Friday, January 23, 2015

The Audio File: Escape Pod

Guest post by Sam McDonald.

In recent years the number of short story magazine podcasts has seen a significant increase. Consequently this means that there are quite a few alternate history short stories available for free, but don't be shy about dropping a donation or starting a subscription if you like what you find.  Many of these magazines rely on their readers to pay their authors. So, being something of an expert on podcast magazines, I decided to take it upon myself to act as your guide in the first of what I hope to be many great articles about the wonders of audio magazines.

In this installment we'll be tackling Escape Pod, and before we head into the stories we'll need to cover a bit of background. Back in 2005, Escape Pod founder Steve Eley created the podcast as a way of showcasing some of the best talent in the field of science fiction.  At the time Eley wasn't sure just how long the podcast was going to last, but ten years and over 400 episodes later it's safe to say the podcast has proved to be more successful than Steve could possibly have imagined. Escape Pod's success helped prove the viability of online short story podcast magazines and led to the creation of two other Escape Artists podcasts: Pseudopod for horror and PodCastle for fantasy (more on them in later posts).

Over the years Escape Pod has featured numerous host including Mur Lafferty, Norm Sherman, Alasdair Stuart and episode feedback by Nathaniel Lee. It's the little commentary the host gives before and after an episode that in my opinion, gives Escape Pod (and all Escape Artists productions) a very person touch.  They've  featured narrators from all walks of life, both professional and amateur. The intro and outro music, provided by monster surf rock band Daikaiju, is another of those little personal touches I adore.

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

Escape Pod has certainly left its mark on short story podcast magazines, but now that we've got the introductions out of the way, let's talk stories. Since this is an alternate history blog I've limited myself to alternate history related stories.  Believe me, if it was just stories in general we'd be here all day.  Remember, these stories are released on a Creative Commons, attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives license; feel free to share them all you like, just don't change or sell them.  Now, get ready, because it's story time...

"Joe Steele" by Harry Turtledove
Narrated by Steve Eley
Originally published in Stars: Original Stories Based on the Songs of Janis Ian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First of all let me just say that Seth did and excellent job with the world-building. I really felt like the world was well explained, but that it also existed beyond the confines of the story. Also, hats off the Melissa for doing such a good job juggling the cast of characters. Having said that, and keeping in mind that I still think it's an excellent story, there were a few details that didn't quite add up.

For example, why the difference in value between the dollar and the coupon? Wouldn't it just be easier to keep things on a 1:1 ratio. Also, what's so bad about illegal currency exchanges? Surely the women running them must be losing money, and it's not like they're counterfeiting or anything like that. On the other hand, maybe the answers were closer than I initially realized.

It's repeatedly implied throughout the story that the systems true purpose is to reinforce traditional gender roles.  It's also mentioned that America is the only nation to use segregated money. The story also hints that people are beginning to to notice how the system makes no sense, and the Women's Liberation Movement appears to be purring right on schedule.  Come to think of it, the story could easily be interpreted as an allegory for the continued wage discrimination against women.

Maybe it was the author's intent to leave certain questions unanswered and the audience wanting more. All things considered still an excellent story and very much recommended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This one is also debatable as to how much it counts, but it won the Hugo Award, so that's got to count for something. Our protagonist gets a job at a hamburger joint in West Virginia, but this isn't just any hamburger joint. Harry's All-Night Hamburgers serves as a hub for travelers from different alternate universes; it seems West Virginia is always out of the way and unassuming no matter what the universe. Our protagonist soon faces a choice; continue life as it is, or travel to new and exotic universes, but risk never seeing this one again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don't know if I should consider Steve Eley commendable or insane for running this story. Either way, don't waste your time with this stinker. Pick one of the other stories I've featured.

Conclusion

I don't want to end on a sour note, so I'll take a moment to reflect on all the good stories we discussed.  From Harry Turtledove to Ken Liu, from Castro as a baseball player to coins from another world. I hope you enjoyed these sampling and give them a try. And hey, these as just the alternate history related stories, there's hundreds of other amazing stories just waiting to be listened to as well. Remember, if you like what you hear don't be shy about dropping a donation, Escape Pod is funded by its fans.  Hopefully, I can do this again some other time and talk about some other great short story podcast. If so, I will see you then.

* * *

Sam McDonald is a college student from Shreveport, LA.  When not involved with his studies he can be found making and posting maps across the web and working on short stories that he hopes to have published in magazines such as Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and the Escape Artists Podcasts.

3 comments:

  1. Awesome! Thanks for putting this together. I'm working my way through these now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No problem, always happy to help and promote (partially why I wrote this article). Happy listening and I hope you enjoy them

      Delete
  2. The airship story made me very nostalgic. That story inspired me to write my big TL where Hindenburg dies of a heart attack ahead of the 1932 election and Eckener runs in his place and wins against Hitler. :)

    ReplyDelete