“I love short fiction,” says Levar Burton in the first episode of his podcast. “There’s a real art to writing a whole, a complete story, a satisfying storytelling experience a beginning, a middle and an end in 30 to 40 pages. It’s not easy to do and there are people who have mastered that art, that craft.” And it is great short stories written by people who’ve mastered the craft that Burton chooses to perform for his storytelling podcast, LeVar Burton Reads, which describes itself as, ‘The Best Short Fiction, Handpicked by the World’s Greatest Storyteller’.
LeVar Burton is a name familiar to most science fiction fans, especially Trekkies, for his portrayal of Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge in the seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and its four movies. He was also the host of Reading Rainbow, a show aimed at getting children interested in reading and which ran for a massive 23 seasons starting in 1983.
Initially conceived as ‘Reading Rainbow for grownups’, each episode of LeVar Burton Reads – containing one short story – on an average clocks in at less than an hour, including his introduction to the author whose short story he’s chosen to tell, an introduction to the story itself and its publication history, and his short commentary on the story after the performance. The only exception so far being Richard Parks’ fantasy tale, Empty Places, which is performed in two parts.
I use the word ‘perform’ because Burton’s storytelling goes beyond just giving a story a standard audiobook narration treatment. Combining his love of reading and of storytelling with his soothing, almost meditative voice and acting abilities, Burton truly makes the listener experience the story and its world, with subtle sound design and immersive yet non-intrusive soundscapes. His love of storytelling and for the stories he loves is evident in every episode, and his enthusiasm infectious.
At the beginning of every episode, Burton tells us his guiding principle to choosing the stories he wants to tell: “The only thing that these stories have in common is that I love them, and I hope you will, too”. The stories range, as he tells us, “from fantasy to mystery to comedy and, of course, my go-to, science fiction”. LeVar Burton, after all, is a self-confessed ‘huge science fiction geek’. This makes LeVar Burton Reads a podcast recommended not just for science fiction fans, but also for people who’d like to get into the SF/F genre by way of some of its greatest stories and get familiarised with some of its finest authors.
Currently in its third season, with the latest episode featuring Burton performing science fiction legend and champion of short fiction, Gardner Dozois’ Nebula Award-winning Morning Child, LeVar Burton has, over the course of its run, told stories not just by contemporary writers like Neil Gaiman, Ken Liu, Nisi Shawl, Nnedi Okorafor, Charlie Jane Anders, and Lavie Tidhar, but also SF legends from the past such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler and Ray Bradbury.
The LeVar Burton Reads podcast also includes recordings of when the show has gone on tour (of US cities), where he tells a story to a live audience, accompanied by a live musician and in lieu of his commentary at the end of the episode, we get to listen in to his conversation with the author whose story he has just performed. The exception, in this case, being his performance of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Flyers of Gy where he is joined by writer and activist Walidah Imarisha about social justice and the legacy of Ursula K. Le Guin instead of the author herself (for obvious reason).
Each story that Burton has chosen to tell over the podcast’s run – not always the obvious choice from an author’s bibliography – is an SF classic in its own right, and listeners would be well advised not to miss a single episode. So if you’re ready – to be told a good story, with a fantastic storyteller taking you deep into it and not emerge until it’s finished – ‘take a deep breath’, and head on over to LeVar Burton Reads. Happy listening. Live long and prosper!
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