Did you watch Reading Rainbow as a kid? LeVar Burton’s iconic story-telling show aired from 1983 to 2006, bringing stories to life for kids for twenty-three years. Unfortunately for kids now, Reading Rainbow is no longer being filmed. But if you’re a grown-up we have excellent news: LeVar Burton has a podcast, aptly titled LeVar Burton Reads, where he selects stories for an adult audience that fit the criteria of simply being stories he loves. Many of these are speculative fiction.
Fiction Unbounders have long been fans of podcasts that bring speculative fiction to life. At over 44 recorded episodes to choose from, we selected a few speculative fiction shorts read by Burton that we think you should check out on your commute, while doing dishes, or sweating it out on a treadmill.
Episode 29: “Multo” by Samuel Marzioli
In this creepy story, a man remembers the legend of a multo or “black thing” haunting a neighbor girl’s grandmother, after the neighbor girl reaches out to him in an email to say the grandmother has died. This is a dark ghost story of Filipino folklore, how the “old country” can still haunt the new, and how childhood fears can still haunt our adult lives. Did the grandmother have dementia or is a real ghost attached to her, tormenting her? One exists in the guise of a real, adult fear and the other as a dismissable child’s fear - does that make them any different in horror?
Episode 32: “Jackalope Wives” by Ursula Vernon
Vernon gives a modern take on the animal wife story, where a woman who can shed her animal skin to be human is captured by a man to be taken as his wife. In Vernon’s version, the animal wives of the desert are jackalopes who dance around bonfires at night. A boy with a touch of magic on him decides to capture one - and succeeds - until she screams when he throws her jackalope skin in the fire. After retrieving it half-burned, the girl puts it on, only to be stuck in a half-human, half-jackalope state. He takes her to his grandmother to try and fix what he broke, and she is none too pleased with his actions. This modern fairy tale explores consent and entitlement and choice, as well as the difficulties of having one foot in this world and the other in another.
Episode 34: “Singing on a Star” by Ellen Klages
Not all worlds found in a closet are Narnia. In Klages’s creepy portal-fantasy short, a little girl spends the night at a friend’s house for her first sleepover. Things take a turn, though, when the friend plays a song on her record player and an elevator opens in her closet. The girls take a trip down to a strange city where they enjoy the freedom of adults in a strangely-adult world, but must also reckon with the consequences inherit in the strange and scary world of grownups.
Episode 43: “The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex” by Tobias S. Buckell
Tavi is cab driver in a future New York that has turned into a tourist town for aliens. Each section of the city has been adapted to cater to different species and biologies, and half of America’s GDP is now dependent on galactic tourism. Tavi knows he isn’t going to have a good day, but he had no idea an alien cephalopod would jump to its death out of his cab, creating the potential for an intergalactic political disaster, and possibly the destruction of Earth as we (will) know it.
I am not one to listen to podcasts. I’m not a very audio learner, so I’ve had trouble listening to audiobooks in the past. I’ll forget scenes or just not pay as close attention as I should. However, those issues seem to be long gone now that I’ve found the LeVar Burton Reads podcast. You may remember LeVar Burton from Star Trek: The Next Generation or, like me, you knew him from one of the best children’s television series of all time, Reading Rainbow. It is almost too perfect that he continues the reading journey on his podcast by reading short fantasy and science fiction works.
As my first foray into this podcast, I listened to two stories by Ken Liu. Ken Liu is a science fiction and fantasy writer and translator who has won many, many awards for his writing. He translated Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem and wrote the epic fantasy series The Dandelion Dynasty. I’ll delve a little deeper into his two works on Burton’s podcast: Mono No Aware and The Paper Menagerie.
Live in Boston: “Mono No Aware” by Ken Liu
The Earth has been destroyed by an asteroid and the last remaining Japanese human lives on a ship called The Hopeful. The Hopeful is on a 300 year journey to another Earth-like star with the last of humanity on board. When something goes wrong with the solar sail, our hero’s Japanese heritage helps him save the day.
“Mono No Aware” is a Japanese term for an understanding of the impermanence of all things in the universe. The story is imbued with this beautiful and bittersweet concept. Burton reads with perfect cadence and really brings a lot of life into the piece. Two local musicians in Boston, where the reading took place, accompany the story with hauntingly gorgeous background sounds. The podcast ends with Burton interviewing Ken Liu, well worth listening to after the story, for sure.
Episode 11: "The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu
The story of a Chinese immigrant mother who bonds with her American-born son through magic she uses to animate origami figures she creates for him. This piece was actually very sad (as I wipe tear stains off my glasses), but beautiful. The theme is not understanding what you’ve had till it’s gone, and it comes off like a punch to the gut. Definitely give it a listen, but be prepared for tears.
Overall, we definitely recommend that you give LeVar Burton Reads a listen. There are so many amazing short speculative fiction works to choose from and, as always, Burton is a fantastic book reading guru!