The Drone King by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (newly discovered unpublished short story)

1920

“Don’t let anybody tell you this isn’t a woman’s world.”

“How’s that, sir?,” I said.

“Only a female bee can sting,” he said.

“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t know that about bees.”

“You knew that about females, didn’t you?” he said. He closed one eye, and, with his face already lopsided from the bee sting, he looked crazy as a bedbug. “Law of life!” he said sharply. “If you get yellow fever, you’ll have the female mosquito to thank. If a black widow spider does you in, my boy, again—cherchez la femme.”

There are many superior Vonnegut works on my tbr, but surfacing of a newly discovered short story was too exciting to ignore. This short, though engaging, is a bit bleak in comparison with his other stories, more absurd and less humourous too. But it offers a peak into his early mind, and even with all weirdly specific instructions on bees, that’s a cause worth reading for.

In a Gaal – Hari Seldon styled meeting, we are introduced to an Investment Counselor and his employer Sheldon Quick. Having exhausted his business fortunes, Quick is currently working on a ‘drone based’ revival project which, according to him, will revolutionize communication network. Unlike the UAVs that we are familiar with, here the drones are just male bees. 

The story is also an old school crowd funding campaign, where our leads are trying to pitch ‘Bee-gram’ to their angel investors.
As I was having a real dull day, I did some weird analysis on the story myself.

It is hard to ignore the fact that Kurt is rather curt about females in his writing here. The title ‘Drone King‘ is literally the exact opposite of ‘Queen Bee‘, for starters. There are no female characters anywhere in this story, and a strong reason for rejection of anything feminine is asserted at the very start itself.

“Oh,” I said. “Huh. I guess that’s why the female workers knock off the males, eh? The males are nothing but a drain on the community.”

The color left Quick’s fine face. “What’s so wonderful about making honey?” he said.

“Can you make honey?”

“Nope,” I said.

He was excited, upset. “Is that any reason to condemn you to death?” he said.

“Nope—heck no,” I said.

I see a critique on marginalisation of men’s rights, in this bee business; but that would be embarrassingly far fetching from my side. What my puny mind garnered is this, and there is no other way to say it than come out as a fool. Repeated experience of unrequited affection, or rejection over for someone high up the food chain, and this story being Vonnegut’s salty way of dealing with it.

The story lacks humour and satire, atleast in first look, but it is really fun to dive into his early mind. In a way the narrator radiates young Vonnegut himself, who is skeptical, extra careful and reluctant to experiment in his new (writing) career. Quick on the other hand is this crazy version of Vonnegut who isn’t afraid of weird ideas and risks. At one point Quick compares himself with Scarlet Pimpernel(a rather curious analogy considering the name being synonymous with a flower, given the bee business) of French Revolution- the chivalrous medieval vigilante. Pimpernel is actually the literary precursor for masked vigilantism and double life heroism from Zorro to Batman. I couldn’t help but extrapolate this towards Vonnegut‘s famous alter ego and my favorite science fiction writer who doesn’t exist- Kilgore Trout. Throughout his career Vonnegut had always stayed in his safe space, while he had let Trout do the fourth wall breaking and crazy experimentation.

So it goes.

A free copy and an animated excerpt can be found here. I have heard that four more stories are on their way.

Advertisements

The Hound by HP Lovecraft

​This ghastly tale of two tomb raiders marks the very first appearance of Lovecraft’s infamous forbidden book, Necronomicon.

Two seemingly low life robbers, St. John and the narrator, who shares this vile interest in defiling centuried graves for logical pelfs, goes to Netherlands (literally!) to excavate/rob an ancient ghoul. Though their nocturnal expedition is repeatedly disturbed by bayings of a hound in background, they unearth an old jaded amulet(semi canine faced) with sinister inscriptions that can be traced to those of old Arab daemonologist, Abdul Alhazred. Pulling it from the eerily fresh and torn carcass of ghoul, they flee home with the souvenir. With it came strange sounds and happenings.

‘the expression on its features was repellent in the extreme, savouring at once of death, bestiality and malevolence’

Narrative took a turn from there, atleast for me. The classic horror storyline that my mind had framed from this halfway reading wasn’t able to reduce the engaging experience. Initial reluctant first person account suggestedthe grave excavations not being a profession of choice, but lack of options. I was wrong to judge that. As story progressed the complex and perverse nature of narrator and St. John’s relationship brought a new outlook to the happenings. For once, the narrator felt somewhat reliable to me. Though their deeper obsession towards occult and their own reculse cult of necrophilia suggested otherwise, I was inclined to read them with Lovecraft’s life and company(thanks to Paul La Farge’s Night Ocean); and to focus more on ‘material constants’ of the story than perceptions of narrator. Also it would be safe to admit that much of my thoughts changed after finishing the story.

apologies for this unholy comparison

The ending, now that I think back, shared a strong resemblance with my first lovecraftian tale ‘The Dagon‘ and I couldn’t help but read it along with his opening line from The Call of Cthulhu, “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents“. The more I thought about the hound, the more it started to appear like the bed rock for modern cursed artifact adventures(ignoring the crude morale) from Indiana Jones to Nathan Drake, mostly due to my limited reading. After expedition experience and narrator’s paranoia held strong resemblances with that of Truant and even Zampano from House of Leaves, with the foreign languages and sense of haunting. My mind went a step further and somehow made a vampirish connection with Lovecraft‘s ‘The Alchemist‘, thanks to the baroque descriptions, and that grisly second grave encounter. 

Nevertheless, terror inscribed in the writing made the story all the more atmospheric if not a bit Poe-esque. Or like Howard might say, ‘it’s a charnel premise of abhorrence and cosmicism‘ . 

A Descent into Maelstorm by Edgar Alan Poe and Maelstorm II by Arthur C Clarke

A Descent into Maelstorm by Edgar Alan Poe

A-Descent-Into-the-Maelstrom-SDL174885084-1-b9b8cTianming‘s Fairy Tales from Death’s End bought me to this 1884 born extended grandfather of science fiction.

In this proto science fiction story, Poe’s Narrator recalls his miraculous escape from a whirlpool(Moskstraumen), with chilling accounts of his terror and helplessness against natural forces. But instead of succumbing to the morbidness, narrator tries to make sense of the danger he is in, with reason, hence the sci fi / math fi categorization. Readers do have the usual incentive and freedom to consider this as a horror story in conventional sense, or to question the reliability of narration, with its prevailing story inside a story structure.

O_AlexandreSerrano_Maelstrom_5b.gifPoe even star notes an Archimedian work (obviously fake), as his reference material for floating body dynamics in fluid vortex. Still, I somehow kept expecting some weird supernatural or unknown horror from Nordland, till the last word, like in Algernon‘s Willows of Danube.

——

Maelstorm II by Arthur C Clarke

This short is Clarke’s space homage for Poe’s proto sci-fi survival story A Descent Into the Maelstorm. Due to some electric failure on launch rail, the freight catapult is handicapped from attaining lunar escape velocity and Cliff Leyland, the sole passenger on board is stranded on moon. While he is contemplating on life, universe and everything, Ground Station engineers a daring escape plan that could turn his hair white.

tumblr_om8bbzO7ta1r2aobgo1_r1_500.gifFor some reason, Clarke’s agrarian reminded me more of Weir’s Watney than Poe’s fisherman in this brief space caste away. The short story can be found in the compilation edition –The Wind from the Sun.

And it is undoubtedly one of his best.

The Light of Other Days by Bob Shaw

bob-shaw-other-days-other-eyesThis short story is centered around Slow Glass- a futuristic glass that slows down light passing through it, there by enabling people to save old memories and places in them, like a live painting. The story deals with human emotions, sense of loss and art of letting go; than the implications of slow glass on a global scale.

Refraction_photoSlow Glass sounds like a realistic sci fi plot, something that might​ happen in future, though I am an absolute dummy on how. Maybe a futuristic metamaterial with tinkered refractive index. Light traverse differently through different medium and refractive index(the ratio of the velocity of light in a vacuum to its velocity in a specified medium) is the property of the material that determines its propagation. With a metamaterial of negative refractive index and stuff, the slowing down of light is probable. The science I postulated above is very primitive and probably a weird explanation as I mostly flunked my masters, yet keyword searches would help you pelt along.

If you strain yourself a little more, slow glass is an earthbound black domain, an escape strategy explained in Death’s End that involves slowing the speed of light below solar system’s escape velocity and thereby creating a hypothetical shrouded Dyson sphere for humanity to escape to . Though spoiled midway, this short story will leave an everlasting impact on you.

————–

“Light of Other Days” is the title of a 1966 Hugo– and Nebula-nominated short story by Bob Shaw. It was incorporated into a novel in 1972, Other Days, Other Eyes, which also dealt with issues of surveillance and privacy. The title for both the novel and the short story is drawn from the poem “Light of Other Days” by Thomas Moore.

It was also developed into a novel under same name by Stephen Baxter based on a synopsis by Arthur C. Clarke

Seasons of Glass and Iron (Nebula Winner-short story- 2016)

Available for free read here

Congratulations on Nebula, and congratulations on tricking me into reading Fantasy.


This story in its essentials, felt like a modern day retelling of two Brothers Grimm fairy tales – Bearskin and Old Rinkrank that I barely remember from my childhood (my memory might as well be wrong here). What I loved about the narrative was the ambiguity that followed Tabitha and Amira, like they were already part of a well expanded universe, the details of which readers are free to imagine. In this retelling or extended act of passing reference, Author intertwined the essentials of both fairy tales into one lovely story, making them female centric and in poles with the original perspective. My ambitious and embarrassing attempts to understand the metaphors are given below.

Number 7, from a Biblical view point represent perfection or completion and number 1 stands for unity or oneness, the numbers which the female protagonists of this story identify themselves to be bound in by magic. So Tabitha before reaching completion of penance(of her and her were-wolf-would-be-man husband) by exhausting the ‘seven’ pairs of shoes, gets to taste the ‘Apple’ of Glass Mountain(which could be argued as this story’s Eden). She then decides to be ‘one’ with Amira and leaves her baggage, thanks to the new found wisdom. And they both leave the safety of Glass and Iron(their personal paradises), for ‘Away’(Earth) with nothing but the company of each other and the sense of freedom.

I think I might have heavily misread the ‘things’, this allegorical reading was supposed to explore the nuances of. Nevertheless the lovely prose will have every reader covered for sure.

Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers by Lawrence Watt-Evans

1931778This story and Coherence movie could greatly complement each other,though the latter one offers more thrill and grittiness to the concept.

In this first person narrative, a young man from the countryside shares with readers, his strange experiences at Harry’s all-nighter, where he worked his teenage days off. Harry’s All night Hamburgers could be considered as a Way Station, unlike Simak’s Intergalactic one, this version works on Interdimensional platform. Narrator encounters strange beings, multiple versions of same person and is occasionally seduced by the possibility of being an Interdimensional travel bug.

Most striking fact about this story is, that even in its pompous setting of parallel universes and wanderlust, it is essentially a pleasant travel motivation short. And the feelings I am left with, after the read, goes something like this.

I should make it to Banaras at least this year :).

full text available here for free read

 

The Crystal Spheres by David Brin

In this Hugo winning short story, David Brin looks back into our modern history to postulate a probable, though completely fictional explanation to Fermi Paradox. His interesting yet unclear universe includes Crystal Spheres – invisible envelopes, around every galaxy. Unlike the usual sci-fi route of metaphysical arguments, Brin’s Crystal Spheres are completely materialistic with seemingly protective intentions – like Kandor in Fortress of Solitude or dust cloud surrounding planet Krikkit in Hitchhikers.

Background of the story involves futuristic Earth with Interstellar travel and deep space dwellers,and Milky Way with ‘broken by accident’ Crystal Sphere. What troubles me is the entire breakage of so called gargantuan envelope in one single impact, whose physics and existence are completely unfathomable. God would have been like, ‘I need to shield every universe from each other, lets get the most brittle material for that’. Anyway, since then, humans were on an active SETI mission that ends in one solid clincher- unbreakable Crystal Spheres enveloping other universes. At the wake of the novella, a deep spacer is called for duty , on discovery of a broken Crystal Sphere, which could be humanity’s First Contact, and bright answer to many disappointing frustrated years.

cnhBrins argument actually aligns with the progressive Segan thought (aliens exists) and the relatively hegemonic yet pessimistic Hart- Tipler (where are they if they do exist) thought. Though fascinating and full of imagination, story didn’t work well with my rigid mind.

  • Included in The River of Time, collection, 1994, Bantam Spectra.
  • A well read audio version is available under this link starshipsofa

spoilers:

There were few things I couldn’t get my head around. Unnecessary word building, the whole idea of fixing cosmic stuff as Shards from Crystal Spheres and the voting out of night from Earth(?) would be a few. Also the incentive of meeting intelligent life seems far less convincing for suspended animation (or stuff) of a whole civilization (Natarals),since it practically bookends progress, leaving them inferior to the very intelligent life they seek so badly for.