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Tobias S. Buckell

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

LeVar Burton Reads: Season Four

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.”

-Nancy

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