There is in-your-face science fiction—silver screen splashes of action that slap the eyes and tickle the leftover child’s imagination. And there is science fiction of a more delicate variety, understated stories that look deeper into the meaning of existence—and possible existences. Thought experiments, social reorganizations, extenuating circumstances—all have the potential of digging into and exposing specific aspects of being human. Belief one of the wildest, wooliest, and most personal subjects possible, Eleanor Lerman’s Radiomen (2015) is one such delicate novel. The uncanny events, little green men, sentient (?) dogs, and the strange cult are just the guiding lights.
A bartender working at JFK airport, Laurie Perzin is introduced to the reader in middle-age after a rich youth, traveling, working, and generally living as she saw fit. Single, she enjoys her freedom, coming and going to work and enjoying her interests in her own peaceful way. Late one night, however, she decides to dial in to a radio show, and in the conversation that follows, a forgotten memory of her youth re-surfaces. The call having a ripple effect, not long after additional elements of her past resurface, including her and her since-deceased uncle’s hobby of radios. The uncanny emerging from the woodwork thereafter, Laurie finds herself in a place she’s never been before: her worldview challenged by aspects of existence she’d previously ignored. What does humanity do when presented with challenges?
True to theme, the climactic moment of Radiomen is not obvious. Like a technician staring at a radar screen, lights appear on screen as the reader reads. Some stay on screen throughout, some appear for a time then disappear. The defining moment blips onto the radar, burns into the retina, then fades coolly away. It dissolves itself in a moment that makes you feel at ease on behalf of Laurie. A calming she desperately needed, everything for her, and the reader, becomes visible, yet the blip is gone. Radiowoman, indeed.
While the ending of Radiomen is the perfect example of delicacy in writing, the novel as a whole handles itself as such. There is some exposition on radios and their technicalities, but never in nerdy, info-dump fashion. Laurie becomes involved with a cult that, while adhering to seemingly wild beliefs, slowly becomes understandable—at least in focus. There is Digitarius, a dog given to Laurie for protection, but who seems to have his own waves that are not radio, homo sapien or canine. That he is named after a certain star likewise raises questions. Nothing squids-in-space, cheesy about the book, Lerman does an excellent job playing with the possibilities of the universe from a grounded, 100% relatable, human viewpoint. Laurie could be anyone—as long as they are intelligent and observant, natch.
While open to interpretation, I would take the theme of Radiomen to be belief, specifically the milieu of internal and external which each of us combines to create/understand it. Where belief is rarely if ever thought of as something physical or tangible, Lerman takes the reader on a journey through Laurie’s eyes that brings them extremely close to something palpable. Thus where god, gods, and all manner thereabouts are most often thought of as miraculous and fantastical in our cultures, something far beyond the simple cogitations of the human mind, in Radiomen the numinously sacred is portrayed as something grockable. One of the central representations is radio. Radio waves a concept we associate with science, i.e. something real, credible, but in liminal fashion (you can’t touch them but their effects are perceivable), Lerman plays off this short distance for the primary conflict at the heart of Laurie in a manner much closer to home than a typical god or gods. To say exactly how spoils the novel, but that belief can likewise be so far yet so close is a fascinating juxtaposition that likewise speaks to the delicacy of narrative touch.
Upon its publication, Radiomen received some but little attention. For readers of speculative fiction looking for content beyond the NYT’s bestseller list, it should certainly warrant more attention, however. While containing science fictional elements, Lerman’s style is one more literary. The afore-mentioned radar effect is generated primarily through the progression rather than interplay of sf devices. Area 51, well, maybe we need another look at empiricism?