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Shelf Care | Cautionary Tales: Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone

By Alex Doyle

Welcome to Shelf Care where I review three books related by a theme.  These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

This column’s theme:  Cautionary Tales: Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone.

Charlie Brooker’s brilliant series Black Mirror is a modern day Twilight Zone, which explores the dark, unintended consequences of our reliance on technology. While we’re waiting for December 29th, 2017, when the fourth season premieres on Netflix, I’ve pulled together a collection of short stories that would make good Black Mirror or Twilight Zone episodes, with unexpected twists that lie in “the middle ground between science and superstition”.  These are tales that will leave you thinking about them for days and perhaps years afterwards. So, presented for your approval, here are a few tales with endings you won’t see coming.

So if you like:

Sweet, sweet revenge

Things that keep moving when they shouldn’t

Dante’s Inferno

Wondering if Romeo and Juliet had lived

You might like

Prayers to Broken Stones, by Dan Simmons

Prayers to Broken Stones by Dan Simmons

The Black Mirror Episode: Technology brings back the dead, in “The River Styx Runs Upstream”
The Twilight Zone Episode: “Vanni Fucci Is Alive And Well And Living In Hell”

Overview

Dan Simmons is known for writing horror and science fiction, and both are on display in this collection, from the return of a recently deceased loved one in “The River Styx Runs Upstream”, to “Remembering Siri”, which became part of his award winning Hyperion Cantos, to the darkly funny “Vanni Fucci Is Alive And Well And Living in Hell”, where an inhabitant of Dante’s Inferno gets to sound off on a minister’s talk show.

Sample passage

“It actually has not been seven hundred years that I have been in Hell,” said Vanni Fucci, “only six hundred and ninety. But you know how slowly time passes in such a situation. Like in a dentist’s office.”

Takeaway

The stories are all good, but “Vanni Fucci Is Alive And Well And Living in Hell” is the story that stuck with me, especially once you learn why all of Hell voted for this guy in particular to be the televangelist’s guest.

Or if you like:

Plausible science fiction
Alternate World War II history
Heroic protagonists

Knowing why NASA went over so over budget in the 70’s with so little to show for it.

You might like

The River of Time, by David Brin

The River of Time by David Brin

The Black Mirror Episode: A drug that allows the user to relive memories, in “A Stage Of Memory”

The Twilight Zone Episode: “The Crystal Spheres”

Overview

David Brin is probably best known for his Uplift saga, and this short story collection shares it’s themes of plausible science and the human struggle to learn from our mistakes and become better for it.  If you’ve ever wondered where all the aliens are, that question might be answered by “The Crystal Spheres”. Or if you’re wondering why the NASA that went from nothing to the moon in the 60’s didn’t seem to be the NASA we had in the 70’s, the answer could be found in  “Senses, Three and Six”. Of course then there’s the big question: what were the Nazi’s thinking when they took on the whole world? That finds a chilling answer in “Thor Meets Captain America”.

Sample passage

“But I remember forging Chuck’s birth certificate almost two years ago. I set him up as a role, I recall, someone They’d never find because They were looking for somebody else. I remember diving into Chuck and burning everything that came before, old habits, old ways, and most of all the old memories.

Until tonight, that is.”

Takeaway

There’s a decent variety of themes explored here, but the one I think best represents the problems and potential of humanity in a way Rod Serling or Charlie Brooker would recognize is found in the story of an ex-astronaut hiding in plain sight in the previous sample passage from “Senses Three and Six”.

Or if you like:

Biblical engineering

Really alien aliens

Everybody looking average

The movie Arrival

You might like

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

 The Black Mirror Episode: A device that makes everyone equally attractive, in “Liking What You See: A Documentary”

The Twilight Zone Episode: “Tower of Babylon”

Overview

Ted Chiang probably has the highest award to story ratio of any author out there today. He hasn’t written much, but just about all of it has gotten awards. This collection includes the story that was the basis for the movie Arrival*. So if you’ve wondered what a society without prejudice might look like, check out “Liking What You See: A Documentary”. Or if angels manifested on earth as natural disasters, “Hell is the Absence Of God” explores their impact.  Or if you’ve ever wondered what would have happened if the Tower of Babel had been completed, look no further than the aptly titled “Tower of Babylon”.

Sample passage

“We are the miners summoned from the land of Elam.”

The gatekeepers were delighted. One called back, “You are the ones who are to dig through the vault of heaven?”

“We are.”

Takeaway

The creativity and thorough exploration of ideas in this collection is just flat out amazing.  My only regret in recommending it is that there isn’t more of Chiang’s stuff out there, but I suppose if one has to choose quality over quantity, then he’s made the right decision.

Honorable Mention:

Tales From The New Twilight Zone, by Michael Straczynski

Tales From The New Twilight Zone by Michael Straczynski

The Black Mirror Episode: ** Memories can be bought and sold, in “The Mind Of Simon Foster
The Twilight Zone Episode: All of them.

While everybody remembers the black and white Twilight Zone from the 60’s, they may not be aware that there was a fairly decent revival of it in the mid 1980’s. Joe Michael Straczynski (of Babylon 5, Sense 8, and a whole bunch of comic books fame) was a head writer, and this book is a collection of episodes he wrote for the show. It missed making the list as it looks like it’s gone out of print, and I couldn’t find an e-book version of it, but if you can find  a copy of it, it’s definitely worth checking out.

So, what else should have been on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column: We’ve Got The Powers.

*The movie Arrival prompted one of my favorite in jokes:
-Half the audience raises their hands.-

Speaker: Ok, how many of you can read Heptapod B?

**Ok, it’s a bit of a cheat considering it was already a Twilight Zone episode, but still…

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About Alex Doyle (26 Articles)
Alex Doyle is a father, programmer, smartass and a fan of anything that wastes no time to getting to the point. When he's not trying to be clever on the Internet, or irritating his kids with dad jokes, he can be found looking for the next great story that everyone has to read.

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