Synthetic Voices #11 – October 2012 Top Picks

October was another FANTASTIC month for audio fiction.  There was not only the normal complement of SF and Fantasy, but Horror got a kick in the pants because of Halloween.  After the Top Picks, you’ll get TWO spooky samplings of delicious, dark stories.  Happy Halloween candy hangover everyone!

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*Top Picks from October 2012*

“The Last of the O-Forms” by James Van Pelt
The Drabblecast Ep. 259
42:49 mins/sec
– There are MANY stories about a future Earth where our race has become barren for some reason or another.  This is such a story, but, as with most good stories that walk a well-worn path, the main plot focuses on other matters.  The tale follows two unlikely traveling companions who run a traveling circus in the vast open spaces of America.  They haul around monstrous mutant creatures that have sprung up as the result of a great catastrophe and exhibit them for public amusement.  As the story migrates away from this interesting setup, it begins to dig deeper into how the catastrophe has affected the people, and what things have remained the same.  I have to say I wasn’t really expecting the ending and, like many Drabblecast stories, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.  I guess that’s how weird fiction works, though…isn’t it?

“Empty Pockets” by James Isaac
Cast of Wonders Ep. 56 (Part 1) and 57 (Part 2)
~40 mins
– Taking a sharp turn from the last story and its dark overtones, this YA story provides a bit of much-needed escapism.  In Part 1, we meet a teenaged boy who takes on a job at a strange and magical shop. The author does a nice job introducing us to the boy and his city surroundings.  Part 2, which I enjoyed anticipating for a week, tells us just what the shop is all about and how you can have an adventure without ever leaving work.  I don’t think the “fantasy elements” in the story are particularly novel or stellar, but I enjoyed walking around in the boy’s shoes for a while and discovering it all through his eyes.  Also, Graeme Dunlop, the narrator and podcast host, does a nice job adding his British inflection to the story.

“Some of Them Closer” by Marissa Lingen
Escape Pod Ep. 366
33:42 mins/sec
– This story examines the difficulties of a job that involves the “twin paradox.”  Not actually a paradox proper, the classic example describes how people moving at relativistic speeds experience time much more slowly than those moving at typical “Newtonian” speeds.  Our protagonist is a woman who has made a career of terraforming a new planet, but upon arriving home she discovers Earth has become dull and alien place to her.  The story moves a bit slowly in the beginning, but I thought the descriptions of familiar places turned foreign were nicely done and the plot picks up again once she meets another such interstellar traveler.  I found the ending well-balanced and satisfying.

“Art of War” by Nancy Kress
Lightspeed Magazine October Issue
46:56 mins/sec
– Here we follow yet another space traveler.  In this case, he is a scholar who wishes to puzzle out what art means to an alien race.  His interest is made more urgent by our current state of war with that race.  As he begins to unravel the truth (which primarily happens near the end of the tale), he must battle his belligerent,  estranged mother and a lifelong curse of crippling seizures.  As the story draws to a close, the secret of the art falls to an almost secondary position.  He must fight his past and present demons if humanity has any hope of defeating their enemies.

“Little Better Than A Beast” by T. A. Pratt (aka, Tim Pratt)
Podcastle Ep. 230
42:46 mins/sec
– Here we have a whimsical story that flirts with terms like “comedy” and “farce.”  As a Podcastle story, it falls well into the realm of fantasy.  The plot follows a chief sorceress in the modern day as she tries to protect her city from a monster of the distant past.  One of the difficult things about fantasy in short fiction is that the inherent brevity of the medium often clashes with the epic worldbuilding that plays such a large part in the genre.  Croft balances these two elements fairly well by letting the characters and plot take the lead, then gradually sharing bits of the tantalizing urban fantasy setting.  I’m not sure I LOVED the ending, but it does the job, wrapping things up neatly.

As a side note, I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine about gender balance in fiction.  Directly before listening to this story, I heard another story which featured almost exclusively a single gender of characters.  While science fiction in particular has a history of gender bias, one way or another, I find it particularly distracting when a story spanning an entire city or, in the case of the other story, an empire, features a single gender.  ”Little Better Than A Beast” stood out in stark contrast to me, as it takes a decidedly female voice, but feels completely balanced and natural.  Just my two cents on the subject.

“The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury
Journey #49 of the Journey Into… Podcast
41:54 mins/sec
– Rounding out our top picks this month is none other than Mr. Bradbury himself.  If you’re not familiar with “The Fog Horn,” it’s the story of two lighthouse keepers who encounter a strange beast from out of the deeps.  I admit that this story is quite old, even by reprint-market podcast standards, but I have two good reasons for featuring this story.  First, the reading and production of this story, ripped from an old-time radio program, does justice to this classic Bradbury story.  Second, my feelings about this story have changed dramatically since the first time I read it as a young person.  You see, I’ve since been introduced to Lovecraft’s work.  If you too know of Lovecraft’s fascination with ocean floors, ancient pre-human life forms, and eternal loneliness, then you might also come away with the impression that Bradbury had a bit of a Lovecraftian vibe going when he wrote this.  Either way, I know you’ll enjoy this classic.

*Jimmy’s Rant*
If you don’t mind, dear listener, I’d like to take a little time to start a new tradition.  The podcast is approaching 1000 total downloads and I think it’s high-time I add a little more personality to the lineup.  You see, I’m a guy with ideas…lots of them!  I only recommend stories I like and I don’t criticize stories I don’t like — at least not on the podcast.  But sometimes I have something to say, either about fiction, podcasting, or the genre in general.  So each month I’ll be picking a topic that’s been itching under my wig and share a few thoughts.  I welcome your comments on the blog.

This month I’d like to talk about one of my favorite philosophical topics…the short story!  To me, the short story is the highest form of art because it has enormous potential, but a very small canvas on which to work.  Flash fiction pushes writers to economize, while longer short stories allow an author to fully explore one or two great ideas.

My under-wig itch this month regards “respecting the reader.”  Recently I’ve read a lot of short fiction that places a heavy burden on the reader from line one.  If I’ve got other podcasts cued up and your story begins with two narrators in two different timelines, don’t expect me to stick around.  I’m not here to say that there are hard and fast rules about how to structure a short story…but here are some rules.

Rule One: A great short story should grab the reader as soon as possible.  If I’m not doing a backflip within the first paragraph, that’s ok, but please don’t make me slog through your multi-timeline, second person experiment before you’ve at least secured my attention.  This is especially important in audio fiction, where readers won’t be massaging all the meaning out of every sentence.  You are reading your drafts out loud while editing them, right?

Rule Two: Let’s say you ARE going to experiment with interwoven timelines, introspective monologues, or unreliable narrators.  That’s fine, but you had better have followed Rule One and grabbed my attention first!  Otherwise, I’m now bored AND likely confused.  Contrary to what some authors clearly believe, a confused reader is never a happy reader.  If you want to convey confusion, find ways to challenge the reader without creating a garbled mess.

Now, rules are meant to be broken, so by all means, experiment with non-traditional elements.  Just keep in mind that your reader is also your customer.  Respect them and they’ll follow you through hell and high water!

*Horror to Die For*
Whether it’s zombies, the living dead, or undying immortals, these four stories will fulfill all of your undeathly desires…

“Do No Harm” by Tim Waggoner
Tales to Terrify Ep. 39 (timecode 36:39)
~41 mins
– There have been a LOT of zombie stories in recent years, but this one proves that there is still new ground to cover.  The zombies in the story are very Land of the Dead-style because they can have some basic emotions and abilities.  Also, they operate in a hive system, sort of like the ones in I Am Legend.  While the science did make me writhe a bit in my seat, science is my profession and so such writhings are my lot in life.  Overall, I found the story of a “conscientious objector” zombie very refreshing and definitely worth the listen.

“The Tonsor’s Son” by Michael John Grist
Podcastle Ep. 229
33:44 mins/sec
– For those who, like me, have never heard the term “tonsor” before, it’s a barber.  In fact, this story brings up memories of a certain demon barber, but only just hints at it, as the hair in this story is far more important than the neck it rests upon.  I don’t want to say too much about this one, but it’s relatively short and the mythology it introduces will bend your mind a bit.  In a good way, I assure you…

“The Way Down the Hill” by Tim Powers
Protecting Project Pulp Ep. 14
1:42:30 hrs/mins/sec (including author interview)
– This is a very bizarre story, to say the least.  There are immortals like The Highlander, who live forever in their same bodies until struck down by a greater immortal.  This story follows a less conventional body-hopping theme that is wrapped neatly around a nagging moral dilemma.  Even if the set-up of the world doesn’t grab you, the intrigue in this one is very compelling and will have you guessing until the end.  Be aware, while there is little overt sexuality, the body-hopping might make things a little awkward for some readers.

“Among the Beautiful Living Dead” by Sean Williams
StarShipSofa Ep. 261 (timecode 9:00)
~1:10:00 hrs/mins
– Speaking of awkward, this story has a significant sex scene towards the end, so be warned.  That out of the way, I found this undead/reanimated immortals story very thought provoking.  Here, a young man, not yet 21 years old, must choose whether to live his life normally, or accept an early death in the hopes of eternal resurrection.  The mythology here is scientific, not occult, but walking corpses abound anyway.  I can’t say I was very satisfied by his reasoning in the end, but the worldbuilding alone makes this story worth the listen.

*Some Halloween Treats*
Beyond zombies and the undead, there were a lot of stories that conjure more traditional feelings of fear and nostalgia surrounding Halloween.  Feel free to grab a handful, cuz they’re delicious!

“Singing By The Fire” by Jamieson Ridenhour
Pseudopod Ep. 302
37:35 mins/sec
– Halloween is over, but maybe all the ghosts and ghouls wandering your neighborhood have reawakened your desire for ghost stories.  Here’s the story for you then: an old man recounts a tale of his frightening stay in a cabin haunted by its former inhabitants.  This story has a ton of classic ghost story elements, like finding graves and slowly learning of its history, but I don’t think the plot is like any I have heard before.  Plus, if you find snakes particularly creepy, this one will get your heart going.

“Property Condemned” by Jonathan Maberry
Nightmare Magazine October Issue
1:07:45 hrs/mins/sec
– I think this is by far the most “impactful” story I heard last month.  Normally that would earn it a spot on my Top Picks list, but it also has a level of horror that most listeners might find objectionable.  The brand new Nightmare Magazine (edited by John Joseph Adams of Lightspeed Magazine) featured it as their inaugural story and it is, in my opinion, one of the scariest haunted house stories ever.  It has a definite Stephen King vibe, as most of the horror is psychological and involves personal darkness.  From start to finish, this one grabbed me, so take a look if you can handle the dark stuff (violence, sexual violence, and grief).

“The Beckoning Fair One” by Oliver Onions
SFFaudio Podcast Ep. 181
4:18:50 hrs/mins/sec (including post-reading discussion)
– Speaking of Stephen King, if you liked The Shining, which I admit I have only experienced in the form of a made-for-TV remake, this story is its older sister…or maybe its aunt.  A novella (yes, the file is 4 hours, but the story is only about 2hrs and 40mins) published in 1911, “The Beckoning Fair One” is a classic ghost story and is a must for anyone who loves the idea of a house with a personality all its own.  While it’s a lengthy listen, the narrator, Julie Davis, does a nice job bringing the story to life.  After the reading, the narrator and the two podcast hosts hunker down and puzzle out this cryptic tale.  I don’t want to imply that the story is confusing, but it will keep you guessing until the relatively concrete ending (which I personally prefer in most supernatural tales).  I haven’t featured SFFaudio on here before, mostly because they publish long podcasts and most of the stories are in the public domain.  That said, from the few I have listened to, they do a fine job preparing the podcasts and researching the relevant background.  If you find an episode you adore, post it on the Facebook page and I’ll take a look!

“Frontier Death Song” by Laird Barron
Nightmare Magazine October Issue
1:10:09 hrs/mins/sec
– Here’s another great story from the brand new Nightmare Magazine.  I should mention that if you love the readings from Lightspeed Magazine, produced by Skyboat Road Company, Inc., Nightmare Magazine uses the same amazing cast of narrators.  This story is a long one, but it’s an epic tale of a man marked as prey by The Wild Hunt.  I’m only familiar with this Fae ritual from its appearance in The Dresden Files series, so it was fun to hear the story told in a more grisly fashion.  While this story falls surely into horror, it casually blends realism and fantasy elements, resembling a kind of dark “tall tale” more than anything else.  The story was also simulreleased on Tales to Terrify, if you prefer to listen to it in “The Nook.”

“My True Lovecraft Gave to Me” by Eric Lis
The Drabblecast Ep. 262
33:10 mins/sec
– This is a short, silly story about a hapless retail associate and his devilish customer.  I don’t know whether this story falls into the Halloween, Christmas, or increasing Lovecraftian madness category, but it surely has elements of each.  This episode is also worth the listen for Norm Sherman’s creative (and rather vulgar) ode to Halloween season (featuring 3 ghosts with a moral lesson to “pass on”).

“The Nightmare Before Christmas” by Tim Burton
Journey Into Podcast, Side Trip #5 and YouTube
11:00 mins/sec
– Did you know that Tim Burton wrote a poem first, before making a movie of the same name?  He did!  And the poem is beautifully read by Christopher Lee (you’ll recognize his voice, as he’s been in just about every movie featuring a cunning villain).  I’m posting a link to its home on YouTube (replete with great visuals), but I originally found the story through the Journey Into Podcast.

“Cheapskates” Review of Frankenstein
StarShipSofa Ep. 262 (timecode 57:00) [Transcript]
~25:00 mins
– Last this month, I want to direct your attention to a wonderful review of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.  Adam over at Cheapskates on StarShipSofa does his standard quality job of highlighting a free, but often overlooked, gem.  I’m not going to take time by reviewing a review, so have a listen and judge for yourself!

Our closing quote for the week:
“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”  –Edgar Allen Poe

*Credits*

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