April 2006

Colleen Mondor


The Last of the O-Forms and Other Stories by James Van Pelt

Every now and again a relatively unheralded piece of writing lands in a reviewer’s lap and after the initial surprise of reading and loving it, the first thought is that you have to let the world know about it. Here is a case in point. I was quite pleased when Patrick Swenson at Fairwood Press decided to send me a copy of James Van Pelt’s The Last of the O-Forms and Other Stories because I really enjoyed another Fairwood title, Jay Lake’s Rocket Science just a couple of months ago. Since Fairwood has been a publisher under my radar until recently I had a feeling after Lake’s great book that there were other titles published by the Swensons that I would enjoy. Well, if these two books are any indication of the overall quality of the press then I will be sure to be much more on top of their releases in the future.

Here are the things I know about James Van Pelt:

  1. He likes old movies, especially of the Bogart and Astaire variety.
  2. He is concerned about the impact a killer virus will have on our culture. (And not in the obvious ways you might think.)
  3. He likes young people, especially teenagers, and thinks they are pretty smart.
  4. He’s a birdwatcher.
  5. He’s into outer space stories.
  6. He is one seriously brave writer.

In the title story from his collection Van Pelt hints at a future Earth where mutations have become common. Into this environment he gives us a father struggling with a traveling exotic animal show, something that would not be out of place in our own time if the animals were just a tad less exotic. The creepy creature thing was a twist on what looked to be a standard drama about fathers and daughters and the choices we make to keep on living but then something happens near the story’s end. Van Pelt throws a curve ball that turns all of the story’s attention onto twelve-year-old Caprice and just like that the father and daughter twist themselves into something that is so much darker than the monsters they live with.That’s when I decided that James Van Pelt just might be up to something with his stories; he just might be on a journey into the edges of science fiction that too few authors have been willing to take.

Heck, this guy might actually even be willing to take a few chances in the interest of giving his readers the kind of surprises that we used to get all the time back in the Golden Age of science fiction, literary surprises that a lot of us grew up with and loved. In fact, with a story narrated by a child molester in a futuristic prison, a story that makes me feel something for a child molester and killer, James Van Pelt just might be going where truly, no man has gone before.

Don’t think he’s sympathetic to child molesters though, because that is not what the story “Its Hour Come Around” is all about. It’s about the future of prisons and all our complicated ideas of rehabilitation. It is certainly a science fiction story; it’s just one with a most uncomfortable twist. A child molester is the most horrible of criminals to most of us, and by using him as the voice of this story Van Pelt shows that he’s not afraid to uncover our darkest fears.

In “The Long Way Home” Van Pelt gives us nuclear war and space travel, and turns the whole thing into a discussion on learning from history while also making it one of the most hopeful (and intelligent) post-nuke stories I’ve read. Space is also the setting for a look at immortality in “The Pair-a-Deuce Comet Casino All-Sol Poker Championship.” That one also got me thinking about what people will do for a thrill, and made me reconsider Fear Factor. There are a whole series of stories considering the after-effects of a virus like the bird flu, but each of them present such different outcomes that they provide the reader with numerous ways to think about the future of our medical health. “Friday, After the Game” focuses on teenagers, and their need for real friendship while “A Flock of Birds” shows how bad it could get, and how loneliness promotes the oddest of friendships. (Ironically it also manages to show us how good it can get after a killer virus.) In “The Safety of the Herd” I thought I was getting one story about the future, but really found another; one that I strangely identified with although I will not admit which character appealed the most.

There are space stories, ghost stories and many tales of the conflicted sort. There is a dragon regaining glory and the glory that was Casablanca on opening night. There’s also Fred Astaire, as I mentioned above, and what Van Pelt does for him is just grand -- I can’t wait to watch Holiday Inn again.

All in all I was continuously surprised with Last of the O-Forms -- it resists easy classification and instead insists that readers just let Van Pelt take you along for the ride, let you think that a story like “Do Good” is about one thing and then accept that really, it is about something totally different. If you give up all your preconceptions, all your ideas about what science fiction is, then Van Pelt can remind you of what it is supposed to be -- how it is supposed to transport readers to different worlds, different times, different perspectives while still making you feel, making you believe, that it could happen at any time; that it is happening all the time. He wants to take you for the ride of a lifetime which is why so many of us love science fiction in the first place. It’s that ride that keeps us coming back for more, it’s the long strange trip that reminds us of all the possibilities we have forgotten.

You probably have not heard of James Van Pelt and that is a small tragedy. He has a powerful gift for writing small stories with big hearts, a gift that far too few writers are willing to take a chance on. Each time I thought I knew where he was going with a story, he taught me just how easily I could be fooled. He made me believe again with his words, believe in a thousand different things. Mostly though, he made believe that anything was possible and for that, especially for that, I will recommend his book to everyone I know.

The Last of the O-Forms & Other Stories by James Van Pelt
Fairwood Press
ISBN 0974657352
216 pages