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Genevieve Valentine

LeVar Burton Reads: Season Six

I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed with season five of Burton’s podcast, but this season more than made up for it! In fact, I had so many favorites, that I would consider this season the best yet. Plus, I finally caught up with the podcast and was current when he released each story. Before I had been a year behind but worked diligently to listen to each story as it was released in real-time.

Tideline by Elizabeth Bear

In an apocalyptic future, a lone surviving war machine, Chalcedony meets an orphaned human boy. Chalcedony (who is named for a lovely form of quartz) is a sentient robot and teaches Belvidere how to survive, but also teaches him about past civilization and culture from her databases. She helps raise him to maturity, always teaching him, and also building necklaces to memorialize her lost comrades. But her power cells are degrading and she knows she will eventually shut down. She prepares him for rejoining the scattered humans that remain and sends him off with her memorials and tells him to share her memories and knowledge with those he finds. A beautifully melancholy story about sacrifice, humanity and sharing our knowledge for the good of others.

Valedictorian by NK Jemisin

Zinhle is a senior in a near-future dystopia who is true to herself and refuses to lie about her abilities or mask her intelligence even when she knows she will be “culled” at graduation, along with the ten least performing students. Her walled-off society is small and rigid and is not accepting of people who are different, so there is the possibility that the unknown outside world could actually be more welcoming. Reminded me of the 1986 Twilight Zone episode Examination Day and the short story The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.

As Worlds Collide by Stephen Michell

A newly married Canadian couple adjust to a new world order as mythical creatures begin to inhabit their world. They try to make sense of it, as everyone else does, but are rewarded for their quiet observation when two of the creatures speak to them. Later they calmly face un uncertain future together as shrines begin to open around the world, knowing that everyone’s lives are about to change, but it can be viewed as a beginning, not an ending…

SPAM by Savannah Burney

This short story dealt with a mildly racist (can you be mildly racist or are you just plain racist?) bed and breakfast owner who reluctantly shelters a mother and child who have been displaced because of an apartment fire. The curmudgeonly owner has no patience for the girl’s persistent questions, as he is a creature of habit with OCD tendencies, but at the very last moment, he extends a bit of grace to the child. This story included some great character studies, and I appreciated the bit of hope at the end that people can change for the better.

End Game by Nancy Kress

An excellent short story with a nasty bit of a twist at the end. Two young men meet in school, and one goes to become a renowned scientist who wishes to quiet his mental static so he can focus more on his work at hand. He has a medical breakthrough using a junior scientist as a guinea pig and all goes well until it doesn’t. His friend realizes what is happening with the contagious spread, so it’s Twilight Zone ending has an uncomfortable parallel with what is going on in the world today with the Covid-19 virus.

Skinwalker, Fast-Talker by Darcie Little Badger

The beginning opens with the catchy “No shit, there I was”. A journalist for a tabloid-type magazine is assigned a job to research a possible Skinwalker aka a Coyote of Native American lore and is surprised as anyone to find out this conman is the real thing. She is able to con him into revealing his true self but knows that the public actually believing the story is another thing entirely!

Staying Behind by Ken Liu

This story was devastatingly beautiful and well-done. In this speculative fiction tale, technology has advanced so far that human consciousness can now be downloaded, and the world population does so in mass, leaving behind a devastated and depopulated world for those who do not wish to do so. Is this thought-provoking tale the reader ponders what is the better choice- having a utopian online life yet no corporeal existence or living in a world where the remaining population is struggling for existence as the populace loses its technological abilities and they slide towards frontier living. The short story is told through the lens of one family and the ending will gut you, as you can’t help but wonder what you and your family would do under the same circumstances.

A Kiss with Teeth by Max Gladstone

Vlad is a vampire who gave up his bloodthirsty ways when he fell in love with a vampire hunter and had a child with her. He has worked hard to masquerade his supernatural powers and his young son seems none the wiser. But he feels trapped in having to always suppress his urges and is very close to breaking his blood fast by killing his son’s teacher. But this “mid-life” crisis is discovered by his wife and she councils him to be more true to himself so he can be a better father. The ending was pleasing, and I enjoyed the premise of this short story, however, the middle really dragged.

Let Those Who Would (aka The Segment) by Genevieve Valentine

Very 1984 with how the news was being manipulated and shown to the public. In this world, the news agencies would rather create their own stories with actors instead of interviewing real participants so that way they can control the narrative. Orphaned children are used as pawns in these stories, and one young woman helps another realize how much danger she will be in if she acts in the next segment. This is the second story that was found in the anthology that I read several years ago,  After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia. The story gained deeper meaning through LeVar’s reading of it.

Recitatif by Toni Morrison

The story begins in the 1950s when two young girls, Twyla and Roberta, meet at an orphanage although both of their mothers are still alive. You are told they are of different races, but Morrison deliberately does not give any obvious markers of who is who, to force the reader to decide according to their preconceived notions. These two will meet again at different stages in their lives- in the late 1960s and then again several times in the early 80s. As adults, their marriages and life stations differ broadly, and they get caught up in some racial strife as their town is redistricting their schools and it affects their children. In addition to the ambiguity about their race, how memories can be imprecise was addressed, which made me reflect on my childhood memories with a friend I had a following out with. How I remember some shared experiences could be very different from hers and gave me a lot of food for thought. Considering this story came from Morrison, I am not surprised that it is among my favorites from LeVar’s podcast.

The Foster Portfolio by Kurt Vonnegut Jr

The Foster Portfolio, set in 1951, was a fascinating peek into human nature. A young investment counselor meets the modest Foster family to help them with their finances and discovers the husband is sitting on a huge inheritance that he is keeping from his wife. The repressed husband is intent on providing for his family with his own labors and doesn’t wish to touch the money, despite having to work two jobs and pinch pennies to afford things for his wife and son. He wants to honor his mother who sacrificed for his family when his father left his family to play the piano and get drunk in bars. This all seems decent until you find out he is hiding a double life from his wife- but it’s not what you would think. The ending made me think of secrets in a marriage, and the judgments we place on our children and spouses, and how some obligations can become warped if not addressed. You must watch this delightful 2017 short movie (19 min) adaptation of the story: https://vimeo.com/399253153

My favorites this season were Tideline, Staying Behind, Recitatif and The Foster Portfolio. Burton visited some of the same authors he has featured before, but for good reason, as I enjoyed listening to each story. As I am finally caught up, I now will turn to Marvels, a podcast about the Fantastic Four, since I loved the two seasons of Wolverine’s podcast. I look forward to season seven of LeVar’s podcast, “But you don’t have to take my word for it.”

-Nancy

LeVar Burton Reads: Season Five

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.”

-Nancy

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