Collected Halloween short stories Rothdas book review RSS
4.0 Stars

A number of spooky and weird stories for Halloween, with a minor theme of unalterable Fate and free will. They range from the excellent to the serviceable.

Dark Air - A cheerful story of body horror, off the grid hippies, and the dissolution of the nuclear family. Wonderful.

Brenda - Great stuff; a short, physically grounded tale of weirdness, puberty, and the desire for vileness.

The Sandman - One of the neater and more whimsical stories. Structurally interesting, a number of internal callbacks, a complete doofus of a main character, and various fears of clock work, glass, Fate, and shifty Italians.

The Earth and Everything Under - a prologue to the author's new series of Urban Fantasy books. Has hedge witches, law enforcement, and a Sabriel-like underworld. Content warning: occasional beautiful imagery.

Afterward, by Edith Warton - a traditional but well written ghost story. The one part that didn't entirely make sense (aside from the ghosts) was how their friend Alida initially predicted everything? But perhaps that is just dark fate at work again.

The Shadow, by Nesquik - A simple enough and well written ghost story, that is speckled with footnotes through out. And the footnotes are kind of insane? I'm not sure if the footnotes are the result of an overzealous editor pushing their own theories about the story, or whether they are a sort of "meta" part of the art. It seems like the former, but in any case they do enliven the story somewhat.

The Horla - Shamelessly steals from the backstory of Star Control's Ur-Quan Masters; posits the arrival of a star-race of psychic mesmerizers that dominate and enslave their thralls. I feel like the main characters could have learned from the example of the noble Ur-Quan, and kept trying to find ways to fight back. Would an Excruciator work? What about just wearing a blindfold, or a series of mirrors, to help prevent mesmerization and to actually see the Horla? Could the beast be buried, as in _Brenda_? Arguably he was crowd-controlled at the end and so didn't have the normal faculties to work with, but still it's worth thinking about.

The Treasure of Pikatuth A simple Mars adventure story about an abandoned machinery that grants immortal life but takes away the ability to sleep. Pretty spooky! Also has a mind control device, which is arguably much more interesting and terrifying when examined closely.

What's Expected of Us (Ted Chiang) / Fate (Zenaida Hippius) - A pair of stories about free will, fate, and predestination. The Chiang story was definitely the lesser of the two; it relies on what I think is an incorrect understanding of Free Will. Extended monologue incoming: in Freshman year of college, I had to take an elective course on philosophy/religion, and the subject of Free Will was duly covered, and to me the idea seemed flawed, e.g. you have some brain machinery which evaluates and makes decisions and which is seemingly deterministic (or perhaps there is some quantum chance involved, but nothing you would consider meaningful). So if you have machinery which pumps out decisions, what exactly could be meant by Free Will (in the capitalized sense)? E.g. the machinery gives you a deterministic decision/action, would you then ignore that result and pick something else? If so, by what means if not by more machinery? The only other possible alternative is just random chance out of a set of possibilities, which A) isn't deeply meaningful either and B) could also be understood as just another part of decision-making machinery. As best as I can tell, somewhere in the deeps of history some Christians needed to get out of a logical corner they had painted themselves into (I believe it was to the _Problem of Evil_), and they came up with the ill-founded concept of Free Will in order to hide one fallacy with another. And that conception of Free Will rolled down through the ages, till it reached my Freshman class. At the time of the class I did a minor, minor study of other books on the subject to see if I could find other people who had similar thoughts to mine, but all I came up with was more bafflegab. At least until a few years later when I read Iain Banks' _The Player of Games_, and one of his characters tosses off this line:

"And what is free will anyway? Chance. The random factor. If one is not ultimately predictable, then of course that's all it can be. I get so frustrated with people who can't see this! Even a human should be able to understand it's obvious."

That was one of the moments I fell in love with Banks, that just as a minor aside he has written something more insightful on Free Will than most scholars on the subject ever come up with (assuming Banks' actually believed the line he put in his character's mouth, assuming both he and I aren't missing something entirely). *Anyway*. This is all just to say that Chiang's story is based upon the difficulty and disruption of giving up this received idea of Free Will, when really it's not a big deal since the concept was nonsense to begin with. All the cool kids abandoned the idea years and years ago, and the un-cool kids don't care about such ideological/philosophical issues and will happily ignore a dozen contradictions in their beliefs before breakfast each day.

The second story in the pair, _Fate_, was much better despite being written 100 years earlier. This story involves a lady who was mystically gifted/cursed with knowledge of all the future moments of her life, so that she remembers the future events of her life in the same way she remembers the past events of her life. Essentially, she has already received spoilers for *everything*. It's actually a bit better than that; if she would have lived a life N, and then would have lived a life N+1 given the perfect foreknowledge of life N, she is *actually* given the knowledge of life N+1 and she never got to experience/have foreknowledge of life N. If you want to get technical, you could say that well, life N+1 would in turn spawn a life N+2, and so on, with the sequence never settling down. E.g. if your foreknowledge/Fate told you that you were going to get a muffin at the bakery today, why not just fuck with it and get an apple-fritter instead? And if that in turn led to a life N+3 where you have foreknowledge of getting an apple-fritter, why not get a muffin instead in life N+4? Perhaps the Countess in the story did not have the same intrinsic desire to poke Fate that I do. In any case, this was a more engaging and well thought out take on the same idea of the lack of Free Will, and one that actually makes it into a curse since the foreknowledge would ruin all of the delight of surprise in life.