There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be…
I’ve always thought John Lennon was being profoundly fatalistic when he sang that line 52 years ago, and I’ve always been fascinated by songs, poems and stories about fate and free will.
Maybe it stems from reading the ‘Appointment in Samarra’ fable at Junior School. You know the one: a wealthy merchant visits the marketplace in Baghdad; he spots Death apparently beckoning him and flees to Samarra on his fastest horse. Later that night, Death calls at his house in Samarra and explains he had not beckoned the merchant, merely expressed astonishment at seeing him in Baghdad: ‘For I knew tonight we had an appointment in Samarra.’
Here are my twelve favourite stories about fate, free will and predestination. Several are mystery tours to destinations which, when ultimately revealed, prove shocking and yet inevitable. Some concern people crushed by a sense of impending doom; others celebrate characters who struggle to escape a tragic and apparently inevitable destiny.
I hope you’re fated to read and enjoy them.
Beryl Bainbridge pursued an obsessive quest for concise and musical language. She was celebrated for her alchemical distillation of a dozen typed pages onto a single sheet, and for her relentless process of reading aloud until her words sounded properly ‘tuned’. Bainbridge’s fiction relies on wit, precision and intricate detail to explore a wide range of human experience, and she was one of those writers who took greater risks with form and style in her short fiction than in her novels. This is reflected in ‘Beggars Would Ride’, a sharply observed social satire framed by incidents, 300 years apart, involving an artefact imbued with supernatural power. A pair of vain, middle-aged, middle-class, financial service managers suddenly discover they have mysteriously transcended their customary mediocrity on the tennis court and become seduced by their new-found prowess. It turns out that unearned power brings unexpected risks. Terse, unsettling and funny: the story’s shadowy vitality is counterpointed by pithy observations of everyday urban existence.
First published in Winter’s Tales #26, edited by Alan Maclean, 1980. Collected in Mum and Mrs Armitage, Flamingo, 1987
A tale of murder, scholarship and the flawed nature of inductive reasoning, ‘Death and the Compass’ takes liberties with the conventions of detective fiction and, I would argue, provides one of the earliest examples of a story based on a semiotic quest for meaning. Borges exposed readers to the idea that the extensive and obsessive collation of sinister information might reflect a quest for meaning and pattern in a world that seems absurd, random and arbitrarily cruel. The idea has been rendered familiar by some great novels –White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, The Crying of Lot 49, Illuminatus! and Foucault’s Pendulum– but Borges tackled the theme first and in a more concentrated form. The narrative follows the efforts of celebrated detective Lönnrot to solve a series of murders involving cryptic messages, Kabbalistic philosophy, the geometry of the built environment, the detective’s nemesis Red Scharlach and the tetragrammaton – the sacred four-letter name of God. As Lönnrot solves the case, the lines between hunter and hunted are blurred and distinguishing between actions of will and destiny becomes increasingly tricky. A ludic tale with philosophical twists, it’s as entertaining as it is erudite.
First published in Sur in May 1942 and collected in Labyrinths, various editions. Also available online here
For most people the phrase ‘don’t look now’ evokes a Nicolas Roeg movie. The story that inspired the cinematic masterpiece is very different in terms of detail, tone and structure, but packs a similar emotional punch and offers its own set of puzzles, ambiguities and weird set pieces. A carefully crafted tale of self-deception, misperception, sex and mystery, it’s also a compelling portrait of overwhelming loss and a relationship under pressure. The central characters, John and Laura, are adroitly realised: it’s easy to sympathise with Laura’s desperation and John’s impatience, as well as their shared grief, wit and sarcasm. The other key character is the city in which the story is set – Venice. The city’s canals, bridges and cramped, labyrinthine streets are key to the way events are foreshadowed and tension is ratcheted. The story couldn’t possibly be set in any other city. Du Maurier’s ability to create fear and wonder from conventional interactions in familiar places is key to this story’s well-deserved reputation as a classic of the modern gothic.
First collected in Not after Midnight, Victor Gollancz, 1971. Currently available as the title story in collections from Penguin Modern Classics and Pocket Classics, Virago Modern Classics and NYRB Classics
‘A Quiet Game of Chess’ pushes the notion of determinism to its limit: to disclose how would be to spoil the story. What I can reveal is that Maurice Richardson is a dazzling comic writer – the equal of Richmal Crompton, PG Wodehouse and Stacy Aumonier – and this story is typical of the series featuring Engelbrecht, a surrealist wrestler who fights clocks rather than people, and risks losing time rather than a purse. Terse and inventive, these Chronicles of the Surrealist Sportman’s Club are a hybrid of The Pickwick Papers and Calvino’s Cosmicomics. The club’s membership plays surrealist golf, using the whole planet for a single hole; surrealist rugby, in which Earth takes on Mars for the Interplanetary Challenge Cup; and, in this case, surrealist chess in a game involving human kings, queens, bishops and knights; real machicolated castles; and newly introduced pieces such as the tank, fighter plane and atomic bomb. The game is played across several cosmic dimensions and the Surrealist Sportman’s Club is crammed with cheats who want to win at any cost. What could possibly go wrong?
First published in Lilliput in January 1948 and collected in The Exploits of Engelbrecht, various editions
On the surface this is a dystopian short story about the corporate abuse of science. Convicts with relatives able to raise the necessary funds can transfer from prison onto a drug testing project. Jeff, the narrator, takes advantage of the scheme and dons a MobiPakTM, which enables researchers to chemically modify his moods, passions, sexual arousal, feelings of attachment and verbal eloquence. As the experiment takes an even more alarming turn, Jeff realises his survival depends on escaping from the drug regime. A lesser writer might have produced a mere socio-political satire from this material: those elements are present, but George Saunders also peels away the comfortable delusion that we control their own behaviour. The story also highlights the plasticity of our beliefs, attachments and personalities. ‘Escape from Spiderhead’ is by turns a fascinating thriller and a deeply unsettling contemplation of human psychology.
First published in The New Yorker in December 2010 and collected in Tenth of December, Bloomsbury, 2013
‘Marionettes’ does for Prague what ‘Don’t Look Now’ does for Venice. For Claire Dean it’s both a living city and a territory of the imagination: her knack for terse but memorable portrayal of landscape and built environment makes a massive contribution to the story’s mounting sense of unease and dislocation. The unnamed protagonist and her partner, Karl, return to the city after a gap of seven years, revisiting key landmarks and reminiscing about the previous holiday. She discovers an unstaffed marionette shop and, on a visit without Karl, finds a pair of marionettes that resemble the pair of them. When Karl doesn’t believe her, she attempts to find the shop once more but its location seems to be curiously provisional. It can only be found when she isn’t looking for it. The narrative is peppered with hints, overt and symbolic, that the woman has become stifled by her relationship and the final segment is an alarming, dreamlike recapitulation of this theme.
First published as a Nightjar Press chapbook, 2011 and collected in The Museum of Shadows and Reflections, Unsettling Wonder, 2016
This early tale by Ballard is a Freudian nightmare. Charles Freeman is rapidly losing weight, getting smaller and looking younger. At first, he believes this alarming physical transformation is psychosomatic and attempts to hide it from his pregnant wife. As the story unfolds his metamorphosis begins to limit his freedom, sap his energy and change the way people respond to him. The narrative style is more traditional than that of Ballard’s later stories, but it exhibits the same economy and energy of language. It also exhibits the author’s lifelong fascination with the overlap of weird and mundane aspects of perception. A crazy but strangely convincing story – once read never forgotten.
First published in Science Fantasy, Vol 16, No 48 in August 1961, and collected in The Complete Short Stories of JG Ballard: Volume 1, Fourth Estate, 2014
On one level ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is a feminist remix of the tale of Bluebeard, but the narrative has other layers. There is no straightforward ‘key’ to its mysteries: it is packed with psychoanalytic imagery, mythic symbols and literary allusions, including embedded homages to de Sade as well as Perrault. Carter relocates the story to the coast of fin-de-siècle France. The narrator, who has recently married a wealthy Marquis, enters a forbidden room in his castle and makes a horrific and life-threatening discovery. There’s a gripping conclusion, revealing whether she escapes or becomes a victim of uxoricide, but this tale of gothic horror also provokes reflection on the darker aspects of passion and sex.
First published in The Bloody Chamber, Victor Gollancz, 1979. Currently available from Vintage Classics
A tragicomic tale of self-deception, impending doom and the limits of human communication. Mitch, the narrator, is oblivious to the unhappiness of his wife, Melissa, and she is seemingly unaware of the imminent threat posed by ‘the ceiling’, a square of “perfect darkness … without blemish or flaw” spotted in a bright sky on the day of their son’s seventh birthday. As ‘the ceiling’ looms closer and closer, Brockmeier ratchets the sense of threat and futility. As the quotidian and fantastic collide, there are elliptical and parallel conversations, almost Pinteresque in nature, but with menace replaced by melancholy. Brockmeier’s central conceit might refer to the auto-destructive and stifling nature of relationships, it might acknowledge the self-imposed limits of modern life or it might highlight the tendency of people to become obsessed with their own misery.
First published in McSweeney’s, issue 7, 2001 and collected in Things That Fall from the Sky, Vintage Contemporaries, 2002
In this sad, strange and ambiguous story, Wallace, a career politician climbing to the upper heights of Disraeli’s ‘greasy pole’, is haunted by something he experienced at the age of five. As a lonely and unsettled infant, he opens a green door in a white wall in West Kensington, and wanders into a place of wonder, security and happiness. He joins the games of kindly playmates and mingles happily with panthers and capuchin monkeys. The schoolboy Wallace fails to relocate the door and suffers the derision of his classmates. As a successful adult he swerves several opportunities to re-open it, perhaps because he has urgent demands on his time, or because he is a respected public figure who no longer needs the comforts and distractions of the garden. Or maybe he fears the garden never really existed. As a Cabinet Minister, his longing for the garden becomes stronger and he is torn between the competing demands of escape and duty. His fate, telegraphed from the start, is sealed by his inability to reconcile and the spiritual and material. That’s how I read the story as a schoolkid in the 1970s. I’m now less certain I fully understand it, but I still think it’s perfect.
First published in The Daily Chronicle on 14 July 1906 and collected in The Complete Short Stories of HG Wells, Phoenix Giant, 1998. Available online here
Lethem follows in the footsteps of Dante and consigns his narrator to Hell. In this case the character is dead but re-animated to allow him to support his family. Occasionally, he is transformed into a small boy and returned to his personal hell, a zone populated by archetypes such as the witch, the robot maker, the wolfman and a terrifying sexual predator called The Happy Man. During his periodic recalls to hell, his family must deal with his presence as a zombie. His guilt over this is increased by his 12-year-old son treating his father’s hell as if it were a computer game and sedulously drafting a map. The story has a metafictional aspect: the unfolding of the narrative leads to a redefinition of hell for the narrator. I won’t reveal whether this proves to be a blessing or a curse. It’s a deeply unsettling story, leavened with strands of sparkling wit: the narrator is informed that his posthumous detachment from human engagement will not be a problem at his workplace because “Most people won’t know the difference.”
First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, February 1991 and collected in The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye, Faber and Faber, 2002 and Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine: 30th Anniversary Anthology, Tachyon, 2007
Sarah Schofield read an extract from this tale at the 2016 Ilkley Literature Festival, and it blew me away. It still does. It’s the only story here that explicitly considers the idea of determinism. Originally commissioned for an anthology based on famous scientific thought experiments, it concerns ‘Laplace’s Demon’, in which knowledge of the precise location and momentum of every atom in the universe enables the future to be calculated. Schofield weaves this abstract notion into a touching tale of wartime loss and peacetime regeneration. Frank returns from World War One, visits the son and widow of his comrade Ted and becomes part of their household. He adopts Ted’s roles as lover and father, carries out his jobs and pursues his hobbies. In flashbacks to the trenches, Ted explains ‘Laplace’s Demon’ to Frank in the chaos and bloodshed of war. Later we see Frank working with Ted’s son Thomas to reassemble his fallen comrade’s orrery – a symbol of the predictability of life and behaviour, and an emblem of emotional recovery from horror and destruction. Frank’s life may appear to be fully plotted, but he makes a curiously life affirming decision to walk in Ted’s shoes.
First published in Thought X, Fictions and Hypotheticals, Comma Press, 2017. Available online here