Short Fiction Review: The Man Who Carved Skulls by Richard Parks

th_a0580aaeccec739569f2502c0aa86498_lightspeed_36_may_2013Title: The Man Who Carved Skulls

Author: Richard Parks

Publisher: Lightspeed Magazine, Issue 36 (Reprint from 2007 Weird Tales)

Date: May 2013

Review:

“I married your mother for her skull. It’s no secret.”

So begins the story of Jarak, the skull carver. His profession is a noble one — etching images into the skulls of the deceased to forever commemorate their lives in the House of Skulls. Jarak’s son, Akan, takes an interest in his father’s work, hoping one day to follow in his footsteps.

Jarak tells his son how he met his mother and how she ultimately married him in hope of having her own skull immortalized with greater beauty and prestige than any of the other heads on display in the tomb. It’s a vain love story, but both Jarak and his wife, Letis, are happy.

The conflict begins when Jarak’s health takes a turn for the worst and it appears that Jarak’s promise to decorate his wife’s skull will go unfulfilled. She has not the courage to commit suicide and Jarak doesn’t have the heart to kill her. Only Akan can intercede if his parent’s deepest wishes can come true.

At first, after reading this story, I was reminded of the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel, Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. Ender Wiggin is faced with a similar dilemma where he must commit a violent act against an alien species for the “piggie” to be immortalized. Card adroitly deals with the subject of conflicting ethics and norms, making this novel superior to its predecessor, Ender’s Game.

In The Man Who Carved Skulls, Akan’s dilemma is not one of ethics, but of cost. Is it worth the cost of losing his own freedom and future so that his parents’ dreams can be fulfilled? There is also a message of love, asking to what extent a person will carry out an undesirable act for the ones he loves.

I found the story to be well-written and thought-provoking. I love situational ethics and the dilemma presented touches on this subject. Where I was a bit lost was with the selfishness of Letis. Not only is she vain, but she is so cowardly that she would rather have her son punished for his entire life than kill herself. Akan, rather than being a selfless hero, becomes a victim. Not even his deed is noble, for all it accomplishes is fulfilling her shallow pursuit.

While my later reflections have mixed thoughts, the story did provide an idea that made me think beyond the last line. Even though the characters were not all that likable, I really liked the premise and overall found it to be a rewarding read.

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Review: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang

th_a0580aaeccec739569f2502c0aa86498_lightspeed_31_december_2012Title: Story of Your Life

Author: Ted Chiang

Rating: 5 star

Publisher: Lightspeed Magazine, December 2012 (originally published in the Starlight 2 anthology edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden)

Review:

 

I am yet to read a Ted Chiang story I haven’t loved. I often long for him to be more prolific than the one novelette that finds its way into an anthology every two years, but perhaps it is his sparse writing that makes each story so special.

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I have read the various stories mostly from anthologies, not from his collection Stories of Your Life and Others, published by Tor in 2002. I don’t believe Ted Chiang is best read one story after the next, but rather one at a time to let the deep themes sink in deep.

The December 2012 issue of Lightspeed magazine featured one of Chiang’s greatest novellas, Story of Your Life, and I decided to give it another read. The premise of the story is that a young linguist by the name of Dr. Louise Banks is enlisted by the government to try and make sense of the language of an alien species, who have just made contact with Earth. The aliens are nothing like humans, being radially symmetrical with seven legs, a breathing hole on top of its body, and a mouth below.

The aliens communicate both orally and hieroglyphically, using a form of icons that cannot be read sequentially — only absorbed as an entire hole. The very first stroke of the first symbol interacts with everything else that the alien language is trying to communicate. The format of their language is crucial to the story because it aligns with how the heptapods view time as a whole.

From the beginning words of the novella, we learn that Louise has adapted to their language and as a consequence is able to foresee her future, experiencing marriage, divorce, the birth of a daughter, and her tragic and untimely death. Two parallel threads interweave throughout the narrative. The first being chronological as she tries to communicate with the heptapods; the second being somewhat, but not exclusively, told reverse-chronologically, speaking to her daughter in the future tense from death until life.

 

 

51Z0N8GB7EL._SL500_AA300_For anyone looking to introduce themselves to Ted Chiang, Story of Your Life is the perfect place to start. Time and fate versus free-will are concepts that are difficult to grasp and Ted Chiang explores them in such a fascinating way. He draws on Fermat’s principle of least time to explain how light itself defies the chronology of time and shows how we make the same decisions even if we know that our future will be filled with pain. This is a theme that is explored later by Chiang in another fantastic novella, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.

Even though Ted Chiang is yet to pen a novel and has but a dozen short stories to his name, he will go down as one of the great speculative fiction writers. Like Gene Wolfe, his writing is insightful and filled with puzzles. His grasp and application of metaphysical themes make each story a delight to read. If you haven’t read Story of Your Life, please go read it now.