LeVar Burton Reads season four included some real gems in the following eleven short stories!
Miracle by Tope Folarin
A young man, a recent immigrant, attends an evangelical Nigerian church where the congregation has gathered to witness the healing powers of a pastor who they believe can perform miracles. When he is chosen and the prophet declares that his eyes are healed, yet he still needs his glasses, he plays along for he realizes that the true miracle is the faith one holds and that his family is safely together in America.
Free Jim’s Mine by Tananarive Due
Lottie, a slave pregnant with her first child, escapes with her Cherokee husband William, and hopes for freedom. Lottie is eager to find her Uncle Jim, a former slave who is now free, in North Carolina as part of their journey as they head North. Jim warns them that he doubts their journey will end well and decides to hide them for the evening in a mine shaft. In the wet gloom, they are faced with supernatural evil, and Lottie discovers her uncle bought his freedom at a high cost. While the story starts with a historical fiction angle, it takes a dark turn and was quite effective.
Kwoon by Charles Johnson
Set in Chicago, a young man named David opens a martial art studio to not only teach fighting skills but to teach others self-control and accountability. Ed, an older new student joins and challenges David to a fight in front of other students, but fights dirty and beats David up. Although we are given Ed’s perspective of why he choose to do this, this puts David’s livelihood in jeopardy as he was shamed in front of everyone. But David perseveres in the end, not through physical fighting, but through his attitude and values. I was really rooting for the aptly named David, in what turned out to be a David and Goliath tale.
The Best We Can by Carrie Vaughn
Star Trek and other science fiction stories would lead you to believe that “first contact” is a game-changer for Earth civilizations and pushes us to discover the rest of the universe and countless other species. But this short story wryly recounts how when a scientist finds an abandoned alien space vessel in Jupiter’s orbit, how bureaucracy gets in the way of progress. This story seemed very realistic in how a discovery that you think would be life-changing ends up as almost an after-thought in the scientific world.
Mister Hadj’s Sunset Ride by Saladin Ahmed
In this old west tale, a young bounty hunter recounts his previous adventures with an older Arabian bounty hunter, whom he shared a common heritage with. The two men fight an evil preacher and his two sons and have a showdown with these men, with a bit of a supernatural twist. Often when we think of early immigrants, we think of those with European backgrounds, but this story had a welcome diversity although it also showcased how people lose their customs and family connections. This storyline reminded me of the graphic novel High Moon.
Republica and Grau by Daniel Alarcón
Maico is a ten-year-old boy who is forced to beg with a blind man on a street corner and is to bring all his wages home to his abusive father. The boy is compliant and does what he can to please both his father and the blind man until they both betray him and use him as a pawn. I was aghast at both men, whose selfish machoism affected both Maico and his poor mother. I was so proud of Maico of how he stood up to them, and what he did to end his partnership, yet…what does the future hold for him? As a reader, you hope this coming-of-age moment is the pivot for turning his life for the better, but reality is often harsh and you know he will face consequences for his actions.
The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex by Tobias S. Buckell
I found this tongue-in-cheek short story delightful. Sometime in the future, Earth has become a tourist playground for wealthy aliens, with Manhattan being the favored location. While aliens are looking for authentic experiences in the city, life for humans actually living on Earth has become anything but, as the entire economy is based on the service industry and catering to tourists. A cab driver, whose flying taxi is on its last legs, has to deal with an alien falling to their death from his vehicle and trying to avoid an interspecies war when the aliens family investigates. While this tale is amusing, it’s also a reflection on how our society relies on social media with trying to make their life look perfect when really it’s only a facade.
Toward Happy Civilization by Samanta Schweblin
In this surrealistic short story, a man is caught at a railroad station when the ticket master won’t give him a ticket out of town because he doesn’t have the correct change. Oddly, the ticket master and his wife take him in along with other passengers and they form a makeshift family of sorts. Eventually, they try to escape this purgatory type of existence, but the entire time I just wondered why they didn’t revolt or walk to the next station. Highly unsatisfying- my least favorite of the LeVar Burton Reads stories.
Flying Carpets by Steven Millhauser
This coming of age story was of the magical realism genre, which I typically do not like, but this story gets it right. A pre-teen youth is given a magical flying carpet to master, and although you might first think of Arabian Nights, he lives in an anonymous suburb. Master it he does and pushes it to the extreme limits before tiring of it and putting it away. The flying carpet is more a metaphor for growing up and outgrowing things you previously loved.
The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang
A lyrical Arabian Nights fable meets science fiction time traveling tale in this evocative short story. Fuwaad, a merchant in Bagdad, enters a new silver shop in the marketplace and unexpectedly is shown a time-traveling hoop that the shop owner, who is also an alchemist, explains to him. He is told three stories of people who have utilized time travel-“The Tale of the Fortunate Rope-Maker,” “The Tale of the Weaver Who Stole from Himself,” and “The Tale of the Wife and Her Lover” – and thus we begin a tale within a tale. Finally, Fuwaad tries the time travel himself, going back 20 years, as he hopes to right a wrong from his past although he is told that events can not be undone- the past or future will not change. Lessons are learned in these lovely circular tales of fate and were worth the two storytelling sessions taken on the podcast to finish.
L’Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars) by Dean Francis Alfar
The story starts out promisingly as 16-year-old Maria Isabella from the Philippines falls in love with a young man who is an astronomer. Determined to catch his attention, she convinces a butcher’s boy to help her find all the materials she will need to construct a kite that she could fly to the stars and get the astronomer to fall in love with her. But the quest to find the materials takes her 60 years and during that time she conscripted the butcher’s boy to help, thus wasting both of their lives. Despite being her traveling companion for decades she never once asks him his name or returns his affections. Her obsession was cruel, misguided and foolish to the extreme. While she is successful in obtaining what is needed, it comes at a steep price, and I hated her for it. I was shocked the LeVar said this was one of his favorite stories, as this tale of unrequited love was one of my least favorites.
This season proved to be it’s most uneven- I had more favorites than usual, but then it had two stories that I hated. My favorites included The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, Republica and Grau, The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex, and Free Jim’s Mine. The two I disliked were The Kite of Stars and Toward Happy Civilization.
As of now, I only have one more season until I catch up. LeVar’s selections are always interesting (even if I don’t like them) and I have been exposed to so many wonderful authors and stories through his podcast. Listen for yourself, “but you don’t have to take my word for it.”