Review of THE RADIO MAGICIAN & OTHER STORIES by James Van Pelt

The Radio Magician and Other StoriesAs previously related, James Van Pelt kindly sent me an advanced copy of his forthcoming short story collection, The Radio Magician & Other Stories to review.  I decided that I would read the book straight through, writing a review of each story as I finished it.

“The Radio Magician” – The story that got me excited about this collection in the first place. This is a very sweet tale with a powerfully realized sense of place and time. It’s about a young boy nearly paralyzed by polio and his love of radio drama and magic (stage magic and real magic, the borders blur)—pretty clear as metaphors for empowerment go. But the heart of this story is the spirit of generosity running through it. This is a warm story, filled with characters who try to make things a little easier for each other, or if not easier at least better. “If we’ve got any magic, we should share it,” our protagonist is told, and finds his empowerment by taking that message to heart. A little gem.

“Where Did You Come From, Where Did You Go?” – A short short, which raises the question, is suffering which inspires great art justified? It raises the question, but given the length doesn’t explore it. More attention is paid to two high school senior protagonists who find that the question might be directly relevant to their future. The main idea of the story seems to be how terrifying it is to make the initial choices that will define one’s life. As a high school teacher, the author likely sees this terror first hand quite a bit.

“The Light of a Thousand Suns” – I had problems enjoying this story. It is largely nostalgia for an out-of-fashion fear: cold war style nuclear annihilation. It is self-aware nostalgia, so the fact that I am not of the generation that grew up being taught to hide under school desks wasn’t fatal to my enjoyment. Rather, I was thrown out of the story by the way suicide bombing is described as a magical ritual. By way of explanation for the magic that takes place in the story we are told that suicide bombers do what they do essentially to curry magical favor—a sacraficial magic model. Suicide bombing, from what I understand of the systems of control, manipulation, and vicimization that enable it and result from it, is too much of a multivariate human tragedy for me to accept it being used so flippantly. The bombers themselves are as likely as not to be disconsolate people manipulated by fanatics with a vested interest in perpetuating cycles of violence. I can’t easily accept a story about how horrifying nuclear proliferation is conceptually when that story is simultaneously glossing over how horrifying suicide bombing is in practice.

“Of Late I Dreamed Of Venus” – Centuries long terraforming of Venus by a woman who is an ultra-rich industrialist in sort of the Rod McBan (Norstrilia)/Randy Hunter (Timemaster)/D. D. Harriman (“The Man Who Sold The Moon”) mold; rich to the point that practicality is no longer an important consideration as she pursues her ambitions. (It occurs to me that in hard SF huge sums of money have long served as a stand-in for magic. These days I suppose it is huge sums of money or the Singularity.) Her wealth plus the availability of long term suspended animation allows her to pursue and personally oversee her goal of turning Venus into a paradise, and her secret goal of transforming her assistant into her ideal companion. She learns there are limits to what can be controlled. The thematic beats are heavily telegraphed and there are several extended dream sequences which are necessary for pacing, but whose content add little to the story. Still, I enjoyed it, especially the mechanics of terraforming and the details of how society has changed each time the viewpoint character awakens. The evolving Venus is well realized.

“Different Worlds” – a 10-year-old girl and her dog must care for her injured and delirious father in a world where aliens have conquered Earth to emancipate certain domesticated animals. Kind of reminds me of more diplomatically inclined versions of the probe from Star Trek IV, or the aliens in John Varley’s The Ophiuchi Hotline universe. Beyond the metaphor of the title which is explained by an anecdote the father tells, this seems a very straightforward tale. Or there are subtleties I managed to miss. I’d be interested to know if this story had a specific inspiration; it kind of feels like it is a reaction to something, though I can’t pin down what that might be.

“The Small Astral Object Genius” – I really like this one. A boy whose parents are separating throws all his time and energy into a sort of do-it-yourself space probe kit called a Peek-a-boo, pretty clearly inspired by things like SETI@home. But there is no proof that Peek-a-boo is not a scam, tricking kids into thinking they are doing science. Dustin, the main character, expresses a fierce credulity whenever the thing is challenged. Eventually he almost accidentally does something with the device that generates some publicity and alters his family circumstance. The ending has the form of a happy ending, but I can’t help but believe that it is really heartbreaking. Dustin is just as optimistic that things are going to start being better at the end of the story as he is sure that the Peek-a-boo is real. An adult reading the story suspects that he is more likely than not to be disappointed. Very light in tone, but perhaps the darkest story in the book so far.

“Tiny Voices” – Death and new life and funny talking office equipment. Set in a future industrialized nation, probably America, in which in vivo pregnancy has been eliminated and all appliances and tools have electronic intelligence and can speak directly to their users through speakers or through mental implants. An excellent story with some very effective humor and a simple but compelling scenario that I don’t wish to spoil. First story in the collection that has seemed to me to fire on all cylinders as well as “The Radio Magician” does.

“Lashwanda at the End” — A fine example of the “explorers land on a planet without realizing all the ways it can be hostile to them” family of stories, which I generally enjoy. In this story the hostile ecology is primarily vegetative, so it is sort of a more biologically rigorous version of LeGuin’s “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow.” But unlike in that story, the people in this story are not insane, though our viewpoint character is somewhat frantic, as he is having to confront death—specifically the death of a colleague he loves. He has lived for centuries via life extending technology, and finds the prospect hard to deal with. There is a nice subversion of trope in this story, which I won’t spoil. Very good.

“Where and When” – I’m going to give the central conceit of this story away, so now is your chance to skip ahead if you so desire. It’s a time travel story that attempts to solve the paradox problems by positing that it is only possible to time travel to “dead ends,” places where you can’t effect anything because you won’t survive. For example you can travel back to Hiroshima right before the bomb falls, because no “information” from that moment will be accessible by the future. It’s clever, but from a physical standpoint, the information content of the system is still changed when you add the mass of a new human body to it. What these rules prevent is not the perpetuation of information, but of agency. Which in turn suggests the existence of a physical law that is, essentially, a law of conservation of narrative – a concept that is to me even more far-fetched than time travel. That doesn’t keep it from being a fun concept, though I think the story kind of lacks the strength of its convictions by positing the existence of mathematical wiggle room that will allow the main characters to survive. At least, they think they can—I’d like it better if they were wrong. So, on the whole a pretty silly story, although it has typically strong character moments. (One thought that just occurred to me: story order may be working against my enjoyment here, as we just went from a fairly rigorous SF story to a very hand-wavey, light one. This story might seem weaker to a reader primed by the one immediately preceding it.)

“One Day in the Middle of the Night” – A story cleverly structured around making literal truth out of the self-contradictory lines of the rhyming folktale with which it shares a title. The story takes place on a sleeper starship on which the only people awake are two brothers who hate and want to kill each other. A suspense story of hunting and being hunted, I would only criticize it for not having as well visualized a sense of place as most of the other stories in the collection so far.

“Echoing” – A trucker who can barely see through the blowing snow, a suicidal young girl hiding from her family on Christmas, and a being of indeterminate species piloting a psychic ship across the galaxy share a linked experience of uncontrolled momentum towards a dangerous destination. Perhaps their lives are connected by the titular echoing of the psychic ship as its pilot loses control. All of them lack an element of control, but perhaps, barely comprehending what is happening, they can help stabilize each other. A structurally fascinating story.

“The Inn at Mount Either” – A miracle, when discovered, will be monetized. This story is a case of missing persons at a vacation resort that is a hub of alternate realities. And given that alternate realties come into play, a problem of missing persons can be hard to distinguish from one of mistaken identity. A very fun read. Excellent.

“The Ice Cream Man” – Many decades after the onset of a mutagenic apocalypse wherin all living things stop having children that are remotely like themselves, the universal appeal of confectionery makes Keegan the ice cream man the only person who has commerce with both the mutants and the remaining humans. And so he is the only one caught in the middle when the human community decides to abandon a “live and let live” policy and go on the offensive. A story of the factors that go into building a person’s identity, and of choosing sides. Simple and entertaining, with moments of profundity.

“Sacrifice” – The voice in this story is something of a departure from the stories preceding it, which is refreshing. That’s not to say that voice has been a problem, just that the novelty is nice. It is two young people from a fallen, post-technological human culture engaging in a sad ritual. But there is some remaining knowledge of their history that the girl has become aware of thanks to an offscreen wise old man character. In fact, the wise old man character is so wise that the disconnect between his knowledge of what is really going on and the institutional superstition of everyone else strains belief. Also, contains the book’s first sex scenes that I can recall, which are very well written. The story as a whole is pleasant, but difficult to really buy into.

“The Boy Behind the Gate” – I have a new candidate for darkest story in the collection. Here we have two parallel stories set in the same mining town, one in the modern day and one in 1880. Today a man is desperately searching for a kidnapped son he fears is dead, in the past a father is trying to work up the courage to kill a son he fears causes the deaths of other children. The two storylines move toward each other and eventually intersect, but neither father’s course leads to redemptive results. There is a great talent for setting on display in this fairly depressing, though well written, story.

“The Last Age Should Know Your Heart” – Sentient, poetry loving robots trying to reach each other before the heat death of the universe. Beautiful.

“Origin of the Species” – Mythological beings got diluted almost out of existence by mating with humans long ago. Almost. But their characteristics persist as recessive genes. So at the high school where the story is set, our loner point of view character is a little bit werewolf, the big dumb sexually experienced jock is a little bit troll, and it isn’t hard to figure out what the girl they mutually desire, Fay, is. The clever bit though is how the story plays off the way that adolescence seems mythological, every social success or failure an epic victory or tragedy. Here, the teenage years feel fraught with mythology because they literally are. The way the characters grow into their magical stereotypes seems the most realistic part of the story. A bit predictable, but fun all the same.

“The Saturn Ring Blues” – The title could easily fit an episode of Cowboy Bebop, and so could the content. Two ex-lovers take part in a race around Saturn’s rings. The main function of the story is playing around with voice and a blues-y idiom. Again, reading the book straight through, the novely of tone is refreshing, and while there isn’t a lot of depth, the story gets the job done and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Another fun one.

“How Music Begins” – Fabulous. A middle school band is trapped in eternal band camp by mysterious demiurges until they can produce the perfect performance. A richly nuanced story, probably even more so for people who have devoted their lives to teaching and spend their days seeing children develop into adults. Also has what I think is the collection’s first clearly homosexual character. It was starting to bother me that there hadn’t been one yet. The collection ends on a high note.

So, I liked a majority of the stories, which is pretty good for a large collection.  Thanks to James Van Pelt for letting me read it.  The Radio Magician & Other Stories comes out in September.

1 Comment

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  1. Thanks for taking the time to post such a thoughtful set of reviews. I’m glad you enjoyed the collection, but I’m more glad that you talked about what you liked and didn’t, and why you liked and didn’t like the ones you did and didn’t (kind of a complicated sentences, but I hope you know what I mean).

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