AndyHat (andyhat) wrote,

I thought I'd escaped the millipedes this year, but tonight they've started entering the house again. I guess it finally got dry enough that they've decided to start migrating, though so far only in rather limited numbers. I'm hopeful that by the time I get home from Chicago on Thursday they'll have stopped coming in and all I'll find are dried out corpses.

Anyhow, reading. First up is The Wallet of Kai Lung by Ernest Bramah (in The Kai Lung Omnibus, Quality Press, 1936). Originally published in 1900, this "novel" is really a collection of short stories, told by the itinerant story-teller Kai Lung. The stories are presented as stories and legends from Chinese history, though since Bramah is a 19th-century Englishman who never travelled to China, the settings likely owe as much to Bramah's imagination as to real Chinese culture. Nevertheless, taken as fantasies, they're a lot of fun and a delightful change of pace.

The plots of the stories are usually quite humorous, and often bizarrely improbable. For example, in "The Ill-Regulated Destiny of Kin Yen, The Picture-Maker", Bramah introduces Kin Yen, who can only draw human figures facing to the right. He earns renown as "the great exponent of Art Facing in One Direction" (funerals, processions, and the like), but catastrophe ensues when, in his desire to woo a lady above him in station, he attempts a new style of art. In "The Transmutation of Ling", Ling drinks a potion which will cause his body to turn to solid gold upon his death. Desperate for cash, he seeks the assistance of the businessman Chang-ch'un, with whom he enters into "the Ling (After Death) Without Much Risk Assembly", which will entitle him to a large sum of cash in exchange for agreeing that his body should pass to the lenders upon his death. Naturally, a variety of humorous events follow from his ill-considered pledge.

Adding to the humor is Bramah's over-the-top dialogue. As an example, "The Story of Yung Chang" begins:
"Ho, illustrious passers-by!" said Kai Lung, the story-teller, as he spread out his embroidered mat under the mulberry-tree. "It is indeed unlikely that you would condescend to stop and listen to the foolish words of such an insignificant and altogether deformed person as myself. Nevertheless, if you will but retard your elegant footsteps for a few moments, this exceedingly unprepossessing individual will endeavour to entertain you with the recital of the adventures of the noble Yung Chang, as recorded by the celebrated Pe-ku-hi."

Somehow, Bramah keeps up this tone throughout without ever becoming repetitive. Good humorous fantasy is rare, so I've definitely enjoyed the tales of Kai Lung.

Moving back to traditional SF, next up is Mankind Under the Leash by Thomas M. Disch (in Ace Double G-597, 1966). This short novel is the memoir of White Fang, who spent his youth as a dog in the kennels of the Masters, but who finally plays a key role in the rebel Dingos' plan to defeat the Masters and restore humanity to freedom. Yes, White Fang is a human, who, with all the other humans selected as pets by the Masters (powerful aliens, consisting of neutrinos and thus entirely undetectable by humans when they arrive in 1970), has been raised in his Master's kennel, where he is kept on a telepathic Leash.

Of course, life as a dog is actually quite wonderful. The masters provide for all of their pets' needs, leaving their pets free to pursue whatever their interests might be. Via his Leash, a pet can instantly learn new languages or new skills whenever he desires. And the better kennels, set amongst the asteroids, offer truly idyllic envirironments.

The first half of this novel, in which White Fang describes his puppyhood and early adulthood in the kennels, is great, and a neat change from the usual alien invasion. However, once White Fang loses contact with his Master and meets up with the rebel dingos on earth, the novel starts to falter. White Fang's actions become rather erratic, with inadequately explained motivation. Still, an enjoyable short novel.

Lastly, some random short fiction. First, the novelette "20th Century Ghost" by Joe Hill (in the High Plains Literary Review Triple Issue 2002). Despite its publication in a mainstream literary journal, this is a good old traditional ghost story. Alec Sheldon owns a small-town movie theatre, which has a reputation for having a ghost. In this case, the ghost is real, appearing to the occasional moviegoer, to whom she likes to talk about the movies. The characters of Alec and Imogene, the ghost, are very nicely developed in this rather compact little story. It is rather sentimental and reflects a nostalgia for small-town America that I've never shared, but in this case, I was sufficiently swept up by the storytelling that I didn't at all mind the trite nostalgia.

Last up is the novella "Breathing in Faces" by Peter Crowther (in Embrace the Mutation, Subterranean Press, 2002). During an unusually hot December, a carnival comes to town. Marilyn and Cindy, best friends, visit the carnival and are having fun until Cindy sees a sign asking "Do you have what it takes to be an attraction?", and insists on going into the tent to find out. Naturally, unpleasant things ensue. Like so many stories, this one assumes that carnivals and their sideshows are inherently creepy, scary places. I've just never had that feeling about carnivals, so it's a trope that doesn't usually work for me, and this was no exception. Still, this is a very competently written story that builds up a nice bit of suspense as it proceeds to the inevitable ending.

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