The Critics’ Corner
by Don Webb
From Within and Without
In Susan Mart-Charman’s “The Ad,” John Smith’s Muse is not some visually distracting Greek goddess with an unpronounceable name but a wisecracking — and wise — lady named Mildred with a refined taste in beer — Canadian, of course. In Thomas D. Reynolds’ “The Collector,” there is no Muse as such, just random items that a couple of boys discover by accident in an abandoned house.
The story and the poem deal in radically different ways with both time and the nature of inspiration. On one hand, John Smith recollects and reintegrates from within what he had thought were wasted years and turns them into inspiration. On the other hand, the rediscovered remnants of an unknown life become something less than archeological artifacts and more like signs of memento mori to uncomprehending strangers.
From within — le temps retrouvé, ‘time regained’ — and from without — tempus fugit — both visions are true.
Jonathan Bishop’s “Imprisonment” and Jim Schicatano’s “A.K.A. Hell” obviously have a major premise in common: both stories feature... life forms... that are forcibly confined for reasons unknown to them. Beyond that, though, the stories reflect diametrically opposed viewpoints:
- Jon Bishop’s “Imprisonment” reveals the nature of the imprisonment gradually. At what point do you realize that the story is about a mouse in a laboratory experiment rather than a human being in a prison? And the reasons for the imprisonment become fully apparent only at the end.
In contrast, Jim Schicatano’s “A.K.A. Hell” sets out a list of punishments in detail to an entity convicted of unknown transgressions. Only at the end do we learn the nature of the imprisonment.
“Imprisonment” ends on an upbeat, optimistic note — salvation, in a word — when a kind-hearted researcher sets the mouse free. The ending’s very implausibility seems to be essential to the moral of the story.
To the contrary, “A.K.A. Hell” dramatizes the viewpoint that as long as the human condition is stuck between the natural and the supernatural it’s about as harsh a punishment as can be imagined. A convicted felon from another plane of existence is reincarnated on Earth, but the avatar — a baby — has no idea that she’s being punished, let alone what, if anything, she’s done to deserve it. Of course there is no “punishment” at all: the “angel” cynically parodies any concept of justice and is the celestial equivalent of a guard in a gulag or concentration camp.
It all comes down to your choice of point of view. Albert Camus, whose world view resembled that of “A.K.A. Hell,” concluded: Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux, ‘We must imagine Sisyphus as being happy’. You pays your money and you takes your choice, as the saying goes.
Now, a word of caution: do any of these works tell us anything about their authors personally? Only the authors themselves can say. We heed a lesson from “The Collector” and remember that all we have are the stories. It seems appropriate to quote our Bewildering Info page here:
The opinions and ideas published on this website do not necessarily reflect the views of Bewildering Stories or its editors. For that matter, works of literature do not necessarily reflect the views of their authors.
Copyright © 2005 by Don Webb for Bewildering Stories