. Nostalgia, conspiracy theories, grand paradigm shifts – it’s all here, while also being about a relationship between a man recovering from a breakdown and a woman mourning the death of her mother.
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock: This book’s what the old folks call “a trip”. The setting’s England in the late 40s and Steven Huxley has come back home from the war to find his father dead and his brother growing ever more obsessed with the nearby woods. From there it’s a psycho-symbolic Jungian quest story as Steven and his brother uncover the mysteries of Ryhope Woods. The Woods serve as something like a mythic resonator and draw archetypes from those near to it. When I say this is a trip, I mean it. Before long the brothers are in the infinite wood, questing for the center while locked in a struggle that hearkens back millenia to the end of the Ice Age.
Vast by Linda Nagata: Far future hard SF about a band of explorers onboard a spacecraft that’s seeking the origin of a threat to their civilization. It’s also a rather long extended chase scene as the explorer’s spacecraft is being pursued by an enemy spacecraft. While this does have some of the cringe of 1990s SF, it’s also undeniably a book that inspired a lot of books that came after it. It’s hard not to read Alastair Reynolds and not see the debt he owes Nagata’s work. (And he admits this, so that’s no slight on Reynolds.) There’s also a weird Cthulhu mythos vibe here that I find fascinating, and which I might write more about at some point in its own post. I’ll just say that vast is an apt title for this book, and Nagata makes you feel how life might be lived across such vast gulfs of space and time.
Silver by Linda Nagata: I read Vast so I could read Silver, which is a sequel to Edges which was a sequel to Vast, but Silver is also a sequel to Nagata’s novel Memory which had a completely different setting, so we’re in that territory where an author is trying to merge the streams, and it… works. One thing I loved is that all the characters inhabit technologically advanced civilizations, but interact with the technology in different ways, so at first both sides look down on each other before recognizing their similarities. I’ll also say I think Nagata has become more accessible since the 1990s, and this feels less like the Vast setting and more like her Memory setting.
Let’s jump right into it.
“In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka
I’m sure we’ve all read this story, but in case you haven’t and are cribbing from this blog to complete your English assignments (a foolish course of action, if I may say so), I’ll give you the particulars here:
In a penal colony, a traveler is present at an execution. An ingenious machine designed by the colony’s former commandant performs the execution. This commandant is dead now, but the machine’s current operator attends to the machine and the commandant’s memory with a near-religious devotion. Besides the traveler and the operator are a soldier and the convict awaiting execution. The convict doesn’t know his crime, or verdict, but it makes no difference to the operator since all this follows the former commandant’s designs. Much of the first half of the story is the operator describing the machine, its function, and operation in minute, pain-staking detail. (In my head I envision the device as something like a printing press mixed with some farm device that makes hay bails.)
When in top form, the machine’s intended to write the victim’s crime into their body over hours flipping and bandaging them this way and that until the convict’s attain the enlightenment of their guilt, die, and have their inscribed corpses dropped into a pit. But the current commandant is not a fan of the machine, seeking instead to be a reformer, and has allowed the machine to fall into neglect. This has made the operator increasingly annoyed at the current commandant as well as made the operator spend all his energies maintaining this slowly deteriorating machine.
A quick aside here: there’s a part of the machine that’s a bit of felt fabric used by the condemned to bite down on as the machine goes about its hour long inscription work. This felt is supposed to be replaced each time the machine is used, but the current commandant’s indifference has meant that the felt hasn’t been replaced in a while and has been reused over and over again despite being stained with the blood, vomit, and saliva of those that have been executed. Kafka can really paint a picture.
The operator finishes up his demonstration and then he and the soldier strap the convict down (with detail given to the filthy felt nubbin they need to force into the convict’s mouth). The whole while the traveler has wondered if he should somehow stop this procedure from happening. The fact that the condemned doesn’t even know their crime is particularly upsetting to him. Noticing something of the traveler’s discomfort the operator tries to recruit the traveler to his side against the new commandant, since he assumes the traveler is there as a “spy” for the commandant. The traveler refuses to take a side, but makes no point hiding the fact that the machine and the whole procedure disgusts him. The operator is shocked to hear this and makes a last effort to convince the traveler of the righteousness of the machine. The traveler won’t budge, at which point the operator realizes there’s no point trying to make people understand the beauty of the former commandant’s vision. He orders the convict freed from the machine, then strips himself down and takes the criminal’s place in the machine. Everyone is too shocked or distracted to stop him, but once the machine starts all eyes look to the machine and watch as it carries out its function. But neglect has taken its toll and very quickly the machine starts to breakdown and no longer function in the sublime fashion the operator described. Instead it just makes a complete mess of its inscription as it tears the man apart. In the end it botches the job so much that the corpse gets stuck to the device and the traveler is required to pull the bloody body off the spikes.
Afterwards the traveler prepares to leave, but makes a quick stop to visit the former commandant’s grave which is located at the back of a tea house. An inscription there tells how the commandant will one day return to bring order and glory to the colony. This upsets the traveler even more and he flees the colony as quickly as he can while preventing both the soldier and the convict from escaping with him. The end.
What can I say? That Kafka, right? Upbeat guy.
Now, I do find Kafka to be a bit too morbid and reading him at times feels like being stuck next to an eleven year old going on about the worms crawling out of a dead kitten’s skull, but for all this story’s excruciating absurdity, it’s all excruciatingly absurd in a way that you recognize as an accurate depiction of reality.
And there’s depth here, a vast undercurrent of critical commentary on colonialism, religion, and technological “progress”. The operator treats the original commandant with a devotion that gives the machine and the commandant’s notes on its operation a religious aspect. This is underscored by the convict’s ignorance of why he must be punished. The traveler’s presence, as a perceived agent of civilization, is seen as a powerful tool to validate or destroy the colony’s practices. You can swim around in this story’s depths. And the reversal at the climax, where the operator switches places with the convict, gives us some sense of relief, despite this story still being torture porn.
I mean, at least it’s some top shelf torture porn.
Next week, stories by people I’ve never heard of!