Synthetic Voices #26 – January 2014 Top Picks

A shorter episode this month as we move to our new, shorter format.  Hopefully this will mean quicker turnarounds from one month to the next in the future. :-)


Right off the bat, a little something that I’m excited about…The Secret World Chronicle is back for another season!  I’ve discussed it before on the show, but essentially it’s a sprawling superhero universe where alliances are made and broken from season to season.  The writing is a little campy sometimes, but there is generally enough grit to help balance that out.  Also, the reading is done by Veronica Giguere, an excellent narrator you’ve probably heard elsewhere in the podcasted fiction world.  It’s Season 7 now, and I do recommend going back to the start, but if you’ve been balking at audiobook prices recently, the back catalog might be a blessing in disguise.

Our monthly podcast discussion will be on March 3rd! Here’s a link to the event on Facebook.  Also, check out our general info about the discussion

*Top Picks from January 2014*

“Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson
Clarkesworld Magazine’s January Issue
~62 mins
— Here is an epic story that reminds me a lot of Rapture of the Nerds (for which there is STILL no audiobook).  It’s the end of the world, and our female protagonist is swept up into a technological construct.  She explores artificial intelligence, post-singularity time dilation, and some of the unfathomable types of existence that live beyond our conception of the universe.  A beautiful story with a reasonably approachable character (not always so in this genre), and a grandeur that will leave you in awe.

“The Thing About Shapes to Come” by Adam-Troy Castro
Lightspeed Magazine’s January Issue
~47 mins
— Here is a bit of weird fiction if ever there was.  A girl finds herself in the increasingly common position of carrying a child to term and discovering it is little more than a solid polygon.  The feelings of the girl, and her parents, about the new child are interesting and we get a nice view of world events.  I do feel that the story lacks a little in the action department, and it might drag if it wasn’t such a bizarre tale.  Fortunately the very end is quite a head-turner, completing the circle of the plot.  I’d love to hear thoughts about this one in the comments…

“Ill Met In Ulthar” by T.A. Pratt (aka, Tim Pratt)
PodCastle Ep. 296
~55 mins
— This short story, a side tale from Pratt’s “Marla Mason” series of novels, follows a snarky, spell-slinging sorceress as she endeavors to free the mind of a delusional author.  She must battle his monsters and try to reach him before his madness escapes a magical asylum.  I enjoyed the dialogue and almost pulpy sensibilities in this one, but like some pulps, it never felt like Marla had much chance of losing the battle.  In fact, I’m not entirely sure there was really any conflict throughout the story.  Even so, if it’s fluff, it’s an enjoyable piece of fluff, so pick it up when you need an hour away from the world.

“Flash Bang Remember” by Caroline M. Yoachim and Tina Connolly
StarShipSofa Ep. 320
~42 mins (timecode 00:41:00)
— The term “vat-grown clone” gets thrown around a lot in science fiction, but rarely does a story spend as much time on the psychology of those clones as this one does.  Drilling down into the center of this trope, we find a young girl surrounded by the vat-grown.  All of them are adults, but few are very much older than she is.  They do have one major advantage over her: a flash-baked childhood.  In fact they all have the same childhood.  Now the pressure is on her to model a new childhood for the next generation and she’s feeling the strain.
I really enjoyed a lot of elements in this story.  The plot is surprising in most of its twists and turns, the characters are well-defined (unless they are intentionally two-dimensional), and the details of the place and culture are quite good.  It’s a well-rounded piece for lovers of deep-space adolescent drama.

“The Serial Killer’s Astronaut Daughter” by Damien Angelica Walters
Strange Horizons’ January Issue
~35 mins
— Many perverse situations have been dreamed up by authors over the years, so that characters may be set into them and watched as they squirm.  As already hinted by the spoiler-y title, our astronaut protagonist finds herself in a bit of an awkward situation when a death row inmate turns out to be her father. This story reminds me of “The Master Conjurer,” which was a Top Pick back in October.  In both, the hero finds his or herself in the center of a media typhoon that pounds relentlessly on their privacy and their sanity.  Now in “The Master Conjurer,” the unhappy magician is hounded continuously by the press.  You would think our astronaut would have an easier time of it, being in space and all, but no – the author does a nice job conveying just how vexing low-res video feeds and an email account can be.  There were a lot of great ideas about identity floating around in this story and I am glad they came together into such a solid piece of literature.

“Sand Castles” by  Desirina Boskovich
PodCastle Ep. 294
~57 mins
— Ethereal stories about imaginary places often don’t get my gears whirring, but “Sand Castles” was just grounded enough for my want.  In it, we follow three young people as they embark on a bohemian road trip to find golden sands.  These aren’t merely the golden sands of a sexy Mexican beach, but sands washed in from a sunken city.  The implied mythos really appealed to me, and the characters had a peculiar whimsy that I found endearing.  I particularly enjoyed the foil of the piece, our protagonist’s former roommate, an artist with his head in the clouds.  I’m not sure how broadly this story will be received, but it stuck with me for a few days after, always a good sign.

*A Small Oversight…*

I’m not going to take up too much time with this, as I’m trying to shorten the podcast, not lengthen it, but I do want to mention something that I overlooked last month.  It appears that for whatever reason, I totally failed to consider two stories that I really enjoyed listening to on Lightspeed Magazine.  These were “Dead Fads” by Maureen F. McHugh and “Invisible Planets” by Hao Jingfang (translated by Ken Liu).  The former is about an art student who studies animated dead people.  The latter is a series of tall tales about bizarre planets.  Check them out if you need just a few more audio escapes this month.

*Our Featured Stories*

“The Ugly Chickens” by Howard Waldrop
Drabblecast Ep. 310
~1 hr 7 mins
— Some of you may know that I’m occasionally active with the Washington Science Fiction Association (WSFA).  If you’ve been to any of their Capclave events, that is, DC’s premier science fiction convention, then you may also know that their mascot is the dodo.  Well this story might well be their mascot as well, as it focuses on that bizarre, extinct, flightless bird.  Now personally I don’t think dodos are terribly interesting creatures, but I find the people who care about them very interesting.  People research them, hypothesize about them, and generally obsess.  Perhaps it’s because they’re so odd looking and we’re directly responsible for their eradication from the globe.
Anyway, this story comes out of that obsession, with a graduate student set on proving that dodos spent some time in the American South before they disappeared.  It was a Hugo finalist, too.  Check it out.

“This is a Warning” by M.J. Pack and “The Voice on the Radio” by Carlos Rivera 
NoSleep Podcast Season 3 Ep. 16
— NoSleep stories are tough to review on the show because they are very short, many are bunched together in one episode, and often, frankly, they can be pretty terrible.  Nothing against the podcast, it’s just that when you’re collecting community-driven content, sometimes you have an off week.  So I’m glad to be able to recommend this episode, which has two excellent stories.  “This is a Warning” is about a fear addiction and “The Voice on the Radio” is a predictable, but somehow still captivating story about a message from the past.  I hope you enjoy!

“Scanners Live in Vain” by Cordwainer Smith
The SFFaudio Podcast Ep. 249
~1 hr 36 mins
— Here is another story that stuck with me for days after the telling.  It’s a tale of pitiable cyborgs and their duties as captains for ships between the stars.  They must live without feelings, emotions, or even senses, returning to a human existence only once a month.  Now, a new advance may make them all obsolete.
The description of their society and the “pain of space” (some kind of cosmic horror associated with interstellar travel) is engaging.  It’s apparently part of a series of “Instrumentality” stories, so I’d be excited to hear more of those in the future.  There are more details, but once again, the SFFaudio team did an nice job rehashing the story in a subsequent episode.

 Our closing quote for the week:

“I find it satisfying and intellectually stimulating to work with the intensity, brevity, balance and word play of the short story.”  –Annie Proulx


2 thoughts on “Synthetic Voices #26 – January 2014 Top Picks

  1. Happy to see “Invisible Planets” by Hao Jingfang get a shout out because I loved that story…. If you can call it a story! Whatever it was, it was great.

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