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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

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

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"The Last of the O-Forms"
Image"Perceptual Set"
"Once They Were Monarchs"
"A Wow Finish"
"Friday, After the Game"
"The Invisible Empire"
"Its Hour Come Round"
"The Pair-a-Duce Comet Casino All-Sol Poker Championship"
"The Stars Underfoot"
"The Long Way Home"
"Nothing is Normal"
"Do Good"
"The Safety of the Herd"
"The Sound of One Foot Dancing"
"A Flock of Birds"

The Last of the O-Forms & Other Stories
is the latest collection from James Van Pelt. His previous collection was selected by the American Library Association as one of their best books of 2003, and the title story of this collection was a Nebula finalist for 2004. Clearly, Van Pelt has been recognized as a growing talent in the field, and I’m happy to say that this collection confirms his reputation.

The title story leads off this collection. Trevin runs a traveling menagerie of mutant animals in a world hit by a mutagenic plague. But Trevin’s zoo is going under.  Though he refuses to see it, nobody wants to be reminded of the plague by his mutant animals; people are bearing mutants as well, and most of them don’t look human. Trevin’s daughter, Caprice, hounds him to sell off the zoo. They aren’t making enough money to pay their bills and she wants him to give it up. This is a creepy, melancholy story made great by the dauther-father relationship dynamic.

In the second story, “Perceptual Set,” Janet is a cartographer working with a team to map and explore the asteroid belt for mining projects. They discover an alien artifact, a strangely carved vessel that contains a mysterious something.  The artifact has two faces carved on it, a small forests of sculptures, and a plaque. A disagreement ensues as to the meaning of these symbols—are they friendly or a warning?  “Perceptual Set” is a story about how people tend to see what they want to see. It applies to how people see the artifact asteroid, as well as how people see their relationships to each other.

“Once They Were Monarchs” is a modern fantasy of mythic creatures walking among us—dragons and trolls that wear a protective coloring of human form—and the clash between two of them. It is also a story of how to find a Viceroy butterfly in a sea of Monarchs.

“A Wow Finish," my favorite story in this collection, is a love story told in parallel with Casablanca. Time traveling anthropology students watch the movie on its opening night. Earle struggles with his feelings for Hoffman, while Rick suffers for his love of Ilsa. In addition to being a great story, it offers great insights into Casablanca itself.

“Friday, After the Game” is a about kids wanting to do something real in a world where people have isolated themselves because of disease so that everything, from school to work to sports, is done virtually.  A group of teens discovers they live in close proximity to each other and decide to get together to play football for real, to feel the dirt and the hits, to experience in life what they have only experienced virtually.

“The Invisible Empire” is a Lovecraftian tale set in a Colorado mine. The mulatto narrator sacrifices the murderous, racist mine director to his own dark monsters. This story suffers from what I view as the same problem every Lovecraftian tale has: the tension is based on the characters’ fear, but the characters are never reliable.

The next offering postulates a future penal system. In “Its Hour Come Around,” virtual empathy training where the criminal is made to experience the effects of his crime through the use of drugs and a virtual immersion system, is employed to rehabilitate. The motto of the prison is “there are no throwaway people.” The protagonist might add the phrase “except when they are.”

“The Pair-a-Duce Comet Casino All-Sol Poker Championships” is about a man made immortal through marvelous technology. The Patriarchs, as they're called, earn status through brave deeds. If Jared lives through the ride on the casino in a comet as it nears the sun, he will have the greatest status of all.  But Jared is obsessed about the manner of his own death. He can never remember it so he is dependent upon others to tell him about it.

“The Stars Underfoot” is the story of a boy who wants to be a hero. His desire moves him to cross a partially frozen lake in the middle of the night. There he encounters a boy from another world who makes him a true hero.

In “The Long Way Home,” a world recovers after it destroys itself. Will it destroy itself again? Will this be another A Canticle for Leibowitz, with a world following the same path to destruction, time and again? Or will it prove to be a grander story that they are a part of?

Emotion-creating drugs are the order of the day in “Nothing is Normal.” Catdeath deals in artificial emotions and someone wants to move in on her territory. They have bigger guns and better resources, but Catdeath has always been outgunned. However, she has long been void of emotion, relying on her emotiphins to let her feel something. How will she cope and what will she do when she has no place to go? What will she feel?

“Do Good” is the story of Vice Principal Welch. Lately, he has been seeing the ghosts of people who have passed through Lincoln High. He wonders if he had any effect on any of them. The ghosts will help him see if he, as he has admonished on the five and ten dollar bills he taped up in random lockers over the years, was able to “do good.”

“The Safety of the Herd” follows detective Toyas Middtman as he polices Shotgun City. He responds to a possible suicide at a genetics lab to deal with a depressed and agoraphobic researcher who was secretly working on a cure for her condition. Unfortunately, she turned out to be immune to her cure. Toyas, however, is not.  This story examines two types of personalities: people who like to be with other people, and people who don’t, as well as what happens when you change that dynamic.

"The Sound of One Foot Dancing” is a ghost story. Set during the filming of Holiday Inn, it follows Fred Astaire as he goes through his arduous prep for each dance number. Each night, he dances with a ghostly partner, a girl who died trying to be a dancer in the films. It’s a light story with a Hollywood ending.

The final story is “A Flock of Birds.” In a world where humans are on the verge of extinction, Carson monitors bird flocks for a probably defunct Colorado Field Ornithologists and takes care of the ailing and addled Tillie. As both Carson and Tillie seek to fight off illness, Carson makes a remarkable discovery that offers hope for the rebound of humanity.

Mr. Van Pelt shows an apocalyptic streak in this collection.  Stories like “The Last of the O-Forms,” “Perceptual Set,” and “A Flock of Birds” have disease menaces threatening humanity, while people destroy themselves in “The Long Way Home.” Even “Friday, After the Game” has humanity dealing with such themes. But there are many lighter, playful tales as well, like “A Wow Finish” and “The Sound of One Foot Dancing.” 

Surely, The Last of the O-Forms & Other Stories, as solidly written and enjoyable as it is, will receive similar accolades as Van Pelt's previous collection.

Publisher: Fairwood Press (Aug. 2005)
Price: $17.99
Trade Paperback: 220 pages
ISBN: 0974657352