Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Audio File: Escape Pod 2

Guest post by Sam McDonald.
When I first started The Audio File I had no idea how popular it would become. I'm very happy to have gotten the chance to share so many great podcasts and stories with all of you, and I look forward to sharing even more in future posts. For this post we'll be revisiting Escape Pod. My first Escape Pod article was just the warm up act for the stories we'll be talking about today.

Before we begin I'd like to talk about some new Escape Pod facts. For example, all three of the Escape Artists podcasts have started Artemis Rising, a special month celebrating women writers of speculative fiction. As of this article Artemis Rising 2 is already in production. I'd also like to take a moment to acknowledge Mat Weller, one of the producers and unsung behind the scenes heroes of the Escape Artists podcasts. And to any other staff I haven't named in my posts, I'd like to thank you as well. You're work and contributions are greatly appreciated.

Now that we've covered all of that, get ready, because once again it's story time...

"Night Bird Soaring" by T. L. Morganfield
Narrated by Mat Weller
Originally Published in Greatest Uncommon Denominator #3
2008 Sidewise Award Nominee

This story is set in an Aztec Empire that never fell, expanded to include the entirety of the Americas and developed space travel. It follows a boy named Totyoalli who is to play the role of Tezcatlipoca in a ritual when he turns twenty-nine. And by play the role I, of course, mean that he will be sacrificed. It's not exactly bad, he's best friends with the emperor, lives a life of luxury and even marries five wives. Still, his heart is set on joining the space program and visiting Quetzalcoatl's World, aka Venus. Can he find a way to live his dream and fulfill his destiny?

One of the things I loved about this story was the way it present a nuanced look at the Aztecs. Contrary to popular opinion they were far from bloodthirsty savages. They mandated the same education for all citizens, even women, had pretty great social mobility, were excellent astronomers, had a pretty good track with women's rights and so much more. As for the human sacrifice, remember, from their point of view it was necessary to keep the universe running. Point is they were way more than what they're commonly portrayed as in fiction and this story did a great job showcasing that.

I also liked the way the imminent sacrifice was treated almost like having a terminal illness. Totyoalli knows he's got to make the most of his time, but he also comes to terms with his fate. Now, many of you are probably wondering how the Aztecs of this story got such a big empire. Don't worry, that's all explained, but I can't give that away. I will say we get a couple supernatural hints towards the end of the story, but that's all you get until you read/listen to this story. I also enjoyed how all the planets were named after Aztec gods. It was a nice touch

Mat Weller isn't just great at behind the scenes work, he's also great at narration. All in all a great story with a nuanced take on the Aztecs. Earned its nomination and should definitely early your time as well.

"People of the Shell" by Brian Trent
Narrated by Jeff Ronner
An Escape Pod Original 

This story is set during the Bronze Age after a series of asteroid impacts blocked out the sun. The once mighty Persian Empire, lead by Cyrus the Great, has been reduced to a mere 200 individuals wandering across the frozen desert on great sandships. They were looking for a glimmer of civilization in Egypt, but instead find people living beneath the shell of a gigantic...something. These people have built a society based around the worship of the great beasts, but how long can it last?

And the winner of most original alternate history short story is...this story! Seriously, the atmosphere in this story is absolutely phenomenal. You really get to see just how dark, cold and utterly hopeless this world is. Some of you might be reminded of The Peshawar Lancers by this story, though apart from the asteroids, they're very different stories. I liked that this story featured both Persians and Greeks, but treated them both fairly. It's also nice to see alternate history set in ancient times.

On that note, as far as themes go I found that nobody was really 100 percent right in this story. The People of the Shell are mostly comprised of people who were on the bottom rung of society, and the asteroids have give them a chance to rise above their positions. At the same time, Cyrus is right that their way of life simply isn't sustainable in the long term, and eventually humanity will have to get back on its feet out of necessity. You've got people who resorted to cannibalism, but only as a last resort. Like I said, morality as grey as the setting.

As for the narration, I thought Jeff did a spot on job. Defiantly on of the more unique alternate history stories, and definitely worth your time.

"Impossible Dreams" by Tim Pratt
Narrated by Matthew Wayne Selznick
Originally Published in Asimov's 
2007 Hugo Award Winner

This story follows a cinephile named Pete who discovers an amazing new movie store. The movies seem like they're out of another universe; I, Robot with screenplay by Harlan Ellison, Raiders of the Lost Ark staring Tom Selleck, The Magnificent Ambersons with its original ending and much more. Soon it becomes clear the store is traveling from another world. Pete finds himself falling in love with the store's clerk Allie. Each day the store appears for less and less time, and Pete has to convince Allie about the true nature of the store.

At the Escape Artists podcasts there is one man who is the undisputed king of short stories. That man, of course, is Tim Pratt. Seriously, he's been published more times on the Escape Artists podcasts than any other author, but not without reason. He's easily one of the most talented current writers of speculative fiction, and he's got the awards to prove it.

Anyway, back to the review. I learned a lot of movie trivia from this story, and it gave me a greater appreciation of movies in general. I liked how Pete was able to surmise information about Allie's world based on what movies the store had. For example, no Dr. Strangelove and a movie about the invasion of the Japanese home islands, staring John Wayne, potentially means no atomic bomb in that world. The overall feel of this story remind me of The Twilight Zone, and so it should appeal to fans of that show. The ending is really sweet, but of course, it is a Tim Pratt story.

A great story like this need a great narrator to go with it, and Matthew is that narrator. A story that more than earned its Hugo. I happily recommend it.

"Summer in Paris, Light From the Sky" by Ken Scholes 
Narrated by Alex Wilson
Originally Published in Clarkesworld Magazine

It's 1941 and Adolph Hitler has arrived in Paris to pursue his dream of becoming a painter. Along the way he befriends Earnest Hemingway and Charlie Chaplin at Charles de Gaulle's bar. Hitler soon finds himself falling in love with a beautiful young Jewish girl from Poland. Things come to a head when the French government begins persecuting Jews. It's up to Hitler and his friends to rise above and stand up to this injustice.

Yeah, this one's probably going to be one of the more controversial stories. I'll begin by saying that people are products of their times, and this is obviously a different world, so it's not all the unreasonable that, give different circumstances, Hitler would have turned out different. For what it's worth, this story was reprinted in a top Israeli science fiction magazine and was met with positive reviews.

Okay, now that we got that out the way, let's talk about the story itself. We get some very tantalizing glimpses of the world beyond what the story shows. It appears Spain held onto their American colonies, only to lose them in an alternate Spanish-American War, France is still a monarchy ruled by Napoleon IV...and Hitler goes on to become a human rights activist and is hailed the Savior of the Jews. Yeah, between segments of story we get quotes that give us a glimpse into Hitler's future.

I thought Ken did a great job with the characterization all around, and the writing itself is really quite good. Really, this is a great story. This story was originally published in Clarkesworld Magazine, and I could have saved it for the post on that podcast. What it came down to, however, was who had the best narration. I had to give it to Escape Pod because Alex did such a great job.

Potentially controversial, but well worth you time. Give it a try.

"Checkmate" by Brian Trent
Narrated by Mat Weller
An Escape Pod Original 

This story is set in a world where wars are waged with living chess pieces and the world is divided into markers that nations compete for control over. The American Revolution was the last war fought with conventional armies. A British knight named Edward Oakshott has been challenged by a Russian rook for control of the London marker. Edward's been given a device that promises to grant immortality should he fall it battle, but how far is he willing to go in service to his country?

This is a steampunk story, but the living chess angle was a nice twist on the style. Personally, I would have liked to have seen what all the pieces are like. We see that knights and queens appear to be human, and rooks are mechanical monstrosities, but we never see any of the other pieces. For that matter, it would have been nice to know why Russia wanted the London marker. Maybe that's just how it goes in this world? The mythology lover in me enjoyed how all of the people in the secret London Underground were named after figures from Egyptian Mythology.

This is definitely one where the description is crazy, but I swear it's a good story. As far as narration, Mat once again did an excellent job. It's a new twist on the steampunk story. Give it a shot.

Site Fourteen by Laura Anne Gilman
Narrated by Mat Weller 
Originally Published in ReVISIONS

It's often said that we know more about the surface of the Moon than we do our own deep oceans, but what if that wasn't the case? In this story President John F. Kennedy challenged America not to take to the Moon, but to claim the oceans. By the present day America is the undisputed master of the oceans and has established many bases and settlements across the sea floor. The story follows a typical day at Site Fourteen when disaster strikes.

I'll admit this felt like less of a story and more of a showcase of an alternate world, but that's not a bad thing. I'm a big fan of stories that feature ocean exploration and colonization. The part where it's mentioned that the ocean program was receiving budget cuts was especially poignant give the ever increasing lack of support for institutions such as NASA, the National Endowment for the Humanities and other programs to expand knowledge and exploration.

Now, let's talk narration. Mat does his usual good job, but at the part when things start to go wrong you can hear an emergency alarm beeping in the background for a while. This didn't bother me, but some people might find that annoying, so be aware of that should you listen to this story. All in all a great window into an alternate world. Well worth checking out.

"Unexpected Outcomes" by Tim Pratt
Narrated by Tom Rockwell
Originally Published in Interzone

9/11 was a day that changed everything for America and the world as a whole. In this story, it's even more so, because on the faithful day a strange man appears simultaneously across the world and announces...that the entire world is a computer simulation to test a hypothesis on the rise of Islamic terrorism. It has been declared that the simulation will continue to run, but without nonessentials such as weather, stars and reproduction. Still, not everyone is convinced that's the whole story. Our hero, a man named Tim, sets out to find answers.

I was in third grade when 9/11 happened, so this story had a certain resonance with me. I know this is going to sound horrible, but more due to the world turning out to be a simulation part. Hey, I didn't even know what happened till the very end of the day when my mom picked me up. I suppose my elementary school figured it was best to carry on as usual and not upset the students.

It was that same almost blasé/carry on feeling that I got from this story. The characters are dealing with a huge change to their lives, but for a while they just go on until it really sinks in. Even after they accept it they still keep looking for more answers. It's simply human nature to question everything after all. I also loved what the main character eventually found, but that's a surprise you'll have to discover for yourself.

As for the narration I thought that Tom did a great job. Certainly an unusual alternate history, but certainly worth a listen.

"Revolution Time" by Lavie Tidhar 
Narrated by Steve Eley
Originally Published in Flurb #2

This story centers around a group of communists in the future who are dissatisfied with their lives. Time travel has been invented and is used to bring people, mostly William Shakespeare, to the present for visits. The communists decide they'll use a time machine to bring Karl Marx to help start a revolution.

The description isn't much, but I promise it's a good story. People often talk about what would happen if very great historical figures could see the world today. Personally, I think they'd be too weirded out by the way everyone talks and dresses to make many comments on the way society is run. That was one thing I noticed about this story. Marx seemed to accept and adapt this is situation surprisingly fast. It was also unclear if the world was truly dystopian or if that's just how the communists viewed it.

Despite these iffy issues I found this story to be fun overall. Steve did his usual great job with the narration. A fun little story that I recommend.

"Reparations" by Merrie Haskell
Narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal
Originally Published in Fortean Bureau 

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain controversial to this day. Many question if they were the right thing to do. This story focus on an organization of time travelers who try to make amends for these and other events by helping those effected by them.

Again, the summary sucks but the story did a really great job of capturing the absolute devastation that followed the atomic bombings. The descriptions were bone chillingly accurate. To be sure, the alternative of Operation Downfall wouldn't have been a picnic, but this story does provide food for thought on the moral implications of the bombings. Though I do admit I did find myself wounded about the potential paradoxes involved with the organization's work.

A story that packs this kind of emotional punch needs a certain kind of narrator to go with it. Fortunately, Mary is that narrator. A time travel story that'll keep you thinking long after it's over. Well worth a listen.

"Hawksbill Station" by Robert Silverberg
Narrated by Paul Tevis
Originally Published in Galaxy Magazine

This one is a classic time travel story, and some of you are probably familiar with it. However, I say we're going to go over it anyway. It follows a series of political prisoners who have been sent on a one-way trip to the pre-Cambrian era prison colony. Dispute the harsh and unforgiving environment they're making the best of things. One day a new man arrives, but is he all that he seems to be?

Like I said, a classic story, but for the most part I think it's aged fairly well. The only thing that really stuck out to me was, since plants had yet to colonize land during the pre-Cambrian, the amount of breathable oxygen should probably have been lower. I already knew all the twists and turns the story was going to take, but that didn't make it any less enjoy able. This story was originally published as "Anvil of Time", and was later expanded into a novel.

If you've got a craving for more Robert Silverberg, be sure to check out his alternate history novels and The Gate of Worlds. I can't really say much that hasn't been said already, but I can say that Paul did a good job with the narration. It's a classic for a reason. Come see why.

"St. Darwin's Spirituals" by D.K. Thompson
Narrated by Mur Lafferty 
Originally Published in Murky Depths

We'll end our list with a story from D.K. Thompson, better known as Dave Thompson, former editor and host of PodCastle. In this world Charles Darwin not only developed the theory of evolution, but also a set of goggles that allow the user to see the spirits of the dead. Following this invention, interacting with spirits has become a part of daily life and spiritualism has seen a sharp increase in devotees. The story follows a woman named Lucy as she investigates possible criminal activity involving spirits.

First of all, hats off for the unique point of divergence. The world building and atmosphere in this story were absolutely top notch. The choice of Darwin seemed a tad random, personally I'd have gone with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but that's just me. I also really loved the writing style in this story. I'm definitely interested in getting to see more of this world. Dave has hint that we'll be seeing more fiction from him in the near future and I for one see great things in store. I wish I could think of more to say.

I thought that Mur, as usual, handled the narration quite well. An alternate history story from one of Escape Artists own. I happily recommend it.

Conclusion 

Well we've made it to the end of the list once again. I'd like to that this opportunity to thank all off the readers who follow this column. I wouldn't be here without you. I'd also like to thank all the hard working people behind the podcasts I review. I wouldn't be here without you guys either.

At this point you are probably worried that The Audio File is going away. Don't worry, I'll be back again next month and for many more months to come. I just thought I'd do a little something special since I feel like we've reached a milestone of sorts. In fact, I've been busy writing some stories of my own, and if all goes well you might just see them appear in The Audio File in the near future. Even when the gap between installments gets greater, I've got plenty of comics, and even a few movies and anime, I can review for you guys. In short, I'm not going anywhere.

Here's to all the podcasts we've feature, all the podcasts will will feature, to great stories, great people and great listens. I will see you all 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.

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