IC EZ reading club: current pick = "The Swords" by Robert Aickman

this is our forum reading club for short texts

Rules And Regulations:

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    Selections will be available to read and discuss itt for a week before we move on to the next pick

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    I'll randomly select the next discussion leader at the end of the week from active participants

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    No guidelines on selections other than they should take a busy adult (job/kids/socially crippling video game addiction) a day or two to read

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    Selectors:
    - please provide a legally available online version of the text you'd like us to read
    - give the group a couple or three discussion prompts and be ready to lead the conversation as needed

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    in the interest of democracy this is not an official rule, but I'll make a personal appeal: please please don't take it too far with any nerd shit

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    More infrequent forum posters are as always welcome to participate!

  • **Past Selections:**

    "[The Air Disaster](https://archive.org/details/warfever0000ball_k2a5/page/86/mode/2up)" - J.G. Ballard
    "[Exhalation](https://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/exhalation/)" - Ted Chiang
    "[Sleeper](https://www.tor.com/2014/08/12/sleeper-jo-walton/)" - Jo Walton
    "[Hairy Legs and All](https://www.nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/hairy-legs-and-all/)" - Stephen Graham Jones
    "[The Swords"](https://archive.org/details/coldhandinminest00aick/page/n13/mode/2up) - Robert Aickman

    “The Air Disaster” by J.G. Ballard

    https://archive.org/details/warfever0000ball_k2a5/page/86/mode/2up

    Questions:

  • * what do you make of the description of the airliner and other technology/machinery in the text?
  • * do you regard the story as predictive (published 1975) about the media? Does it contain any insights that can be applied to the present?
  • * what sort of self-awareness does the narrator seem to have (if any)?
  • * favorite or alternately most hated qualities or passages?
  • @“yeso”#p79160

    Damn, the trajectory of this story is just wild. I love how it sort of needles at both of your expectations as a reader, in that you're sort of expecting him to both find the aircraft and to come to violent ends after being misled by the different groups of villagers.

    I don't have much to say about the descriptions of the technology in the story. It's sort of vague, I think, on purpose so that the reader can fill in their own blanks.

    As for predictive about media: maybe, but probably not on purpose. Or, to put it another way: it captures something true about humans more than humans in any specific industry. We want novelty and we want discovery. We want to be the one, often, to present a novel discovery, to set the images of an event in the heads of other people.

    But I think it also captures something very true and sort of unfortunate about writers. Which is that we're sometimes so focused on how we'll recreate an experience that we struggle to give ourselves over to the experience. The narrator is already describing the tragedy, planning his report, before he's even seen anything. He has the gruesome reality meticulously crafted even though there's no gruesome reality to witness. And so to the extent this is deliberately saying something about media, I'd say it's that the shape of a story often matters more than the facts of the story.

    The narrator clearly has some strong imperialistic views, which, I think leads to undercutting the readers expectations in both the ways I described. We're invited to see these people the way he does but we're also removed enough to acknowledge that he is an asshole. And in stories, assholes often deserve punishment. So we are _expecting_ the villagers to commit some violence on him. Which, in turn, indicts us in this imperialistic view.

    Because why would random, poor people attack someone just because he's there?

    He is fixated on the material differences between them and uses this to build a version of them that is jealous and violently acquisitive. And because he's our eyes into this experience, we're also experiencing the dread along with him.

    Of course, the ending complicates all of this.

    So, uh, I'd say this is a pretty good story.

    >

    what do you make of the description of the airliner and other technology/machinery in the text?

    There are some interesting contradictions that technology represents being toyed with here. Despite the airliner being ostensibly the main focus of the story, the car is the piece of technology and machinery that is most present in the story. I am thinking about how the car but also the plane is portrayed as both nigh miraculous, yet fallible and crude in its own way as well. The narrator thinks about how impressive his car must be to the "primitive mountain-dwellers," only for a relatively minor physical shock to it potentially stranding him and almost reducing him to a primitive mountain-dweller. The airliner that crashed is both a marvel of modern technology, but also just the same kind of airliner as other ones are and just made double-decker.

    I suppose it kind of maps on to how people are portrayed too. There is this arrogant cityslicker who thinks they are on top of the world due to their advancement, who only has utter contempt for people who he knows nothing about beyond that they're short and they don't speak the King's Spanish or whatever. Yet this dumb ass thinks he is the smart one and gets all pissy when he gets led to the wrong airplane crash.

    >

    do you regard the story as predictive (published 1975) about the media? Does it contain any insights that can be applied to the present?

    I dunno about predictive so much as it feels like it is still fairly contemporary, even if by accident. I suppose this reporter feels a bit dated, although there are still ambulance chasing reporters who chase tragedy for their own personal gain, I suppose they're less likely to be international conference hoppers or carry wads of bills. I guess what I consider to be more contemporary is the fact that there are still probably networks of remote mountain villages (probably in Mexico even) where no one goes and if you accidentally asked the nearest old man about something, you might be told something that had been overlooked by anyone not in or directly connected to that community for decades.

    Another thing did just occur to me, though, which is how this, again doesn't so much as predicts but describes, how much the language barrier, especially as it comes to media and especially when it is willful, contributes to such a fundamental misunderstanding among people. We got the present day version of this POV character of this story reporting on China and Ukraine and shit.

    >

    what sort of self-awareness does the narrator seem to have (if any)?

    Lmao

    The passage where the reporter is feigning distaste at the idea of the crowd of people going to gawk at the horror and spectacle was almost a little too on the nose.

    >

    favorite or alternately most hated qualities or passages?

    Gotta respect the grift #wastehistime

    >

    @“yeso”#p79160 the description of the airliner and other technology/machinery

    the fact that the airliner is this sort of indistinct future thing is interesting to me. I never know how fantastical or realistic to imagine it.

    I also notice that all machinery is broken down or wrecked. Two crashed planes and the supposedly luxurious car has radiator trouble and a flat tire

    >

    @“Gaagaagiins”#p79322 networks of remote mountain villages

    I'm also not sure how "real" this is supposed to be. I think the narrator is Mexican or at least lives in Mexico (mentions having an editor in Mexico city rather than London or whatever). Yet the dialogue is all undisguised anglo

    The description of the villagers wearing leather and animal skins also makes no sense and is quite weird

    >

    @“yeso”#p79160 what sort of self-awareness does the narrator seem to have

    there's just one aside about his having a self-described flabby body or something, which is odd amidst the rest of the nasty description of the locals. And we never learn what he thinks about the final events, only that he feels pursued down the mountain by them

    >

    @“yeso”#p79336 I’m also not sure how “real” this is supposed to be. I think the narrator is Mexican or at least lives in Mexico (mentions having an editor in Mexico city rather than London or whatever). Yet the dialogue is all undisguised anglo


    >
    >

    The description of the villagers wearing leather and animal skins also makes no sense and is quite weird

    I'm kind of also reading between the lines of this quite unreliable narrator here too, I think. Although, I can imagine some kind of guy like this in 2022 ending up in rural Chiapas and ignorance leading them to form a similar impression of the locals.

    might be unreliable, but I think also it could be one of the unreal feeling elements of the story: thinking also of the premise of reporter covering “the film festival at the resort” at which the plane crash is announced over a loudspeaker. Just details that you almost pass by, but seem unreal when you try to visualize them

    @“Gaagaagiins”#p79339

    I think perspective is one of the most important aspects of this story. Especially as it collides and sloshes around with ideas about who is and who is not Mexican/Civilized.

    The narrator believes the villagers are both like naive children but also self-aware to be envious of what the narrator has and willing to pursue violence to acquire it. And much of the story‘s shape has to do with the chasms of misunderstandings between different peoples.

    So I’d say he‘s unreliable but the more important aspect, to me, is that he’s firmly fixed in a strong cultural perspective.

    >

    @“yeso”#p79160 what do you make of the description of the airliner and other technology/machinery in the text?

    Descriptions of technology help this story feel out of time. It seems to be a sort of vague near future or alternate reality, even today, even though a 1000 passenger [airplane now exists.](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airbus_A380)

    >

    @“yeso”#p79336 I also notice that all machinery is broken down or wrecked. Two crashed planes and the supposedly luxurious car has radiator trouble and a flat tire

    This is a fantastic observation! There's a sense of the narrator's climb up the mountain as going back in time. They keep describing the villages as older and older.

    >

    @“yeso”#p79160 do you regard the story as predictive (published 1975) about the media? Does it contain any insights that can be applied to the present?

    I don't know what media was like in the 1970s. Maybe this is like some heightned version of that. I agree with what others have said already- that it's apparent critiques on media feel contemporary as in they are still relevant.

    >

    @“yeso”#p79160 what sort of self-awareness does the narrator seem to have (if any)?

    Very little, I'd say. They're not self-aware enough within their own world to make good professional calls, nor are they self-aware enough as a human being to see all the contradictions in their reactions to the villagers. They are completely and exclusively invested in themself.

    >

    @“yeso”#p79160 favorite or alternately most hated qualities or passages?

    There's just excellent word choice through out. I especially liked the line in which the narrator is struggling over the rocks in the ravine, but the man described as the village leader sprints over them like a goat; it's demonstrative of the contradiction on display by the narrator.

    I want to talk about the ending, too, but I gotta eat dinner.

    >

    @“yeso”#p79336 I think the narrator is Mexican or at least lives in Mexico

    I initially read the narrator as non-Mexican because of his condescension but then I realized when he was trying to communicate with the villagers he describes a dialect barrier, not a language barrier, and also a city-dwelling Mexican journalist could still be condescending to impoverished mountain villagers, so now I'm not sure. Regardless of race, he probably speaks Spanish. I tend to read him as white because Ballard is, but yeah there's some ambiguity here.

    >

    @“yeso”#p79160 what sort of self-awareness does the narrator seem to have (if any)?

    I notice that he calls himself "sceptical" at least twice, like that's part of his badge of honor or what he's supposed to be. So, is it noticing that his perspective is inherently dark and jaded or is that just another cool buzzword to him, part of his "brand"? I lean toward the latter.

    The closest he gets (in my estimation) to self-awareness is when he's imagining the beginning of his write-up and he says he has to balance human compassion and shocking, brutal realism, though again I think this is less about him actually grappling with the situation and more about creating an enjoyable product that readers will want.

    So, in conclusion, he's not very self-aware.

    >

    @“yeso”#p79160 do you regard the story as predictive (published 1975) about the media? Does it contain any insights that can be applied to the present?

    Media was already pretty cynical at this point. Sidney Lumet's _Network_ came out a year after this, for example. Still, there's a wit here that's interesting, especially in just how distant the narrator is from everything that's going on and in the ending where the villagers are literally selling him death.

    >

    @“yeso”#p79160 favorite or alternately most hated qualities or passages?

    This was a good story and a great pick to kick off this club. I think the story does a good job of painting its narrator as a scumbag while also helping you understand exactly why he is the way he is (hey, everybody else is trying to see that crash too). This is the first time I've read Ballard even though I've been meaning to forever; he seems to be interested in elitism and detachment which is all over this. And, yes, as other people mention, I like how the story subverts a lot of what you think you are going to get and gives you something completely different in at least a couple different ways.

    After dinner last night I promptly went to sleep. Now that I'm sitting here with my morning coffee I feel prepared to discuss the last few paragraphs of the story.

    The narrator climbs the mountain in search of sensationalized death. Everything they encounter is inscrutable to them and they choose to further delude themself by narrating around their professional insecurities. This kind of trek, and the arrogance and self delusion with which they undertake it, brings them in direct contact with real death. Death as it is to human beings: family members that live only in memories. The narrator feels forced to literally purchase real death. At first I struggled with what this means that all this villagers were willing to do this. Is the author ultimately confirming some of the biases of the narrator? I've landed in a more metaphorical interpretation: the narrator is giving up their roll of bank notes as they descend, and taking on meaningful corpses (the author mentions specifically a grandmother and child). Maybe this is showing us the narrator is growing in understanding? Or if not understanding, the recognition of basic humanity.

    Apologies for skipping the questionaire format as I offer more general/disorganized thoughts.

    This is an interesting Ballard story in the sense that the uncanniness he usually plays upon is more subdued and less apparent than in the stories I have typically read from him. I think the idea of a one thousand passenger airplane is something that, forgive me for the pun, can almost fly over you if you don't make the active effort to remember that most passenger planes do 100-150 people at most. This is a running theme with the story, where pieces of information can be extracted by the way the main character frames things, but there is nothing openly strange or alienating (you only find that if you notice certain details, or, better said, the lack of them in certain crucial aspects).

    I personally think he is either Spanish or speaks the language *very* fluently, otherwise I don't think he would be able to communicate with the locals the way he does. It's not until the last village the language barrier grows to the point where he needs to use pictures and the symbols on his luggage. Any regular foreigner person would be left stuck in the first village the way Ballard frames the action in the story. At one point he also mentions some North American journalists and doesn't relate to them particularly, so one possible interpretation —and my bias is very obvious here— is that maybe he's European Spanish? That could explain how he can communicate up to a point, but ends up looking down on the locals and considers himself more civilized (something us Europeans love doing by the way lol).

    I wouldn't say the story is particularly predictive, not because it doesn't reflect some behaviours and ways of dealing with stuff very present in in the media of our time, but rather because of it being written in 1975 I would say we essentially live in the same paradigm as Ballard did in terms of media sensationalism. Depictions of journalists as unscrupulous and ravenous beasts are kind of common in the TV/cinema of that time at the very least I would say, so this would be already a well established trope at this point imo.

    The final passage with the protagonist descending the mountain while he is forced to purchase the corpses of the villagers is very haunting. At first I just took it as an ironic twist in typical Ballard fashion but I like the insight Ruby offered here with her interpretation.

    >

    @“RubySunrise”#p79384 the narrator is giving up their roll of bank notes as they descend, and taking on meaningful corpses (the author mentions specifically a grandmother and child). Maybe this is showing us the narrator is growing in understanding? Or if not understanding, the recognition of basic humanity.

    Although perhaps I look at it in a grimier way. I don't think the protagonist grows from the experience, but rather, him purchasing the bodies, or bribing the families, represent him taking the emotional and mental toll the whole experience has caused on him and the people he encountered and repairing what he owes in an extremely literal way. So literal that it ends up feeling rhetorical and poetic because how openly Ballard plays his hand.

    I think I must take the most grim view of the ending, because I interpreted it as an act of desperation by the villagers. I suppose if we view this story as framed to be a not-so-distant-and-not-so-alternate alternate future, we can assume his currency is some internationally traded one, and even a single bill must represent a comparatively large amount of wealth to the remote villagers. Since the language barrier has reduced communication between the reporter and the villagers to largely picking out a few proper nouns, pantomimed actions, and the reporter flashing their bills around, it seemed to me that what was communicated was not just a transactional exchange, but two separate ones, money for finding the old crashed military plane, and then money for corpses. I thought there was an implication that the villagers are not totally willingly offering the corpses of their family and community members, and so their decision to take what they thought was an open offer to buy corpses for a price that to them is too much money to not accept, was accepted out of desperation.

    I wonder if there was any intent behind the specific use of the word cadaver rather than corpse or body or dead person. As a technical term, of course, a cadaver is a dead body being used for research or to take tissue from or whatever, it has a utility. There is at least some measure of, not dehumanization, but an intentional setting aside of a cadaver's previous status as a human being. To the reporter the utility of the crash victims is to add to the sensationalism of the story, to the villagers the respectfully buried bodies of their loved ones become cadavers in the taking of an opportunity to be paid for them. Or, we can just assume Ballard is using the word to communicate that it was just the word that the villagers the reporter was speaking to recognized.

    ...Oh. Now that I put it that way, it makes me think of colonizers having looted ancestral burial sites or taken trophies from victims of conquest, with varying justifications and motivations throughout the history of colonization (such as to display them in "natural history" museums). After looking over the story again, I'm noticing that the reporter used the word cadaver first, to people who barely recognized any of what he was saying. As well, the head guide that brought him to the military plane points specifically at the skeleton of the pilot, smiling and expecting payment... which perhaps communicates to the guide that he's looking for cadavers of a specific kind of person...

    So... maybe the use of cadaver here, especially as a word the villagers recognize, is deliberate.

    @“Gaagaagiins”#p79492

    Ah! I hadn‘t considered the use of cadaver, but I imagine you’re onto something here.

    I think it goes well with the overtly imperialistic POV. It also, I think, explains why the villagers all the way up assume he is interested in something _old_. He's asking them about a plane crash and each group of villagers doesn't even question why he might be after a plane crash from decades (?) ago.

    I very much do not think the narrator is growing in his descent. To me, I (and maybe this says something specific about me) thought of the narrator handing out money as being done out of awkwardness and convenience, in that it was easier to simply hand them money and keep going. It's unclear to me if the bank notes are even something the villagers want or if it's just a trade they feel pressured to make because of previous experiences with people like the narrator. It's even possible that this is how they initially acquired their shotguns.

    The ending definitely feels haunting to the reader (at least this reader), which is important to note, we just don't know how the narrator feels about it really at all.

    @"Gaagaagiins"#p79492 insight into the use of the word "cadaver" is a good one. The narrator exudes the characteristics of a colonizer. I get caught up in the apparent willing exchange of money for these cadavers. The villagers had to go dig them up after all.

    Maybe it's not so much a growing as a person kind of experience for the narrator. I think they leave haunted by the way they treated the villagers. I say "haunted" because they don't have to be aware of it to still experience it. He connects to the humanity of the villagers as in he realizes they _are_ human, and either that fact or his treatment of them is the "haunting." Ballard is telling us there are consequences, albeit implied spiritual/ethical/moral, for the colonizer/narrator.

    I'll admit, the gravity of the ending somewhat missed the mark on me in general, because, due to having missed that the old wreck was a military plane and not a commercial airliner, I thought the villagers had dug up the bodies from the old wreck, which they had buried long ago.

    I have to say I personally think Ballard is not above playing with some very dark humor and I‘ve seen him do the classic Twilight Zone ironic twist plenty of times, so it wouldn’t surprise me if that‘s what he’s going for here as well.

    I'm unsure of how this applies but just as a fun fact, the most commonly used word for corpse in Spanish is actually cadáver. With the story being set in Mexico I thought it was interesting to share. I wasn't aware of the connotations of the word in English but most of those are non-existent in Spanish.

    >

    @“JoJoestar”#p79584 the most commonly used word for corpse in Spanish is actually cadáver

    I think its prominence in the story is probably for this reasons, and because it has the detached medical language quality in English

    >

    @“Gaagaagiins”#p79492 I think I must take the most grim view of the ending, because I interpreted it as an act of desperation by the villagers.

    right, and the acts comes across as confrontational because they give the narrator what he's asking for. Why aren't these the bodies he wants? The answer is ofc not very nice

    ok thanks to all who participated. The next pick belongs to @radicaledward

    Post your selection when ready and I'll update the thread title and the OP thanks

    2009 Hugo Award winner for short story: Exhalation by Ted Chiang.

    Text link: https://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/exhalation/
    Audio link: https://escapepod.org/2009/04/10/ep194-exhalation/

    Questions:

  • - How do you feel about the slowly emerging reveals of the reality presented here?
  • - What, if anything, does this story tell us about humanity?
  • - What do you make of the Reversalists?
  • - How would you describe the narrator's perspective at the end of this story?
  • - Favorite or most hated qualities or passages?