Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Great Sci Fi, Out Loud

Nothing beats reading. But when you are unable to read because you're, say, raking the leaves from the front lawn, or painting the bathroom blue, or driving to New Mexico, then listening to a good reader read to you can be a valuable substitute. And when the reader is reading some well wrought science fiction, well that's nigh on priceless. The three podcasts reviewed below will get you started on the world of podcasting in science fiction.

Theater of the Midnight Sun. Michael McGee, host and author of Theater of the Midnight Sun has a bent for good storytelling . He writes science fiction and fantasy stories which build steadily on central ideas. In "Big Business" the protagonist trades jobs with Satan and makes a few changes to the way Hell is run until, ultimately, he gets a little carried away. In "Uniform," on the eve of the Iraq war a few scientists begin to experiment with what appears to be an ancient shoe lace, but which turns out to be far more ancient, and far more powerful than any of them can have imagined. McGee's characters, while clearly and sometimes cleverly defined, are a bit stereotypical for their roles and the stories sometimes develop a bit predictably, but they are well-performed, especially if we believe that the cast hasn't a "lick of stage training" as the podcast claims, and the production values are quite high, with music and sound effects that underline and emphasize dramatic elements rather than wrestling with them. In short, The Theater of the Midnight Sun is good ear candy.

Cory Doctorow, author of Makers and Little Brother among other books, podcasts weekly with a combination of news, commentary and his reading from short stories in progress. Most recently he completed reading "Clockwork Fagin," a story that will appear in a steam punk anthology put together by Kelly Link. In "Clockwork Fagin," a home for children injured in factory accidents is taken over by the inmates who manage to maintain their autonomy by presenting to the world clockwork (that's steam punk for robotic) version of their guardian. Doctorow manages to channel both Charles Dickens and Jules Verne in his journey back to a fantasized 19th century. Doctorow is not the best possible reader for his work--he's not a trained actor--but he gets by passably well and the podcast offers the unique freshness and energy of a writer reading from his own newly created work.

Perhaps the finest of the sci fi podcasts is Escape Pod which provides audio versions of some of the best of new and recently published science fiction. Here you'll find short fiction by Jay Lake and Tim Pratt, among others. Many of these stories have been recently featured in major sff magazines and many are up for awards and "Best of" appearances. Most recently, a story by Tim Pratt, called "A Programmatic Approach to Perfect Happiness" features an odd utopic/dystopic vision of a world in which robots marry humans and human personalities are instantly altered--sometimes for good, sometimes for ill--by contraction of airborne pathogens. It raises fascinating issues. Also be sure to listen to "Wind From a Dying Star," by David D. Levine, a truly beautiful story about a tribe of post-humans who wander the galaxy searching for energy sources. There's nothing fancy about the production on Escape Pod--these are merely well-read stories--but there's plenty that's fancy about the writing here. You may not find a better introduction to the short fiction side of sci fi in any media. Besides the stories themselves, a nice touch is managing editor Steven Eeley's insightful commentary at the end of each story. (Note that Escape Pod has been in hiatus for the month of March. You've got plenty to listen to for now, though . . .)

Also check out Escape Pod's "sister" podcasts: Psuedopod for horror and Pod Castle for fantasy. Happy listening.

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