I do a fair bit of travelling by airplane, and I’ve found the best thing for a journey that isn’t long enough to encompass a novel is a collection of short stories. You can keep it in your hand luggage and read a few stories every time you take you a trip, so you don’t really have to remember where you were or have the trip end to early to finish the story you were reading.
Plus if it’s an old-fashioned dead-tree book you can sit and read it while everyone around you is fiddling with the power switches on their electronics during take-off and landing.
So I’m always on the lookout for new short fiction collections to read, and the one I’ve come across most recently is Howard Fast’s The General Zapped an Angel. The 1970 Ace paperback edition has I’ve seen in a while, and in an ideal world I’d have a story about seeing it at a second-hand book sale and buying it for spare change, but in reality I purchased an ebook version with a different cover off Amazon.
Although Howard Fast is a fairly known author – his most famous work being the novel Spartacus on which the Stanley Kubrick film of the same name is based1 – this collection of his short stories seems slightly obscure, possibly because it’s a fantasy and science fiction collection by a man not primarily known for work in those genres.
Most of the stories in the collection share the same general themes and atmosphere – something beautiful and natural is destroyed or severely damaged by mankind’s short-sightedness in the drive towards progress, be it one of God’s angels, their own lives or souls, or the earth itself. Some of the stories are bizarre and whimsical, such as “The Vision of Milty Boil”, about a short man who solves overpopulation by building apartments with lower ceilings, or “The Movie House”, about a civilisation that lives in a cinema building and doesn’t believe in the outdoors. Others, like “The Wound” and “The Insects” are quite on-the-nose about the point being made and basically describe the end of the world, though even in these stories there’s an element of slightly more brutal whimsy.
“The Interval” stands out from the rest as not really having a strict narrative structure and being more a set of scenes than a story, with the focus being on atmosphere and the morals of the other stories being notably absent. It’s a thoughtful piece about growing old and getting ready for death, with the kind of background, implied worldbuilding where so very much is hinted at but almost nothing is said that I love in short stories.
Ultimately, the two end-of-the-world stories mentioned above and another about a deal with the devil that treads very familiar ground were, I thought, the weakest points of this collection of very imaginative and clever if also very clearly moralising stories. The inventive settings and premises of most of the stories and strong atmosphere present in all of them more than make up for any shortcomings.
So if you can deal with some blunt messages and enjoy the sorts of stories that take you somewhere a little bit absurd, and if you need something to read on a plane ride or just in some other chunk of spare time, this certainly gets my recommendation.
Which he wrote during his time in jail after being accused of obstruction in his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The ebook version of General I read ends with a brief biography of Fast, including photographs – guy had a pretty colourful life. ↩︎