Escape Pod is the mother ship of speculative fiction podcasts. Five years ago, Steve Eley posted the very first Escape Pod episode, and set out with the goal of providing a weekly audio speculative fiction story. He did not want to charge for it, and he didn’t want listeners to be annoyed by constant advertisements. And he’s kept to these goals remarkably well for nearly half a decade. He’s created a company to run it, Escape Artists Inc., which has spawned two sister podcasts, Pseudopod for horror and Podcastle for fantasy, while refocusing Escape Pod’s tastes to focus on science fiction. All three are supported by user donations. You can make a one-time payment or set up a monthly payment, whichever makes the most sense to you. They prefer reprints, though they do run original stories from time to time (like mine), so they’re sort of like a “Best of” podcast themselves, taking high quality stories that have (usually) appeared elsewhere, and breathing new life into them by having them read aloud.
I’m eternally grateful to Steve Eley for starting this venture because Pseudopod was the very first market to ever buy my fiction. If it weren’t for the success of Escape Pod, that sale would never have happened. After I received the Pseudopod acceptance letter, I set out to listen to Pseudopod’s backlog to find out whose footsteps I was following in, and I loved it! If you’re like me and you rarely take the time to just sit down and read, podcasts are the perfect medium. I listen to stories while driving to and from work and while doing low-cognitive tasks around the house like washing dishes or raking leaves. So I listened to all of the Pseudopod stories, and then wrote a Best of Pseudopod list. I did the same for Best of Podcastle. And now, to complete the Best of Escape Artists trifecta, this is the Best of Escape Pod list.
I’ve listened to every single Escape Pod story that’s been published to date, 239 full length episodes and many flash fiction extras. iTunes estimates 6.5 days of audio for all of this. And from all of those stories, I’ve picked my top 10 ranked favorites, along with 6 more that almost made the list. In truth, there were a lot more that I would’ve liked to put on the list, but I really wanted to keep it at a top 10, not a top 100 or 200. Trimming it down to just these 16 was extremely difficult, but these are what I consider the cream of the crop and I hope you agree. And the good news is that there are plenty more quality episodes to listen to after this.
By the way, Escape Pod is on hiatus for the moment because Steve Eley’s second child was born a couple months ago. He’s resigning from his position as editor of Escape Pod, but EP will be returning with new episodes and a new editor on May 12th.
Okay, I’ve rambled on long enough, on to the list!
1. Sinner, Baker, Fablist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast by Eugie Foster
Read by Lawrence Santoro
Another world very different from our own, where masks define who you are. The worldbuilding in this is among the best I’ve ever seen, easing you into this strange world at just the right pace so that it’s neither boring or too confusing. The first section or two are a little hard to grasp, but just keep listening, it should start to come together. This one is nominated for this year’s Hugo award, and I really think it deserves it. And, as if that weren’t enough, this is one of those cases where a narrator transforms a great story into something even more outstanding. Lawrence has a very versatile and emotional voice and it fits perfectly with this story.
2. Friction by Will McIntosh
Read by Stephen Eley
There’s some great philosophy on this one and some great characters as well. Told from an alien point of view, I really felt for the characters and this story left me pondering long after it was done, about finding a purpose in life.
3. Exhalation by Ted Chiang
Read by Ray Sizemore
Another great philosophical one. Another alien point of view, this story leans more toward the hard science fiction side of things than I usually care to go, but manages to tie in the science in such a way that it’s interesting to hear about, it’s relevant to the plot, and makes me sink into a delightful philosophical stupor.
4. Connie, Maybe by Paul E. Martens
Read by Wichita Rutherford
The funniest Escape Pod episode, this one had me rolling. This is another case where the perfect choice of narrator made the story transcend above the words it contained. Wichita Rutherford’s exaggerated backwoods accent fits perfectly with this story about identity and alien abduction.
5. Lachrymose and the Golden Egg by Tim Pratt
Read by Stephen Eley
Don’t look so surprised. You knew that Tim Pratt had to be on the list after he got 3 spots in the Best of Podcastle top 10. I don’t know how he does it, but with every story he manages to create an interesting and unique setting and populate it with compelling characters and keep me on the edge of my seat up until the end. A great story about parallel worlds and the ties between them, and the price you’re willing to pay to help others.
6. I Look Forward to Remembering You by Mur Lafferty
Read by Daisy Ottman, Anna Eley, and Stephen Eley
A great example of a time travel story done right. A woman hires a time-traveling consort to travel back in time to help herself lose her virginity in the hopes of improving her current life. Heartfelt and wonderfully done. Also includes a mention of Ranma 1/2, which was a great show.
7. His Master’s Voice by Hannu Rajaniemi
Read by Peter Piazza
A tale of cyberhumans and clones as told by cyborg dog. Can it get any better than this? Yes it can–the cyborg dog also has a cyborg cat friend! The first few minutes can be a little confusing as you try to sort out the setting, and I’m not entirely sure that I understood everything that happened. But whether or not I did, I enjoyed the ride!
8. Barnaby in Exile by Mike Resnick
Read by Paul Fischer
Resnick has a reputation on the Escape Pod forums for writing tearjerkers, and this is definitely one of those. Barnaby the ape talks to his handler about various and sundry things, all filtered through his very limited point of view. If this doesn’t make you feel any emotion, then you may very well be a robot.
9. Reparations by Merrie Haskell
Read by Mary Robinette Kowal
A worthwhile use for time travel! I dug this story mostly for its premise. The story’s compelling as well, but just the idea itself had me so in awe of Merrie Haskell’s creative powers that I was too awestruck to nitpick the story much. I’d like to think that I would volunteer for this program if such a program existed.
10. How I Mounted Goldie, Saved my Partner Lori, and Sniffed out the People’s Justice by Jonathon Sullivan
Read by Stephen Eley and Jennifer Bowie
Another canine point of view. What can I say, I like dogs! Told as a debriefing of a K-9 cop. Steve Eley outdoes himself with the voice on this one, sounding like a perfect dog. Keep in mind while you listen to this one that Pixar had not yet release UP when this story was published, so he is not just copying Dug. I like to think that someone at Pixar heard the story and that Dug is a copy of Steve Eley’s voice. Also, for anyone who’d like to get a peek behind the scenes of podcasting, EP also released an unedited version which includes multiple takes, and just BSing between Stephen and Jennifer. I wouldn’t listen to it before the final cut, but I got some laughs out of it listening to it after.
Impossible Dreams by Tim Pratt
Read by Matthew Wayne Selznick
A hugo winner, and perfect for media lovers.
Cinderella Suicide by Samantha Henderson
Read by MarBelle
Full of weird slang, a little hard to follow at times, but fun.
Pennywhistle by Greg van Eekhout
Read by Anna Eley
Flash fiction. Dark, very dark, but oh so great.
When We Went to See the End of the World by Robert Silverberg
Read by J.C. Hutchins
A bit dated, written decades ago. A vision of the future that had me laughing for odd reasons.
Save Me Plz by David Barr Kirtley
Read by Mur Lafferty
A world where monsters are commonplace, people carry swords, but knights and pirates never existed. Fun!
Off White Lies by Jeffrey R. DeRego
Read by Scott Sigler
Just one of the many Union Dues superhero stories by Mr. DeRego that ran on EP. I like most of them to some extent, but this one has some actual action.