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. 

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