The Book of Feasts and Seasons is a collection of short stories by John C. Wright. Many of these stories first appeared on his blog, and so I had already read them there; one (The Ideal Machine) appeared in the first issue of the Sci Phi Journal. A couple I had not seen before.
Short & Sweet: 10 great stories for under $0.50 each? Are you kidding me? Where do you get that kind of bang for the entertainment buck these days? Go buy this now!
All the stories are very good, several are tear-jerkers in the best sense. They are organized according to the feasts and seasons of the Catholic liturgical calendar, and invite contemplation on how they relate to these. Let’s run through them:
1. New Years: The Meaning of Life as Told to Me by an Inebriated Science Fiction Writer in New Jersey. This story reminded me of that genre of pop song that tries to see how many pop references it can make in under 4 minutes – we have the author and a famous Sci Fi writer discussing the ultimate meaning of life via references and allusions to dozens of different classic stories. It’s funny and fun, even for me, who maybe generously got 25% of the references.
2. Epiphany: The Queen of the Tyrant Lizards. Mr Wright’s ‘let me show you how this is done’ rewrite of the very slight and frankly adolescent Hugo-Award winning If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.There’s nothing exactly terrible about the original story, except, perhaps the laughable characterization of the Bad Guys in the Southern bar – gin? – and it’s hard to see what in it makes it speculative fiction – mentioning dinosaurs? – but holding this bit of indulgent fluff up as the finest example of speculative fiction in a short story produced over a entire year strains credulity past the breaking point.
Mr. Wright’s story is everything If You Were a Dinosaur isn’t – mind-bending speculative fiction, deft, startling, true to life where it should be (readers of a more historically grounded mind will appreciate the portrayal of the 1950s) and, in the end, emotionally complicated. The only emotional bang in the original story comes from having your prejudices against ignorant Southerners confirmed, if you lean that way. (I imagine Mr. Wright, as a Virginian gentleman himself, took a little umbrage.) Really, the original story expects you to emotionally identify with a woman standing over her dying and comatose fiance and telling him about her dinosaur-based revenge fantasy. That doesn’t exactly fly, emotionally, for an adult.
3. Annunciation: A Random World of Delta Capricorni Aa, Called Scheddi . I think you could call this a Creation myth involving crop circles and a slug rabbit. It’s even better than it sounds.
4. Good Friday: The Sheathed Paw of the Lion. An agent, one of a cryogenically stored team of what are evidently historians, writes a report to the next agent due to be awakened to clue him in on recent developments. The world has succumbed to political gravity, and resumed its rest state of violent tyranny. Well-intentioned aliens respond to a thousands-year-old signal, and come to offer their help. It does not go well. This story is perhaps a little too real, in the sense that the horrible actions of tyrants involved are all too believable. Mr. Wright may not like this comparison, but it brought to mind some of Flannery O’Conner’s darker stories.
5. Easter Sunday: Pale Realms of Shade. This must be a redemption story, and it is. Even by Mr. Wright’s standards, it wanders and twists and ends up far from home – in a good, thoroughly enjoyable way. It starts out as a comic noir detective ghost story, with the detective the ghost who cracks wise like he stepped out of a Raymond Chandler novel. He has solved his own murder – but refuses to tell anyone who did it. His widowed wife begs him, so that she can collect the insurance money. His former partner and best friend (of sorts) just wants to be left alone. With each apparition, the plot thickens until it’s a tasty gumbo of various creatures mythological and eldritch, sins and poltergeist, confessions and temptations, and, finally, Easter redemption.
I was reminded of the story arc from C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, which I’ve long held is his greatest work. In both stories, the protagonists believes themselves to have been wronged, and are slowly brought to see both how blessed and how much a curse they have been. Such a story takes delicate telling, which Wright pulls off in an often amusing way.
I read this out loud to my wife while we drove for a brief President’s Day get away. When done, I asked her what she thought, and she needed a minute to wipe her eyes and compose herself. A beautiful story.
6. Ascension: The Ideal Machine. Here is a first contact story with a theological edge. What if aliens, vastly our technological superiors to the point where we are less interesting to them than microbes are to us, nonetheless need us to help them work out their redemption? What if they travel for centuries to give us an Ideal Machine, which can realize almost anything you can think of? Who among us could use such a thing for good? This is a very good story.
7. Pentecost: A Parliament of Beasts and Birds. The Rabid Puppies believe this should be considered for a Hugo. That would not be unjust. This is an odd, and oddly gripping, story. When it first appeared on Mr. Wright’s blog over a year ago (I think) I read it to the kids. When I mentioned I was reading it again, my 10 year old jumped in and started in excitedly with ‘that story about….’ – he remembered it better than I did.
Animals are left to deal with a world deprived of people – and have some decisions to make.
8. Halloween: Eve of All Saint’s Day. This brief tale tackles the question: what would we hear if we were really aware of what’s going on?
9. Advent: Nativity. A man returning from the funeral of his wife in Rome meets a mysterious stranger who offers him the use of H.G. Well’s time machine. Rather than go back a few years to see his beloved one more time, he chooses to confront the God of the Nativity with his questions: Why? This is Wright at his story-telling best. I wept at the end.
10. Christmas: Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus. Yes, I guess I cry easily, for I wept here, too. A young mother, alone for Christmas as her military husband is overseas, loses her daughter on Christmas Eve. Both are named Virginia. Her daughter’s last wish – to stay up and see Santa – comes to naught as she dies of cancer in the hospital a few minutes before midnight.
The distraught mother wanders into the snowy night, ending up shivering in front of a department store with a most peculiar Santa in the window. It sounds silly to say that she is shown the true meaning of Christmas – but she is. Wonderful story.
Beautiful, fine, superversive stories well worth your $4.99. Buy them and read them now.