Let’s Read The Tor Stories: Week 4

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It’s amazing how long a coin flip can last if you measure it from the right angle; Landing face up, revealing the labor of three purveyors of only the finest distillation of weird. Noir will have to wait its turn; Another brand of bizarre for another day. Only the strongest among the strange will survive in Week 4 of the Tor Let’s Read series.

When it comes to weird we’re holding a full house; Two transfinite ambassadors  resembling Jim Henson puppets , rebellion and sedition, sharp swords disguised as playing cards, two jacks and a not-ape. It’s turtles all the way down from here my friends…

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100. Jack and the Aktuals, Or, Physical Applications of Transfinite Set Theory by Rudy Rucker

A wild and wooly dramatization of certain principles of higher mathematics, with added talking animals, sentient pencils, and orders-of-infinity nested within one another like Russian dolls.No description can ever encompass the mind-bending experience of reading a Rudy Rucker story.

Holy shit.

Buckle up, because we’re going in deep on this one.

Jack Bohn is a retired mathematics professor chasing after his greatest intellectual revelation yet. While sitting with his wife Ulla in their living room one late winter afternoon, Jack explains his goal of writing a comprehensive paper that explains the transfinite nature of the layers of reality. He’s wrestling with the “Generalized Continuum Problem”, a paradox of discovering the truth of either Georg Cantor’s belief that transfinite numbers are well-behaved, Jack’s theory that they are wholly erratic, or some ineffable and unknown third (or fourth, or fifth, or etc…) alternative. “Dear Infinity, please help me”, Jack offers up a mathematician’s prayer for an epiphany.

His prayers are “answered” by him coughing up a smooth, crystalline USB drive shaped like an infinity sign. when inserted, the drive instigates a crash sequence wherein a infinitely regressive series of smaller and smaller task windows begin to pop up. His laptop becomes a “Turing Calculator”; calculating every possible outcome for every past paper he has ever written to culminate into his greatest achievement, titled “Physical Applications of Transfinite Set Theory”.

Then a talking pencil with backwards knees named “Stanley” and a frog in a petticoat named “Anton” (short for Antagonistic) materialize through a hoola-hoop and invite the couple to come to “Alefville” with them.

According to Rudy’s bio page on Macmillan’s site, he’s the “great-great-great grandson of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.” After reading “Jack and the Aktuals”, I’m couldn’t be more convinced that that’s the case. I honestly can’t be certain as to whether this was all just a shared hallucination, one man’s psychotic break ( As if Anthony Burgess wrote a hair-brained combination of A Beautiful Mind, Faust, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), or if all this craziness is reality. Probably some Gordian knot of all three or more of those explanations.

Coincidentally, a friend of mine had just recently recommended Rucker’s most well-known work, “The Ware Tetralogy”, to me saying that it was without a doubt one of the strangest things he had ever read.  After reading “Jack and Aktuals”, I couldn’t be more excited to delve into it now. Aside from my initial bewilderment with symbolic mathematical proofs that far exceeded my sub-high school ken of modest mathematics, I was legitimately compelled to journey further into this fun house labyrinth of oddities all the way to its whimsically self-aware conclusion that evokes comparisons to a particularly good Twilight Zone episode.

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110. Making My Entrance Again With My Usual Flair by Ken Scholes

When an ex-clown tries to go into the insurance business, he gets into monkey business instead.

Merton D. Kamal is a down-on-his-luck circus clown who, after being cajoled into an interview with a former fling at an insurance company by his mother, is tasked with escorting a monkey to New Mexico. Things go about as well as can be expected.

To start, this story is an absolute breeze to read. That’s no surprise seeing how it sits comfortably at an approximate 18 pages in length. This has to be one among the shortest of the Tor Short Stories I’ve since read.

There’s not a lot to say in the way of plot synopsis that wouldn’t inadvertently render the effort in reading the actual story futile by comparison (though you should!), what I can say is that Ken has created a succinct and strange hybrid of a story that manages to provoke laughs just after making you scratch your head in abrupt confusion. For anyone that reads this blog, I know that my synopses can be rather comparison heavy. Know that it’s not done without a measure of self-awareness; Think of it as an happy accidental after-effect of a long compulsory education in binary oppositional thinking.

In any case, “Making My Entrance” felt like a mash-up of Katherine Dunn’s GEEK LOVE and Burrough’s NAKED LUNCH. I mean that entirely as a compliment, but take it as you will. It’s so short, and Scholes’ writing is just so ridiculous and funny enough to justify the length, how could I not recommend it?

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99. The Jack of Coins by Christopher Rowe

A strange, amnesiac man is befriended by a rebellious group of teenagers living in a repressive city.

Trespass. Corruption. Sedition.

All of these charges are lobbied against the mysterious  amnesiac “Jack”, an ageless man decked out in an elaborate nutcracker-esque uniform, festooned with golden buttons and wearing a face that’s both sharp and smooth.

Jack roles into a town beset by an authoritarian police force that has clenched the voice of the people in order to still any murmurs of protest or dissent, and a disillusioned generation of youth are left to scamper out in the dead of night hopelessly clashing with another, vying for some imaginary sense of power and identity. But all that’s going to change when Jack roles into town, this stranger with clumsy words and bizarre habits.

This story is probably the tamest of the three this week, and even more easy to digest than “Making My Entrance.” Jack of Coins introduces some interesting elements that I don’t think entirely culminate into an all-together satisfying conclusion. I caught myself wondering aloud, “Wait, what’s the conflict in this story again? An indifferent populace controlled by an oppressive police state? and now they care, because of this weird stranger who talks in riddled sentences and happens to have a good throwing arm?”

I’ll admit, the cover art image provided by Red Nose Studio was the main draw of why I chose this story. I wanted to look for something otherworldly, and the story flirts with that insinuation at multiple points but never resembles anything conclusive.  In a scene where a benevolent character throws Jack a pack of playing cards with which to defend himself, I imagined that the story was finally going to pick up. And it does, sort of,  only to conclude prematurely with no resolution as to who Jack was, why he was the way he was, and what his presence means to this world in particular.

It’s worth a read, never hold your reading suggestions to my opinion alone. As bizarre and crazy this world might have been, I was disappointed that the end result turned out as tame as it did. The Strange is not so strong with this one.

Phew! After successfully climbing out of that wormhole of nonsense, we can go to the wall and tally another week from the Tor Let’s Read series off. Time to shuffle the deck again and pick another three stories at random (well, more or less).

See you next Sunday, October 6th!

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The Vanishing of Ethan Carter: ‘A Case To End All Cases’

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‘The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’ is a first-person, supernatural horror game from “The Astronauts“, an independent game developer that, like so many its other peers, was formed by ex-employees of a major video-game developer (in this case Epic Studios-owned “People Can Fly, creators of Painkiller and Bulletstorm). The game first showed up as a blip on my radar when Kirk Hamilton wrote a Kotaku post focusing on the developer’s impressive online promotional comic this past July.

Impressive digitally-painted panels, disillusioned noir-infused dialogue, and a beautiful  low-key piano track looping in the background do much to stir one’s initial curiosity, but do little in the way of holding one’s attention. So it got shuffled to the back of my memory. Until now.

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Our hero seems to be in a bit of trouble.

The Astronauts have released the first formal batch of screenshots for the game since their announcement and they do look gorgeous. In “The Vanishing”, players assume the role of “retired” paranormal private detective Paul Prospero (AKA the man taking it easy in the promotional comic).  

Prospero has been enlisted to investigate the disappearance of Ethan Carter, a young boy who had contacted previously about strange markings and paranormal activity in his hometown. While on the case, he must contend with foes both human and anything but to get to the heart of the truth behind Carter’s disappearance. The game is said to be built around a “Weird Fiction” angle, a sub-genre of speculative fiction centered around the absurd and disturbing erosion of an otherwise tepid reality by malicious “alien” forces.

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I suppose the main draw of my attention stems from the way the game’s presentation, from its story to its location and even to its graphics, seem to emulate the vibe and aesthetic of Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake, one of my favorite games of this past generation. A jaded every-man thrown into a rural setting slowly being twisted and corroded by malevolent supernatural forces that apparently only he can sense or stop? Looks like a dead ringer to me.

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But seriously though, I sure there’s more than enough variety between the two titles to differentiate them despite initial appearances. I’m hungry for an experience like Alan Wake, a psychological-horror experience laden with niche pop-cultural and classic horror literature references. Linked below is tantalizing and subtly unsettling  promo video for the game. I don’t like the looks of that teddy bear.

According to The Astronauts’ Website, “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is inspired by the weird fiction stories and other tales of macabre of the early 20th century”, and  is a game “to be played at night, alone, and with headphones, coming to PC in 2013.”

With the release of a new generation of consoles and high-profile first party titles, I wonder how a niche horror title from a small team will fair in the last quarter of 2013. Still, I’m optimistic and look forward to seeing what The Astronauts can offer us in the months ahead.

You can check out The Astronauts’ Official Website Here, as well as the the Game’s Impressive Promo Comic Here.