Monday, August 28, 2017

The Alt-Hist File: Pseudopod

I hope you weren't looking to get a good night's rest, because in this installment of The Alt-Hist File we're taking a look at Pseudopod. Every week Pseudopod brings listeners great stores from all across the horror genre. It's often said that Escape Pod kickstarted the short story podcasting revolution. However, Pseudopod is just as responsible, if not more so, for said revolution. Pseudopod proved that Escape Pod wasn't just a one-off fluke, and that there was a future for short story audio fiction podcasting.

Pseudopod was initially co-hosted by Ben Phillips and Mur Lafferty, but after the first year or so there came a man who would help to truly define Pseudopod. That man is Alasdair Stuart. In many ways, you could say that Alasdair practically is Pseudopod. At the end of each episode he always always provides some thoughtful insight into the theme of the stories, or just life in general. If even he should step down from his duties as host, he will undoubtedly leave quite the shadow in his wake. However, let us also take a moment to also thank Shawn Garrett, Alex Hofelich, and all of the other fine people who work behind the scenes to keep Pseudopod running week after week. The theme music for Pseudopod is proved by Anders Manga.

Now before we go any further, the staff of Pseudopod would like to emphasis that they are a horror podcast. That means that these stories are intended to frighten and disturb. If you're the kind of person who get's spooked easily, consider this your first and only warning. Also, this really isn't a podcast you want to play around kids.

 Okay, with that out of the way, get ready. I've got eighteen stories for you...

"The Murmurous Paleoscope" by Dixon Chance
Narrated by Christina Ellis
Originally published in The Three-Lobed Burning Eye

We start our list off with a steampunk story set during the fossil hunts of the 19th century. Fossil hunter Hazel Cardanell has recently arrived in the Utah Territory and has made an amazing discovery. The new fossil has been named Anomalocaris and it looks absolutely terrifying. Hazel has also been having a series of strange dreams. It's almost as if some mysterious force is reaching out to her from beyond the grave, but it's only a fossil, isn't it?

I always have a soft spot for paleontology stories and this story is no exception. I also enjoyed that the story is presented as a series of letters like many of HP Lovecraft's stories. Anomalocaris was a perfect choice for this Lovecraftian story; go ahead and Google that and tell me it doesn't look like something straight out of Lovecraft's imagination.

Christina's narration did the perfect job of capturing that feeling of a person who's found themselves confronted with forces they can't even begin to comprehend. I also appreciated how the steampunk elements actually played a role in the story rather than simply acting a window dressing. However, I mustn't elaborate on that point or else I'll spoil the story.

It's got fossils, steampunk and Lovecraftian elements. What's not to love about this story.

"The Burning Servant" by Steven Saus
Narrated by Stephanie Morris
Originally published in Chain Story

We all heard of Sherman's burnings of Atlanta and Savannah, but is there more to the story? According to former slave Sarah Freeman there is. It seems that during the day of the Civil War the plantation owners of the Confederacy went to some desperate lengths to see the South triumph. One might even call their efforts downright Lovecraftian.

Okay, if you haven't figured it out by now, the plantation owners performed a ritual to summon a Lovecraftian monstrosity, but it got out of their control and burned a path of destruction across Georgia. A spoiler, yes, but not too much of one.

This story is in many way an inversion of a typical Lovecraft story. You've got so called civilized men connected with unearthly monstrosities, people of color as the innocent bystanders and the whole thing is told by a woman. Speaking of this story being told by a woman, I thought that Stephanie did an excellent job with the narration. I also appreciated that the depiction of life for slave in the American South wasn't sugar coated or watered down.

Overall and excellent story and a meditation on the various tropes and conventions of Lovecraft stories. Very much recommended.

"Tales of the White Street Society" by Grady Hendrixs
Narrated by Alasdair Stuart
A Pseudopod Original

This story takes places in 19th century New York City as the White Street Society, a group of gentlemen adventures, are having a meeting. The evening's host, Augustus Morrison recounts his recent adventures in the slums of the Irish immigrants. It seems that the Irish were being plagued by a monster from their old nation. The question is, could more such creatures be on their way to America?

I'm going to slightly spoil what the monster is, but this important for our discussion. The monster is...a leprechaun. Yes, you read that correctly. I tried, but it just couldn't take that very seriously as a monster. However, that's not where the real horror in this story lies for me.

The part of this story that truly horrified me was the ghastly descriptions of daily life for the Irish immigrants. The descriptions of these people living to absolute squalor at the bottom rung of society, and with nobody caring about their plight, will be sure to haunt you for days. Tellingly, at the end of the story, when the characters talk of how evil leprechauns are, it easily sounds like they're talking about the Irish instead.

The story does a really good job of capturing the attitudes and prejudices of the 19th century. It certainly does come across as a satire/pastiche of Victorian Gothic novels, and that certainly helps. Now, as I mentioned in the past, when Alasdair Stuart is pair with the right story he absolutely shines. This story is a prime example of that, though I will say that at times his British accent made me forget that the White Street Society were Americans and not British.

A frightful satire of Victorian fiction well worth your time.

"Silver and Copper, Iron and Ash" by Nathaniel Lee
Narrated by Dominick Rabrun
Originally published in Coins of Chaos

This story is set in rural Colorado in the 1930s. Our protagonist James is struggling to made ends meet and provide enough to eat for his pregnant wife. While out hunting James discovers a mysterious Indian Head coin. He tries to get rid of the coin on the advice of a passing vagrant. The coin, however, keeps reappearing and each time it brings even stronger feeling of hunger.

If there's one central theme to this story it's hunger; be that for food, money or anything else. Even before the supernatural elements become more obvious you can almost see hunger as the main antagonist. The atmosphere to this story was absolutely perfect, and is a testament to Nathaniel's writing talent.

Dominick did an excellent job conveying that atmosphere and feelings of hunger in audio form. I also found the backdrop of the Great Depression to be more than fitting for a story centered around hunger and money.

It's a story sure to leave you hungry for more.

"Bophuthatswana" by Lavie Tidhar
Narrated by Elan Ressel
A Pseudopod Original

This next story is set in South Africa after years after the fall of Apartheid. Our protagonist would have been considered colored under the Apartheid. He's lost loved ones to various far-right extremist groups and he's out for revenge. Yet these are more than just racist extremists. The men he's after feed on the blood of the innocent and they have for centuries because they are vampires.

Okay, a couple things. First of all there's quite a few Afrikaans slang words throughout this story, but Pseudopod does provide a glossary of their meanings on their page for this story. Second, it's debatable as to whether the extremists are literally vampires or if that's simply a metaphor. Personally, I say both interpretations are equally valid, you just get slightly different stories.

I liked this story's depiction of post-Apartheid South Africa. You see people learning from the past and trying to move on, but at the same time there's still a lot of tension and resentment left over. It was also nice to see this aspect of South Africa as it is usually ignored in fiction. For example, there was a scene mentioning that South Africans of Asian ancestry didn't qualify as white under Apartheid, but also didn't qualify for compensation following its fall.

All in all a good, if dark, depiction of South Africa after Apartheid.

"Pran's Confession" by Joel Arnold
Narrated by Ben Phillips
A Pseudopod Original

We're taking a holiday in Cambodia for our next story. Samnang, a former prison guard, is revisiting a prison he worked at during the Pol Pot regime. He can stop thinking about one particular prisoner named Pran, who was defiant to the very end. Samnang also worries that the spirits of the dead might not be at rest after all these years.

I always knew things were grim under Pol Pot, especially during the Khmer Rouge, but until I listened to this story I'd never really envisioned just how bad things were. An all consuming ideology that would make North Korea blush, people with glasses sentenced to death, entire fields converted into mass graves and countless other horrors. I almost feel that the supernatural wasn't needed to add more horror to this story.

Ben did a great job conveying the stark hopelessness of this story. I feel there really isn't much more I can add. The story really speaks for itself.

For a glimpse into the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge, look no further.

"The Prophet's Daughters" by Michael J. DeLuca
Narrated by Tina Connolly
Originally published in

The story take place in the Ancient Greek colony of Sybaris and one character's quest to follow in their mother's footsteps by becoming soothsayer of Sybaris. Okay, not the most exciting of summaries, but this is a great story. The atmosphere of this story was absolutely top notch. I really felt like I was walking along side the religious processions and rituals. Speaking of which, loved the emphasis this story placed on the rituals and practices of Ancient Greek religion.

That being said, I did find it a bit annoying that the gods and goddesses were referred to by their Roman names given the story's Greek setting. As for the narration, I though Tina did an excellent job conveying the terror and mysticism present in the story.

It's short, Ancient Greek and incredibly descriptive. Very much worth your time.

"Acceptable Losses" by Simon Wood
Narrated by Ian Stuart
A Pseudopod Original

The story is set during World War II, and follows the British campaign against the Japanese. During an expedition the British discovered a strange gelatinous organism with the ability to predict the future and communicate telepathically. Unfortunately, the organism, since named Oracle, feeds exclusively on human flesh. Therefore, one out of ever five battles is an intentional failure to provide Oracle with food. The Captain in charge of Oracle is beginning to wonder how he'll be able to live with himself after the war is over.

It's often said that those who wage wars must be ready to pay the price of those wars. The heart of this story is really all about asking what is the price of war. At the same time, there aren't any clear answers. The price to keep Oracle alive is undoubtably horrible, but at the same time it saved more than a few lives with its predictions.

Ian does an good job conveying the human emotions of the captain as well as the otherworld, yet familiar, speaking style of Oracle. I also liked that this story featured British soldiers fighting the Japanese, a topic often ignored in most works of fiction involving World War II.

It's a Lovecraftian take on an often ignored topic. Very much recommended.

"The Three Chimes" by David Longshore
Narrated by Corson Bremer
A Pseudopod Original

This story follows Louis XVI in the days leading up to his execution. Louis spends his time thinking about a strange clock that seemed to bring doom wherever it went. The clock seemed to cause otherwise inanimate object to try to eat him and he worries about what it will cause next.

One of the things I love about this story is that way it took something Louis XVI loved and then turned it into a source of terror. In real life Louis XVI was absolutely obsessed with clocks, and in the story his beloved clocks have become the instigator of his doom. It seemed rather fitting that the clock caused things to try and eat Louis, give that in a way his death was due to having been fed to a guillotine.

Corson did a spot on job with his narration. I also liked how the story presented a very human and historically accurate depiction of Louis. I have, in the past, encountered works of fiction set during the French Revolution that depict Louis XVI as a corrupt tyrant. He might have been incompetent, and he inherited quite the mess from his predecessors, but he was hardly tyrannical in his rule.

A great historical horror centered around Louis XVI. I heartily recommend it.

"The Spirit of Nationalism" by Richard Marsden
Narrated by Mike Bennett
A Pseudopod Original

This story is set in 1812 during Napoleon's campaign against Russia. A young solider named Gregorie has become lost in the snow and feel abandoned by Napoleon. He's been found by a fellow soldier who demands that he push on. Together they set off through the wind and ice to find the great general once again.

This story is very much a Jack London style man vs. nature story; though supernatural elements do appear towards the end. The atmosphere for this story is great; you get a sense of just how bleak the Russian winter is. This is really a story that feels like something you might have read in school, but you can't remember when. As for the narration, well, I think you can guess by now that I thought Mike did a great job capturing this story's feeling.

A story of finding meaning in the face of great odds. Well worth your time

"Last Respects" by Dave Thompson
Narrated by Scott Sigler
A Pseudopod Original

This story is actually an alternate history, well, kind of sort of. It takes place in a world where not only do vampires exist, but they got into a war with humanity and won. Following the war humans have been reduced to little more than animals. Also, Jesus might have been a vampire in this world. The story itself follows an older vampire as he and his family mourn his wife's recent passing.

For those of you wondering, yes, this is the same Dave Thompson who is former editor and host of PodCastle. It takes a special breed of writer to craft a story that is simultaneously deeply touching and utterly horrifying. Fortunately, Dave is one of those authors. The story juxtaposes a deeply touching family drama about coping with the loss of a loved along side the utter horror of what's happened to humanity.

The way the story handled religion was both tasteful and respectful. The vampires' version of Christianity is presented as no different than human Christianity; albeit vampire communion is a tad more literal. Of the implication that Jesus was a vampire, I won't comment much; though as the story itself mentions, Jesus did encourage his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood in hopes of rising from their graves.

Scott's narration did a perfect job of balancing the emotion and horror of this story. This is the first story I've ever found from Dave, and I've got a feeling his writing has a very bright future ahead of it.

It's a story that will touch your heart and made you cringe with terror. I couldn't recommend it more.

"The Corpse Army of Khartoum" by Grady Hendrix
Narrated by Alasdair Stuart
A Pseudopod Original

Yes, I've got another story of the White Street Society for you. This time Augustus Morrison is on adventure to Egypt and Sudan. In particular, he's investigating the city of Khartoum and the rumors that it's home to sorcerers who can raise the dead.

There's a lot of overlap between my thoughts on this story and the last White Street Society story, but I'll do my best to add something new. First of all, you do see a bit of a colonialist attitude throughout the story, but then it is a satire on Victorian literature. Overall I can say it's a great adventure story with a supernatural twist to it. Though I must admit that when Augustus encounters the corpse army and describes them as smelling like...spiced chicken, it slightly ruined the mood for me.

Another fine addition to the White Street Society series. Very much recommended.

"The Land of Reeds" by Patrick Samphire
Narrated by Cheyenne Wright
Originally Published in Realms of Fantasy

This story is set in Ancient Egypt and takes place shortly after Alexander the Great's conquest. It follows a man named Amenhotep who has been murdered, but that's just the beginnings for his troubles. The afterlife is nothing like he expected. The great god Ra is nowhere to be found; there is only the glowing ball in the sky. There is no Osiris, no Halls of Judgement, no Land of Reeds. The dead simply linger as ghosts upon the Earth. Can Amenhotep avenge his death and find his way to the underworld?

The fear of death is one of humanity's most primal fears. Young or old, rich or poor, death claims us all eventually. The fear of death is believed to have been a major factor in the rise of religion. When you get down to it, religions typically have two main purposes: to explain that which cannot be explained, and to take away the sting of death. As long as humanity continues to fear death, we'll probably continue to have religion in some form or another.

Now, I bring all of this up because it ties into the horror of this story. The horror here is the fear that what comes after death isn't what you've been taught. It's a very existential kind of horror; the thought that something so fundamental about your world view could be utterly wrong.

I've been a fan of all things Ancient Egypt, particularly with regards to mythology, for as long as I can remember. So it goes without saying that this story had me at hello. I won't give away the ending, but I did like that it ended on an optimistic note. I also really enjoyed Cheyenne's narration.

It's an Ancient Egyptian existential horror story, and more than worthy of your time.

"The Great American Nightmare" by Moaner T. Lawrence
Narrated by John Bell
A Pseudopod Original

I've got another alternate history story for you guys. In this story, a group of political strategist wake Cthulhu up just in time for the 2016 American President Election. The Great Old One runs as a third party candidate and wins in a landslide. Cthulhu is set to remake America in his image, but to do that he'll have to face his greatest foe yet: his political strategy comity!

In its own strange way, this story was actually kind of heartwarming. As you may have guessed, this story came out shortly after the 2016 Election. It was...a very chaotic time. So here we have a story that take that turbulent time and reminds us all to laugh and smile. I really enjoyed Cthulhu's unique approach to solving the various problems facing America. For example, Cthulhu handles the transgender bathroom problem by proposing that all Americans be turned into genderless amphibian people. It's a very funny and lighthearted sort of story, with just a dash of satire.

In terms of narration, I thought that John did an excellent job. It's funny, lighthearted and heartwarming in a way that only Pseudopod can deliver. I happily recommend it.

"The Christmas Spirits" by Grady Hendrix
Narrated by Alasdair Stuart
Originally Published in Tales of the White Street Society

Yes, this is another story from the White Street Society. It's Christmas time, and Augustus Mortimer is back in action on the streets of New York. There's big trouble in Little Germany. A series of strange murders has occurred, and the people of Little Germany think it might have something to do with the Krampus.

Yes, this story is much better than the description makes it sound. You get plenty of thrills and chills just like you would with a good Victorian gothic and/or adventure story. You also get quite a bit of satire about those kinds of stories. I liked how this stories tied in with the earlier White Street Stories. It is proposed that all of these strange creatures might be coming to America because they arrive via the beliefs of the immigrants who bring their stories with them. It's rather evocative of American Gods, and that is good, because I'm very fond of American Gods

Personally, I can't think of a better way to spend a Pseudopod Christmas than with the lads from the White Street Society. Sorry if I struggle to find things to say. It is a good story, but it hits a lot of the same notes as the earlier stories, so it's hard to find new things to say. However, I will say that once again, Alasdair has done an amazing job with the narration.

It's a Yuletide tale courtesy of the White Street Society. Do I really need to say that I recommend this one?

"The Horror From the Mound" by Robert E. Howard
Narrated by Anson Mount
Originally Published in Weird Tales

This story is set in the days of the Old West. It follows a cowboy-turned-farmer named Steve Brill. He's growing increasingly suspicious of his Mexican assistant Juan Lopez. Juan is obsessed with an old Indian burial mound, but won't say why. Steve decides to investigate by reading Juan's diaries. What he finds is more than be bargained for.

This story is much better than the description makes it sound, I promise. I'm a big fan of Robert E. Howard, and I always get very excited when I find a new story of his to listen to. This story certainly didn't disappoint. So before we go any further, we need to talk about what was in the mound. Minor spoiler, though not really, it's a vampire. I did like how the vampire was linked to certain historical events, such as the expedition of Coronado. The story had a slightly Lovecraftian feel to it. That's certainly not too surprising, given what good friends Howard and Lovecraft were. I know some people find them a bit cliche, but I do enjoy a good vampire story.

Speaking of things I enjoy, I also enjoyed Anson's narration. One of the earliest example of the Weird West subgenre, and still well worth a listen.

"Fade to Gold" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Narrated by Jen Zink
Originally Published in End of the Road

This story is set in Thailand during the Burmese-Siamese War. Specifically, after the fall of Ayutthaya. It follows a young women, who has disguised herself as a man, returning home from the war. Along the way she meets another woman who turns out to be a Krasue. The two strike up a bit of an odd friendship, and perhaps a bit of romance. The Krasue needs to feast on human flesh in order to survive. Will she be able to find a place in human society.

I do enjoy stories that go off the beaten path and feature non-Western cultures. That having been said, sometimes you do have hold the reader/listener's hand to help them understand. For example, I was able to figure out the setting of the story as soon as Ayutthaya's fall was mentioned. However, most readers probably wouldn't have been able to figure that out on their own. Even without knowing the background, you can still probably enjoy the story, but you'll definitely be missing out on certain aspects.

Another minor issue I had was that this read more like a fantasy story than a true horror story. True, it's set during a war and it features a monster, but simply having those elements doesn't automatically make something a horror story. Don't get me wrong, it is still a great story and I quite enjoyed it, but to me, perhaps it would have been more at home over at PodCastle. Again, it is still a good story about two women traveling through war-torn Thailand.

In terms of narration, I though that Jen did an excellent job. Perhaps a bit more fantasy than true horror, but still well worth your time. I recommend it.

"The Republic of the Southern Cross" by Valery Bryusov
Narrated by Eric Luke
Originally published in Zemnaya Os, but is now Public Domain

I saved one of the best for last. It's not an alternate history per se, but it does have the feel of one. It's a Russian science fiction/horror mashup for the early 20th century. Without further delay, let's talk about this story.

This story chronicles the rise and fall of the Republic of the Southern Cross. The titular republic is located in Antartica, and is initially presented as a worker's paradise. Then several citizens come down with Contradiction; a disease that causes people to do the opposite of what they intend. At first the citizens take it in stride and find it all somewhat comical...then doctors and nurses start slitting their patients throats and pharmacists start handing out poison. Before long society begins to unravel at the seams.

Like I said before, this isn't exactly alternate history, but it does have the feel of one. The Republic itself has a predominately Russian feel to it, but there are hints if other cultures as well. In many ways this story feels like listening to an excerpt from a history book written in an alternate timeline. Fortunately, the writing never gets too dry and Eric's narration really brings things to life.

The famous comic book writer/artist Jack Kirby once said that you can tell a lot about a people based on their fantasies. With this story you really get a sense of the hopes and fears of the Russian people from the time this story was written. There as sense of wanting to improve the lot of workers, but also a considerable fear for what might go wrong.

It's one of my favorite Pseudopod stories, and I can't recommend it enough.


Well, here we are at the end of the list once again. I hope you enjoy these stories, and if you did, might I suggest tossing a few buck at Pseudopod? They have many options for donation, as do all four of the Escape Artists Podcasts. It would really help them out a lot if you could do that, but if you can't, then consider sharing this or any of my other posts. Help get the word out about all the great free audio fiction there is to discover.

And now for a bit of shameless self-promotion. If you really love what I do you can follow me on Twitter where I'm @ArthurDrakoni, you can like The Audiophile's fan page on Facebook, and if you absolutly adore me you can consider becoming a patron over on Patreon. Well, I think that's enough from me for now.

I will see all of you next time, when we talk about PodCastle.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Comic Review: What If? Russians on the Moon!

When it comes to alternate history comics, they almost always involve some sort of supernatural or science fiction element.  Pure alternate histories are, comparatively speaking, a bit of a rare bird.  I don't mind this too much, I do love a good Alien Space Bats scenario, but I can understand other people who might feel a bit frustrated.  Well, I have some good news that's sure to please everyone in the alternate history community.  Comixology has been partnering with Delcourt and Soleil, two of the biggest names in French comics, to brings English translations of all sort of great French comic books and graphic novels.  We're going to be talks about one of those comics.  Specifically, we're taking a look at What If? Russians on the Moon!

What If?, known as Jour J in its original language, is an alternate history anthology comic book series.  Each issue, at slightly less than sixty pages, poses a different alternate history question.  In this first issue, the Apollo 11 mission ends in disaster when a micrometeoroid destroys the Eagle Lander, and in the process, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are killed.  America recoils with shock from the tragic turn of events.  There shock only increases when, a few months later, the Soviet Union launches a successful Moon mission, and Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first human to set foot on the Moon.

The action then jumps ahead ten years to 1979.  The United States and the Soviet Union have both established competing lunar bases.  The Space Race continues to rage on and tensions remain high between East and West.  America's Eagle Lunar Station is on high alert after astronaut Valeriane Smith reports becoming mysteriously ill; medical expert Tom Lang is sent to investigate.  Meanwhile, the Soviets have noticed that their lunar base, Galaktika, has been usually quite lately.  The Soviets send a reconnaissance of their own, led by a hotshot test pilot named Sasha.  He and his partner have been given license to kill if necessary.  There's plenty of thrills, adventures and alternate history to go around.

So before we tackle the plots itself, let's dissect the alternate history.  I understand that he micrometeoroid was used to set up the plot, but I'm not sure if it was the most realistic point of divergence.  The hull of The Eagle was certainly thin, but I'm not sure necessarily that thin.  We also see, in graphic detail, that the micrometeoroid causes Armstrong and Aldrin's heads to explode.  It's true that getting hit by a micrometeoroid is a bit like being struck by a bullet, but I doubt it would result in exploding heads.  Personally, I'd have had things basically be a lethal version of the misfortunes Apollo 13 experienced, but I digress.

Now, one things to keep in mind is that the America and Soviet space programs were almost total opposites of each other.  Wernher von Braun might have been the head of the American space program, but it was very much a team effort.  Even if Von Braun were to have dropped dead, the other scientists would have been able to continue just fine.  By contrast, the Soviet space program was very much a one-man show lead by Sergei Korolev.  When he died it was an absolutely crippling death blow to the Soviet space effort.  Korolev's death was one of the biggest reasons the Soviet Union never landed anyone on the Moon in our world.

I bring all of this up because it is addressed within the comic itself.  Based on a couple of offhand comments and throwaway lines, it appears that Korolev is still alive and kicking.  Lunar bases as the next leg in the Space Race makes sense.  Even with the added public support a Soviet moon landing would generate, I doubt that either America or the Soviet Union would be able to develop the technology necessary to get to Mars by the late 1970s.  Semi-permanent settlements on the Moon make more sense given the technological limitations.

It's also shown that the continued Space Race has led to advances in military technology.  For example, the Soviets used missile-launching satellites to great effect during the Soviet-Afghan War.  It is true that the Soviets had plans for such devices, but you'd think that having something like that in orbit would make America a bit more antsy, possibly developing their own such devices.

The Space Race has always been one of my favorite points in history.  It was an exciting time, and its fun to speculate on what it would be like if manned space flight was more advanced.  As you may have guessed, I was sold on this comic from the moment I heard about it.  The artwork is really well done, like something you might see from DC or Marvel.  The cover is especially gorgeous; it's done in the style of those old Life Magazine covers.

Okay, now we have to talk about some potential spoilers.  Get off now all those who don't like that sort of thing.  Okay, everyone gone who wants to be gone?  Good, let's dive on in.

So, why exactly is Valeriane ill?  She's not, she's just pregnant and about to give birth.  She met a cosmonaut named Dimitri Ivanovitch Babakin during a mission to the Sea of Fertility.  One thing lead to another, and now they're expecting the birth of their first child.  Turns out, Eagle and Galaktika have been helping each other for quite a few years now.  They've moved beyond Cold War tensions in the spirit of exploration and cooperation.  That ties in with why Galaktika has been so quiet.  They encountered some problems with their station, and they've been hanging out at Eagle.  Well, that and many of them are hoping to apply for asylum.

Valeriane and Dimitri hope that the announcement of their child's birth will bring peace to Earth.  Unfortunately, Frank Spotino, the astronaut who accompanied Dr. Lang to the Moon, discovers the Soviets who have taken up residence at Eagle.  He sets off a bomb that throws the Soviets onto the lunar surface without spacesuits, instantly killing them.  Upon spotting this turn of events via telescope and satellite, America and the Soviet Union decide to mutually destroy each other's moon bases.

The astronauts and cosmonauts have just enough time to announce the birth of little Tom-Ivan Babakin-Smith before evacuation is underway.  Unfortunately, Valeriane is still bedridden, and Dmitri decides to stay by her side to the bitter end.  They trust Tom-Ivan in the care of Dr. Lang and Sasha before giving a tearful goodbye.  I'm not sure if it was intentional or not, but it kind of reminds me of Superman's origin story.  Anyway, with the help of Sasha's friend Vladimir Putin, he and Dr. Lang successful fake their deaths.  They then move to a tropical island to raise Tom-Ivan in peace.

Now, I bring all this up to discuss the alternate history, and scientific accuracy, involved.  The media dubs Tom-Ivan as The Star-Child, and he becomes a symbol of peace and unity throughout the world.  By the year 1980 the Berlin Wall, as well as the Eastern Bloc, has fallen in the name of the Star-Child.  Okay, so communism falls in Eastern Europe ten years ahead of schedule.  I'll give that as a reasonable divergence; communism was already on its last legs by the 1980s in our world.

In terms of scientifically accuracy, things might be a bit looser.  Tom-Ivan was gestating in only 1/6 Earth gravity and, one assumes, was exposed to quite a bit of cosmic radiation in-utero.  When we catch up with him in 1989, however, he doesn't appear to be anything other than a happy and healthy ten-year-old. It helps that he was raised on Earth, but you'd expect his bone structure and muscles to be weaker.  As for the potential damages that could result from radiation...well, the less said the better.  I know it would make an already bittersweet ending even more bitter, but it stood out to me.

I don't want to end this review by making it sound like I didn't enjoy this comic.  Really, those were just minor nitpicks.  I enjoyed this comic very much, and it's one of the best alternate history comics I have yet encountered.  Fans of alternate history will love it, as will fans of science fiction and space exploration.  It's a great comic, and you won't want to miss out on it.

I'm really excited about all the great French comics that Comixology is bringing to English speaking readers thanks to their partnership with Delcourt and Soleil.  There's plenty of great titles to discover, and I can't wait for more issues of What If? to come out.  It seems like they're trying to focus translating issues that involve topic familiar to American readers.  I can understand that, there are certain issues that don't make a lot of sense unless you have a good grasp of French history.  Hey, it is a French series, so it makes sense that there would be focus on alternate history that impacts France.

Still, there looks like there's going to be a lot of potentially great issues to come.  Hurry up, Comixology, I can hardly wait for them!

Well, I think that's enough from me for now.  I will see you guys next time.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Album Review: The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical

As you probably know, I am a huge fan of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians book series. By extension, I'm a big fan of its sequel series and spin-off series.  I'm always very excited when I hear that a new Percy Jackson project is underway.  As such, you can probably guess hoe ecstatic I was when I heard that an Off-Broadway musical adaption of The Lightning Thief, the first novel in the series, was being produced.  Unfortunately, I never got to attend a performance, but I have listened to the original cast recording album. That is what we are here to talk about.  Can this musical distill the spirit of Percy Jackson in the form of musical theater?  Actually, yes it can, and quite well to boot.

First, a bit of background.  The musical first premiered in 2014 as a one-hour production as part of a free theater series.  In 2017, the musical was revived and expanded into a full Off-Broadway production.  This review is going to cover the 2017 Off-Broadway production of the musical.  Whenever you see me referring to the musical, I'm going to be referring to the 2017 version.  Think of the 2014 version as the demo reel, while the 2017 version was the finished product.   

I'll go ahead and summarize the plot, for the sake of those who might not otherwise know.  Percy Jackson is a down on his luck sixth grader.  He tries his best to be a good kid, but for one reason or another, he always gets kicked out of school at the end of the year.  On a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art his math teacher Mrs. Dodds turns into a monster and tries to kill him.  Thankfully, Percy is saved by using a magic pen/sword, given to him by his supercool Latin teacher Mr. Brunner.  Before long, Percy learns that his best friend Grover Underwood is a satyr, Mr. Brunner is the mythical centaur Chiron, and Percy himself is a demigod.  The Greek gods are real and they're currently living in America.

Chiron and Grover take Percy to Camp Half-Blood, a summer camp for demigods.  A few misadventures later, Percy discovers that his father is Poseidon and that his mother is being held prisoner in the underworld.  Worse still, Zeus' master lightning bolt has gone missing, and Poseidon is the prime suspect.  Percy and Grover, along with a daughter of Athena named Annabeth Chase, must travel across America on a quest to save Percy's mom and stop the impending Olympian civil war.  

I think I should reiterate that this is going to be a review of the album, not the musical proper.  Like I said, I was unable to attend any of the performances, but I sure wish I had.  When I first heard about this musical, I wasn't quite sure how to feel.  I'm still feeling fairly burned over how badly bungled the movie "adaptations" were, and I was quite sure what a rock opera would be like.  I been seeing that the musical was getting rave reviews from both critics and fans of the book, and Rick Riordan himself seemed to have a fairly positive view of it.  So, then the album was release onto iTunes.  With trembling fingers, I pressed the preview button on the opening song.  I was completely blown away by what I heard.

It was as if I was listening to the book come to life in musical form.  So, I decided to sample all of the other songs, then I bought the album, listened to the songs in full and here I am reviewing the album.  From that first instant I knew that Rob Rokicki and Joe Tracz had a deep love and respect for the source material.  They stayed true to the plot and spirit of the book, but made changes where necessary to accommodate the new medium.  That is the method of adaptation that I prefer best.  I thank the gods of Olympus on high that these gentlemen specifically set out, from the start, to be truer to the books than the movies were.  

Now then, let's talk about the songs themselves.  To start off we have "Prologue/The Day I Got Expelled."  It starts us off strong with some electric guitar and a jazzy piano riff.  The demigods begin by singing about various grievances against their godly parents before Percy takes over and explains the start of his story.  Following this we have the song "Strong."  It's an acoustic guitar song where Mrs. Jackson tries to cheer Percy up by telling him that the things that make him different are what make him strong.  This one made me tear up a bit.  Not only does it sound exactly like the sort of song Mrs. Jackson would sing, but it reminded me of conversations I've had with my own mother.  

"The Minotaur / The Weirdest Dream" is, admittedly, more of a transition than anything else.  Still, it serves its purpose and it does end on a funny note, with Percy meeting Annabeth for the first time.  After that we are treated to "Another Terrible Day" where Mr. D, better known as Dionysus, grumpily sings about having to deal with needy campers.  Or should I say, unhappy campers?  It's a fun song accompanied by a bouncy piano number.  It definitely sounds like something Mr. D would sing.  "Their Sign" is another great humanizing moment for Percy as he questions why his father hasn't shown up over the years.  We also get some great moments of Chiron's fatherly side.

Next up, we have a high energy electric guitar song "Put You in Your Place." This was exactly the sort of song Clarisse would sing.  A high energy rock song is certainly fitting for a daughter of Ares.  I also liked how the song also showcased Annabeth's battle strategies.  "The Campfire Song" is...well, an acoustic guitar campfire song.  The demigods all bond over the difficulties of having divine parents.  It's a fun song that help develop the characters.  "The Oracle" is another transitional song, but it serves it's purpose and sets Percy and company on their quest.  

"Good Kid" is a ballad about Percy's anticipation for his coming quest.  He reflects on all the knocks life has dealt him, and how he strives to be a good kid, but always screw up.  There have been many times I feel as though this could be my life's theme song, but I digress.  "Killer Quest!" brings the first act to an end.  Percy, Annabeth and Grover sing optimistically about the quest they've just set out and, and how nothing can bring them down.  Then the second act begins and, as "Lost!" details, they've become lost in the forests of New Jersey.  Out of all the songs, I found this one to be the weakest, but even it had some entertaining moments.  

"My Grand Plan" gives us a closer look at Annabeth's hopes and dreams.  You really get to see that, though she puts on a tough exterior, she's got just as many worries and doubts as Percy.  In fact, though they have different sounds, you could see this as Annabeth's version of "Good Kid."  Moving right along, "Drive" sees our heroes moving across America on their way to Los Angles.  It has a country twang with lots of banjos and harmonicas.  We also get a surprise cameo appearance by Bianca di Angelo, along with mention of Nico.  It's a fun little mythology gag, since they didn't appear in the books until The Titan's Curse.  Speaking of which, we're also treated to a stop at the dam snack bar at The Hoover Dam, another mythology gag. 

"The Weirdest Dream (Reprise)" is another transition song, but again, it serves its purpose.  "The Tree on the Hill" is a heartfelt song that details the story of Thalia Grace, and by extension, Grover's greatest failure.  You really want to give Grover a hug and tell him that it'll all be okay.  I did notice that the cast seemed to be saying Talia, but that could have been a mispronunciation, or an awkward pronunciation.  For a bit of mood whiplash, "D.O.A." delivers some funky disco beats.  It also has some darkly humorous moments.  For example, Charon points out a newly arrived boys’ choir, and cheerily remarks on how lucky they are that their voices will never change.

Out of all the song, "Son of Poseidon" is easily my favorite.  It felt like everything had been building up to this song.  Percy finally comes to terms with who he is, accepts that his dad night not be perfect, makes it out of the underworld and has his big showdown with Ares.  It's big, bombastic, triumphant and I wouldn't have it any other way.  

"The Last Day of Summer" takes place after the bolt has been returned and are hero are back at camp.  Percy is trying to figure out what to do with his future, and we discover who the lightning thief is.  Not really much of a spoiler to say that it's Luke, and it's certainty an effective turning to the dark side sort of song.  That leaves us with the final number, "Bring on the Monsters."  Percy and company accept that their lives will never be normal, but normal is a myth, and they can take on any challenge.  A perfectly good song, and a good way to end the musical, but perhaps a bit less memorable compared to "Son of Poseidon."

As you can see, the songs are all wonderful, and I love them all.  Now then, let's talk a bit more about the plot.  Over all it follows the book fairly closely; certain scenes are condensed for time; a few changes are made here and there to accommodate the new medium.  A few things were skipped over, such as the encounter with Procrustes and the side trip to retrieve Ares shield, but overall it stayed true to the plot of the book.  The musical also did a great job of staying true to the heart of the books.  The dialogue and song lyrics sound like they could have come straight from the books.  In fact, certain lines actually are lifted directly from the book.  It was just the right balance of humor, action, wittiness and heartfelt.  

I thought that all of the casting choices worked really well.  Theater is one of those things where you gotta use your imagination at times, but that's part of the fun.  For example, the main characters are repeatedly stated to be twelve, but their actors are in their twenties.  Again, this is a common occurrence in many theater productions.  On a similar note, Carrie Compere, the actress who plays Mrs. Jackson, is black despite Chris McCarrell being white.  However, Carrie absolutely owns every song she sings, and she perfectly captured the essence of Mrs. Jackson's character.  She and Chris gelled really well together, and their on-stage relationship just felt really authentic.  I can certainly see why the directors cast her.

Speaking of Chris McCarrell, as far as I'm concerned, he is the live action Percy Jackson.  His voice is actually fairly close to how I always envisioned Percy sounding, and absolutely nails Percy's character.  The same goes for Kristen Stokes' performance as Annabeth.  As I side note, I'd like to take a moment to say how grateful I am that this musical has a blonde Annabeth.  Fun fact, when a fan expressed concern that the musical would be as inaccurate as the movies, the musical's Twitter account responded with: "We've got a blonde Annabeth, so we're already ahead of the curve."  

George Salazar pulls double duty as both Mr. D and Grover Underwood.  He also looks much closer to how Grover is supposed to look than the regrettable movie version.  Occasionally, his Mr. D voice slips through on a couple of Grover's singing bits, but on the whole, he does a really good job.  I do find it a bit amusing that Grover and Mr. D share an actor, since in the books, Grover is scared of Dionysus.  James Hayden Rodriguez really made Luke Castellan come across as believable and sympathetic before the big reveal.  I also really liked his performance as Ares which, based on what I listened to, seemed to have a sort of punk rocker vibe to it.  It's another great example of double casting, given the connection Luke and Ares have.

Jonathan Raviv provides an interesting example of double casting as well.  He plays Chiron and Poseidon; meaning he plays both Percy's surrogate father and his actual father.  This adds a certain extra dimension to all of the scenes with Percy and Chiron interacting.  And yes, Jonathan is of South Asian ancestry, but he absolutely nailed Chiron's personality and character.  I liked how he spoke with a kind of upper class Transatlantic-ish accent.  Not quite American, but not quite British either.  

Out of all the actors, Carrie Compere had the most role to juggle.  She played Mrs. Jackson, The Oracle of Delphi, Silena Beauregard and Charon.  For reference, Charon is the ferryman who brought to souls of the dead to the underworld.  If you were thinking of the centaur trainer of heroes, that would be Chiron.  As stated above, she absolutely owned every song that she was in.  Finally, we have Sarah Beth Pfeifer who played Clarisse, Mrs. Dodds and Katie Gardner.  She has absolutely amazing vocal range and really managed to differentiate her characters.  She might have only had one song where she was the main singer, but it was a pretty damn effective song. 

So, suffice it to say, I loved all of the actors in this production.  They all clicked really well together, and none of them felt miscast nor out of place.  As an aside, wouldn't it be awesome if they all got together and recorded a special edition of The Lightning Thief audiobook?  Maybe they could get some other actors to play the character who didn't appear in the musical, and maybe a bit of music and sound effects.  Ah, but I'm getting carried away here, let's get things back on track.  

If I did have one regret, it's that I never got to actually see the musical.  It would have been nice to actually see everything, and to hear the non-musical bits of the production.  It would make it easier to know who played certain other characters, such as Zeus and Hades, or how they handled scenes like Chiron reveling his true centaur form.  Alas, I must make due with still images and bootlegged footage.  If ever I do manage to catch a show, it will of course be without the original cast.  That would be a bit sad, but still better than not seeing the musical at all.  

Now then, what about people who have never read the books?  If you were to see a performance of the musical, you'd have all the information you'd need.  If you were to only listen to the album?  Yeah, you'd have quite a few gaps in your knowledge/understanding.  I mean, you'd probably get the general gist of it all, but still be scratching your head wondering what happened between the songs.  I'd recommend at least reading the first book in the series; like the musical, it's called The Lightning Thief.  You'll miss out on one or two nods to the later books, but overall you'll be much better prepared than if you went in without and prior knowledge.  At this point, I'm sure I don't need to emphasize what a bad idea it would be to use the movies as a reference.  

The last line of "Bring on the Monsters" sounds a bit like a sequel hook, but the directors have confirmed that it wasn't necessarily meant to be.  I'd love to see what they could do with the other books in the series, but if nothing else, at least we've got this wonderful musical.  Don't get your hopes up too high for a sequel, but at the same time, don't totally dismiss the possibility either.

So there you have it.  The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical is an adaptation worthy of the gods themselves.  It retains the heart and soul of the books while also finding its own voice.  This could finally be an opportunity for the Percy Jackson franchise to have its day in the sun.  On behalf of all Percy Jackson fans, and from the bottom of my heart, I want to extend a warm and enthusiastic thanks to all of the actors and writers involved in the production.  You helped bring our favorite series to life, and the world is a brighter place because of your hard work.  

I had a really good time reviewing this album/musical.  In fact, I think I just might do a retrospect on Percy Jackson and the Olympians, as well as its sequel series and spin-off series.  Hmm, yes, I think I will get started on that.  

Well, I think that's enough from me for now.  I will see you guys next time.