Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Audio File: The Drabblecast

Guest post by Sam McDonald.
Things are going to get a little weird in this installment of The Audio 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 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...

Now Let Us 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.

[Editor's Note: Probably one of the best stories on The Drabblecast. I also recommend it.]

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.

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 Cane'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.

On a more personal note, not long ago The Drabblecast could have published a story of mine, but they politely declined. I hope this shows I have no hard feeling about all that. I'll see you next time weirdos, and when I do we'll be heading to Lightspeed.

* * *

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.

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