Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Audio File: StarShipSofa

Guest post Sam McDonald.
In this edition of The Audio File we'll be talking about StarShipSofa. StarShipSofa is a science fiction podcast that is part of the District of Wonders podcast family which includes Tales to Terrify (horror), Crime City Central (crime and mystery), Protecting Project Pulp and Far-Fetched Fables (fantasy). In many ways I can best describe StarShipSofa as what would happen if Alternate History Weekly Update was a podcast. The podcast is primarily hosted by the ever jolly Tony C. Smith and includes many informative fact segments such as Look Back at Genre History with Amy H. Sturgis, Science News with JJ Campanella, Film Talk with Dennis M. Lane and much more.

They even have their own equivalent of The Audio File; though their's is called Cheapskates and is about free fiction in general, but it has many of the same principles as The Audio File. Anyway, all these great segments in edition to the feature stories does add to the shows length. Average show time usually goes for well over an hour; sometimes it's even over two hours. I know it might seem intimidating at first, but it is all well worth your time, I promise. For those who don't want to listen to the entire show, the starting point of each segment are listed on StarShipSofa's website.

Certain episodes from early in the podcast's run are referred to as Aural Delights, but it is very much part of StarShipSofa. Anyway, enough intro, onto the stories. Everyone has a story aboard StarShipSofa. Let's go find some...

"Raft of the Titanic" by James Morrow
Narrated by Peter Seaton-Clark
Originally Published in The Mammoth Book of Alternate History 

In our world many passenger aboard the Titanic died due to the lack of lifeboats. In this story, however, after the iceberg was struck a great raft was created to save all the passengers. Eventually the passengers go on to establish a near utopian society aboard the ever expanding raft. With such a perfect society will any of the passengers ever want to leave?

With stories based around events like the Titanic or the Hindenburg you usually have to resort to fantastical means when writing alternate history. In this case, however, we got a somewhat realistic alternate history of the Titanic. I say somewhat because things do go a bit idealistically aboard the raft. The biggest issue I can think of is that, besides rain, there didn't really seem to be any source of fresh drinking water on the raft. Nonetheless, overall I found this story quite enjoyable.

This story is a great example of oceanpunk. What is oceanpunk? Oceanpunk is a punk set primarily at sea or on a world primarily covered by water. Waterworld and One Piece are good examples of oceanpunk. In other matters, I enjoyed how the story was told as a series of letters. I also thought that Peter did a great job with the narration.

An alternate history of the Titanic with an oceanpunk twist. Very much recommended.

"Escape From New Austin" by Paul Di Filippo
Narrated by Amy H. Sturgis 
Originally Published in Jigsaw Nation

This story takes place in a world where America split into two nations around 2004. The blue districts became the nation of Agnostica and the red districts became the nation of Faithland. The story follows a girl named Amy from Agnostica controlled Austin. She's obsessed with country music and conservatism and she determined to follow her dreams of traveling to Faithland. Are the two nations, however, really all that different?

Okay, the plausibility of this story is definitely on the softer side. The point of this story, however, was less about being a believable alternate history and more about providing commentary on recent society. In that regard I think this story does pretty well. True to their names, Faithland is a lot more religious than Agnostica, but on the whole they're a lot more similar than they are different. Granted, my personal views on the matter are a bit different, checkout my blog for that, but I digress.

Anyway, I found this story much more enjoyable than that other Jigsaw Nation story I reviewed in the post on Escape Pod. As for the narration, Amy H. Sturgis isn't just great at writing fact articles, she's also an excellent narrator. For a great story from the Jigsaw Nation anthology, look no further.

"Jaguar House in Shadow" by Aliette de Bodard
Narrated by Morag Edwards
Originally Published in Asimov's 
2011 Hugo and Nebula Award Nominee 

This story is set in the Xuya universe. It's a world where China kept its treasure fleet, discovered and colonized the New World and the Aztec Empire survived. Within the Aztec Empire there used to be several different military orders named after animals, but now only the Jaguar Knights remain following a purge by the new emperor. A rebellion was started by a Jaguar Knight named Xochitl, but it was suppressed and she was imprisoned. Her friend Onalli, however, is determined to bust her out and find a new life in either Xuya or America.

The thing that really sold me on this story was the rich and detailed descriptions of life in the modern Aztec Empire. It's clear that Aliette did a lot of research and knows what she's talking about. As someone who writes stories set in an Aztec inspired fantasy world I really appreciated that. I also liked the ways Aztec culture had adapted to the modern world. For example, human sacrifice has been phased out, but blood letting is still part of the religion.

This was a really great introduction to the Xuya universe, and I can't wait to find more stories set in this world. Morag handled the narration quite well. It's a story about strange rumblings in a present day Aztec Empire. Very much worth your time.

"Something Real" by Rick Wilber
Narrated by Logan Waterman
Originally Published in Asimov's 
2012 Sidewise Award Winner

Moe Berg was a true renaissance man. He had multiple Ivy League degrees, knew many different languages, played baseball and was a spy during World War II. In this story he gets involved in a plot to stop Werner Heisenberg and Germany's attempt to develop develop an atomic bomb.

I'll admit that I didn't know too much about Moe Berg before listening to this story, but that didn't effect my ability to enjoy this story. Obviously, the Nazis were nowhere near capable of actually creating a viable atomic bomb, but it does make for a pretty good spy thriller plot. It's really a testament to Rick's writing talent that the story worked so well despite potential issues. Hey, it won the Sidewise Award so obviously it's pretty good.

Of course, a story like this needs a good narrator and Logan is that narrator. It won the Sidewise for a reason and I happily recommend it.

"The Time Travel Club" by Charlie Jane Anders
Narrated by Ibba Armancas
Originally Published in Asimov's 

This story follows a recovering addict named Lydia who has joined a time traveler's club. At first it was all just pretend and games, but then one of the members brings an time machine to the meeting. Lydia and the other members try to figure out what to do with this astonishing discovery and grow closer together.

Yeah, the summary doesn't really do it justice, but this is a really great story. The theme of a lost person finding friends through nerdy means struck a cord with me. I never really had many friends in high school or that many growing up, but then I went to college, met my now very good friends, got introduced to anime, went on many fun adventures...okay, that enough about my personal life. Point is I related with the characters in this story.

One of the things I liked was how the time machine was just that, as opposed to a space and time machine, and the characters were always having to take the Earth's rotation into account. There are some slight alternate history elements to this story, but that's a surprise I really shouldn't spoil. As I've said before, the writing and characterization are top notch in this story.

Ibba did an amazing job with the narration. A story about time travel, friendship and finding yourself. I couldn't recommend it more.

"Prophet of Flores" by Ted Kosmatka
Narrated by David Birkhead
Originally Published in Asimov's 

This is the short story that served as the basis for Ted Kosmatka's Prophet of Bones. It takes place in a world where creationism won out over Darwinian evolution and is the accepted scientific explanation for how the world came to be. The story follows a biologist named Paul Carlson; he's been performing experiments since he was young to test if evolution is true. He's been assigned to a paleontology dig on the Indonesian island of Flores that could change the world of science.

A recurring problem I find with Ted Kosmatka is that, though he comes up with some interesting ideas, he doesn't consider their full ramifications. So it is with this story. The explanation for why creationism is accepted in this world is that radiometric dating determined that the Earth is only 10,000 years old. However, despite that both science and the world as a whole look almost exactly like our world. Not only that, but the fossil record is exactly the same as in our world.

Evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology and if you get rid of that you potentially get all sorts of changes. Also, no science is an island onto itself and knocking out evolution would have effects across the scientific world. For that matter, you don't always throw something out the window in light of new evidence, rather you can refine it in light of new information. You'd also expect that their be higher levels of religiousness in such a world, but again, nothing that seems different from our world.

Now I have to be fair here, when it comes to writing characters and bringing that human element to the story Ted does an amazing job. There are also hints at the end of some kind of conspiracy. That being said, I simply can't get over the tremendous suspension of disbelief required by this story. For that matter, I'm surprised Ted felt the need to go the alternate history route, considering that we live in a world where nearly half of all Americans believe the Earth is 10,000 years old and created in seven literal days.

Obviously, I didn't enjoy it too much, but I can't quite bring myself to give it the stamp of disapproval. Should you chose to give it a try I advise to approach with a considerable degree of caution.

"Adrift on the Sea of Rains" (Part 1 and Part 2) by Ian Sales
Narrated by Logan Waterman
2012 Sidewise Award Nominee 

Yeah, this story has been reviewed before, but I still think the audio version is worth going over. You guys probably know the drill; Cold War goes hot and only twelve astronauts on the Moon survive and use a bit of secret Nazi tech to search for a new universe to live in.

Now, this story has a lot of technical jargon that might not necessarily translate so well in audio. So, how well does it work? Well, StarShipSofa wrote to Ian about these concerns and he wrote a version especially for them with the jargon simplified or explained in-story. I can personally attest that it works out quite well, and Logan once again does a great job with the narration.

I really can't say much that hasn't been said already, but I can give it a strong recommendation.

"Lord Dickens's Declaration" (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) by Lawrence Santoro 
Narrated by Lawrence Santoro 

This story has multiple points of divergence, but the primary one is that religion died out in prehistoric times. By the 1920s there's peace and happiness throughout the world. The arts are the movers and shakers of society, with science and technology existing purely to serve the arts. Speaking of technology, it's advanced to the point of including such things as supercomputers and time machines. The story follows a team of historians researching a significant event in the life of Lord Charles Dickens, but things quickly lead into a bigger conspiracy all the way back to the origin of humanity.

In terms of plausibility this story is on the softer side, with figures from Jesus to William of Occam appearing despite the changes. Had Lawrence tried to made things realistic, however, it would have resulted in a world so alien it would potentially alienate readers. It took me a bit to really get into that story, but after that I really enjoyed it. It was also helpful the each segment began by recapped the previous events.

One issue I had was how one of the characters was planning on changing the past on the grounds that this world was missing something without religion. If this world had some flaws I might have been willing to buy that, but frankly this seems to be that world John Lennon was singing about in "Imagine". If anything this world seemed to be better off without religion. Still, despite some iffy elements overall it was a great novella.

Lawrence isn't just a great author, he's also a great narrator. This novella was part of a fundraising effort when Spider Robinson's wife was diagnosed with cancer. It's always great when speculative fiction does stuff like that. Another story that I happily recommend.

"Lure" by Harry Turtledove 
Narrated by Dennis M. Lane
Originally Published in Analog and collected in Departures

This story follows a time traveling hunter named Harvey Cutter. He's traveled to Miocene Italy to capture a species of primate for the San Diego Cenozoic Zoo. Unfortunately, he's been having a bit of trouble catching the primate, but I can't tell you any more without giving away the story.

It is well known that Harry Turtledove has a thing for puns and this story is no exception as you find out at the end. As a pun lover myself I quite enjoyed this story. I also enjoyed Dennis' narration of this story.

Now I'm going to talk about the episode this story appear in. For their 300th episode StarShipSofa had a Harry Turtledove special. They had asked him for only one story, but he offered them five; a very impressive feat. Now, they might no have had any power over what stories were offered, and Mr. Turtledove does write more than just alternate history. Still, none of the stories they received were alternate history and I can't help but think of all the great alternate history short stories we potentially missed out on.

Be that as it may, the stories we did receive, including this one, are all quite good in their own right. Let's take a look at some more.

"Not All Wolves" by Harry Turtledove 
Narrated by Ibba Armancas 
Originally Published in Werewolves and collected in Departures 

This story is set in Cologne in 1176 and follows a young werewolf named Dieter as he desperately tries to evade capture and execution. He's tried to get help everywhere, but to no avail. Fortunately, a kind hearted rabbi named Avram offers him refuge in the city's Jewish Quarter.

This is another story where the summary isn't much, but I promise this one is good. I always enjoy stories where the monsters are misunderstood rather than evil. It was interesting how the story made lycanthropy a metaphor for both puberty and the persecution of Jews. Dieter first started transforming we he turned thirteen and Avram mentions that Dieter isn't the only person to have been persecuted in Cologne. It was a really nice and heartwarming story.

There's not too much dialogue in this story, and Ibba did a good job narrating, but it still seemed a tad odd given that the story only has male characters in it. A story that is a little more hairy than Turtledove and one I happily recommend.

"Clash of Arms" by Harry Turtledove 
Narrated by Nick Camm
Originally Published in New Destinies IV and collected in Departures 

This story takes place in medieval Westphalia and follows an Englishmen named Stephen de Windesore. He attends a jousting tournament where he meets a merchant named Niccolo dello Bosco. The two men share a passion for heraldry and coats of arms. They quickly get involved in a coat of arms naming contest, and Stephen wonders if there is more to Niccolo than meets the eye.

Yeah, this is another story that's better than its summary. As a flag lover and flag maker, this story really spoke to me. I loved the exchange of banter between Stephen and Niccolo, and Nick's narration really helped bring it to life. You can always tell that Turtledove is in his element when he writes stories set in medieval times.

Another great historical fantasy story from Harry Turtledove.

"The Barbecue, The Movie, and Other Unfortunately Not So Relevant Material"
by Harry Turtledove 
Narrated by Mike Boris
Originally Published in Analog and collected in Departures 

We'll end with one last Harry Turtledove story. This one follows a technical writer from Los Angles named T.G. Khan. His father was a professor of Mongol History, so his full name is Temujin Genghis Khan. One day Khan receives a visit from a time traveling historian from thousands of years in the future named Lasoparop Rof. It seems Lasoparop was looking for that other Genghis Khan and is now at a loss for what to do. Khan decides to help as much as he can with a barbecue, a movie and a few wacky misadventures.

This is definitely the funniest of the four Harry Turtledove stories on this list. A lot of the humor comes from just how unfamiliar Lasoparop is with the late 20th century due to coming from 50,000-60,000 years in the future. He can't tell the difference between machines and animals, barely understands what fire is and yet apparently there are still Jews given that he recognized a menorah. Added humor comes from Khan's deadpan reaction to all of this. At the same time, this story made me wonder about how historians in the future will look back on the present day and what they'll make of it; as well as what misconceptions they might have.

Mike's great narration really added to the humorous experience. Easily one of the funniest Harry Turtledove stories and one I happily recommend.

Conclusion 

Well, we've reached the end of the list and I'm going to cut right to the chase. Tales to Terrify, StarShipSofa's sister podcast, is in trouble. It is in desperate need of funding and we've only got a few weeks to save it. As I've said in the past, part of the reason I started The Audio File was to get the word out and help podcasts in need. Well, this is a podcast in need and I'm not about to let a good podcast go under as long as I have something to say about it. Let's get  on it gang, any amount helps no matter how small.

On a slightly happier note, we've got a choice to make for the next installment of The Audio File. We can go back and visit stories we missed from past podcasts or we can move forward. If we move forward I'll be covering multiple podcast in the next post. We'll see Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons and either Apex Magazine or Cast of Wonders. Let me know what you'd like to do and that's where we'll go.

Remember, help a podcast out and donate some money, and I will see you next time.

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Sam McDonald is a college student from Shreveport, LA.  When not involved with his studies he can be found blogging on Amazing Stories, 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.

2 comments:

  1. Hey Sam and the fine folk at Alt History,
    It's Mr. Szal here, the assistant editor at SSS and Tony's thug for hire (without the pay). Thanks so much for doing this and promoting the episodes like this, we really appreciate it, and I always enjoy people picking apart and discussing the stories we've hosted on the show. It's the best.
    Keep listening, folks!
    Jeremy

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    1. No problem, it's what I'm here for. Helping people find great stories and podcasts is what is column is all about. And hey, be sure to look out for The Audio File on Amazing Stories; I've got a feeling I'll feature some SSS episodes in future posts over there

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