The Best of Cast of Wonders 2019

written by David Steffen

Cast of Wonders is the YA branch of the Escape Artists podcasts, edited by Marguerite Kenner and Katherine Inskip, covering all speculative genres and aiming to appeal to YA audiences.  Marguerite Kenner announced at the end of the last episode of the year that that was the last episode she was editing before stepping down. She will be missed!

This year’s offerings included their usual staff pick re-airing of stories from last year (which are not considered for the list since they were already considered for a previous list), and stories for their Banned Books Week theme, for a total of about 43 stories considered for the list.

Short Stories that are Hugo and Nebula eligible for the year are marked with an asterisk (*).

The List

1. “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” (Part 1 and Part 2) by Tina Connolly, narrated by Alethea Kontis
This is one of my favorite stories in years. The layers! Based around confections that draw you back into immersive flashbacks that evoke a particular feeling based on the ingredients of the confection.

2. “Blame it on the Bees” by Rachel Menard, narrated by Tina Connolly*
A teen grieving over her dead friend discovers that her friend’s soul has become housed in a flower.

3. “Common Grounds and Various Teas” by Sherin Nicole, narrated by Jesenia Pineda*
A family that can harness the power of stories, and finding your own way in a family tradition.

4. “A Singular Event in the Fourth Dimension” by Andrea M. Pawley, narrated by Dani Daly
Tale from an android child’s point of view, about how she fits in with her family, and how roles change as the family changes.

5. “Why I Spared the One Brave Soul Between Me and My Undead Army” by Setsu Uzume, narrated by Katherine Inskip*
From the point of view of a necromancer overlord, and the one she spares, and what comes of it

Honorable Mentions

“An Evil Opportunity Employer” by Lawrence Watt-Evans, narrated by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

STORY ANALYSIS: “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly

written by David Steffen

I am trying out a new feature that I might run occasionally here, where I pick a story that I particularly liked, and pick it apart to try to figure out why it worked so well. For this first entry, I’ll be talking about “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly, first published in Tor.com, and nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo award.

You can read it at Tor.com, or you can hear an audio adaptation in Cast of Wonders.

I’m not going to avoid SPOILERS after this paragraph, but in this paragraph, I will give a very brief overview. The story is about a woman who worked with her husband in their bakery until the government was overthrown, at which point he was taken as the private baker by the new monarch, the Traitor King, because he has developed the skill in making special pastries that evoke strong memories that suit a particular mood. The main story takes place at a banquet with the monarch, prepared by her husband, where she is the food taster to ensure that the food is not poisoned.

The most interesting thing about this story is the way that it uses the flashbacks that are evoked by the pastries. The power of the flashbacks is threefold:
1. The first is the typical power of flashback, to give character backstory, to help you understand character motivations. Throughout the story you see when she first met her husband, you find out about what happened to her sister, about the rise of the tyrant, and about the development of her husband’s skills.
2. The second is to develop an understanding of the memory-pastries. Each pastry eaten at the banquet has a different flavor, like the first section “Rosemary Crostini of Delightfully Misspent Youth”, each flashback is titled by the pastry that describes the type of memory that it evokes, and you find out about what kinds of pastries Saffron recommends to different customers to what reason.
3. During the main timeline of the story, Saffron and her husband have been separated for quite a while, ever since her husband was taken to be the pastry chef of the Traitor King, preparing banquets for the kings and his nobles. They were very close, and know each other very well, and they worked very closely together every day in the bakery. Saffron volunteered as the taste tester because it was the way she could get the closest to him, and the Traitor King took the opportunity because he trusted that her husband wouldn’t poison her or torture her with more cruel desserts. But now the only route of communication between them is the desserts themselves. He knows her well enough to have a pretty good idea what particular desserts will evoke what memories for her, so they are hints, and a warning of what to come. He has been doing research while imprisoned, and she doesn’t know what new desserts he’s developed. She hopes that he will do something with his special desserts but she doesn’t know what he can do that would do the job, especially since she knows he wouldn’t kill or torture her.

I have never seen flashbacks that do so many things at once; it is an incredible idea, and wonderfully executed. The descriptions of flavor on top of it made my mouth water, I would absolutely love to visit this bakery if it were a real place.

I also appreciated seeing the very different but very real strengths of the characters. Her husband’s strength is obvious, his special pastries that form the basis of the story. But her role in the bakery was no less important. She learned to read people, to help decide how to recommend what pastry would suit them the best. Everyone loves the ones that give you a sweet memory, but the regretful pastries have their uses, and others. And no occupation could have suited her better for her present circumstances–before she became the taster she didn’t have much experience at dissembling, but here she is surrounded by those she has to mislead, and everything here depends not only her husband’s pastries but on her ability to be able to keep it to herself when the time comes for her husband’s plan to come to fruition.

And the finale is perfect. When it finally comes to the finale, as she takes it and relives all of the times when she hurt someone else, but feeling the pain for herself, they can tell from her face that it was unpleasant, but the Traitor King enjoys watching the other nobles squirm taking the less pleasant ones, and even when she admits a bit of what it is, he thinks that his own remorseless nature means that he will enjoy it. But not only does he feel the pain of reliving these memories, because he has been cruel to so many people, it leaves him incapacitated long enough for his throne to be taken, and then wakes up in a cell, with the only food available to him another of the same pastry. Even in the end, as she watches this, she is self-aware enough to know that if she took another bite of that kind of pastry she would relive that moment.

I can see why this story got its nominations. Tina Connolly is an incredible author.

The Best of Cast of Wonders 2018

written by David Steffen

Cast of Wonders is the YA branch of the Escape Artists podcasts, edited by Marguerite Kenner, covering all speculative genres and aiming to appeal to YA audiences. 

This year’s offerings included their usual staff pick re-airing of stories from last year, as well as one story that was split into seven episodes, for a total of about 45 stories.

Short Stories that are award-eligible for 2018 are marked with an asterisk (*).

The List

1.“All Systems Go” by Gerri Leen
As told by intelligent cleaner bots at an airport.

2.“The Death Knight, the Dragon, and the Damsel” by Melion Traverse*
Recruited as a squire by an undead night, Cori and the knight set out to rescue a damsel from a dragon and get more than they bargained for.

3.“Secrets and Things We Don’t Say Out Loud” by José Pablo Iriarte*
A boy has the ability to find out all of everyone’s secrets with just a touch, but it’s a two-way connection, and he is fleeing with the woman who helped him escape from a lab.

4.“Ten Things Sunil and I Forgot to Prepare For, When We Prepared for the Apocalypse” by Shane Halbach
It is exactly what it sounds like, I like list stories.

5.“Skinned” by Amanda Helms*
Ransacking a warehouse with an android guardian in a post-apocalyptic setting to find skin repair kits to fix the guardian’s rusty skin.

Honorable Mentions

“Sidekicks Wanted” by Laura Johnson

“And Flights of Skuhwiggle” by Charles Lee McDaniel*




Award Recommendations 2018

written by David Steffen

Here are some recommendations for selected Hugo and Nebula categories. (Note that I’ve listed them in alphabetical order, rather than order of preference, and have listed more than the 5 ballot options when possible). I don’t think I’ve read any eligible novels this year, so that category is not represented.

Best Novella

“Umbernight” by Carolyn Ives Gillman, in Clarkesworld Magazine

Best Novelette

“A Love Story Written On Water” by Ashok K. Banker, in Lightspeed Magazine

“A World To Die For” by Tobias S. Buckell, in Clarkesworld Magazine

“The Last To Matter” by Adam-Troy Castro, in Lightspeed Magazine

“Dead Air” by Nino Cipri, in Nightmare Magazine

“Hapthorn’s Last Case” by Matthew Hughes, in Lightspeed Magazine

“The Fortunate Death of Jonathan Sandelson” by Margaret Killjoy, in Strange Horizons

“To Fly Like a Fallen Angel” by Qi Yue, translated by Elizabeth Hanlon, in Clarkesworld Magazine

“House of Small Spiders” by Weston Ochse, in Nightmare Magazine

“Thirty-Three Percent Joe” by Suzanne Palmer, in Clarkesworld Magazine

“Master Zhao: An Ordinary Time Traveler” by Zhang Ran, translated by Andy Dudak

Best Short Story

“After Midnight at the ZapStop” by Matthew Claxton, in Escape Pod

A Scrimshaw of Smeerps” by Shannon Fay, in Toasted Cake

“Variations on a Theme From Turandot by Ada Hoffman, in Strange Horizons

“Secrets and Things We Don’t Say Out Loud” by José Pablo Iriarte, in Cast of Wonders

“Octo-Heist in Progress” by Rich Larson, in Clarkesworld Magazine

“Hosting the Solstice” by Tim Pratt, in PodCastle

“Marshmallows” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires, in Clarkesworld Magazine

“The Death Knight, the Dragon, and the Damsel” by Melion Traverse, in Cast of Wonders

“Some Personal Arguments in Support of the BetterYou (Based on Early Interactions)” by Debbie Urbanski, in Strange Horizons

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form / Ray Bradbury Award

Ant-Man and the Wasp

The Incredibles 2

Kevin (Probably) Saves the World

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, for Nintendo Switch

A Wrinkle In Time

The Best of Cast of Wonders 2016

written by David Steffen

This has been a big year of change for Cast of Wonders, the young adult podcast edited by Marguerite Kenner.  Starting at the beginning of 2016, Cast of Wonders joined the Escape Artists family of podcasts as their fourth podcast.  And, as part of this change, they greatly increased their writer pay rates from just a few pounds to professional rates for original stories, which I believe should’ve started the timer for becoming a SFWA-qualifying market.

This year there have been some technical issues with the feed that have resulted in long stretches between episodes.  What’s more confusing is that, to compensate for these issues, several episodes have been renumbered, and a bunch of episodes were added late in the year but with earlier dates posted on them.  I don’t say all this to complain but that… I’m not 100% sure that I have actually heard all of the episodes this year, because the changed dates and changed episode numbers have made a mess of the feed.  I tried my best!

All of the stories on this list are eligible for Hugos and Nebulas this year. (that’s why they’re all marked with asterisks.

Cast of Wonders published 30 stories in 2016.

The List

 

1. “The Jungle Between” by Holly Schofield*
Story with dual points of view–of human scientists and dinosaur-like aliens they are studying, centered around their perceptions of the other.

2. “This Story Begins With You” by Rachael K. Jones*
Stories with power to transform everything around them.

3. “The Authorized Biography” (part 1 and part 2) by Michael G. Ryan*
What if you found a  book that gave your complete biography, including what hasn’t happened yet?

4. “The Four Stewpots” by DK Thompson*
Speculative Yelp review!

5. “Welcome to Willoughby’s” by Michael Reid*
Space taxidermy!

 

 

Using SF Podcasts to teach Business and Economics

written by Moritz Botts

Who wouldn’t have liked to have studied their university subject using their favorite science fiction or fantasy stories? I missed a crossover between my favorite genre fiction and the subject he was studying, so when I became a PhD student and lecturer at a German university, I decided to take matters into my own hands and asked my professor if I could teach a business course using Escape Pod as the main source. I might have understated the fact that Escape Pod is a science fiction podcast thoughâ€

The first question of course is, whether science fiction or fantasy stories lend themselves to the subject that is taught. Accounting would be a difficult subject to teach with a Robert E. Heinlein story, and human anatomy courses should probably stick to the regular, human based textbooks. There are certainly fields which are much more open to genre fiction, like anthropology, which Julianna Beaudoin of Western University in London, Canada, teaches via science fiction and fantasy classics. Authors like Ursula K. LeGuin, a daughter of anthropologists, immediately come to mind in this field. Ram Mudambi of Temple University, PA, uses the fantasy novel The Empire of the Zon as a source for his undergrad international business classes. If a manager has to study foreign cultures and their ways of doing business, why not go for a totally foreign, a fantasy culture? I decided to not rely on my students’ motivation to read though, but rather thought that podcasts would be a solution that make it more likely that students could listen to the “required listening of the week” during their commute, while exercising, or while shopping. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that all podcasts offered by Escape Artists are available free of charge.

Before the course began, I asked myself a couple of questions: Were Escape Pod, Podcastle, or even Pseudopod, podcasts I have been following since 2010, suitable for a university course? Would the young generation of students be open to genre fiction? Could podcasts make it easier for students to follow the course? There was only one way to find out!

In the summer of 2014, the course “Business and Economics in Fiction Podcasts” was offered to undergraduate students of international business at a German public university. The university has a strong international focus, and more than 50% of the students who eventually signed up for this course were exchange students from the European Erasmus program, coming from countries such as Poland, Russia, Turkey, France, Italy, or Greece.

Students picked a podcast from a selection of science fiction and some fantasy podcasts, mostly from Escape Pod and Podcastle. I had preselected these podcasts to include some economics or business related topic, often following suggestions from Escape Artists’ forums. These included totally new takes on supply and demand with Nancy Kress’ “Nano comes to Clifford Falls” (EP 075), the meaning of value with Daniel Abraham’s “The Cambist and Lord Iron” (PC 051), or intercultural communication with David D. Levine’s “Tk’tk’tk” (EP 045). You can see the complete list of stories at the end of this article. In many cases, this meant near future stories with social criticism by authors such as Nancy Kress or Cory Doctorow. Even though students would usually be 21 years old or older, no Pseudopod stories were selected.

The course was offered as a “soft skills” course with credits but no grade, to make it easier to experiment a bit. A typical week would include two presentations by student groups and a section on different academic skills, such as presenting, citation, editing podcasts, or creating a wiki. Therefore, even if the idea of using the podcasts terribly backfired, the students would have still taken something useful with them.

The results of the course were somewhat mixed. On the one hand, all stories were suitable to be used as case studies in economics or business on an undergraduate level. One German student mentioned that he had been very skeptical about using science fiction stories at first, but when he listened to his story – Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Tamarisk Hunter” (EP 384) , he immediately “got it”. A group of Turkish students presented Tobias Buckell’s “Anakoinosis” and expressed a deep concern for the ethical issues discussed in the story. For me, it was initially a bit weird to hear my students present genre fiction authors and talk about the awards they got, but why should a story concerning aliens and spaceships be any weirder than a business case?

The lack of a grade for the course led to a couple of rather lackluster presentations though, and not all students would listen to the podcasts regularly. For future iterations of this course, incentives for a stronger engagement of the students should be given. Also, as the stories seem to “work” in an academic setting, grades could certainly be given, which should raise the quality of the students’ presentations.

To evaluate the course, I handed out a questionnaire during the last class. This survey is not really representative, because of the small class size. Nevertheless, there are a couple of trends that can be seen. Most students hadn’t really heard of podcasts before the start of the course. They usually listened to the course’s story on their computer while not doing anything else. There was only one native speaker of English in the course, and most students found it easier to follow the stories in a written format alongside the audio file.

About half of the students actually like science fiction stories. While most students only listened to a couple of the podcasts, they usually listened to more than one, the most popular being “Tk’tk’tk”.

I am sure that I will offer this course again in an upcoming semester. New and engaging Escape Pod (and Podcastle and Pseudopod) stories will certainly enhance the next course, so keep them coming!

 

Short stories included in the Curriculum

Week 1: From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled… (Michael Swanwick), Escape Pod
Week 2: Accounting for Dragons (Eric James Stone), Podcastle
Week 3: Nano Comes to Clifford Falls (Nancy Kress), Escape Pod
Week 3: The Tamarisk Hunter (Paolo Bacigalupi), Escape Pod
Week 4: Dragonomics (Lance Shonberg), Cast of Wonders
Week 4: The Cambist and Lord Iron (Daniel Abraham), Podcastle
Week 5: Anakoinosis (Tobias Buckell); Dunesteef
Week 5: Special Economics (Maureen F. McHugh), Clarkesworld
Week 6: Anda’s Game (Cores Doctorow), Podiobooks
Week 6: Patent Infringement (Nancy Kress), Escape Pod
Week 7: Just Do It (Heather Lindsley), Escape Pod
Week 7: Tk’tk’tk (David D. Levine), Escape Pod


MoritzBottsMoritz Botts is a research and teaching assistant at European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany. His research focuses on intercultural differences in management, while his teaching includes international management and innovation management. He is also an intercultural trainer and interested in innovative teaching methods with diverse media. He has written a horror short story in German published in an anthology and various academic articles. You can contact Moritz at botts@europa-uni.de

 

The Best of Cast of Wonders

written by David Steffen

I’ve been having some technical problems with my podcast listening, with my iPod crapping out of me all of a sudden just before WorldCon. After 6 weeks of falling behind on podcasts as I tried to keep up while listening to mp3 CDs instead. But now I’m back in business, and catching up quickly!

As with my previous Best Of podcast lists, I listened to all the episodes of Cast of Wonders, and have picked a few favorites, which I attempted to list in order of how much I liked them. Cast of Wonders calls itself a YA science fiction/fantasy podcast. Just because it’s YA doesn’t mean that it can’t be enjoyed by adults, as well as their young adult counterparts. I’ve always been a little fuzzy on the exact definition of YA, but if all-knowing Wikipedia’s explanation is accurate, I think that the differentiating factor might be that “YA literature shares the following fundamental elements of the fiction genre: character, plot, setting, theme, and style. However, theme and style are often subordinated to the more tangible elements of plot, setting, and character, which appeal more readily to younger readers.” That seems like a reasonable description. But there’s a lot of interesting, fun stuff here for folks of all ages.

Cast of Wonders produces an episode every week, though some stories are produced across multiple episodes. They’ve been around for a little more than a year, since July 2011, and by my count have produced about 44 stories in that time (often multiple episodes per story, occasionally multiple stories per episode). Cast of Wonders was founded by Barry Northern who also created Cast Macabre (I’ve also done a Best of Cast Macabre), and has producer, host, and narrator Graeme Dunlop.

As always, when I post a Best Of list, I disqualify my own stories from being in the list because I don’t think I can objectively judge my own work compared to the work of others. I will, however, shamelessly post a link in case people would like to listen to it. My story, The Quest Unusual , was produced by the podcast not too long ago. If you get a chance to read it, feel free to drop me a comment.

Now, on to the list!

1. I Kill Monsters by Nathaniel Lee
Nathaniel’s stories tend to hit the sweet spot for me. They tend to have fun ideas, good writing, interesting themes, compelling characters, and keep up enough of a pace that I don’t get bored. He also writes a child’s point of view in a way that seems particularly authentic to how I remember thinking as a child. This particular story is probably my favorite of his, and embodies all of these qualities. It tells of a boy who has taken it upon himself to root out the monsters in his own house, and starts to offer his monster hunting service for the other friends at his school.

2. Alienation (Part 1 and Part 2) by Katherine Sparrow
I love a well-written non-human point of view, and this one was so much fun! Shapeshifting aliens visit Earth and try to establish solidarity with the human race by taking on human forms (albeit very accelerated aging to speed up their life experience). The aliens are very funny, and Graeme Dunlop’s reading of the story made it so much better than the text, speaking with a strange cadence and uttering the alien’s strange “uh uh uh” laughter in a very entertaining way.

3. Same-Day Delivery by Desmond Warzel
A magic-user protagonist engages in black market business deals using his ability to teleport objects. Good stuff.

4. To Be True (Part 1 and Part 2) by Jess Hyslop
A rebellious new recruit of a religious order unexpectedly meets a holy warrior of the religion entering the grounds as she is sneaking out at night. He tells her that her temple has become corrupted and that he is there to cleanse the taint.

5. The Cruel Sister by James Breyfogle
A magical bard prepares to play a song to induce love which she intends to play at her sister’s wedding. She is experienced and talented, but she has quite a challenge ahead of her.

 

Honorable Mentions:

Damnation by Chris Stamp
I love reading unusual variations of mystical characters. Meeting Satan on an asteroid flying through space is one I hadn’t seen before!