Saturday, February 13, 2016

Short Takes on Short Stories

I don’t normally review short stories, but the current issue of Analog (March 2016) features the excellent “The Coward’s Option” by Adam-Troy Castro. This is an Andrea Cort story, but it works well for a reader who hasn’t read the previous stories. Cort is a total misanthrope, and her Diplomatic Corps finds her cynical, unrelenting pursuit of justice useful in her job as a prosecutor.

Cort cares nothing about the perpetrator in this case, who obviously deserves death for his murder of an indigenous person on this alien planet. What intrigues her is these aliens have a “coward’s option” as an alternative to the death penalty. Since this society despises cowards, she wonders if this alternative is worse than death. If you read this issue of Analog, you’ll find out.

I’m also making my way through Worst Contact, edited by Hank Davis. Obviously a riff on “first contact,” these short stories tell of first contacts between humans and extraterrestrials that go bad for the humans, the extraterrestrials, or both. My favorite is an old one, “Puppet Show” by Fredric Brown, written in 1962. If you ignore some of the dated details, it’s quite hilarious.

Also worthy of mention is “The Flat-Eyed Monster” by William Tenn, written in 1955, which is almost as funny. It concerns a professor who is transported to a planet of aliens with bulbous eyes at the ends of their multiple tentacles, who finds out they can be as boastful and egotistical as humans. There’s also “Early Model” by Robert Sheckley, written in 1956, about an astronaut whose personal force field keeps snapping on automatically when aliens try to approach and make friendly contact with him.

Despite the above, not all the stories are old, and not all of them are funny (but the older ones tend to be so). So Worst Contact contains a generous amount of older stories, mixed with some newer ones.

The short story among those I’ve read recently that I recommend the most highly is the original version of Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. (It’s not in Worst Contact or the Analog issue I mentioned above. It appeared in the 1977 issue of Analog, and it’s up to you to find it online.)

For those of you who have read the novel or seen the movie (which I reviewed here), the original novella is notably different. Don’t worry, it’s the same plot. But the original starts with Ender already a hardened commander, and he meets his subordinate Bean, who is quite cocky. Also, Maezr Rackham’s first encounter with Ender is quite violent.

The twist ending is still there, but it is different. You’ll have to read it to find out why Ender is so inconsolable. If you do, you may get the same reaction I did when I told a couple of people who read the novel. They disagreed with me, one of them strenuously, about how the original ended.

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