Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, July 13, 2012

2009: Look at the Birdie (Vonnegut, Kurt)

Come for the humor, stay for the humanism (3/5)

There are a select few science fiction authors who I know by reputation alone. For one reasons or another, I haven’t procured any novels from the same authors: Robert A. Heinlein, Ben Bova, and Philip José Farmer among them. Kurt Vonnegut comes very, very close to being one those “reputation alone” authors, if it weren’t for the fact that I once read the first two or three chapters from Timequake (1997) in 2005, two years before I became serious in reading. Timequake remains one of two books that I started and never had the wish to finish… the other being Norman Spinrad’s Child of Fortune (1985). Perhaps after reading this previously unpublished collection to short stories of Vonngut’s, I may venture back to Timequake and a few of his other sci-fi-esque novels… but definitely not Child of Fortune (jeez, what a piece of crap).

Rear cover synopsis:
“Look at the Birdie is a surprising and often hilarious collection of stories set in post-war America, a world of squabbling couples, high school geniuses, misfit office workers, and small-town Lotharios. Though written early in his career and never published before, these stories showcase all Vonnegut’s trademark skills—a deep sense of humanity, a sharp eye for the absurd and humour in the most unlikely places.”

Not all of the short stories in Look at the Birdie of are of the science fiction persuasion, but the ones that are SF-esque deserve a rightful place on my shelves (too bad this is a borrowed book, however). The stories that ARE sci-fi have a double asterisk and the ones that are sci-fi-esque have a single asterisk.


Letter from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. to Miller Marris, 1951 – 5/5 – Rebounding from the rejection of an extra-curricular graduate study, Kurt reflects on a writer’s choice to write for himself or to write for the publishers, a dichotomy splitting him from self-actualization and financial renunciation. 3 pages

** Confido – 4/5 – Henry Bowers tinkers away at a hearing-aid company but one day stumbles upon his greatest invention yet. Showing it to his wife Ellen, Henry dubs the device Confido, which he hopes will be “bigger than the television and psychoanalysis combined” (13). However, Confido’s earbud input into Ellen irks her but also snidely entertains her. The comments become too much when their son announces his once adoption. Henry must decide whether or not to junk his billion dollar idea—the confidence companion. 14 pages

F U B A R – 4/5 – Fuzzy Littler works in the PR department of a large company. He simply returns letters to customers which defy categorization. The PR department has no room for him so he is given an office in Building 181, but when his burns down along with his paperwork, he is given another office at the end of the company’s bus line—building 533, the company gymnasium. Work is scarce and the gym’s opening hours are outside of Fuzz’s working hours, so he and his new secretary find a way to release his pent up, guilt-ridden soul. 15 pages

Shout About It from the Housetops – 3/5 – Elsie Strang Morgen is a published author with movie rights already sold for her novel. However, she and her school teacher husband have become a recluse couple in a farm home, both miserable and uncommunicative. One day a storm window salesman comes by seeing their house in improperly shuddered, but ignorant of her book and their situation, the salesman receives an earful regarding their history—the revelations of which are innocuous for himself, but startling for the couple. 13 pages

Ed Luby’s Key Club – 3/5 – Harve Eliot and his wife Claire patronize an out-of-town fancy restaurant once a year for their anniversary, a restaurant owned by an old bodyguard for Al Capone. The couple is rudely turned away after they are informed of the establishment’s new reputation as a private club, The Key Club. Harve and Claire witness Ed Luby, the club owner, hit and kill a woman on the steps of the club but are later detained in the murder of the same woman. Harve seeks justice from the town of cronies Ed has built but even the residents are pawns to Ed’s larger game of corruption. With circumstances as wild as they are, even a head injury can be seen as a fortuitous advance. 52 pages

A Song for Selma – 4/5 – Helmholtz is the band director and tutor for the 16-year old musical prodigy Schoeder, composer of a many marches. The big dumb drummer, Big Floyd, hands Helmholtz a poem/composition inspired by his lab partner Selma. Helmholtz tracks Selma down to the high school’s office where she’s copying IQ data from the file of the band director. He spots an error in her deduction and rallies the three students together. 17 pages

* Hall of Mirrors – 4/5 – Detectives Carney and Foltz investigate the house of a hypnotist who is suspected in the disappearance of four women. Weems, the hypnotist, has an uncanny ability to steer the conversation and the actions of the detectives in self-proscribed ways, yet the police duo still persist on seeing the mirrors where the women walked through and disappeared. Continuing his illusionist subterfuge, the hypnotist concocts his own truth out of the precarious situation in the mirrored attic. 17 pages

** The Nice Little People – 5/5 – Lowell Swift (a nod to Jonathon Swift of Gulliver’s Travels) casually picks up a paper knife from the roadside to find its rightful owner. Unable to locate them, he returns home to find an opalescent stud on the knife to have popped out of its mounting. Six black-clad miniature humans descend from the hole. At first shocking, literally and in size, they idolize him because of the bounty of food he offered. His life takes an unexpected turn when his wife returns home after a real estate deal. 11 pages

Hell, Red – 3/5 – After eight years of mercantile shipping, a collection of tattoos, and one leg short of a pair, Red Mayo returns to his hometown. Establishing himself as bridge operator, Red sees the village sunk in self-delusion as he steps up to find the truth of his departure years ago. The red-headed girl near the bridge is hat drew him to the bridge, but it’s the father that he must confront. 15 pages

Little Drop of Water – 5/5 – Larry’s a bachelor, plain and simple, and wishes to remain that way. With a steady stream of “talent” in his studio, Larry is spoilt for choice and pursues who he wished. Only when the girl mentions starts talking of marriage does he let her go… this is where his fellow bachelor friend comes into the scene to consul the poor girl. One girl takes the break-up pretty hard but refuses to donate a tear to the cause; she’d rather connivingly inject into Larry’s well-known weekly routine as a way of revenge. 17 pages

** The Petrified Ants – 5/5 – Peter, the discoverer of the government rebuked “warlike, slave-raiding ants found under hedges” (186), and his partner Josef are brought to a remote mine which houses an amazing discovery: petrified ants from the pre-Mesozoic era. Looking more closely they see the ants without pincers but oddly carrying items such as a book and a bass fiddle. As their investigation continues, strata above the previous discovery highlights a change in the ants’ society—one that may not be greeted well by the Soviet government. 18 pages

The Honor of a Newsboy – 2/5 – The death of a waitress raises suspicions towards the local bully, Earl Hedlund. The police chief visits the house to question the man but finds the paperboy bravely riding up to house with Earl’s mutt snapping at his heels. Just then, Earl comes home to his 5-day outstanding pile of newspapers and verbally challenges the sheriff, the newsboy, and the boy’s father. Behind the importance of the murder lays the defense of the honor. 10 pages

* Look at the Birdie – 4/5 – Contemplating the hatred of his enemy, up pulls a man by the name of Felix Koradubian, a convicted malfeasance psychiatric practitioner. Having interviewed scores of patients but burning his records, Felix keeps a secret list of paranoiacs to “do” his work for him. For the man at the bar, this unintended blessing takes on a different face very soon. 7 pages

King and Queen of the Universe – 2/5 – The inherently rich couple of 1931, Anne and Henry, stroll through a park speaking absentmindedly when Anne glorifies the freedom of hobos and describes the penniless lifestyle a fun and heaven-like. Just then, a man detaches himself from the shadows and approaches the couple because of the woman’s ignorant statement. That man, Stanley Karpinsky, is jobless but talents in industrial chemistry… and his mother is dying. It’s in his power to shift points of views and, perhaps, to make the world a more just place. 19 pages

The Good Explainer – 3/5 – Joe and his wife Barbara travel from Cincinnati to Chicago to see a “specialist” about their childless ten years of marriage. Admittedly a general practitioner, Dr. Leonard Abekian is a little confused as to why anyone would recommend his services as a sterility specialist. As Joe’s wife is out shopping during his doctor visit, Joe lets slip his wife’s name and occupation, something which he promised not to do. As Barbara approached the office, the doctor understands the nature of the problem. 11 pages

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