Tag Archives: short stories

The Bottle Imp and the Limits of Logic

Logic! It’s fantastically useful stuff. Use it all the time for sorting out your options, thinking up plans, and generally making your life easier. There’s some very real limits to it, though, and whether an idea checks out logically doesn’t always have anything to do with its relevance to the real world. Here’s the test: can this idea be used to predict what will happen?

vintage photo of a dog in a top hat and white tie suit
Very dapper, but will this dog hunt? (Also proof that dogs have been putting up with the human impulse to dress them in clothes for a very long time.)

There’s a Robert Louis Stevenson story called The Bottle Imp. Go read it in this collection, here, if you like. No plot spoilers, but I will be discussing the premise of the story, so if you want to read it before we get to that, do. The main idea of the story is this: there’s a bottle that contains an evil imp. It can grant any wish except to prolong the bottle owner’s life, and if you die with the bottle in your possession, you go straight to Hell. The only way you can get rid of the bottle is to sell it to someone for less than you paid for it. Here’s where it gets interesting.

A display of ancient glass bottles of various murky clear shades
Some 17th Century glass bottles in a museum. Probably not full of evil, though.

Truth and Consequences

Let’s play a game, and think about the Bottle Imp problem logically. Eventually, there’s an ultimate loser: someone stuck with the bottle who bought it for a single penny, and they can’t sell it. So, following that, the next person up, who sold it to them, bought it for two cents, and must have known that they wouldn’t be able to sell it to someone for one cent. There must have been someone above them who got it for three, but should have known that they couldn’t sell it for two, because the person who got it for two would have to convince someone to take it for one, which nobody would ever do. Theoretically, nobody should ever take the bottle for any price, because the problem of not being able to sell it for a cent should cascade up the chain of prospective bottle owners. This is, of course, assuming that everyone involved is thinking logically (and whenever you hear that phrase, you should also assume that this perfectly spherical, frictionless dog hunts perfectly spherical, frictionless partridges in a vacuum).

The trouble here is that real people just aren’t rational actors, any more than real hunting dogs are spherical and frictionless. Realistically, everybody in the chain, down to perilously close to the bottom, is probably going to think “eh, I’ve got plenty of time, and I’m sure I can find some sucker to sell the bottle to” – and, in the main, they’d probably be right. The existence of the whole idea of gambling in general testifies to the idea that people – real people – generally do a terrible job of thinking logically and rationally. If the odds could really be in your favor in the long term, casinos wouldn’t exist.

a shack by a creek, with a man and a dog sitting outside
Las Vegas in 1895, before the gambling industry really took off.
a view of the Vegas strip in 2011. Reasonably recent.
A view of the Las Vegas strip. Practically a monument to the irrationality of humans. Keep feeding those one armed bandits, guys…

Sometimes, especially when dealing with real human behavior in the real world, logic does a truly wretched job of predicting real-world outcomes and decisions. There’s a distinction between logic, and actual utility. Most of the time, logic is very useful, but sometimes, especially when you’re dealing with questions of real human behavior, not so much.

— Article by Katherine.

Insurrections: Stories by Rion Amilcar Scott

Short fiction can be an acquired taste; as a reader you have to be satiated by just enough. I have tried to suggest a book of short fiction to my book club but the ladies always scoff and complain that they are left unsatisfied.  They want more time with the characters, more development of the story, more finality than “a prose narrative shorter than a novel” can provide. I can understand the need for more, but a masterful short story collection is at ease with less.

Recently, I was in a book funk; every book I picked up was not right or the story didn’t grab me. That is until I picked up Insurrections: Stories, published by the University of Kentucky Press.  The simplicity of the cover – a flock of birds in flight – and the title, the juxtaposition was striking to me. Mr. Scott held my attention from the very first sentence:

“Walter caught the sight out the corner of his eye one hot July day, and for so long afterward he asked himself what if he had never seen those dangling legs from the balcony above, kicking, kicking, kicking against the open air.” (Good Times).

That indelible image gave me goose bumps and urged me to read on. As I mentioned, I was struck by the title, but the definition escaped me; so I looked it up. By definition, the act of insurrection is a violent uprising against authority or an opposing force which is stifling, throughout the collection characters are “suffering the quiet tragedies of everyday life and fighting for survival” (http://www.rionamilcarscott.com/thebook/).

In the story, “Boxing Day”, a son gauges his father’s mood by the sound and speed of his boxing gloves hitting the bag – from the first sentence the scene is wrought with tension and unease.

“It’s a flapping noise. The louder the sound, the more pissed he’s become. He says every day he punches the bag is boxing day…I would stay out of the basement, away from my punch drunk father and every delusion he’s used to sew himself together, but my mother’s sent me to descend into his Hades to deliver a message” (p. 53).

Scott’s prose is lyrical, authentic, and jarring all at once while he tells the stories of African Americans growing up and growing old in their community where despite seemingly endless hardship, they are resilient. Though bleak and haunting at times, Insurrections: Stories is a portrait of existence; its struggles and its joys.

Formats Available: Audiobook, Paperback, eBook

Reviewed by Carolyn, Crescent Hill Branch

Redeployment by Phil Klay

redeployment

German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk talks about books as “thick letters to friends” which  Phil Klay mentioned in his acceptance speech for his recent National Book Award winning title for Redeployment. Drawing from his own deployment with the Marines on the front lines, Klay follows the life of one soldier and the daily routine of survival in the Anbar Province where the Islamic State is attempting to takeover.  Readers looking for a tale filled with horrid violent scenes and moments of combat will be disappointed.

For Klay, the real battle exists  in answering the question of, “Who am I as a human being?”  Filled with grit, laughter, sadness, and contemplation, this work lured me in as I tried to understand how one individual resettles after being deployed overseas. I found myself meditating on what personal challenges I would have dealt with if I were the soldier who survived deployment.

Formats Available:  Large Type, Audiobook, Regular Print, Book Discussion Kit, and Downloadable EBook.

Reviewed by Micah, Shively Branch

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Here are some titles, similar in first person point of view and military orientation. that you can check out from the Library.

the things they carriedYellow Birds