Synthetic Voices #12 – November 2012 Top Picks

November was another fantastic month!  Even the more unreliable markets were on their game.  I hope you enjoy my eclectic Top Picks this time around, plus a few juicy feature sections!

Discuss on:

*A Little Personal Triumph*
I try to keep self-aggrandizement to a minimum on the podcast, but I thought I’d mention that in November I successfully defended my Master of Science in Microbiology here at the University of Maryland and will be graduating in December.  It’s been a big stressful push to finish this semester and I’m very glad to be finished.  That said, I’m now hunting around in the biotech sector for a job.  If any listeners have a lead on gainful employment for a young microbiologist, drop me a line!

*Join Our Goodreads Discussion Group*
As I have mentioned before, Synthetic Voices’ Top Picks serves as the basis for a speculative audio fiction discussion during one of the Washington Science Fiction Association‘s meetings each month.  But what of our listeners living outside the Washington Metro area?  Good news: there is now a little Synthetic Voices discussion page on Goodreads specifically for your comments, questions, and suggestions!  I set up the page with minimal structure, so we can shape it together as a community.  Right now, there’s a thread for discussing the Top Picks, so why don’t you try your hand there!

*Top Picks from November 2012*

“The Last Days of the Kelly Gang ” by David D. Levine
Journey #52 of the Journey Into… Podcast
51:32 mins/sec
— Let’s take a trip to the outback, then throw in a dash of steam-powered armor.  Featured first in John Joseph Adams’ recent Armored anthology, this story shadows a talented engineer-turned-hermit as he gets mixed up in trouble with outlaws.  There’s a lot to love in this story: science, Australia, and a last-minute engineering feat that would do the A-Team proud.  Give it a look!

“Recognizing Gabe: Un Cuento De Hadas” by Alberto Yáñez
Podcastle Ep. 235
24:54 mins/sec
— I have to admit I did not buy into this story in the first few paragraphs.  It seemed to me like a two-dimensional story about gender issues.  Not so.  The narrative focuses on a young person, Gabe, whose biology does not match their gender identity.  Thus far, nothing particularly revolutionary.  Here is where the story takes a new spin.  The family has a fairy godmother, a capricious one.  She dotes on Gabe and she convinces his parents that he truly is a boy.  This conflict turns out to be somewhat of a false climax, however, as Gabe’s family learns to adapt to the their new magically-reinforced reality.  The true ending impacted me viscerally and I knew at once that this story had earned a mention on the podcast.

“The Belonging Kind” by John Shirley and William Gibson
Drabblecast Ep. 264
43:44 mins/sec
— This story was a real treat for me, as I am a huge fan of William Gibson.  Here we follow a lonely outsider and his developing fascination with a woman he meets at a bar.  He senses something odd about her and finds himself becoming a rather dedicated stalker.  Where is the speculative element to this story?  You’ll run into it soon enough.  I won’t spoil the artful aesthetic crafted by Shirley and Gibson, but prepare yourself for rich detail of myriad bars and an education in people-watching.  I did feel that the story had the opportunity to end numerous times before it eventually did.  I’m curious to know what everyone thought about the longer, more informative ending chosen by the authors.  Hey, what a great opportunity to use our new Goodreads group (see above)!

“Luck Fish” by Peta Freestone
Beneathless Ceaseless Skies Ep. 92
34:09 mins/sec
— In one word, I would describe this story as “primordial,” not only because it’s main characters live in constant desert hardship, but also because there is an underlying primordial theme that effects all human animals the same way — the agony of unrequited love.
The plot centers around a boy and girl who are part of a parched desert tribe.  The village must make all of its decisions around the quality of one brief rainy season, when the fish in the ground hatch and appear on the surface for harvest.  Despite these harsh conditions, the people of the tribe still find ways to live out unique and intriguing lives.  I won’t ruin the tangled web of desire that unfolds, but I will vouch for its authentic feel.

“Passengers” by Robert Silverberg
Escape Pod Ep. 369
39:20 mins/sec
— Another love story, this one has more in common with the stalker in “The Belonging Kind” than the pre-pubescent mishaps in “Luck Fish.”  Here the author describes a silent dystopia where civilization survives by ignoring the darkness that has infiltrated every citizen’s private life.  The story follows a man yearning for companionship and normalcy after a demon-like entity has played havoc with his body.
Two factors put this story on the Top Picks list this month.  First, I enjoyed the decision the author made in writing the ending.  Second, the story dealt with the very familiar connundrum of asymetrical knowledge paired with desire.  If you met someone you were attracted to and realized you already knew a big secret about them, what would you do?  While the story used a fantastical plot device to initiate this situation, couldn’t this easily happen in our own information-flooded world?  Has it happened to you?  I’m sure it’s happened to me.

“The Tricks Of London” by Elizabeth Bear
Podcastle Ep. 234
1:19:38 hrs/mins/sec
— This story is long, but needs little salesmanship on my part.  How does a British police procedural centered around tracking a paranormal killer in Victorian London sound?  A great crime/adventure story, the plot is well delivered and evenly balances suspense and action.  There is a smattering of race and gender issues discussed — have you heard this one: a lady detective and an Irish copper walk into a crime scene — but they serve as tangible obstacles to tackle, rather than components of an authorial soapbox.  A good story all around, I say.

*Jimmy’s Rant*
This month I’d like to talk about horror.  Wait, stop, don’t fast-forward.  Those of you with your finger on the dial are just the ones I’d like to talk to.  You see, horror is a word; and people attribute a certain kind of meaning to that word.  You think of monsters, gore, and possibly things jumping into view from the side of the camera shot.  Personally, I’m not a big fan of THAT kind of horror.  But I am here to say that modern literary horror has an image problem.  I hope by the end of this month’s editorial, some of you will give horror stories a second chance.

First of all, let me clarify my terms.

I tend to think of science fiction as a genre of literature defined by “rules” and “changes to the normal.”  I tend to think of fantasy as a genre defined by its “tropes” (the most famous of which is the “sword and sorcery” motif) and its fondness for epic world-building   Not every story nowadays is easy to categorize, but one can generally say a speculative story uses elements of one or both of these genres.

Horror is different.  While there are some stories that fit the scary movie stereotype, it is much harder to call horror a “genre.”  Instead, I see it as more of a writing style and a part of any author’s toolbox.  Horror is defined by its evocative nature.  Did you ever read a story and feel something down in your bones, something that felt real to you?  That’s what defines horror.  Often that feeling is fear or terror, but you might be surprised how often other emotions are evoked.

Now I could break it down further and go into various genres heavily based in the horror writing style, but others out there have done it better and more studiously.  Instead, let me convince you to sample from the wide swath of amazing horror that can be found on podcasts from the last month.

*A Horror Tasting Platter*
I’ve dedicated our first feature section to stories that will expand your literary palate and probably won’t scare you half as much as you think they will.

“Ichabod Crane, Master of the Occult” by D.K. Thompson
Journey #50 of the Journey Into… Podcast
1:00:55 hrs/mins/sec
— Let’s start out light.  This is a full-cast production that continues the classic story of The Headless Horseman, many years after that famous fateful night.  Some might argue that this story falls more into the suspense or adventure genres, but it still has horror elements, conjuring up substantial feelings of foreboding before the revenge plot unfolds.

“The Muse of Copenhagen” by Nina Allan
Tales to Terrify Ep. 46
~56 mins
— Next let us take a deep breath and blow steadily into the crackling fires of suspense.  Follow a middle-aged man as he revisits his childhood home after the death of his uncle.  A haunting predictably follows, but instead of jarring fear or a “look out behind you” sensibility, the house instead shows its fondness for the prodigal son.  If you were ever a young person and were uncertain about new and pleasurable sensations, this story should stir up something in your visceral memory.  Both comfort and lust can be equally as gripping as terror.

“At Lorn Hall” by Ramsey Campbell
Nightmare Magazine November Issue
48:40 mins/sec
— Consider this story the first hill on our little horror rollercoaster.  Here, another man wanders a seemingly abandoned house-turned-museum.  Suspense and dread grow throughout the story as he grows closer and closer to the end of his tour.  While this one is by no means a pink and fluffy story, there are also no spooks waiting to jump out and scream in your face.  The narrative instead focuses on building anticipation.  Whether that anticipation is worth the payoff…I’ll leave you to decide that.

“The Horse of the Invisible” by William Hope Hodgson and “Treason and Plot” by William Meikle
Tales to Terrify Ep. 47
~1 hour and ~30 mins, respectively
— Ok, you made it over the hump, congratulations!  Of course there are more trials to come, but let us enjoy the doldrums for a bit.  Here are two stories featuring Thomas Carnacki, a kind of occult version of Sherlock Holmes.  If you enjoy the Baker Street detective’s stories, I think these skeptical, yet spooky and suspenseful, tales will be right up your alley.  See, horror isn’t ALL scary, sometimes it’s intellectual!
The first story is an original by William Hope Hodgson, the character’s creator, and the second story is a more recent tale written in the same style.  I personally love it when authors continue a well-loved character, though by my estimation, the first story is the stronger of the two.

“Fane of the Black Pharaoh” by Robert Bloch
Protecting Project Pulp Ep. 20
1:03:05 hrs/mins/sec
— Now that you’re settled snugly into your electric chair, it’s time to up the voltage just a little.  Another intellectual type of horror is anything touched by the pen of H. P. Lovecraft.  Here is a tale by one of his contemporaries, Robert Bloch.  Again, suspense is key, but now foreshadowing, dread, and forbidden temple imagery brings this cauldron of horror to a rolling boil.

“That Ol’ Dagon Dark” by Robert MacAnthony
Pseudopod Ep. 307
35:58 mins/sec
— Can you see it?  The final hill is approaching on our horror-strewn roller coaster.  Now unlike other rides of the same sort, you can get off whenever it gets to be too much for you.  I urge you to at least make it through this story, however.  A warning, there will be blood…lots of it.  But the gore is downplayed and instead the author focuses on the madness and addiction that befalls a pipe-smoker with perhaps too few scruples for his own good.  Madness is perhaps the most powerful feeling that horror can dredge up, as little in the real world is more scary than the terror of losing one’s mind.

“The Strange Machinery Of Desire” by Justin A. Williams
Pseudopod Ep. 309
33:10 mins/sec
— Ok, all aboard for the final deadly drop.  Here is the story that is everything you originally feared.  Except the experience now has changed you.  This story too is changed, for while it has perhaps the most shocking images (metal body modification in a completely unrealistic fetish club), its primary plot device is a siren song, not any of the other, more obvious fear generators available in the story.  Obviously, this one needs a graphic material warning, so consider yourself warned if it’s likely to bother or offend you.  If you do make it through this last story, congratulations.  As you step off the ride, think about what grabbed your fancy…and what you want to see next!

*Tutorials and Automata*
These three stories will ensure you are washed, fed, and given good advice.  You might need a palate cleanser after all that horror!

“The Care and Feeding of Mammalian Bipeds, v. 2.1″ by M. Darusha Wehm
Escape Pod Ep. 370
34:00 mins/sec
— This clever story views a dysfunctional family through the eyes of a domestic service robot.  Both its mission and personality may surprise you…but it’s name will not.  I should also mention I’m planning to read the author’s novel Self Made, available for free on, so we’ll see how that turns out.

“Everything Must Go” by Brooke Wonders
Clarkesworld Magazine Issue #74
27:27 mins/sec
— This clever story views a dysfunctional family through the eyes of a sentient house.  See what I did there?  The literary style of this story put me off at first, but once I became familiar with the lingo, I did start to appreciate both the narrative and the symbolism.

“Health Tips for Traveler” by David W. Goldman
Escape Pod Ep. 372
~7 mins
— Part of a flash fiction offering, this humorous story reads as part ad copy and part traveler’s handbook for visiting an odd alternate reality.  Hope you enjoy it!

Our closing quote for the week:
“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”  –Aldous Huxley


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