Sunday, November 8, 2015

Pandora's Gun - James Van Pelt

James Van Pelt's output mainly consists of short fiction. Since the early 1990's his short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. To date, Van Pelt has released four collections of short fiction, which I suspect do not contain all his stories. I reviewed the third of these collections, The Radio Magician and Other Stories a couple of years ago. I do own the others but as with so much good short fiction, I can't seem to get around to reading them. He released Summer of the Apocalypse, a post apocalyptic story with one main character and two narrative strands set about sixty years apart, in 2006. Pandora's Gun, published almost a decade later, is the second.

While looking around the local dump, high school student Peter Van Meer finds a bag with a mysterious gun inside. It looks high-tech but he can't figure out the symbols indicating the different settings. Using the trial and error method, Peter soon realizes his find is dangerous. He can't help telling his best friend about it however and together they begin to figure out the gun's different settings. Given its capabilities, it is clearly valuable and it soon becomes apparent that the owner of the gun wants it back. Besides the owner, other parties appear to be interested in the gun as well. It draws Peter into a dangerous game of hide and seek. The gun is even more powerful than Peter suspects and having it fall into the wrong hands could endanger everything Peter holds dear.

Like Summer of the Apocalypse, Pandora's Gun is a relatively short novel. It just falls short of 200 pages and is probably right on the edge of the divide between novella and novel. Van Pelt resists making the plot too convoluted and keeps the story moving. He seems to have a clear idea of how long it should be and doesn't attempt to stretch it beyond that. The novel is not specifically marketed for teens but it will clearly appeal to that age group. It has teen protagonists and weaves the thoughts and interests of high school students into the tale deftly.

Pandora's Gun is one of those science fiction pieces that shows a lot more respect for literary fiction than it is likely to receive. Perhaps that is not entirely surprising.  Until last school year Van Pelt taught English at a high school in Colorado and this experience clearly shows up in the novel. The novel is full of references to literature. John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, one of the few English classics that I have actually read even if it was some twenty years ago, is particularly important to the story, as is the poetry of Robert Burns. Burns is apparently one of Steinbeck's inspirations, something I don't remember coming up when we discussed it in English literature class. Despite being retired, Van Pelt still managed to educate me. He also draws on Greek mythology, the title is a dead giveaway. Less obvious is Dante, which Van Pelt chose as the name of Peter's best friend. I'm not convinced it is intentional but there is a scene in the book that shows us a place every bit as terrible as anything in Dante's Inferno.

The gun is the obvious science fictional aspect of the novel. Van Pelt links it to parallel universes and allows Peter access to all kinds of nifty technologies that haven't been invented yet in our world. He uses it only on a few occasions though. The gun drives part of the plot but while it looms over the characters during the entire book, its capabilities or how it works are not what's important in the book. The threat it represents and the problem Peter has saddled himself with is what Van Pelt is interested in. It's is one of the instances where Van Pelt shows restraint. He could easily have written in a few more big explosions or add lots of background on the origin of the gun and how it ended up in the dump, instead the author sticks to what is vital to the plot. It's a very no nonsense way of storytelling.

Although the story is quite fast paced, there is still some space left to explore the theme of friendship. Peter is starting to realize that his friendship with Dante is changing and that they are drifting apart. At the same time he feels attracted to Christy, the girl next door whom he used to play with as a child. While dodging all the friendly folk who want to have a chat with him about the gun, Peter tries to figure out where these friendships are heading. Peter makes some very mature decisions in this book. He recognizes that he can't follow where Dante is leading and that he needs a friend more than a girlfriend. It is here where I think one of the few weaknesses in the book surfaces. Peter is not allowed to drive yet so that would make him 15? Maybe 16? The choices he makes are awfully mature. He may be a clever boy but you still expect him to screw up once in a while.

Van Pelt may still be more comfortable with shorter lengths but Pandora's Gun clearly shows that he can handle a full novel as well. It is one of those books that grab you from the beginning and that can be read in a single session. The author carefully balances characterisation and plot to create a story that is a satisfying read on several levels. Van Pelt wraps up the main story nicely but does leave a few questions unanswered. Should he be inclined to write one, a sequel is possible although not necessary. Once again Van Pelt has shown that I leave his books on the to read stack for way too long. Pandora's Gun is a very good read. Maybe it will even remind me to pick up one of those unread collections some time soon.

Book Details
Title: Pandora's Gun
Author: James Van Pelt
Publisher: Fairwood Press
Pages: 194
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-933846-53-8
First published: 2015