The Best of StarShipSofa 2011

written by David Steffen

Well, StarShipSofa is still StarShipSofa. I said what I thought last year, and nothing much has changed, so I’ll just say “ditto”.Â

Forty-nine episodes this year, with (by my count) 58 stories.ÂÂ On to the list!

1. That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made by Eric James Stone
This story is great, starring a Mormon missionary in space, interacting with aliens who live in the heart of suns. So many great ideas, very well written, great stuff.

2. The Gurnard by Neal Asher
A very strange world with strange, altered evolution. Lots of good SF ideas and philosophy on a very bizarre alien world.

3. A Clown Escapes From Circus Town by Will McIntosh
Will has a knack for coming up with strange and compelling worlds. This one starts off with the event mentioned in the title, a clown escaping from Circus Town, but this is no ordinary circus, no ordinary world, and he soons discovers this as he explores and finds the other super-specialized villages through the land, and finds the nature of their shared existence.

4. Her Acres of Pastoral Playground? by Mike Allen
A very enjoyable cosmic horror story. Everything seems normal at first, but it soon becomes clear that there’s something wrong with this reality.

5. Frankenstein, Frankenstein by Will McIntosh
Hey, look, Will McIntosh again! Apparently I like Mr. McIntosh’s writing. this is very enjoyable, taking place around the turn of the 20th century including the World Fair where Nicola Tesla put on his great electric light display. An ordinary man with a bolt through his head has been passing himself off as Frankenstein’s monster in a roadside freak show. On his way to the World’s Fair, he runs into another freak show also claiming to have Frankenstein’s monster.

6. Raft of the Titanic by James Morrow
The first part of this story is really great. It starts off true to history, with the Titanic clashing with the iceberg and beginning the tragic sinking of the great cruise ship. From that point, it diverges greatly from history, and actually proposes a way in which most of the passengers could have survived. The plan actually seems plausible, though I don’t know the science well enough to confirm it. What starts out as a amazing alt-history beginning gradually stretches out and out and out and gets less and less plausible until it has morphed from a serious and compelling alt-hist to something more like a farce. If it had started as a farce, that would have been one thing, but the shift from one style of story to another made the whole thing much weaker than either part would’ve been. Still, this story is worth listening to even just for the first part.

The Best of StarShipSofa

written by David Steffen

And here I am again with the latest in my “Best of” podcast series. If you want to see my other “Best of”lists, just click on “The Best Of” category on the right side of your screen.

This time, the podcast is StarShipSofa, the first (and so far, only) podcast to win a Hugo award. StarShipSofa was launched in 2006 by Tony C. Smith and Ciaran O’Carroll. Back then, they were an entirely nonfiction podcast, talking about authors and other science fiction related topics. About a year later, Tony went solo and launched the Aural Delights podcast as a separate cast which has been running ever since. Most episodes of Aural Delights includes one main fiction, one flash fiction, one speculative fiction poem, and a couple fact articles. If you want to learn more about Tony, the editor and co-founder, you can check out our interview of him that ran in October.

Now, keep in mind that StarShipSofa is a rather different format from the other podcasts I’ve reviewed so far. The other ones have been entirely fiction-focused, generally with an intro, the story, and the outro. This one goes for a more well-rounded aesthetic, which is good or bad, depending on what you’re really looking for. For the purposes of this list, I am only going to include the main fiction, and only stories which I did not first hear somewhere else. Not that there’s anything wrong with more than one podcast running the same story, I just want these lists to be about suggesting new fiction, so I don’t want to list the same stories over and over.

If you’re trying to decide whether you want to undertake this podcast, I’ll list some pros and cons:

The Good and The Bad

The Good:

-Tony seems like a genuinely nice guy. I’d love to buy him a pint at a pub some time.

-What really makes this podcast special is the community dynamic. Tony does a good job putting it together, but there is a lot of effort by a wide cast of contributors, and it’s fun to hear the variety of voices as well as the variety of the content.

-StarShipSofa was the first to win a Hugo, hopefully making it easier for other fiction podcasts to win the award in the future.

-They have a lot of Big Name authors, like Michael Moorcock, Paolo Bacigalupi, even Tad Williams.

-There is a lot of great nonfiction, especially Amy H. Sturgis’s Genre History segments, J.J. Campanella’s Science News, and Matthew Sanborn Smith’s Fiction Crawler.

-They have a team of really great fiction narrators. My particular favorites are Amy H. Sturgis and Lawrence Santoro. Note that Lawrence has graced Diabolical Plots’ Best of Escape Pod list, where he made Eugie Foster’s #1 story even better with his fantastic narration.

The Bad:

-The self-promotion in episodes of this podcast is way beyond normal levels, enough so that I almost gave up the podcast at several points. StarShipSofa has launched three related books, which is great, but for months before and after they insert long fact articles about the making of (Often 30 minutes or more apiece), constant reminders to buy the book, even recordings of people opening packages containing the books when they arrive in the mail. They advertise themselves as a science fiction magazine, but this non-stop self-selling makes it hard to take them seriously. They only pull this off at all because of their audio format, which I feel undermines the trust that they should be nurturing in the audio medium for professional science fiction publications in audio. Imagine if Gordon Van Gelder of F&SF released an anthology, and spend 60 pages of every issue of his magazine advertising it, ad nauseum. It would not go over very well, and I don’t think we should cut SSS any more slack because it is audio.

-StarShipSofa doesn’t pay their contributors.

-Many of the episodes are really, really long. This is understandable, considering the volume of their nonfiction content, but the average length is well over an hour, and some top out at three and a half hours. The end result of that is that not many of them are going to have a permanent home on my iPod–I’m still using a first generation iPod, and this takes up a sizable chunk of my hard drive.

The List

1. A Map of the Mines of Barnath by Sean Williams
Ooh, a dark and mysterious mine story. A man heads into the depths to find his missing brother. Rumor has it that disappearances are common, and there are rumors of something that lurks in the mines and steals people away. The way I just described it sounds a bit cliched,but it did not go the way I expected it, and the result was very memorable.

2. Pump Six by Paolo Bacigalupi
This is the story that convinced me to stick with StarShipSofa. A tale of the distant future where the old machines are still running, but no one remembers how any of it works anymore. Pump Six at the water treatment plant is having trouble, and no one knows why. The employee in charge of the monitoring station goes to find the answer.

3. Knotwork by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
The story stars a woman from another world where the people have a wide range of powers, the most notable of those being knotwork, a way to influence relationships and the minds of those around. When she came to this world she vowed never to use those powers again, but the knot of her marriage to a mundane is unraveling and now she must choose what to do.

4. The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang
A tale in India, tales within a tales. An alchemist has created a gateway through time, and this tells several tales of those who’ve passed through it in pursuit of their own goals and how each one turned out. Each story is interested in its own right and they all tie together into a great story as a whole.

5. Mars: A Traveler’s Guide by Ruth Nestvold
This was an odd story, but a good one, and was much-improved by the reading and editing. It’s told as one side of a conversation, a reference computer program responding to prompts that you don’t get to hear, as the unheard user asks questions, interrupts, and asks again. It starts a little slow, but the real story behind the scenes is implied by the answers and the questions you can infer from them.

6. Let the Word Take Me by Juliette Wade
This is a great story, typical of Juliette’s fare, rooted in her background in linguistics. After years of trying to translate the language of of chameleon-like aliens, the team of scientists in charge of establishing contact are at a dead end. They have to make a breakthrough, and soon.

7. Just a Couple of Highly Experimental Weapons Tucked Away Behind the Toilet Paper by Adam Troy Castro
Silly title, silly story. This had a Douglas Adams vibe to it, oddball alien races, entirely improbable inventions. Lots of laughs and fun twists.

8. Snatch Me Another by Mercurio Rivera
I first read this one over in Abyss & Apex and was glad to see it reprinted here. This is a followup to another short story by the same author showing the repercussions of a new invention called the “snatcher”, which opens a hole into other dimensions onto items that match a sample item inserted into the machine. The protagonist has recently lost her son to disease, and lives through most of the story in a drugged haze, but the very interesting world kept me interest, and it is very well told.

9. Flowers of Aulit Prison by Nancy Kress
A well-told alien perspective. An undercover agent in prison trying to learn information about a terrorist. What’s really interesting though, is her society’s point of view, that our reality is the end-result of our shared perspective of that reality, and anyone who violates that perspective is a dangerous criminal.

10. Boatman’s Holiday by Jeffrey Ford
Did you ever wonder what Charon, the boatman over the River Styx does when he’s on vacation? Okay, me neither. Rumor has it that there’s one patch of Hell that’s like an oasis in a desert, and Charon intends to find it.

Honorable Mentions

These are ones which ALMOST made it onto the list. But my Top Ten list with 15 entries is sort of a cop-out, so this is extra.

The Tenth Muse by Tad Williams
Yes, you read that right. Tad “Dragonbone Chair” Williams, author of many great novels, including the “Otherland” quadrilogy, one of my favorite series. This is a space colony story. First contact with a new alien race has just occurred, and the aliens are hostile as can be, blasting everyone in their path. The story is told by a child-like cabin boy, one of the lesser members, and the story centers around his interaction with a rich passenger and their dilemma as the alien presence isolates them from the transport channels back to the rest of the inhabited galaxy. This story was quite enjoyable. So far I’ve liked his novels better than his short stories, but I thought this was quite good.

When Harry Met Faerie: The Tolkien Solution to the Rowling Problem by Amy H. Sturgis
I would have put this on the list, except for my policy of keeping the list to fiction only. This is a great talk, nonfiction, that Amy has written regarding the value of science fiction and fantasy as a genre. In particular, addressing criticisms of JK Rowling’s work, which some say is too childish for adults, yet too adult for children. These are criticisms that have been leveled in the past, and Amy has put together a great discussion including quotes from JRR Tolkien and C.S. Lewis as well as JK Rowling. Very interesting and enlightening discussion that kept me interested from beginning to end. It’s a full length talk, longer than Amy’s usual Genre History articles, but well worth the 45 minutes to listen.

Edgar Allen Poe Special by Amy H. Sturgis
And another nonfiction entry by Amy H. Sturgis, which again made the honorable mention list because I’m keeping the main list reserved for fiction. In this episode, she’s taken over the helm of StarShipSofa and this episode is entirely dedicated to one of my favorite authors–Edgar Allen Poe. This includes discussion of his upbringing, his writing, his contributions to science fiction, and the mysterious circumstances of his death.

The Defenders by Phillip K. Dick
PKD is one of my favorite SF authors of all time. His writing contains really great ideas that have been copied time and again, always with less effectiveness than when PKD himself wrote them. His work has inspired many movies, including many great ones like Bladerunner and Total Recall (as well as some which were badly botched by the filmmakers, the more so whenever they deviated from the original ideas). This story is not among my favorite PK Dick stories, which is why it’s not on the main list, but it has some neat ideas and is worth listening to. It takes place in a future where automation has advanced much further than today, to the point that robots are fighting our wars on the surface while humans huddle in caves underground. The robots report back all the information, showing images of blasted cities and desolate landscapes, but recent discoveries have revealed to the humans that things are not what they seem.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Diplomat by Matthew Sanborn Smith
“Take me to your leader,” the tiny aliens say as they go door to door trying to find the ultimate authority of human civilization. This cliched opening line doesn’t work so well in this future earth, as no one seems to agree who’s in charge, as they talk to one-man nations and personality conglomerates. I got a lot of laughs out of this story.

Interview: Tony C. Smith

Tony C. Smith is the co-founder, editor, and host of the podcast fiction magazine StarShipSofa. The Sofa offers everything that a print magazine would: poetry, science fiction stories (both classic and recent), science fact articles, interviews of the biggest names in the industry, reviews of comics, movies, and books, and more.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, last month StarShipSofa became the Hugo Award Winning StarShipSofa, the first podcast to be nominated OR to earn that honor. Not only is their award great news for Tony and the Sofa, but for the other fiction podcasts I enjoy, as this will hopefully help make the voters more likely to vote for podcasts again in the future.

And the anthology StarShipSofa Volume 2 has just been made available, with stories by China MiÒ ville, Neil Gaiman, Ted Kosmatka and other science fiction/fantasy superstars. Check it out for some great fiction!

And without further ado, here’s the interview:

David Steffen: Why did you decide to start Starship Sofa?

Tony C. Smith: I started StarShipSofa (notice how it’s written , I’ll let you off this time) back in late 2006 for two reasons: to talk about science fiction and to talk about science fiction with my friend Ciaran O’Carroll. Is that two reasons, or still just one? Anyway†before we started the “original” StarShipSofa shows, every week we’d phone each other up and see what the other was reading, if we liked it and so on†the usual stuff. Then I got myself an iPod for Christmas. It wasn’t long before we were sitting down to record our very first show.

David: In just a few short years , your podcast has gone from startup to Hugo award winning. That’s quite an accomplishment! Where will StarShipSofa be a few years from now?

Tony: I’m not really sure. It’s still hard to get my head around the fact that I’ve won a Hugo Award. StarShipSofa set out to talk about those writers who’d won a Hugo and here we were, only a few yearsÂlater, winning one ourselves. As to where do we go from here: we don’t stand still , that’s for sure. I’m always looking to embrace new ideas. The beauty of StarShipSofa is it’s not just me. The Sofa has a global science fiction community of fans out there who have the most amazing ideas and skills. Each and every day I get emails from people wanting to share their skills with StarShipSofa. So who can tell where StarShipSofa will go? But one thing’s certain: it will be fun getting there.

David: Do you have your Hugo on display? Do you carry pictures of it in your wallet to show to people in the elevator and on the train? (I ask because I know I would)

Tony: It’s hereâ€. just to the right of me as I type this up. I smile and blow kisses to it many times throughout the day.

David: How DO you manage to get all those prestigious authors on the show (both fiction and interviews)?

Tony: Oh, this is a really big secret. I shouldn’t say. Honest†it’s a code we editors keep. Oh right†Well, I’m only going to say this once†so†get ready†here it comesâ€â€â€â€â€â€â€ I ask! Now don’t tell anyone, or they’ll all be doing it.

David: When you’re not working on your podcast, and you’re not reading, what do you like to do?

Tony: I’ve worked it out†that leaves around 3 mins and 37 seconds each and every day. I’ll give you a clue: it involves toilet paper!

David: What mythical creature would you most like to eat?

Tony: I’ll eat anything. Well, anything that doesn’t taste like fennel. I used to pride myself in the fact that there was not one kind ofÂfood I didn’t like. Then I grew fennel last year in my allotment. My god†that stuff is vile. Mind you, I don’t suppose there areÂmany baby winged unicorns out there tasting of fennel but if there was, then this bad boy would walk on by without the hint of remorse at missing his supper.

David: How many roads must a man walk down?

Tony: Never mind walking, just driving down! It’s a ninety-mile round trip to my day job and back. That sucks the life out of you, that’s for sure.

David: You’ve mentioned on the show that you’ve tried your hand at writing in the past. Do you still pen a story from time to time?

Tony: I’m not a brave man. I hate heights, I’m claustrophobic, fairground rides scare the [that toilet paper I mentioned three questions up would come in handy here] out of me, but it takes a brave man to say his writing sucks. My writing sucks , Big Time. So†do I still pen a story from time to time? No.

David: Are there any upcoming features or guests that you’re particularly excited about?

Tony: I’m trying to get my hands all over Moorcock.ÂWhether Moorcock wants this is another matter.

David: What was the last book you read?

Tony: I haven’t got time to read. I’m too busy reading. That answer is actually true. I’m really a short story reader now, though I do dip my toes into the waters of novels once in a while.

David: Your favorite book?

Tony: There’s two, and I can never decide: The Forever War and Flowers For Algernon. But always hot on their heels is A Canticle For Lebowits.

David: Who is your favorite author?

Tony: Oh I don’t know. I’m so fickle. I change after every story†though I am partial to the short stories penned by Will McIntosh.

David: What was the last movie you saw?

Tony: The Ladyboys of Bangkok! Crap copy , lent the original out , never got it back. Oh, bugger. You mean science fiction? Damn and blast! (Blushing profusely) Sorry. Can we cut that bit? That would beÂBruce Willis’s Surrogates. It was okay, nothing grand or anything, but itÂgave me my fix of SF, I guess.

David: What is your favorite movie?

Tony: Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

David: Thanks for taking the time for the interview Tony. Here’s to your continued success!

Tony: Errâ€. Right. Thank you. Is that it? Great. Can I go? Excellent stuff. Oh, do you mind†can I have my copy of Ladyboys of Bangkok back? You’ve hadÂit forÂa month now.

David: What was the last book you read?

Eugie: The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature by Steven Pinker. One part psychology, one part language (two of my favorite subjects) and a big ole dollop of “ooo!”

David: Your favorite book?

Eugie: *Wail!* I can’t pick just one! Um, here’s some of my favorites: Candide, The Lord of the Flies, Cyrano de Bergerac, The Silver Metal Lover, Winnie-the-Pooh, Fahrenheit 451, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Journey to the West, and The Velveteen Rabbit.

David: Who is your favorite author?

Eugie: See above regarding *wail!*Â Some the ones that have influenced me the most as a writer include Ray Bradbury, Tanith Lee, and Ursula K. Le Guin. ÂThe lush prose and vivid imagery in their stories is so evocative; I can lose myself for days on end in their writing. ÂI also adore Neil Gaiman and A.A. Milne,Winnie-the-Pooh remains one of my all time favorite books,as well as Roald Dahl and George Orwell.

David: What was the last movie you saw?

Eugie: I saw Inception the week it came out and found it disappointing. For being the big SF film of the year, it was terribly predictable with uninteresting characters and lackluster FX. The main conceit which everyone is oohing and aahing over, being able to enter other people’s dreams, is an old SFnal one. It’s not even the first time that Hollywood has explored it. Inception did introduce a few clever premises, but the main one was an obvious plot device and when it became inconvenient, the filmmakers broke their own rules.

David: What is your favorite movie?