BOOK REVIEW: Chasing the Phoenix by Michael Swanwick

written by David Steffen

Chasing the Phoenix is a science fiction novel by Michael Swanwick, published by Tor Books earlier this month.

The book stars Swanwick’s recurring characters, the con men Darger and Surplus.  As the story begins, Surplus is journeying through a future China with the Darger’s corpse carried on the back of a yak, seeking the services of the legendary healer the Infallible Physician to raise Darger from the dead.  Once that’s happened (it happens early enough in the book that I don’t think that counts as a spoiler).   Considering greed a virtue, the con men are always looking for ways to profit from their circumstances.  Surplus, who is an anthropomorphic dog, has used his appearance to his advantage by pretending to be an immortal, and with Surplus rising from the dead they have soon gained the attention of powerful people involved in a brewing civil war.  Even among one side of the war, there are always those jockeying for power and willing to kill to get their way, and soon the two con men are working all sides just to stay alive.

Since Darger and Surplus are recurring characters, of both novels and short stories, a valid question would be: Can this book be read out of order with the rest?  Yes, you can.  This was my first Darger and Surplus story, though I was familiar with the characters from short nonfiction segments that had featured on the StarShipSofa podcast on the subject of the art of confidence tricks.  My only prior knowledge was that they were con men, and that’s obvious very early in this novel.  I had no trouble picking it up.  I expect that there are probably some references and in-jokes about previous books, but nothing that interfered with my understanding.

I imagine that some people enjoy going on adventures with these con men characters–presumably they are recurring characters because books about them sell.  Honestly, I just found them irritating.  Not because of their professions, necessarily–their ethics are certainly different than mine, but I have related to such characters before.  I just found them… I don’t know what word I’m looking for… smarmy, perhaps?  I didn’t really care what happened to them, and if the book had ended with them both dying I wouldn’t have really minded.  I don’t know if this book is representative of them or not, but I probably won’t try to read any more Darger or Surplus stories unless I hear this one wasn’t representative.

I did read through the whole book.  I was curious how it would turn out.  There were some interesting challenges that the pair faced, varying from war strategies, to battling against future technology, to interpersonal challenges that they were coerced to help resolve.  The challenges and the stakes rise throughout the book as they con men play people off of each other and the war goes on.  A few times in the book the characters they seem to be in an impossible situation and those were the parts I was most interested in, to see how these two could turn things around… but more often than I thought was reasonable things would just take a turn of circumstance and save them at the last moment.  In the end there turned out to be some explanation for this, but I felt like it was a cheat and took the enjoyment out of the part that I really wanted to see–these two actually facing a real challenge.  Apart from those apparently unsolvable challenges, they breeze through the rest of the book, never stymied by anything.  Although the stakes go up and up, they just cut through the challenges like butter.

So, this book is clearly not for me.  I didn’t like the protagonists and I thought the book was too easy for them.  I imagine that fans of Darger and Surplus stories might like it, though I don’t know if this story is representative.  Swanwick is a good writer, and I’ll happily pick up other works by him that star different characters.

 

Interview: Ann Leckie

LeckiePhoto-160x240Ann Leckie‘s Ancillary Justice swept the awards. (See the list below.) The sequel, Ancillary Sword, is due in October 2014. The third novel in the trilogy will be titled Ancillary Mercy. Lecke is a Clarion West graduate, former VP of SFWA, founder of GigaNotoSaurus, and former slush editor for Podcastle. Her short fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Subterranean Magazine.

CARL SLAUGHTER: YOU’RE A CLARION GRADUATE. WHAT DID YOU LEARN AT CLARION THAT MADE A CRUCIAL DIFFERENCE IN YOUR WRITING CAREER?

ANN LECKIE: I learned a *lot* at Clarion West. It would have been difficult not to. But I think there were two things that made the biggest difference.

One was something that, when I say it, maybe sounds kind of trivial. But it was so important. Which was, that before I went, I knew that I wanted to write, and I had been writing–of course, you have to send a sample of your fiction with your application. And I had written two novels (now trunked, fortunately) and several short stories, and had been submitting those short stories. But I was hesitant to say, “I’m a writer.” I would, when asked, kind of hedge. “I’m trying to write.”

After six weeks of being with people who took my work seriously, who all assumed that of *course* I was a writer, I went home feeling like I could take my own work seriously now. Not that I was holding back, or not taking it seriously before. But the “gosh should I really be doing this, am I wasting my time, what if I’m not really a writer?” part of my internal critic was gone, which psychologically freed me up to push harder and be more confident in my work. This might not be a big deal for some folks, but it was really important to me.

The second thing is maybe also a bit odd. So, our week six instructor was Michael Swanwick. Who is awesome. I mean, he read every single story each of us had applied with and also every single story we’d turned in during the entire workshop, and gave us critiques on every one of them. This is an amazing commitment, an incredible gift to us. And he’s Michael freaking Swanwick, right? So when he critiqued the story I’d turned in for week six, he gave me all kinds of fabulous advice, much of it very specific, and I noted it all down and was all set to revise the story according to his advice. Because, seriously, it was, no question, excellent advice. How could it not be?

But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that it was excellent advice for an entirely different story. Not the story I’d written, but the story he’d perceived in the shambles that was my first draft. And I said to myself, “Self, you can’t actually take any of that advice. Instead, you need to rewrite the story in such a way that Michael Swanwick would not have misread it.”

That story turned out to be my first genre sale, my first pro sale, and my first appearance in a Years Best anthology. And the vitally important lesson Michael Swanwick taught me was that sometimes you ought to ignore even the very best advice. Even if it comes from Michael Swanwick. Maybe that sounds trivial, too. But anyone who’s been faced with several, possibly contradictory critiques of a story will probably know how incredibly useful that knowledge is.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: FROM THE FIRST DRAFT OF ANCILLARY JUSTICE AS A SHORT STORY UNTIL YOU SOLD THE NOVEL MANUSCRIPT WAS, WHAT, 10 YEARS? WERE THERE TIMES DURING THAT DECADE WHEN YOU THOUGHT YOU’D NEVER FINISH THE BOOK OR THOUGHT IT WOULD NEVER BE GOOD ENOUGH TO SELL?

ANN LECKIE: Oh, merciful Unconquered Sun, yes. Pretty much the entire time I was working on it, plus the entire time I was querying agents. I’ve come to think of that as the normal emotional background of writing, actually.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: YOU WERE WORKING ON THE MANUSCRIPT WHILE YOU HAD YOUNG CHILDREN IN THE HOUSE. HOW DID YOU MANAGE BOTH AT THE SAME TIME?

ANN LECKIE: With some difficulty. At first, I would write in the few hours a day that my toddler napped, while my older child was at school. When he stopped napping, I signed him up for morning nursery school and wrote then. Once both kids were in school full time it got easier, though I’d made my life a bit more complicated by taking a job as a lunch lady. I wasn’t able to finish Ancillary Justice, though, until I quit that job and had school hours to myself. It would have been a zillion times harder if I’d had a full-time day job to handle. I’ve been really, really lucky.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: ANCILLARY JUSTICE SWEPT THE AWARDS. ANY IDEA WHAT THE APPEAL OF THE STORY IS THAT MADE IT SO POPULAR?

ANN LECKIE: I honestly don’t. Well, I did sit down to write a kind of story that I thought I’d enjoy reading. I threw in things that appealed to me–heck, I crowbarred them in. I was working the whole time with the assumption that it would never sell so I might as well please myself. I guess there are other people out there who like the same kinds of things I do!

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: YOU HAVEN’T DONE SHORT STORIES IN A WHILE. TOO BUSY WITH NOVELS?

ANN LECKIE: Pretty much, yes! Though I’d like to do more short fiction some time.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: WHAT WAS YOUR INVOLVEMENT WITH GIGANOTOSAURUS AND WHAT WERE THE HIGHLIGHTS OF YOUR TIME THERE? WHAT ABOUT YOUR ROLE AT POD CASTLE?

ANN LECKIE: I started GigaNotoSaurus because I’d inherited a bit of money, and I felt that there weren’t enough places publishing longer fiction. I’ve been really pleased with how it’s turned out: in its first year, two stories I published were nominated for Nebulas, and another one the next year. And I published some amazing work by amazing writers, like Zen Cho’s “House of Aunts” or Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s “Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon.” Or Yoon Ha Lee’s “The Winged City.” Or…I could go on.

Podcastle–when Rachel Swirsky became editor of Podcastle (that was before PC had even started running) she asked me if I’d like to read slush for her. And I said yes, because it seemed like it would be fun. And it was! I also did some episode intros, and narrated some stories, which was also great fun. When Rachel was ready to step down, she asked me if I was interested in editing, but I was already setting up GNS, and felt two editing gigs would be too much. So I stayed on slushing for Anna and Dave when they took over.

I enjoyed it very much, but I’ve stepped down as slusher there, and turned over my GNS editing duties to Rashida J Smith, because noveling right now is taking up a lot of brain space.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: WHAT PERSPECTIVE DID YOU GAIN DURING YOUR TIME AS SECRETARY OF SFWA?

ANN LECKIE: There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes at a volunteer organization. Orgs like SFWA continue to exist and function because of the hard work of folks who actually have lots of other things to attend to, and they spend their free time doing that hard work. And it’s easy for members to think of the Board (or whatever the org equivalent is) as “them” to our “us” but really “they” are us to begin with. I’ve come to be a bit more patient with how slow some organizational decisions are, and how easy it is to think a particular issue or procedure is just a matter of immediately doing one particular thing, when really it’s more difficult and complicated than that, for reasons that aren’t necessarily visible to me.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: GOT ANY ADVICE TO ASPIRING SPECULATIVE FICTION WRITERS?

ANN LECKIE: Yes! Don’t give up. Be willing to take criticism, be willing to reconsider what you’re doing, but once you’ve decided on what you’re doing, do that. Don’t worry about what someone told you editors want or don’t want, don’t worry about whether your work is marketable, don’t worry about lists of “rules” that tell you not to use second person or never to use adverbs or whatever. Just do it, and do it as awesomely as you can at that particular time in your life, and trust the universe for the rest. And when it’s done, send it out and try to forget about it, and start working on the next thing. And speaking as a former slusher–when you submit, always read and follow the guidelines!

 

Ancillary Justice won the following awards:

2014 Hugo Award for Best Novel
Golden Tentacle for best debut novel of 2013.
Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction novel of the year.
British Science Fiction Association BSFA Award for Best Novel of 2013.
Nebula Award for Best Novel.
Locus Award for Best First Novel.

The novel was also nominated for the following awards:

Shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award.
Tiptree Award Honor List for 2013.
Finalist for the 2013 Compton Crook Award.

 

Carl_eagle

 

Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Interview: Michael Swanwick

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

swanwick 3

CARL SLAUGHTER: Common misconceptions aspiring writers have about crafting a marketable story and how to deliver ourselves from those misconceptions?

MICHAEL SWANWICK: The idea that there’s some kind of secret handshake involved in getting published. The idea that you have to trick an editor into buying your story. The idea that if you write in imitation of some successful writer’s work, his or her fans will flock to you. The idea that there’s a new movement or school you can hop aboard like a train that will take you straight to the top.

You deliver yourself from these by writing something good enough that an editor buys it and publishes it. When the book or magazine finally comes out and you hold that glorious, professionally edited and printed item in your hands, you will realize that you earned this moments. No tricks, no stunts, no politics. Just good writing. By you. That’s a terrific feeling.

 

Common manuscript mistakes aspiring writers make and how to recognize and correct these mistakes?

The very commonest is to open a story by “setting the scene” or “establishing mood” or giving background information that the reader is expected to memorize in order to understand the story to come. On those rare occasions I teach writing, I begin by going over the student submission stories and crossing out everything that should be cut before the story actually begins. Finally, on page two or five or eight, I’ll draw a line and write: START HERE.

This can be prevented by making sure you start at the beginning of the action. Or, better yet, in media res.

The least obvious common mistake, however, is not making sure your first and last pages are compelling and crisply written. I’ve watched editors reading slush back in the days when the slush pile was a physical heap of paper, and they would read the first page of a typescript and then flip to the last page. On the basis of that cursory glimpse, they would then put almost every submission in the reject pile and one or two stories aside to be read all the way through. “When I was starting out, I thought that was terrible and swore I’d read every story from beginning to end,” an editor told me once. “But I found out fast that you only need to read the opening and closing to know if there’s any chance the story will be good.”

 

tales of old earthIs there such a thing as style rules (see below) or is that conventional wisdom / dogmatism? Shouldn’t the story determine the style rather than vice versa? “Yeah, but famous author X breaks the rules all the time and the editors don’t challenge him on it.”

(Is show inherently better than tell, is activity inherently better than dialog? Are activity and dialog inherently better than narrative, are first, second, or third person inherently better than the other two? Is changing the POV in the middle of the sentence inherently confusing? Do you have to open with the most dramatic scene and then rewind? Do you have to list the contents of a room or describe a character’s physique or clothing? Does the story have to be organized like a 3 act play? Are dream sequences and info dumps inherently weak tools?)

Write as best you can and as simply as you can. That is the whole of the law. Sometimes a story can only be told in an extremely ornate or flashy manner. In those cases, it should be told in as simple an extremely ornate or flashy manner as possible.

Editors will let you get away with anything you can make work. When they challenge you on matters of style, they’re saying that you haven’t made it work and that the style is getting in the way of the reader’s comprehension.

Addressing your examples: Showing is usually better than telling, but not always. Action is usually better but dialog reads faster, so you can use the distinction to speed up or slow down the story as needed. Narrative can work brilliantly but if it’s just synoptic, it’s going to be boring. Third person past tense is what readers are most comfortable with, so you should only move away from it when you have a compelling reason to do so. In short fiction, you should have only one point of view, unless you have a compelling reason for more. The only POV shifts within a single sentence I can recall reading were in Finnegan’s Wake, which is not an easy book to read but one that rewards the extraordinary investment it asks of the reader. Flashbacks, particularly flashbacks occurring immediately after the opening of a story, are almost always a bad idea. A room or scene can be described in two perfectly-chosen details (in John Cheever’s notebooks, he recounted sitting in a friend’s living room while the man chained smoked and talked about his impending divorce, trying to think of the two details that would pin the scene; he kept looking down at the ashtray, overflowing with cigarette butts, and out the picture window at an achingly blue sky, back and forth from one to the other). Unless the story is about a character’s appearance or clothing, they can be dealt with in three or four details, tops (Marilyn Monroe: blonde, zaftig, a birthmark to one side of her lipsticked mouth). I’ve never used the three act play as a model for any of my fiction. Dreams are only rarely used well in fiction. Info dumps are to be avoided if it can be done efficiently, but sometimes a well-placed info dump saves you three or four pages of dancing about the subject and in those cases it should be embraced.

There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all pantyhose. Almost every rule of thumb has exceptions. But as a rule of thumb, the exceptions are harder to write well.

 

Use an outline and character profiles or wing it?

Whichever works for you. There are many kinds of writers, some of whom cannot begin writing until they know every twist and turn of the plot and others whose creative processes shut down the instant they know how a story ends, with the vast majority of us existing somewhere in between. The thing is that there is not one single skill which we can call “writing”; there’s a large family of related skills which result in superficially similar end-products. What works for one writer will stop another one dead.

 

Strategies for plotting swanwick 4and developing characters and reinforcing themes?

I can honestly say that I’ve never given a moment’s thought to themes, much less reinforcing them. Here’s an insight into plotting, though: As a general rule, a story requires at least three characters. With only two, the conflict ends with the protagonist either winning or losing. As fiction, this is about as interesting as tug-of-war. With two other characters pulling her in different directions, however, she ends up being pulled in a new and, one hopes, interesting direction.

Some writers base characters on real people and those times I’ve done this, it worked well. Mostly, I hold up my characters against real people to see if they’re complex enough. When I was writing The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, I taped a picture of the Sex Pistols to my monitor as a reminder that the monsters in my book should be at least as scary as them.

 

To revise or not to revise, that is the question.

There comes a moment when putting more work into the story just makes it worse. Stop just before you reach that point.

 

To workshop or not to workshop, that is the question.

Pretty much all unpublished writers workshop their fiction, so there’s no point to arguing against it. At the very least, it provides reassurance that you really are a writer and that you really are doing something to make progress at a time in your career when you need those reassurances most.

Keep in mind, though, that a workshop is only as good as its component members. That not all advice is good. That over time workshops tend to impose a house style on their participants. That they favor those who write quickly and in a conventional voice over those who are painstaking and quirkily original. That if their advice doesn’t make your story any better, the problem may not necessarily lie in you.

 

 

 

243859

To agent or not to agent, that is the question.

When you have a completed novel that has a chance of being published, you need a good agent. For some reason, publishing houses keep putting unreasonable clauses in their contracts which an agent knows how to remove. (But don’t count on your agent to have read the contract. Educate yourself, read before signing, and if anything looks puzzling get on the phone right away. Your agent should know if a clause is standard or not.) Also, unagented writers almost invariably get paid less for their work. The exceptions are those who know the industry so well they can do the negotiations on their own.

Notice, however, that I specified that the agent be good. Anyone can be an agent; there is no accrediting agency. And a bad agent can do horrible things to your career. Luckily, agents aren’t interested in taking you on before you’ve got a finished book to offer, so you have time to do research. Use this time wisely.

 

To self publish or not to self publish, that is the question.

Are you good at marketing? Do you have a business plan? Do you have a clear idea of how you’re going to let people know your work exists? Have you worked out how many units you have to move to move to cover your costs? Are your numbers realistic or just wishful thinking?

Everything depends on your situation. A conventionally published writer with a decent following and enough free time to do it right can put his or her out of print back list to work and earn†well, not enough to live on, but a pleasant little supplemental income. Somebody who’s really good at the business end, is willing to work hard, and can write at least three novels a year can make a career of it. Somebody who’s been published conventionally and experienced push-back (you only get so many chances before the publishing world gives up on you) can make a comeback attempt by self publishing and sometimes it will work.

Writing is a tough business. Publishing is a tough business. Self publishing is a combination of the two. If you’re going to do it, put in the research before you spend a penny. Writer Beware is a good place to begin.

 

 

10170242To ebook or not to ebook, that is the question.

If you’re self publishing, you pretty much have to go with ebooks. If you’re not, go with whatever deal is best , but make sure the contract includes a clause reverting e-rights when payments to you go below a clearly defined level.

 

To write fan fiction or not to write fan fiction, that is the question.

When my son was a teenager, he and a friend spent a summer writing a fanfic mashup of two incompatible gaming worlds, and for a year they received more fan letters than I did. So far as I can tell, there was no downside. Except for the part about not getting any money for it and not having a physical book to put on the shelf.

 

To join the SFWA or not to join, that is the question.

I’ve been a member for over thirty years, so obviously I believe in the value of the organization for the community of genre writers. If you’re expecting individual career benefits rather than the satisfaction of promoting the common good, it’s probably not going to do much for you. The social element, the sense of community, and the SFWA Directory full of addresses for writers you may have cause to contact are all nice. But SFWA’s chief function is to encourage a set of conditions within publishing such that someday you won’t ever need to call upon their help.

Writer Beware is a SFWA site, incidentally, and it’s available free to everyone.

 

243855True or false: The system is rigged against the rookie and in favor of the veteran.

Not true, and in the case of short fiction extremely false. Most successful writers abandon short fiction after they make a name for themselves and so the magazines are always on the lookout for new writers. Also, editors take pride in the talents they’ve discovered.

Publishers will always prefer a new Stephen King novel over something by a complete unknown. But they also like being able to snap up The Next Stephen King at bargain rates.

 

True or false: An editor should have enough editorial instinct to recognize an awesome premise based on a synopsis and commission a novel rather than defer judgment until reading the entire manuscript.

Times are changing. For most of my career, I was an oddity because I finished my novels before trying to sell them. Everybody else sold by fragment-and-outline. (The sample chapters were required so the editor could get a sense as to whether you could write commercially viable prose.) More and more now, I hear, editors are willing to look at the fragment-and-outline but requiring a full novel before making a final decision. This has nothing to do with their editorial instincts, and everything to do with in-house policies set by their corporate masters.

 

An editor asks for a change in the story. It’s a seemingly small change, but it fundamentally alters the story. Stand your ground? Explain your vision for the story and ask the editor to yield? Politely withdraw the manuscript?

Polite is always good. Whether you politely stand your ground, politely ask the editor to yield, or politely withdraw the story depends on your honest opinion of what’s at stake.

First, however, take a deep breath and try to be objective. It’s hard to be reasonable about your own work and God knows, every time I go over a copy-edited novel, I find myself defending every quirk of phrasing and oddly-placed comma with all the emotion of a mother bear defending her cubs. But it’s important to think of the proposed change not as a moral challenge but as a well-intended suggestion that might conceivably improve the story.

Whatever you choose to do, remember that the editor hasn’t requested the change out of malice but from the simple (possibly misplaced) belief that it will improve the story. So play nice. Remember that you may find yourself working with this human being again.

 

I’ve interviewed more than one author who sold their first novel without getting even one short fiction byline in the magazines. Are they the exception or is this the new order of things?

It’s always been possible, and reasonably common as well, to sell a novel without selling short fiction first. The advantage of making a name in short fiction first is that it creates a following for your fiction and some name recognition for you. But not all writers are good at both lengths. Go with your strength.

 

Michael_Swanwick 6You described Gardner Dozois as a manuscript doctor genius. What exactly did he do to fix a manuscript?

One very small example: When he read the typescript for “The Feast of Saint Janis,” he said to me, “Congratulations, Michael. You’re the first person ever to write a story about rock and roll without once using the word ‘fuck.'” I immediately thought: Oh drat, and rewrote the dialogue.

Gardner has an uncanny ability to spot whatever it is that makes a story not work , whether it’s too wordy, or needs expansion, or requires a new character or rethinking an existing one. What makes him a great story doctor is that in doing so he doesn’t impose his own style or preferences upon the work. He looks at what the story itself wants to be and what you want to accomplish with it, and advises accordingly.

Most importantly, he’s a minimalist. He restricts his advice to those parts of the story that aren’t working. He doesn’t try to improve what’s already functioning.

Early in my career, I wrote the first chapter of a novel that was going to be about a parallel-worlds traveling con man, most of which was taken up by a clever con game I’d invented. Two pages into the second chapter, I decided that I didn’t like the protagonist or the premise and gave up on it, but not before leaving a chapter with Gardner. One day I dropped in on him and said, “What’s new?”

“Wait a second,” he said, and finished typing a page. Then he trued up a typescript, handed it to me, and said, “You’ve just finished a story.” And I had! He’d removed the first and last pages, made the story about time-traveling drug dealers, and changed it from the non-functioning opening of an abandoned novel into a witty and entertaining novelette. All the stuff in the middle was unchanged. “Snow Job” sold to High Times, was reprinted in Asimov’s, and taught me a lot about the extreme malleability of fiction.

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

 

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 Escape Pod 2013

written by David Steffen

Escape Pod, and the other Escape Artists casts had a bit of a crisis to overcome this year–they realized that although they had a great listenership, only 1% of the listeners donated, and it wasn’t enough to keep the publications afloat. The good news is that when they revealed this there was a strong reaction to add subscriptions–if you read this and you like the cast, consider adding a subscription.

They published 54 stories in 2013, and they are better than ever. Norm Sherman’s still in the editor’s chair.

Let me tell you, trying to decide which of the top two should be #1 was grueling.

The List

1. Dead Merchandise by Ferrett Steinmetz
In a future where advertising has gone feral, driving people to suicide or ruinous self-neglect, and civilization has fallen apart, one woman tries to get to their broadcast dome and take it down for the good of the world. This story is scary as hell in its plausibility. The only thing missing is some mind-reading technology. I don’t know how Ferrett did it, but he’s done it again, so often writing just amazingly emotional stories with original neat ideas at their core. I won’t post anything spoilery in this article, but I did go on at length about why I loved the story in spoilery fashion on their forum.

2. They Go Bump by David Barr Kirtley
I could easily call this a tie for #1. We are fighting a war against aliens who can make themselves invisible. We have just developed the technology to cloak our own soldiers, and are sending a squad of cloaked soldiers across a wasteland from base to base where invisible aliens are believed to reside, to test out the tech. What I really love about this story is how many different interpretations can be taken from it, because the lack of visual confirmation of anything throws so many things into doubt. Again I went on at length in spoilery fashion on their forum.

3. The Shunned Trailer by Esther Freisner
Fair warning, I don’t think there’s a speck of science fiction in this story. It would’ve been a perfect fit for Drabblecast, a quite fun parody of Lovecraft that never takes itself seriously. It operates by the tried and true Lovecraft plot of a man being stranded and coming across a cult of Cthulhu. But it’s just over the top weird and fun, and read perfectly by Norm Sherman.

4. Nutshell by Jeffrey Wikstrom
A ship is traveling through the space between stars controlled by an AI and filled with cryogenically frozen passengers who weren’t supposed to remember anything. They do, however, and they have control over their environment. The AI comes to visit them from time to time to try to work on details of the trip and colonization planning. Up to now this all sounds like a familiar SF story, but this story took a slant on it I hadn’t seen and added some great humor and events. Great stuff.

5. The Future is Set by C.L. Perria
Why would a supervillain who can see the future try to take over the world in a way that is doomed to fail? Read and find out.

 

Honorable Mentions

The Very Pulse of the Machine by Michael Swanwick

Freia in the Sunlight by Gregory Norman Bossert

Arena by Fredric Brown