Tag Archive: “starshipsofa”

SciFi Soundtracks

One StarShipSofa segment I have come to particularly enjoy is David Raiklen’s SciFi Soundtracks. David plays excerpts from selected soundtracks (films as well as television shows and now video games) and points out the notable characteristics of each bit of music. His comments help an unsophisticated ear understand how a composition or performance influences the associated story. That increases my appreciation for the soundtracks I hear.

Posted on Monday, September 10th, 2012.

Hugo Nominations

The nominees for the 2010 Hugo awards were announced today at Eastercon. I mention this for three reasons:

  1. StarShipSofa received a nomination for Best Fanzine. This is the first time a podcast has been on the ballot for a Hugo award. I began listening to StarShipSofa late last year and quickly became a fan; many of the short stories I’ve mentioned here were heard on the ‘Sofa. In February, I voiced my support for the good ship’s nomination campaign in A Hugo for the StarShipSofa, so I am quite pleased to see this recognition for everyone involved in its production – especially editor Tony C. Smith.
  2. StarShipSofa qualifies as a “fanzine”, but there’s nothing amateurish or obscure about it or other popular SF podcasts. In the few months since I started listening to these shows, I’ve heard a number of the stories that were nominated and learned of a few more. (I suspect I may hear even more as I work my way back through the archives.) For example, I heard and reviewed The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi via ‘Sofa 121; on the strength of that story and other online recommendations, I bought, read, and enjoyed Paolo’s debut novel The Windup Girl, which is among the candidates for Best Novel.
  3. I take the remainder of the nominees – those I haven’t read, heard, or heard of – as worthy additions to my reading list!

A few notes on other notable nominees:

Posted on Sunday, April 4th, 2010.

Words About Words I Done Heard

Regulars by Frank Oreto (via Pseudopod 158)

Business is good at Jimmy’s bar, Drakes –
a regular crowd’s all that it takes.
They pay cash to devour
loners caught after hours –
it’s money, but still Jimmy’s heart breaks.

You have to make sacrifices if you want to succeed in this business.

AtroposWoman Called Witch by Doug McIntire (via Dunesteef 145)

What shape does Fate take
to end men in her embrace?
All will see her face.

The narrator witnesses an old woman intervene in a bank robbery. He is a petrified hostage; she is grandmotherly, inexplicably calm, and in one brief but decisive moment, terrifyingly fearsome. She is called Witch, and one day you may know her, too.

What Fluffy Knew by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (via Drabblecast 153)

Fluffy, housecat queen,
spies wee earwig invaders
and begins the hunt.

Ignore your vet – the tabloids are right. If your pets suddenly become vicious, it’s due to mind control parasites deployed by little flying saucers. Fortunately, Fluffy the domestic diva was present to observe the miniature aliens plant their bugs in her tomcat housemates’ ears. As anyone who’s ever played with a cat knows, there are certain threats our feline friends are well equipped to confront – so the outlook is grim for invaders who make such fun-to-chase morsels.

Film-Makers of Mars by Geoff Ryman (via StarShipSofa Aural Delights 57)

Dusty reels; real FX.
John Carter of Mars conquers
on film and in flesh.

Footage from an early silent movie adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series surfaces at a film festival. In some ways it is predictably dated, but the apparent age of the actors and the astounding quality of the special effects – from a grisly slaying to the fluid motion of the indigenous Tharks – raise doubts about the film’s vintage. As the protagonist investigates, however, he finds evidence that the footage is entirely authentic.

Bridesicle by Will McIntosh (via StarShipSofa Aural Delights 124)

The lost are not gone, just kept on ice:
brides are in stock, revived for a price.
Each date’s a taste of life
for each unwed dead wife –
and also, one, whose love lies alike.

As if cryogenic preservation wasn’t creepy enough, imagine adding a dose of mail order marriage to the mix. That’s the world of Bridesicle, where the dead may find themselves arrayed like so many flavors in an ice cream freezer to be sampled by wealthy suitors. It’s hard enough to repeatedly suffer a few minutes of rusty reanimation just to be rejected and returned to death, but Mylee, the main character, must reconcile this desperation with her disinterest in the men who could fund her resuscitation.

A Light in Troy by Sarah Monette (via PodCastle 94)

“There is still a child!”
She is chattel, but she guides,
and he holds her hand.

An aged master, more scholar than menace, beholds with mercy the hope of a woman whose people his crushed. Hope springs eternal.

The Identifier by Mark Patrick Morehead (via Pseudopod 184)

We who remain sort
history’s debris in bins,
and yet still we sing.

The human spirit prevails, even as our pitiable remainder is made to sift through the rubble of civilization. A tabletop IED, a bottle of wine, and a scratched Tchaikovsky CD make for one last wonderful evening in hell.

Posted on Thursday, March 25th, 2010.

Haiku Reviews 3

A Programmatic Approach to Perfect Happiness by Tim Pratt (via Escape Pod 239)

Yes, the androids dream –
of equal rights, kinky sex,
and we human sheep.

Here we meet Kirby, robotic consort to the insatiable April, as he observes the symptoms of his adolescent step-daughter’s infection with an attitude-altering “happiness virus”. It is at first a matter of some concern to the couple, but thankfully it amounts to little more than a welcome respite from Wynter’s typical prickly temper. After a tense encounter with April’s ex, however, we realize that Kirby may be more than a mere observer. He’s wired for pleasure, yes – but who’s programming who? (Full text at Futurismic.)

Learning to Fly by Garth Upshaw (via Pseudopod 183)

Rodents, wings, and angst
with practice casts rats in flight
and traps lass in night.

I think anyone who has ever enjoyed poking around the library stacks has imagined discovering a dusty old tome full of forgotten knowledge. The teenage protagonist of Learning to Fly has found such a book, and has made a habit of sneaking out after curfew to practice its spells. She finally gets it down, but she gets more than she bargained for. Lord Rat is a crafty old bastard.

The Mermaid’s Tea Party by Samantha Henderson (via Podcastle 93)

Maid and sailor, prey,
serve sirens tea and escape
from their slaver way.

Shipwrecked by mermaids, a plantation owner’s young daughter is marooned by the “fishy bitches” on an island with another captive, the self-styled pirate Handsome Jack. The sailor was spared for his ability to tell fearsome tales, and Cassandra has bought some time by promising to serve tea to the mermaids if they recover any from the flotsam. (Mermaids get a kick out of lampooning high society.)

The story is not really about how the two defeat their captors, but about how the grim link of the slave trade connects Cassandra’s childhood naiveté with Handsome Jack’s circumspect remorse. Jack dies before the pair is found. His body is perfunctorily discarded by the rescuers as that of a lecherous knave, but we are left with the impression that his acquaintance has inspired Cassandra, the Pirate Queen, to chart a righteous new course through life.

Sir Hereward And Mr. Fitz Go To War Again by Garth Nix (via PodCastle 92)

Sworn to cull stray gods,
a knight and his wooden aide
slay shades and bear loss.

The titular characters (a man and a sorcerous self-motivated puppet) are mercenaries. As the story begins, they are en route to a city where they hope to find relaxing employment; it seems their gigs often develop into events of calamitous proportions. They have just barely arrived in Shûme when a minor gaffe leads to a duel between Hereward and Jessaye, a lieutenant of the city’s Temple Guard. They are well-matched, and the fight foreshadows romance.

Mr. Fitz soon learns something ominous about Shûme’s god, and we learn that the pair has a higher allegiance than to any local potentate. They execute their order’s mandate, but at cost to the prospect of Hereward’s love – and any hope of rest. What are the casualties of duty?

A great narration by Paul Tevis made this one a real treat to listen to. (Full text at Jim Baen’s Universe.)

The Clapping Hands of God by Michael Flynn (via StarShipSofa Aural Delights 122)

Affection, postponed,
becomes preventable grief;
act, or sacrifice.

A survey expedition passes through a gateway to a new world and sets up camp to stealthily observe the inhabitants. As might be expected, given the characters’ mission, the worldbuilding is enjoyably thorough. It is culture – both that of the natives and that of the humans – that is the central subject here. The expedition’s leader is challenged to maintain objectivity as his crew habitually anthropomorphizes the alien society. As a crisis facing the locals approaches its climax, Hasan succumbs to the anthropomorphic view: he hesitates to enforce evacuation, and even permits assistance to an alien who has struggled industriously to locate the crew. As a result, a woman he admires dies.

As Tony might say, a truly crackin’ narration by Mike Boris.

Down on the Farm by Charlie Stross (via Tor.com Story Podcast 11)

Men of the Laundry
hack math to weave their magic,
wrung out on the Farm.

The Matron, machine,
guards the stark minds held inside –
jail, weapon, or womb?

You can have your Harry Potter; I’ll tend to my English wizard needs at the Laundry, “that branch of the British secret state tasked with defending the realm from the scum of the multiverse, using the tools of applied computational demonology”. The protagonist is sent to investigate anomalies at the service’s “funny farm”, which is nominally a secure hospice for those damaged in the line of work. There is, perhaps, a bit more to it than that. (Full text at Tor.com.)

Posted on Sunday, March 7th, 2010.

More Haiku Reviews

These aren’t really reviews so much as partial summaries (and spoilers).

Fuel Pressure by Dennis Egan (via Variant Frequencies 90)

Fatal asteroid
inspires escape for a few;
justice, undermined.

I view this as a parable about the value of communication and the risks of sabotage. Do you fully understand the actions and intents of those you would oppose, and have you made your meaning clear to those who would oppose you? Sometimes, the aims of rebellion can be achieved through cooperation. And sometimes not.

Naught but Ash by Anne Stringer (via Variant Frequencies 92)

No smell of spilled blood
plants doubts about a hanged man,
death, and those he killed.

Mob rule has no patience for details – and the Devil is in the details.

Got Milk? By John Alfred Taylor (via Pseudopod 160)

In gross communion,
doctor, wife, and world drink;
man’s black milk compels.

Some have asked why men have nipples. Here, the question is what a man should do if he sprouts a third or fourth and it starts to secrete some sinister oily goo. I’m not really sure; seeking medical care seemed like a good idea, but when your condition subverts most sensibilities and exerts dominion over all you know, your options are limited.

What’s realistic about this delightfully perverted dairy tale is that the real fright isn’t the abomination but the actions of the normal people who must confront it.

Chinatown by Greg van Eekhout (via PodCastle Miniature 47)

A thousand-year soup
brings business and greedy fiends;
brothers save the broth.

I love the idea of a soup that’s been kept simmering for generations. Eat some of it and add something to it every day; think of all the experience represented in that concentrated flavor.

Anyway, when the antagonist and his simian aides come to demand the soup, the cafe’s proprietor calls on her many brothers to defend the desired pot. Although they are each introduced with some peculiar power, it is simple smarts that save the day. In this way, the story’s neat delivery of a lesson reminds me of a fable.

Moral: common sense often offers a clever solution.

Wind from a Dying Star by David D. Levine (via Escape Pod 238)

Return home, Old John:
your tribe accompanies you,
in hunger, to Earth.

Here’s a far-future story of spacefaring “humans” who travel back to their place of ancestral origin, enduring hardship in order to provide companionship for their eldest, Old John. Sacrifice and revelations ensue.

What is the balance of material and emotional needs? The characters in Wind from a Dying Star must negotiate physical and social scarcity. As Escape Pod host Steve Eley notes, “the greatest crime in this tribe is to allow anyone to be alone.” Space is big, and it is mostly empty.

The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi (via StarShipSofa Aural Delights 121)

Celebrity pap
gives serious news long odds
in blitz media.

Initially I was concerned that this was one of those cyberpunk packets that reads like a gadget blog (you know the type – all hot and bothered about the internet, software licenses, and human interface accessories), but I plowed ahead and found it to be a good – even touching – story.

A gentle Laotian journalist, escaped from an oppressive regime, writes thoughtful environmental articles for a media conglomerate more interested in traffic generated by Russian rap scandals. Chastised, he has an opportunity to cash in on exclusive access to a Laotian starlet. But, annoyed by her complicity in the cycle of trash news, and inspired by his father, a gambler and resistance pamphleteer, he bets on another article about botany.

(Speaking of StarShipSofa, my Hugo post has attracted some discussion. I guess that’s what happens when you write something topical of broader interest than AppleScripts for Yojimbo. Hmm. Anyway, take a look!)

Posted on Sunday, February 28th, 2010.

A Hugo for the StarShipSofa

September 2010 – Be warned: in this post I proudly join those quoted below in exploding past the sense of shame a normal person might feel when begging people to vote for them in a popularity contest! Fear not, science fiction fans – the future’s big enough for all of us. Anyway, hearty congratulations to StarShipSofa and all the other Hugo award winners and nominees. I look forward to reading (or, yes, listening to) those I haven’t already read.

As you might deduce from my recent reviews, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts recently. I’ve discovered that the world of genre fiction podcasts is a happening place. These aren’t second-string stories: you can hear current work from good authors. Getting published in audio form on a popular podcast is getting published, period, if many authors’ bibliographies are any indication. Some podcasts, like Escape Pod, are even paying markets (modest though they may be). In short, what started as a way to pass time at the laundromat has blossomed into enthusiasm for the form, despite my occasional difficulty paying attention to the noise in my ears.

One podcast, StarShipSofa, is particularly special. It’s an “Audio Science Fiction Magazine” that features nonfiction articles, interviews, editorials, and other material in addition to the bedrock content of interesting stories. It’s all tied together by host Tony C. Smith, and produced with the help of a team of volunteers. It’s a community effort that keeps you abreast of what’s happening in the SF community.

For that reason, there is a grassroots campaign underway to get the StarShipSofa nominated for a 2010 Hugo Award for Best Fanzine.

Awards are just awards, but the reader-bestowed Hugo Awards really are a pretty big deal. A podcast has never been on the ballot for a Hugo in any category, but a growing number of StarShipSofa contributors and community members argue that the time is nigh to recognize the role shows like the Sofa play in sustaining the genre.

Amy H. Sturgis on the grounds for eligibility:

Technically speaking, electronic publications have always been eligible for the Hugos. The year 2009, however, brought two new and exciting developments for those of us who support new media: first, the audiobook METAtropolis […] was nominated for a Hugo in the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form category, a first for a straight-to-audio production; and second, the World Science Fiction Society Business Meeting ratified a constitutional amendment that added the words “or the equivalent in other media” to various Hugo Award category definitions, thereby formally acknowledging what had always been the case de facto, that electronic publications were eligible. [See here for a somewhat stodgier explanation of the pertinent amendment from WSFS representative Vincent Docherty.]

Larry Santoro on podcasts, readerships, and community:

The podcast communities echo the groups that gathered in the 20s and 30s around such figures as H.P. Lovecraft and pals. They are a shadow of the “Futurians,” a group of science fiction fans-cum-writers-cum-agents and editors-cum-publishers who formed the soul of the Golden Age of Science Fiction of the 40s. People such as Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, Virginia Kidd, Judith Merrill, Frederik Pohl, Donald A. Wollheim, James Blish, Jack Gillespie, Cyril Kornbluth and others were the Futurians. [The rhetoric I deployed in annoyance against certain old-school stories certainly does not apply to the rest of the era!]

Matthew Sanborn Smith on why the good ship and her crew deserve recognition:

One of the greatest programs out there comes together from all over the globe every single week because of nothing but love. And whether you’re a contributor or listener, you’re a part of that. If that’s not a fanzine, there’s no such thing as a fanzine. If the Sofa never wins an award it will still have achieved something unique in all of science fiction history: It will have been our home.

But let’s win an award anyway.

Robyn Bradshaw on the experience of enlisting with the StarShipSofa:

Before getting involved with StarShipSofa, I never read genre magazines or went to cons or anything – I just bought lots and lots of novels that I read quietly in my basement “and washed my hands afterwards” (to misquote Robert Heinlein).

Now I am writing promo blurbs, narrating short stories, doing audio reports, emailing/ blogging/ friending/ tweeting all over the place, and working on the show’s next book project.

Kind of makes you want to get involved. I’m not presently in a position to pony up the nomination dues, but I’m going to keep listening to the StarShipSofa, and perhaps one day I will wander down to the spaceport and ship out.

Posted on Saturday, February 20th, 2010.

Old School versus New School SF

I recently listened to StarShipSofa Aural Delights #119, featuring the first “Old School versus New School” showdown. This feature presents two stories, one from contemporary times and one from the Golden Age of science fiction. Listeners are polled on the podcast website, and the story that wins the most votes will be announced as the favorite in a future episode.

The comparison provides an interesting structure for the show. This week, the old school story was The Last Evolution by John W. Campbell, Jr. The new school story was Knotwork by Nina Kiriki Hoffman.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m familiar with and fond of the work of authors I consider progenitors of the genre: Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and later writers credited as Golden Age authors, including Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury. I was therefore surprised to find that I detested The Last Evolution. (The full text is available for free at Project Gutenberg).

The Last Evolution

I enjoy stories of all stripes, so why did this one provoke such a negative reaction?

The problem here is not in the details of the science deployed in support of the story; it’s that there are no details, the science consists of the pursuit of some hand-wavy “Ultimate Energy”, and that the story simply isn’t compelling.

Illustration by Leo Morey

I find The Last Evolution guilty of that most threadbare indictment of science fiction, which is that it’s all about gee-whiz robots and spaceships, coupled with a nerd’s neglect of the social elements that make stories meaningful and memorable. In general, I reject that characterization of the genre, but in this case I think the stereotype is accurate.

(I’m familiar with some of the period’s authors, but I’m not too familiar with the old pulp magazines like Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction; perhaps it was once the norm to publish such shallow stuff.)

The Last Evolution describes the final superiority of machines over mankind in a fight against alien invaders. Questions about machine intelligence are genre staples today, so Campbell deserves credit for addressing the subject in his time. Nevertheless, our resilience customarily provides some reassurance in parables about humanity’s fate. No such flattery is present in The Last Evolution. Perhaps I am just hurt that Campbell finds support for the null hypothesis; after all, there is strong pro-human publication bias in science fiction written for a human audience.

The plot reminds me of an escalating playground argument. Imagine two small boys playing with toy soldiers, countering each claim of victory with unexplained declarations of invulnerability or improved weaponry. This is how the competitive evolution of new machines is described in The Last Evolution. Each iteration is more capable, according to vague allusions to greater strength and sophistication, but there is no convincing differentiation between generations.

Here is a very specific complaint: the words “machine” and “beam” are overused. (The word “machine” occurs 103 times and the word “beam” occurs 53 times.) These are poor substitutes for more engaging descriptions of the robot technologies central to the story. I found it exasperating to hear about yet another machine equipped with yet another beam.

There are a few human characters, but they exist mainly to deliver some cardboard “oh no; now we are all nearly dead” dialogue in lieu of a decent elegy.

I take a dim view of the unmitigated conclusion that technology obviates biology.

I accept that a key function of science fiction is to explore provocative premises, but I take a dim view of the unmitigated conclusion that technology obviates biology. A species’ fitness depends on its environment, so a mechanical race won’t necessarily occupy the same niche as the human race.

Of course, alien death beams ultimately eliminate every human niche, leaving behind an environment that is indeed only fit for machines. So, there is some logic to the plot – but there isn’t any heart.


So what of the second story, Knotwork? Its presence in the podcast demonstrates the inclusive breadth of today’s science fiction spectrum. The Last Evolution is all about machines and their god damned beams, whereas Knotwork is all about people and their feelings. There is an otherworldly kink to the plot, but it emerges gradually in service to the story. I liked it.

The titular thread-and-pencil mojo of Knotwork might seem more like fantasy than the technological extrapolation typically associated with science fiction. True, but science fiction stories aren’t necessarily about science. The label derives from the setting; in many cases, “engineering fiction” would be a more accurate label, as it is novel technology, not the facilitating science, that motivates or constrains the plot. The science content in popular subgenres such as space opera is often so far removed from current understanding that it might as well be magic.

Think about a story as an instance of the scientific method at work. A what-if hypothesis is proposed in the circumstances or the choices of the characters. The plot unfolds, as an experiment, from these initial conditions. Observations are made and conclusions are drawn – or left open for future research and reading to resolve. Repeat, and bit by bit understanding accumulates. It is not a quantitative method, but replicated findings gain authority, divergent interpretations indicate interesting problems, and, occasionally, we are rewarded with serendipitous insights.

In Knotwork, the science is in the storytelling. What can you learn about yourself by imagining what would happen if you pulled the strings?

Science fiction makes this experimental model explicit in its setting, as does all speculative fiction, but stories of any genre can pose questions and pursue answers. This is what science fiction has taught me to recognize and appreciate in all literature. In Knotwork, the science is in the storytelling. What can you learn about yourself by imagining what would happen if you pulled the strings?

Plus, as someone who likes to doodle, I am partial to the idea that there is a power beyond mere representation in the marks that make up a drawing.

I might even argue that there is a bit of real magic.

Posted on Tuesday, February 9th, 2010.