When Eleanor Lerman’s Radiomen won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year back in August–out of ten other much more widely talked about, publicized, and celebrated SF novels–it absolutely caught my attention. Compared to its shortlisted peers (even Linda Nagata’s initially self-published series), Radiomen seemed to come out of nowhere, having appeared on zero other SF shortlists–not even the 218-item Tiptree recommendation list!– and absent from any of the SF discourse I usually observe. Even after winning the award, the book seems to have drifted back into obscurity, despite having won against an impressive and critically solid shortlist (not counting the few bits of gristle I’m choosing to ignore). I don’t know how this small press gem wound up on the shortlist, but the Campbell Memorial Award jury did us a service to bring it out into the open like this.
So why isn’t anyone talking about it?
It’s probably best I don’t mention Lerman’s award-winning history as an American poet, her Guggenheim fellowship, her National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, or her recent Lambda Literary Award. To do so would likely induce immediate dismissal in many SF reader minds, but it would also mischaracterize the novel, which is, in its most basic essence, just a cracking good alien story. Lerman’s background as a Woodstock-era literary outlaw might also spark unwarranted dismissal from the genre ranks, but her style is one that is both at odds with and familiar among SF voices: her jaded, blunt, stiff upper lip, first-person expression of strange science mixed with political awareness and existential uncertainty is reminiscent of Hugo favorite Robert Silverberg’s most endearing characteristics. Sure, Lerman can turn a nice phrase or two, but, like most mature writers, she favors precise economy and human awareness over indulgent bloat and flowery prose, leaving the adjectives (and the thesaurus) at home.
In other words, it is a quick, easy, and extremely satisfying sci-fi read.
It’s about aliens. And radio waves. About how the two phenomena intertwine as a compelling mystery, bringing logic to the unexplained, and mystery to the fundamental. The story is told from the point-of-view of Laurie, a washed-up airport bartender on the cusp of midlife, living in Manhattan, circa 2003. Kind of a hermit, her workmanlike interactions with her bar patrons are superficial, and her closest social connection is with the undocumented family from Mali living next door… that is, until she is compelled to phone a late night radio show and a psychic uncovers a vague, forgotten memory.
Naturally, this all calls Laurie’s reliability into question, and while that’s a rote and somewhat tired manipulation of first-person adult stories, Laurie’s unreliability isn’t nearly so burdensome on the plot as it is as an interesting extra-contextual theme. Meaning: the story stands well on its own without need for analysis… but the opportunity to go deeper is there, and ever so enriching.
The story also draws on the influences of urban sprawl, animal sensitivity, prehistoric astronomy, cult beliefs, Soviet space tech, post-911 trauma, as well as some chewy technological and social alienation.
But what will first grip sci-fi readers is the not-so-sci-fi technology. Having come of age during the tape-to-digital transition years, my early tween years were filled with the static crackles of imperfect station tuning. It was a time of hold-your-jaw-this-way-and-don’t-breath precision that no child of the digital age will ever understand or have a chance to master. I still remember the tunes my BFF and I made up for own pretend radio station recordings, supplementing our original songs with real songs we didn’t realize we were pirating by holding one boombox to the mic of another and wishing the DJ would shut up already. In recent years, when I have been blessed (oh, so blessed) to proctor AP language and music exams, I break out the old corn-beige dinosaur cassette recorders and watch the kids gape as, among other samples of pre-’90s wisdom, I explain that they have to press ‘PLAY’ and ‘RECORD’ at the same time. (The many failures at the ‘PLAY’ ‘RECORD’ dexterity test have resulted in too many dead dinosaur recorders and a forced upgrade to digital MP3 handhelds.)
Even more recently, I’ve been attending some evening lectures given by a professor who– I just found out– is married to the above-mentioned DJ-who-wouldn’t-shut-up, who was, from my bedroom to the mall to the skating rink, the constant vocal soundtrack of my tween years. Suddenly remembering him (and his voice), after so many years, sent me into a momentary time wobble as I felt myself inhabiting two moments in time at once, as well as two developmental stages at once, as the giddy compulsion to call my old BFF has never been stronger… but she’s in prison for something to do with heroin, so no.
I bring up these anecdotes because they are all real-life moments of bonafide estrangment, but all related to old-fashioned, obsolete technology. Sure, we’ve all encountered horror stories about little girls climbing out of abandoned wells and staticky televisions, etc., but Radiomen reformulates my impression of the direction science fiction can pursue. To look backwards on recently outmoded technology is a brilliant turn forward for an award-winning SF novel: instead of fetishizing the dreadful and already-foreseen future, this novel chooses to re-explore the recent past of this dreadful and over-analyzed present-future, (while the reality of impending damage still occupies the narrative’s present; Lerman is not neglectful). There is, as many historians and historical novelists would probably point out, more of the unknown and provocative in the recent past– the far past being too mined and mythologized, the near- and far-futures being too overexplored (and fast approaching asymptotic technological stagnation layered with midnight-hour environmental critical mass). The forgotten technologies and social mores of just a few decades ago have now taken on the alien awe of Asimov’s once-upon-a-future flying cars, which now just seem plausible, wasteful, thorny, but most importantly: totally corny. (Can you hear me, Uber?)
Speculative futurism is, in these times, after all, just diagnosis at this point, right?
But what’s even cooler about Lerman’s near-past glimpse into old technology isn’t that it’s a new thing–it certainly isn’t, and even very recent SF books come to mind. Instead, it’s how Lerman uses those past glances to not only advance her narrative’s spooky retro novum*, but to establish a touchpoint for personal reflection from a stubbornly nonreflective protagonist– a common archetype in genre literature, and one that is too often either frustratingly underdeveloped, or unconvincingly self-aware. Rather than achieve one of those two character approaches that always result in the same flat, nontranscendent genre reading experience, Lerman uses that touchpoint– that interaction with past technology– to trigger explorative thinking and foster real interiority with a textbook closed-off, first-person character.
And this is where we get to the real germ of the novel, and where the nuts-and-bolts sci-fi readers need to stop reading this review (because you really will like this novel, I promise, but I’m about to turn you off, so go away now). Although Laurie is, among many things, a satisfying depiction of a normal-but-not-too-normal, bewildered-but-not-too-bewildered human being (and one that is not commonly represented in science fiction, old or new), her depiction is not the chewiest morsel in the novel. Characters are, after all, a dime a dozen. (Cheaper, even!) More interesting and germane is when, after a few run-ins with the mysterious shadow being of Laurie’s memory, and as it’s witnessed by a variety of supporting characters, you start to notice that the alien is never described in the same way. With the priest, the alien cries in the presence of God. With the L. Ron Schmubbard guy, the alien is jealous, dangerous, angry. The schmientology psychic, Ravenette, insists the alien is just a psychological projection, but according to Jack Shepherd (yes, Jack Shepherd. I know!), the alien needs to communicate. Most importantly, Laurie decides the alien just want to do its job.
Oh. The. Echoes.
And so, by taking those widely differing observations and applying that idea to the rest of Laurie’s point-of-view (and those of her frenemies), the novel’s actual commentative shape becomes apparent. I’ll leave it at that, but not without sharing my favorite example of this gelling of social commentary: when Laurie starts to test the reader’s credulousness by indirectly characterizing her Dogon dog– a gift from her Malian neighbor– as something more than dog-like (and we kind of want to to believe her), she is directly derided by a Malian professor for seeking a “Magical African” explanation, when she is surrounded by mundane facts she chooses to ignore. Laurie’s theoretical balloon isn’t quite popped, though she continues her evasive, yet convincing ways of talking about such things.
Aliens, radios, cults, and memories: it is, in its essence, a novel about projection, and about how the reality of people, animals, and aliens of all kinds is distorted by the projections of others.
Of course, that’s just MY own projection of and on the novel, and, as Radiomen seems inclined to argue, projection skews reality. But the sad reality–not skewed– is this wonderful book won a big sci-fi award, on a highly competitive sci-fi shortlist, and… nobody is talking about it.
(It’s also satisfyingly spooky without the high-anxiety tension of a horror movie, so a good choice to read on a Halloween night… ahem, ahem.)
*I feel like an apology should always follow the use of that word. I’m sorry, and I won’t do it again.