Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Alt-Hist File: The Drabblecast


Things are going to get a little weird in this installment of The Alt-Hist File.  Today we'll be talking about The Drabblecast. The Drabblecast brings strange stories, by strange authors, to strange listeners such as you and me. What that means is that The Drabblecast runs stories from a wide variety of genres and tones; their mission statement is that they never want there to be such a thing as a standard Drabblecast story. Of course, for our purposes we'll be focusing on alternate history and related stories.

The Drabblecast launched in 2007 by Norm Sherman, Kendall Marchman and Luke Coddington. Since those early days the crew has grown to include Nicky Drayden, Bo Kaier, Nathaniel Lee. Charity Helton and Tom Baker. You might remember Norm and Nathaniel from the post about Escape Pod, as well as Nathaniel's stories from PodCastle and Pseudopod. Though not a member of the Escape Artists podcasts, the connections between the crews certainly give The Drabblecast that feel. I often think of it as a weird cousin to the Escape Artists podcasts.

The Drabblecast has all sorts of celebrations. There's the annual Nigerian Scam Spam contest, HP Lovecraft Month, Women and Aliens Month that celebrates women writers of science fiction, and much more. Besides the main story each episode features a 100 word Drabble and a 100 character Twabble. Earlier episodes didn't include the original text of the stories, but later episodes usually do.

I know I often make a point of encouraging donations to the featured podcasts, and that's always good, but there are perks when you donate to The Drabblecast. For a ten dollars a month subscription you get access to exclusive members only stories and for a one time donation of fifty dollars or more, Norm will write and produce a song for you about whatever you want. In fact, Norm has recently released a collection of these songs on iTunes in addition to an album of his original songs. If you like your music in physical form you can purchase it from the Drabblecast website.

The way that music is integrated into the stories, and the awesome episode cover art, are some of those touches that really makes The Drabblecast standout from the crowd. Anyway, enough with the intro, let's move onto the stories...

"Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs" by Leonard Richardson
A Full Cast Production
Originally Published in Strange Horizons

This story takes place in a world where the dinosaurs evolved sentience and evacuated to Mars before the K-T asteroid struck Earth. Millions of years later the dinosaurs sent expeditions to Earth and discovered that humans had become the new dominate species. By the present many dinosaurs, such as our protagonists, come to Earth to participate in extreme sports competitions.

Now, from a scientific point of view, there's about a million different things that are implausible about this story. However, none of that takes away from how fun this story is. Dinosaurs and space exploration are two of my favorite topics, so naturally this story had me even before it started. Full cast productions usually have an advantage over single narrator productions and this story was no exception. All of the narrators did an excellent job.

It's got talking dinosaur dirt bikers from Mars. Need I say more?

"joanierules.bloggermax.com" by Nick Mamatas
Narrated by Naomi Mercer
Originally Published in Rabid Transit #2

Our story is told as a series of blog posts by a young woman named Joanie. She's been living a pretty normal live, but then she got a vision from God. You see, in this world England won the Hundred Years War, and God wants Joanie to liberate France in the name of the Mother Church.

In case you haven't figured it out by now, this is basically a modern day retelling of the life of Joan of Arc. Overall I found this story to be very enjoyable. We don't see much of this world beyond what's mentioned in Joanie's blog posts, but judging by that it doesn't seem to be too different from our own world. It would have been nice to see how history could have diverged, but since the author was retelling the story of Joan of Arc in the modern day, I can understand the desire to keep things familiar.

I though that telling the story as a series of blog post was a nice twist on the short story format. I also thought that Naomi did a great job conveying the snarky and conflicted tone of the story. There's a constant debate throughout the story of whether Joanie is crazy or really on a mission from God. However, given the number of seeming impossible happenings, and perfectly timed coincidences, I'm inclined to go with the latter.

A modern day take on Joan of Arc that I happily recommend.

"Night of the Cooters" by Howard Waldrop 
Narrated by Norm Sherman 
Originally Published in Omni Magazine

I know what some of you are thinking, and no, this isn't a dirty story. Of course, it isn't a particularly good story either. Our story takes place in a small town in 19th century Texas. News reports have mentioned strange crafts from Mars landing in England, but now those same craft have come to Texas. However, the Martians are going to have to get through Sheriff Lindley and his men first.

On the surface this should have been a fun story, but as someone who has actually read War of the Worlds, this story was incredibly irritating on a number of levels. The biggest flaw was the Sheriff Lindley and his men were able to beat back the Martians through enthusiasm and gung-ho manliness, and that's before the Martians got exposed to Earth germ. That completely flies in the face of the War of the Worlds, where the whole point is that the Martians are superior to Earth's technology and can't be brought down by such means.

Moreover, I found Lindley to be such an insufferable meathead that his characterization almost came across as a parody at points. Like how, after the Martians are defeated, he orders their war machines destroyed mostly to spite the local college professors; because apparently real men don't need higher education. Mr. Waldrop has succeeded in turning one of the greatest critiques of 19th century colonialism into a brainless pulp adventure. That's not to say all pulp is bad, escapism has its place, but War of the Worlds is most certainly not that place.

Two thumbs down. Don't waste your time with this one.

"The Last Great Clown Hunt" by Chris Furst
Narrated by Norm Sherman
Originally Published in Weird Tales #352

In this story we have a world in which tribes of clowns fill the role of the Native Americans. We follow our narrator from his first meeting with the clowns all the way to the Battle of the Little Bigtop. Okay, this one's kind of weird, but hey, it's The Drabblecast.

To be perfectly honest I'm not entirely sure how this story made me feel. I mean, it's got silly sound effects and clowns and all, but it also deals with the clowns fighting for survival and has Norm's serious sounding narration. My main issue is that I wasn't sure if I was suppose to take it as satire, take it seriously or something in between. Though, I suppose the third options was what the author intended.

Having said that, I think, iffy tone aside, it was still a reasonably good and fun story. I laughed, I contemplated and I had fun. Like I said, Norm's narration and the Dances with Wolves-esque soundtrack really added to the experience. Maybe I was a little hard on the tone.

A little weird, but a lot of fun. I say give it a shot.

"Love in the Pneumatic Tube Era" by Jessica Grant
Narrated by Kate Baker
Originally Published in Darwin's Bastards: Astounding Tales From Tomorrow 

It's often said that Canada doesn't get nearly enough alternate history love. Fortunately, this story has you covered. It's set in Canada in a world were pneumatic tubes are the primary means of shipping and transportation. It follows two lovers as their romance grows even as the tubes make personal interaction less and less required. Then transportation becomes highly regulated, and the age of pneumatic tubes comes to an end. The two loves must brave the odds to reunite.

When I listened to this story I was very much reminded of E.M. Forster's classic short story "The Machine Stops". For those of you wondering, that's the same E.M. Forster who wrote A Passage to India and A Room with a View. In both stories it's easy to see the advances in technology as the logical conclusion to our culture that simultaneously connects and isolates us with its advancements.

Now, let's talk about narration. Kate Baker is the host and narrator of the Clarkesworld Magazine podcast, which has some great stories we will cover in a future edition of The Audio File. Kate's narration is always a little hit and miss for me, but here it works perfectly. Overall it was a really cute romance story of love finding a way.

A sweet little story with a slight Canadian touch. I say give it a try.

"Testimony Before an Emergency Cession of The Naval Cephalopod Command" by Seth Dickinson 
Narrated by Norm Sherman
A Drabblecast Original

This story takes place in a world where, during the 1980s, the United States Navy developed a specially trained team of giant squids to combat Soviet submarines. By the present day, however, there's trouble. Nemo, the top squid of the program, is undergoing an existential crisis as he begins to realize that he isn't the only thinking creature in his world.

The story is told as something of a one-sided conversation between one of the members of the squid program and a senator. I always enjoy story in that sort of format as a means of changing up the short story form ever now and again. I also liked how the story made it clear just how alien a squid's mind is compared to a human's. Prior to his existential crisis, Nemo views the world as a series of levers to be manipulated in order to achieve various goals.

As usual, Norm did an excellent job narrating. He always seems at his best when he has these one sided conversation sort of stories. Also, random fun squid fact: squids have doughnut shaped brains because their digestive track passes right through their brains. And now you know.

A meditation on squids and our perception of reality. Very much recommended.

"The Ugly Chickens" by Howard Waldrop 
Narrated by Norm Sherman
Originally Published in Universe 10

Yes, I am about to review another Howard Waldrop story, but this time it's a story I actually enjoyed. The story follows an ornithologist named Paul from University of Texas. I chance encounter with an old woman while riding a bus has sent him on his latest field study. He's out to see if the dodos might in fact have escaped extinction and he'll need all the leads he can find.

Every writer has at least one bad story and the whole of their work shouldn't be judged by that single story. I'm happy to say that this story fully restored my confidence in Mr. Waldrop. I liked how the story feel like the adventures of a real ornithologist doing research. This story also spoke to that hope that I think many of us have that maybe there's still some mysteries left to be explored; and that perhaps those creatures we think are extinct are still out there waiting to be rediscovered.

Now, let's talk about narration. I think you can guess that I thought Norm did a great job. If I did have a complaint it would be that one of the older characters referring to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression was a tad cringe worthy; still, I have known plenty of older Southerners who talk like that, so I'm willing to let that slide. Like I've said, it's a great story with a bittersweet ending.

For a great Howard Waldrop story, look no further.

"Babel Probe" by David D. Levine
Narrated by Norm Sherman
Originally Published in Darker Matter #1

When humans first explore space we used mechanical probes. Perhaps when we begin to explore time we will also use probes. In this story that exactly what happens. A probe equipped with artificial intelligence is sent back 6000 years into the past to see if there's any truth to the legend of the Tower of Babel. The probe discovers the people being oppressed by a being calling itself Ashurbanipal. The probe must decide if it will casually observe or if it will intervene.

First of all, hats off to David for portraying an artificial intelligence that was at once both familiar and alien in its way of thinking. I also thought the vocal distortion effects for Ashurbanipal's dialog was an excellently chilling touch. The concept of sending a probe, and telling the story from the probe's point of view, was to me a welcome twist on the format of the time travel story. As this is a story about seeking truth to the legend of the Tower of Babel, among other twists you might have strong feeling if you are of strong religious conviction. Just figured I'd give a fair warning.

Now, remember how in the intro I mentioned that if you donate fifty dollars or more Norm will write and produce a song for you? Well, after this story you get to hear one of those. Specifically, one titled "The Babylon Battle of the Bands", which was commissioned by a Biblical and Near Eastern archaeology society and I've got to say it is an excellent song.

A story about the search for the truth, and one I happily recommend.

"The Reenactment" by Ben Winters

Narrated by Dan Chambers
A Drabblecast Original

This story follows high school history teacher Robert Stanley; a man who thinks himself surrounded by idiots. Once a year he, along with a math teacher, reenact the dual between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. This year, however, the math teacher is getting married and can't make it. No matter, a replacement has been found. As the day grows closer Robert begins to wonder if he is a mere history teacher or something greater.

Okay, maybe this isn't alternate history per say, but it's still plenty of fun. I loved how sarcastic and unabashedly self-centered Robert was. If Severus Snape taught history I image he'd be much like this. It goes without saying that Dan's narration did a great job delivering that pompous snark. Though as someone whose high school experience was less than happy I can certainly see where Robert is coming from in his observations of his students.

I can't really give too much of the ending away without spoiling, but I will say that it is humorously ironic. I'm sure it'll get a chuckle out of you.

A humorous look at a history's teachers life. I say give it a try.



"Garkain" by Samantha Henderson
Narrated by Graeme Dunlop, Mike Boris and Delianna Forget
Originally Published in Fantasy Magazine


We're heading to The Land Down Under for our next story. It follows three different individuals across three different eras of Australian History. What they all have in common, however, is that they have all had an encounter with a mysterious creature known only as the Garkain.

Not the best description, but this story is worth your time. I've always had a soft-spot for stories set in Australia, and for stories about cryptids. I loved that this story was set over three different time periods, not only because it gave us glimpses into Australian History, but because it gave the Garkain the weight of history. This added weight of history gave the Garkain even more of an air of mystery and intrigue. In terms of narration, I thought that all three narrators did a great job.

A historical creature feature from the Land Down Under that you won't want to miss out on.

"Once a Month, on a Sunday" by Ian McHugh
Narrated by Emma Lee Yit
Originally Published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine


This story's setting is a bit unclear. It appears to be either the 19th Century or the early 20th Century. Whatever the exact time period, it is a world where creatures from Australian folklore and legend are real and established fact of life for the people of Australia. The story follows a young girl and her family as they navigate the wilderness to attend their monthly church service.

Again, not the best description, but it is still a good story. I would have liked to have known a bit more about the world of the story. It seems a familiar, but it also seems just a bit off. For example, there is a mention of a Green Christ. I've heard of Jesus being referred to as White Christ by the Norse, in contrast to Red Thor, but never as Green Christ by anyone. Regardless, I still greatly enjoyed getting to see the different the different creatures from folklore, and the way they characters had adjusted their lives to keep them at peace.

I also enjoyed Emma's narration. Another Australian story you'll be sure to enjoy.

"Morris and the Machine" by Tim Pratt
Narrated by Norm Sherman and Monica Vacey
Originally Published in Triangulations: The End of Time

This story follows a man named Morris who has invented a time machine. He and his wife have an increasingly strained relationship, and he uses the time machine to go back to when they were younger and happier. Morris is sacrificing his present to relive the past, but is it a price he can truly afford to pay?

Sooner or later we all get to a point in our lives when things get rough and we long for simpler times. Then there are those decision that we regret and would give anything to be able to undo. Tim really taps into those feelings with this story. There's a lot of things in my own life that I wish I could go back and fix. Still, the story also carries a moral about the dangers of dwelling on the past at the expense of the present. As Morris discovers, he can't change the past, but he can create alternate timelines. It makes the story bittersweet; Morris couldn't fix his relationship in own timeline, but at least there's hope for his own for is alternate universe doppelgänger.

Sometimes it makes me feel better to think of how much better off I am than several alternate versions of me. Of course, that's usually followed by me thinking about all the alternate universes where I'm better off than in this one. In more positive thoughts, I thought that Norm and Monica's narration really did this story justice.

A bittersweet Tim Pratt time travel story that you won't want to miss.

"The Golden Age of Fire Escapes" (Part 1 and Part 2) by John Aegard

Narrated by Norm Sherman and Monika Vasey
Originally Published in Rabid Transit: Petting Zoo

This story, told in the style of an old time radio show and set in a dieselpunk 1930s/1940s, follows a mysterious masked fire marshal as he fights to keep his city safe from fires. To this end he's created an elaborate system of fire escapes spanning across the city like a great metal spider web. But, will his greatest invention prove to be his ultimate downfall?

This story felt like a giant dieselpunk love letter to the pulp heroes/proto-superheroes of the 30s and 40s. The narration being modeled off of radio shows from those eras certainly helped in that regard. We see the fire marshal at the height of his glory and then fade into obscurity even after all he's done for his city. Perhaps it can be seen as a allegory for the many heroes ones beloved in their day, but in the present are incredibly obscure. Still, the ending was very heartwarming in its own way.

I should mention that this is actually a double feature. Before "The Golden Age of Fire Escapes" you get to listen to "In Search of the Mongolian Death Worm", which follows an Unsolved Mysteries-esque team as they...well, search for the Mongolian Death Worm. It's told in multiple parts, but you don't have to have listened to any of the previous installments to get what's going on. It's absolutely hilarious and you get to hear Norm sing a song about Mongolian Death Worms.

Two stories for the price of one. Get them while they're hot.

"Hero: The Movie" (Part 1 and Part 2) by Bruce McAllister
Narrated by Norm Sherman
Originally Published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

What happens to the heroes of 1950s B-Movies when the camera stop rolling? That's what this story aims to find out. Our hero Rick has saved his hometown of McCulloughville, Nevada from a swarm of giant mutant locusts. Rick should be on top of the world, but he feels empty and hollow. Before long his star fades out, his girlfriend leaves him, the media turns against him and things are looking down. Then he gets a call from Florida to help deal with a crab infestation. Could this be the chance he's been looking for to redeem himself and bring purpose back into his life?

The first half of this story is an absolutely brutal deconstruction of B-Movies and their heroes. The second half, however, is a thorough reconstruction of the concepts. The story itself is presented in the form of a script of a movie, and besides the descriptions and dialog includes suggestions from the director. Another aspect worth mentioning is that, although the story is mostly set in the present day, McCulloughville seems to be forever stuck in the 50s. In fact, when Rick travels to it the description reads as if he's traveling back in time.

There's something going on, but the story never makes it clear what. The story can easy be seen as a coming of age tale for Rick and the ending is very touching. You probably think I'm going to say I liked the narration...and you'd be right.

A story about finding purpose after you've slayed your monster. I happily recommend it.

"The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin
A Full Cast Production
Originally Published in Astounding Science Fiction

This story technically isn't alternate history and many of you have probably heard of it. However, there's a story in Lightspeed Magazine, which we'll be covering next time, that is alternate history and based on this story. Therefore, I figured it be worth going over to prep for that story.

In the future, where humanity has begun to spread to the stars, a lightweight speeder ship is on a mission to deliver medical supplies. The pilot of the ship, however, discovers a seventeen year old girl has stowed away. Standard procedure is that all stowaways are to be tossed out the airlock. Can the pilot find the a way to balance the cold equations and save the girl?

Like I said this story, and it's ending, are extremely well known, as in Rosebud was Charles Foster Kane's beloved childhood sled well known. Therefore, it isn't exactly a spoiler to say the pilot can't find a morally sound way and the girl willingly throws herself out the airlock. Originally, the author wanted to save the girl through some technobabble, but editor John W. Campbell smartly pointed out the story would have more impact if the hero failed the save the pretty girl.

Now, to take such a well known story and make it feel fresh requires a special team of narrators. Fortunately, The Drabblecast knows how to pick their narrators. Of course, I guess it's also a credit to Mr. Godwin's writing talent that the story still packed it's punch after all of these years.

It's a classic for a reason. Go check it out.

Conclusion

Well, that does it for our tour of The Drabblecast. I hope you enjoyed. Remember, for ten dollars a month subscription you, yes you, get access to exclusive members only content, and fifty dollars or more gets you a song about whatever you please. And hey, this is just the alternate history stuff. There's plenty of more great free stories just waiting to be discovered.


I think that should do it for now. As I previously stated we're paying a visit to Lightspeed Magazine next time. I'll see you then weirdos! 

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Riordan Retrospective: The Throne of Fire


Welcome back to the Riordan Retrospective.  For those of you just joining the fun, this is my look back at the works of Rick Riordan.  That means we're taking a look at Percy Jackson, its sequel series and its spin-off series. This is less of a formal review, and more of a look back, along with my thoughts and observations.  Last the we began our look back at The Heroes of Olympus with a look back at The Lost Hero.  This time we're returning to The Kane Chronicles.  We're taking a look back at The Throne of Fire, The Kane Chronicles book 2.  Let's kick things off with a brief summary.


Carter and Sadie Kane have had their hands full over the past few months.  They converted Brooklyn House into a training facility for magicians who want to learn how to channel the gods and use their magic.  Things only get more stressful when they learn that Apophis, the serpent of chaos, is going to be loose in only a few days.  To stop Apophis they'll need to find the god Ra, but there's just one problem: nobody has seen Ra in centuries.  To find Ra they'll have to find all three section of the Book of Ra and learn how to correctly chant its spells.  Along the way they'll have to survive devious gods and scheming magicians from the House of Life.

Okay, as per usual there will be a lot of spoilers from this point forwards.  Turn back now if you don't like that sort of thing.

Okay, people who don't like spoilers gone?  Now let's dive into the discussion of The Throne of Fire.

It's often said that the middle book of a trilogy is always the best book in that series.  I don't know if that's always true, but it's certainly the case for The Kane Chronicles.  Red Pyramid had the task of introducing the characters and setting up the world.  Serpent's Shadow had to wrap everything up and tie-up the loose ends.  Thrones of Fire, however, gets to really explore the characters and their world without having the pressure of having to open or close the story. 

Let's talk about the new characters, starting with Zia.  The Zia we met in the previous book turned out to have been a shabti.  She was timid and demure, but what about the real Zia?  Turns out she's the exact opposite.  She's fiery, passionate, snarky and a bit of a live wire.  Her fiery personality is rather fitting, given that she specializes in fire magic.  I did get some shades of Thalia Grace with Zia's characterization.  I also noticed that she and Sadie had fairly similar temperaments; could explain why they hit it off so well.  Another thing I liked is that Zia is a well-written Arab character who is not a Muslim.  Remember this, it will be important when we get to Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard.

There something to consider about Carter's relationship with Zia, or rather, her shabti counterpart: just how much did he really love her?  Carter clearly saw something of himself in Zia, they'd both be raised as almost the only kids in places dominated by adults.  However, because of his upbringing of archeological digs and home schooling with his dad, Carter never really got much interaction with people his own age.  Does he truly understand what it is to be in love?  Where his feeling merely infatuation?  Carter spends some time sorting things out for himself.  

Now let's talk about Walt Stone.  He is the head sau, which means charm maker, at Brooklyn House and is also one of Sadie's love interests.  He's descended from the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, and as a result, is cursed to die young.  It is explained that this was the reason Tutankhamun, who was Akhenaten's son, died young.  This might have a kernel of truth to it.  Art during Egypt's Amarna period, named after the city Akhenaten moved Egypt's capital to, depicts Akhenaten and his children noticeably different than pervious art styles.  Scholars have debated if this really was how he looked, and thus indicative of disease, or if it was merely an artistic choice. 

Anyway, this revelation about Walt heritage also leads to Riordan dancing around some of the religious implications a bit.  He really does a pretty bad job explaining the religious changes Akhenaten made, while also trying to reconcile that with a world where gods are a concrete fact.  Basically, Akhenaten thought that the priest of Amun-Ra were getting a bit too powerful for his taste.  In order to knock them down a peg, he created a new religion based around the worship of the sun, known as Aten, and thus (arguably) founding the first monotheistic religion in the world.  However, the new religion was extremely unpopular with the Egyptian people, and the worship of the traditional gods of Egypt was restored by Tutankhamun (with help from the priests of Amun-Ra) shortly after Akhenaten's death.

This brings me to something I brought up back when we were looking at Percy Jackson and the Olympians: doesn't it bother the gods that hardly anyone worships or believes in them?  The Egyptian gods are a bit of a different case than the Greek gods, since they've been imprisoned for all those year, except those times they managed to escape or be set free.  Still, none of them are bothered that they've been supplanted by some punk from Judea and another punk from Arabia?  I mean, they seem to be sustained more by people remembering their stories, rather than genuine belief, but don't they long for sacrificial smokes and all that?  Well, we'll get more into that when we get to Magnus Chase...in case it wasn't abundantly clear, the retrospectives for Hammer of Thor and Ship of the Dead (to a lesser extent) are going to be bloodbaths.

On that note, we get some insight into the interaction between the different pantheons.  Sadie and Walt visit the Valley of the Golden Mummies, where they met some Romans who were unable to move onto the Egyptian afterlife because they were improperly mummified.  They're clearly devoted to the Roman gods, but wound up defaulting to the Egyptian afterlife because of how they were buried.  Keep that in mind, it will have significant when we get to The Serpent's Shadow.  I enjoyed how they acted a bit like stuffy tourists.  Egypt was already ancient by Roman times, and was a pretty popular vacation destination for Romans.  Of course, they're fate is also pretty terrifying when you think about it.  They'd been stuck in the tomb for nearly two millennia before Sadie and Walt sent them on their way.  

Sadie's other love interest, the god Anubis, bares more than a passing resemblance to Nico di Angelo. Given certain revelations about Nico, which we'll discuss in The House of Hades, this is somewhat amusing in hindsight.  Sadie and Anubis' relationship is also notable in that it is the first time a character, other than a parent, romanced one of the gods.  I kind of figured how the Anubis-Sadie-Walt love triangle was going to be resolved, but let's save that for when we get to Serpent's Shadow.  

There's a scene towards the beginning where Carter mentions that he once saw a pegasus flying over Manhattan, but dismisses it was just seeing things. An obvious nod to how The Kane Chronicles takes place in the same universe as Percy Jackson and the Olympians.  Still, given that he'd just found out that Egyptian Mythology is real not all that long ago, you'd think Carter would be more open-minded. 

I thought that Set's characterization was well done.  He's chaotic and unpredictable, god of chaos and all that, but he's clearly on the side of the good guys.  Also, I loved just how crazy awesome he was. Overall, the Egyptian gods came across as much nicer and more helpful than their Greek counterparts.  Though, personally, I thought that Isis and Horus were a bit snootier than they should have been.  I really appreciated the theme of gods and humans working together.  The gods have power, but they're creatures of habit, and tend to be set in their ways.  They need the creativity of humans to bring about change.  

That's another thing that makes The Kane Chronicles distinct from Percy Jackson.  Percy Jackson had a big theme about history and myths reaping.  This makes a certain amount of sense; the Ancient Greeks were big on the concept of cyclical time.  The Kane Chronicles, while certainly the myths, goes in its own direction.  In fact, back in The Red Pyramid, Thoth only offered to help Carter and Sadie if they promised they weren't going to just repeat the old stories.  Also, going back to what I said last time, The Throne of Fire continues the globe trekking feel of The Kane Chronicles.  We get scenes set in London, St. Petersburg, several places in Egypt, and of course the Duat.  In fact, the scenes at Brooklyn House and thereabout are the only scenes set in America.    

Speaking of the Duat, we find out what happens to Egyptian gods who are forgotten.  Given that there were over 3000 Egyptian gods, there's a lot of those.  They apparently wind up at a magical retirement home, which is where Ra, who has become a senile old man, was this whole time.  Let us all take a moment to appreciate how, by distracting Apophis, Ra was able to save the world from certain destruction with the power of weasel cookies. 

I enjoyed getting to meet all of the new members of Brooklyn House.  One of the downsides of The Kane Chronicles only being three books long is that the minor characters didn't have as much time to shine, like the minor characters in Percy Jackson and the Olympians did.  Of course, Rick really used most of the Egyptian myths in the three books we got, so there was a bit of a limit on how long the series could go for.  I loved Felix and his obsession with penguins.  Cleo from Rio is somewhat amusing in light of how Rick Riordan's books have taken off in Brazil.  In fact, the Brazilian fandom is almost as huge of the American fandom.  Fun fact, the Brazilian fans are why we call him Uncle Rick; it started when they took to calling him Tio Rick.

Jaz seemed like she was going to play a bigger role, which isn't to say she did nothing.  She provided support, in spirit form, to Carter and Sadie.  Still though, I can't help but feel that she was underutilized.  As stated, I kind of feel that way about all of the new recruits. 

There also don't seem to be quite as many monsters, but that's understandable.  Egyptian Mythology doesn't have quite as big of a bestiary as Greek Mythology does.  To make up for it, with get plenty of varieties of demons, and we do get some cool creatures.  Case in point, Freak the Egyptian Griffin, and back in The Red Pyramid we got the serpopards. 

Now let us analyze the covers.  The original cover features Carter and Sadie hanging onto Ra's solar barge, which is old and tattered from lack of use.  The titular Throne of Fire blaze bright as they ride down sand dunes covered in scarab beetles.  There is a purple hue to the background evoking myth, mystery and adventure.  All in all, an excellent cover.


Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the new cover.  They're standing on the top of...Brooklyn House, I guess.  There's the Throne of Fire in the background, and there's purple light, but it just doesn't evoke the same feeling as the original cover.  In fact, it looks a bit like a bad comic book cover. 

To prevent us from going out on too much of a negative note, I'm going to take this opportunity to plug the excellent audiobook version of The Throne of Fire.

I think that should do it for now.  We're returning to The Heroes of Olympus next time for a look back at The Son of Neptune.  I will see you all then. 


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Audio File: Changes

It seems like it was only yesterday I was writing the first edition of what would become The Audio File and The Alt-Hist File over on The Alternate History Weekly Update. Both of my audio fiction review columns have brought a lot of change and opportunities to my life. So, I've decided to make change the theme of today's edition of The Audio File.

Buddha famously stated that the only thing that is certain in life is that change is constant. Avenue Q famously noted that, except for death and paying taxes, everything in life is only for now. Embrace it or resist it, love it or hate it, change will find you sooner or later. Some of you might be wondering why I've included a picture of butterflies. I did this because the metamorphosis from caterpillar, to chrysalis to butterfly is one of the most quintessential examples of change found in nature.



The stories for this edition of The Audio File are brought to us courtesy of the good people of Escape Pod, Lightspeed Magazine, Cast of Wonders, Pseudopod, PodCastle, The Drabblecast, StarShipSofa, Clarkesworld Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and The Overcast.

I think that's enough intro for now. So, without further ado, it is story time...


Escape Pod


Start the Clock” by Benjamin Rosenbaum 
Narrated by Chris Fisher
Originally Published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

This story takes place in a world where one day, for no apparent reason, everyone on Earth stopped aging. By the time of the story a treatment has been developed to allow people to resume aging. This is known as “starting the clock.” The story follows a woman, who physically is nine years old, named Suze. She’s been more than happy to be eternally nine, but her friend Abbey wants to start the clock. It isn’t long before Suze finds her long-held beliefs being challenged.

This story has a special significance to me, because it was the first Escape Pod story I ever listened to. I’d been searching for this story ever since I read about it on TV Tropes, and I stumbled across Escape Pod. I was passingly familiar with the concept of stories being read on podcasts, so I decided to give it a listen. I enjoyed what I heard, so I decided to check out the other stories Escape Pod had to offer. And the rest, as they say, is history.

There’s some really great worldbuilding in this story. For example, people who were nine when everyone stopped aging have it the best. Their brains retain the flexibility of youth and they can easily pick up new skills. On the flip side, for those unfortunate enough to have been going through puberty…well, the results aren’t pretty. The thing that really sold me on this story, besides the great plot, was Chris’ excellent narration.

“Start the Clock” is one of first Escape Pod stories I ever listened to, and still remains one of my favorites. Of course I recommend it.

Movement” by Nancy Fulda
Narrated by Marguerite Kenner 
Originally Published in Asimov’s

This story is set in Germany in the moderately near future. It follows an autistic girl name Hannah. She is an extraordinarily talented dancer, but her parents worry about her lack of verbal communication. They are considering using a non-invasive procedure to improve Hannah’s communication, but this will come at the cost of her dancing ability. Hannah herself is less than enthusiastic about the prospect. The story follows her on a walk across the city as she ponders many things.

Okay, not the best description, but it’s worth your time. I don’t know if I ever brought this up, but I am on the autism spectrum…sort of. I have PDD, Pervasive Developmental Disorder; it is similar to, but not exactly the same, as Asperger’s and contains aspects of other disorders such as Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Anxiety and OCD.

With all of that out of the way, I really think that Nancy did an excellent job of capturing the autistic mind. No two autistic people are alike, especially given how varied autism can be, but I related to many of the things Hannah thinks throughout the story. Throughout the story there’s the theme changes, especially as they relates to evolution. There is a lot of debate about why exactly autism came to be. Many autistics tend to be highly specialized in particular fields, so perhaps the lack of social skills is a bit of a trade off that could have potential benefits. Additionally, autistics often approach problems differently than neurotypical people. Admittedly, that’s still somewhat speculative, but I think there’s at least a bit of merit to the idea.

Then there’s the matter of the “cure.” When I first read this story, I was scratching my head wondering what it could be. After doing some digging, I conclude it would have most likely been some kind of electromagnetic stimulation. That is something that has been proposed for treating autism. I can certainly sympathize with Hannah’s desire to stay as she is. I don’t know if I’d want to change something so fundamental about myself.

This is a story that provides plenty of food for thought. I also enjoyed the themes of embracing change and being true to your own self, rather than giving in to the expectations of others. Speaking of things that I enjoy, I really enjoyed Marguerite’s narration.

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

Trusted Messenger” by Kevin Wabanunsee
Narrated by Phillip Lanos
An Escape Pod Original

This story is set on an alien planet that was colonized by Native Americans. Earth organisms are incompatible with the planet’s biochemistry, but the colonists survive thanks to a symbiotic relationship with some starfish-esque organisms. The story follows a doctor named Thaddeus Begay. His latest trouble case is a woman named Suzanne Buenaventura. She refuses to subject herself and her son to the bonding process with the aliens. Without the aliens Suzanne and her son will starve. Thaddeus is about to face one of his greatest moral dilemmas.

You don’t often see Native Americans in science fiction. Granted, they collectively only make up about one percent of America’s population, so perhaps there’s a reason for that. Still, it was nice to see them all the same. One of the great testaments to the strength of the Native American people is that, for all that life has thrown at them, they have managed to survive. Sometimes that meant having to adapt and change with the times, yet they are still standing. I will say it did seem odd that the Native Americans had decided to strike out on a new planet. The Earth is considered sacred in many Native traditions, and they’ve certainly fought hard for what little scraps they still have. Though, admittedly, certain scenes suggest that their colonial venture might not have been an entirely voluntary endeavor.

You can see parallels in this story to people, like anti-vaxxers and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who resist medical treatment because of their beliefs. My personal option is that, if you want to make yourself a martyr for your cause, more power to you. However, you shouldn’t be allowed to make martyrs out of your kids. Of course, then there’s the matter of people of who have others, such as children, depending on them being alive. Thaddeus find himself pondering such issues. Even after he makes his big decision, he still questions if he’s made the right choice. If you want to find out what the choice was, you’ll have to listen to the story.

In terms of narration, I thought that Phillip did a great job. “Trusted Messenger” is a story of adaption and survival on an alien planet. I give it a recommendation.

"Your Body, By Default" by Alexis Hunter
Narrated by Alex Acks
Originally Published in Fireside Fiction

This story takes place in the not too distant future. Technology has advanced to the point where the minds of slain soldiers can be downloaded into backup bodies. Unfortunately, the bodies only come in male. Naturally, this is a problem for female soldiers, such as the protagonist of this story.

Now, that summary might not sound like much...but the story is even worse. Now, obviously our protagonist is in an undesirable situation, so she'll obviously be feeling some angst. Unfortunately, that's how she spends the entire story, and it gets very irritating very quickly. When your characters are nothing but sad, without even the briefest moments of even minor happiness, the audience gets bored like listening to a song with only one cord. Don't just have the characters wallow in misery, give some levity every now and again.

Moreover, all of the government officials come across as robotically heartless to be point of feeling like cartoon villains. Really, half the army is female, and they consider it too much of a burden to make female bodies? Bullshit, anyone with two brain cells to rub together would know that male soldiers and females soldiers require different bodies. This story feels like it's try to to be preachy, but it can never decide what exactly it's trying to preach. Well, it did until I listened to the afterword from the author.

Apparently, Alexis was outrage over the fact that it's The Current Year (TM) and yet not all video games let you choose the gender of the player character. Yeah, this is what we call first world problems. In light of this, the story makes slightly more sense, but is still incredibly stupid.

I think it goes without saying that I do not recommend this story at all.

"Mother Tongues" by S. Qiouyi Lu
Narrated by Rebecca Wei Hsieh
Originally Published in Asimov's

This story takes place in the not too distant future where instead of learning languages, for a price, you can have any language you want downloaded directly into your brain.  Different levels of proficiency sell at different prices, and those who sell their language lose their knowledge of it due to nature of the scanning process. All of this weighs heavy on our protagonist Jiawen Liu, a Chinese immigrant in America. She needs money for her daughter to get into a good college. Her English isn't quite good enough to sell, but her Mandarin will fetch quite the price if she chooses to sell. How far will she God to give her daughter a chance at a good life?

Throughout the year many immigrant groups have had to give up their customs, including language, in an effort to better assimilate into American life. For example, many German-Americans had to give up their German language due to anti-German sentiment during World War I. Sometimes, languages are lost simply because parents just don't have to time to pass it on, or because their kids aren't interested in learning. It can certainly be sad to see a language starting to die out, but sometimes that's just how it goes.

I have always struggled with learning languages with entire life. Sometimes I feel like I barely know how to speak English. As you can imagine, Spanish class was always a major uphill climb for me. Being able to just download a language sounds like a dream come true. Then again, progress often comes at a price. I've always been of the opinion that America would be better off declaring English the official language, and for immigrants to be required to learn at least basic English before being considered for admittance to America. I bring this up because it is a testament to S. Qiouyi Lu's skill as a writer that I was able to empathize and sympathize with the main character.

Not everything translates across language barriers; there's always something that gets lost in translation. I do wonder how Jiawen was able to think about certain concepts if she lacked the ability to articulate them in English. It was also a bit sad that Jiawen wound up losing her ability to talk to her Cantonese-speaking mother, because her Mandarin and Cantonese were so intertwined.

Also, though it was never mentioned outright, it appears that there was large influx of Chinese immigrants to America. It's mentioned that China has taken a open-door policy, and the part of California that Jiawen lives in has Mandarin billboards and ATMs that offer English and Mandarin. The story ends on a bit of a bittersweet note, but I like to think that, in time, Jiawen's daughter will be able to understand why she did what she did.

In terms of narration, Rebecca did an excellent job of translating this story into audio form. "Mother Tongues" is a story of love, sacrifice and change. I give this one a hearty recommendation.

"Even the Queen" by Connie Willis
Narrated by Veronica Giguere
Originally Published in Asimov's
1993 Hugo and Nebula Award Winner

This story takes places in the near future (for the time it was written). A drug called ammenerol has been produced that has made periods and menstruation things of the past for most women. There is a small fringe group, known as Cyclists, who swear off ammenerol in favor of, what they claim is, a more natural lifestyle. The story revolves around a family of women who are planning to stage an intervention when our main character's daughter considers joining the Cyclists.

I'd actually been hoping to listen to this story for a while, and I'm very happy that Escape Pod decided to run it. There are certain points you can tell this story was written during the 1990s, such as the descriptions of the geopolitical situations. However, it's also interesting to contrast the story's approach to feminism with modern feminism. For example, when Tracey, our main character, and her family are meeting with one of the leaders of the Cyclists they specifically request that she bring her male assistant to provide a male perspective. By contrast, modern feminism had become downright misandrist and packed with anti-male rhetoric.

The really sad part is, many modern feminist would probably side with the Cyclists' paranoid belief that ammenerol is some sort of unnatural patriarchal conspiracy. If you've even spent any appreciable amount of time of Tumblr or Twitter you'll been keenly acquainted with feminists who are...a bit too obsessed with the menstrual cycles, shall we say. As an aside, I'm of the opinion that natural is a word that is overused and poorly understood. I mean, technically speaking, crude oil and anthrax are natural. Point being, natural doesn't automatically mean good. Also worth nothing that many of the excessive elements of the modern feminism movement got their start in the 1990s. Certainly adds another layer to the story.

Now, some people might say that Tracey and her family should have accepted her daughter's choice, but I disagree. First, I think they wanted to make sure she had all the information before making such a major choice. Second, just because it was her choice doesn't mean it wasn't a stupid-ass choice.

Science fiction has always been about pondering the effects of technological advancements on society, and this story was no different. I guess if there's one thing you can really take away from this story its that, no matter what wondrous advancements we make, there will always be at least some people pinning after the so-called "good old days".

You know what actually is verifiably good? Veronica's narration of this story. "Even the Queen" takes a touchy subject and handled it with humor and good grace. I happily recommend it.

Lightspeed Magazine


Faces in Revolving Souls” by CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan
Narration N/A
Originally Published in Outsiders

This story follows a woman named Sylvia. She is part of a subculture, known as Chimera, that modify themselves to look more like animals. Sylvia has just had her first surgery and is at a convention for the Chimera. It should be the happiest day of her life. So why is she so uneasy?

I did a little something different with this one. As you probably know, magazines such as LightspeedClarkesworld and Beneath Ceaseless Skies produce text-only stories alongside the podcast they produce. There are times where I find a text-only story so good I just have to share it with you guys. So it is with this story. Now that we’ve got all of that out of the way, let’s talk about the story itself.

You could see this story as a critique of the Furry movement, and many Furries have certainly expressed interest in the procedures this story describes. However, I think there’s more to it than that. This story is more of an allegory for transgenderism, and all the things that can potentially go wrong when transitioning. Without giving too much away, Sylvia’s surgery didn’t go quite how she wanted it to. There are also mentions of another Chimera who was altered to look like a wolf, but his now non-human mouth has trouble forming words.

There’s plenty that can go wrong when transitioning. Hormone Replacement Therapy can increase the odds of developing certain aliments, there can be surgical complications, and even if everything goes right you still might never be able to get the look you truly want. Point I’m trying to make is, it’s not easy being transgender. I really think this story captured those feelings of trans people wanting to be true to themselves, while also being worried about what might go wrong.

“Faces in Revolving Souls” might be text-only, but you won’t want to miss out on it. I happily recommend it.

Recording Angel” by Ian McDonald
Narration N/A
Originally Published in Interzone

In this story alien probes have arrived on Earth. Instead of landing in-front of the White House or the United Nations, they’ve been seeding the Southern Hemisphere with seeds and spores. Places such as Ecuador, the Maldives and Papua New Guinea find themselves being transformed by ever encouraging alien plant life. The story follows a reporter named Gaby McAslan, who is on assignment in Kenya to report on the expanding alien jungle. Along the way she meets an old White African named Prenderleith, and they discuss the ways in which Kenya has been changed.

This is another text-only story, but it is well worth your time. You don’t often see White Africans in fiction, so it was nice to see Prenderleith in such a prominent role. You get that he’s the product of a bygone era, the last of the Great White Hunters. He has seen Kenya change before, and he provides an interesting perspective on the invasive alien plants changing Kenya. I also like the implication that the alien invasion might not have been malevolent. The plants are changing Earth organisms, but in ways that seem to bring them to their fullest potential.

“Recording Angel” is a story of change and adaption in a near future Kenya. I give it a recommendation.

Narrated by Stefan Rudnicki

This story is told in the form of a list/message. An intergalactic commission has been reviewing whether or not humanity is worthy to join the greater galactic community. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, humanity has been deemed unworthy. However, rather than destroying humanity, the commission has decided to genetically reassign humans to one of the races, of each human's choosing, that makeup the intergalactic community. The list is pretty small, because most of the galactic community was so disgusted/repulsed by humanity, but it presents our options.

I've always had a soft spot for stories that are presented as lists. There's so many fun ways a story can go, depending on what the author includes on the list. Adam-Troy certainly did not disappoint with this story. We get species ranging from giant sentient earthworm aliens to sentient arguments. Another fun species is the one that looks like a butterfly and spends its days spreading pollen and singing praise to the divine. Did I mention that their voices sound like shrieking violins, and that their lifespan is only five minutes long? 

So, how did humanity get in this predicament? Why, because dolphins reported us for polluting the Earth. Yeah, not only are dolphins sentient, but there are at least eight sentient species on Earth. Despite this, some dolphins apparently spoke on humanity's behalf. I guess you could say that, despite our nets and tuna fleets, they thought at least some of us were sweet. On a related note, I wonder if mice are one of the other sentient species from Earth.

I don't know what I'd pick if I had to chose. There is a race of beings who resemble humans and are, for all intents and purposes, a pantheon of gods. However, they'll only be taking a limited number of humans, so my odds would be pretty slim. Being a dolphin might be fun, but I'm kind of scared of deep water. Also, the oceans are highly acidic, almost completely devoid of fish and full of plastic. All of that, and the dolphins have made it pretty clear that they won't treat any of the former humans very well. The option for those who don't pick anything is pretty nightmarish as well.

However, what's not nightmarish is Stefan's narration. He did an excellent job as usual. This one's a fun little story that you won't want to miss out on.

"Fifty Shades of Grays" by Steven Barnes
Narrated by Vikas Adams

This story follows an advertising expert named Carver Kofax. He and his partner Rhonda Washington are experts at making people seem attractive to those who would normally be repulsed by them. They're about to taking on their biggest project yet: making amoeba aliens appealing to humans as part of first contact. Their campaign becomes a smashing success, but is that really the best thing for humanity?

Okay, there's one aspect of this story we need to get out of that way: it involves humans having sex with the amoeba aliens. It's actually a bit deeper than just that. The humans windup liking sex with the aliens so much that they lose interest in having sex with humans, which has all kind of consequences for human society. Some of you might not be able to look past the humans and aliens having sex aspects of this story, but I urge you to give this story a chance. It is actually a very layered story with several themes. For example, you can potentially see this story as a metaphor for colonialism.

I really enjoyed the style of writing itself with this story. It had a very down-to-earth and direct quality to it. I also enjoyed Vikas' spot-on narration of this story. Vikas treated this story with the upmost of seriousness, as it well deserved.

"Fifty Shades of Grays" might have a strange premise, but it is well worth your time. Very much recommended.

"Each to Each" by Seanan McGuire
Narrated by Janis Ian

This story is set in the relatively near future. The American military has created a special program that surgically and genetically alters female soldiers  to engage in subaquatic warfare. The story follows a pod of these female soldiers.

Okay, not the best synopsis, but I promise you that this story is worth your time. I've always been of the opinion that there need to be more ocean-based science fiction stories. As such, I was very happy that this story was set in the ocean. At first glance the ways the soldiers have been altered seemed kind of cool, but then the story goes into just how horrific the procedures were. For example, one of the mods with module off of jellyfish, and the women who go through that have to get most of their bones removed. Some of the women have been so severely altered they can't speak; they can only communicate in clicks and whistles. The women are also thin and lack any blubber, despite how useful that would be in the cold waters of the deep ocean.

So the female soldiers have basically become guinea pigs for the military, and have been throughly dehumanized. Yet despite it all the women have managed to survive. They have become something not entirely human, and perhaps not entirely singular either. Also, for those wondering, the title is a reference to the famous TS Eliot poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock".

In terms of narration I thought that Janis did an excellent job. I give "Each to Each" a firm recommendation.


Cast of Wonders


Mercurial Skin” by Raechel Henderson
Narrated by Marguerite Kenner 
Cast of Wonders Original

This story is set in a world where, after a certain age, everyone transforms into something else. Some become vampires, others become werewolves and a few become things such as books. The story follows a girl named Jodi. She still hasn’t figured out what she wants to be. She’s in a love with a vampire boy, but he’s dating someone else, and she’s not sure she’d want to be a vampire. Jodi does have a love for books, and they seem to whisper to her. Could that be something?

This story isn’t that long, so I won’t spend much time on it. It was an interesting concept, and I do wonder about what I might choose to be in such a world. Though I do wonder why some people choose to become inanimate objects. Seems like it wouldn’t be a very good life. I don’t know what I’d pick, but at the very least, it would be something that could move around and talk. In terms of narration, I though Marguerite did a good job.

“Mercurial Skin” is a fantastical take on finding where you truly belong. I say give it a try.

When the Planets Left” by J.J. Litke
Narrated by Katherine Inskip
Cast of Wonders Original

This story relates the events of a time when, for no apparent reason, the planets of the Solar System began to disappear one by one. Will humanity find a way to stop the planets from disappearing?
I know the description is even briefer than usual, but this is a flash fiction story. There are certain stories that seem sweet and innocent on the surface, but are actually fairly creepy and/or terrifying if you really think about them. Case in point, this story. By the end of the story, all of the planets except Earth are gone, but it’s allegedly okay because the Moon still loves us and has stuck around. Problem is, without the stepping stones Mars and the other planets provide, humanity’s expansion into space is going to be severely stunted. That’s going to be very unfortunate if something happens to Earth, and humanity is forced to find a new home.

Also, we never find out why exactly the planets went away, or where they went to. I can’t help but feel that this could have been a potentially interesting cosmic horror story. Katherine did okay with the narration but I’m not sure it was enough to redeem this story.

I can’t say I really liked this one, but maybe you might enjoy it. Give it a listen, if only to form your own thoughts.

Pseudopod


The Candy Store” by Christopher DiLeo
Narrated by Brian Rollins
Pseudopod Original

This story, which takes place in San Francisco, follows a boy named Larry. He’s on his merry way to his favorite place in the world: The Candy Palace. It’s a candy shop that has all the best candies. Larry often fantasizes about going on magical adventures in a candy kingdom. However, Larry is also going through puberty and has begun fantasizing about girls with large breasts. He’s been warned to stay away from the teenagers who lurk in the shadows of the street lamps, but he finds himself strangely drawn to them.

This story has some serious mood whiplash and juxtaposition. It starts sweet and whimsical, such as Larry doodling about fighting candy jackals, before moving into more mature themes such as Larry discovering masturbation. Don’t get me wrong, it’s effective, but it can catch you off-guard if you aren’t expecting it. There’s definitely a theme of lost innocence, and the changes that come with growing from childhood to adolescence. It’s a little ambiguous about what happens to Larry by the story’s end. Whatever happened, and I can’t tell you much without spoiling, he’s definitely been changed forever.

In terms of narration, I thought that Brian was pitch perfect. “The Candy Store” is a tale of lost innocence and the changes the come with growing up. I happily recommend it.

PodCastle


Home is a House That Loves You” by Rachael K. Jones
Narrated by Kate Baker
PodCastle Original
Featured in PodCastle‘s Artemis Rising 3

This story…okay, the setting is a little ambiguous. It appears to be similar to our world, but certain details suggest otherwise. In any event, it takes place in a city named Aurora, whose citizens have the ability to transform into buildings. For many years things have been peaceful, but then the city of Apsides declares war on Aurora. The story is told from the point of view of a woman living before and during the war. She had always dreamed of becoming a skyscraper, like her aunt, but the war changes her plans.

The description isn't much but…oh, you know the drill by now! There have been plenty of times I’ve seen buildings, or wings of buildings, dedicated in the name/memory of someone. I often wonder who these people were and what stories they could tell. I felt this way especially when I recently saw a building at the elementary school I went to that had been dedicated to my old principal. I wonder who many people would know, or even care, about all he did for the school over the years. I say all of this because this story really made me think about all of these things. If walls could talk indeed.

As with “Mercurial Skin” I do wonder why the people of Aurora choose to become buildings. It seems like it would be horrible to turn into an inanimate object, but the people of Aurora seemed to do so almost instinctually. For that matter, why do people from Aurora have the power to transform? Though, I suppose it is a minor detail. This is a very powerful story. In particular, there’s the scene of people turning into roads and walls, to help citizens of Aurora escape after the war begins. They gave up their shot at becoming the buildings of their dreams to help their fellow citizens.

Kate Baker’s narrations are always a bit hit and miss, but it works out here. “Home is a House That Loves You” is a story of love, war and people turning into buildings. I recommend it.


The Drabblecast 



"Delicate Parts" by Ao-Hui Lin
Narrated by Norm Sherman
A Drabblecast Original 


This story is follows a boy named Earnest. When he was young he got confused about the term "chocking the chicken" and as a result his cock turned into a cock. By that I mean that...his penis is a chicken. The story follows Earnest and his cock throughout puberty and into adulthood.

There are a select number of story topics almost guaranteed to make at least some people uncomfortable: politics, religion, sex and the Great Pumpkin. Okay, maybe not so much that last one, but you get the point. Stories about genitals are a bit of a touchy subject. I'll be honest this story is pretty out there even by Drabblecast standards. That having been said, by the end the story is actually kind of sweet and touching in its own weird way...but a lot of people are going to find the subject matter a major turn-off.

As per usual, Norm does an excellent job with the narration. Despite the bizarre premise I actually give "Delicate Parts" a recommendation.  

StarShipSofa


What We Ourselves Are Not” by Leah Cypess
Narrated by Elie Hirschman
Originally Published in Asimov’s

This story takes place in the not too distant future. A chip has been developed that allows recorded memories to be implanted into people’s minds. Various ethnic minorities use the chips as a means of passing on their culture to their children, but it’s not without controversy. The story follows a Jewish boy named Zack. He’s debating whether or not to get chipped. This is causing some friction with his Korean-American girlfriend Amy. She wants to break up with Zack, fearing their relationship will dilute her Korean heritage. Can Zack and Amy find a way to see eye to eye with each other?

Well, this is certainly a timely story. Especially in light of the debate about so-called “cultural appropriation.” I always found such concepts to be completely idiotic, since they pretty much describe the entire history of culture. There’s a theory in political science known as the Horseshoe Theory. In a nutshell, it suggests that the extreme right and the extreme left have more in common with each other than with the moderate branches of their ideology. That definitely was on my mind as I listened to this story. Almost all the arguments Amy makes are, almost word-for-word, the arguments that white supremacists tend to make about why racial mixing should be banned.

Then there’s the whole idea of the chips. They’re billed as a way to preserve culture and bring people together, but they really seem to just drive people further apart. You could see them as an allegory for the dangers of not letting go of the past, and identity politics in general. It’s as though the people who made the chips tried so hard to be progressive that they looped back around and became regressive. On that note, it was nice that this story was willing to criticize the far left. You see plenty of stories that criticize that far-right, but not nearly enough who call out the far-left. So it was certainly nice to see a change of pace.

One thing I found interesting is that you can get any chip you want, no matter if your a member of that group or not. I won’t tell you what Zack decides, but it was actually really brilliant. He really took the words of Mohandas Gandhi to heart: be the change you want to see in the world. Cultures aren’t meant to be static, they change and adapt with the times, and that is perfectly okay.

A story this great needs an equally great narrator. Thankfully, Elie more than delivers. “What We Ourselves Are Not” is a timely story that you won’t want to miss out on. Do I really need to tell you that I recommend this one?


Clarkesworld Magazine



"Staying Behind" by Ken Liu
Narrated by Kate Baker


This story takes place in a world where the Singularity has come to pass. Most humans have uploaded their minds into computers to live forever in the digital world. A few, however, have chosen to forgo brain uploading in favor of remaining in the physical world. The story follows a man living in one such community in Connecticut. He is confident that he and his people can maintain their way of life, but his daughter Lucy is increasingly drawn towards the digital world.

Whenever I've seen visions of a bright and shining science fiction future, I often wonder what would happen to the Amish. How well could they maintain their way of life in such a world? I bring this up because, in many ways, this story can be seen as an allegory for communities who struggle to maintain their traditional way of life in the face of modernization. The main character and his community are doing their best, but they have no infrastructure, nor means of manufacture or repair. As the main character's wife points out, they don't have anything to offer their children other than a hard life of salvaging the remains physical civilization.

The main character claims that they're preserving innovation and change, but are they really just chasing after and idealized past? Similarly, are the digital humans really forsaken physical existence, or have they rightfully moved on to the next stage of human evolution? I should note here that this story is a prequel to an earlier story that Liu wrote called "Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer". You don't have to have read that story to enjoy "Staying Behind" one; I didn't read it beforehand. I will say that "Herds of Reindeer" shows things from the perspective of the digital humans, and explains how their existence functions. So reading both provides a bit of insight, and can be complimentary, but not a prerequisite.

What can I say? It's a Ken Liu story, so you know that it's going to pack and emotional punch, and is sure to keep you thinking for days to come. Now, this story is particularly special for me, because it is the first Clarkesworld story that I ever listened to. Even after all of this time, "Staying Behind" still remains one of my favorites. 

Beneath Ceaseless Skies


The Night Bazaar For Women Becoming Reptiles” by Rachael K. Jones
Narrated by Setsu Uzume

This story is set in a fantasy world oasis city. It follows a woman named Hester who sells reptile eggs, but not just any reptile eggs. These eggs have been collected from the riverside under a new moon. This gives the eggs magical properties, and women who eat them can transform into reptiles. Anyone wanting to make it across the desert can only do so as a reptile. The story follows Hester’s life in the oasis city as she seeks an escape of her own.

It’s always nice to see a story that mixes it up with the setting, rather than another generic pseudo-Medieval European setting. The setting had an Arabian Nights flavor, but wasn’t strictly Middle Eastern. In order to talk about my thoughts on the transforming women, we need to discuss something that happens towards the end of the story. A male character eats an egg and transforms into a snake. You could see that as meaning he was transgender, but that’s not the interpretation I got. To me, the eggs represent the desire for escape. Obviously, women in this society would feel that more strongly than men, but there would probably be at least a few men who would want to escape across the desert. I also think the eggs transformed people not necessarily when they wanted it, but when they needed it.

Now, let’s talk about the narration. I find that Setsu tends to either be really good, or completely drops the ball. In this case, Setsu did exceptionally well. “The Night Bazaar For Women Becoming Reptiles” is about the desire for escape and change. I say give it a try.

The Overcast


Graveyard Shift” by Holly Schofield 
Narrated by J.S. Arquin 
Originally Published in Tesseracts 17

This story is set in Edmonton, Alberta in the near future. It follows a second-generation Chinese-Canadian named Ryan Leong. Throughout his life his grandfather encouraged him to pursue a career in education. He’s just earned his degree but, unfortunately, teachers are beginning to be phased out in favor of digital learning programs. Ryan finds himself unemployed and at the end of his rope. He’s decided to pay a visit to his grandfather’s grave. Will his grandfather be able to provide guidance from beyond the grave?

Plenty of jobs have been impacted by automation, but the education sector has mostly avoided this fate…for now. I would certainly hope it never does, I’m not the biggest fan of online courses, but you never know. Holly captured the experience of a second-generation immigrant really well. Ryan finds himself caught between the traditions of his parents and grandparents, and the promise and opportunities of living in a Western nation. I thought it was really touching how Ryan was able to find peace by remembering the values his grandfather instilled in him. Almost as though his grandfather was still watching out for him, even after death.

If there’s one central theme to this story, and really it could be applied to most of the stories on this list, it’s that when life throws you a curveball you learn to adapt and change. I think that this is a good note to end on. As per usual, J.S. Arquin does a wonderful job with the narration.

“Graveyard Shift” is a heartwarming story about find your way in a changing world. Of course I recommend it.

Conclusion

Well, I certainly hope these stories have made for a nice change of pace in your life. I really don't have much more to add. I've been pretty busy working and revising on that script for The Twilight Histories, but hopefully I'll have gotten that ironed out and will be able to post here a bit more in the near future. I hope that all of you have been doing well wherever you happen to be in time and space. I will see you all next time.