Season Five, y’all! Twelve stories are part of this season, with the fantasy genre being the most dominant of the short stories.
The Simplest Equation by Nicky Drayden
The Simplest Equation was a sweet tale of love, quite a difference from the toxic love found in the previous story of Levar’s podcast (in season four). Two students sit near each other in a college math class, and Mariah hopes that this new alien girl Quallah, whose species are known for their math skills, can help tutor her. The two get to know one another and fall in love, but then Quallah gets an offer to go off-world to study so Mariah uses math equations to build her a declaration of her feelings. The unique conclusion proved that the simplest equation is love!
Shoggoths in Traffic by Tobias S. Buckell
This magical realism story begins with two co-workers from Michigan who steal a car from a criminal and plan to drive it to Miami for a significant payout but run into a problem in Indiana. Witnessing a hit and run, they are leery to help due to them driving a stolen vehicle, but try their best to get the motorcycle rider to the ER. That their navigation keeps glitching ties into the unlikely connection between magic and technology. I wasn’t entirely sold on who the dude they were helping claimed to be, but it was a fun story nevertheless.
Cuisine des Mémoires by N.K. Jemisin
Ever since I listened to this I have been seeing the author, N.K. Jemisin’s name everywhere! This tale evocatively showed how we often pair food with memories, as a birthday dinner at a mysterious restaurant promises that any meal can be recreated. A divorced man is skeptical and orders a meal made by his ex-wife and it is recreated to the last spice. Memories flood him and he tries to figure out the mystery but learns more about himself in the process.
Small Medicine by Genevieve Valentine
In this futuristic tale, a young girl’s grandmother dies, and the grandmother is replaced by a robot to ease her family’s grief. While these robots are built to look like loved ones that have passed on and meant to be a solace to grieving family members, they end up confusing them and not letting them move on. The disquieting story makes you ponder what happens to the natural order of things when life becomes too modified by technology.
Face Value by Sean Williams
Face Value reminded me of a Sherlock Holmes or Inspector Poirot caper set in a speculative future with transporters and fabricators. In this tale two peace-keepers listen to an inventor talk up his newest invention, a supposedly rare metal that he wishes to turn into currency. Of course, all is not what it seems, and the first inspector called in the second just so he could pontificate on how he figured out the inventor’s ruse.
Blur by Carmen Maria Machado
I grew frustrated with this magical realism tale. It began very promisingly as a woman on the way to visit her girlfriend, who loses her glasses at a rest stop, which renders her unable to continue driving. Stricken with fear that her abusive girlfriend will be furious with her, a man she meets decides to help her finish her journey, but then the story goes sideways. While there is a lot of symbolism about her accepting that she needs to step into a new reality and leave her girlfriend, I believe the message got muddied with the surreal aspect of it.
Tiger Baby by JY Yang
Felicity is an accountant in her 30’s, who unhappily still lives at home and dreams of being a tiger. In fact, the dreams are so regular and realistic, she actually feels she is the wrong body. Dismissive of her parents and newly pregnant sister, instead she takes great pleasure in feeding the neighborhood stray cats, but at this stage, I pitied and disliked her for her delusions and inability to connect with people. When she loses her job, something magical happens to Felicity but it is not quite what she had always dreamed about but might be more what she needed.
The House on the Moon by William Alexander
In this futuristic short story set on the moon, a disabled middle school student on a field trip visits a castle that had been shipped up from Earth. The rich owner had been an eccentric man who had been part of the Eugenics War but had been pardoned by the government and allowed to move to the moon. Some disquieting truths are brought up, and we realize the boy almost lost his life because of his disability. The ending was implausible, but there were enough interesting threads to think on, that I wish this story had been longer as to delve deeper into how discrimination affects people with disabilities.
The Water Museum by Nisi Shawl
In a future drought-affected world, a man is tasked with assassinating a woman named Granita who owns the rights to the Great Lakes watershed and runs a water museum. Granita was quite a character and I found her very appealing as she toyed with the man she picked up hitchhiking, who didn’t realize what he had gotten himself into. However, in the end, the reader realizes Granita is profoundly selfish as she used her wealth to hoard water and deprive thousands of people of its use for her own wasteful and narcissistic purposes. A lesson in that a pretty face and charismatic personality can hide a dark heart.
Jump by Cadwell Turnbull
I really engaged with this tale, as I connected with the couple Mike and Jesse who inexplicably experience something so fantastic that it can not be explained or recreated again. Mike is desperate for it to happen again, but this miracle or glitch in the universe’s design can’t be replicated, although he and Jesse try for years to do so. Eventually, Mike’s obsession begins to rend their relationship apart and the couple divorce. As they say their final goodbyes, Mike asks Jesse to try one last time, and… we don’t know what happens next! Although the conclusion was very predictable that it would end that way, I actually found it perfect.
The Specialist’s Hat by Kelly Link
This spooky tale was very ambiguous, and that made it stand out, as you will wonder what just happened when the story is over. Twins Claire and Samantha have recently lost their mother, and have moved with their father into their ancestral mansion out in the country- a typical setup for a horror story concerning children. Many plot twists are thrown in such as missing presumed dead ancestors, an absent father walking in the woods with a mysterious woman, a ghostly babysitter, a creepy twin vibe and a strange hat up in the attic. More questions will be raised than answered by the end of the tale, and you will not be clear what elements of the story are fantasy, horror, psychological or symbolic.
The Hofzinser Club by Michael Chabon
As coincidence would have it, I am two/thirds of the way through the novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, in which this story is now found in- although it originally was a short story first, and then dropped into the novel as a backstory for one of the main characters immigrant Joseph Kavalier. In this tale, Josef (before he Americanized his name in the novel) Kavalier, who lives in Prague in the 1930s, is a promising escape artist. He and his brother Thomas wish to join The Hofsinzer Club, an exclusive club for magicians. While talented, Josef’s wish to emulate Harry Houdini goes awry and the boys nearly drown during a dress rehearsal of an escape trick in the river. A very evocative story, and a refreshing step away from the fantasy stories that have been dominating the podcast lately. The author and Star Trek fan, Michael Chabon, is now executive produce of Star Trek: Picard and I am hoping Burton’s inclusion of the story means we will see his Star Trek character Geordi LaForge in the Picard series.
I struggled with this season, as not many of the stories really affected me. If I have to pick favorites they would be Jump and The Hofzinser Club, but they both pale to some earlier favorites I have had in previous seasons. But nevertheless, I look forward to season six, “But you don’t have to take my word for it.”