Friday, September 27, 2019

The Alt-Hist File: The Moonlit Road



We're taking a walk down The Moonlit Road in this edition of The Alt-Hist File

Named after the Ambrose Bierce short story of the same name, The Moonlit Road has been going since 1997 and bringing some of the best ghost stories and folk tales from across the American South. It is produced in Stone Mountain, Georgia and is headed by Craig Dominey. Since many of these stories are based on folklore and urban legends chances are that you may have encountered them in one form or another at some point, but that certainly does not take away from how chilling and entertaining they can be. It certainly helps that The Moonlit Road features a wide variety of narrators who know how to bring these stories to life. It’s not about the basic plot, but rather, how well you tell the story that matters. The end of the stories often include links to their history and inspirations.

Next to R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series and Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy, The Moonlit Road was always my go-to place for chills and thrills. Also, if you’re going to checkout their website you might want to make sure you have flash so you can see the site in its full glory. Though I’ve gotten older I, and listeners of all ages, still find so much to enjoy from this podcast. There are also plenty of great text-only stories, but since this is The Alt-Hist File we’ll focus on those with an audio adaptation. Also, because of the short and uncomplicated nature of these stories, expect the reviews for this post to be a tad shorter than usual.

For now, however, let's take a walk down The Moonlit Road...

Sop Doll by Craig Dominey
Narrated by Jim McAmis

This story is set in Mississippi during the Great Depression. It follows an adventurous man named Jack who comes to Abel, Mississippi in search of some temporary work. He soon come to suspect, however, that his new employer's wife might secretly be a witch.

You don't really see that many stories set in the American South during the Great Depression, so this was a nice change of pace. I should probably add at this point that due to the short and uncomplicated nature of these stories, my reviews will likewise be on the shorter side. I thought that Jim did a great job with the narration. Also, if you're wondering what a Sop Doll is...you might be disappointed because we never really get an explanation.

On the whole, however, a very good story that's well worth your time.

Green Eyes by Craig Dominey
Narrated by John Gentile

This story follows a young man from Tennessee driving to see his girlfriend in Georgia. He decided to take a shortcut through the historic Chickamauga Battlefield. Along the way he encounters a creature with piercing green eyes that grants him a vision of the infamous battle.

The Civil War was a major turning point for the United States. It was the first industrialized war and it killed about two percent of the overall population. Even today we still feel the influence of its echoes. This story did a really great job of capturing the emotional impact of the war. Also, apparently the green eyed monster in the story is based on actual sightings that have occurred at Chickamauga. Personally, I don't put much stock in such stories, but there you go.

I do, however, find that John's narration was spot on. A haunting tale about the echoes of history that I happily recommend.

The Sausage Ghost by Craig Dominey
Narrated by Kodac Harrison

This story is set in 19th century New Orleans and follows a German couple who run a sausage shop. After their marriage begins to fall apart the husband murders his wife and grinds her up into sausages, but how long will he get away with it?

This story is based off of a sensational crime that may have actually happened, minus the supernatural bits. To me that almost makes it a tad more horrifying. Most of us don't really think too much about where our food comes from, or what might be lurking inside it. On the other hand, similar stories have popped up in folklore before, so maybe it didn't happen. If nothing else this story might put you off of sausage for a while. I did enjoy that the story featured an immigrant couple; after all, New Orleans is a very cosmopolitan city with a long history of welcoming immigrants from throughout the world.

One thing that's sure not to leave a bad taste in your mouth is Kodac's narration. Another morsel of a story that I recommend.

A Beloved Teacher by Craig Dominey and Curtis Richardson
Narrated by Curtis Richardson

This story is set in the 19th century and follows a schoolteacher from Ohio who moves to Georgia to tutor a wealthy plantation owner's children. Along the way she befriends a slave boy named Joshua. There's a bit more to it than just that, but I can't tell you without giving the story away.

Well this story is really sad, heartwarming and touching. It was also adapted into a short film by the students of Dodge County High School in Eastman, Georgia. It is an excellent little film and you can find it at the bottom of this story's page on The Moonlit Road's website. Curtis did a good job capturing the emotions of this story.

It's a touching story that you won't want to miss out on.

Narrated by Veronica Byrd

This story is allegedly based on something that really happened, though the supernatural bits are up for debate. Then again, so are the non-supernatural parts, as no historical evidence supports them. It tells of a slave girl named Chloe who tried to temporarily poison her master's family in revenge for chopping her ear off. Unfortunately, things didn't quite go as planned. Some even believe that their unhappy spirits still haunt the old plantation.

Like I said, this story is supposedly based on actual event and you can visit the plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana if you're so inclined. If you want my advice, however, you really ought to go for the history rather than for the haunts. If nothing else this was an interesting little ghost story, even if you ought to take it with a few gains of salt. Considering the harshness of slave life, I can't say I blame Chloe for what she did. Veronica Byrd is, without competition, my favorite narrator from The Moonlit Road. She always knows how to bring the stories to life.

A historical haunt that, all things considered, I'll give a recommendation.

One More Room by Craig Dominey
Narrated by Jim McAmis

This story follows a Hollywood location scout named Jack who has come to Atlanta. While looking for a location for an upcoming film set in the 1940s he comes across the Hotel Scofield. Soon, Jack finds himself transported back in time to 1946, but is it all as innocent as it seems?

This story is a variation on the burned building legend. That's the one where the protagonist goes to a building, has a good time, but then returns only to learn that the building actually burned down long ago. Like I said before, it's not how many times the legend has been told, but rather, how you tell it. In this case, the story manages to provide a fresh take on a familiar tale. It it very much helped by Jim's great narration.

A new twist on a familiar tale and one you won't want to miss.

Lorenzo's Curse by Craig Dominey
Narrated by Lanny Gilbert

This story is set in the 19th century and follows a traveling preacher from Connecticut who brings a curse to a small Georgia town. Not much of a summary, but it is on the shorter side.

I found this story had a bit of unintentional humorous irony. We've got a firebrand preacher from New England whose message gets scoffed at by the residents of a small town in the Deep South. Quite the opposite of what you might expect these days. I guess it just goes to show the shift of social mores and attitudes in America. I thought Lanny really captured the feel of a traveling minister with his narration.

Another story that I readily recommend to you.

Hell Hole by Craig Dominey
Narrated by John Gentile

This story follows a Civil War relic hunter from Virginia who has come to New Hope, Georgia. The town is home to a major battlefield from Sherman's March to the Sea, and that should mean plenty of quality artifacts. Let's just say he gets far more than he bargained for.

Yes, this one is similar to Green Eyes, but it really stands on its own merits. Once again, John does an excellent job with the narration. Civil War battlefields and sites dot the South. The war and its impacts have long colored how Southerners approach the world. The shadow of history looms large, and even today Southerners struggle with reconciling that history. Just a little something to muse on.

Another great Civil War themed story that I happily recommend.

Ibo Landing by Craig Dominey
Narrated by Evelyn McCray.

This story follows Oba, the chief of a village of Ibo people. Life is good as Oba and his people receive guidance from their spirits. Then one day the village is captured by slave traders. Can Oba find a way to lead his people to freedom in the strange land of America?

Believe it or not this story is based on a slave uprising that actually happened, though certain details are still debated. The central message to this story is that you must persevere and stay strong even when times are tough. Evelyn not only did an excellent job narrating the story, but she also did a really great job singing an old slave spiritual towards the end.

It's a story about trials and defiance, and one you won't want to miss.

The Maco Light by Jim McAmis and Craig Dominey
Narrated by Jim McAmis

This story tells of a 19th century conductor named Joe Baldwin. It is said that he still haunts the rails of where he was tragically killed in a train accident in the town of Maco, North Carolina.

This story dates back to 1867 and is so famous that it was once featured in Life Magazine. Yeah, it's another haunting that's claimed to be true, but if nothing else it makes for a pretty good historical ghost story. As usual, Jim does an excellent job with the narration.  

Another story of a historical haunting that I recommend to you.

The Hall of Wonders by Thomas E. Fuller
Narrated by Thomas E. Fuller

This story takes place in 1867 in Charleston, South Carolina. An apothecary from the North named Dr. Rembrandt Cavanagh has arrived in Charleston to make a quick buck. One day he unveils his latest scheme: a public aquarium. Dr. Cavanagh has captured a mermaid as the aquarium's star attraction, but what are the consequences of his actions?

The audio version of this story was produced as part of a live production for Spoken Word, a radio program in Atlanta, Georgia. Live shows are always a bit hit and miss, but I thought that Thomas, and all the narrators for that matter, did a really great job. 

This story is a fun little creature feature that I think everyone, especially lovers of zoos and aquariums, such as myself, will enjoy. Thomas Fuller was another of those really top notch narrators from The Moonlit Road. I say "was" because he passed away in 2002. He was a beloved narrator who will be dearly missed. Still, let's not feel sad, but take joy in honoring the legacy of stories, such as this one, that he left us with.

It's a fun little creature feature that I very gladly recommend to you.

No Greater Love by Craig Dominey
Narrated by Jim McAmis

This story is set in Kentucky in 1935. It follows a miner named Henry Jacobs who has been trying to deal with his drinking problem. One day he gets lost in the mine while trying to sneak off to buy whiskey, but a gentle white light helps guide him home.

Doesn't sound like much, I know, but I wouldn't want to give the story away. This is another really touching and somewhat heartwarming story. If there's a message to this story it's that forgiveness and love can come even when you least expect them. Once again Jim handled the narration quite well. Not much more to add here.

A story about love and coal mines and one which I recommend.

The Town Without Death by Craig Dominey

Narrated by Lanny Gilbert

This story is set in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky and follows a widower named Sam who has recently moved to the town of Burning Creek. The townsfolk seem nice enough, and the restaurants serve delicious food, but something about the town troubles Sam. There are no cemeteries in Burning Creek, and there’s something just a tad familiar about the meat they serve for dinner.

Depending on how you look at it, Kentucky is either the Northernmost Southern state or the Southernmost Northern state. In any event, if it’s good enough for The Moonlit Road it’s good enough for me. Small remote little towns are some of the best settings for horror. All sorts of things can go down in the remote wilderness. Also, besides the longpork pies, there are some supernatural elements to this story, but I wouldn’t want to spoil that for you. Though I will say, even with what the meat turns out to be, this story always makes me feel hungry for some reason. Lanny really knows how to bring the story to life with his narration.

A delectable tale that’s sure to leave you hungry for more. Give it a taste. 

Wait Til Jessie Comes by Craig Dominey
Narrated by LaDoris Davis

This story follows a traveling salesman in rural Mississippi who has taken refuge in an old abandoned home during a storm. Each time he wakes up he sees a new cat, each bigger than the last, and they’re all waiting for someone named Jessie to come.

This story has appeared in a few other forms over the years. The one I remember the most is “Wait Til Martin Comes” from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. On the whole I’d say this is a pretty good adaptation of the story. LaDoris does a pretty good job with the narration, but personally I’m still partial to George S. Irving’s narration from the Scary Stories audiobook. That’s just my view, though, if this is your first time with this story you might find you like it better.

A familiar story that I nonetheless recommend.

The Click-Bok Tree by Lester Thomas
Narrated by Lester Thomas

This story follows the children of an African king who have been sold into slavery. Before the king was killed by slavers, he gave his oldest son a seed from a click-bok tree. The click-bok trees are magical and have protected their family in the past, and it will continue to do so in the strange land of Alabama.

This story really felt like it came straight out of folklore. It’s really nice to see a story where slaves get revenge on their masters. The page for this story includes some really cute little drawings to go along with it. This is another story that can be enjoyed by all ages. As for narration, Lester does a really great job bringing the story to life.

A tale about slavery and freedom with a magical twist. I happily recommend it. 

Mississippi Rose by LaDoris Davis and Craig Dominey
Narrated by LaDoris Davis

This story follows a young man named Joshua who has moved to rural Mississippi to help his grandfather on the farm. While driving a load of hay to a neighbor late at night he comes across a pretty girl named Rose. As you may have guessed, there’s more to her than meets the eye.

As you might have figured out, this story is a variant on the Vanishing Hitchhiker legend. Like I’ve said before, it’s not how many times the story has been told, but rather how it’s told. In this case, LaDoris provides a great narration to really make the story memorable. The story also has a slightly more humorous take on the legend than most retellings.

A humorous take on a familiar legend. Well worth your time.

Tsali by Craig Dominey
Narrated by Jim McAmis

This story takes place in North Carolina in 1838. It follows a Cherokee chief named Tsali. The Indian Removal Act has just passed, and he and his people face an uncertain future.

Yeah, not the best description, but a good story nonetheless. This is more of a historical fiction story up until the very end. The American Southeast used to have a fairly large Native American population prior to the Indian Removal Act. You do get to learn a bit about the Cherokee in this story. It is nice to see a story from a people who so often get left out of the storytelling of the American South.

Once again, Jim does a great job with the narration. A different sort of story, but one that I happily recommend. 


Narrated by Otis Jiry 

We'll end the list with a story that hasn't yet had an audio adaptation, but I feel it deserves a spot on the list. In 1840s Shreveport, Louisiana there lives a misfit named Irwin Tarheel. He's never really fit in, but one day when he's out fishing he encounters some fair folks who change his life forever.

Out of all the stories on The Moonlit Road this is my absolute favorite...mostly because I'm the one who wrote it. I can't really review this one objectively, but I can let you in on my thought process. I'd wanted to write a story for The Moonlit Road for a while, so I reviewed some folktales and legends. I noticed how the Japanese legend of Urushima Taro had several parallels to the stories involving the Fair Folk, so I decided adapt it to an American Southern setting. Plus, I'd been wanting to write a story about fairies that were closer to the original mythological versions for a while. Considering that I got published, I'd say it work out pretty well, and I figured it was a pretty good note to end the list and year on.

Do I really need to recommend this one?

Golem of the Gullah by Sam McDonald
Narration N/A

This story follows a rabbi from Charleston, South Carolina named Rabbi Moses. He was mugged by a highwayman and left for dead, but thankfully he is found by a secretive Gullah community. Rabbi Moses makes a golem as thanks for the villagers nursing him back to health. Hopefully it will help with the work around the village. They're going to need the golem more than ever when a band of slave hunters find the village.

Yeah, this is another of my stories, so I can't really review it objectively. This is, obviously, a variation on the legend of the Golem of Prague. It is one of my favorite folktales. It is a story that lends itself quite well to adaptation. In fact, the very first version I ever read was set in the Roman Empire. I've also always been fascinated with the Gullah people, so I suppose it was only natural that they'd factor into the story. I only regret that I didn't catch the typos before I submitted it.

Well, not much more to say on this one. Check it out for yourself.

Conclusion

And so we conclude our walk down The Moonlit Road for now. I've been noticing The Moonlit Road showing up more and more in articles and lists about great horror podcasts, and great podcasts in general. I've notice that this happened after I started writing about how great they are. Did I do that? If so, that's awesome. either way, The Moonlit Road certainly deserves more recognition for all the years of hard work and dedication they've done to bring us the best stories the American South has to offer. Here's to even more great stories to come in the future.

Well, I think that does it for now. I will see you guys next time.  

Monday, September 16, 2019

The Audio File: Settling the Final Frontier


Space: the final frontier. Those are the immortal words which began the original Star Trek, a show that was famously pitched as a wagon train to the stars. The concept of the frontier has played a big role in science fiction for many years. After all, are tales of rugged mean taming the Wild West really so different from stories of settlements being established on other worlds? To be sure, the outward trappings are different. On the whole, however, I think that science fiction stories of space colonization have more in common with Westerns than at first glance. Let’s just hold that thought for a moment, shall we?


Alright, that’s all well and good, but what’s it got to do with The Audio File? Well, as you may have guessed, our theme for this post is space colonization. There’s not much more to add to the pre-show spiel, so let’s get on to the Podcast Role-Call. The stories featured today are brought to us thanks to the good and hardworking people of Escape PodCast of WondersThe DrabblecastLightspeed Magazine and Clarkesworld Magazine The Journey into Podcast, and The Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine.

Now, saddle up because it’s story time…

Escape Pod


The Shoulders of Giants” by Robert J. Sawyer
Narrated by Serah Eley
Originally Published in Star Colonies and collected in Iterations and Other Stories

This story follows a group of intrepid pioneers who have set out to colonize the planet Soror in the Tau Ceti system. Two small scale nuclear wars have occurred on Earth, so it was decided that having at least a few humans in space would be for the best. The crew has just awakened from cryosleep, but it turns out someone has already made it to Soror: their fellow humans! How will the would-be colonists react to this discovery?

Okay, the description isn’t much, but I promise that it is well worth your time. This story is a good example of the lightspeed leapfrog trope. It is certainly a concern when you send out generation and sleeper ships. After all, the technology of the ship stays the same, but technology on Earth continues to advance. That is, assuming some calamity doesn’t befall Earth. Still though, somebody’s got to get the ball rolling so that those future advancements can be made.

That, more than anything else, is the central theme of this story. The pioneers may have failed in their initial mission, but because they dared to try it made the actual colonization of Soror possible. The title of this story is a reference to that famous Stephen Hawking quote: “If I see further it is because I am standing on the shoulders of giants.” I won’t give the ending away, but I will say that space is a very big place. There’s always somewhere new to discover and/or colonize.

Now for a brief note on narration. Back when this episode premiered Serah Eley was still known as Steve Eley. Overall, I’d say that Mrs. Eley did a good job with the narration and bringing the story to life. Though whenever humans from Soror spoke it was a little unintentionally funny because they kind of sounded like Hermes from Futurama.

“The Shoulders of Giants” is a story that really captures the pioneering spirit of humanity. It is more than worth your time, so give it a listen.

Three-Quarters Martian” by C.J. Hodges
Narrated by Mur Lafferty 
Originally Published in On the Premises

This story follows a group of astronauts who are setting up a colony on Mars. Unfortunately, a planet-wide civil war has broken out on Earth. It’s been quite a while since they last received a resupply package from Earth. The astronauts are scraping the bottom of the barrel and are faced with a difficult question: do they want to die on Mars or Earth?

Again, the description doesn’t do much, but I promise you this story is worth your time. I kind of get the feeling that this story is how The Martian would have turned out if Andy Weir had been feeling extremely cynical. One of the things that caught my attention was just how blasé the astronauts were every time a new disaster or setback occurred. Then again, considering just how many things had gone wrong, maybe it just didn’t faze them anymore. The central theme of this story seems to be that perhaps we ought to get our own house in order before we go setting other worlds.

In terms of narration, I think that Mur did a good job. The way she gave the characters a detached cadence to their speech really fit the story.

“Three-Quarters Martian” is a cautionary tale about the perils of settling the frontier. It’s also a story I happily recommend.

Red Dust and Dancing Horses” by Beth Cato
Narrated by Marguerite Kenner
An Escape Pod Original

This story is set on a partially terraformed Mars and follows a girl named Nara. She’s obsessed with old Westerns, especially with regards to horses like Trigger and Silver. Unfortunately, there are no horses on Mars. As luck would have it, however, her class has been assigned to write reports on items from Earth. The Corcoran Museum, founded by one of the benefactors of the colony, has just opened its doors. It contains many items from the Old West, including the skin of Trigger himself. Could this be the opportunity that Nara has been waiting for?

When I listened to this story I was reminded of a historical reenactment of the Pilgrims I’d once seen. I remember one of the women talking about all of the little things she missed about England, such as the sound of church bells ringing, and how her children were growing up not knowing of those things. I wonder what it will be like when we set up colonies on other worlds. What seemingly insignificant things will our descendants lack personal knowledge of?

Now, for those of you wondering why Nara couldn’t just take a vacation to Earth, it is mentioned she flunked a psychological readiness test. Though personally, I would have thought that the bigger problem would be that Earth has three times the gravity that Mars does. There’s some nice foreshadowing towards the beginning of the story about Nara’s dad building robots and weevils thriving on Mars.

It is always a pleasure to hear Marguerite Kenner narrating a story. “Red Dust and Dancing Horses” is a fun little story that you won’t want to miss out on.

Contamination” by Jay Werkheiser
Narrated by Dave Thompson 
Originally Published in Analog

This story takes place in orbit above the planet Nouvelle Terre in the Alpha Centauri system. It follows a young man named Ari. He’s studied Nouvelle Terre his whole life and longs to see it from the surface. Unfortunately, that would go against the wishes of the orbital colony leaders, who want to protect the planet’s native life forms from contamination. One day a shuttle arrives from Earth with the intention of setting up a colony on the surface of Nouvelle Terre. Worse, Ari’s ship is on a crash course with the shuttle. Can a solution be found in time?

One of the interesting aspects of this story, for me, was how the orbital colonies were founded. They were established by two women sent from Earth with a supply of frozen embryos. Believe it or not, that is actually a plan that has been proposed for interstellar colonization. Personally, I’m highly skeptical about how well it would work out in the real world. There are way too many things that could go wrong. Anyway, let’s get back to the review.

Inadvertently causing the extinction of alien life forms is a concern about space exploration we’ve had for quite some time. Humanity has certainly done quite a number on life forms here on Earth, just ask the dodo or the moa. At the same time, we might have to put these concerns aside if a calamity befalls Earth and we’re forced to find a new home among the stars. So I do appreciate that this story did show both sides of the debate.

Realistically, would contamination be a concern? Well, I’m not entirely sure. Remember, alien life is going to be subject to a different evolutionary history, and the lock and key mechanism of Earth microbes might not work. On the other hand, maybe life evolves along similar lines regardless of planets. Until we find multicellular life to compare to that of our own planet, we can only speculate.

Dave Thompson is another of those narrators I always enjoy hearing from. “Contamination” is a story that weighs the ethics of space colonization, and I one that I happily recommend.

Narrated by Stephanie Malia Morris
Originally Published in Mothership Zeta

This story takes place in the not too distant future. Black Americans have decided to secure the existence of their people and a future for black children. To this end, they establish an ethnostate on the Moon. Things go somewhat well until a group of white racist come to attack the black separatists. No matter who wins, we all loose.

Wow, just wow. What a disgustingly racist story. No, I'm serious. This story is basically say that blacks and whites can't live together and that we ought to stick to our own kind. It also advocates for black to create an ethnostate where they can be free of white people. Let's see, who else says that sort of thing? Oh, yeah, the Alt-Right and Neo-Nazis do! This story is basically admitting that those groups were right all along, even if it might not have planned to. And I though this was just going to be a fun blaxploitation parody.

It almost felt like, for lack of a better term, black propaganda. Black propaganda is where you pretend to be for position A, but you're really for position B, and are trying to make people who support position A look bad. It was like this story was written by a white supremacist who wanted to make black people look bad. Mur Lafferty claimed she found this story so fun she bought it twice. We must assume one of two things: either she leaned so far left that she looped around and accidentally became right-wing, or she's secretly a white supremacist. Yeah, I'm appalled at the politics of this story. Any person with an ounce of decency would be.

Look, you can put out a fire with fire, and you can't cure bigotry and hate with more bigotry and hate. If you would be appalled at this story if it was about white people creating a lunar ethnostate, then you should be equally appalled at a story about black people creating a lunar ethnostate.

"At the Village Vanguard (Ruminations on Blacktopia)" is one of the worst Escape Pod stories I've ever listened to. It is racist and disgusting, and should be avoided at all cost.

"The Hunger of Refugees" by Michael Glyde
Narrated by Joe Williams
An Escape Pod Original

This story follows a generation ship as it travel through the cosmos in search of a new home. That might not sound like much, but what really sells it is that way the story is told. It is told in the style of an epic poem, or a story from mythology.

Well, I just stated what my favorite part of this story is. I'm a lover of mythology, and I also love when stories evoke the mythological tradition in their style. People often say that we have no modern mythology,  it I'd argue that superheroes fill that role. Perhaps our descendants will be able to fashion stories from their pasts, and perhaps even our present, into a new mythical tradition.

Joe's narration perfectly fit the epic tone of the story. "The Hunger of Refugees" is a science fiction story with strong mythological roots. I say give it a try.

Lightspeed Magazine


Alive, Alive Oh” by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley
Narrated by Sile Bermingham 
2013 Nebula Award Nominee

This story takes place on the planet G851.5.32. Our protagonist is a woman who was part of a team who were tasked with terraforming the planet for ten years, after which time they could return to Earth. She and her husband thought it would be fun if their daughter was born on the planet. Unfortunately, a virus from the planet wreaked havoc on Earth, so G851.5.32 has been quarantined indefinitely. Is such an acidic planet really the best place to raise a child?

This is another of those stories about all those things space colonists might miss. Some of the most memorable scenes are the small moments. For example, the protagonist’s daughter Megan expresses surprise that the meals on Earth aren’t all pre-cooked, or that people can dig in the dirt without thick protective clothing. There’s also a constant theme of Megan’s need to rebel and find her own way despite the strict rules of colony life. Now, I’ve already gone over why it’s highly unlikely that a virus from the planet could affect humans on Earth. I’d also add that we never observe any native life more advanced than shellfish, so it doesn’t appear there would be any host organism for the virus to survive in.

Speaking of those shellfish, there’s one point where a character eats them and dies. I thought that meant they were parasites, but then I thought about how acidic the planet is repeatedly described as. Presumably, human stomach acid wouldn’t even put a scratch in creatures evolved for such a caustic world. In terms of narration, I thought that Sile did a pitch-perfect job.

“Alive, Alive Oh” is a story of youth and rebellion on an exosolar planet. I recommend it.

Velvet Fields” by Anne McCaffrey 
Narrated by Paul Boehmer 
Originally Published in Worlds of If and collected in The Girl Who Heard Dragons

This story takes place on the planet Zobranoirundisi. It is a lush and vibrant world where the living is easy and colonists don’t have a single care. That is, until scientists make a shocking discovery about the velvet fields the colonists use to graze their cattle.

Okay, there’s no way to talk about this story without spoiling the ending so I’ll give it to you straight. Those velvet fields weren’t just velvet fields. Turns out they’re the first stage in the development of the local sentient plant aliens, who are now maimed. To make amends for this the colonists maim themselves in turn.

Personally, I found this solution to be extremely draconian and rather nonsensical. Most, if not all, of the colonists had no idea that the velvet fields were sentient beings. You could make a case that maybe the scientists suspected that something was up, and chose not to act on it, but the colonists? The colonists, especially the children, were innocent bystanders just trying to go about their lives. It makes zero sense to punish them. Maybe McCaffrey was trying to show the future humanity has different morals, but I don’t buy it.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy this story, I really did. It’s just that perhaps it could have been written slightly better so that the morals weren’t so clunky. Now, in terms of narration I thought that Paul did an excellent job, as always.

“Velvet Fields” has morals that are a bit off kilter, but it’s still worth your time.

Breakaway, Backdown” by James Patrick Kelly 
Narrated by Gabrielle DeCuir
Originally Published in Asimov’s

This story follows a woman named Cleo as she tries to get the heel of her shoe repaired. She regales the clerk, Jane, with tales of her time as a temporary worker on the space station Victor Foxtrot.

I`m pretty sure you know the drill for descriptions like this by now. I liked how this story focused on the less than glamorous side of space colonization. There’s a lot of work to be done on the space station. Not just the work Cleo was there to do, but also the constant exercise needed to prevent bone and muscle loss. We also get some fairly detailed descriptions about what happens to the human body when you spend too much time in zero-g. It is mentioned that centrifuge wheels are only available on the stations used by tourists due to being too expensive. I can sort of buy that, but you’d think that their benefits would potentially offset the cost of production.

There seems to be a theme that, even though the stations represent freedom and breaking free, maybe the grass isn’t so green on the other side. The writing style was really enjoyable. Technically, Cleo and Jane are having a conversation, but we never hear Jane speak. We only hear Cleo’s responses, and I did enjoy her catty dialogue. Speaking of dialogue, I thought that Gabrielle did a pitch perfect job with the narration.

I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention the excellent adaptation this story received from Seeing Ear Theater, a sadly now defunct audio fiction production from The Sci-Fi Channel. Have no fear, their shows are archived

“Breakaway, Backdown” is a story that examines the less than idealistic side of space colonization. I very much recommend it.

"On the Shores of Ligeia" by Carolyn Ives Gilman
Narrated by Stefan Rudnicki
Originally Published in Future Affairs Administration

This story follows a man named Seth Calder. He is working for the European Space Agency with a probe that lets him explore Saturn's moon Titan using VR technology. Lately, however, he's been noticing some strange flying objects zipping around. Could somebody else have started a mission to Titan?

This story was annoying on multiple levels. First of all, the authors seems to be appealed at the notion that being physically fit is a requirement for space travel. Let's just ignore that basically everything in space is out to kill you, and that being in top shape is a must for survival. She has stated that this story was meant to be a rebuttal of the gung-ho stories of pulp science fiction. However, given how whinny, pedantic and generally self-center this story was, it made the pulps look fantastic by comparison.

Carolyn Ives Gilman says she wants to live in a world where we can explore space, but then come home and eat curry chicken and watch television and stuff. In essence, she wants not the square-jawed men of action of yesteryear, but a new breed of science fiction protagonist. Ones who are fat, lazy and have not sense of wanderlust or adventure. In other words, she demands to see herself reflected at all times.

Oh, but that's not the worst of it. Apparently, those flying probes were made by China. They're giving real-time video feed of Titan that can be experience in VR by anyone in the world. And you can tag stuff for the probes to get a closer look at. The story celebrates how space exploration has been democratized by China, and nobody gives a damn about America's manned mission to Mars. Yeah, one of the biggest human-rights violators of the 20th and 21st century has democratized something. I know this was for a writer's workshop sponsored by the Chiense government, but that is just pathetic in how blatantly tankie it is.

Also, I serious doubt people would care more about VR than a manned mission. VR might be fun, but it isn't really. You aren't actually going anywhere, not that Carolyn Ives Gilman seems to care. Not even Stefan's narration could save this dumpster fire.

"On the Shores of Ligeia" gets two thumbs way down. Don't waste your time with this one.

Cast of Wonders


The Middle Rages” by Joseph L. Kellogg
Narrated by John Cmar
Cast of Wonders Original

This story is set aboard a generation ship and follows three teenagers named Bendrick, Jillian and Cale. They have formed their own rock band and are going through a bit of an existential crisis. They are fully aware that their entire lives will be spent aboard the ship, but what will their legacy be? The ship is about to fly close to a star for a gravitational boost, and there is a big gala to mark the occasion. Perhaps the occasion also calls for a little old fashioned rock and roll.

When it comes to generation ships, it sucks to be stuck in the middle. Everyone will remember the crew who launched the ship and the crew who landed the ship, but the ones in the middle? Yeah, usually not so much. The middle crew also have the psychological dilemma of knowing that they’re going to be spending their entire lives in a tin can. How do you cope with that sort of knowledge? That, of course, is the heart of this story. It certainly makes for some heavy themes, but overall the story is actually fairly lighthearted.

In terms of narration, I thought that John did an excellent job bringing the story to life. “The Middle Rages” is a story about finding meaning in life on a generation ship. I recommend it.

Amicae Aeternum” by Ellen Klages
Narrated by Rikki LaCoste, Isis LaCoste and Fiona Van Verth
Cast of Wonders Original

This story follows two young girls named Corry and Anna. Corry and her family have been selected to be part of the crew of a generation ship that will be launching soon. She and Anna are spending one of their last days together experiencing as many Earth things as possible.

Yes, the description sucks, but the story is worthy of your time. This story, where do I even begin? There is tragedy in that Corry is so young, has so much to experience, but is being denied the wonders of Earth because of a choice that her parents made. Yet despite that, even though the time she has to spend with Anna is short, there is beauty and there is love in all the small moments they share together. This story is almost like a more extreme version of having a friend who moves far away from you. I remember the day I listened to this story. I had some other stories to listen to, but then I listened to this story. It was so beautiful, so touching, so perfect that I didn’t think anything else could top it.

All three narrators did an excellent job, and I especially liked the little song that Isis and Fiona sang. I think that we can expect great narration from both of them in the future. Oh yes, great narrations indeed.

“Amicae Aeternum” is a touchingly beautiful story that you won’t want to miss. Very much recommended.

"Ana's Asteroid" by M.K. Hutchins
Narrated by Alethea Kontis
A Cast of Wonders Original

This story follows a girl named Ana. She lives on a mining colony in the asteroid belt. It isn't the most successfully of colonies, and it always seems like they're on the verge of getting shut down, but hey, its her home. One of the main drills, which is also the colony's main oxygen generator, has broken down. The shaft leading to the drill is quite small, but Ana can fit easily enough. The fate of the colony is in her hands now.

This story felt like an modern day updated version of those kid's stories Robert Heinlein wrote. At one point, Ana's parents are hesitant to let her go, on the grounds that she might get killed. I mean, I know it's different when it's your kid and all, but still. If she hadn't gone then the entire colony would have been killed. Given the alternative, why the hell not? Granted, they do eventually relent. I'm not sure what else I have to say. It is a very fun story about a working class heroine in the asteroid belt. Though you might want to skip the host segment at the end, it gets a bit preachy and doesn't add anything to the experience.

Oh, I know what else I can say. I can say that I enjoyed Alethea's narration. "Ana's Asteroid" is a fun Heinleinian inspired story about rising to the occasion. I happily recommend it.

Clarkesworld Magazine


Across the Terminator” by David Tallerman
Narrated by Kate Baker

This story is set at an American research base on the Moon. A severely underfunded research base. The scientists at the base have stumbled across what appears to be lunar planet life, but they’re severely strained for resources. As a result, they do the unthinkable: ask the nearby Chinese research base for help. Hank, one of the Americans, soon finds himself falling in love with a Chinese scientist named Liang Lei. Unfortunately, tensions between Washington and Beijing are beginning to flare up. Will all their hard work be for naught?

This story was almost depressingly realistic. It’s seems that a new Space Race occurred between America and China, but that once they’d planted their flags and left footprints, they more or less stopped caring about lunar exploration. Sad thing is, that’s a pretty accurate description of the original Space Race. NASA received the budget for the Apollo mission not so much out of a sense of scientific exploration, but more because the military wanted to know if they could put some nukes up there. Well, that and it wouldn’t do to have a Soviet flag flying on the Moon.

There are so many amazing things that we could discover, and yet it could all be snatched away with little more than the stroke of a politician’s pen. Yet perhaps there is a glimmer of hope after all. The two teams of scientists seemed to get along fairly well together. Perhaps this story isn’t the end, but merely a dream deferred. Though there’s also the question of how long that dream will be deferred. Then there’s the tragedy of how Hank and Liang Lei’s relationship was sacrificed as a result of the political maneuverings. All of it really makes you ask, what could have been? Not just for this story, but for our own history.

What can I say? “Across the Terminator” is tragic, touching and sure to make you think for days to come. Do I even need to say that I recommend this one?

The Urashima Effect” by E. Lily Yu
Narrated by Kate Baker
2014 Theodore Sturgeon Award Finalist

This story follows an astronaut named Leo Aoki who is en-route to the planet Ryugu-jo on a relativistic spaceship. He is tasked with setting up a colony, and will be joined by his wife Esther a few years later. While Leo journeys towards Ryugu-jo he watches video recordings Esther has made for him about Japanese culture and folklore. The first tells the story of Urashima Taro, but it seems that Esther is hinting at something. What could it be?

This story was the first time I ever heard the story of Urashima Taro. It was great to learn more about Japanese folklore. So good was it, in fact, that it inspired me to create my own retelling of Urashima Taro: “Irwin Tarheel and the Fair Folk“. Now it’s pretty much impossible to discuss this story without spoiling the twist, so I’m going to have to do it here. Skip now if you don’t like spoilers.

Okay, people who don’t like spoilers gone? Good, let’s talk about the twist. It turns out that a cyber-attack has been launched on the United States, and is believed to have originated in Japan. Prejudice against Japanese-Americans reaches new heights, and there’s talk of bringing back the internment camps. Esther’s mission has been canceled, but Leo can use the ship’s escape pod, but Esther will be an old woman by the time he gets to Earth. He can, of course, continue the mission and hope that things get worked out.

We never do find out what Leo chooses. Normally, I’m not a big fan of stories with ambiguous endings, but it works out here. Personally, I think he kept going to Ryugu-jo. It is mentioned that the mission was his dream for many years. The story’s dilemma almost brings to mind a non-lethal version of “The Cold Equations”, but I like to think that Esther’s mission eventually gets back on the books. Call me a wide-eyed idealist, but I like happy endings. I do find it odd that it only took one cyber-attack, of questionable origin, to strain relations between America and Japan. That having been said, I can understand that it served a purpose within the story.

This story packs some really strong emotions, and Kate’s narration manages to capture them all. “The Urashima Effect” is a beautifully elegant story with quite an emotional punch. It goes without saying that I recommend it.

"Mercurial" by Kim Stanley Robinson
Narrated by Kate Baker
Originally Published in Universe 15

This story takes place on Mercury in a future where humanity has colonized the solar system. The mobile city of Terminator constantly moves across Mercury to stay out of the sun. The story follows the great detective Freya on her latest murder mystery case.

This story is very much a futuristic science fiction Sherlock Holmes sort of tale. So it is a somewhat fun story. What really caught my attention, however, were all of the worldbuilding details that often factored into the case. For example, as I've stated, Terminator moves across Mercury on a series of train tracks. This is to keep it on the night side of Mercury. The heat of day is too intense given how close Mercury is to the sun. The worldbuilding is good and all, but I'm not sure if the actual story completely hooked me. It wasn't bad enough for a thumbs down, but not quite good enough for a thumbs up.

I'll leave it from you guys to see for yourselves what you think of "Mercurial."

"Martian Heart" by John Barnes
Narrated by Kate Baker
Originally Published in Life on Mars

This story is told by a man reminiscing about is time on a Martian mining colony with his now deceased wife Sam.

Not much of a summary, but the actual story is excellent. More likely than not, the real driver for space colonization will be the extraction of mineral resources. Not just for shipping back to Earth, but for supporting our colonies as well. I liked how this story felt like a western that had been transported to Mars. You get that sort of cynical, melancholy feeling you find in most post-1960 westerns. Space is a cold, uncaring and uncompromising place. This story very much emphasizes that point. It's always a bit award when I encounter a female character named Sam. This is more of a just me thing, so I won't hold it against this story.

"Martian Heart" is a well-written science fiction western that you won't to miss out on. I recommend it.

The Drabblecast


The Four Generations of Chang E” by Zen Cho
Narrated by Amy H. Sturgis, Ibba Armancas, Veronica Giguere and Serah Eley 
Drabblecast Original

This story is set on the Moon and follows four generations of women all named Chang E. Some sort of catastrophe has occurred on Earth and there has been mass immigration to the Moon. In addition to hard times, the Earthlings face discrimination from the people of the Moon. The story follows the four Chang Es as they find their place in Lunar society and forge their own identities.

You know the drill for descriptions like this, so let’s go ahead and discuss the story itself. In many ways you can see this as a science fiction take on a generational saga/immigrant story. Particularly, that of Chinese immigrants moving to America. That is fitting, given that the moon goddess in Chinese Mythology is named Chang’e. I also liked how there were intelligent rabbits on the Moon; a reference to the story of the rabbit in the Moon. There is a theme of the Chang Es wanting to fit in with the people of the Moon, but also wanting to preserve their heritage. Yet paradoxically, the more they fit in with Lunar society, the less they relate to their Terran heritage. Like I said, it is very much an immigrant’s tale.

All four of the narrators did an excellent job with this story. I’m giving this one a recommendation.

The Journey into Podcast


"Respite" by Autumn Rachel Dryden
A Full Cast Production

This story follows a pair of pioneers named Anne and Edward. They're part of a group of intrepid pioneers on a distant planet. These pioneers has chosen to forsake most technology to live as their ancestors did during America's pioneer days. Anne and Edward are doing their best to find shelter and keep ahead of the scupshells, a type of ravenous insect aliens.

This story certainly had the feel of a western to it. Though I suppose that was partially because the colonists were deliberately trying to evoke the Old West. Anne and Edward don't have the happiest of relationships. A life of hard work and constantly keeping ahead of the scupshells, especially during their mating season, would certainly strain even the strongest of relationship. Still, they manage to appreciate each other. Edward is a bit indecisive and not the strongest willed, but he learns to be strong when it counts. Likewise, Anne has become hardened by years on the frontier, but she softens up towards the end of the story. I thought that everyone in the cast did a good job.

"Respite" is a tale of rugged pioneers on an alien world. I say give it a try.

The Dunesteef


"Ass-Hat Magic Spider" by Scott Westerfeld
Narrated by Rish Outfield and Big Anklevich

This story follows a young man who is going to be a passenger on a colonization starship bound for another star system. The weight is everything, and how much the colonists weigh determines how many, and much, objects from home they can take with them on the voyage. He is doing everything he can to ensure he can take at least on intact book with him.

Yes, this really is the name of the story. This story presents the classic rocket problem. A bigger rocket requires more fuel, but to transport more fuel you need a bigger rocket. This limits how far you can get with chemical rockets, and it also means that very gram of matter counts. Some of the other colonist try to get around this by shaving their heads, pulling off their fingernails and toenails, and deliberately starving and dehydrating themselves. It isn't that the protagonist wouldn't have reading material. The ship has almost every book ever on its database. It's that he is a lover and collector of books. I can certainly respect that. I could just as easily read comic books digitally, but I'd rather read by holding a physical copy. On the flip side, I prefer digital manga. Probably because you can display two pages easier with manga digitally.

I won't give away how the story is resolved, but I thought it was really heartwarming. Big and Rish do excellent with the narration as always. Normally they'd have paid Scott, but he insisted that money be donated to a charity of his choosing. He made them print a receipt and email it to him and everything. This story was originally part of an anthology destined to invoke the spirit of those kid's stories Robert Heinlein wrote. I can say confidently that it succeeded and then some.

"Ass-Hat Magic Spider" is a heartwarming story with a classic science fiction feel. I happily recommend it.

Conclusion


Our trek across the frontier is at an end. Let's all settle down are reflect on all those lovely, and occasionally not so lovely, stories we explored. Once again, I'd like to thank you for letting me be your wagon master once again. It wouldn't be nearly as much fun without all of you. Well, here is me wishing you all happy trails for now. I will see you guys next time.