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From the Podosphere: January 2009

Paul S. Jenkins - Columnist: From the PodosphereEscape Pod appears to be still in recovery from its recent hiatus, as we have only half the month’s usual quota of stories, beginning with another installment of Jeffery R. DeRego’s Union Dues superhero saga, in which we hear something about the origin of the Union itself. The parallel structure of “Union Dues – All About the Sponsors” (read by Stephen Eley) offers contrast between the putative Union—before it ever had that name—and what it has become 50 years later. Combining action/adventure with conspiracy and political expediency, this skilfully delivers insight into the Union milieu while leaving plenty of scope for other stories. This series could run and run (and I hope it does).

Escape Pod

The other Escape Pod story this month is Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Chrysalis” (read by Cunning Minx), in which a documentary maker records the breakdown of a relationship between two alien (or possibly transhuman) characters. She does so at the male character’s request, before he is cocooned and reborn. The story seems to be more about the documentarian’s ethics and motives than about the subject himself, and thus is a little obscure and aimless. Well written, but not completely satisfying.

PseudopodTim Pratt’s “Bone Sigh” (read by Alasdair Stuart) opens January’s Pseudopod in fine style. Obsessed with creating a likeness of God in his own body’s scar tissue, the clearly unhinged protagonist is reunited with his daughter, for whom he feels only love. But with a mind as deranged as his, who knows what form the expression of such love might take? Disturbing, as any story concerning possible threats to an innocent child must surely be, it delivers its unease with alacrity.

Full of horrific detail and realistic atmosphere, “Scavenger” by Jonathan Kuhn (read by Alasdair Stuart) relates what could be a short excerpt of a greater zombie epic. This is true of many zombie stories, stemming from the almost obligatory obscurity of the origin of the zombies themselves. It’s as if the zombies are to be taken as read—something with which the reader is deemed to be familiar, and to accept. Well, I don’t accept it, at least not without some internally consistent logic—some reason why the protagonist is pursued by flesh-eating undead.

The Interview” by Mike Norris (read by Dani Cutler) is a strange tale, with only a hint of horror at the end (though it is foreshadowed). A woman answers an ad for the post of property manager at a swanky apartment block. But perhaps the man who interviews her has no authority to do so—and perhaps he has nefarious intentions of some kind. An engaging story that defies logic, but is nevertheless entertaining.

Paul Mannering’s “The Ashen Thing” (read by Ben Phillips) is visceral monster-horror told from the viewpoint of a wheelchair-bound paraplegic. Tom and Tammy are moving into a new home, which they have bought for a surprisingly low price. Perhaps, however, they should have investigated just exactly why it was so cheap. And they should surely have inspected the cellar. This story is simultaneously gruesome and realistic, but the monstrous element seems to be there simply because it’s there. At a deeper level, the monster may stand for something in the protagonist’s character, but in basic plot terms, we never know why or where it’s from.

In Tim W. Burke’s “The Garden and the Mirror” (read by Alasdair Stuart) a shaman—or at least, someone who has studied the shaman’s art—is consulted by a couple who ask him to cure the husband’s advancing tumor. The woman is fascinated by the magic arts and begs to be taught. The shaman, against his better judgment, agrees, and as the woman learns the arts, a relationship develops. This short piece is concisely and atmospherically delivered, with an excellent conclusion, and is one of the month’s favorites.

PodCastle

The first PodCastle story of January is “In The House Of The Seven Librarians” by Ellen Klages (read by Rachel Swirsky) and is a fitting start to the year for the youngest of the Escape Artists stable. Seven lady librarians set up their own library after being made redundant. Then they receive an overdue book, including, in lieu of a fine, a firstborn child. This is the story of Dinsy, the baby girl given in payment, and how she grows up to learn that taxonomy is not life, and that books on their own, however rich in content, are not the reality they portray. A lovely story, full of wry moments and knowing vignettes. It concludes with a new beginning that perfectly closes Dinsy’s origin story, leaving this listener wanting to know her future.

Naomi Kritzer’s “Honest Man” (read by Ann Leckie) is an engaging story of a series of possible confidence tricks, whose logic is to some extent undermined by the fantastical element. The cons seem to be plausible and are related in a matter-of-fact way, but a con-man with second sight would surely have little need for the conventional subterfuge of confidence trickery. Despite this minor quibble, the story is enjoyable and entertaining.

Well Told TalesTwo short, pulpy pieces from Well Told Tales this month, starting with “Hear Not the Murmur on the Wind” by Steven J. Dines. This is a ghostly revenge story, told from the viewpoint of the ghost, which is a common theme, but here given arresting atmosphere by good writing, complemented by J. B. Goodspeed’s reading. A man returns to haunt the wife who murdered him, but finds not what he expects. Short and effective.

Also from Well Told Tales is Patrick Hurley’s “A Parliament of Me”—a short Twilight-Zone-style story in which a man’s alternate “resonants” are dissatisfied with the life he has lead and decide to elect a replacement. The protagonist concludes that the whole episode is an existential hallucination—and he could well be right. Nevertheless there’s a hint he can learn from his experience. It’s well executed, and Andy Catt’s narration is appropriate for this old-fashioned genre.

Variant Frequencies

Variant Frequencies for January offers us Jack Mangan’s “Creature of God”—a supernatural tale mixing gangland hoodlums with the metaphysics of theology. Guns and holy water combine in a high-octane underworld, both literal and metaphysical. Rick Stringer’s narration, plus a full-on production featuring guest voices from the world of fiction podcasting, create an ear-grabbing story of demons, uncertainty, and betrayal. At times the background music and effects verge on overpowering, but this adds to the tension of the story rather than distracting from it, and the whole thing leaves one breathless in its wake. An excellent example of a style of audio fiction probably unique to podcasting.