Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Jump into the Escape Pod for great audio SF!

There are so many great places to read and listen to short stories online, especially science fiction but most of these are not well known. I've decided to periodically take a look at one, to shine a light on some hidden gems.

In my forays into the world of SF short stories, I came across Escape Pod (http://www.escapepod.org). It is a science fiction short story podcast with a new episode each week. Each episode features one new short story, sometimes a new one, sometimes a reprint (can you call it a reprint if it's an audio story?). I've listened to quite a few, and while I've not liked all of them, there's been some really gems and the rest are not bad at all. I'm not usually a big audio fiction fan, preferring to read, but I've found that short stories really do work for me in audio format as I can often listen to them in one sitting. Escape Pod also have some really excellent narrators that add an extra touch to the story.

As well as the story, each episode features a short preamble, a bit of a summary or reflection afterwards, and some listener feedback from a previous episode (incidentally, this is taken from the active forums on the website where listeners discuss each episode afterwards). It adds just a little bit to the overall package, but add something it does.

One of the really good things about Escape Pod is that if features old stories as well as new. There's some classic stories that have been given the Escape Pod treatment, including the following:

Episode 400 - Escape Party by Arthur C Clarke

Episode 100 - Nightfall by Isaac Asimov

Episode 453 - The Grotto of the Dancing Bear by Clifford D Simak

Episode 392 - Aftermaths by Lois McMaster Bujold (not sure if this is a classic or new story, but I love her books, so thought I'd include.

Episode 490 - Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

There's also stories by David Brin, Robert Silverberg, Ted Chiang and loads more. For a list of episodes, you are best checking out this wikipedia page.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Reading Arthur C Clarke - Early stories

As part of my recent enthusiasm for short stories, I've started on some classic science fiction stories. I mentioned Clifford D Simak last week, and I'm going to be reading more of his books soon, but I decided to take a fresh look at a rather more well known name in the field of science fiction - Arthur C Clarke. He's written many classic novels, but also many excellent short stories, and like many classic authors, many later novels started out as short stories.

There are a few of his short stories available online (I've already talked about 'Rescue Party'), but I decided to splash out on 'The Collected Short Stories of Arthur C Clarke', which includes all 104 of his published short stories in chronological order. It's quite expensive in paperback, but a bargain at £7.99 on Kindle. Here are my thoughts on the first few stories.


'Travel by Wire' was his first published short story, published in December 1937 in Amateur Science Fiction stories, what seems to be a short lived small press type magazine. Clarke would have been 20 at the time, and you can tell as it has a jokey vibe, relating student pranks and rivalries between different science faculties (though interestingly he didn't go to university until many years later). This story is based on the idea of a Star Trek style transporter (albeit 30 years before Star Trek did it), sending people down telephone wires and re materialising them at the other end. Told in a humorous way, it also has an amusing little twist at the end. Told in the first person (though often using collective 'we'), it is also very short, probably no more than 1500 words. It may be three quarters of a century old, but I really enjoyed it, and but for the mention of dates and a couple of quaint anachronisms it could have been written yesterday.

'How We Went to Mars' is another first person narrative, starting with: 'It is with considerable trepidation that I now take up my pen to describe the incredible adventures that befell the members of the Snoring-in-the-Hay Rocket Society in the Winter of 1952'. This was written in 1937 when national space agencies had not yet become interested in space, but amateur rocket societies were springing up everywhere. This tongue in cheek story is about a rocket from one of these societies which launches (with several members of the society on board including the narrator), aiming for Earth orbit. Unfortunately they lapse into a temporary coma, aren't awake when they need to break and overshoot. They are now heading to Mars... This is something of a tongue in cheek story, and is for many reasons now very dated. It is still however worth reading for a glimpse of a time when rocket technology was starting to come of age, and Amateur Rocket Societies were a big thing.

Sometimes, my thoughts on a story are indelibly linked in my mind with where I was when I read it and I read this story while sat in the sunshine on the deck, sipping a Starbucks coffee overlooking the boating lake at Center Parcs. I always like reading in the sunshine. Anyway, 'Retreat from Earth' isn't much about sunshine, it is about aliens who come to colonise Earth. A well trod path you might say (albeit not at the time it was written). But it is also about Termites, and it is a story about humanity's origins. This is also the first of Clarke's stories to be written in the third person.

'Reverie' is a strange inclusion in a book of short stories, as it seems to be an article about the state of science fiction (in the 1930s). It's quite short however and is certainly interesting, not least because it would not really be out of place today.

'The Awakening' is an early story about cryogenics, and one dying man's wish to be put to sleep for a hundred years in the hope that a century's advances in medical science will find a cure for, well, death. It's story that has been told many times before, but this could well be the first, and it is a good story too.

'Whacky' is the next story, and is one I really don't get, maybe it is just wacky! If someone has read it, perhaps they can explain it to me.

Arthur C Clarke sold 'Loophole' to Astounding Science Fiction in the closing months of the Second World War, and it was published in 1946. It is an example of the 'don't underestimate us humans' story, and is told in the form of a series of memos (I'd actually call them emails as that's what they look like, except for the fact that at this point there was a long time before they were going to be invented) between various alien military and political figures about a surveillance of Earth and the human race. Short and punchy, this is an easy, enjoyable read.

The next story is 'Rescue Party' which I've talked about previously - you can read about it here. Anyway, that's it for now, more soon.


Saturday, 11 April 2015

From a Hangman to Alien Rescuers... more short story recommendations

Continuing on from last week's post, I've got more great short story recommendations, most of which you can read and/or listen to online. If you didn't catch last week's post, you can read it here. I've been reading mostly science fiction short stories, but have picked one or two non sci-fi stories that I've enjoyed recently too.

'Light of Other Days' by Bob Shaw. This was written in the 1960s, and I'd not heard of the story before and only barely heard of the author however I came across a Youtube video suggesting this was the best SF short story ever. I don't know I'd agree with that, but it is a really great story. It's only short, so you can easily read in about fifteen minutes. It's got a great science fiction concept (slow glass), but it is a story about people with the concept just part of the backdrop. Definitely worth a read.

'New Folks Home' by Clifford D Simak. This is my first short story by Simak, and I've previously only read one novel of his (Way Station - you can read my review here), but I really like this author. He had a long career, with his first story being published in 1931, and his last in the 1980s shortly before his death. He wrote what has been described as 'Pastoral SF', linking galaxy spanning science fiction concepts with a simple, rural backdrop. The link to this story is to an audio version of the story, from the great folks at Escape Pod. I'm not always a fan of audio stories over reading them on the page (or screen), but I thought the narration on this really good and fit well with the story.

'Item Not as Described' by J.W. Alden. While I've been reading a lot of older 'golden age' science fiction, I've also been reading quite a few new short stories. There's lots of places to read new stuff online, including quite a few 'pro' websites which publish short stories by some of the best modern SF writers (websites/e-zines like Clarkesworld, Lightspeed Magazine, Strange Horizons etc) but there's also a lot of semi-pro and small press websites and e-zines and there's some really good stuff on these too. This one was published in Kasma Magazine and is quite an amusing story, taking the form of a thread of email exchanges between someone who has bought an item on an online auction site which wasn't as described, the seller of said item and the customer service department of the auction site. However the auction site is something of a darker alternative to eBay! It's only short, but is a fun and amusing read.

'Rescue Party' by Arthur C Clarke. This is a true golden age SF story, from one of the masters of science fiction. An alien starship comes to the rescue of Earth when it is discovered that Earth's sun is about to explode, destroying all of the solar system. But where are all the people? Thanks to +Kenny Chaffin from Google Plus for this excellent recommendation.

And now for a couple of non-science fiction recommendations. As I mentioned in last week's post, despite enjoying a wide variety of novels in most genres, I'm struggling to find non-SF stories which I've really enjoyed. Possibly because the stories are either trash, trying to be too literary, or concentrating on the 'dark side of the human psyche' or similar, which most of the time just bores me.

Anyway the first of these is 'The Three Strangers' by Thomas Hardy. For anyone who doesn't know, Hardy was a classic English author of the Victorian era (19th century) who wrote rural English stories such as 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' and 'Jude the Obscure'. I've not read any of his books, but his short stories were recommended to me, in particular an anthology called 'Wessex Tales'. I've read several of these so far, and particularly enjoyed The Three Strangers, which is a country tale about a hangman. It is the sort you could imagine an old man telling his grandchildren while sat round the fire of a thatched cottage, deep in the woods.


The second of these is 'The Blue Girl' by Alex Grecian. This is a short story set in late 19th century London, a crime-mystery featuring Constable Colin Pringle. By his own frank admission, Pringle isn't a very hard working or dedicated policeman - he only joined the police force because he thought the uniform might attract pretty young girls. He isn't even a detective, however the sight of the blue girl floating in the canal makes him feel compelled  to do some investigating, because if he doesn't, no one else will. This short story is based on the author's Murder Squad books of Victorian detective fiction. I haven't read any of them, and only read this story as it was recommended to me by my lovely wife who is a fan of Grecian's books. I really enjoyed it however, and it is doing a good job of making me want to read his books. This isn't available free online as far as I can see, but is only 49 pence in the UK Kindle store.



Friday, 3 April 2015

Reading Short Stories

Unfortunately it has been a long, long time since I've managed a blog post - over two months - and that's after a very promising start throughout January. I haven't been idle however, I've picked up the writing bug and started writing short stories. Why short stories? Well partly at least because they are just that - short! I've always got lots of ideas, and short stories allow me to get more of my ideas onto the page. I may work my way up to something longer, but for now I'm really enjoying writing short stories.

As well as writing short stories I've also been reading them too. I've never been a big reader of short stories, always preferring novels, and I don't think that is going to change anytime soon, but I have been surprised how much I've enjoyed some of the stories I've read. There's also quite a lot that left my cold (and bored and at times confused). In this and more posts over the next few weeks I'll be talking about my findings and reviewing some of the stories I've read, particularly ones I've really enjoyed. Where these are available free online I'll include a link too (and so many stories are available on the internet). I've been reading quite a wide mix of stories, there's a lot of science fiction and fantasy short stories, but quite a few others too. The great thing is that you can easily read a big variety in a short space of time, no getting stuck in a book for weeks or months on end.

I'm going to start off with some science fiction & fantasy stories this time.

'Nightfall' by Isaac Asimov (available as an audio story here or as a pdf here). This was written in 1941 but has not aged at all, and is everything a science fiction story should be. The story is about a solar eclipse, but also is a story about superstition and ignorance versus knowledge and science. At least I think it is, it is a while since I've read this one.

'Fermi and Frost' by Frederick Pohl. (available online here). A story about the end of the world and nuclear winter. A bit dated now, but I thought this was a fabulous story. I talked about it a bit more in this blog post from a couple of years ago.

'The Paper Menagerie' by Ken Liu. (available here) If you don't read science fiction short stories, you've probably never heard of Ken Liu, but in science fiction circles he's considered one of the finest modern short story writers (modern as in the last 10 years). I suppose this is technically a fantasy story, but really there's just the smallest touch of magic in it, other than which it is a normal contemporary short story and a very good one too. It is about family, parenthood and the problems that can come when different cultures collide. This story won the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award.

Talking about good modern authors, Ted Chiang is another name most people won't have heard of, not surprisingly as he's not written any novels, and has only published 14 short stories in a 20 year career although many of them have won science fiction's top awards. You don't get many science fiction short story writers being written about in The Economist, but you can read this excellent article about him here. I've only read a couple of his stories so far, including 'Exhalation' about a strange universe inhabited by sentient mechanical beings. I read this online, but can't seem to find it now. There is a free audio version though. Chiang's stories can be quite philosophical, and really make you think.

There's many online magazines and websites which publish new short stories every month, week or even day. I'll maybe talk about some of these in a later post, but for now I thought I'd pick one I'd read recently. It isn't a classic or famous story (though it was nominated for the Nebula award in 2013), but is one I enjoyed a lot. It is 'The Sounds of Old Earth' by Matthew Kressel published online in Lightspeed Magazine. It is about a future polluted Earth, which is to be evacuated and and everyone shipped off to New Earth. It's about an old man who has too many memories and doesn't want to leave. It is also about frogs.

So there you go, five stories all available online. If you are after classic sci-fi, go for Nightfall, if you fancy a bit of nostalgia, go for the Sounds of Old Earth, and if you aren't much into science fiction or fantasy, have a read of The Paper Menagerie. Or just read them all.

If you read (or have already read) any of the stories, do comment and let me know what you think, or if you've got any short stories you really recommend - in any genre - then tell me, I'm always on the look out for good short fiction to read.

Next time I'll probably talk about some more mainstream, non science fiction/fantasy short stories, but despite reading some supposed classics I am struggling for stories I really love. Anyway, that's for next time.