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
-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 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.
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.
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.
16 thoughts on “The Best of StarShipSofa”
Interesting point on the promo/unboxing stuff for the SSS books. It didn’t bother me at all, but it certainly would in a print mag.
I think the difference is that, ultimately, it IS a different medium and while SSS tries to be something like ‘Analog in audio’ some things work in a podcast that wouldn’t in print form. Part of it is that voices are more immediately recognizable than bylines and writing styles, so I have a better idea of people like Larry Santuro and Skeet as personalities.
Of course, you can always subscribe to the enhanced feed. It has chapter markers which allow for easy skipping of segments you’re not interested in.
The promotion has never been a problem to me and it feels completely proportionate given the nature of the show. It’s worth bearing in mind that the selling amounts to the host of a science fiction podcast telling his audience of science fiction readers that there is a collection of science fiction stories they (we) might want to check out.
If all advertising was like that, I would be very happy indeed.
The length has never been a problem for me, either. I’ve always found that the standard of content is so high that there is none of it I would want to miss. As such, I tend to reorganise my time to make sure I do manage to hear all of it – if if it does leave me a couple of weeks behind sometimes.
It doesn’t bother me for SSS to promote their related books at all. As you pointed out, listeners to a science fiction podcast are likely to be interested in the related anthologies anyway. As I said above, it’s the sheer frequency and length of the promotions that gets to be irritating to me. I want to know the books are out there, but I don’t need to be reminded of them constantly and at length. This is probably magnified when listening to a backlog of the podcast like I did, listening to much more than just 1 episode a week.
The length is both good and bad. The nonfiction content especially is very high quality, but it’s just a matter of hard drive space for me. I’ve got an oldy moldy 1st gen iPod, and that small space is very quickly taken up by episodes this long.
I’ve thought about checking out the enhanced feed, haven’t quite figured out how though I haven’t put a concerted effort into doing so. I have just developed a very itchy fast-forward finger when listening to the cast, and skip past the promotions to the real meat.
I think you are right about listening to the backlog vs. new episodes. The self promotion stuff is cool as you are listening “live” as things are happening, but while listening to the backlog, I could see how that would get old fast. I haven’t ventured too far back into the past episodes. I started listing around March.
Starship Sofa is great! I am actually pretty excited to be a contributor in an upcoming episode.
Marshal–you’ll be in an upcoming episode? A story narration? I look forward to hearing you. 🙂
Thanks for devoting a post to StarShipSofa! Thanks for listening. I appreciate your kind words!
I have a larger iPod, have downloaded all of STARSHIP SOFA, and am currently listening to Episode #71 Gord Sellar’s “Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moons”, a very engaging story. Many more episodes to listen to.
All in all, I’m enjoying the stories and format. I really appreciate the poetry, and thoroughly enjoy Ms. Sturgis’s History of the Genre segments. Mr. Santoro’s narrations are spot on, and never fail to hold my attention even if the story wouldn’t otherwise.
Unlike other podcasts, I have found myself fast forwarding through many of the main fiction segments. I can’t say if it’s a matter of personal taste, or a problem keeping up with any given narrative style, but certain stories just don’t sit well with me.
“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” and “Pump Six” are both stories that have stuck with me as I continue through the episodes. Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” is absolutely exquisite, both for the story and the narration. I didn’t last 10 minutes into Kim Newman’s four-part “The Serial Killer” because of the narrative style, and wonder if I should look the story up in print.
While I’m not surprised that SS does not pay contributors, I am disheartened by the fact. Then again, 99% of the stories come from the heavy hitters of fiction, even those midlist authors that don’t have the reading audience they deserve, and offering up the stories for free may be as much self promotion as it is a dedication to the genre.
STARSHIP SOFA may not be my favorite podcast, but it does have much to offer and I look forward to listening to the rest of the episodes.
Thanks for commenting! I should mention too that Ted Chiang’s Exhalation would likely have made the list (I loved that story!) except that I’d already put it on a Best of Escape Pod list, and I wanted to stick with stories I haven’t listed to widen the recommendations to a larger group of stories. 🙂
I agree with you on the self promotion, especially around the Hugo process. Both the quantity and content were extremely rude, very disrespectful of both the culture of the award and the history and present of fanzines and their creators.
The enhanced feed is what lets me listen in the car, not just at home where it’s easier to skip forward. What hurdles are you encountering with it?
Nolly, yeah, the self-promotion during the Hugo nominations and voting was particularly hard to take. I’m glad that a podcast won, but I’m afraid it only happened because the podcast format is more suitable to constant reminders than other formats. I do hope that it opens the doors for other podcasts that don’t do this sort of self-promotion like Drabblecast or Pseudopod.
Regarding the enhanced feed, I haven’t put a great deal of effort into it, but I’m just not sure where to find the enhanced feed episodes? To get the regular ones I just go to http://www.starshipsofa.com and look at each post to download. Are the other ones available on that site or do I need to set up a podcatcher?
Thanks so much for the mention! I’m honored to appear in a list of such greats. Glad too that you enjoyed the story.
Thanks for the kind words. I’m really glad you enjoyed the story. Happy new year!
The URL I’m using for the Enhanced feed is http://www.starshipsofa.com/category/aural-delights-enhanced/feed/
I’ve never tried DLing them singly; I just subscribed in iTunes.