Sweets from a Stranger

Sweets from a Stranger coverOverall: a good collection, I’d say, although perhaps not really representative of Fisk’s strengths and weaknesses at novel length — perhaps less representative than I expected, at any rate, given that his novels tend to be on the short side anyway. The stories are more about childhood situations, or situations that can be read as representative of childhood situations, and less about children themselves; and they tend more towards outright horror or comedy. In googling around for references to the stories in this volume I discovered that Fisk has actually published another collection, Living Fire and Other Stories, and that one of his stories was nominated for a Nebula in 1976. So I don’t think I’m quite done with Fisk’s short fiction yet.

In the meantime, however, here are links to all the story posts. There’s some discussion on the “Sweets for a Stranger” post, if anyone hasn’t seen it.

“Teddies Rule, OK?”

Sweets from a Stranger coverThe final story in the collection, and the only one that seems particularly directed towards a grown-up reader. The narrator is a writer, one that we can take as a proxy for Fisk, and he relates a story about the family of his landlord, technocrat Lucius Kern.

Kern’s daughter, Mandy (age 6), has a teddy bear, Tugsy, that she adores more than anything in the world — certainly more than her father, it seems. Tugsy is her Hobbes. In an attempt to win her affection, Kern has his engineers develop an AI that can be implanted in Tugsy, thinking (perhaps) that if he can bring the bear to life for real, Mandy will recognise his generosity and return his love. He sneaks into Mandy’s room one night to insert the computer into Tugsy.

It is easy to imagine what happened in the morning.

Mandy woke. She said, “Come on Tugsy, get up. Don’t be lazy.”

And the bear spoke! “Good morning,” it said.

She said, “What?” and the bear repeated “Good morning.”

Perhaps Mandy’s eyes and mouth opened wide in amazement. If they did, they were very soon brought under control. As she always did, she washed and dressed herself, without help, and went down to breakfast. (149)

It’s very noticeable that we’re never allowed into Mandy’s point of view in this story; everything the narrator is not present for is speculation, and not all of it is accurate. When things inevitably don’t unfold as Kern hoped, it’s a rebuke, or perhaps a note-to-self on Fisk’s part: your science fiction, the story says, can’t match up to a child’s imagination.

“Cutie Pie”

Sweets from a Stranger coverAnother one, it seems, that has been used for teaching: you can find the text here, some sample questions and answers here, and even a trailer for a student film, here. Cutie-Pie is an alien, captured and returned to Earth by prospecting astronauts, and named by the masses. Interestingly, in the context of “Swap-Shop” and “Nightmare’s Dream”, which now seem to represent a sort of progress towards the alien, almost the entire story is told from Cutie-Pie’s point of view. His real name is Ch-tsal, and he’s suffering terribly. Uncomprehending humans are keeping him in an enclosure whose environmental conditions match those of the place where he was found; unfortunately, that place was not Ch-tsal’s native habitat. Eventually he escapes and fines a human baby with whom, at night time, he can commune:

[The baby] It did not talk of what it knew now (which was next to nothing) but of what it had always known; its race memories. Ch-tsal learned what it was like for a human to plunge through a great wave, green and icy; to hunt down animals in dark forests; to let fly an arrow and somehow know for certain, as it left the bow, that it would hit its mark. He learned of the glories of battle. the terrors of defeat, the chill wickedness of snakes, the smell of wood smoke.

In his turn, Ch-tsal told the baby of the building of crystal cities, of creatures in caves, of the pioneer ships that opened up the galaxy, of the Venus invaders and how they were repulsed, of the five ways of knowing God, and of the taste of a certain food that grew only when his planet’s three moons were full.

Much as I admire the story for refusing a human perspective almost entirely, I can’t help feeling it’s one of the lesser stories in Sweets for a Stranger; Ch-tsal just isn’t very satisfyingly alien. Perhaps the story’s teachability is that there’s an obvious comparison to be made with another work that first appeared in 1982. (The collection appeared in 1982, at least; the frustratingly incomplete copyright information indicates that some stories were also published in 1978, 1979, and 1980, but gives not indication as to which those might be.)

“Nightmare’s Dream”

Sweets from a Stranger coverAnother horror story, shorter and sharper than “Swap-Shop”, and between the title and the first paragraph the conceit is fairly clear from the off:

There is a boy. Perhaps he is real. He lies in bed. Perhaps the bed is real. It is night and he wants to sleep. But the dream, the dream, the dream…! (124)

That is: is the boy dreaming the alien slug monster, or is the alien slug monster dreaming the boy?

A lot depends on execution, then. I think Fisk makes the right choice in, just for once, after that opening paragraph, plunging us into a first-person voice. The dream is creeping up on the narrator, “slack, slimy, cold […] It clamps my neck and my brain swells and wants to burst” (124). Overwhelmed, the narrator realises he is in his dream body, claustrophobically confined, harness-straps around his neck and middle. “Sometimes I bite the lock with my mouth, bite it for hours”, he reports. “Why do I do that? What is the point? My mouth is a wet blur, toothless, dripping, silent. Powerless” (125). It’s a pretty intense two pages.

The narrator, who thinks he is the boy, dreams that he is discovered in his dream-body by his schoolfriends, and that they run screaming in terror at the sight of him. Then he wakes up, or so it seems; then he falls asleep again. The final section of the story steps back out into third-person, and we see a conversation between Helm and Thelma Singlass, who have captured a sluglike alien and brought it back to Earth. It seems clear this is the horror that send schoolchildren running in terror; what’s less clear, but raised as a possibility by the couples’ bathetic final exchange, is whether the boy dreaming he is the slug was ever real, or whether he is entirely a construct of the slug’s own dreams. I prefer the latter explanation.

“Swap-Shop”

Sweets from a Stranger coverIt begins with the wind whistling through the wall. It’s not the noise itself that’s the problem, says Jo, it’s the feeling behind it. “It’s almost as if someone or something is saying things in the wall…” (103). Her brother Bogey (nee Alec) teases her about her fears, but together they reveal a hole in the wall, a hole that is “all wrong”, that is sometimes a normal hole, and sometimes “seemed to shift — to move, to swell and contract, almost to breathe” (105). Neither sibling is brave enough to venture into the hole, but Bogey throws in a old, cracked, china mug. It disappears. Two minutes later, a glass tumbler appears: thick, whole, beautiful green glass.

Further swaps ensue. They put hot chocolate in the glass, and get back a golden liquid that tastes of every fruit and none. They put in salted peanuts, and get back unsalted. A needle and thread, and get back two pieces of fabric joined by a small button containing a golden worm, that glows “like the filament of a torch bulb when the battery’s almost flat” (109), and slowly rotates. Other devices come back with other worm-buttons on. Bogey gets excited: this could be his fortune! These miraculous worm-buttons, which seem to be able to join and clean and power and much else. He tries to establish direct communications with the whatevers on the other side of the hole: his notes and photographs come back unchanged. He does the inevitable. This is what Jo finds in the morning:

Motionless, but for the fluttering of the petal-like eyelids. Glimmering white, smooth, flawless, hairless. Him. Not him. His head seemed larger. Too large. His scarred lip was still healing — as she watched, the last of the scar faded and vanished leaving only rose and white perfection.

He groaned and rolled from side to side; then completely over. She felt the burn of vomit in her throat when her eyes were trapped by the sight of the crystal buttons in which turned little golden worms, in his neck, his brow, his belly, his chest. His eyelids fluttered again. They opened: then she saw the spiralling golden worms in his eyes. (121)

He can talk, but Jo sends the new Bogey into the hole, and the story ends without revealing what, if anything, comes back. It may seem odd for a writer who so clearly believes in science fiction (“stories about extraordinary things that could happen”, according to the author biography in the back of some editions of his books) to write a story that leans so heavily (if effectively) on the horror of technology. But it’s of a piece with a story like “The Thieves of Galac“: the problem with the worm-buttons is that they’re sealed, inscrutable, unknowable, remote from everyday experience. They’re scary because we don’t know how they work.

“Oddiputs”

Sweets from a Stranger coverThinking some more about the matter of Fisk’s voice, and how different it is to that of contemporary YA, perhaps we shouldn’t be focusing on the fact of the difference, but asking where it comes from. That is: rather than writing in an ironically distancing voice just because he likes it, it strikes me that the difference may be that these are stories designed to be told — to be read out loud — and that the sense of distance follows on from that fact.

The first scene of “Oddiputs”, for instance, dips into the minds of three of the four significant characters in the story. We get a glimpse of put-upon robot Oddiputs’ resignation at the abuse and mockery he gets from his child-masters, and in particular Sally; we feel younger brother Bruno’s hesitation before joining in with the teasing, and older brother Dex’s shame at the whole situation. Later paragraphs contain asides like this:

But it was a vast list of facts and figures that he repeated, longer than an Encyclopedia. So long that it took Oddiputs whole minutes to produce and digest, at lightning speed (for robots are fast, very fast) the information that proved Oddiputs’ existence to Oddiputs. (84)

The narrator is a palpable presence: you can feel him confiding in you, drawing you into the story. A movement away from this sort of voice, and towards predominantly first and very close third person fiction can be seen as both a gain and a loss, I think. What is gained is obvious — directness, immediacy, a sense that the story is being told by an equal, not mediated by an adult. (Even in some of his first-person work Fisk is reluctant to give up that mediation: Grinny is clearly framed as the protagonist’s diaries as polished up by noted author Nicholas Fisk. Of course, this is also a strategy to increase the “authenticity” of the tale, and Fisk does have some fun with it in You Remember Me!) On the other hand, what is lost is the awareness that such directness and imediacy is in the end always an illusion. The story is still mediated by an adult — by an author — even if it pretends otherwise; and that’s not such a bad thing to be reminded of about fiction.

You also, perhaps, make it harder to have unlikable protagonists. The duelling parties in “Oddiputs” — the defective robot, who develops an egomaniacal certainty of his superiority to “dirty” humans over the course of several laborious night-times of thinking; and brattish Sally, who torments to robot just to reinforce her power over every aspect of the world around her, and all the people in it — are both thoroughly unimpressive sentient beings. But because they’re at one remove, perhaps it’s easier to enjoy their duel; it’s hard to imagine the story being as successful if told from one perspective, or even simply alternating between the two perspectives. As it is, we can sit back and enjoy their wicked antics.

“Perfect Paul”

Sweets from a Stranger coverA comedy. “Just take it from me,” the narrator says, “that Paul was perfect” (68). And he is, nauseatingly so; and so we cheer when he dies in a bike accident on page two.

The bulk of the story is therefore concerned with Paul’s afterlife. Too perfect for Up There, he gets sent to Uppermost, where he spends his time hobnobbing with historical greats (Einstein, Churchill, Chaplin, Shakespeare, and so on), and then showing them up with his perfection. Trouble comes to paradise when Paul takes it into his head to redesign the Pearly Gates: the Council of the Great Architect are unmoved. In fact, they consider Paul a potential menace, and sentence him to be returend to life as a middle-aged school teacher, with no memory of his time in heaven. This is, perhaps, intended as the worst punishment a child reader could imagine. Who wants to be perfect, the story asks, if this is what it gets you?

Mischeivous fluff. Why Fisk scrubs most specifically Christian terminology (heaven, hell), but keeps phrases strongly associated with Christianity (Pearly Gates) I don’t know. But the story is worth it for moments like this, in which Sir Christopher Wren, who turns out to be an aging hippy, offers his opinion of Paul and his plans for the Gates:

“Frankly,” Wren confided to his old friend and associate Hawksmoor, “this kid Paul bugs me. Domes I dig. Cupolas — right on. But pre-cast concrete, modular construction … that Paul’s too far out for me, man.” (79)

“Mind-Milk”

Sweets from a Stranger coverMore aliens from a dying race, seeking servants! This time, all three hundred million of them are already on Earth (this makes sense by the end of the story), with two of them, Van3 and Masr8, charged with spying on the dreams of children to see what stuff humanity is made of. Only children will do, apparently. “The human mind stops early. Once the early conditioning process is done, the adult human merely lives out its set pattern” (51).

They spy on Sandra, dreaming of stardom as the lead singer in what appears to be a glam-rock band; on a boy dreaming of glory on the football pitch; they skip over a girl dreaming of saving lives as a nurse, and settle for the bulk of a story on 11-year-old Mick Rivers, imaginging himself grown-up as a soldier. There follow some pages of gung-ho blood-and-guts boy’s-own war adventures, during which Lieutenant Mick (unknowing) appears to be making his way back along the psychic link to become a real threat to the aliens. Masr8 gets nervous; Van3 is oblivious: “Oh, but this is the cream! I must have it all” (63). All ends well.

Aside from being another tale in which the experiences of the children it is ostensibly about are framed, commented on by other intelligences, what stands out about the story, reading it in 2010, are the gender dynamics. There are almost always both boys and girls in Fisk’s stories, and in most cases both contribute to solving the plot (which means, given Fisk’s preference for omniscient narrative voice, we generally get the thoughts of both, even if, as noted earlier, the protagonist is almost always a boy, and almost always contributes more). But when it’s deemed relevant, as it apparently is in “Mind-Milk”, boys are given clearly boy roles, and girls are given clearly girl roles. It’s hard to imagine Mick being Mary.

And there’s one other thing. As part of his fantasy, while injured Mick imagines his girlfriend, Val. “She has beautiful, soft, slender arms, brown from the sun. I wish I could feel them round my neck, cool and healing” (63-4). And after the fantasy:

“He’s nice. I’ll marry him when I’m big,” said four-year-old Val. There were big gaps in the garden fence, so her wide eyes could follow every movement of the boy next door, Mick Rivers. She watched him silently, her soft arms cradling the neck of her teddy bear.

Mick Rivers deliberately ignored her. Stupid kid, always spying on him. Girls! “Boring, boring,” he chanted to himself, under his breath. (66-7)

This is, clearly, played for laughs: the young girl idolising her older neighbour, the neighbour’s denial of interest when we know his subconcious knows better. But when you stop to think about it, it’s a very odd dynamic, is it not? On the one hand, you have that “spying”, which creates an uncomfortable parallel between Val, waiting to marry Mick, and the aliens, who had wanted to enslave him. This could conceivably be part of the joke, since we know Mick likes Val deep down, after all, but that just leads you to think (or at least, me to think): Val is four. Nor is she the only very young girl to seek or receive the attention of older boys in Fisk’s fiction. Beth in Grinny is the subject of adoration by a neighbour from down the street (this works substantially better in the sequel, You Remember Me!, when Beth is somewhat older and much more of the story is from her point of view); the youngest character in Trillions is a precocious girl already aware of her feminine wiles, and not afraid to use them to wrap a military officer around her finger.

Can the Vals of Fisk’s fiction be read as an indictment of the effect of growing up in a highly gendered society, of expectations of roles shaping behaviour even from a very early age? Yes; but if it matters to you, even setting against these characters Fisk’s practical girls, like Mee in Antigrav, or Abigail in Robot Revolt, I’d have a hard time arguing it’s deliberate.

“Space Invaders”

Sweets from a Stranger coverNo prizes for guessing what this one’s about. Jason is addicted to the games at his local arcade, to the point of stealing from his mother and bunking off school to play them more. He’s good, too, and the games — which are of course self-aware — appreciate his skills. They chat like proto-Minds, their transcripts presented with Fiskian translations. They are confident in their superiority (“players are only players. They are not real like us”) but not un-affectionate:

KRAG: Jason has no more SwitchOns [tokens or money] left. Without SwitchOns he cannot play me. So I am sorry. Did Jason win against you, Space Invaders?

SPACE INVADERS: Positive Positive Positive Positive Negative Negative Positive [he won five games out of seven]. Very Full Mode [excellent play].

KRAG: That is InCircuitmost [unusually good play]. He also won against me. and no Fouls or Tilts [Jason did not cheat].

SATURN: Jason is my friend because he uses me InCircuitly.

SPACE: My friend too. But now he is not our friend because he has no more SwitchOns. So. Now I must play this Thermionic. (He plays a young man and beats him.) (37)

Indeed, when Jason hits a losing streak, one of the machines finds a soft spot and lets him win. Surely, the machine thinks this guarantees his return. But it does not.

Obvious nostalgia value aside — marvel at these amazing games, with their “hologram images, 3D displays, supertuners, feedbacks, multilevel extrapolators”! — this one is still rather charming. Jason gets away with his crimes, and may be learning better. Nobody is hurt. Except the machines, of course.

“The Thieves of Galac”

Sweets from a Stranger coverNicholas Fisk’s aliens, it seems, are always fallen. The Trillions are the technological remnant of a vanished civilization; Grinny is seeking a new home because her species used up their old one, as is Talis; and in “The Thieves of Galac”, decadent aliens have ceded control of their empire to servant machines. “We are decadent”, says the President of the Galacs, just in case there’s any confusion. I’m planning to read one more of Fisk’s novels — A Hole in the Head — in part because it’s more recent than anything else I’ve read by him (1991), and in part because, at least according to The Encyclopedia of SF, it is “a harrowing tale of the Earth at the brink of ecological catastrophe”. Earth is so often a site of sanctuary for aliens that I’m interested to see how Fisk handles humans using up their world.

Anyway. We don’t start with the Galacs. We start with Tal, 11, and his sister Mala, 13 (Fisk is always scrupulous about telling us how old his characters are). They live a somewhat desperate life on an Earth being mined by the Sentinel machines of the Galacs: “dull metallic spheres the size of footballs” that squawk instructions, and seem to have like stealing broken things. Mal laments that they’re stuck on Earth when they could have got out; their father insists the Earth is their home.

And then, with marvellous abruptness — “Light years away, in the artificial, mobile world they had made for themselves” — we’re whisked away to the Galac council, who lament their decadence until the President offers this inspiring rejoinder:

“Of course!” he cried. “We will bring them back! Use them again! The old ways! Don’t you see? We created the world in the old ways, the simple ways! We used the skills of our hands — the old tools and equipment and sciences! And we are the people we were then! Older, I grant you, too old, perhaps; even our memories fail us. But on Earth, they still use the old ways, the pioneer ways. If such savages can do it, surely we can build anew — using the old ways!” (27-8)

Practical knowledge is always valued in Fisk’s work. The first third of Antigrav (1978), in which three children discover a stone with antigrav properties, is given over to experimenting, working out how much weight the stone can lift, what factors affect that weight, which direction it pulls in, what can be done with differently balanced weights hanging off it, and so on and so forth. So the Galacs, inspired by primitive Earth, set about learning how to do things for themselves again, and in the process Earth is somewhat repaired. Then, on the Galac world, the Sentinels revolt, until the President switches them all off with the push of a single button.

It’s a very peculiar piece, this: lots of different bits stuck together at odd angles, not at all as neatly shaped as “Sweets from a Stranger”. There’s no moral here, except perhaps the properly science-fictional one that sometimes the real story is happening elsewhere, and any effects on humanity are just by-products.