Synthetic Voices Episode #8 – Selections from August 2012

School is back in session, the season will start changing soon, but let’s hold on to a bit more of summer, with a review of August’s best stories.  At least, according to me!

Take a listen to the episode here:

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*Featured Stories*

“Fade to White” by Catherynne M. Valente
Clarkesworld Magazine Issue #71
1:13:01 hrs/mins
— Whenever I run into another Cat Valente story, the same mantra always repeats in my head.  “Here we go again!”  It’s not that I don’t like her work.  In fact, I think she’s a very talented writer.  It’s just that often the setting, style, and mood of the story tend to overwhelm the plot, sometimes even obscuring the point of the story in a kaleidoscopic of poetry prose and flashing lights.  Fortunately, “Fade to White” maintains Valente’s style while still keeping the reader engaged in the story.  It does start out a little slowly, gradually exposing us to a “Cold War gone bad” alternate history, but eventually the characters become clear and we follow their progress through an eerie mating ritual.  It’s a long one, but you may be surprised how engaged you are half-way through.

“The Wreck Of The Charles Dexter Ward Pt. 1″ by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette
The Drabblecast Ep. 254
1:08:01 hrs/mins
— As a scientist, I usually find “mad scientist” stories somewhat reproachful.  They almost never represent scientists realistically, and often the science or the thinking or the methodology is completely bizarre.  Not so in this futuristic story of deep space exploration and dark scientific secrets.  The story follows a doctor who is on the outs with her own people and has taken up with an infamous group of travelling researchers with questionable ethics.  The first half of the story is spent investigating a living ship, which has died.  It’s only a Part 1, but I’m certainly planning on listening to Part 2, and hopefully you will too.

“Connoisseurs of the Eccentric” by Jetse de Vries
Escape Pod Ep. 357
41:08 mins
— I really loved this story.  I can’t really tell you WHY, because it would spoil the ending, but needless to say, there IS a payout worth the slightly loquacious narrative. In the story, we follow two people who make their way from Earth into the newly colonized solar system.  On their journey, we learn of an alien presence on the Moon, hunting for eccentric objects and ideas to take back to their own planet.  It’s all a bit of an Asimovian logic puzzle, but there is good reason why those were so popular in the Golden Age of science fiction.

“Love Might Be Too Strong a Word” by Charlie Jane Anders
Lightspeed Magazine August Issue
40:19 mins
— You’ll need to be awake for this one.  Anders’ story is set inside an enormous colony ship (large enough to produce its own movies) where humans live in one of four non-evolved genders (likely the result of genetic engineering).  Each of these has genitalia for interacting with the other three.  Predictably, the story is a sort of romance with a strong seemingly “female” character who does not want to engage in a traditional female role.  Devoid of the gender dynamics (and the cacophonous pronoun storm), the story might not be as compelling, but the same might be said for a Doctor Who devoid of time travel.  While biologically our bodies do not resemble those described in the story, the gender dynamics will not seem foreign to those paying attention to our own culture.

“The Circle Harp” by Donna Glee Williams
Podcastle Ep. 219
45:48 mins
— This fable is a great one for those feeling particularly wistful.  We follow an older woman who has played her same harp for many years and has gone out in search of the mystical makers on Harper’s Mountain.  The dwellers there are said to provide worthy players with a circle harp fit for a master.  The layering of themes and feelings in this story is really superb.  It is a didactic tale, but the lesson is hard earned by the reader, who may not see its meaning until the end.  Easily half of my enjoyment came from the skilled narration of Rashida Smith, who really sells the part of a tired old woman climbing up a mountain.

“Just Outside Our Windows, Deep Inside Our Walls” by Brian Hodge
Pseudopod Ep. 295
40:30 mins
— Some of you may shudder at my inclusion of a Pseudopod story in the line-up, but fear not, this story falls closer on the side of “weird fiction” than that of true horror.  In it, we follow a young boy and his across-the-way neighbor.  Together he and she find ways to escape the oppression put upon them by their parents.  The twist to this otherwise hackneyed plot is that the parents of the boy have good reason to “oppress” him.  It’s an interesting tale and it stayed with me long after the narration concluded.

*Now And Again*
A story read once, then listened to again…

“The Exterminator’s Want Ad” by Bruce Sterling
StarShipSofa Ep. 250 (timecode: 26:20)
~35 mins
—  I originally read this story in its print form in F&SF, over a year ago.  In fact it was one of the first stories I read coming into the modern speculative fiction world.  I also hated it!  Now, time and reading have tempered me, and again I have come across this story on The Sofa.  Originally I found the narrative too familiar and modern, taking issue with the overzealous use of modern social networks in the plot.  A re-education camp that uses role-playing games for indoctrination? Really?

Now upon my revisiting, I realize that A) it was my Golden Age upbringing that triggered a reaction to the familiar writing style and B) there are still SOME elements I don’t like, but they are greatly reduced by my realization that this is more of a farce than a serious technophile narrative.

I don’t present this segment as a positive or negative review of the actual story…make up your own mind.  I just think it’s interesting what effect time and a change in format (text to audio) can have on a reader’s experience.

Our closing quote for the week:
“A book reads the better which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots, and dog’s ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins.” –Charles Lamb


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