Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "Escape Pod"

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Editor's note: long-time listener and freelance journalist Ian Brill will be contributing a weekly podcast review to the blog called "Podthoughts." I've decided to institute this feature because I feel there's a great vacuum of useful information about podcasts, and a lot of folks who want to make informed choices about what they download. This week, Ian covered "Escape Pod," a science fiction short story podcast produced by Steven Eley.

Escape Pod,” produced by one-time The Sound of Young America guest Stephen Eley, offers a real service to those who are interested in smart, literate science fiction but are having trouble finding a place to start.

I’ll use myself as an example: Ever since junior high, when my Dad insisted my brother and I spend a few days a month at the library, I’ve gravitated to the works of Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison. Later, I would become interested in Philip K .Dick and Douglas Adams. Each writer matched pointed views of human nature and society with big, imaginative ideas.

More recently, though, it’s been difficult. During my four years working towards a degree in English, I was too busy studying the accepted classics like The Great Gatsby and As I Lay Dying to catch up on any sci-fi – and certainly not any new stuff.

Walking the aisles dedicated to sci-fi in a bookstore or library can be intimidating for a casual fan of the medium. Lining the shelves are dozens of authors who, while prolific, are unknown to anyone not deeply committed to the genre. Even someone who pays a lot of attention to the world of letters may not be familiar with all these works. While there were once be magazines like “If” and “Fantastic” that published short stories and novellas, it’s hard to find any such services today. That’s why you should turn to “Escape Pod.”

It’s appropriate that a new media technology should give new hope to those searching for good sci-fi short stories. Each week on Escape Pod, listeners hear a new short science fiction story, typically from authors who’ve chosen to license their pieces using the Creative Commons license.

Most stories come in under an hour and flow nicely when spoken. It’s clear that Eley is looking for stories that may contain big ideas but still manage to communicate them in a very clear and direct manner. The 100th episode’s reading of “Nightfall,” read by Eley himself, felt like it could have been an audio play. While some of the episodes have actors brought into to read the stories, (Steve Anderson does a great job with Kevin J. Anderson’s “Job Qualifications” in episode 96), it’s Eley who reads a lot of the stories. In “Nightfall” and Bruce McAllsiter’s “Kin” from episode 108 he proves himself to be really adept and creating distinct and interesting voices for all the characters, no matter how strange and alien they may be.

While the readings take up most of the air time Eley does discuss listener feedback at the beginning of many episodes. The listeners all enjoy sci-fi but have different viewpoints on what the genre can give us. These samples of the discussions place the stories in a valued context for listeners not overly familiar with sci-fi.

Bringing these stories into digital audio form – where they can be enjoyed in a car or on a lunch break – is a wonderful use of new media. Literature like this doesn’t have to fall to the wayside because there are more temptations to not read out there. Instead, Eley has found a way to bring these works into the future -- which is where they belong.

www.escapepod.org