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Thursday, December 6, 2012

“The Family Rocket” by James Van Pelt

Asimov's January/February 2013

If you liked the literary mind-bending of Karen Joy Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See,” Van Pelt’s story is likely to please.  It raises questions about the nature of narrative, science fiction, and humanity itself, so It would come as a surprise not to see this one pop up in a Year’s-Best anthology or two.  The following traces the outline of its near-genius.

While not overly tricky, this is a subtle one.  It begins, “The thing about stories is there’s the ones you want to tell, and there’s the one that happened.”  This review will give that away, at least according to this reader.

The narrator takes Rachael, his girlfriend, to his parents’ home to decide whether he will propose to her... if she can accept his crazy family--a family that took imaginary trips to Mars in a rocket that his father built.   Does Rachel marry him?  Is his crazy family redeemed?  You can call it a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure or Lady-or-the-Tiger, but there may be a way to add up the details.  The game is given away. 


The narrator wants his father redeemed: “I regretted yelling at [my father]. I loved going to Mars; I loved him taking me.”  Does it seem likely that the father would have perfected the art of DIY-rocketry at 80 what might have accomplished at younger age?  Does it seem likely the narrator would walk up on his father just as his father was launching?  Wouldn’t most fathers want to see their potential daughter-in-laws before showing off?  Besides, ending on such a note would make it the father’s story, not the narrator’s.  All of this makes the forgoing a gloss over events.  Why else tell multiple stories except as a comfort--just as the father had done when they were children:  make-believing they are traveling to Mars? 

Likewise, the narrator (potentially) glosses over what happened with Rachael.  When speaking of her asking him out, he states, “Those [stories] are the nice ones.  And, of course, there’s what actually happened.”  While that could be read ambiguously, the juxtaposition suggests otherwise.  Later:  “[W]e figure ways to disguise [the painful parts in real stories] in fiction....  [M]aybe I made myself less an asshole than I was.”

Moreover, when he states, “There’s no way for you to know, but I do, no matter how often I tell it,” it seems to suggest that all narratives with narrators know the truth even if they don’t tell it, that such masking with artifice does not match the truth, which is known at some level, no matter how we try to disguise it.

More quotes:
“We are poor, Earthbound, and crazy.”  That came out with more bitterness than I meant.
 “This is where my dad filled my head with...” What? Junk?  False hope?
 “You’re too serious,” she said.
 Rachael and I will be parents someday.  I hope I can do as well my own children as Papa did for me.
This last quote sounds like they do get married... except there’s “my own” instead of “our.”


  1. Hi, Trent. Thanks for the thorough commentary. I see that you used to (still) teach high school science. Have we chatted before? When I'm not writing, I teach high school English. I blog on writing and education topics at

  2. Yes, I still teach HS science (used to teach JH as well). :)

    I don't believe we've met, but we've exchanged a few emails over the years of your stories I've enjoyed.

    I'll post your blog link to the page. Thanks for responding. I am honored you stopped by. Take care.