Synthetic Voices #22 – September 2013 Top Picks

I had to wrestle long and hard over the Top Picks this month, so I hope they fit the bill.  You’ll probably notice a few markets on the list we don’t regularly feature, along with a few we often do.  And as always, the list is rather eclectic, with perhaps a slightly higher concentration of zombies…


I just got back from a FULL weekend at Capclave, Washington, DC’s premier science fiction convention. I met a TON of great podcasters and got an even better perspective on where this whole short audio fiction thing is headed.  It’s given me a lot to think about…

Those in DC/MD/VA are welcome to join us once again for our monthly podcast discussion at La Madeleine in Bethesda, Maryland (Directions) on October 21st.  We’ll be discussing the Top Picks at a minimum, and probably a number of other featured stories too!  Grab some delicious country French cuisine and meet podcast fans new and old.  The location is both metro- and car-accessible, with a few parking spots at the restaurant and the rest in one of several pay garages.

RSVP for the discussion on Facebook so you can see who else is coming.

Also, we are now on Stitcher!  So if you want to subscribe on some device that support Stitcher, go right ahead.  There’s a button on both the show notes for this episode and the podcast info page, both found on

*Top Picks from September 2013*

“Alone, Together” by Robert Kirkman
Nightmare Magazine’s September Issue
~48 mins
— So first off, I apologize, but it couldn’t be helped.  There are two whole stories on the Top Picks dedicated to zombies.  This first one and the last one on the list.  I spaced them out so you wouldn’t be totally annoyed with me.  I admit, it’s a pretty hackneyed trope these days, but I found something redeeming in both of these stories.
This one is the more traditional of the two, following a group of survivors as they pick their way among humanity’s ruins.  In its post-apocalyptic way, it’s a love story and one that will tangle you intimately into the twisted desires of the protagonist.  At the end I hope you’ll ask yourself if you’re so different from him.

“The Drove of Maris-Charlottes” by David Turnbull
Cast of Wonders Ep. 94
~29 mins
— I loved this story!  This was one of those “instant Top Picks” for me.  I don’t want to spoil the beautiful exposition, so I’ll set the hook and let you take the bait: imagine you’re a young woman trying to uphold her father’s name by driving a herd of potatoes across the dusty plains.  This was one of the most mature stories I’ve seen yet on Cast of Wonders and yet I felt like it really spoke to a  younger version of myself.  The action and hardship were solid and the world building was novel and well-executed.  Yee-haw!

“A Short Guide to the City” by Peter Straub
Nightmare Magazine’s September Issue
~33 mins
— Frankly I don’t know what to make of this story.  It’s part art, part horror, part culture commentary, and almost completely devoid of any true narrative.  That said, it kept me intrigued all the way through.  Essentially it’s a tour of the districts of a post-industrial city where these various districts have fallen each into their own forms of barbarism, as dictated by their inhabitants.  There are hints and suggestions of more, but I’m hoping our Synthetic Voices discussion group can help me tease those out.  If you’d like a little something different from the norm, check out this one.

“Ill-Met at Midnight” by David Tallerman
Beneath Ceaseless Skies Ep. 110
~36 mins
— Here’s a fun story about assassins.  Real assassins probably aren’t that fun, but these are the fantastic kind that belong to assassin guilds and have loads of honor.  While the ending didn’t floor me, I really enjoyed the personalities of the various characters.  Perhaps the narration by Tales of the Left Hand‘s  John Meagher added something not contained completely within the written word.

“Thirty Seconds From Now” by John Chu
Escape Pod Ep. 412
~27 mins
— I love two things about this story.  First, it opens a window on the life of a talented college student as he discovers love, pain, and what he really wants from life.  By the end I think too you will be very invested in his final decision.
Second, I was happy to see that even though the protagonist is not of a heterosexual orientation, that fact does not obscure the passionate, introspective writing in the piece.  Stories steeped in gay culture are fine, but it’s also nice to see fiction about gay characters who aren’t part of some alternative or indie counterculture.  It’s almost a trope as often as I see it in speculative fiction.
Oh and he can see into the future, for those wondering what tropes ARE in this one.  It reminds me a bit of the movie Knowing – yes, the 2009 film with Nicolas Cage, I did see it, in the theater no less!

“Dry Bite” by Will McIntosh
Lightspeed Magazine’s September Issue
~58 mins
— Here’s our second zombie story, but as you’ll see, the author made quite an effort to deconstruct the worn-out zombie setup and take a turn at reinventing the zombie.  I liked not being able to guess exactly what the creatures would do next.  Essentially, a woman discovers her zombified family among the ruins of society, just about the time the creatures make a dramatic change to their behavior.  She tries to unravel their mystery without falling victim to the zombie process herself.  This piece gets bonus points for a well-timed and unforeseen (at least to me) use of the title, something I have always thought of as a hallmark of a great short story.

*Four Clever Stories*
Two newer and two older, two short and two long, all on only two podcasts

“The Demon Fields” by Keith McCleary
Pseudopod Ep. 353 (timecode 14:00)
~19 mins
— When it comes to very short stories, you need to either be clever or impact your reader immediately.  This one does both, gathering shadows around a mysterious barn (or rather IN it) and leaving the reader with what I think was a very satisfying and clever conclusion.  I also enjoyed the story that plays right before this one, “Down By The Sea Near The Great Big Rock,” so I’m slipping in a mention of it here.

“Letter from the Stars” by A. E. van Vogt
Protecting Project Pulp Ep. 60
~19 mins
— Correspondence stories have the tendency to be repetitive and plodding, so I was happy to hear this classic soundly buck that trend.  In it we read over the shoulder of a mysterious person writing letters from their prison cell to someone outside participating in a pen pal program.  Or are they in a prison?  Or are they a person?  And who are they really writing to?  Everything is in question until the final entry.

“The Bungalow House” by Thomas Ligotti
Pseudopod Ep. 350
~1 hr
— I enjoy many different types of horror, but one of my secret pleasures is what I will call “weird horror.”  Some authors can take things off in a weird direction, exposing their readers to bizarre imagery, unreal fantasies, and hidden meanings.  Great authors, like Ligotti, who got a Stoker nomination for this story, can tie all of that weirdness into a cohesive, engaging plot.  In this one, a rather average Joe finds himself entranced by strange audio recordings that appear at a strange art gallery of a dubious quality.  The recordings take him down a path that makes him question reality.  Clues are gradually revealed so that near the end, you might solve the mystery before it is presented to you in all of its weird details.

“The Servant Problem” by Robert F. Young
Protecting Project Pulp Ep. 61
~1 hr
— A man is called in to appraise some property only to discover he is not being asked to appraise a house, but a town!  They’ve all moved away it seems, but to where?  The story grows more wondrous as he discovers more and more about the empty town and the secret that it harbors.

*The Great Adventure*
Three stories about the great unknown and whether to leap into it.

“Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” by Lawrence Watt-Evans
Escape Pod Ep. 413
~35 mins
— Growing up in a backwater town can be tough…unless you find yourself a job at a 24-hour burger joint!  You’ll meet strange folk from all over, maybe a little TOO all over.  This story fits into our adventure theme because the protagonist must choose to stay home or go out and see the wide-open spaces of the universe.  A quirky little story.

“A Hollow Play” by Amal El-Mohtar
Podcastle Ep. 277
~1 hr
— Every once in a while a story reminds me that just because mythology-based fantasy is all the rage, there is still LOTS of new (or at least prime) territory for the industrious author.  Our protagonist, with a mysterious pen pal (yep, that’s two in one list!), happens upon a bizarre polyamorous group, some of whom are part-time mythological creatures.  As a poly person myself, I really enjoyed seeing “poly angst” on display in all of its many shades.  And magic only adds another layer of complexity.  Together, or maybe not, they must decide if they will risk personal sacrifices to find their hearts’ desires.
Oh and an administrative note: normally, major audio issues invalidate a story for consideration on this list.  On this recording there is a noticeable whine.  I determined the audio to be still listenable and I decided to include it, despite some occasional annoyance.

“And Then Some” by Matthew Hughes
Lightspeed Magazine’s September Issue
~1 hr
— This tale sits somewhere between a hard-boiled detective story and military adventure…in space.  An agent for hire must escape imprisonment and protect the interests of his employer.  From there the story takes a complete twist into the exploration of alternate dimensions.  Work in a mine, play assassin, and test the limits of our reality.  I give this one points for originality, as I’ve never come across a short story so unmarried to any particular type of narrative action.

*Two Stories with Great Emotion*
Try not to emote too much.

“The Promise of Space” by James Patrick Kelly
Clarkesworld Magazine’s September Issue
~30 mins
— Join Kate Baker and the author, James Patrick Kelly, for a narrative duet in this ongoing lovers’ quarrel.  Would you still feel the same way about your partner if they had to interface with a machine to think or remember your life together?  And what if he did it to himself, but for a good cause?  The emotional weight is tangible in these two characters, as the narrators each did a terrific job bringing them to aural life.

“Water Finds Its Level” by M. Bennardo
StarShipSofa Ep. 304 (timecode 1:20:00)
~30 mins
— This is another story by M. Bennardo that can easily hook you with its premise alone.  How would your life change if your apartment began to merge with its alternate universe double?  Keep in mind that alternate universe doubles of your apartment are rarely unoccupied!  I don’t know how I feel about the ending, so I’m hoping for some varied opinions at our monthly podcast discussion.

Our closing quote for the week:
“I wonder if other dogs think poodles are members of a weird religious cult.”  –Rita Rudner


One thought on “Synthetic Voices #22 – September 2013 Top Picks

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