Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #51 of 107: “Soft Clocks” by Yoshio Aramaki

“Soft Clocks” by Yoshio Aramaki is an entertaining New Wave/experimental story told with traditional storytelling techniques that first appeared in English in the January-February 1989 issue of Interzone but originally appeared in Japanese in 1968. I don’t know how translations work, but “Soft Clocks” feels very English, like something from the Mod/New Wave 1960s. Strangely, it reminds me of “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny, but then both are about a love story set on Mars.

“Soft Clocks” blends the imagery of Salvador Dalí with science fiction and psychiatry to create an antic avant-garde science fiction tale. The setup for the story is DALI OF MARS, a rich artist living on the Red Planet, hires a psychiatrist from Earth to select the best suiter for his granddaughter, Vivi. Vivi has many suitors, either because of her money, or her beauty, but probably not her personality. She is anorexic and has been treated by the first-person narrator from Earth when Vivi is 18 and visiting Tokyo. This psychiatrist referred to as Doctor, has come to Mars to interview Vivi’s many suitors. She is now 21. The Doctor is also in love with Vivi but considers it unprofessional to vie for her. He interviews several strange men who want Vivi, hoping to find a man who can handle her fragile personality. Vivi is technophobic, creating several problems for the story.

“Soft Clocks” comes across as a collaboration of the weirdness of Philip K. Dick and the silliness of Robert Sheckley. I would never have guessed it was written by a Japanese science fiction writer. Soft clocks are an invention of professor Isherwood, mechanical devices made from rheoprotein. They are editable and look like the floppy timepiece in the famous Salvador Dalí painting.

This story was entertaining, but not great. “Soft Clocks” has tasty ingredients. It has decent characters, a decent plot, a good setting, and zany imagery, but doesn’t quite bake into a delicious dessert. I never cared for Vivi, who is the object of desire for many of the characters. Actually, I was more drawn to Carmen, a kleptomaniac prostitute, a minor character. Humor in science fiction is hard to pull off. On another day, this story might have tickled my funny bone, but not today. “Soft Clocks” reprint history suggests it was never a popular story.

This not quite working was often true for Sheckley’s funny science fiction stories. However, Sheckley’s stories sometimes transcended their silliness. That’s what’s missing from “Soft Clocks” for me.

Rating: *** (close, but no cigar)

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James Wallace Harris, 11/27/21

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