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From the Podosphere: June 2008

Paul S. Jenkins - Columnist: From the PodosphereRecently this column has dealt mostly with podcasts from Escape Artists, Inc (and is likely to continue to do so), but it’s useful to see what’s happening elsewhere in the field of podcast short fiction.

Variant Frequencies

Rick Stringer’s Variant Frequencies releases a story once a month, and this month’s is “Grounders” by Jonathan McGoran, read by Thomas “cmdln” Gideon. Some stories rely more on atmosphere than plot. The atmosphere here is a virtual one, as we explore the seedier side of virtual reality. Like Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse, or a more realistic version of Second Life, this world is a game, one that some players don’t want to leave. While the setting doesn’t have the virtual depth of, say, Greg Egan’s Permutation City, it does have enough detail, even in short-form, to be convincing. The ending is not entirely unexpected, yet maintains the atmosphere.

PodCastlePodCastle’s stories for June begin with “Magic in a Certain Slant of Light” by Deborah Coates, read by Cat Rambo. Norah is a science professor with a sure sense of reality, but she possesses an intuitive precognition she can’t explain. This is a story full of angst, where nothing much happens. The characterization is competent, but the plot is…missing. We’re given a snapshot of Norah’s current life, plus a brief backstory of her current relationship, but overall the effect is unsatisfying.

Quirky and enjoyable, “Fourteen Experiments in Postal Delivery” by John Schoffstall is a modern fantasy detailing the ups and downs of a relationship. It’s told mostly in epistolary format, realistically narrated by Heather Lindsley, and is good fun despite, or because of, the surreal events portrayed in the later scenes.

Barrens Dance” by Peter S. Beagle is a beautifully written story of a wizard who wants something and is not used to having his wants denied, even when what he wants is another man’s wife. The plot, setting, viewpoint, and characterization are masterly, and Stephen Eley’s narration does all those aspects ample justice. (Given my lukewarm feelings towards the fantasy genre, I’m surprised to find “Barrens Dance” my favorite of this month’s Escape Artists offerings.)

PodCastle delivered one “Miniature” this month: “Directions” by Caleb Wilson, read by Chris Furst. It’s an immaculately read list of directions given to someone who needs to get to a specific place, for…what? A meeting? An assignation? Who knows? Sometimes the old saying is true: it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.

It’s all very well living in a world of magic, but what if you want your daughter to grow up “normally”? You might try dissuading her from studying spells. That is, until you discover that your husband is the victim of a love-enchantment that threatens to break your family apart. “Spell of the Sparrow” by Jim C. Hines (read by Tina Connolly) seems to be traditional fantasy but lacks any details of the actual spell-casting. Despite that perceived shortcoming, the story is engaging, with a sufficiency of fantastical tropes—spectral cat, not-quite-human villain, magic bird—to keep interest from flagging.

Pseudopod

June’s Pseudopod begins with Patrick Samphire’s “The Land of Reeds,” an ancient Egyptian afterlife revenge story. A moderately well-to-do husband and father has been murdered by someone who wants his house and his wife. The atmospheric setting is portrayed with rhythmic skill in both Patrick Samphire’s text and Cheyenne Wright’s narration, to give us fantasy horror that relies more on its literary qualities than on the conventions of its genre.

In “The Skull-Faced Boy” by David Barr Kirtley, read by Ralph Walters, Jack and Dustin are driving in the dark, but they have to swerve to avoid someone staggering in the road, and the car hits a tree. The accident turns out to be fatal for both of them—they are as dead as the zombie who caused it. Or perhaps not quite as dead. Zombies are often portrayed as mindless, soulless automata, but what if they could be organized? This is sharp, undead horror, tautly constructed.

Daily Double” by Kevin Carey, read by Rich Sigfrit, is a Pseudopod Flash. Being a vampire has its drawbacks; employment choices, for instance, are limited to nightwork. But you can still go drinking and gambling with a buddy, though don’t stay out too late boozing if you’re supposed to be meeting your other half’s father. Nicely concise, with a satisfying twist.

Steve Cooper
’s “No Tomorrows” features contract-killing in Istanbul, where the killer is a supernatural being who can make himself invisible. Or is he a human with supernatural powers? Or is this an alternate world? The story is well written in an earthy modern idiom and effectively narrated by Alasdair Stuart, but it left too much unresolved, or simply unexplained, before it ended.

Set in a morgue, “The Cutting Room” by Shane Jiraiya Cummings, read by Damaris Mannering, is a graphic description of the autopsy of a barely dead young woman. The narrative creates rising tension on several levels as the supercilious pathologist humiliates his inexperienced assistant, who is simultaneously embarrassed and aroused by the spectacle, and the reader cannot help anticipating the resolution—or otherwise—of this visceral tale. That it concludes with a supernatural encounter is not necessarily surprising, but the ending, though satisfying, hints of more to come.

Escape PodEscape Pod begins this month with “Alien Promises” by Janni Lee Simner. This is a YA story that starts off being about the perceived loneliness of a misfit teenager who has an alien encounter—but then transforms into an exploration of belonging. Well read by Anna Eley, the story has a specific message about inclusion. It’s not particularly subtle, but it may well resonate with its intended audience.

Genetically modified humans feature in “God Juice” by M. K. Hobson, a long story set in a future habitation of humanity. The people are strange, but their concerns are the same as ever. Gambling, prostitution, and getting old are just some of the preoccupations here, where our heroine, a superpowered but aging amazon, is offered an ancient artifact with marvelous but unspecified powers. It’s a fun adventure, engagingly read by Christiana Ellis.

In Lavie Tidhar’s “Revolution Time,” read by Stephen Eley, an attempt is made to start a revolution by hijacking a time machine—to snatch Karl Marx from the past and bring him to the present. The obvious flaws in this strategy may or may not lead to it going awry. That’s the trouble with time-travel stories—once you assume that time-travel is possible, all sorts of paradoxes are likely to screw up your plot. Well written and enjoyable, despite my reservations about this particular sub-genre.

The final Escape Pod offering this month is “The Right Kind of Town” by Christian Klaver, read by Cunning Minx. It’s a western set on another planet. Though it’s short on plot, it’s long on backstory. The viewpoint character is one of those confident whores who are good at what they do, as well as claiming proficiency in some unrelated skill, and who turn up as persistent clichés in genre fiction. So clever are they you wonder why they don’t give up the oldest profession—the pay must be really good. The setting, though, gives the lie to the pay, so her skill becomes a plot device. It’s engaging, as space-westerns go, with a modicum of science-fictional attributes, but doesn’t actually go anywhere, despite the narrative competence and excellent characterization.