The Eye of the Sibyl

Today I am recommending The Eye of the Sibyl and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick. This is the second short story collection by Philip K. Dick that I’ve recommended. The first was The Philip K. Dick ReaderI didn’t know it when I picked this book up, but apparently there are six “Collected Stories” of which this and the Reader are two of them. If I’m completely honest with you, I think the Reader is a better collection than Sibyl, but that is really only my opinion and my overall opinion is that Philip K. Dick is an excellent author. So I think if you like his style or prose or concepts then you’ll like this collection just as much as any of the other ones.

I’ve technically read more collections of short stories than I have novels by Dick now, which is a bit surprising even to myself (though I’ve plenty of his books on the old TBR list). The opening story in this collection is “The Little Black Box” which was later used in his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the only novel of his I’ve read so far). There is a “Notes” section in the back of this collection that have comments by Dick himself regarding most of the stories contained within. His notes about “The Little Black Box” talk about how he thinks the short story does a better job regarding the initial idea than how he uses it for in the novel.

Other stories in this collection include “The Faith of Our Fathers” and “The Pre-Persons” both of which apparently caused quite a ruckus when they were first published. “The Pre-Persons” is a story that covers the ever taboo subject of abortion in an elaborate lens of absurdity. It was published in 1974. In Dick’s notes on this story, he explains how he received hate mail and even the “nastiest letter I’ve ever received” but he was also unapologetic for the story itself. He wrote about what he believed and though he was sorry it upset people (topics like these always upset someone) he wasn’t sorry for writing it.

I never would have known that “The Faith of Our Fathers” had anything reference to the Cold War or was written when hallucinogenic drugs were first being used in experiments. This story was written in 1966. Well before my time and over 50 years ago from today. Reading it today doesn’t seem like many of the concepts are strange considering what has occurred in the past 50 years. Dick says he “[doesn’t] advocate any the ideas” in this story (from his notes in 1966), and he even goes on to say he actually regretted writing this one (from his notes in 1976). A strange stance from a writer’s perspective but maybe I’m just saying that because I’m still new to this writing game. I’m sure much can be said about regret but we won’t dive into that here.

I hate to admit that one reason I picked up this collection was for the title story “The Eye of the Sibyl.” I was already a fan of his work, but I couldn’t help but be drawn to the title of this one story. The reason is that I first heard of Philip K. Dick in a strange way. I heard one of his books referenced in a show that I really enjoy called Psycho-Pass. In the show there is a central system called the Sibyl System that effectively governs the people. Of course the story turned out to be quite different but I’m always fascinated when I can find allusions to other artists in works that I enjoy. I also discovered William Gibson from the same show. It may show my age that I did not know of these authors previously, but there is no shame in admitting how you learned of something. Especially since you may have missed it otherwise.

I could go into why I think Dick’s work is so fascinating to me, but I think I’ll save that for its own post. Until then.

Happy Reading.

Last Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. I thought it fitting to make this the last recommendation of the year (and last of the weekly recommendations). The book is in itself a time machine as most books are. It was originally published in 1895, but holds up well in 2018. Of course, the language is a little dated but not so much to cause difficulty in reading. It may even increase your vocabulary as several words in it aren’t commonly used anymore.

It is still an entertaining book. Enough so that it has been made into movies as recently as 2002. I’m sure in 1895 this book would have been considered outlandish, entertaining, and even frightening, but today I’m afraid it would seem just another story. There is an enormous amount of science fiction today that includes time travel. However, this story is the first mention of the concept (I would be more than happy if someone proved me wrong here). It is always interesting to go back and read books like this that seem to be an integral building block to one of today’s most popular fictional subjects. As a writer, it is also interesting to read what had inspired other writers throughout the years. You begin to notice similarities the more you read whether they may be intentional or not.

Time travel has always been of interest to me because it is very hard to pull off in terms of making it believable or at least practical. There is always a chance missing a small incongruity that ends up debunking the whole concept. These are often in the form of paradoxes but sometimes can just be continuity errors. Either way, they bring in doubt which greatly weakens the story.

H.G. Wells was very clever when he wrote this story because he made it simple with no complicated processes that could easily have initiated such an error. He introduces the machine itself without diving into the technical aspects about how it works (a technique often used by Christopher Nolan in many of his films). He does so in a way that makes it simply believable. We don’t need to get to the nitty-gritty. We just want to see what happens next. Wells then has the traveler go so far into the future that no one could ever refute what happens in the story. Too many time-travel stories make the mistake of setting the future to within one or two generations which quickly dates them, such as Back to the Future. In this book, the character travels hundreds of thousands of years. The world we see through the time traveler (since that is all we know him by) is one that is, for all we know, plausible.

Through clever writing and an engaging narrative despite several dated terms and a standard Victorian structure, The Time Machine holds up for modern audiences. It is shorter at around 120 pages and broken up into 12 chapters, which allows you to break up the reading if you don’t want to read it all in one go.

Happy Reading.

Pay the Paradox

The little boy ran into the room to where his grandpa was reclined in a chair snoring. Bright sunlight shone through the window and warmed the room as a gentle breeze blew through the screen door. His parents were still unbuckling their seat-belts as the boy jumped onto his grandpa’s large belly.

“Ooooooooohhhhh,” Grandpa moaned and sat up suddenly. He looked down to find his grandson hugging him, and he couldn’t help but smile while the pain slowly receded.

“Jack, my boy,” he said, “You need to be more gentle with me. If you get any bigger, you’ll break me next time.”

“You can’t break Grandpa. You’re too big to break.”

“Maybe,” Grandpa sighed and rubbed his abdomen. He silently promised to cut down on the snacks but knew it was his mind making the promise and not his heart.

Geoff and Marie walked through the door with their bags and an extra small one that belonged to Jack.

“Dad,” Geoff nodded before taking the bags to the back room. Marie gave him a hug.

“I think Kate could use your help in the kitchen.”

“I’m here less than ten seconds and you want to put me to work?” She asked in mock offense.

“She’s making cinnamon cake.”

Marie’s eyes narrowed at him. “Mmmhmm.”

“Grandpa, show me the trick.” Jack was grabbing at his shirt.

“Serious,” Grandpa said. He remained wide-eyed and as convincing as possible until she wandered toward the kitchen. He heard her greet his wife, then heard her ask if that was indeed the cinnamon coffee cake. He smiled and turned his attention back to Jack, who kept pulling at his shirt and asking to see his trick.

He picked the little boy up and they wandered into the basement where he had a little workshop. He sat on the stool at the workbench and hoisted the boy onto his lap. In front of them sat a little cube. It was the same cube as last time. A metal frame with small, intricate machinery inside.

“This is the last time,” Grandpa said before they started.

“Awwww,” the boy whined and looked up at the wrinkled face of his grandfather.

“I’m sorry Jack, but this is the last time we can do it.” He looked down at the pouty-face his grandson made and quickly gave in. “We can do it twice this time okay. But no more afterwards.” The pouty-lips turned to a smile and the boy focused on the cube in front of him. His little hands gripped the edge of the workbench as he tried to get his face closer.

Grandpa picked up the cube and turned it to the side with three small dials. He checked his watch then set the dials accordingly before placing the cube on the workbench again. He crouched until his face was next to Jack’s and they stared at the cube.

A second passed. Then the inner parts began to whir and spin. The cube began to rattle on the flat surface. Neither pair of eyes dared to blink. Grandpa glanced at Jack to see the wonder on his face. The same wonder he had when he first saw the cube. The wonder he kept until he learned its inner workings. He turned his attention back to the cube just before it vanished.

“Whoa…” The boy stared at the spot where the cube had been.

“Yeah. Whoa.”

“When will it come back?”

Grandpa checked his watch. “In about ten seconds. Keep your eyes glued.”

They waited in silence as seconds ticked by. Jack’s breathing was steady but shallow. A whisper escaped him, “Two……one…..” The cube appeared exactly where it had been moments before.

“How does it work?” the boy asked.

“You’ll learn when you’re a bit older.” When you are fifteen and back in this basement looking at my old stuff without me, he thought. “Remember, this is the last time.” He picked up the cube and calibrated it. Then he sat it back down on the workbench. “Watch closely this time.”

The boy’s face shaped into a serious expression that he had to restrain himself from laughing at. Together they watched the cube. The seconds passed until it vanished again, except this time it didn’t reappear. Jack stared at the empty space waiting.

“It’s not coming back this time champ.”

“Why not?”

“It just won’t. Now let’s go get some food, huh?” He paused as he finished his question, suddenly realizing the futility of it and the implications of what he had done.

He knew Jack was going to stick to the workbench with a vice-like grip, looking at the empty tabletop for the next two hours, only to finally be persuaded by his mom to go eat dinner. He knew it because he remembered it, just as he remembered an older Jack coming back to his workbench to see the cube reappear next to a journal. The journal he was going to purposely leave out after his grandson left in two days. It would collect dust for a decade only to be opened and read by Jack. When he read the journal himself, he had learned who he really was and who his own grandfather had been, and it will be the exact same for his grandson and himself. The journal held the secrets of the cube, and the designs for the machine that were too tempting for the curious mind.

He had always believed that the cube was the catalyst. It led to the journal and kept the mystery alive until it became an obsession. Now, at the end of his life, he saw the cube was the cause. The journal was the catalyst. The cube was now lost to time. Set to reappear in exactly ten years on June 5th where it will cause the innocent boy in front of him to recreate the same machine he did, and use it in the same way. The thoughts consumed him.

He did nothing for the next two days but think about how to undo what he had done. He wasn’t sure he could, or wanted to, considering what may happen. He could very well undo himself. His wife worried about him on that second day. Enough to call their son.

She was looking at him while she talked to their son, but it wasn’t until she said the phrase “I’m worried” did he get the uneasy feeling of nostalgia. He remembered that phrase the heaviness it sat his own father. His father who stood at the counter on the phone with his grandfather while they both were putting a puzzle together. He remembered those words “I’m worried” and realizing it was his grandmother.

Now he heard the words from the other side of the call and knew what came next. A calmness filled him moments before his coronary artery clogged and pain radiated through his chest and down his left arm.

Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is Dune by Frank Herbert. This book is considered one of the best science fiction novels of all time and for good reason. The book originally came out in 1965, shared the Hugo Award in 1966 for Best Novel, won the inaugural Nebula Award for the same category, was turned into a movie released in 1984, adapted into a miniseries released in 2000, and was in the recent Great American Read coming in at #35 of the 100 best-loved novels.

All of these recognitions aside, I personally loved this book. It is a little lengthy and the ending seemed fairly abrupt (which may be addressed in the sequel), but I immensely enjoyed the writing and story. There are 20 total Dune novels. Six were written by Frank Herbert himself while the remaining 14 were written by his son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson. I have only read the first Dune novel and am currently unsure if I will pursue the next five or remaining nineteen. I am satisfied with the first book in itself. The story was solid and engaging and wrapped up nicely enough that I don’t feel an overwhelming need to continue, but of course I enjoyed the book enough that I may feel inclined to want more at a later date. If you are looking for a long series to get lost in for a while, look no further.

What I found so interesting about the book was the near superhuman abilities some characters have based on training and biological changes that occur due the strange melange substance that stands central to the story. Herbert writes these scenes expertly and the world he created is tangible and guides the imagination without forcefully taking the reigns or leaving you without a map. The characters are compelling and I found myself having mixed feelings about several of them. The descriptions and focus on certain elements was fascinating. The way water is so important that large efforts are made to preserve even the smallest quantity was brilliant. This makes sense on a desert planet, of course, but it makes you think because we live on a water rich planet ourselves (and I love stories that make me think). The actions of the Fremen society in the book are based out of the basic need to preserve water. This brings an understanding to otherwise absurd or inhumane actions.

I understand why this book became so popular and why so many people wanted more about the characters and worlds that Frank Herbert created. I’m glad I finally got around to reading this one. This book deserves the praise it has been given and is rightfully regarded “Science Fiction’s Supreme Masterpiece.” Is it better than every other science fiction story? No. But it is one of the greats.

I’ll finish this recommendation with a brief summary so you can determine for yourself if you would be interested in the story.

Paul Atreides, son of the Duke Leto Atreides, moves to the planet Arrakis when his father is given charge of the planet and its production of spice (melange, and most valuable substance in the galaxy) by the Emperor. Leto knows this move is a trap by a rival feudal family, the Harkonnens, who previously had control of Arrakis and spice production. The Harkonnens desire the end of the Atreides family. Despite knowing it as a trap, they move to the desert planet and prepare for the expected treachery. What ensues envelopes the entire galactic system including the Emperor himself.

Happy Reading.

Confined Freedom

“Reynolds, Ethan,” a guard called through a speaker.

Ethan approached the counter to receive his personal items taken at the time of his incarceration.

“Sign here.”

He signed the hologram that emitted before him and a container lowered onto the counter. It was a high-security prison. He couldn’t even see who was on the other side of the dark-tinted everglass. If there was anyone. He wouldn’t be surprised if it were run remotely or if this whole interaction was automated. All he knew was it was an actual person. No droids allowed in this prison except the semi-sentient variety that were deemed just sentient enough not to be destroyed. He opened the container and reviewed the items inside: a handful of silver coins, a holosphere he quickly pocketed, and a small comm unit he took and inserted into his ear.

It felt weird after not wearing it for the past decade, but he knew he would get used to it by the end of the day. The cold faded from the unit as it siphoned his body heat and a voice chimed in his ear. Unable to retrieve messages at this time.

“Figures,” he said. He gathered the coins and dropped them in his jacket pocket. The container closed and shot back up the wall after he grabbed the last item. A handle popped out from the wall in front of him.

“Grip the handle, please.” The voice called through the speaker.

“Definitely automated,” Ethan sighed and gripped the handle. As soon as he did, two mechanical arms popped out from each side of the handle and fastened a bracelet on his wrist. The handle quickly retreated.

“Thank you for you stay Mr. Reynolds. You are free to go,” the voice said before a door behind him slid open.

“Hey,” Ethan called, “What is this?”

His words died against he walls and the only response given was the repetition that he was free to go. He left through the door and found himself in a small room with only a chair to furnish it. He sat down and strapped in. The door closed and a green light flickered. Inertia forced him further into his seat and one minute later the door opened again to the view of the prison he’d just left.

It was built inside the center of a large asteroid. Ethan stepped out of the pod that had transported him to one of the small asteroids connected to the prison by a zero-gravity, single unit elevator. Sixteen such elevators webbed from the central asteroid and each one connected to a smaller asteroid making the entire complex look like a model of a mutated virus ready to infect the universe. The elevators were the only way in or out of the prison. They were designed to be easily broken, shooting any contents into the void of space should anyone somehow gain access without permission.

Ethan stared as the entire facility slowly rotated through the dense field of rock that shielded and contained it. He was free and there was only one place he wanted to go. If it still existed.

“Mr. Reynolds,” a voice called.

Ethan turned to see a thin, well-groomed man in an outdated business suit not meant for travel. This was a man who was overconfident he would never be in danger, which made him even more out of place than he already seemed.

“Mr. Reynolds,” the man continued after he had Ethan’s attention, “I am here on behalf of Mr. Dwyer to present you with an opportunity to settle your debt.”

“Debt?”

“Please. Follow me.” The outdated suit spun on one heel and briskly entered a personal transport larger than most public shuttles.

Ethan surveyed the small landing pad. It was vacant with the exception of the personal transport and a station to summon a public transport. He didn’t like the feeling that began to settle into the pit of his stomach. The man had mentioned a debt. He’d settled his debt only hours earlier and it had cost him a decade of his life. He looked at station, the transport, and the band on his wrist.

The inside of the private transport was elaborately decorated. What normally would have held six dozen passengers was a common room surrounded by five suites. The suit was seated on a lounger patiently waiting for him. Ethan sat opposite him feeling like a dung beetle on the newly fabricated cushions.

“Six years ago they decided time served was enough to recondition the criminals of this sector, but the citizens didn’t believe they should pay for this reconditioning. Therefore, each inmate is given the bracelet you now wear as a symbol of the debt you owe.”

Ethan rubbed at the band on his wrist as if to understand the concept as much as to suppress the anger building up inside that the freedom he thought he’d just redeemed was still at risk.

“You currently owe eight million gead. Mr. Dwyer is offering you an opportunity to settle this debt now instead of working the next many years in whatever job you can find to repay the money so you can finally leave this sector behind you.”

“You’re saying I’m restricted to this sector until this debt, which I owe because of my forced incarceration, is repaid?”

“Correct.”

“And you think this bracelet can prevent me from simply disappearing?”

“Many have tried, Mr. Reynolds, and they all end up right back in their cell. Losing more time while adding to their debt. Mr. Dwyer knows very well how skilled you are at disappearing, which is why he is offering you this opportunity to wipe away your debt with one job.”

Ethan stood and wandered to the view port. He looked at the prison that filled it then pulled the holosphere from his pocket and pinched it between his fingers. An image filled the air before him. A woman holding a baby. They were both smiling as the woman strolled through the verdant landscape of their homeworld. His homeworld. A planet Ethan hadn’t seen in nearly fifteen years.

He pocketed the sphere and turned his back on the prison beyond the view port. “What’s this job?”