Friday, June 3, 2016

The Audio File: 5 Year Anniversary Special

Guest post by Sam McDonald.
So here we are, the 5th anniversary of Alternate History Weekly Update. I've got a very special edition of The Audio File for you guys this time. We're going to revisit podcasts that I've featured in the past. For various reasons I didn't include in my previous Audio Files. Sometimes I simply forgot, sometimes the story hadn't come out yet but I'm making up for that now.

Normally I'd talk about the podcasts that are to be featured, but thought we could talk about The Audio File itself and a bit of my own history. I don't quite remember when I found this blog, but I knew I wanted to be part of it instantly. I made some flags, and I made maps covering episodes of The Twilight Histories. I'm not ashamed of any of that, but I always felt that I was stumbling around and not really finding my voice. So what could I do to stand out from the crowd?

I'd noticed that Matt said he wasn't that into audiobooks, so perhaps that would be something. I'd also noticed that a lot of the audio fiction podcasts I listen to tended to have somewhat shoddy search systems; so looking up a particular episode could be a bit of a pain. It would be nice if there were a certain list of sorts complete with reviews of the stories. With all of this in mind I knew what my path ahead would be. Now the only question was what would I name my creation?

I considered names such as Freebies or Cheapskates in reference to the free nature of the audio fiction, but no. Then I thought about The Audio File, a play-on of audiophile in reference to my love of audio fiction. Audio File also happens to be the name of the premiere audiobook magazine, but I didn't find that out until later. I quickly put together an inaugural article and waited to see how thing played out. It has been more successful than I could have ever imagined.

Those first two editions are perfectly fine in their own right, but it's obvious that I was working out some of the kinks. The third edition, where I covered Pseudopod, was really where I felt like I'd firmly found my footing. Now, you'll probably note that I tend to praise stories more than I condemn them. The reason for this is two-fold: I'd much rather share a story I liked than rant about one I disliked, and space is limited by the word count so I have to pick my story with care.

Stick around after the reviews for a special announcement. Well, I think that's enough about me for now. So without further ado, once again it's story time...


Narrated by Dave Robinson
Originally Published on Patreon

This story is set in a steampunk 19th century America and follows two detectives named Artemis and Elsbeth. Artemis is a robot who is powered by the element phlogiston. Elsbeth has feelings for him, but Artemis doesn't love her back, or so he claims anyway. The two detectives are off to investigate the automated home of a crazed inventor.

There really ought to be more robot characters in steampunk. It's an area of underutilized potential, so I'm glad that Cat chose to make use of it in this story. You could definitely see what Artemis goes through, constantly worrying about being deactivated, as an analog to the treatment of minorities at the time. For those of you who don't know, phlogiston is a fictional element that was believed to exist back in the 19th century. It was believed to exist in combustible material and to be released during combustion.

I thought that Dave did a good job with the narration. I especially liked the metallic echo that was used for Artemis' dialogue. It's a weird western with a robot detective. Need I say more?

Mister Hadj's Sunset Ride by Saladin Ahmed
Narrated by Cheyenne Wright
Originally Published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

This story is set in the Old West and follows a nameless narrator as he travels with a man named Mister Hadj. Hadj had lost his faith in many things before meeting the narrator but now he's on the path to redemption. Part of that redemption involves taking down a clan of fundamentalist Christian vampires.

For me, Saladin Ahmed is an example of being able to like a writer's work without having to like the writer themselves. While we have our areas of overlap, more often than not I find myself in opposition to his views and I find him to be a rather annoying person in general. Having said that, I can still appreciate his work on its own terms. I enjoyed this story's theme of seeking redemption in a cynical world. The unnamed narrator is implied to be half-Arab which, while not entirely out of the question, would still probably be a bit odd given the time period. Then again, immigrants from the Ottoman Empire were arriving in America during the 19th century, so maybe not.

As stated above this story was featured in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, who have produced their own podcast of this episode. It was also reprinted in their special Weird West issue. In terms of narration I thought that absolutely Cheyenne nailed it with his narration of the story.

I story of faith and redemption in the weird west, and one I happily recommend.

Hart and Boot by Tim Pratt
Narrated by Amy Elk
Originally Published in Polyphony 4

This story follows a pair of outlaws named Pearl Hart and John Boot. Pearl is a former heiress from Canada who wanted to experience the thrill of being an outlaw in the Wild West. John is a mysterious man with the ability to phase through solid objects. The duo quickly become the scourge of the west and experience quite the thrill, but how long can they keep it up?

Tim Pratt has a reputation for knowing how to write female characters well, and this story is no exception. Pearl Hart is easily one of my favorite Tim Pratt characters. I just love how completely irreverent and carefree she is. I would have liked to know a bit more about John Boot though. I know that Tim deliberately left details about him vague, but I would have liked at least a token explanation about his origins and powers. Despite this I'd say that overall it's a fun little unconventional romance with a wild western flare.

Amy did an amazing job capturing Pearl's snarky personality with the narration. I think I've already covered my recommendation of this story.

The Litigatrix by Ken Liu
Narrated by Anaea Lay
Originally Published in GigaNotoSaurus

This story takes place in the 17th century and is set in the fictional kingdom of Dawul. Dawul is located between China and Korea and was founded during the collapse of the Ming Dynasty. The story follows Sui-Wei Far, the daughter of a great litigatrix. She wishes to follow in her father's footsteps, but often faces discrimination because she is a woman. Sui-Wei is about to take on her biggest case yet. The home of a wealthy family has burned down and everyone thinks the servant girl did it. It's now up to Sui-Wei to prove otherwise.

Let me start off by saying there is some really great worldbuilding here. Dawul, because of its location, is a real melting pot of cultures. The most obvious cultural influences are of course Chinese and Korean, but you've also got Manchurians, Mongols, Japanese ronin and even some European traders thrown into the mix. I liked how, even though she was limited by the time and place she lived, Sui-Wei still managed to be a strong and competent female character. This story felt rather reminiscent of other Far Eastern detective stories such as the tales of Judge Dee and Judge Ooka. The ending was especially ingenious, but I wouldn't want to spoil that for you.

Anaea Lay's narration tends to be a bit hit and miss. Here, however, she does a really good job. Another Ken Liu story that knocks it out of the park, and one that I happily recommend.

Senator Bilbo by Andy Duncan
Narrated by Frank Key
A PodCastle Original

This story is set either in an alternate history or in the future of Tolkien's Middle Earth. The Shire has long since become industrialized, wizards are grumbling about having their university funding slashed, and orcs are an oppressed minority among other things. The story follows a hobbit senator named Bilbo, a decedent of Bilbo Baggins himself, as he goes about his day doing various political work related to The Shire.

Okay, I'm not entirely sure if this one's an alternate history, but I figured it was close enough. Certain works of fiction are considered sacred cows that one simply does not tip. Lord of the Rings is often counted among such works. To me, part of what made this story so enjoyable was how it parodied and satirized Tolkien without abandon. Well, that and I never was the biggest fan of Tolkien, so the sadistic part of me enjoyed seeing Middle Earth corrupted by crooked politicians.

I'll admit that maybe my disappointment with Tolkien is because of how everyone hypes Lord of the Rings. On the other hand, I kind of side with China Melville's analysis of Tolkien as somewhat conservative and reactionary. Underneath the mythical imagery and epic battles I've always felt an undercurrent of Tolkien pinning for a past that never really existed. I know you could debate this view, but if you keep that in mind you'll probably get more enjoyment out of the story.

Frank did a great job capturing the humor of this story with his narration. Die-hard Tolkien fans probably won't like this one, but if you keep an open mind you just might like it. I recommend it.


The Western Front by Patrick Samphire
Narrated by Paul Jenkins
A Pseudopod Original

This story follows a group of soldiers as they make their way across France during World War I. They soon find themselves helping to guard a rose, but this isn't just any rose. It radiates warmth, light and hope. If the rose dies there's no telling how much worse their already hellish world could become.

Okay, the description leaves something to be desired, but I promise you that the story is well worth your time. World War I was a major turning point in world history. It was the first time industrialized warfare was used on a global scale, and we still feel its effects even to this day. Even without the supernatural elements I have no doubt that this would still have made for an effective and terrifying story.

For a story like this you need just the right sort of narrator or else it all falls apart. Fortunately, Paul is the right fit for this story. Not much more to add here, the story really speaks for itself.

Unheil by Kathryn Allen
Narrated by Elie Hirschman
Originally Published in Pantheon Magazine and collected in Typhon: A Monster Anthology

This story is set in 1909 in German Southwest Africa, what is now Namibia. It follows a man from British Rhodesia who has come to work for the German colonists. The work is hard, but he's sure it will be worth it in the end. Then, late one night, he is greeted by a woman caught between life and death. She tells him of the horrors she endured under the rule of the Germans.

You don't often hear about German colonialism in Africa, so in that regard this story was refreshing. The description of life for the natives under German rule is absolutely chilling. What really sold this story for me was bit after the story where Alasdair Stuart gives more context to the horrors of German colonialism. That's not to say that the story doesn't stand on its own merits, it just that it was a little something extra that gave context to the horrors. It's a chilling tale, and apart from the supernatural bits, it's all true.

Elie did a great job with the narration. Fittingly enough he's from Zimbabwe, which at the time of the story was known as Rhodesia. Another story of realistic chills, and one you won't want to miss.


There Are No Marshmallows in Camelot by Christian McKay Heidicker
Narrated by Marguerite Kenner
A Cast of Wonders Original

This story follows a little girl named Leticia Andrews who discovers the great wizard Merlin is trapped in her play house. Merlin has been thrust forward in time following a battle with the evil sorceress Morgan La Fay. At first Leticia thinks that it'll be great and that she'll get to learn magic, but what will happen if Merlin doesn't get back to Camelot in time?

The historical accuracy of the King Arthur legends is highly debatable, to put it succinctly. At the very least it's agreed that Merlin probably was real; especially since he and Guinevere were from previously unrelated Welsh legends. Similarly, Lancelot was from an unrelated French ballad, so that cast doubt on him. Still, there might be just the tiniest grain of truth buried in there, and this story had time travel so I decided to roll with it.

It was a cute little story. I liked the notion that you can find magic in your every day life if you know the right places to look. The conversations between Merlin and Leticia were fun and I liked the way magic was described. I also enjoyed the bits that follows Leticia later in her life as she searches for sources of magic. It was a nice little touch that tied everything together.

As I've mentioned in the past, every year the crew of Cast of Wonders select stories that they thought were particularly outstanding for a special honor. This story was Alexis Goble's pick for 2015. It is always a joy to hear Marguerite Kenner narrate a story, and this was no exception.

A fun little story about time travel and marshmallows. I recommend it.

The Great Game series by James Vachowski
Narrated by Barry J. North and Graeme Dunlop
A Cast of Wonders Original

This story follows...well, we never really learn his name. We do learn that he used to serve in the British army during the early 20th century and went on many fantastical adventures for king and country. From finding flying carpets in Persia to discovering the lost city of Iram in Arabia. The stories are framed as him recounting his adventures to students doing research at a library.

This one's going to be a group review since there are seven stories in the series. Overall I'd say these stories were a bit hit and miss. A couple were reasonably good pastiches of Victorian adventure stories, a couple started off good before running out of steam, and a few were just kind of meh. I guess that's kind of my biggest issue with these stories. They had interesting concepts, but for the most part they failed to realize their potential. Don't get me wrong, there we a few gems here and there, but overall I didn't find this collection of stories particularly memorable.

The stories are almost all narrated by Barry, though Graeme did narrate one of them. They both made valiant efforts, but it wasn't enough to salvage the stories which didn't work. I didn't quite care for these stories, but I'll say they're at least worth checking out. Who know, maybe you'll like them.


Don Quixote by Carrie Vaughn
Narrated by Nicola Seaton-Clark
Originally Published in Armored

This story follows a pair of American reporters who are in Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War. They come across a pair of brothers who have invented a diesel powered robot tank in hopes of defeating Franco's forces. The invention is a marvel of engineering, but what are the consequences of such a device?

It's often said that the Spanish Civil War was the first shots fired in World War II. I've always found it to be an interesting subject and it was nice to see a story set in it. I liked that this story wasn't so much anti-technology as much as it was a caution about the potential misuses of technology. I mean, just imagine what might have happened if Nazi Germany got their hands on an army of robot tanks like the ones in the story.

Stories that have narrators that are the opposite gender of their characters are always a bit of a gamble. Here, however, it works out reasonably well. I'm sure you all remember Nicola Seaton-Clark from when I covered Far-Fetched Fables. It's another great story from Carrie Vaughn I'm sure you'll enjoy.

The Wreck of Mars Adventure by David D. Levine
Narrated by David D. Levine
Originally Published in Old Mars

This story takes places in a world where physics and astronomy function as they were believed to in the 18th century. The notorious pirate Captain Kidd has finally been captured, but he's been given a chance to escape execution. He has been charged with leading a mission of diplomacy and discovery to the planet Mars. Little does Kidd know that's he's in for the adventure of his life.

This story had a certain nostalgic element for me. I was very much reminded of the often forgotten Disney movie Treasure Planet. For those who haven't seen it, it's basically Treasure Island in a space opera setting. I have many fond memories of watching that movie when I was younger. The writing style itself was very evocative of the high seas adventure stories of the 18th and 19th centuries. You really get that sense of excitement about exploring new horizons in an age of discoveries.

Authors narrating their own stories has its pros and cons. They can often do the characters' voices closer to their original vision, but they must have proper narration skills to pull it off. David is quite the narrator in addition to being a good writer, so it all works out.

An adventure on the high seas of outer space that I happily recommend.


Time Shards by Greg Benford
Narrated by Stefan Rudnicki
Originally Published in Universe 9

This story follows to researchers at the Smithsonian Institute who are helping to create a vault-size time capsule that will be opened in 1000 years. They're also researching items from 1000 years in the past as part of a special exhibit to celebrate the BiMillennial. During this process they discover that, by running copper wiring against clay pots, they can hear voices from the past.

For those of you wondering, this is an alternate history, albeit a subtle one. The story seems to take place in 2000 or thereabout, and it's mentioned that the president is a woman, though I have no clue who that could be. The other obvious divergence is the discovery the researchers make by playing the clay pots like records. I found that particularly intriguing because it sounds like something that could happen in the real world. It was interesting getting to hear the Middle English messages in the pots. It didn't sound anything like Modern English, but at the same time I could catch little snippets that I understood or could guess the meaning of.

I guess you could almost consider this a time travel story with history as the time machine. As usual, Stefan does a great job with the narration. I give this story a hearty recommendation.

Selfie by Sandra McDonald
Narrated by Judy Young

This story follows a girl from the future named Susan. Her mother is a researcher at a colony on the Moon, and her father is a time traveling travel writer/tour agent. She's been on plenty of vacations to the past with her dad, but she yearns for the promise of outer space. To get out of the latest trip to the past she buys a robot copy of herself known as a Selfie. It seems like the perfect plan, but things don't work out as she expects.

Yeah, it's kind of hard to talk about this story without spoiling the whole thing, but I'll give it a shot. First off, I have no relation to Sandra. I found Selfie to be an interesting concept. You can give them any memories you choose, send them off to do whatever you want and when you're done their memories of the experience are downloaded into you. A time traveling tourism agency also sounds intriguing, though you'd think it would have to be highly regulated because of all the things that could potentially go wrong.

I thought Judy did a really good job with the narration. I can't really say much more, but I can say you ought to check this story out.


Narrated by MarBelle
A Drabblecast Original

This story is set in the world of Dave Thompson's St. Darwin's Spiritual series. It is a world where Charles Darwin developed goggles that allow the living to see the dead. The story follows Lazarus Winters, a black man living in London. He makes a living by extorting spirits for money and information. He's currently investigating the murder of his friend Neena. The investigation soon leads him to uncover a conspiracy of religious fanatics with a vendetta against the spirits.

As you may remember, I reviewed another St. Darwin story during my second article on Escape Pod. Of the two I think I prefer this one better. I liked how this story showed what it was like for people of color in Victorian Britain. We defiantly get to see the seedier side of this universe, and I think that was to this story's benefit. Also, there are no steam powered marvels or airships in this story, so if you don't like those you'll be good with this one.

Another things helping this story with MarBelle's narration and the excellent use of music and sound effects. All in all, another great entry to the St. Darwin's Spiritual universe.

Narrated by Norm Sherman
Originally Published in Near+Far

This story takes place in an alternate universe populated by sentient porcelain people. Their world is a hub of interdimensional travel and tourism. The story follows a porcelain woman named Tikka as she falls in love with a human from Earth.

This one's a bit unusual as far as alternate histories go, but I figured it was worth squeezing in. I found it somewhat confusing that the porcelain people were assigned social class arbitrarily. It almost reminded me of the classic EC Comics story "Judgement Day". Conversely, I was intrigued by the descriptions of other universes. For that matter, the porcelain people seem like they'd need to have been created by something else, but what made them? There's a universe inhabited by purple griffins and a universe with sentient rainbows, among other worlds. I can't really say much about the story's central romance without giving it all away. You'll have to find that out for yourself.

As usual, Norm does an excellent job with the narration. A slightly unusual alternate history, but one that is well worth your time

Conclusion

Well, we've reached the end of the list once again. What can I say, it's been a great ride. At this point I'm kind of waiting for the pool of stories to refresh itself, so it might be a bit before the next edition of The Audio File. I can't say when, but one day it will return. But don't worry, this is not goodbye.

I've noticed that the Update is in need of an anime expert, and I think that is how it will move forward in my contributions. In fact, I'm working on a very special review to come in the next month or so. I'm keeping it under wraps, but I can give you a taste. You may know that I enjoyed the anime Code Geass, flawed though it is. Well, this anime that I will be reviewing, I liked it even more than Code Geass.

I hope that you have enjoy The Audio File. I hope that it has brought great stories, great podcasts and great peoples into your life. And hey, if you're still hungry for more I've got another version of The Audio File over on Amazing Stories. So if you've been looking for great non-alternate history audio fiction, let's just say I've got you covered. You'll probably be seeing a lot more from that Audio File in the near future. On a side note, props to Matt for bringing great content week after week. You keep a way better blog schedule than I do with my own blog.

Happy listening to you all, and happy fifth anniversary Alternate History Weekly Update. Thank you for listening, I will see you guys next time.

* * *

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.

3 comments:

  1. The problem with a title like "Senator Bilbo" is that there was a real Senator Bilbo, Theodore Bilbo, a very disgusting foul-mouthed segregationist from Mississippi. The name, in other words, has untoward associations. (Worse yet, Theodore Bilbo was short; only 5' 2".)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow...I learned something today.

      Delete
    2. That's actually fitting, considering how bigoted the protagonist of the story is. Must have been intentional

      Delete