Dec 04

My Top 5 Podcasted Science Fiction Picks of 2011

Some people in the Washington Science Fiction Association (WSFA) asked me to select some of the best podcasted fiction episodes of the year, so I have done so in this post.  Keep in mind, these are the result of MY opinions, not the club’s, but I think you’ll agree that they are pretty darn good.  FYI, I tried to avoid major fiction nominees and winners (Nebulas, Hugos, etc.).

In no particular order, The Top 5:

Clockwork Fagin – Cory Doctorow
Escape Pod Episode 315
*This story is definitely one of my favorites of the year, even though it is only from last month.  None of our participants had listened to it yet, so I figured I’d give it another chance to warm your heart!

Tying Knots – Ken Liu
Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 52
*Ken Liu is one of my favorite rising stars in SF short fiction.  This a a really interesting story that blends cutting-edge science problems with intercultural conflicts.  I was also privileged to help critique this story when Ken shared it with the Critters online workshop.

Breakaway, Backdown – James Patrick Kelly
Lightspeed Magazine February Issue
*Make sure you listen to this one with your ears.  The narrator does a fantastic job and the “one-sided conversation” format took me to new and exciting places (especially as a hobbyist writer).

Raft of the Titanic – James Morrow
StarShipSofa Episode 214
*Be aware this is a long one and to get to it, you’ll need to skip to timecode 31:55 (though I thought the previous segment was interesting too).  That said, if you listen to this whimsical story (reminded me of Gulliver’s Travels to some degree) in a few smaller chunks, I think you’ll enjoy it.  It’s another recent entry, but I think it deserves a spot in the year’s best for its micro world-building.

Epoch – Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctorow Podcast (Excerpt from With A Little Help)
*Yep, that’s two Doctorow stories out of 5.  Don’t be upset – I could have made it 5 without breaking  a sweat (he’s had a good year)!  This story stuck with me all throughout the year, and I think it contrasts fairly well with the other chosen story.

That’s the list, BUT I am weak and will include below all the runners-up that I just couldn’t leave you without mentioning: Continue reading

Aug 05

10 Great Science Fiction Audio Podcasts

The entire paradigm of science fiction literature seems to be in a state of flux.  Book publishers are being outstripped by eBook sales and new online-only publishers seems to spring up every week.  The upside of this shift is that fans of audiobooks and audiofiction have more opportunities than ever to listen to free works by professional authors.  I’ve put together this list to help you capitalize on the proliferation of great podcasts out there.

1.  Clarkesworld Magazine

You’ll notice I’ve numbered this list, and indeed, if I had to listen to one podcast first, it would be Clarkesworld.  Voiced by the soothing Kate Baker, the Clarkesworld Magazine podcast releases two stories (usually awesome ones) a month.  Their topics range across SF, fantasy, and horror, but the average reader will likely find the stories well within their own taste.  I warrant that some of the best fiction of the year comes out of Clarkesworld Magazine. One of the advantages of this podcast is that it encompasses the entire magazine, so there is no fiction in print that are not also “in voice.”  They offer subscriptions and accept donations if you wish to show your support.

2.  Lightspeed Magazine

Right up there with Clarkesworld is Lightspeed.  This up-and-coming online-only publication puts out two audiofiction episodes a month.  They don’t read everything they publish in text, but you get quality instead of quantity.  Some of the best SF narrators around show up in Lightspeed (including Stefan Rudnicki, my personal favorite and co-narrator of ALL of the Enderverse audiobooks).  I look forward to the groundbreaking stories and the exceptional voicing each time they say “Let’s take the jump to lightspeed!”  They also offer subscriptions and accept donations.

3.  Escape Pod

For a bit of variety, Escape Pod is a good choice.  Their stories are largely audio “reprints” from other sources (though they do publish the occasional original fiction).  Unlike the previous two entries, the authors aren’t always “name brands” and sometimes the stories don’t hold up to the same standard.  The podcast often makes good use of the audio medium by playing with multiple narrators and the like.  The reason I keep coming back to Escape Pod is the uncertainty over whether the story will be fantastic or disappointing: I like the surprise.  At the end of each episode, they read listener comments to previous stories, so I if you didn’t like a story, you might find that you’re one of many who posted angrily on the forums.  There is a greater sense of community with Escape Pod than most on this list.

As an added note, Escape Pod is part of the Escape Artists family of podcasts.  I haven’t listened to them yet, but you might want to check out Podcastle for Fantasy and Pseudopod for Horror if those tickle your fancy.  You can support Escape Artists with donations.

4.  StarShipSofa

Oh, man!  What can I say about StarShipSofa other than “climb aboard!”  Tony C. Smith captains this lengthy podcast, which features segments on recent science, science in liturature, interviews, deep studies of the genre and, of course, original fiction.  It is audio’s answer to Analog.  The segments are all done by various contributors, but they are neatly stitched together by the gregareous Captain Tony, whose Scottish accent and ultra-positivity will have you grinning from minute one.  Overall, the fiction is very good and sometimes Tony snags an interview with the author.  It’s a long podcast, so I’ll keep this blurb brief and let it speak for itself!  StarShipSofa accepts donations.

5. The Drabblecast

If you have a hankering for weirdness, this podcast is for you.  Each week, narrator Norm Sherman offers up a great piece of short fiction.  One of the interesting aspects of The Drabblecast is its use of music.  Each original story comes complete with background music that really accents the story being told.  I’ve listened to other podcasts that used music before and always found it distracting.  With The Drabblecast, each piece is custom composed for the fiction, so it sounds great!

Beyond the main fiction, each episode includes a drabble (100 words) and a twabble (a twitter-sized 100 character story).  Some weeks, the episodes begin with a silly audio serial full of puns and strange adventures.  The Drabblecast takes a little getting used to, but I say it’s well worth the effort.  You can support the podcast through donations or merchandise.

6.  Tor.com Audio Podcast

This podcast is almost completely defunct, as they haven’t published anything since February of this year.  I bring it up because the archives are fairly extensive and Tor.com publishes a lot of great stories.  The episodes themselves are pretty spartan, but the fiction is good, so check it out!

7.  Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Why is a fantasy podcast on here?  Well, your mother always told you it was good to have variety in your diet!  In all seriousness, I’m not a great aficionado of fantasy, but this podcast does a good job of presenting a story with no “world of fantasy” news and such.  Also, they tend to lean toward “adventure fantasy,” so it makes for a nice half an hour of escapism.  Not every issue publishes an audio story, but you’ll receive about two a month.  Beneath Ceaseless Skies accepts donations for support and offers payed Kindle subscriptions.

8.  Cory Doctorow’s Podcast

This podcast is a little odd because it’s the only personal podcast on the list.  If you’re familiar with Cory Doctorow and you like his work, I probably don’t need to convince you of this podcast’s quality.  If you haven’t heard of him, he’s one of those guys with a finger in every pie.  Doctorow is an editor of BoingBoing.net, former member of the EFF, and has written a ton of interesting, cutting-edge SF over the years.  His most famous work is probably the posthuman novella, Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom.

His podcast generally includes updates about his life and career, calendar of events, and recordings of various things.  This latter category can range from original fiction he’s yet to put in print, Mark Twain stories (which he reads excellently), and speeches/interviews he does in other places.  Like everything Doctorow does, the podcast is free and can be supported by buying anything he has produced over the years.

9.  SF Signal Podcast

If you’re a big SF nerd like me, you’ve probably followed a link or two pointing toward SF Signal.  They take on the wide world of SF, reviewing books, posting the news, and generally geeking out.  Their podcast alternates between roundtable discussions (mostly “What is your favorite ______?”) and interviews with authors who have recently published.  As of this publication, I am listening to their interview with the esteemed William Gibson.  There is no audio fiction on this podcast, but after a given episode you’ll probably find yourself nose-deep in a new book/show/movie/podcast they have recommended.

10.  Notes from Coode Street

“Good morning Gary!”  Notes from Coode Street is last, but certainly not least.  Each week (or so), Gary K. Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan sit down for a cross-ocean chat about books, authors, genre, and even more esoteric topics within SF.  Both are professional reviewers and anthologists, so they process an enormous number of works at the same time.  We the listeners benefit because they can share their fairly unique understanding of the SF field on the show.  They also get into more than a few friendly debates over the merits of a book or a shift in the field.  Notes from Coode Street doesn’t seem to take donations, but I bet they’d love it if you told a friend!

I hope this list gives you a nice starting point if you’re new to SF podcasts.  If you’re already a podcast veteran, maybe one of these can help flesh out your subscriptions.

This article was also published by permission in the Washington Science Fiction Association (WSFA) Journal.

May 20

Science Fiction Vs. Fantasy or The One Change Rule

Usually this blog is reserved for little newsy updates about my life, but I’d like to take a moment to address a topic that I’ve been semi-scholarly thinking about for many years now.

Science fiction and fantasy are the Siamese twins of literature.  Sometimes people mention other major genres together, such as romance, suspense, and mystery, but this has more to do with describing the bookstore than the books themselves.  No, the two genres that I will collectively pool together under “speculative fiction” are almost always thought of in concert because so many of their tropes and literary devices blend together.

So what’s the point of comparing the two?

While there ARE a lot of great similarities between science fiction and fantasy, there are also some distinct differences.  In the past, people tended to focus on defining science fiction so that everything else can be tossed into the fantasy hat.  This is probably because science fiction people tend to enjoy rules in their literature, so they take more time to think about these things.  Or maybe they’re just a bit snootier.  I’m a bit snooty about SF too, so we’ll start along that line of reasoning.

“Science”

The oldest definition of science fiction is that it must heavily emphasize space, aliens, and/or advanced technologies.  This seems to be the obvious way to go because it’s right there in the name: science.  Unfortunately, even in the earliest days of science fiction, space operas and other science-based adventure stories contrasted sharply with more cerebral, clever, and thought-provoking works characteristic of The Golden Age (see any SF anthology edited by John W. Campbell for examples).  A laser gun does not a science fiction story make!

Hard and Soft

After this, SF people got more crafty and invented “hard” science fiction.  The delineation here was in the rigor applied to the science component.  Stories that kept away from faster than light (FTL) travel and other impossible physics (by today’s theoretical standards) were deemed “hard.”  Stories that took place in space or the future but utilized flimsier logic were deemed “soft.”

This “hard/soft” system is still used to a fair extent today because it is useful.  Whenever a reader is shopping for their next novel, they can get a grasp of the complexity or difficulty of the subject matter by the inclusion of “hard SF” somewhere on the dust jacket.  Unfortunately, I think the “hard SF” label tends to imply authenticity and thus it does not give “softer” SF the appreciation it deserves.  Think of Ray Bradbury’s work for instance.  Dandelion Wine is a fantastic collection of short stories and most of them take place in a relatively quiet town in the midwest.  While some might characterize them as fantasy or “soft SF” by the setting, I think there’s a better, less derogatory way to think about them.

The One Change Rule

Whenever I read a piece of speculative fiction, I run it through a little mental algorithm called The One Change Rule.  I’ll freely admit that this is my own invention and I welcome lively debate to help refine it.

I ask, “Starting with our reality, how many changes did the author make for his story to jump from realistic to speculative fiction?”

If the answer is one, I will usually say that work is science fiction (regardless of its “firmness”).  If the number is greater than one, and usually this number is a great deal higher than two, I will classify the work as fantasy.

That said, there are some caveats: What counts as a change?  The characters are an invention, are they a change?  What about a future setting?

Exceptions and Givens (and Excuses)

The One Change Rule has a few exceptions and givens.  Setting the story in the past or in a reasonable future doesn’t count as a change because one can assume that time is going to progress forward anyway.  If the author, for instance, places the story in a future where human society follows a logical progression of space exploration stemming from present day, this doesn’t count toward their number.  If that future includes travel by something like a “stargate” on the other hand, that would count.

This same given can be made for technologies as well.  While it is futuristic to think of ships that approach the speed of light under the power of atomic blasts, this is not outside the range of what could stem from our current evolution.  If a ship could travel FTL by some sort of SF magic (be it warp speed or hyperspace), that would count as a change.

The exception to this rule is the “fruit of the fictitious tree” idea.  If you make a single change and that leads to OTHER logical changes, then it still counts as one.  For instance, if you wrote a story where unicorns were somehow real (and no other mythical creatures), then a story stemming from the magical properties of a powdered unicorn horn would not count doubly against you.  A better, published example is coming up in a moment.

Lastly, anything that might be permissible in normal fiction (characters, plot, intrigue, conspiracies) is fair game and should not count against the author.

[An excuse: sometimes even a true “change” can be given a pass if it simply aids in the telling of the story.  For instance, there are several tropes like FTL travel that allow authors to take us out of our own solar system or galaxy in a reasonable amount of time.  Whenever I see a vague FTL method alluded to or conveniently explained for the sake of conciseness, I tend to not count the change.  FTL travel isn’t the only good example, but it’s certainly the most common.  Alien-human linguistic aids are another common one.]

What’s the point of all this?  Why should it matter if there is one change or one hundred?

I’ve found that stories that take OUR fundamental universe (past, present, or future) and make ONE change can use that singular device to make a powerful analysis of an idea, a character, or a practice that is still bound to our own reality.  Once more changes begin, the author has really created a NEW universe in which to explore concepts that may or may not relate back to our own.

A great example of a seemingly fantastical story is Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.  The book is set in a different universe, has an entirely different world culture, has highly advanced technologies that we might never discover, and YET, it passes The One Change Rule quite gracefully!  How is it possible?  Well I won’t spoil the story for you, but all of these impossibilities are the result of a single theoretical change (more of a massage, even) that helps bridge quantum cosmology with Platonic forms.

Another similar example might be Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, which only posits the possibility of alternate universes (which still obey reasonable laws of physics).

Speaking of books, I will add that many books probably have a harder time passing The One Change Rule than their short story counterparts because longer stories lend themselves to more extended thinking and perhaps more  changes.  The two books included above are possibly rare examples to the contrary.

What is Speculative Fiction?

Recently the term “speculative fiction” has popped up as a new way to describe the SF/F genres.  While you might think I’d oppose the apparent glossing over of disparate entities (especially with my oh-so-carefully crafted rules!), I find it is a welcome relief.  The new, larger genre not only lets readers spend less time haggling over subdivisions, but also makes room for new styles of fiction that push the boundaries of any established classification.  My rule would place an author like Neil Gaiman squarely in the realm of fantasy, but I’d like to think he’s one of those guys really pushing into his own personal genre of spec fic.

Where to go from here?

There are still a lot of questions left open by The One Change Rule.  We can weed through the “space fantasy” pretty easily with it, but some legitimate fantasy starts to flow back the other way.  Where do The Dragonriders of Pern end up?  Is the existence of dragons, or even just crash landing an alien planet that HAS dragons (among other things), enough to constitute more than one change?  Most would say this story is clearly fantasy.

Maybe fantasy tends to be defined less by the rules that SF readers love so much and more by the aesthetic it portrays.  Let’s ponder it together, shall we?

[SPACE MAN Image | City of Primary Colors Image | Anathem Cover from Harper Perennial]

Apr 02

Spring Has Sprung!

Well, it’s that time of year again!  The bees are buzzing, the birds are chirping, and everyone has realized that…they haven’t cleaned, their todo list is an epic poem, and finally it’s warm enough to get outside again!

For me, this means it’s time to dust off all my old hobbies and see what’s fallen by the wayside…

Research

My first priority right now, of course, is grad school.  I have a Research In Progress talk (RIPs) coming up in the middle of April.  This means I need to give a 30 minute or so talk about what I’m working on at the moment.  It’s also the first time I’ve had to speak publicly about my research to the department!  I’m a little nervous.

Magic

After that, I’ve got Magi-Whirl coming up.  It’s a mid-Atlantic conference for magicians of all shapes and sizes.  The headliner there is going to be Losander, who is considered one of the greats of levitation!  It’s also just a great weekend to enjoy the company of fellow magi and great lectures.  Plus, vendors will be there, hawking all of their fabulous (EXPENSIVE) goods!

[By the way, if you’re up for a great magic show, all of the greats at the convention will be doing an evening show for the public…tickets are 15 bucks and WELL worth it (these are international talents, what did you spend on your last local rock concert?)!]

The conference has also gotten me worried though.  I’m afraid my recent hiatus from magic has left me rusty.  I’ve been breaking out all my go-to books and trying to at least get my regular repertoire up and ready again!

Writing

Lastly, I’ve been working super hard on my new-found love of writing.  I still don’t know if I have any particular talent at creating fiction, but I feel like I’m at least getting better with every attempt.

My recent energy has been focused on a longer piece (maybe 7k words when I finish with it?) that spans space travel, galactic machinations, and close-quarters squabbling.  An early reviewer said she thought it was very interesting and much better than my first piece, Let’s Do Lunch, which I am still trying to sell.  I’m about 4/5ths through it, so I just need to ride out the end!

That first piece has now been rejected about 10 times.  I expected as much, as no matter how inspired, one’s first works are usually pretty horrible.  That said, I don’t think it’s unreadable.  Also, after reviewing more over at Critters, I realize how my particular story is not particularly novel in its construction.  There are MANY pasty white guys out there trying to sell a neat idea with no plot or drive to back it up.  At least it has been a good lesson on the overall process!

Just before now, I finished writing another short story called Real-Live Thinking Cap, which has a decidedly more whimsical tone.  It’s about a boy who buys a contraption out of the back of Boy’s Life – delightful adventures ensue.  There is a decidedly less “hard SF” ethos to it, so I’m hoping the experience will allow me to broaden my writing style.  Until now, I’ve mostly stayed within a few well-defined tropes.  The story is going up on Critters next week, so we’ll see how it fairs!

That’s it for now.  I hope to publish a LITTLE more frequently in the future. :)

Nov 17

Writing Up A Storm!

As you can probably tell by the lack of post on this blog, it’s been a BUSY fall! I’ve taken on two sections of microbiology lab (only had to do one last semester and NONE over the summer) and that has kept me busy enough on its own.  On top of that, my research is continuously picking up steam and I’ve spent a lot more hours in the lab recently.

Beyond academic obligations, I’ve also been exploring a new hobby: SF writing.  Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I read the works of Asimov, Bradbury, and other “Golden Age” science fiction greats.  They inspired me to think scientifically and to consider alternate worlds and cultures.  I did also attempt some sci-fi writing (my favorite format has always been the short story).  Looking back on those early works, I see I was lacking a lot of the basic writing skills I’ve acquired through school and freelance blogging.

Recently I began working my way through The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge (above: Analog, a magazine I’d LOVE to publish in some day; the cover of the aforementioned book).  Vinge’s science fiction isn’t the absolute greatest out there, but he DOES have the distinction of having coined the word “Singularity” as it pertains to the field of Futurism.  As I read into his vastly complex stories, I began to get the old itch again, the itch to create something of my own!

I set down at my computer and figured out a really neat idea based on some thoughts on physics.  After some analysis, though, I determined that my theory wasn’t quite as interesting, original, or even feasible as I thought.  I needed to find something else to base my story around.

A few days later, I had an interesting conversation with a labmate about The Singularity and some “endgame” scenarios proposed by Ray Kurtzweil.  I won’t go into detail, partially to protect the plot of my story, but essentially the entire universe becomes this enormous computer.  I took that idea and ran with it, putting together a dialog-driven short story.  The first draft FLEW out of my head and into the Word file and in two sittings I was done.

For the last month or so I’ve been proofing, drafting, and handing the story out to a choice number of people.  My ultimate goal is to publish in a reputable (read: paying) magazine or SF website.

I’ve been reading essays all over the web about how to write in the science fiction genre.  One of the best resources is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America website.  If you sit down and read all of their “new writer” articles you’re well on your way already.  Of course being able to write is important too…

Another important tool I have discovered is the Critters SF and Fantasy Workshop.  Part of the larger Critique.org, Critters is a wonderful place to submit your manuscripts and critique manuscripts of others.  In order to keep away story thieves and, more importantly, bad critiquers, Critters has an activity ratio system (similar to how a private torrent tracker works) so that you must pitch in and write great critiques before you can get your own work reviewed.  Here’s their banner, since banners are fun and I want the community to stay nice and large:

Unleash your inner Shakespeare at Critters.org

If you’re interested in reading/proofing my story, feel free to @me on Twitter.  Otherwise, I’ll keep you guys posted on the story’s progression and if I ever get it sold!  I’ve sold TONS of articles to blogs and a few to print publications, but fiction is a new area for me and it’s a little intimidating to be honest.  Wish me luck!

[Cover Art Image from DarkRoastedBlend]