Synthetic Voices #23 – October 2013 Top Picks

Leaves are rustling outside and the season it turning colder.  I always love this time of year, and it’s a great time for snuggling up with a podcasted story.  Here are some good ones to keep you going through the “dark half of the year.”

*Announcements*

As usual our monthly podcast discussion will be in Bethesda, MD on Nov. 25th from 7:30pm-10pm.  It’s always a lovely time.  That’s the Monday BEFORE Thanksgiving, for those wondering.  You can find out more information on our Discussion Info Page and on Facebook.

This month I’d like to drop a mention about Escape Artists.  If that name isn’t familiar, how about Escape Pod, Pseudopod, or Podcastle?  See you know who I’m talking about!  Well recently they posted a metacast episode describing their financial plight.  Essentially, they needed some serious funding to get through the rest of the year.  They recently updated the community with another metacast, this time thanking their fans for helping them raise another $30,000 in funding.  That sounds like a lot, but here’s the shocker…that will only last them 10 MONTHS!  Yes, podcasts who pay their authors, and sometimes narrators and staff, have a LOT of costs.

So obviously, GIVE to any of the Escape Artists podcasts.  It’s one lump fund, so be assured your money will go wherever it’s most needed in that organization.  They’re one of the leaders of our podcasted fiction community and their rising star has already inspired many others.

We’ll come back to the issue of donations in a few minutes, but first, let’s jump into the…

*Top Picks from October 2013*

“Flying On My Hatred of My Neighbor’s Dog” by Shaenon Garrity
The Drabblecast Ep. 298
~27 mins
— This is just the kind of genius I expect to see on The Drabblecast.  You may have felt burning, seething rage at someone or something before, but are you a hater?  That is, could you hate something so much that power companies could actually harness that hatred and power the globe?  Our protagonist is one such hater and his misadventures are recounted in this hilarious story.  I was personally giggling throughout most of it!

“Event Horizon” by Sunny Moraine
Strange Horizons’ October Issue
~42 mins
— Good news, I’m happy to feature a new podcast on the show!  Strange Horizons has been a longtime voice in the short fiction world and now they have a fiction and poetry podcast.  I urge you to check out their full feed on iTunes.  There seems to be a Podbean page for the podcast, but very little specifically on the Strange Horizons website, if you’re looking for more details.  Or, of course, you can always click through from the Synthetic Voices show notes.
Personally, I have a special place in my heart for stories that call to the spirit of Fall.  The rustle of fallen leaves, the chill in the air, and hungry living houses.  Oh is that just in this story?  Yes, our protagonists, both of whom incidentally fall along the gay/queer spectrum, have found themselves in charge of feeding a house.  Combine this with their difficulties in fending off the bullies at school, and you’ll be able to see your way to a grisly conclusion.  What separated this hungry house story from the pack was, for me, the look inside our female-bodied protagonist’s head, seeing her contemplate not only her role in keeping the house fed, but also balancing that against her secret passion for our emotionally distant, male-bodied hero.  Her lack of true fear toward the house keeps the story fresh and true to her young, if somewhat self-absorbed, voice.

“The Creature Recants” by Dale Bailey
Clarkesworld Magazine’s October Issue
~42 mins
— Here’s another beautifully written story from Clarkesworld, where the grotesque Creature from the Black Lagoon looks for love and purpose in Hollywood.  Surely he’s not so different from us, aside from the diet of fish and the amphibious physiology.  This Tinsel Town tale is told out of chronological order, but eventually provides the rationale for his final decision: whether to stay with humans and follow human dreams, or return to his swamp and a life of meaningless serenity.

“The Master Conjurer” by Charlie Jane Anders
Lightspeed Magazine’s October Issue
~39 mins
— Setting aside the plot of this story for a moment, I loved how the world was set up.  Everyone has access to magic, just like in our world how everyone has access to technology.  Is everyone good at using technology?  The same concept applies to magic in our story, though; the negative effects of a powerful spell are a bit more dire than a fried hard drive.  Enter our protagonist who somehow finds the key to performing spells without a magical downside.  This launches him into a world of unwelcome celebrity and eventually sends him running from the media-crazy public.  I loved the way he is forced to face his past and come to terms with both his public status and his private demons.

“Bits” by Naomi Kritzer
Clarkesworld Magazine’s October Issue
~29 mins
— The quirky world of sex toys gets a bit quirkier as aliens look for ways to connect with their human partners.  A hapless sex toy manufacturer is forced to face her discomfort with the idea of inter-species romance and then must create a product that will suit everyone.  This isn’t some kind of tentacle-strewn nightmare, if that is what has popped into your head already, but rather a story of couples who want to overcome their biological incompatibility and need an open mind to make it happen.  It was nice to see a story that was not only casually sex-positive, but comical and upbeat as well.

“Today’s Friends” by David J. Schwartz
StarShipSofa Ep. 310 (timecode 20:00)
~37 mins
— At the mention of StarShipSofa, you would probably expect this story to be science fiction.  This notion is probably encouraged by the “grays,” big-eyed gray aliens a la X-Files, featured prominently in the story.  Let me tell you that this is a straight-up horror story if I ever saw one.  The post-invasion world is unsettlingly similar to our own, with just a few subtle changes sure to catch your attention.  Most striking is the ever-present fear among those going about their daily lives.  Schwartz does a fantastic job imparting the psychological terror of beings who can reach into your mind at any time and have no qualms about doing so whenever it suits them.

*Jimmy’s Rant*

Ok, with the Top Picks put to bed, let’s go back to podcast funding for a moment.

Podcasting requires money, and like any business, a podcast’s biggest headache is cashflow.  Sure, they can beg for money occasionally and get a big bump, but what every podcast editor really wants is a regular stream of cash that they can count on, month in and month out.  There’s no profiteering going on here.  Super popular and successful podcasts can SOMETIME pay their editors with a couple beers per month.  That’s our current benchmark for success.

So what can you do?  What can WE do?  I like that second one better.  I’m always a fan of community solutions.  For instance, we here at Synthetic Voices have a small but growing community!  We have about 100 subscribers and unique downloads per month (not including all of our StarShipSofa listeners).  Also, we have a real, in-person podcast discussion group that meets once a month here in the DC area.  In the future, I hope to form more “franchise” discussion groups in other cities…oops, did I tip my master plan?  Leaving that for a moment, all of this means that we have the potential to get together and do something great.

I’m currently working on a bigger strategy for harnessing our community to fund podcasts, big and small, but here’s step one.  In the coming month or two, I’m going to populate a grid of podcasts to which you can subscribe.  I’ll share not only their name and paypal link, but also any perks of membership!  That’s right, some of the more established podcasts already offer a kind of second tier stream of premium content.  Now I know podcasts are based on that beautiful free model, but here is a metaphor that might make the transition to “freemium” go down a little smoother.

For years and years, people have blanched at high cable TV bills and complained about all of the useless channels they’re force to buy in a lump.  The alternative to this is called “a la carte TV,” where you can pick only the channels you want.  The big telecoms haven’t taken to this idea, as you can imagine, but fortunately, we can have that model with podcasts.  Almost all podcasts are free, but if you want to specialize and become a member of that podcast’s community, often getting great perks in the process, then you can buy a subscription.  Not only will that ensure you favorites stay around, but you can honestly claim that you’re a big part of making that podcast happen.

So what about these perks?  Well, The Drabblecast creates B-Sides episodes exclusively for listeners who subscribe.  StarShipSofa is working on similar perks for Sofanauts subscribers, granting access to all the old stories and producing new ones for subscribers.  The always scary NoSleep Podcast has added in a ton of premium stories on top of their already impressive free show, offering a season pass to get the frankly mind-boggling number of stories they produce each week.  These are excellent ideas: make MORE content and reward those specialized users who want to give more than a one-time thank you!  I’m generally against neutering a show or creating teasers, just to force people to the meaty content, but there’s no reason not to produce an even bigger show that will genuinely give people a sense of worth for their contributions.

So in that spirit, I’ve made a decision.  I’m frankly pretty strapped for cash at the moment, but I’ve decided to unsubscribe from Netflix, which is about 8 bucks a month, and put that money toward a Drabblecast B-sides subscription.  I listen to Norm Sherman’s fabulous weird fiction podcast far more often than I stream episodes of Stargate SG-1, so he’s going to get that money instead ($10/month).  If you find you’re in the same situation, I hope you’ll sign up with your own favorite podcast.  I’ll let you know when I’ve put up the podcast subscription guide page so you can find the best place to plunk down your hard-earned dough.

Enough of my soapboxing for now, let’s get back to the fiction!

*Ongoing Fiction Podcasts You Should Know*

I want to mention two podcasts that don’t readily lend themselves to monthly feature here on Synthetic Voices, but deserve some publicity.

The first is Welcome to Night Vale.  It’s a rather dry public radio station, keeping you up on all of the goings-on in the desert community of Night Vale.  Maybe you want to hear the community calendar for the week.  It’s handy to know that Wednesday was cancelled.  And get the latest updates from the Sheriff’s Secret Police, who advise you to never enter the dog park, or even acknowledge its existence.

It’s a weird show to be sure, with Lovecraftian overtones and petty rivalries.  I have slowly been hooked as I have listened to more and more episodes.  One does not HAVE to catch up from the beginning, but I recommend it, as the show is only about a year old and has some real gems that you might otherwise miss.  Plus it’s ongoing, so you can expect more goodness from Night Vale Community Radio for at least a little longer…

The second ongoing series is The Secret World Chronicle.  It is a long-running series of superhero stories.  The narrator, Veronica Giguere, does an excellent job voicing each character, who can range from American to Russian to German to inhuman!  There is a dense web of characters and relationships, but the military action helps break up some of the more melodramatic episodes.

Occasionally I am caught off guard by the language of the characters…how many of them seem to talk like hipster college students one moment and then perform a precise tactical breach in the next.  Or how aggressively all of the characters abbreviate each others’ names, even if they’re only somewhat well acquainted.  That said, there is a serious comic book vibe throughout, so maybe that’s just part of the ambiance.  Some of Spider-Man’s dialogue could be down right silly at times…but you don’t hear me complaining to Stan Lee about that.

*Women Touched By Magic*
All 4 of these stories have leading ladies and a magical bent.

“Cassandra” by C.J. Cherryh
StarShipSofa Ep. 307 (timecode 17:50)
~25 mins
— If you could see the future of the world around you, that would be pretty trippy, right?  What if that world was on the verge of a catastrophe?  You would essentially see that world destroyed before its time.  This is the plight of Crazy Alice, who can hardly stay sane among the future ruins of her town.  An interesting perspective piece for sure.

“The Witches of Athens” by Lara Elena Donnelly
Strange Horizons October Issue
~25 mins
— This is a charming little urban fantasy piece.  Two witches of opposite demeanor in opposite ends of town seek to unite two shy young men.  They must think creatively after a failed attempt and this leads to some personal development on the part of the witches.

“Emily 501″ by Tamara Hladik
The Journey Into… Podcast, Journey #80
~55 mins
— Another great Seeing Ear Theater find by the Journey Into… Podcast.  If you’re not familiar, Seeing Ear Theater was a short-lived project by the SciFi channel to bring radio dramas to the internet.  While the project ended, the stories live on and this one is superb.  Follow a female explorer as she investigates the subterranean dwelling of a long-dead civilization.  Something odd is going on with the sound in the caves.  In fact, maybe its having an effect on her too.  The audio effects in this story are excellent and add a lot to the ambiance of the piece.

“Right Turns” by Tim Pratt
PodCastle Ep. 283
~33 mins
— Would you buy a house…with a labyrinth in the basement?  Well you’re a speculative fiction reader, so probably, but even so, it’s quite an odd conundrum.  A married couple learn to live with an enigma beneath their feet for a little while, but eventually one of them decides to investigate.  I loved the mystery of the labyrinth and how well the author evokes “place magic,” that is, the magic of a place itself, beyond any monsters or artifacts contained within.

*Striking Out Into The Unknown*
These stories ask, “What’s out beyond the next hill? Beyond the next day? Beyond the next generation?”

“Bloody Mary” by Norman Partridge
Nightmare Magazine’s October Issue
~56 mins
— For some reason the few Halloween pieces I came across this month didn’t tickle my fancy, but here is one sure to get your heart thumping.  Many dark forces have been used to end the world in fiction before, but rarely is it Halloween itself.  In this story, Halloween occurred one night and then never let up, sending monsters from every lore after the general populus.  A young boy who has survived the worst of it finds himself confronted by a deadly female loner and must survive not only the monsters, but her lessons as well.  I don’t really know what to make of this story, especially the rather twisting-turning second act, but it stuck with me and I’m happy to feature it for the imaginative post-apocalyptic setting alone.

“Driven” by Alan V. Hare
Makeshift Stories Ep. 71
~28 mins
— A nice hallmark that you live in a dystopia is when you see the government putting senior citizens to work to earn their golden-years bread.  Here we meet a grumpy old man who has been tasked with testing out a new automated car.  Things don’t go as planned, however, as the machine intelligence goes beyond its built-in parameters.  Our protagonist can pull the plug any time, but will he?  Does he dare face the wrath of a dissatisfied, all-powerful government?
I should mention that this story too is from a podcast new to Synthetic Voices.  You can find out more about Makeshift Stories over at their website, makeshiftstories.com.  Most of the work appears to be the creation of one author, Alan V. Hare.

“Ghost Days” by Ken Liu
Lightspeed Magazine’s October Issue
~1 hr
— Here is an interesting look at three generations of young people on a cultural precipice.  The piece starts in the distant future in a world alien to our own.  A girl bred to live in the harsh conditions struggles to understand why past lives and peoples matter so much to her teachers.  Following the journey of an heirloom passed to her, we are taken to colonial China and a post-war America.  Each vignette expands the conflict between heritage and progress until we are once again whisked back to that alien planet, which itself shares a bit of history with our hybrid protagonist.  A complex story about complex topics.

“Possible Monsters” by Will McIntosh
StarShipSofa Ep. 309 (timecode 16:00)
~50 mins
— This story of altered perceptions is sure to stoke your imagination.  In a backwater town, a young man returns to his family home to find a bizarre monster living inside.  While it turns out to be rather docile, it bestows a gift upon him with unforeseen consequences.  He is forced to face down the would-be’s and could-have-beens of his life, along with the disappointment of his present existence.  It’s a strange little story, but I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Our closing quote for the week:
“Where there is no imagination, there is no horror.”  –Arthur Conan Doyle

*Credits*

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