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Ken Liu

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 Live

I have stated the LeVar Burton is the celebrity I most want to meet, and perhaps I will, as Burton now travels around sharing short stories with a live audience. These eight stories appeared between season three and four on Burton’s podcast and included interviews with the authors afterward.

Playing Nice with God’s Bowling Ball by N.K. Jemisin

Playing Nice with God’s Bowling Ball was an enjoyable short story that juxtaposed a police procedural with a fantastical crime. When Jeffy, a young boy, confesses to a detective that he is responsible for a playmate’s disappearance, she needs to investigate. What Grace, the detective, finds out about Jeffy defies logic, with an explanation that points to a black hole, aliens and a possible world collapse. Still not entirely sure of what truly happened, Grace takes precautions to safeguard the future by helping Jeffy come to terms with his power. This was a fun story that had elements of the X-Files, Guardians of the Galaxy and Law and Order in it.

Asymmetry by Kendra Fortmeyer

Asymmetry was an interesting short story that kept you off-kilter, as the reader isn’t sure if the story is supposed to be fantasy or a metaphor. The story begins with a fantasy element-two women both show up for a date and it turns out they are clones of one another. Reeling from a recent divorce the women go home together and take turns going into work while the other stays home. Although they are the same person, one of the women begins to recover faster from her heartbreak while the other holds onto her grief, but then begins to shrink in size. The ending makes it seem as if the story is a metaphor for getting over sorrow, but no matter, it was an enjoyable story.

The Vishakanya’s Choice by Roshani Chokshi

Sudha is a Vishakanya, a poison maiden who is utilized as an assassin in the Middle East. She is forced into this role, for her fates said she would be a young widow, so Sudha is told she will serve her king better in this role. Assigned to kill a rival king, Sudha reluctantly heads to his kingdom to do so, but finds him ill and almost at death’s door. He recognizes her purpose and the two come to an agreement of how they both can help one another. I found this story a perfect length, as Chokshi is a lyrical writer who brings her culture’s folklore to life but can tend towards purple prose in a full-length novel.

Four Stations in His Circle by Austin Clarke

At first, I hated the story- as a Barbados immigrant tries to social climb in Toronto and loses his cultural identity in the process. This man was so goal-orientated on buying a particular house in a tony neighborhood that he rejects his mother dying back home on the island and all his former friends, so he can save money and be accepted by his neighbors when he finally is able to move there. But by the end of the story, my opinion had changed for while I still hated the main character, his empty life of not fitting in either world made me reflect on losing oneself for the sake of appearances.

In The City of Martyrs by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

This short story reminded me of the novel 1984 with a dash of The Hunger Games. A young man sees a woman on a crowded city street whose face gives him déjà vu and gives him a memory that tickles his thoughts without him being able to fully realize it. He searches her out at the city palace and finds out his connection to her plus how the corrupt regime has been able to send so many young soldiers to war. This fantasy tale was solid, with some parallels to real-world kidnapings by authoritarian governments.

A Dark Night by Edward P. Jones

The story description is “a stormy evening leads to a dark night of the soul,” and while part of that was true, it felt disjointed and cobbled together. The story begins with several senior citizen women gossiping and reminiscing about their past and ends with two women fearfully waiting out a storm. The characters were written with precision, but the beginning, middle and end of the story didn’t mesh together well.

Driftglass by Samuel R. Delany

In this particular story, an amphiman (surgery has been developed that gives humans gills) who was hurt in a deep-sea explosion in his youth now lives by the seaside in a village of fisherman. Life goes on around him, and he is an integral part of village life, as dangerous work continues in the ocean trenches and he is worried about how it will affect his loved ones. I view this story as speculative fiction, for although it reads like magical realism now, it was written in 1967 so the author was speculating on what he thought might happen in the future, yet it has a timeless feel.

Mono No Aware by Ken Liu

In this sci-fi/dystopian story, a meteor is headed on a collision course with Earth, and countries are scrambling to build space ships to escape. A Japenese boy, Hiroto, is able to board a US ship that is the only ship that was able to leave orbit in enough time, and thus he tries to represent his home country nobly as the years go by and the ship looks for a welcoming planet to make a home on. When a malfunction occurs and he is the only one that can repair it, he makes the ultimate sacrifice to make sure everyone on board gets back on course to safety. The title refers to a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence, or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life (translation from Wikipedia).

All eight live readings were delightful, and I enjoyed hearing the interview with the writers afterward. Hearing the authors share what they were thinking as they wrote their stories was illuminating and gave more insight to the story. Make sure you tune in to this podcast,  “but you don’t have to take my word for it.”

-Nancy

LeVar Burton Reads: Season One

Ever since I discovered LeVar Burton Reads, which is an outstanding podcast showcasing short stories, I have listened to LeVar’s melodious voice on a weekly basis, and kept track of the stories through my Goodreads account. Now that I have finished season one, I am ready to share!

Kin by Bruce McAllister

Kin is a short story that builds momentum as you suddenly see how the title relates to the relationship between an Earth boy and an assassin alien. Young Kim contacts an Antalou alien and convinces him to prevent the forced abortion of his yet-to-be-born sister. At first you will wonder why this alien follows through on the boy’s request, but this quietly menacing story will show you how the mercenary alien recognizes that the two share a kinship of character. Evil can put on an innocent face and the alien knows Kim’s true nature will soon reveal itself.

The Lighthouse Keeper by Daisy Johnson

This magical realism short story tells of a solitary woman who is a lighthouse keeper. One night while swimming in the ocean she comes across a unique fish and becomes entranced with it. Worried that the local fisherman will catch it, she tries to protect it, although many townspeople think her actions strange. While the tale was poetic and filled with symbolism, I did not connect with the woman or the narrative in a larger sense.

Empty Places by Richard Parks

Empty Places, a high fantasy short story about a wizard and a rogue, started slow but ended quite satisfactorily. The wizard employs a thief to put an unknown package in the nursery of the newborn prince. The thief, having some morals, asks if the package will hurt the child and the two have a battle of wits as they journey towards the castle. While you might assume the wizard is up to no good, there was a surprising and poignant ending.

What It Means When a Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Author Lesley Nneka Arimah quickly world builds and establishes believable characters in this short story. This story is an interesting mix of magical realism, sci-fi and even folk lore with the idea that “grief counselors” can use advanced math equations to take away people’s grief. But as the story advances we learn that taking on other’s people sadness is too heavy a burden and there are repercussions. This tale is layered and you will think of the metaphors in the story long after you finished it.

Graham Greene by Percival Everett

The short story Graham Greene is refreshing, not only in how it’s told but that it is set on a Wyoming Arapaho reservation. The story subverts your expectations and details a story about Roberta, an 102 year old woman, who is looking for her son before her death. She claims she has not seen him in decades and entreats Jack, who had worked on a water project on the reservation years ago, to find him. Given a picture, but few additional details, Jack goes out into the community to search for him. Not only does Jack make some assumptions about the son, but so do people who see the picture he has (hence the name of the story). The ending is bittersweet and you will think back to Roberta’s motivation for the favor and why she specifically asked Jack to do it.

Chivalry by Neil Gaiman

This short story was sweet- no more, no less. A British matron finds an interesting chalice in a local thrift sale only to discover it is the mythical Holy Grail when Sir Galaad comes to her door in search of it. Mrs. Whitaker lives a quiet peaceful life, so her reaction to a knight requesting this holy relic is surprisingly subdued. She puts him off as she is fond of the chalice on her mantle piece- not because she is hoping for some great power for owning it. Sir Galaad persists and offers her several rewards, but she ends up giving it to him more out of kindness than any desire for what he is offering her in return. She is content in simple pleasures while he wants a grand adventure, but ultimately both are chivalrous to one another and both are happy with the end result.

The Second Bakery Attack by Haruki Murakami

The Second Bakery Attack is a short story that details an unusual robbery by newlyweds. This odd tale has a husband and wife wake up in the middle of the night ravenously hungry, and while they search their apartment fruitlessly for food, the husband shares that he once robbed a bakery store with a friend back in his college days. The wife believes they must rob another bakery store to break the curse of their hunger, but they end up robbing a Tokyo McDonalds of 30 hamburgers instead. Mysteriously the wife has a sawed-off shotgun that her husband knew nothing about, so you begin to wonder how well this married couple truly know one another.

1,000 Year Old Ghosts by Laura Chow Reeve

A bittersweet short story about how a family tried repressing memories to avoid pain, but the practice has long term consequences for the women. The story is told from the granddaughter’s perspective, and she recounts how her grandmother taught her how to remove her bad memories and pickle them in jars. The Chinese grandmother and granddaughter share a kinship, while the mother disapproved of the practice, and soon you see why. By removing the bad memories, gaps are left and the entire memory becomes corrupted. The good memories left become hazy, with no corresponding bad memories to balance them. A coping mechanism started in one generation ends up affecting future generations, and you hope that the granddaughter will stop this practice and appreciate and cope with the life she is living now.

Navigators by Mike Meginnis

This short story grew on me, as you start to realize how the title of the story ties in with the narrative. Joshua is a young boy living with his newly divorced father who bond over the RPG Legend of Silence they play together every day. The twist in the game is not to level up, but for the heroine to lose her power by the end of the game. This parallels their lives, as father and son are living in diminished circumstances, with unpaid bills and food rationing. You hurt for this little family, for as they pour their attention into navigating the game, they are not navigating real life well. Joshua’s mother is not in the story, yet her presence is felt, and you hope that once they reach the conclusion of the game, the father will find some stability for them both.

The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu

Bi-racial Jack is a young boy who is comforted by his Chinese mother one night after a nightmare as she folds him an origami collection of paper animals. She breathes life into them and the small menagerie become Jack’s favorite play toys. But as Jack grows up, he becomes embarrassed by his mother in his American neighborhood, and tries to fit in with his peers by rejecting her language and customs. His mother becomes silent, stung by his exclusion, and his origami animals are forgotten. During his college years, Jack’s mother is dying of cancer, and only after her death does he receive a letter from her in one of the origami animals that explains how she came to be a mail-order bride to Jack’s white father. The tale of her youth was heartbreaking and explained so much, but it was too late for Jack to rectify their relationship. The excellent story about identity brought into sharp focus how some mistakes can not be fixed, and how becoming Americanized can sadly lead to rejection of one’s culture and heritage.

No Man’s Guns by Elmore Leonard

Author Elmore Leonard is known for his Western tales and crime/thrillers, some of which have been adapted to screen- Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Hombre, 3:10 to Yuma and Jackie Brown. In one of his earlier Western short stories, No Man’s Gun, a newly-discharged soldier runs into trouble on his journey home, and he must fight for his innocence in a case of mistaken identity. He has to convince a group that he is not an outlaw as to avoid a lynching. He narrowly avoids the quick frontier justice by out smarting someone who was trying to double-cross him, and there is a hint he will ride off into the sunset with a woman he recently met on the trail. If you are a fan of westerns, this short tale will interest you.

Goat by James McBride

When a 12 year old boy shows a talent for running, which could lead to scholarships and further schooling opportunities, a well-meaning teacher tracks down the family of her student, nicknamed Goat. She finds out the family has more needs than she ever envisioned, but she is determined to do right by the family, and helps them with paperwork that will help Goat at school and for an older brother to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. The story seems to be going in one direction, when the birth certificate twist at the conclusion of the story changes everything and puts a pall on the entire story.  That ending…no, just no.

These twelve episodes were a varied lot- different genres included magical realism, western, sci-fi, fantasy and realistic fiction. I will absolutely be listening to further episodes, as LeVar sucks you into the story no matter if you think you’ll like the story or not. Check out the podcast LeVar Burton Reads yourself, “but you don’t have to take my word for it.”

-Nancy

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