I came across James Van Pelt thanks to his writing columns over at The Fix, but it didn't take long to discover that his more interesting, less packaged thoughts could be found on his LiveJournal. JVP teaches creative writing to high-school students, and his LJ is full of insights about writing, teaching, and teaching how to write.
By way of both disclaimer and explanation, JVP made an offer I couldn't refuse, under which he sends me a PDF of his new short story collection, and I review it online. I'd recently read his Nebula-nominated "How Music Begins," which was superb, so I was happy to take him up on the offer.
Let's begin by saying that this collection is strong and solid. Almost every story in the anthology is, at very least, an enjoyable read, and many of them do a lot more than that. Most of y'all probably aren't interested in a detailed run-down of a bunch of short stories you haven't read, so let me focus on the stories I found particularly fascinating.
The strong trio that, IMHO, form the backbone of the anthology are "The Radio Magician," about a child with polio who listens to magic shows on the radio, "The Small Astral Object Genius," where the new collectible card craze is either a cunning hoax or the forefront of space exploration, and "How Music Begins," in which a high school band has been abducted by aliens, and have nothing to do but practice, perform, and wonder what the aliens want of them. An anthology with three such gems is one I can enthusiastically recommend.
Each of these stories is superb. "The Radio Magician" effortlessly submerses us in a different age and a different mindset. "Genius" combines a very neat science-fictional premise with human pain and hurt; couching it all in the familiar geeksome pastime of collecting makes for a powerful and unusual story. And "How Music Begins" conveys perfectly the uncertainty and desperation of its characters, while bringing them to life - in addition to a stunning conclusion which is sure to leave readers gasping for breath.
One thing this trio of stories has in common is that they are firmly rooted in an element that is firmly mundane - yet unfamiliar, lesser-known. In "Genius", it's card-collecting; in "The Radio Magician," it's the idiosyncrasies of radio entertainment in the 1930's. For "How Music Begins," JVP's reported that he's gotten emails from band leaders, surprised and gratified to find a story featuring one of their own. The result is characters and situations that are fresh and compelling even before the SF comes in. These stories are exceptional because the mundane and the SF each plays off the other, and because there's not the slightest hint of stereotype or over-familiarity.
The other crucial element of these stories that I'd like to touch upon is: suspense. JVP does it right.
Each of these stories has woven into it a central tension. Is the magic show actually being performed, or does it just a creative announcer? Are the collectibles all a big hoax? Will a perfect performance set the band free? These are all questions we immediately, reflexively care about, because it is clear what they will mean for our protagonists. The power of this thread of tension to keep the entire story on edge is enormous - and JVP comes through, creating for each of these an answer which manages to be decisive, significant, convincing, yet unexpected.
The rest of the stories may not reach the high mark set by "Radio Magician," "Genius," and "How Music Begins," but many of them have intriguing premises and interesting ideas. Many of these stories are of the simple, one-note variety - but they're interesting, unfamiliar notes. "Of Late I've Dreamt Of Venus" describes an impossibly ambitious terraforming project, mirroring its architect's condescending audacity. "The Light of a Thousand Suns" offers an interesting twist on nuclear proliferation and suicide bombing. In "Different Worlds," an alien invasion is driven by a motive both bizarre and unsettling. Worthy of special mention are "The Boy Behind The Gate," which gradually builds up dread and suspense, making powerful use of melodrama. The remaining stories are mostly solid, well-written tales involving familiar tropes; most of these are on the enjoyable-but-forgettable side, but I particularly enjoyed "The Ice Cream Man" for its creatively odd choice of details and plot twists.
The anthology is not flawless - "Echoes," which shuffles back and forth between three unrelated characters, and "One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night," which is constructed around the titular poem, both felt to me to be subjugating content to structure, and I didn't much care for the experiment. "Where And When," on the other hand, was far too deep in familiar territory - when the novice travellers find their first transportation is the Hindenburg right before it crashes, it's not difficult to guess the pattern, yet the protagonists take forever to realize what's going on. Particularly aggravating was "The Origin of the Species," which read as generic escapist juvenile urban fantasy. You know - the kind where the teenage boy is allowed to be obsessive and stalkerish because, oh-so-conveniently, his rival is actually a troll, and all the other characters are similarly Color-Coded For Your Convenience, forming a big, self-congratulatory mess. Clearly not a story meant to be given much thought.
In summary, "The Radio Magician And Other Stories" is a fine and worthy single-author anthology, from an author certainly worth keeping track of. Several stories here are absolute must-reads, and those along with a full house of enjoyable, creative stories makes for a very pleasant collection indeed.