Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Radio Magician and Other Stories - James Van Pelt

Reading short fiction is something I have to be in the mood for. For me, it is a very different kind of reading than novels. Potentially just as powerful and rewarding but more like running a sprint than a marathon. With expectation, immersion and surprise/relief/disappointment or whatever your reaction to the story is, packed into a much shorter time frame, short fiction takes more out of me than a novel. I can read about four short stories in one evening before I have to go do something else and process what I've just read. It frequently happens that I have several collections of short fiction waiting for the mood to seize me. The current to read stack contains a copy of Leviathan Wept and Other Stories by Daniel Abraham for instance. I also expect a copy of The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson to arrive sometime next week. Both of these collections may have to wait for quite a while.

The Radio Magician and Other Stories had to wait for a bit as well. After reading Van Pelt's novel Summer of the Apocalypse in December, I've been meaning to read one of the three collections of short fiction Van Pelt has published to date. The Radio Magician and Other Stories (2009) is the most recent, but the older collections Strangers and Beggars (2002) and The Last of the O-Forms & Other Stories (2005) are also still available from Fairwood Press (did my to read list just grow again?). The Radio Magician and Other Stories contains nineteen pieces of short fiction ranging from far future science fiction to horror and a very nice introduction by Carrie Vaughn. Nineteen stories is a bit much to discuss in one review so I am going to make a selection. It should be noted that the quality of the collection as a whole is very good. This selection reflects my taste it's not meant to single out the best stories.

The Radio Magician is the first story in the collection. It's an interesting choice to open the collection with. Van Pelt is generally considered to be a science fiction writer. This story reminds the reader that his oeuvre is broader than that. Set in (probably) late 1939, the story tells us about the Clarence, a ten year old boy struck by Polio. With his legs in braces, unable to move around much, the radio is the only thing that makes his days bearable. A show by the Radio Magician Professor Gilded is his favourite. Especially when the magician remarks magic is an illusion, fooling perception is the trick. If you perceive the coin has disappeared, it is gone. If you perceive you are ill, illness becomes you, the magician tells his audience. Now that is an interesting thought for Clarence.

Whether The Radio Magician is genre fiction is debatable, something that is the case with a number of stories in this collection. Seen through the eyes of a ten year-old boy the magic may very well be real, for the adult reader it is most likely an illusion. Although the stories are not that similar, reading about Clarence reminded me of a classic in the Dutch literary canon, Kees de jongen. It's a very convincing look into the world of a ten year-old and a very touching story. One of isolation, conviction and ultimately compassion.

The Light of a Thousand Suns is the third story in the collection. The rather cryptic title refers to a verse of the Hindu holy text Bhagavad Gita, that was linked to Trinity, one of the early nuclear tests the US carried out in the 1940s. Robert J. Oppenheimer later mentioned that he thought of the verse while watching this first nuclear explosion. All this is ancient history to the main character in the story however. Trellis is a security guard at the Lynwood Mall. One day he notices a trailer that has been parked in the mall parking lot for over a day. When he goes out to confront the owners they tell him they're suicide bombers. Just not quite the type we've come to associate with that term.

Van Pelt asks some uncomfortable questions in this story. What drives a suicide bomber? Trellis doesn't have a clue, the idea of giving up your life for a cause that doesn't seem to be helped by that sacrifice at all seems strange to him. And yet, what he witnesses in the trailer is not so very different. These people are convinced their sacrifice has meaning without a shred of evidence to support it. Maybe their goal is more sympathetic but isn't it the same sort of fanaticism? And then there is the assurance that when he is ready, Trellis' sacrifice will be accepted. Creepy.

Echoing is a story that takes an unusual shape. The story is built around three people being lost, three lives intersecting without the characters ever meeting. Laird is driving a truck down a snow-clogged highway, trying to get home to his family for Christmas morning. As the weather deteriorates he becomes increasingly unsure of where he is. Commander Tremaine wakes from long sleep finding his space ship off course. The stars seem to offer no clue as to where he ended up. Brianna is quite sure where she is but somehow she seems to be lost in her own home. With a Christmas party going on in the room next to her, she is feeling so estranged from her family that is time for drastic measures. Somehow these stories touch each other, feelings from one character bleeding into the consciousness of the next. Their thoughts echo in each others brain. They may be lost but they are not entirely alone. What if they can somehow help each other overcome this crisis? Perhaps it is not so much an echo but more resonance.

The Ice Cream Man is a post apocalyptic tale. It is not the only one is in this collection, Van Pelt seems to have developed a taste for them. One thing I noticed about this post apocalyptic tales is that he doesn't seem very interested in the mechanism of the apocalypse. Some story mention which of our follies caused our downfall but in the ones I've read, he never goes into detail. And so it is with this story. Whatever it was that caused the end of the world as we know it, it severely affected the human capacity to procreate. No healthy children have been born in years. Large parts of the world have been taken over by mutants, who may have humans among their ancestors. Scavenging has become a way of life for those still living in urban areas and a complex barter economy has been established. From his ice cream van the main character Keegan runs a brisk trade. One day he finds out about plans to push the horrific mutants out of the area. Keegan is not convinced that is a good idea. Unlike most of the other survivors he does not see them as animals and competition. Something needs to be done about this plan, it time for Keegan to come to a decision.

I guess The Ice Cream Man is one of those stories where mere survival is not enough. Keegan sees a step further ahead than his fellows. Possibilities that others can't seem to imagine. Thematically this story may not stand out, there is a lot of post apocalyptic fiction out there that explores this particular problem. I guess this is one of those stories where Van Pelt's craftsmanship is most clearly recognizable. Although I have seen variations on this theme a number of times, the story never feels cliché. Even though it was not entirely unexpected, the ending of this story moved me. Causes of the apocalypse is not what interests Van Pelt but the effect on the human mind is. An interest that resulted in a number of good stories of which The Ice Cream Man is certainly not the least.

The last story I'll mention in this review is The Boy Behind the Gate. This story has two main characters. Both fathers and both desperate but facing quite different problems. In today's Central City, Colorado Ron is looking for his son among the abandoned gold mines in the region. A serial killer took his boy and was found dead days later, taking the secret of the boy's whereabouts with him in his grave. The police may have given up on finding him in the maze of old tunnels, Ron is determined to find his son. In 1890, at the height of the mining activity in the area, Charles is having a different problem. People seem to die around his son, starting with the boy's mother right after he was born. Slowly but surely Charles becomes convinced his son is evil and that raises a terrible question. Should he not protect the people of the town from his son?

I guess this is the most uncut horror story in the collection. It's not so much the monsters and gore kind of horror but a story permeated by fear. A mixture of fear and hope of Ron finding his son, the dreadful decision Charles is faced with, they both give The Boy Behind the Gate a dark and desperate atmosphere. Van Pelt ties these stories together in a way that adds a new dimension to the story. The decision of one father will have consequences for the other. No need to show, the implication is terrifying enough.

There are a number of other stories after The Boy Behind the Gate, two of which will probably be considered highlights by many other reviewers. The final part of the collection is very strong indeed. I think I don't need to elaborate on it any more, the messages should be clear. The Radio Magician and Other Stories is a very strong and varied collection of short fiction. After finishing Summer of the Apocalypse I said I regretted not reading it sooner, a feeling that is even stronger about this collection. No need to repeat my mistakes. Go read it.

Book Details
Title: The Radio Magician and Other Stories
Author: James Van Pelt
Publisher: Fairwood Press
Pages: 290
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-9820730-2-5
First published: 2009


  1. Hi, Val. Thanks for the thoughtful review. All responses are valid, of course, but it's nice when someone really seems to "get" what I'm up to.

    The collection won the Colorado Book Award from the Colorado Humanities this summer.

  2. Thank you and congratulations!

  3. Very nice review - I've read the collection, and your description is excellent :)

  4. Hi, Val. I'd only read this review on your website when I made my first comment. I've read a bunch of them now. Oh, my gosh! You are a dedicated and thoughtful reader. I've added a couple of title to my to-be-read list from stuff you've written here. Thanks for your work.

  5. @Standback: Thank you. Reviews of short fiction are difficult but this one turned out ok.

    @Jim Van Pelt: Dedicated being another word for obsessed right? That's what my girlfriend seems to think ;) People finding some good books to read through this site makes me happy.