This month’s top picks are a little on the WEIRD side, so get your out your crazy hat and dive in!
I had an excellent time several weeks ago at Balticon, Baltimore’s premier science fiction con! Along with the standard reader/writer/publisher panels, they also had a podcaster track and I learned an enormous amount about the craft of podcasting. I also had a fantastic conversation with Scott H. Andrews of Beneath Ceaseless Skies about the state of the podosphere. Expect some fun experiments in new media over the next months…
Also, I wanted to thank Tony C. Smith again for syndicating this show over at StarShipSofa, which I expect will happen with this episode as well. If you’d like to say thanks too, why not shoot a couple bucks his way with the subscribe links on StarShipSofa’s website. They’re in serious need of funds right now.
Lastly, I want to make the first of what will now be a monthly reminder. EACH and every month, I host an in-person version of this podcast called the Synthetic Voices Podcast Discussion in association with the Washington Science Fiction Association (WSFA). We meet at a very specific time – the first Monday after the third Friday. For those of you who don’t have a calendar handy, in June that is 24th. We’ll be at Jason’s Deli in College Park, MD from 7:30pm-10pm when they close down. Grab some food, find us in the private back room, and maybe snag some complementary soft serve ice cream in between stories! If there are any schedule changes, they’ll be posted to the website and the Facebook group at a minimum, so watch those around the third week of the month.
*Top Picks from May 2013*
“Good Hunting” by Ken Liu
Escape Pod Ep. 394
— Oddly, this is the second episode in a short span where I’ve mentioned ghul hunters. In Ken Liu’s story, we follow a young man apprenticed to his father, a ghul hunter, as they chase down a clever demon. After the initial action, we see a world changing, as China makes life harder for ghul hunters and supernatural beings alike. I have to admit that I would have liked to see the story end there, but the tale continues into an elaborate, steam-age second act that helps close the story’s circle. Maybe I’m just an old fogey, who likes one speculative element laid out at a time (either ghul hunting in China or steampunk), but I still find the story undeniable, and so you see it here in this month’s top picks.
“The Traditional” by Maria Dahvana Headly
Lightspeed Magazine’s May Issue
— Fair warning, this story is a bit on the gory side. It’s a genuine and heartfelt love story from after the fall of civilization. The desperate conditions and constant risk of death will keep you on edge, but the partnership between the leading man and woman will sustain you throughout. The first half of the story was tough for me to get through, but I realize now that this was because it represented the first few years of their relationship, which is really the tough part, apocalypse or no. The story’s finale was satisfying to me and might even make you proud of them.
“Gig Marks” by Ed Ferrara
Pseudopod Ep. 333
— Subcultures often make for good characters in speculative fiction. Why invent the weird when it already exists? “Gig Marks” looks into the life of a too-old professional wrestler who has yet to make it big, still touring local gyms and half-filled arenas in the middle of nowhere. His reluctant mentorship of a younger wrestler unwittingly exposes him to a side of the supernatural only know to those with a dark episode in their past. I won’t say too much more about this evocative and chilling tale of horror, except to say that there are consequences when you want a bit of “color” in your act.
“Soulcatcher” by James Patrick Kelly
Clarkesworld Magazine’s May Issue
— While lots of geeky people swing that way, I rarely see elements of BDSM in speculative short fiction. This story not only contains a Master/slave relationship, but, being set in a far future and involving non-humans, allows us to see a kind of parody of how such relationships are viewed now by less understanding relatives. The plot, one of revenge, is fairly compelling, and the macabre soulcatcher itself has an impressive creepiness factor, but I found the characters and their relationships to be far more interesting than the speculative elements. If you do think about alternative lifestyles occasionally, I hope you’ll take the time to analyze this story with more than a single pass-through.
“The Man Who Drew Cats” by Michael Marshall Smith
The Drabblecast Ep. 283
— This story reminds me of a slightly darker Ray Bradbury short. In a quaint and removed village occasionally frequented by tourists, a mysterious painter comes to town and settles in among the locals. He paints impossibly beautiful landscape out on the plaza and befriends the local children. He also draws cats on the ground with chalk. The fact that said cats might seem a little too real, or might have a taste for human flesh, is not even the most memorable part of this piece. Instead, the author’s vibrant descriptions of village life and village drama make the scene come alive. Just like the man-eating cats.
“The Night Whiskey” by Jeffrey Ford
StarShipSofa Ep. 291
— Another story of backwater magic, here we see a bizarre tradition played out for yet another generation of townsfolk. A strange brew made from a rare local berry provides its drinker with a vision of “the other side.” The primary side effect for the few who may drink the night whiskey is that of climbing a tree. The story follows a young man who has been trained in the art of retrieving said climbers after their visions are complete. However, sometimes more comes down from those trees than just the people who first climbed up.
I will forego my regular editorial this month to bring you a little extra fiction that warrants a mention but doesn’t really fit into the podcast normally.
First off, if you’ve never read Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, you’re in luck. Since the middle of March Doctorow has been rereading the book on his podcast to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was actually assigned to me in a college course about how technology will fundamentally change humanity. In it, Doctorow describes a carefree post-human, post-singularity, post-scarcity world where people are still people. It’s magical, it’s free, and it’s in the author’s own voice. What more could you ask for?
Another longish piece, though not quite a novel, is “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” by H. P. Lovecraft. Read aloud by author Mike Bennett on the SFFaudio podcast, this classic tale of The Deep Ones will make a strong addition to your Lovecraftian education. It’s three hours long, so buckle in and stick around for the learned commentary afterward, always a sure thing with SFFaudio. I personally enjoyed this story a whole lot, but be warned that most of the gripping bits are toward the middle and the end. Consider the rather info-dump heavy beginning an investment.
Keeping up the horror theme, Tales to Terrify has been clever enough to grab all of the Bram Stoker Award nominees this year and have them narrated over two recent episodes. My two favorites were in the second episode, but I will add that collectively I was a tad disappointed in the offering this year. I don’t read a LOT of horror, especially compared to those likely on the Stoker Award committee, but I found the stories less engaging than the usual fare on Tales to Terrify. Now whether that is a complement to the editors of the podcast or an insult to the committee, I don’t know, but I invite you to try out the stories yourself and share your thoughts in the comments.
Bram Stoker Nominees on Tales to Terrify: Part I – Part II
Lastly, there are two podcasts that have recently branched out into the paid content world and I wanted to give them a little airtime.
The first is The Nosleep Podcast, which offers creepy tales from the No Sleep subreddit on Reddit.com. They have decided to start offering a long paid episode feed and a shorter, but still very generous, free episode feed. The host and producer, David Cummings, cites rising production and narration costs as the main reason for the change. I believe him too, as the podcast sounds better than most of the more professional-quality fiction podcasts I listen to regularly. Definitely take a listen and consider contributing if you enjoy a good spine-tingling.
The second podcast is none other than our longtime favorite, The Drabblecast! Norm Sherman’s peerless podcast will stay free as ever, but he has decided to start adding more content to the “B-Sides” feed, which previously ran extra stories and audio dramas that couldn’t fit on the main show. Now that feed will be available only to paid subscribers. If you’re already a likely subscriber to The Drabblecast, I think it’s a good way to get a little something in return for your hard-earned bucks. Right now you can even get a free taste of the B-Sides with the Phillip K. Dick story, “The Eyes Have It.”
*Just Add Humans*
Here are three stories of futuristic technologies and how they affect the humans they touch.
“Subversion” by Elisabeth R. Adams
Escape Pod Ep. 398
— In science fiction and fantasy we see stories of clones, horcruxes, and dopplegangers all the time. This clever short looks into another kind of double. Our protagonist splits off many versions of himself, more like extra limbs than complete clones, to improve his multitasking ability…but things don’t go quite as he planned.
“Tachy Psyche” by Andy Dudak
Clarkesworld Magazine’s May Issue
— If the multiple version strategy doesn’t appeal to you, maybe you’d like to try playing with time itself. This story really got me thinking. In it we follow a man with a brain on the fritz. Watch as he flips back and forth between overclocking (seeing time pass extremely slowly) and underclocking (seeing time pass extremely fast). For the writers out there, it might inspire you to create your own time dilation story!
“A Gun for Dinosaur” by L. Sprague de Camp
Escape Pod Ep. 397
— Staying on the time tangent, we see another story extremely reminiscent of the work of the late Ray Bradbury. Unlike “A Sound of Thunder,” however, which is concerned with accidental changes to the timeline during a dinosaur hunt, “A Gun for Dinosaur” is more of a safari tale. We follow a mixed band of brash hunters trying to bag the biggest game of all time. Their overpowered guns and their oversized quarry keep the story suspenseful, but the characters themselves are what drew me in and made the ending so satisfying. Fans of the Bradbury short will perhaps feel another level of kinship to this tale, especially in how the story ends.
*A Dark, Powerful Story*
This story needs its own feature section. Reader beware.
“Little Girl Down the Way” by Lawrence Santoro
Tales to Terrify Ep. 70
— Rather than “sum up” this story as I do with so many others, I’d like to share how this one made me feel. It is dark and frightening, and it is read expertly by the author, Lawrence Santoro. His reading sent shivers down my spine, but also made me feel an intense feeling of discomfort and vulnerability. A strong warning, the text essentially describes an unfathomable level of child abuse. Normally I toss out such stories as fast as I can, especially in the horror genre, where they are far too plentiful, but this one drew me in and earned, I think, the discomfort it caused. I won’t say I even LIKE this story, but I definitely recommend it to people who can stomach the subject matter.
Also, I strongly recommend listening to Santoro’s own thoughts on the story, which frankly provide about half of the reasons to listen at all. For those who think about horror, this one will set your mind working.
*Four Whimsical Stories*
Relax with a few light stories before we close.
“The Giant Who Dreamed of Summer” by Jess Hyslop
Cast of Wonders Ep. 78
— One reason I consistently listen to Cast of Wonders is their impressive ability to find beautiful or thoughtful stories that I would love to share with a child. This is a story about an ice giant doomed to walk on frozen tundras or risk melting. It is a far better tale than the story of Frosty the Snowman that we all grew up with. His desire to taste Summer is so strong you can feel the imagined warmth ripple over you. I loved how the story ended as well, after he had endured so much tragedy.
“Leaving the Dead” by Dennis Danvers
Lightspeed Magazine’s May Issue
— A boy, a girl, and an apocalypse – I really enjoyed the tone of this one. There is no immediate conflict in this story, it’s about how two people (and a friendly dog) shake off the shock of a global catastrophe and move on with their lives. Their viewpoints seem genuine, and their outlook stays brighter than you might expect.
“The Clockwork Trollop” by Debra Doyle & James D. Macdonald
Beneath Ceaseless Skies Ep. 120
— This clever tale follows two upper class gentlemen as they try to eradicate prostitution with steam-age technology. The narrative style will fool you into thinking that this tale was written at the turn of the century, but it was actually published this year. As you might expect, things don’t go quite as planned for the two industrious gentlemen, but it makes for an interesting tale.
“The Great Zeppelin Heist Of Oz” by Rae Carson and C.C. Finlay
PodCastle Ep. 259
— I don’t often focus on the narrators of the stories I list, perhaps a shame. In this story of Oz, the narrator was the star. Nick Podel brings “The Great and Terrible Oz” to life in all of his flim-flamming brilliance. Originally a production of Brilliance Audio Books for John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen’s anthology, Oz Reimagined: New Tales from the Emerald City and Beyond, this reading does a nice job representing that most famous of fantasy worlds.
Our closing quote for the week:
“Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?” –The Scarecrow, The Wizard of Oz (1939 Film)
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