Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Audio File: The Four Loves

Welcome to the inaugural edition of The Audio File. If you’re looking for stories about alternate history or time travel, head over to The Alt-Hist File. So, I thought I start off this post with a question: what is love? Depending on who you ask you can get a wide range of answers. Is it just one thing or is it many things all at once? I’ve always liked the Ancient Greek concept of the four loves: Philia, Eros, Storge and Agape. Philia is the love of friendship and true companions. Eros is the love of romance and being in love. Storge is the love of family, and that family need not be one of blood relations. Agape is the unconditional universal love for all things and is often associated with self-sacrifice.




It’s important to note that none of these loves are mutually exclusive. Indeed, the line between Philia and Storge tends to be incredibly blurry. To give another example, Philia can often lead to Eros, but if that Philia was born of a common interest it can remain even after you have formed Eros.

As you might have guested, today’s edition of The Audio File will be focused around The Four Loves. The stories are being brought to us by the lovely people at Escape Pod, Lightspeed Magazine, The Drabblecast and PodCastle.

Now then, I know how much you guys would love it if we got onto the stories, so let’s get to it…


My Heart is a Quadratic Equation” by Shane Halbach
Narrated by Christina Lebonville
An Escape Pod Original

This story follows a mad scientist named Chrysanthemum. She dreams of laying waste to her city with a flying robot fortress, but she also dreams of finding love. We get to see the hilariously awkward results of several of her failed dates.

I figured I’d start off with something on the lighter side before we get into some of the heavier stories. What can I say? It’s a fun little story that appeals to the awkward side of us all. It reminded me of some of the dates I’ve been on…or it probably would if I went on more dates. As such it is a good example of Eros.

Christina did a really good job portraying Chrysanthemum’s awkward/nervous personality. Do I really have to tell you that I recommend this one?

The Way of the Needle” by Derek Künsken
Narrated by Shaelyn Grey
Originally Published in Asimov’s

This story is set on a planet orbiting a pulsar. Naturally, the inhabitants of this planet are all metallic lobster aliens. The story follows an alien named Mok. He’s a martial arts expert, but he’s recently lost both his claws and his dignity to a rival martial arts clan. To get them back he’s going to have to work with another lobster alien named Rags. They’re going to train hard and discover the true meaning of friendship.

Okay, yeah, this one is kind of weird but it’s pretty good all things considered. I liked how the aliens actually behave somewhat like aliens, but were still relatable. I also thought that the alien’s biology was well explained, such as how they use quills on their backs to draw energy from the pulsar. Mok and Rags’ relationship was well written. There were a few times when Mok acts like jerk, but Rags is his first real friends so I let it slide as him learning the ropes. Since the story centers around their friendship it is a good example of Philia.

In terms of narration I thought that Shaelyn did a great job. Hey, it’s a story about kung-fu metal lobsters from a pulsar planet. Why wouldn’t you want to give it a shot?

The Mercy of Theseus” by Rachael K. Jones
Narrated by Dave Thompson
An Escape Pod Original

This story follows two close friends named Greta and Jamal. They have known each other since they were kids, and they’re closer to each other than anyone else, but they’ve never been romantically involved. After they graduated high school Jamal joined the military, and got injured so badly that he had to be rebuilt as a cyborg. He’s still very much coming to terms with this. The story follows the two of them as they go on a road trip they planned back in their high school days.

This story is a great example of how blurry the line between Philia and Storge is. Greta and Jamal are so close it almost seems like they’re family to each other in all but blood. On a related note, it was nice to see a story centered around a platonic relationship. You really don’t see too many of those sort of stories.

The title of the story is taken from classic philosophical conundrum “The Ship of Theseus”. For those of you not up on your Greek Mythology, Theseus was the one who traversed the labyrinth and slew the Minotaur. The question is, if you have to repair a boat by replacing its wood bit by bit, is it still the same boat that you started with? I would argue that it is because of the meaning that we project onto the boat. This question is a driving force behind this story as Jamal grapples with his identity. It also factors into a few other points, but I wouldn’t want to spoil that for you.

As for the narration, I thought that Dave did a perfect job, just as he always does. A story about identity and the bonds of comradery. I couldn’t recommend it more.

The Homecoming” by Mike Resnick
Narrated by Patrick Bazile
Originally Published in Asimov’s
2012 Hugo Award Nominee

This story is about a man named Jordan trying to come to terms with the choices of his son Phillip. Phillip is part of team who explore alien worlds and study their cultures. The aliens that his team studies are incredibly xenophobic and only converse with people who look like them. As a result, Phillip has undergone multiple surgeries and procedures so that he now looks like a giant metal mosquito. Jordan had always wanted Phillip to inherit his house, but that seems unlikely now. Will father and son be able to reconcile with each other?

At one point or another we’ve all butted heads with our parents about something. I found this story to be an exaggerated version of that sort of thing. Yet even underneath his grouchy exterior you get a strong sense that Jordan still cares deeply about Phillip. Hey, I wouldn’t have included it on the list if I didn’t think it had a strong current of Storge. Plus, considering some of the things going on in his life, you can’t entirely blame Jordan for being grumpy. Of course, it really all comes together at the end where…ah, but I wouldn’t want to spoil that for you.

To an extent you can see parallels within this story to a child coming out as gay or trans, but personally I don’t. Phillip may look like an alien, but he still clearly identifies as human. So, I see it less as metaphor and more as applicability. I usually don’t play favorites, but this has always been one of my favorite stories from Escape Pod. StarShipSofa also has an excellent version of their own, but I found this on Escape Pod, so that’s how I categorized it.

Patrick’s narration really captured the heart and soul of this story. There’s also a nice effect where there’s a gentle sound of wind chimes that accompany Phillips lines. It’s one of my favorite Escape Pod stories, and I’m sure it will be one of your favorites too.

The Tale of The Golden Eagle” by David D. Levine
Narrated by David D. Levine
Originally Published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
2003 Hugo, Nebula, Locus and Theodore Sturgeon Award Nominee

This story takes place far into a fairy tale inspired future. To traverse the vast distances of space ships are equipped with special navigation system that are powered by the brains of birds of prey. These ships are known as Bird Ships, but by the time of our story they are being phased out of use. The story follows a former Bird Ship named Nerissa. For many years she has lain dormant in the storeroom of a king, but she has now been put in a beautiful robot body. Nerissa soon finds herself gambled away to an impoverished merchant named Denali. As time goes on the two begin to grow closer together. I’d tell you more, but I wouldn’t want to spoil anything.

I loved how this story took various fairy tale tropes and reinterpreted them in a science fiction setting. The writing itself has a very lyrical quality to it. The line between science fiction and fantasy has always been a bit blurry, and this story is a great example of that. This story is actually a pretty good example of all four of the loves, with a special emphasis on Agape towards the end. However, since that bit is towards the end, I can’t say much without spoiling it for you. I can say that it is a very touching and heartwarming story.

Authors narrating their own stories is always a bit hit-and-miss. Fortunately, David is just as excellent a narrator as he is a writer. It’s a science fiction fairy tale with a lot of heart, and one you won’t want to miss out on.

Mono No Aware” by Ken Liu
Narrated by John Chu
Originally Published in 
The Future is Japanese
2013 Hugo Award Winner and Collected in 
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

This story follows a Japanese man named Hiroto who has been living on a generation ship since he was eight. A massive asteroid complete destroyed the Earth, and did quite a number on the other planets. As a result, the 1,021 passengers of the generation ship are the last remnant of humanity. Additionally, Hiroto is the only Japanese person aboard the ship, something that affects him deeply. The story is split between the present day and flashbacks to Hiroto’s life in Japan before the Earth was destroyed.

Some of the more scientifically minded readers will probably object to idea of an asteroid destroying Earth. While I concede that this is unlikely, it’s mostly used to get the plot moving and isn’t that important. The story isn’t about how the world ended, it’s about what happened afterwards. So, what does Mono no aware actually mean? It’s a Japanese concept that doesn’t exactly have a Western equivalent. I can best explain it as an empathy for the passing of all things. Think of it as a feeling of sadness for their passing, but also an acceptance because all is transient. The closest Western equivalent I can think of would be Agape love.

Even with my limited understanding of Mono no aware I still got a strong sense of it throughout this story. Hiroto’s memories are definitely tinged with sadness and melancholy; yet at the same time you get the sense that he’s come to terms with in all in his own way. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have any sadness in his life. Indeed, one of Hiroto’s big struggles is coming to terms with his status as the last Japanese person in the universe. One of the big themes in this story is that we are defined by the place we hold in the web of other people’s lives. Hiroto spends a good bit of the story meditating on where he fits into that web.

Now a story with this much of an emotional punch needs just the right sort of narrator. Thankfully, John Chu more than delivers. You can also find a text only reprint at Lightspeed Magazine. It’s a story that more than earned its Hugo, and should more than earn your time as well.

Bioluminescent Memory” by Victorya Chase
Narrated by Serah Eley
Featured in Escape Pod’s Artemis Rising 2

This story follows a woman who can’t seem to get to sleep. She worries that her daughter may have genetically inherited her childhood trauma, something she’s still trying to deal with after all of these years. At least she has her genetically engineered bioluminescent cat Riley to keep her company. Riley reminds her of her old tuxedo cat Penny. Could the similarity be more than coincidence?

Okay, it doesn’t sound like much but I promise it’s a good story. It’s often said that love can come with more legs than two, and that certainly true in this story. Most people consider their pets to be members of their family, and this story does have a good amount of Storge to it. Also, don’t panic, but certain studies suggest that it might be possible to genetically transmit trauma. Yet as the story itself shows, you can work to overcome trauma with the help of your friends and loved ones. It’s an especially touching story if you have pets that you’re close with.

Some of you might be wondering if Serah Eley has any relation to Escape Pod founder Steve Eley. Actually, Serah Eley is Steve Eley. For a few year Steve went radio silent only to pop up again as a transsexual who is in a polyamorous relationship with two lesbians. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

Anyway, Serah does as excellent a job now as she has ever done. A story about pain, love and healing. I happily recommend it.

"Joolie and Irdl" by Sandy Parsons
Narrated by Nichola Seaton-Clark
An Escape Pod Original

This story follows alien named Irdl as he forms a relationship with a human named Joolie. Joolie is part of a team of humans studying Irdl's planet. Their relationship is a bit complicated due to the fact that Irdl's species are insect aliens with a...very different reproductive process. The story follows the ups and downs of Joolie and Irdl's relationship.

Not such a great description, but it is a story that is more than worth your time. You wouldn't think that a story about a human woman and an insect alien falling in love could be so touching, but you would be quite wrong. You can see this story as a metaphor for what it's like when you and the person you love come from different cultures. Overall it is a very sweet and touching story, and Nichola does a great job with the narration.

If I did have one criticism, I would say skip the ending hist segment. This story came out shortly after the tragic Pulse Night Club Shooting, and Alasdair Stuart rambles for a bit while dancing around the fact that Islam was the motivation for the shooting. I'll give Alasdair the benefit of the doubt and say he meant well, but kind of dropped the ball. Speaking of dropping the ball, the episode's end includes an excerpt for Barrack Obama's speak about the massacre. Unlike the story, it is most certainly not worth your time.

All in all, a very sweet story that is sure to touch your heart. Just be sure to speak the political rambling at the end.


Werewolf Loves Mermaid” by Heather Lindsley
Narrated by Harlan Ellison

This story is about a werewolf and a mermaid. They met at the wedding of a vampire and a teenage girl, and they fall madly in love. The story follows all the ups and downs of their relationship.

Okay, the description isn’t much, but it is a good story. It has a very authentic feel to it underneath the fantastical elements. I felt like I was reading about a real relationship. It’s a fun little piece to serve as a pallet cleanser after some of the heavier stories on the list.

I was a bit surprised when I saw that Harlan Ellison was the narrator. I know he’s a great writer, but I never pegged him as the narrating type. He actually does surprisingly well, easily one of the best narrations I’ve heard from Lightspeed. Then again, he did play himself on Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated, so maybe I should have been so surprised.

A lighthearted little romance tale that I’m sure you’ll enjoy.

"5x5" by Jilly Dreadful
Narrated by Stefan Rudnicki and Justine Eyre

This story follows a boy named Fox and a girl named Scully. No, not the ones you're probably thinking of. These two are at a summer camp for science proteges of the mad variety. The story is told as a series of letters between the two as they develop something of a summer romance.

Once again, better than it sounds. There is certainly something to be said for the epistolary style of storytelling. I enjoyed how all of the cabins were named after famous fictional mad scientists. Whenever I encounter a story set at a summer camp I'm immediately reminded of Percy Jackson and the Olympians. That's almost always a good thing, and so it is here. I can certainly relate to the struggles Fox goes through to get Scully to like him. It's a really fun, really cute little story.

Stefan and Justine both did a great job with the narration. Really fun, really cute and I'm sure you're really going to enjoy it.

"Nine-Tenths of the Law" by Molly Tanzer
Narrated by Gabrielle de Cuir

This story follows a woman named Donna. Her husband Jared is part of secret government program, but Donna doesn't know much about it. That all changes one night when she finds Jared acting strange. Turns out he's sharing his body with the mind of an alien named Glreerak. Glreerak's species are masters of telepathy, and he's been assigned to learn about Earth culture as part of a foreign exchange program of sorts. Donna is intrigued and soon finds herself falling in love with Glreerak. But is that really such a good idea?

Well, first of all, I though the concept of first contact via telepathy was a really interesting idea. I also liked the way that Glreerak's species is described, and the way the story addressed the problems an aquatic civilization would face. Now for the big one, what did I think about Donna and Glreerak's relationship? Well, to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure.

There's a lot of questions I find myself asking. Was Donna really in love with Glreerak, or was she in love with the thrill of doing something morally questionable? Similarly, did Glreerak really return her feelings, or was he just using her to get firsthand experience with human courtship and...mating rituals? There's evidence for and against each interpretation, and the story leaves you to draw your own conclusions. Also, heads up, there are a couple sex scenes. You're probably gonna want to listen with caution if you're at work, school or other sensitive places.


Gabrielle did a good job, as usual, with the narration. An unconventional love story that'll give you food for thought. I recommend it.

Narrated by Stefan Rudnicki

This is a story about you. Well, not you specifically, but it is told in the second person. A woman from Earth has fallen in love with a man from the planet Thark, and everyone is eagerly anticipating the birth of the child. The birth is to take place on a research vessel in neutral space. As this will be the first Human-Tharkan hybrid born there’s a lot of scientists and diplomats who have come to observe the birth. For her part, the expectant mother wishes the whole thing were a bit more private and intimate.

You don’t often see stories that are told in the second person, so this was a nice change of pace. I can’t speak from any personal experience, but the story had a very authentic feel to it. It seemed like and exaggerated version the experiences of pregnant mothers. I know my own mother has always been somewhat distrustful towards hospital staff. Yet in spite of everything it all work spit happily in the end. You get several touching moments between the protagonist and her child, and between her and her husband. As such, there’s plenty of Storge and Eros to go around.

I found the Tharkans and their biology to be rather interesting. They’re stated to look rather like humans, save for their pronounced brow ridge, and they’re even hominids. They communicate by projecting mental images, but they can speak vocally when they need to. Their society is meritocratic to the extreme, and you only get a name once you’ve proven yourself. The fact that they’re hominids brings up all kinds of possibilities. Is the way life evolved on Earth the standard model of evolution on other planets? Are the Tharkans descendants to hominids who were abducted by aliens and then resettled on Thark? The story never tells us, but I did find the Tharkans on the whole to be well fleshed out.

Giving birth is a decidedly female experience, so I wasn’t quite sure when I saw that Stefan was the narrator. However, I can happily say that he more than delivers with his performance of this story. I give this one a recommendation.


Day Million” by Frederik Pohl
Narrated by Mike Boris
Originally Published in Rogue Magazine

This story takes place about a thousand years in the future. It’s a love story between a mermaid named Dora and a cyborg named Don. It is a rather unconventional romance by the standards of our modern world, but there are many strange things on Day Million. Have no fear, we are guided through this far-off world of tomorrow by a very lemony narrator.

That description doesn’t do this story nearly enough justice, but trust me, it is an excellent story. What really makes this story is the narrators humorous and snarky commentary. For example, he will constantly chastise the reader for finding the future strange or off-putting. To be fair, as the narrator himself points out, Australopithecus would probably find our society as odd as we find this future world. There is Eros in this story, and the romance between the two characters seems rather sweet, if more than a bit unconventional by our standards.

This story is all about the narration. Without just the right narrator the whole story falls apart. Thankfully, Mike is more than fit for the task. It’s a humorous love story from a distant future, and one I recommend to you.

Valentine’s Day With The Gods” by Jesse Livingston
Narrated by Norm Sherman
A Drabblecast Original

This story follows two lovers on Valentine’s Day. After having a lovely walk through the city, they decide to grab a bite to eat at a tavern. Ah, but it’s not just any tavern. Yahweh and Yog-Sothoth are having an argument and there’s a Norse deity sitting at the bar by himself. The gods give the couple plenty of food for thought. Will their love truly be able to long endure?

I’m a sucker for anything that has gods in it. Would have been nice if there were a few more mythological deities represented, but I’m willing to let that slide. Took me a minute to recognize Yog-Sothoth, but then Yahweh mentioned they sat next to each other due to alphabetical seating at a god convention. As a Valentine’s Day story, there’s plenty of Eros to go around. What can I say? It’s sweet and touching in that’s weird sort of way The Drabblecast specializes in.

As per usual, Norm did a great job with the narration. A Valentine’s Day story told only as The Drabblecast can. I recommend it.

Bloodchild” by Octavia E. Butler
A Full Cast Production
Originally Published in Asimov’s and collected in Bloodchild and Other Stories
1984 Nebula Award Winner and 1985 Hugo Award Winner

This story takes place on a planet that is home to giant sentient centipede aliens known as the Tlic. The Tlic have allowed humans to settle on their planet and treat them well. In return, the Tlic only ask that humans help them give birth to their children. The Tlic lay their eggs inside human males where they grow and eventually hatch. It’s usually harmless to the humans involved, but when there are complications…well, it’s not pretty. The story follows a boy named Gan who has been asked by a Tlic named T’Gatoi to carry her children. T’Gatoi is a close friend and has done much for his family, but Gan is still conflicted about what to do.

Under other writers this story could easily have worked as a horror story. Male pregnancy stories are also an easily abused trope. Therefore, it’s a credit to Butler’s writing skills that she was able to make a story like this work so well. I liked that the Tlic felt like they had a fully realized culture, but they were still relatable. For example, they drive in cars, but the cars are designed to accommodate a centipede-esque body plan. I kept expecting that there was going to be some kind of twist, like that the Tlic were secretly evil or something. Nope, they’re every bit as innocent and genuine as they seem. It’s nice to see aliens that aren’t jerks for a change.

In terms of the Four Loves this one falls into the Agape category. I also thought the Afterword where we get some insight into the story’s creation was a nice addition. Octavia Butler really was one of the great under-appreciated writers of science fiction. She was one of the first, if not the first, black lesbian science fiction writers.

Full cast narrations always have a leg up on single narrators, and so it was here. Another story that more than earned its awards, and should more than earn your time.


"Sundae" by Matt Wallace
Narrated by Dave Robinson
Originally Published as a Kindle eBook on Amazon.com

This story is about a teddy bear named Sundae. He was made by a kind old German toy-maker to protect children from monsters. The story follows Sundae as he faithfully watches over various children and does battle with monsters who would wish them harm.

Again, it's not nearly an adequate description, but you really should listen to this story. Of all the four loves, this story is definitely an example of agape. Sundae will never receive any reward for his service, and the children he protects will never know the sacrifices he has made for them. Yet despite this he never wavers in his duty. The fact that the children will be safe and happy is more than a sufficient reward for him. Like a warrior from Germanic Mythology, he fearlessly charges into battle, even knowing he may have to make the ultimate sacrifice.

It is a truly powerful story. A story this epic deserves a narrator of epic proportions. Thankfully, Dave more than delivers.

A story about childhood innocence, love and sacrifice. I couldn't recommend it more if it tried.

The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu
Narrated by Rajan Khana
Originally Published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
Winner of Pretty Much Every Award and Collected in 
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

This story is about the son of an American man and a Chinese mail-order bride. When he was young his mother would make origami animals for him to play with. Oh, but these weren’t just any origami animals. You see, his mom knew a special spell that brought the origami animals to life. Over the years, however, the son would grow embarrassed by his mother and his Chinese heritage. After graduating from college, the son rediscovers his old origami animals and decides to learn a bit more about just who his mother really is.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve saved one of the best for last. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that this story has won pretty much every conceivable award. Quite frankly, it would probably be easier to list the wards this story didn’t win, if there are any of them. What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before? Well, let’s see what I can come up with.

Ken Liu wrote this story after he became a father, and you certainly get feel of the anxiety of parents worrying about who their children will view them. There’s also the special concern of immigrant parents worrying about if their culture will live on thru their children. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you can see the fear of losing you parents before you really get to know them. It is a very layered story.

So where does this fit within the Four Loves? It’s definitely an example of Storge. Ken has stated that he feels theses an overabundance of stories about romantic love, but not nearly enough about familial love. In the end the protagonist is sadder, but he’s also wiser and can understand the true extent of his mother’s love for him.

For a story this special you’re going to need just the right sort of narrator. That narrator, thankfully, is Rajan Khana. You can also find a reprint of this story over on Escape Pod as part of their past Hugo Month special season. There’s really not more for me to say.

Do I really need to tell you that I recommend this one?

Conclusion

Well here we are at the end of the list. Wasn’t that a lovely experience? Why, I think we really ought to do it again some time. If you guys have any particular theme or type of stories that you’d like to see on The Audio File, let me know in the comments and I will see what I can whip up for you. Keep in mind, how soon that desired theme comes out depends on how soon I can find a sufficient number of stories. Maybe I’ll even get some of my own stories onto The Audio File in the future. Fingers crossed that I get my stories accepted somewhere one of these day. I guess we will have to see. Anyway, that’s enough from me for now. I will say you guys next time.




Monday, May 29, 2017

The Alt-Hist File: Escape Pod 2


There’s so many great alternate history, time travel and historical fantasy stories at Escape Pod, I had to split its edition of The Alt-Hist File in two. This is part two of The Alt-Hist File’s look at Escape Pod. If you’re looking part 1 click here. Okay, everyone here who wants to be here? Good! There’s not really much more for me to add, I covered most of that last time.

So then, without further ado, once again it’s story time…

"Night Bird Soaring" by T. L. Morganfield
Narrated by Mat Weller
Originally Published in Greatest Uncommon Denominator #3
2008 Sidewise Award Nominee

This story is set in an Aztec Empire that never fell, expanded to include the entirety of the Americas and developed space travel. It follows a boy named Totyoalli who is to play the role of Tezcatlipoca in a ritual when he turns twenty-nine. And by play the role I, of course, mean that he will be sacrificed. It's not exactly bad, he's best friends with the emperor, lives a life of luxury and even marries five wives. Still, his heart is set on joining the space program and visiting Quetzalcoatl's World, aka Venus. Can he find a way to live his dream and fulfill his destiny?

One of the things I loved about this story was the way it presents a nuanced look at the Aztecs. Contrary to popular opinion they were far from bloodthirsty savages. They mandated the same education for all citizens, even women, had pretty great social mobility, were excellent astronomers, had a pretty good track with women's rights and so much more. As for the human sacrifice, remember, from their point of view it was necessary to keep the universe running. Point is they were way more than what they're commonly portrayed as in fiction and this story did a great job showcasing that.

I also liked the way the imminent sacrifice was treated almost like having a terminal illness. Totyoalli knows he's got to make the most of his time, but he also comes to terms with his fate. Now, many of you are probably wondering how the Aztecs of this story got such a big empire. Don't worry, that's all explained, but I can't give that away. I will say we get a couple supernatural hints towards the end of the story, but that's all you get until you read/listen to this story. I also enjoyed how all the planets were named after Aztec gods. It was a nice touch

Mat Weller isn't just great at behind the scenes work, he's also great at narration. All in all a great story with a nuanced take on the Aztecs. Earned its nomination and should definitely early your time as well.

"People of the Shell" by Brian Trent
Narrated by Jeff Ronner
An Escape Pod Original 

This story is set during the Bronze Age after a series of asteroid impacts blocked out the sun. The once mighty Persian Empire, lead by Cyrus the Great, has been reduced to a mere 200 individuals wandering across the frozen desert on great sandships. They were looking for a glimmer of civilization in Egypt, but instead find people living beneath the shell of a gigantic...something. These people have built a society based around the worship of the great beasts, but how long can it last?

And the winner of most original alternate history short story is...this story! Seriously, the atmosphere in this story is absolutely phenomenal. You really get to see just how dark, cold and utterly hopeless this world is. Some of you might be reminded of The Peshawar Lancers by this story, though apart from the asteroids, they're very different stories. I liked that this story featured both Persians and Greeks, but treated them both fairly. It's also nice to see alternate history set in ancient times.

On that note, as far as themes go I found that nobody was really 100 percent right in this story. The People of the Shell are mostly comprised of people who were on the bottom rung of society, and the asteroids have give them a chance to rise above their positions. At the same time, Cyrus is right that their way of life simply isn't sustainable in the long term, and eventually humanity will have to get back on its feet out of necessity. You've got people who resorted to cannibalism, but only as a last resort. Like I said, morality as grey as the setting.

As for the narration, I thought Jeff did a spot-on job. Defiantly on of the more unique alternate history stories, and definitely worth your time.

"Impossible Dreams" by Tim Pratt
Narrated by Matthew Wayne Selznick
Originally Published in Asimov's 
2007 Hugo Award Winner

This story follows a cinephile named Pete who discovers an amazing new movie store. The movies seem like they're out of another universe; I, Robot with screenplay by Harlan Ellison, Raiders of the Lost Ark staring Tom Selleck, The Magnificent Ambersons with its original ending and much more. Soon it becomes clear the store is traveling from another world. Pete finds himself falling in love with the store's clerk Allie. Each day the store appears for less and less time, and Pete has to convince Allie about the true nature of the store.

At the Escape Artists podcasts there is one man who is the undisputed king of short stories. That man, of course, is Tim Pratt. Seriously, he's been published more times on the Escape Artists podcasts than any other author, but not without reason. He's easily one of the most talented current writers of speculative fiction, and he's got the awards to prove it.

Anyway, back to the review. I learned a lot of movie trivia from this story, and it gave me a greater appreciation of movies in general. I liked how Pete was able to surmise information about Allie's world based on what movies the store had. For example, no Dr. Strangelove and a movie about the invasion of the Japanese home islands, staring John Wayne, potentially means no atomic bomb in that world. The overall feel of this story reminded me of The Twilight Zone, and so it should appeal to fans of that show. The ending is really sweet, but of course, it is a Tim Pratt story.

A great story like this need a great narrator to go with it, and Matthew is that narrator. A story that more than earned its Hugo. I happily recommend it.

"Summer in Paris, Light From the Sky" by Ken Scholes 
Narrated by Alex Wilson
Originally Published in Clarkesworld Magazine

It's 1941 and Adolph Hitler has arrived in Paris to pursue his dream of becoming a painter. Along the way, he befriends Earnest Hemingway and Charlie Chaplin at Charles de Gaulle's bar. Hitler soon finds himself falling in love with a beautiful young Jewish girl from Poland. Things come to a head when the French government begins persecuting Jews. It's up to Hitler and his friends to rise above and stand up to this injustice.

Yeah, this one's probably going to be one of the more controversial stories. I'll begin by saying that people are products of their times, and this is obviously a different world, so it's not all the unreasonable that, give different circumstances, Hitler would have turned out different. For what it's worth, this story was reprinted in a top Israeli science fiction magazine and was met with positive reviews.

Okay, now that we got that out the way, let's talk about the story itself. We get some very tantalizing glimpses of the world beyond what the story shows. It appears Spain held onto their American colonies, only to lose them in an alternate Spanish-American War, France is still a monarchy ruled by Napoleon IV...and Hitler goes on to become a human rights activist and is hailed the Savior of the Jews. Yeah, between segments of story we get quotes that give us a glimpse into Hitler's future.

I thought Ken did a great job with the characterization all around, and the writing itself is really quite good. Really, this is a great story. This story was originally published in Clarkesworld Magazine, and I could have saved it for the post on that podcast. What it came down to, however, was who had the best narration. I had to give it to Escape Pod because Alex did such a great job.

Potentially controversial, but well worth you time. Give it a try.

"Checkmate" by Brian Trent
Narrated by Mat Weller
An Escape Pod Original 

This story is set in a world where wars are waged with living chess pieces and the world is divided into markers that nations compete for control over. The American Revolution was the last war fought with conventional armies. A British knight named Edward Oakshott has been challenged by a Russian rook for control of the London marker. Edward's been given a device that promises to grant immortality should he fall it battle, but how far is he willing to go in service to his country?

This is a steampunk story, but the living chess angle was a nice twist on the style. Personally, I would have liked to have seen what all the pieces are like. We see that knights and queens appear to be human, and rooks are mechanical monstrosities, but we never see any of the other pieces. For that matter, it would have been nice to know why Russia wanted the London marker. Maybe that's just how it goes in this world? The mythology lover in me enjoyed how all of the people in the secret London Underground were named after figures from Egyptian Mythology.

This is definitely one where the description is crazy, but I swear it's a good story. As far as narration, Mat once again did an excellent job. It's a new twist on the steampunk story. Give it a shot.

"Site Fourteen" by Laura Anne Gilman
Narrated by Mat Weller 
Originally Published in ReVISIONS

It's often said that we know more about the surface of the Moon than we do our own deep oceans, but what if that wasn't the case? In this story, President John F. Kennedy challenged America not to take to the Moon, but to claim the oceans. By the present day, America is the undisputed master of the oceans and has established many bases and settlements across the sea floor. The story follows a typical day at Site Fourteen when disaster strikes.

I'll admit this felt like less of a story and more of a showcase of an alternate world, but that's not a bad thing. I'm a big fan of stories that feature ocean exploration and colonization. The part where it's mentioned that the ocean program was receiving budget cuts was especially poignant give the ever-increasing lack of support for institutions such as NASA, the National Endowment for the Humanities and other programs to expand knowledge and exploration.

Now, let's talk narration. Mat does his usual good job, but at the part when things start to go wrong you can hear an emergency alarm beeping in the background for a while. This didn't bother me, but some people might find that annoying, so be aware of that should you listen to this story. All in all a great window into an alternate world. Well worth checking out.

"Unexpected Outcomes" by Tim Pratt
Narrated by Tom Rockwell
Originally Published in Interzone

9/11 was a day that changed everything for America and the world as a whole. In this story, it's even more so, because on the faithful day a strange man appears simultaneously across the world and announces...that the entire world is a computer simulation to test a hypothesis on the rise of Islamic terrorism. It has been declared that the simulation will continue to run, but without nonessentials such as weather, stars and reproduction. Still, not everyone is convinced that's the whole story. Our hero, a man named Tim, sets out to find answers.

I was in third grade when 9/11 happened, so this story had a certain resonance with me. I know this is going to sound horrible, but more due to the world turning out to be a simulation part. Hey, I didn't even know what happened till the very end of the day when my mom picked me up. I suppose my elementary school figured it was best to carry on as usual and not upset the students.

It was that same almost blasé/carry on feeling that I got from this story. The characters are dealing with a huge change to their lives, but for a while they just go on until it really sinks in. Even after they accept it they still keep looking for more answers. It's simply human nature to question everything after all. I also loved what the main character eventually found, but that's a surprise you'll have to discover for yourself.

As for the narration I thought that Tom did a great job. Certainly an unusual alternate history, but certainly worth a listen.

"Revolution Time" by Lavie Tidhar 
Narrated by Steve Eley
Originally Published in Flurb #2

This story centers around a group of communists in the future who are dissatisfied with their lives. Time travel has been invented and is used to bring people, mostly William Shakespeare, to the present for visits. The communists decide they'll use a time machine to bring Karl Marx to help start a revolution.

The description isn't much, but I promise it's a good story. People often talk about what would happen if very great historical figures could see the world today. Personally, I think they'd be too weirded out by the way everyone talks and dresses to make many comments on the way society is run. That was one thing I noticed about this story. Marx seemed to accept and adapt this is situation surprisingly fast. It was also unclear if the world was truly dystopian or if that's just how the communists viewed it.

Despite these iffy issues I found this story to be fun overall. Steve did his usual great job with the narration. A fun little story that I recommend.

"Reparations" by Merrie Haskell
Narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal
Originally Published in Fortean Bureau 

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain controversial to this day. Many question if they were the right thing to do. This story focus on an organization of time travelers who try to make amends for these and other events by helping those effected by them.

Again, the summary sucks but the story did a really great job of capturing the absolute devastation that followed the atomic bombings. The descriptions were bone chillingly accurate. To be sure, the alternative of Operation Downfall wouldn't have been a picnic, but this story does provide food for thought on the moral implications of the bombings. Though I do admit I did find myself wounded about the potential paradoxes involved with the organization's work.

A story that packs this kind of emotional punch needs a certain kind of narrator to go with it. Fortunately, Mary is that narrator. A time travel story that'll keep you thinking long after it's over. Well worth a listen.

"Hawksbill Station" by Robert Silverberg
Narrated by Paul Tevis
Originally Published in Galaxy Magazine

This one is a classic time travel story, and some of you are probably familiar with it. However, I say we're going to go over it anyway. It follows a series of political prisoners who have been sent on a one-way trip to the pre-Cambrian era prison colony. Dispute the harsh and unforgiving environment they're making the best of things. One day a new man arrives, but is he all that he seems to be?

Like I said, a classic story, but for the most part I think it's aged fairly well. The only thing that really stuck out to me was, since plants had yet to colonize land during the pre-Cambrian, the amount of breathable oxygen should probably have been lower. I already knew all the twists and turns the story was going to take, but that didn't make it any less enjoy able. This story was originally published as "Anvil of Time", and was later expanded into a novel.

If you've got a craving for more Robert Silverberg, be sure to check out his alternate history novels and The Gate of Worlds. I can't really say much that hasn't been said already, but I can say that Paul did a good job with the narration. It's a classic for a reason. Come see why.

"Herd Mentality" by Jay Caselberg
Narrated by Serah Eley
Originally Published in ReVisions

This story takes place in a world where Albert Einstein was captured by the Nazis before he had a chance to immigrate to America. Shortly thereafter, he was cloned many times over. After World War II, the Einstein clones were brought to America. By the present day, the Einstein clones pretty much run everything in America. The story follows a man named Bill. He works for one of the many companies owned by an Einstein clone. All of the Einsteins are coming to town for a big meeting. Bill is determined to find out what they're up to.

Okay, let's just get this out the way. In terms of plausibility this story's a bit on the soft side. It would be a cold day in hell before the Nazis knowingly cloned a Jewish scientist. I'm also not sure the Nazi would have had the tech to clone people. Also, just because Einstein was good a physics doesn't mean his clones would necessarily able or interested in running all the things they do in this story. Though, admittedly, it's implied that the government may have raised them specifically for this purpose.

All of that having been said, I still found this to be quite an enjoyable story. The central premise actually parallels the real life Operation Paperclip; where German rocket scientists were brought to America after World War II. I liked Bill as a character, and how he showed what it would be like to be an average person in a world ruled by geniuses. There's also a really powerful scene where it's reveled that all of the Einstein clones have concentration camp tattoos on their arms. Keep in mind, they were all born in 1940. Even more chillingly, it was mentioned that the body of the original Einstein was never found.

It certainly makes me wonder how many potentially great scientists, artists and innovators were lost as a result of the Holocaust. This one is certainty provides food for thought. Serah did a great job with the narration, especially the way she does the Einsteins' voices.
A story about one of the world's greatest thinkers that is sure to get you thinking. I give it a thumbs up.

"St. Darwin's Spirituals" by D.K. Thompson
Narrated by Mur Lafferty 
Originally Published in Murky Depths

We'll end our list with a story from D.K. Thompson, better known as Dave Thompson, former editor and host of PodCastle. In this world, Charles Darwin not only developed the theory of evolution, but also a set of goggles that allow the user to see the spirits of the dead. Following this invention, interacting with spirits has become a part of daily life and spiritualism has seen a sharp increase in devotees. The story follows a woman named Lucy as she investigates possible criminal activity involving spirits.

First of all, hats off for the unique point of divergence. The world building and atmosphere in this story were absolutely top notch. The choice of Darwin seemed a tad random, personally I'd have gone with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but that's just me. I also really loved the writing style in this story. This story peaked my interests, and I’m glad that Dave went on to expand this world. If I’m being personally honest, this might not be my favorite entry to the St. Darwin’s world. Don’t get me wrong, it had good moments, but compared to later entries of the series…ah, but that’s a review for another time. If nothing else, this one got the ball rolling, and it’s still reasonably good.

I thought that Mur, as usual, handled the narration quite well. An alternate history story from one of Escape Artists own. I happily recommend it.

Conclusion

Well, here we are at the end of the list. I hope you’ve had a great time and that you found some great stories to enjoy. Now that we’ve covered Escape Pod, for now anyway, we’re moving onto our next port of call. The first time around that was PodCastle, but I think we need to change things up a bit. Pseudopod was the second Escape Artists podcasts ever made, and I think it’s right that they should be our next destination. Don’t worry, we will be covering PodCastle, but we’ll be visiting Pseudopod first. Hey, it’s the least I could do. Pseudopod has been extremely enthusiastic in supporting The Alt-Hist File and The Audio File.

Well, I think that wraps it up for now. I’ll see you guys next time when we tackle Pseudopod

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Alt-Hist File: Escape Pod


It a started in whim more than anything else. It started on a whim, but it became a wildly popular, and much beloved, recurring series. It seems like it was only yesterday that I was reviewing short story audio fiction for The Alternate History Weekly Update. Now, at long last, it has come home. And what more fitting place to call home than a blog called The Audiophile?

Okay, I'm starting to ramble here. As I previously announced, I'm reviving my old audio fiction review column The Audio File. I'm splitting it into two halves, one for alternate history and one for all other genres. With that in mind, I welcome you to the inaugural installment of The Alt-Hist File. The Audio File is being reserved for all the other great, and occasionally not so great, stories that I review. I like to use to use The Alt-Hist File to shine a spotlight on the individual podcasts that I feature. With that in mind, let's meet today's podcast.

Today we're talking about Escape Pod. Founded in 2005 by Serah (formerly Steve) Eley, as a way of showcasing some of the best talent in the field of science fiction. At the time, it wasn't known how long Escape Pod would last. Twelve years and over 500 episodes later, as of this writing, Escape Pod is stronger than ever and more successful than Eley could ever have imagined. Escape Pod's success helped prove the viability of online short story podcast magazines and led to the creation of two other Escape Artists podcasts: Pseudopod for horror and PodCastle for fantasy. In time, the Escape Artists family of podcasts adopted the young adult podcast Cast of Wonders, and started the Mothership Zeta E-zine. We'll talk more about the other members of the Escape Artist family in future posts.

Over the years, Escape Pod has featured numerous host including Mur Lafferty, Norm Sherman, Alasdair Stuart, Tina Connolly, Adam Pracht and Divya Breed. There's also numerous hardworking people toiling away behind the scenes. I don't have time to name you all, but know that you are appreciated, and we couldn't have the Escape Artists podcasts without you. They’ve featured narrators from all walks of life, both professional and amateur. The intro and outro music, provided by monster surf rock band Daikaiju, is another of those little personal touches I adore.

Originally, the text of the stories themselves wasn't included, but after a certain point that changed. As much of a fan as I am, even I can't tell you when exactly that was, but suffice it to say the more recent the story the more likely it is the text will be included on the website.  In any event, many Escape Pod stories were originally published elsewhere, but just as many, if not more, are totally original to Escape Pod. If they don't have the text they will usually link to it.

Now that we've shined a spotlight on Escape Pod, let's move to the stories. Remember, these stories are released on a Creative Commons, attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives license; feel free to share them all you like, just don't change or sell them. Now, get ready, because it's story time...

"Joe Steele" by Harry Turtledove
Narrated by Serah Eley

Those of you familiar with Harry Turtledove's work have probably heard of this one, but it's still worth going over.  The basic premise is the Joseph Stalin's parents immigrated to the United States during the 19th century, and Stalin grew up in Fresno, California.  Stalin eventually takes the more American name Joe Steele and is later elected president via some shady dealings.  This being Stalin, however, means that the next few decades aren't exactly sunshine and lollipops.

Now, the plausibility hounds in the audience are probably complaining that Stalin ought to have a different worldview if he was raised in America. To be sure that's probably true, but Steele still needed to act recognizably like Stalin or else we have no story. Stalin or not, the Depression was a rough time, and I can easily see the conditions giving rise to an extremist movement.  Especially if FDR were out of the picture, as he is in the short story.

As for the writing, it has a very 1940s newsreel quality to it, and Serah does a really good job of conveying that feeling. All in all this was a very fun story, and as a bonus you get to hear the song that inspired this story, "God & The FBI", in its entirety right after the episode.

"Good Hunting" by Ken Liu
Narrated by John Chu
Originally published in Strange Horizons

There are not nearly enough words to describe how much I love Ken Liu. Every story he makes is a masterfully crafted work of art.  He knows just how to tug on your heartstrings, make you connect with his characters, leave you wanting more and so many other things. Seriously, people are always talking about who's going to be the next big thing in speculative fiction; well behold the next big thing people.  Need proof?  This is a man who has won pretty much every major science fiction and fantasy award, and he's only been seriously writing since about 2009.

Okay, enough gushing, onto the story. "Good Hunting" takes place during and in the years following the Opium Wars, but a steampunk version of the war.  There's also magic in this alternate China featuring everything from hopping ghosts, spirits and huli jing (Chinese fox spirits that take the form of beautiful women).  Our story follows a young ghost hunter and a huli jing as they watch the world around them change with the coming of British colonization.  Besides the usual troubles that come with colonization there's an added issue; the British have built a railway right on top of a qi vein, and this is having extremely negative consequences on the supernatural world.

One of the things I love about Ken's work is that no matter what story he writes I always learn something new. In this case I got to learn what huli jing are, and as a lover of mythology and folklore that was a big plus. I also appreciated how Ken didn't pull any punches with his depiction of colonialism and the darker side of steampunk. You could easily see the blocked qi vein, and the impact it has on the supernatural community, as a metaphor for the impact that colonizers often have on native cultures. Throughout the story there's a feeling of sadness for the passing of old traditions as new ways are forced upon China.

However, the story ultimately ends on an optimistic note. Without giving too much away I can best summarize the ending like this: sometimes forces beyond our control change our lives in major ways, and that means old traditions will die, but we can adapt and keep those old ways alive in a new form. A bit of advice about the narration; John Chu can seem a little...off, when you first hear his voice. Give your ears a minute or so to get use to his narration voice and you'll find he's the perfect man to convey Ken's story.

It starts as a whimsical Chinese fairy tale and ends as a gritty steampunk.  I couldn't recommend it more.

"Soft Currency" by Seth Gordon
Narrated by Melissa Bugaj
An Escape Pod Original

This story takes place in an alternate 1970s America in which men and women use separate money. Men use dollars and coins while women use coupons and stamps (they come in the same denominations as dollars and coins).  For the sake of time, the cliff notes version is that this was started after World War II to help returning GIs regain their old jobs; if you want the full history you'll have to listen to/read the short story.  Certain businesses only take dollars while other only take coupons; the system is partially justified by claiming that men and women buy different things. Unfortunately, the exchange rate is not 1:1 and often favors the dollar more than the coupon.  As such many illegal currency exchanges have popped up over the years. Our protagonist Cassie, a clerk at a coupon only grocery store, find herself drawn into such an operation.

Part of the reason I've been reposting my old reviews is because, with the passage of time, my views on certain stories have changed. Some stories seem even better and more resonant. For other stories, such as this one, well...time has not been so kind. When I first read this story I hadn't really been red pilled, as they say. Now, having gained some perspective, I can no longer recommend this story.

I'll be blunt, this story is a painfully obvious allegory for the myth of the Gender Wage Gap. For those who don't know, that's the claim that women only make $0.75 for every dollar men make. Problem is, that's actually the average earnings of men and women. It's doesn't take into account hours worked, different jobs or different positions. It has nothing to do with the same jobs, nods does it have anything to do with discrimination. In fact, since 1963 it has been illegal, in the United States, to pay men and women different wages for the same work.

Unfortunately, this myth continues to get spread by feminist activism groups, despite numerous debunkings. In light of this, the story falls flat on its face. That's one of the problems I have with fiction that actively tries to convey a social/political message. Not only do a lot of them focus too much on preaching, at the expense of story telling, but often times they inadvertently spread misinformation. That's not to say message fic can't be done well, but please, make sure you have your facts straight.

A failed attempt to address a problem that doesn't exist. Don't waste your time with this one.

"Southpaw" by Bruce McAllister
Narrated by Brian Liberman
Originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction

The myth that Fidel Castro was given the chance to play baseball for the New York Giants has long been discredited. Suppose, however, that not only was he given the chance, but that he'd said yes. In this story that's exactly what happens. Castro plays for the New York Giants and has a wonderful girlfriend named Nancy. Life seems good, but Cuba is on his mind so much lately, especially once he begins having visions of a strange world where he, not Batista, is the leader of Cuba.

For those of you concerned about the plausibly of this story, the author himself admits that he's fully aware Castro never got a chance to play baseball for America. Nevertheless, he thought it would make an interesting story. Admittedly I'm not much of a sports person, but I feel like this story is written well enough to be enjoyed even if sports isn't your thing. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I thought the narrator did an excellent job. What can I say?  Escape Pod knows how to pick narrators.

Without giving away too much I can say that there was a bit of this story that reminded me of The Man in the High Castle and I enjoyed that. I also appreciated how Castro was depicted as a very human character.  He knows just how lucky he is to have risen through the ranks of society, and he's keenly aware of how much suffering his fellow Cuban are going through. At the same time, there's no clear answer for fixing this problem.

For a look at a different side of Fidel Castro I'd recommend giving this story a try.

"The Eckener Alternative" by James L. Cambias
Narrated by Mur Lafferty
Originally published in All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories

This story's a little different than the ones we've talked about. It's not initially set in an alternate history, but follows someone's attempt to make one. Our protagonist, John Cavalli, is a student at a university for training time travelers. He's also a lover of airships and is determined to save them from dying out. After a few failed attempts to change history his path becomes clear. He's going to prevent World War II from ever happening, but is that really such a good idea?

Admittedly this story was more action than dialogue, but since it features a male protagonist I initially wasn't sure if Mur was going to be the right fit for this story. All things considered, I think Mur handled the narration of this story excellently. The story itself made some pretty good observations such as why airships, cool as they are, were ultimately replaced by airplanes.

There this scene in the cafeteria I found particularly amusing. The students are all talking about what they'd go back in time and change. You get the standard answer: stop Cortez, save Lincoln, but then there's the guy wanted to give machine guns to the Confederates. It appears Harry Turtledove will still be read even after we invent time travel.

This one was short, sweet and to the point. I recommend it.

"The '76 Goldwater Dime" by John Medaille
Narrated by Norm Sherman
Originally published in Residential Aliens

Okay, this one might not exactly be alternate history per say, but it's still pretty fun. Our protagonist is a numismatist trying to convince someone that he has come into possession of coins from alternate universes. Instead of the usual presidents, these coins depict figures such as Barry Goldwater, Benedict Arnold and Eugene V. Debs.

Norm absolutely nailed it with his performance of the crazed coin collector; if you think this is good you should see him in his native habitat over at the Drabblecast.  I also like how the story is presented in the form of a conversion, but we never hear the other person, just the narrator's reactions and remarks. It was fun imagining the kinds of world's these coins might have come from.

All in all a very fun little story. Definitely worth checking out.

"Why I left Harry's All-Night Hamburgers" by Lawrence Watt-Evens
Narrated by Jonathon Hawkins
Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Short Story

In this story, our protagonist gets a job at a hamburger joint in West Virginia, but this isn't just any hamburger joint. Harry's All-Night Hamburgers serves as a hub for travelers from different alternate universes; it seems West Virginia is always out of the way and unassuming no matter what the universe. Our protagonist soon faces a choice; continue life as it is, or travel to new and exotic universes, but risk never seeing this one again.

You're probably expecting me to say I liked the narrator at this point. Well...you'd be absolute correct.  As for the story itself, I enjoyed getting to see glimpse of the different worlds and letting my imagination fill in the blanks. I was mildly amused at how one of the character came from a world that sounded rather similar to the plot of Bioshock: Infinite, but keep in mind this story was written well before Bioshock: Infinite came out. I also enjoyed the advice the protagonist received on how to resolve his dilemma. I'm struggling to find the right words, but seriously this is an excellent story.

Defiantly earned its Hugo, and should probably earn your time as well.

"Homecoming at the Borderlands Cafe" by Carole McDonnell
Narrated by Serah Eley
Originally published in Jigsaw Nation

Well, they can't all be winners. There had to be at least some rotten apples in this bushel. Hey, at least this proves I can actually not like something and have a negative opinion. First some background, Jigsaw Nation is a collection of short stories with the central premise that around 2004, Red and Blue States (or in some case, Red and Blue districts) became two separate nations.  All the stories have their own take on the how this happened and what the results were. Most of them are rather interesting and though provoking, but this one...I was seriously considering leaving it out altogether.

Okay, I'll try my best to be as neutral possible. So the basic set up is that Red States are known as the Confederacy and Blue States are called Columbia.  I know what the author was trying to do here, but Columbia as a name has already been taken. Anyway, our protagonist is a Confederate cafe owner talking with some recent immigrants from Columbia. The couple is mixed race, but the Confederacy is a heavily segregated society, but the narrator assures us it’s all separate but equal. I really hope that was in character and not the author, herself a black woman, doing the talking.

So why would a mixed race couple knowingly move to such a racist society? You see, Columbia still allows Christianity, but has banned the Bible for being homophobic. The authorities were also going to take the couple's child away if they educated it with the Bible. No seriously, that's what the story says. Look, if the premise is that things split in 2004 you're not going to get anything like that without diving into strawman territory. It's a strait up example of the Golden Means Fallacy/Balance Fallacy. Atheists (and I say this as one myself) don't want to take away your Bibles, your kids or ban religion. What we want is to be treated equally and we want everyone else to be treated equally as well. We might not agree with what you say, but we'll fight to the death for your right to say it.

Don’t waste your time with this stinker. Pick one of the other stories I've featured.

"Punk Voyager" by Shaenon Garrity
Narrated by Nathaniel Lee
An Escape Pod Original

This story is set during the 1980s and follows a group of punks. The punks are bummed about the fact that the records on the Voyager Probes only contain classical music. To combat this, they decide create their own probe loaded with punk music. A few years later, some amoeba aliens arrive and...punch Ronald Reagan in the crotch, turn out to be huge punk enthusiasts and...yeah, this one's kind of crazy.

Personally, I found this story enjoyable. It didn't take itself too seriously and overall it was a pretty fun ride. That said, I can understand that this story's sense of humor might not be for everyone. When I listened to this story, i was reminded of those screwball comedies Hollywood constantly churns out. However, if this story was turned into a movie, I like to think it would be a bit better than most of those films.

In terms of narrations, I thought that Nathaniel did an excellent job. A fun story with hardly a single serious moment. I recommend it.

"The Color of a Brontosaurus" by Paul E. Martens
Narrated by Serah Eley
Originally Published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine

This story follows a paleontologist named Stu. He and his team have made a seemingly impossible discovery: a perfectly preserved human femur in the same rock stratum as an allosaurus fossil! This can only mean one thing: time travel is going to be invented. Stu has always dreamed of seeing his beloved dinosaurs in the flesh. It's a cause for celebration, yet his wife seems oddly blasé. Almost as though she's hiding something.

When I listened to this story, I was reminded of something Richard Dawkins once said. Paraphrased, he said that if we were to find a rabbit skeleton in the pre-Cambrian it would cause us to serious question the theory of evolution. Now, personally, if that were to happen, I'd probably be a bit like Stu. That is, I'd view it as concrete proof that time travel will be invented someday.

At one point or another, every paleontology fan has dreamed of traveling through time to see dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. I know that I've experienced that desire on more than a few occasions. This story really spoke to that feeling. I was able to spot the twists about halfway through the story, but that didn't make it any less enjoyable.

As for the narration, I thought that Serah did a great job. A fun little story about time travel wanderlust. I couldn't recommend it more.

"Frankie and the Spook" by Mike Resnick
Narrated by Serah Eley
Originally Published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

This story follows a computer genius, and wannabe writer, named Marvin. He was created a program/hologram that perfectly simulates the mind of Sir Francis Bacon. In doing so he learns that Bacon, not Shakespeare, was the one who wrote all of the plays. Hilarity ensues as the two, much to the Bacon simulacrum's dismay, embark on a series of literary collaborations.

Okay, so let's address the elephant in the room here. For those who don't know, there's a series of conspiracy theories that Shakespeare didn't actually write his plays. Popular candidates include Christopher Marlo and the Earl of Oxford. First of all, plays were often a collaborative effort. Second, many of Shakespeare's plays drew inspiration from preexisting poems and stories. Finally, there's simply too much evidence that Shakespeare was, in fact, the author of his plays. Though, obviously, it would take too much time to list them all here.

Now, with all of that in mind, I don't think that this story was meant to entertain the authorship conspiracy theory. It has a very laid back feel and doesn't take itself seriously. In fact, I don't think there was a single serious line of text in the whole story. As a comedic farce, it more than succeeds. It's one of those stories were the smart guys has to work, against his will, with a complete bumbling idiot. Also, there is a scene where the two collaborate to write an alternate history novel.

Once again, Serah knock it out of the park with the narration. A fun, if slightly controversial story. I recommend it.

"A Gun for Dinosaur" by L. Sprague de Camp
Narrated by Ayoub Khote
Originally Published in Galaxy Science Fiction

This story follows a pair of time travel tour guides as they prepare to take some guests on a dinosaur safari. While they wait for things to be set up they relate the story of a previous, and rather disastrous, dinosaur safari they conducted.

Don't get me wrong, overall this is a fairly fun story. It's a fun story, but it definitely shows its age. Many of the dinosaurs are depicted as slow, lumbering giants. These days, we know that dinosaurs were probably fairly active. There's also mention of some dinosaurs having second brains to help them move their large bodies. I can remember hearing this hypothesis when I was growing up in the 1990s, but it's since been disproved. One of the hazards the characters encounter is giant leeches that feed on the dinos. Again, most likely leeches of this size didn't actually exist.

I know it seems kind of negative, but I'm a paleontology nerd. These things stick out to me. If you can ignore the dated science, it's still actually a reasonably enjoyable story. For what it's worth, I thought that Ayoub handled the narration well.

It's reasonably enjoyable, even if the science is rather dated. I say give it a shot.

"Prophet of Dogs" by Bethany Edwards
Narrated by George Hrab
An Escape Pod Original

This story follows an average guy who works for community arts magazine. He always takes his cigarette breaks at a small park next to his office. He's been noticing a girl preaching doom and gloom. On a whim, he decides to talk to her. It turns out that she's a time traveler from the future, and she's here to witness an alien invasion that is about to happen.

There a central moral dilemma at the heart of this story: if you know something bad is about to happen, but you can only save one person, would you? Perhaps a better question, as the story itself concedes is, would that person even want to be saved?

One point I thought was particularly well done is when the protagonist and the time traveler discuss future events. Apparently, 9/11 is considered merely a footnote by future historians. There plenty of events that hold significance to us because we have an emotional connection to them. For future, generations, however, they'll just be a topic they learn about in history class. More cynically, there's always the possibility that something worse will happen at some point or another.

In terms of narration, I thought that Greg did a good job. A story that's sure to have you thinking for quite some time. It's also one I recommend.

"Parallel Moons" by Mario Milosevic
Narrated by Bill Bowman
Originally Published in Space and Time Magazine

This story is a three-for-one special. In the first story, a group of alien spaceships have encircled the Moon and are towing it away. In the second story, a group of nerds are petitioning to have the Moon reclassified as a planet. In the final story, a reporter is conducting an interview with a reclusive millionaire who is funding a project to blot out the Moon's reflective light.

Strictly speaking, I'm not sure that these stories count as alternate history. However, they do depict three different timelines and three very different fates for the Moon. That is good enough for my purposes. Also, thought they are three separate stories, they are tied together by the theme of the Moon being taken away from us somehow.

I enjoyed the structure of this story. It reminded me of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, a book that I am very fond of. The way that the three stories, though seemly separate, were connected by a common theme, plenty reminded me of the novel. Each of the stories themselves were well done. The first story gives a sense of how small humanity is in relationship to the universe. We don't know who the aliens are, or why they want the Moon, and humanity is powerless to stop them.

The second story actually has parallels to debates that are going on in the astronomical community. There actually is some debate about whether the Moon should be considered a planet because of its size. Though, within the story, the nerds are motivated by their desire to preserve artifacts from the Apollo missions. This put them in sharp contrast with the subject of the final story, millionaire Richard Mollene. He claims to be covering the Moon in ash because it reminds him of his deceased wife. However, given how smug, self-center and egotistical he comes off as, I'm inclined to think he did it just because he could.
                                                                                                              
You get three complete stories, and none of them feel out of place. To the contrary, they all complement each other quite nicely. This story requires a narrator who can juggle three different, yet connected, stories. Thankfully, Bill is the narrator this story needs.

Three stories for the price of one, all of them excellent. You won't want to miss this one.

"The Snow Woman's Daughter" by Eugie Foster
Narrated by Cunning Minx
Originally Published in Cricket Magazine

This story is set in Ancient Japan. It follows a young girl whose mother is a yuki-onna. Her mother has come to visit and invite the girl to live with her in the mountains as an immortal. It's a tempting offer, but the girl feels connected to the village she's grown up in. In particular, she rather fancies her neighbor boy Roku. What shall she choose?

I do love retellings of folktales and mythology. For those who don't know, yuki-onna are mythical creature from Japanese mythology. They are beautiful women with powers of snow and ice. They appear during snow storms and, depending on which legend you read, either guide travelers to safety or lure them to their death and suck out their heat. There's not too much to really say, it's short, sweet and satisfying.

Now, this story actually has a bit of a special place in the history of the Escape Artists podcasts. Not too long after this story was released, PodCastle premiered. One of those critical moments in the history of the Escape Artists captured in amber for all time. Getting back to the story, I thought that Cunning Minx really capture the emotional heart of the story.

It's short, perhaps a bit familiar, but ultimately quite satisfying. I say give it a try.

"The Battaile of the Mudde" by Anthony Tardiff
Narrated by J.J. Campanella
An Escape Pod Original

This story follows two teenage boys named Vincent and Dave. Vincent is a social awkward genius inventor, while Dave is his best friend who tries his best to keep Vincent out of trouble. Vincent is trying to impress a girl he likes named Melissa. She's taking part in a school play set in medieval times, so Vincent has built a time machine to get a dress for Melissa. Unfortunately, due to a miscalculation, his machine transports a medieval girl named Katherine along with the dress. Soon a zany misadventure ensues as the boys try to keep Melissa out of the loop, while trying to get the dress from Katherine.

We've got another story that is pure and unabashed fun. One particular funny part is when Vincent makes a translator for Katherine, since she speaks Middle English. However, since one of the sources he uses is a dictionary of slang, the resulting translations are usually rather humorous. I enjoyed Dave's snarky asides and commentary on everything. It really is an all around good time, and J.J. did an excellent job with the narration.

If I did have one criticism, it would be the host segment. I really could have done without Adam Pracht's political soapboxing. Now look, I understand that everyone at Escape Artists had strong feelings about the election. However, I also expect a certain degree of professionalism. We listeners come to Escape Pod to experience some of the best science fiction week after week. Treat this as you would any other job, and check your personal issues at the door. Besides, in these chaotic times, don't we all need a little escapism every now and again?

Now, on a related note, I understand that the Escape Artists have been increasing their push for diversity lately. That's is all very well and good, there's all sorts of great stories out their, penned by people from all walks of life. However, I would hope that you welcome authors who think differently than you, in addition to authors who look different than you. I guess what I'm trying to say is, promoting diversity of skin tone and sexuality mean nothing without promoting diversity of thought as well.

I didn't mean the above as a response to anything in particular. I just wanted to add a bit of food for thought, and I'm sorry if I came across as harsher than I meant to be. I have seen all of the Escape Artists podcasts do amazing things, and want to continue to see them be the best that they can be. I've seen you fly, and I know you can soar. Now then, allow me to wrap up this review.

A fun story about time traveling shenanigans, just be sure to skip the outro.

Conclusion


I don't want to end on too sour of a note. Sometimes, when I finish these lists, I like to take a moment to reflect on all the great stories that I’ve featured. I invite you to take a moment of reflection as well. This is just the start of the amazing journey through free audio fiction I’m going to take you guys on. I hope you enjoyed these sampling and give them a try. And hey, these as just the alternate history related stories, there's hundreds of other amazing stories just waiting to be listened to as well. Remember, if you like what you hear don't be shy about dropping a donation, Escape Pod is funded by its fans. 

There's so many great stories at Escape Pod, I've had to split this edition of the Alt-His File. Stay tuned for part 2 of our look at Escape Pod. Well, that enough from me for now. I will see you guys next time.