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From the Podosphere: May 2008

Paul S. Jenkins - Columnist: From the PodosphereEscape Pod begins the month of May by continuing its now-traditional run of Hugo-nominated short fiction. Mike Resnick’s “Distant Replay” (read by Steve Anderson) is an odd time-travel story, except that what appears to be time travel is more like history repeating itself. It’s well told, but the “magic realism” makes no attempt at explanation—no reason why a 76-year-old widower should suddenly encounter a young woman who is the spitting image, in so many respects, of his recently deceased wife. An affecting story, but I felt the ending was abrupt and out-of character.

Escape Pod

Michael Swanwick’s fantasy detective/police procedural “A Small Room in Koboldtown” (read by Cheyenne Wright) is set in an alternative world of incidental magic. This is the type of story that could easily fail due to its setup. A murder mystery hangs on what’s possible, whereas in fantasy, anything might be possible, depending on what rules of magic the author has chosen. But as Stephen Eley says in his outro, there are some mystery stories where the mystery itself doesn’t matter.

Who’s afraid of Wolf 359?” by Ken MacLeod (read by Stephen Eley) starts off as one man’s punishment for a relatively minor crime but soon escalates into a historical saga of galactic proportions. The tale goes from the minutely specific to way beyond global, in a kind of exponential narrative. When our hero, tasked with community service, arrives on a planet seeded with genetically reset humans, he sees a way of completing his sentence in an unconventional manner with far-reaching consequences.

Elites” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (read by Máia Whitaker) is a heartfelt tale of the rehabilitation of enhanced female war veterans, told from the viewpoint of the leader of a house full of such vets attempting to prepare for reintegration into society. What sounds like a pretty glum and depressing premise is actually a powerful narrative highlighting society’s attitude—or non-attitude—to the people it asks to do its dirty work.

In “Kallakak’s Cousins” by Cat Rambo (read by Stephen Eley), Kallakak is a shopkeeper threatened with a hostile buyout. To add to his stress, his three cousins turn up, so he sets them to work in the shop, with dubious results. This is a fun story populated by aliens and set in a science-fictional shopping mall, but for all that, it could have been Earth in the recent or not-so-recent past. Enjoyable, nevertheless.

PseudopodPseudopod for May begins with “The Guardian” by Michael Anthony (read by Dani Cutler), a gritty post-apocalyptic tale of a girl who has found medicine she hopes will cure her brother. He is languishing with her friends and other siblings in a tent outside the city, but to get to him she must escape her pursuers—a gang who would rob her, and worse. This tale delivers an uncomfortable and realistic punch on the idea of post-apocalyptic life, with an ending that is part frustration, part despair, yet nonetheless excellent.

Wounds” by Celia Marsh (read by Mur Lafferty) is good-hearted fantasy, with the only horror being the wounds of the title. It’s a redemptive tale of someone whose skin heals unusually quickly—so quickly that she can squirrel away treasured objects beneath her skin for safekeeping. With the healing of her physical wounds comes a mental healing of her young life, so far disrupted by her parents’ divorce. Though the parallels are nicely illustrated on the fantasy side, the psychological healing is a touch superficial.

In “The Exhibition” by Melinda Selmys (read by Heather Welliver) the action of the story, such as it is, takes place in a gallery where some new art has just been displayed. The exhibits are mutilated humans who have been cooled sufficiently to keep them still, and—for the moment—just short of death. The visitors to the exhibition, including our viewpoint character, do not appear human, as they are made of clay. This surreal setting is made sufficiently believable by the skillful writing, which barely hints at a larger history, making the listener yearn for further detail of this strangely fantastic milieu. Weird and wonderful.

Ghosts and a psychopathic killer usually qualify as horror, but in “Caesar’s Ghost” by Eugie Foster, the ghosts are ghosts of pets, which gives the story a good deal of charm, though I was expecting it to turn spooky. Instead we have the aforementioned killer, which I felt was a plot twist that didn’t fit with the narrative, as I missed the killer’s motivation. The protagonist’s empathy with her pet ferret, however, is lovingly portrayed, and the whole thing is expertly narrated by Cat Rambo.

The Sloan Men” by David Nickle starts off as a spooky tale, takes a while to continue spooky, and you just know it’s going to end badly—in the sense that someone is going to be severely disadvantaged—this is horror after all. A young woman visits her fiancé’s parents, and all seems well, except that her potential mother-in-law is missing a couple of digits on one hand. She should have realized that’s a very bad sign. Something supernatural and sick ensues, as the mother reveals far too much about her own relationship with her husband—and our heroine reveals far too much about what’s just happened at her own parents’ place. Yes, it’s going to end badly. Unfortunately, the final twist is one that horror readers could pick from a selection of possible ends, so the expected horrific punch line is a bit ho-hum. It’s well read by Cunning Minx though, even if the story itself is run-of-the-mill.

PodCastle

May’s PodCastle begins with the third of its miniatures, “Pahwahke” by Gord Sellar (read by C. G. Furst), though it’s on the long side for flash fiction. Told from the viewpoint of the father of a Native American girl who is married off to the leader of a tribe of foreigners—who may be modern westerners, or actually the ghosts that they appear—this is a succinct evocation of native life up against an imposed external force.

Hotel Astarte” by M. K. Hobson is a long story of the fantastic kind, where fantasy elements (such as dead characters) are present for what appear to be no good reasons. Confusing and involved, this was one I couldn’t get into, despite repeated attempts, as the different settings, the magic, and the motivations of the characters made little sense to me. I found it well written but obscure, though well read by Paul Tevis.

In “Fear of Rain” by Robert T. Jeschonek (read by Mur Lafferty), Johnstown is subject to disastrous floods every few decades, and the story explores the idea that these floods are deliberately instigated as a way of preserving the town rather than destroying it. The fantasy characters with the power to create floods have apprentices who will eventually take over their masters’ work. What happens, however, when an apprentice decides that a flood is not necessarily the best way to proceed? Plotwise there’s not much there, but the two main characters, and the detailed settings, make up for the linearity of the narrative.

The Osteomancer’s Son” by Greg van Eekhout (read by Ben Phillips) is modern fantasy with a realistic setting, rich with detail. The flashback structure confused me for a while, but the significance and history of bone magic was convincing. The eponymous son tells his own story, which is also his father’s story. Excellent.

Remarkably concise at under four minutes, “Hippocampus” by M. K. Hobson (read by Stephen Eley) is another miniature, concerning a couple strolling on the beach after some unspecified nefarious deed. Some people have distinctly weird ideas, but what if they’re right after all?

Wisteria” by Ada Milenkovic Brown is about bereavement and how for some it can never be completely resolved. Dahlia is a cook who caters for parties and celebrations. Her husband, Garner, was a gardener when he was alive; now he’s buried in his garden. Affecting and gentle, this is a deeply felt tale of simple but strong emotion, beautifully read by Máia Whitaker.

In another foray outside the Escape Artists stable (but once again landing on the “Aural Delights” of StarShipSofa) I listened to Gareth Stack reading “Gigantic” by Steve Aylett. This is a zany weirdo story that follows the efforts of one “Skychum” to get his theories and predictions taken seriously by the media—though he doesn’t help his case by agreeing to appear on reality TV. Then the narrative takes a disturbing turn to the dark, with a horrific description of global retribution from above.

[*Disclosure notice: Eugie Foster is the managing editor of The Fix.]