Saturday, 7 April 2007

Science Fiction Podcaster Throws His Weight Around

by Edwin Hesselthwite

Escape Pod Hits its 100th Publication:

This site is probably my single favourite thing on the web - I have posted about this before. Escape Pod is a science fiction podcast that every week publishes a short science fiction story. It is the child of Stephen Eley, who has final say on the stories and always attaches a short spoken essay on topics ranging from the rearing of his son to the science fiction/fantasy divide. The stories are usually read by podcasters who appreciate the publicity, and the stories are all paid for out of donations. EP is a case in point of how Podcasting can make solid financial sense (when traditional magazines of SF are in decline).

EP has just hit its 100th episode, meaning it has been running for just shy of 2 years. Steve Eley has managed to become a very, very big fish (7000+ RSS feeds) in the science fiction world on the back of this overhead-free project and, in a display of influence that smacks of serious showing off, has managed to get his hands on Isaac Asimov's Nightfall as EP100. To anyone who knows their SF it goes without saying that this is among the most famous and perfectly styled Golden Age SF stories and is often listed as the greatest SF story of all time, Mr Eley has every right to feel very smug about it.

I disagree with Mr Eley about just about everything: he is wrong when he says fantasy is an equal and equivalent genre, he is wrong when he says that being fun is more important than being intelligent, he is wrong about the importance of escapism, and he is completely and utterly wrong when he says that modern SF has better characterisation than the works of the '50s, '60s and '70s... It's to the man's credit that he doesn't seem to be at all annoyed with me for continually barracking him from his comments threads. One thing I really like about Escape Pod is that they have a respect for SF's canon (which is one of my passions) while knowing and cultivating the modern scene in a way that has pushed me to read SF published after 1975, something I would otherwise never do.

So, if you have the slightest interest in SF I suggest you wander across there, and for your listening pleasure I have listed below the EP stories that I have enjoyed the most:

EP037 - Craphound by Corey Doctorow - A complex story about what would motivate alien visitors in trading with us.
EP031 - Robots and falling hearts By Tim Pratt and Greg van Eekhout - A gorgeously written story (reminds me of Stanislaw Lem) about an infestation of robots.
EP058 - Shadowboxer by Paul di Fillipo - Wow, psychic powers, terrorism, malevolent governments, this hits all my buttons at once.
EPO87 - Authorwerx by Greg van Eekhout - A heart felt eulogy for the golden age of SF.
EPO90 - How Lonesome a life without nerve gas by James Trimarco - An amusing war story with strains of Starship Troopers.
EPO93 - {Now + n, now - n} by Robert Silverberg - Robert Silverberg, nuff said, Steve starts getting his hands on some really big names.

All of these are excellent both for story and reading, but Shadowboxer is absolutely astonishing in both respects (that guy has an amazing voice) with a killer story about politics, terrorism, and fascism.

So, here's to you Steve Eley: You Are Wrong, as usual.


Charles Pooter said...

Thanks for this Edwin. I will download these to my iPod very soon. I trust your opinions on these things, so put up another short post soon linking to some more gems in those 100 podcasts.

Stephen said...

For the record, Edwin, I consider it a far greater honor to be called wrong by a few intelligent people for thoughtful reasons, than it would be to be called right by a multitude for thoughtless reasons.

So thank you. I mean that sincerely. >8->

That said, the only counterpoint I consider worth the bandwidth is that escapism and fun are vital for expanding the SF audience. They're not exclusive of depth and intelligence; but a profound story that isn't also fun is a sermon to the already converted.

My goal is to make SF readers out of people who weren't already. I try my best to cater to the Old Guard too, but if that's all anyone ever tries to do (and I believe it's all some of the major magazines are doing) the genre is bound for extinction.

That's where my standards come from. (Well, that and my own tastes, which of course are different from yours or anyone else's.) But I really don't mind you calling me on it. Having to answer to criticism makes me think about it harder. And that can only be good.

Edwin Hesselthwite said...

Welcome to LMWN Steve, glad to see you over here... Vanity searching Technorati by any chance?

Should be pretty clear that the blatant strawmaning I just subjected you to above is in good humour, I already have several confirmed fans who learnt about your site through me, it's good to try and get you some more.

I definitely agree with you about the magazines, for the last few months, after a discussion with you, I've been cracking my way through a lot of the periodicals... I am less than impressed. So if you are personally keeping SF virile, we cant really argue much with you in principle, the formula works.

Nonetheless, you definitely need people out there yelling at you to put less fantasy on... LESS FANTASY!

Welcome to Little Man, What Now?. We are not a pompous people.

Greg van Eekhout said...

Hi, Edwin. Ego-searching (egoogling?) brought me here, and I'm pleased and flattered that you singled out two stories that have my name attached. But I have to ask: Don't you think "Robots and Falling Hearts" is fantasy?

Edwin Hesselthwite said...

Welcome over Greg, Bloody hell! You make one post on the topic and the worlds SF writers beat a path to your door!

I always wanted to ask you if Robots was supposed to be Lemmish? It reminds me a lot of The Futurological Congress and The Cyberiad... Both of which I would class very much as SF.

To be straight, my problem is less with Fantasy as a genre by category, than in what the fantasy market is looking for in terms of content. I almost put L'Alchemista on the list too, despite its unarguable status as Fantasy.

I also have to admit that my comments are in part purely to wind Steve up... He knows this - I would never get away with that last sentence on Escape Pod, and I enjoyed saying it. This is despite the fact that he is planning on hiving off the fantasy anyway in the proposed new podcast.

So, welcome to LMWN, it's not as illustrious as EP but it is mine (at least in part). Greatest respect for you as a writer.

Greg van Eekhout said...

Thanks again for the kind words, Edwin. I have to admit with embarrassment that the only Lem I've read thus far is Solaris, so I can't count the works you cite as influences, at least not direct ones. But my collaborator on "Robots and Falling Hearts," Tim Pratt, might have a different answer. I'll point him over here.

Personally, I think the fantasy market is receptive to all sorts of diverse content, from the Tolkien derivatives (which I don't have much interest in), to stuff like China Mieville, to Tim Powers, to Naomi Novik and everything in between. There's lots of room for writers to play with different modes and different kinds of stories and still find audiences in fantasy today. Just my two cents. :-)

Tim said...

Greg called me over! Interesting thoughts here. I consider "Robots" a fantasy, I guess. Insofar as I think about genre at all, I tend to consider myself a fantasy writer -- my stories certainly have more elves than rivets overall, which is as valid a distinction between SF and fantasy as anything else. I mean, c'mon -- why is time travel SF and not fantasy? Why is travel to parallel dimensions SF and not fantasy? Why is FTL considered SF and not fantasy? All those things are impossible based on our current knowledge of physics! Stories about psionics and the Dean Drive used to be SF, now they'd be fantasy. The distinctions are highly permeable. I grew up reading SF and fantasy in equal proportions and never really bothered much about the difference between them; they all hit the same buttons in me.

That said, I tend to be interested in contemporary fantasy, because I like the tension between magic and the recognizable world. The Tolkien derivatives don't do much for me, but give me a good weird modern fantasy -- like Tim Powers, de Lint at his best, etc. -- and I'm a happy guy.

I wasn't thinking of Lem when we started "Robots" and haven't read anything other than Solaris (though I did write an obituary for Lem when he died)... my own very earliest influences are Stephen King and Isaac Asimov (they were the first fantasy and SF I read, respectively). I just liked the idea of writing about a plague of robots. Greg put in all the good Southern California stuff. I made him write a parable. He made me write a sort-of romance. (Or was it vice-versa?) Eventually with rewriting and such it all got so mixed up that I couldn't actually tell you which of us wrote what...

Edwin Hesselthwite said...

Once upon a time Trurl the constructor built an eight-story thinking machine. When it was finished... asked it the ritual question of much is two plus two

The machine stirred, its tubes began to glow, its coils warmed up, current coursed through all its circuits like a waterfall... there was a clanging and a chugging, and such an ungodly racket that Trurl began to think of adding a special mentation muffler. At last when Trurl had grown extremely impatient the machine ground to a halt and said in a voice like thunder: SEVEN! - From Trurl's Machine in The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem

Welcome to you as well Tim. The above quote I stuck up to make myself look like a little less of an idiot for my previous comments. I am increasingly thinking this is just where I came from in SF, maybe others had written this tone before, but for me the first time I saw Futurama I thought "bloody hell, they've made Lem into a cartoon!" (cue Matt Groening vanity googling himself as well) and any science fiction that has that particular whimsical tone, particularly with cantankerous and slightly unreal robots, always reminds me of him.

I just listened to Robots again and seriously, it rings so many Lem bells with me its ridiculous... But Solaris is among Lem's more serious work, and the tone I find so similar to your story is barely present there at all. So I have a little egg on my face for that comparison.

Onto the next issue: both of you have jumped in with a defence of Fantasy, or at least to state there is no big difference. Well, let me first say this argument went on at length over in EP a good length of time back. My impression from the tail end of that argument is that there is a segment of the SF market who find something in much of science fiction that they don't find in fantasy - I am part of that segment.

To me the difference is one of priorities. In an old school (I am mostly ignorant of modern SF, and I am under the impression that the boundaries have become blurred with SF now more of a setting than a style) SF story there is an element of conceptual game that is less present in fantasy. In an SF story you have these certain key devices (planets, FTL, etc etc etc) that allow you to use the setting to put forward your ideas. Ones these ideas are laid down, the author has no get outs except logic, you cant just change one sort of time travel into another. Whereas in a fantasy story (such as in L'Alchemista, which is a blinder) the framework isn't actually important, and the author therefore allows the focus to go elsewhere.

To me, SF is an ideas game where you set the table at the beginning, and then have to play it out to its logical conclusion. The idea can be absolutely anything (see Ayn Rand and Fred Pohl for politics, or Vonnegut for spiritualism and philosophy) its about playing a game that takes place in rules you have set for yourself. Now, under this description, yes your story is a fantasy... Fair dues. But there is a long tradition of playing a certain type of whimsy in SF, particularly notable in Bradbury, Douglas Adams, Possibly Zelazny and certainly Lem. In this style you get to bend the rules as you go along, but you play a delicate game of painting just outside the edge of the lines. I think the key reason I keep getting into arguments about this is that to me SF is very much a tradition (a tradition fantasy is not really part of, accepting people like Zelazny who walked the line, or Sturgeon who used to submit to Weird Tales as much as Astounding) but that to many people of my generation SF is a setting, and therefore the rules are dictated by "does it have lasers?". What I love in SF is mostly held within that tradition, its about The Ideas Game.

I dunno, I'm painting thoughts here, you two are the published SF writers (who's work I admire), and I'm really astounded you've turned up on this little blog... So cheers!

Pritchard Buckminster said...


Fascinating ideas here - and am always thrilled to see people I read posting and responding. I'm one of the readers that Edwin introduced to your work a fair time ago. I have to disagree a little with EH, I think that the line is now far more blurred than he allows. Check out Tad Williams 'Otherland' series or (I think) Katherine Kerr's 'Snare'. Snare I am particularly fond of as it starts as a Tolkien-esque fantasy novel and half way through just flips to pure sci-fi but in a fashion that in no way spoils the narrative. One distinction that works for me, although I think it might cause debate here, is that sci-fi almost demands the short story, where fantasy tends to reject it. Sci-fi is so ideas led that often a five page short that contains nothing but an idea can become a classic....