The Audio File: Superheroes

In recent years the number of short story magazine podcasts has seen a significant increase. Consequently this means that there are quite a few really great short stories available for free, but don’t be shy about dropping a donation or starting a subscription if you like what you find. Many of these magazines rely on their readers to pay their authors. So, being something of an expert on podcast magazines, I decided to take it upon myself to act as your guide in the first of what I hope to be many great articles about the wonders of audio magazines.

Some of you might be familiar with The Audio File from over at The Alternate History Weekly Update. Well, I am happy to announce that The Audio File now has a new home right here at Amazing Stories. Oh, but don’t worry, I’m still keeping the original alternate history Audio File running, I just thought I’d branch out and cover other speculative fiction sub genres. However, unlike the alternate history Audio File, this version will be organized according to theme rather than by publication source.

That leads me to today’s topic: superheroes. Superheroes have been all over the place in comics, movies and even television; yet their presence in prose fiction has been a bit lacking. However, in recent times that’s been changing thanks to works such as Empire State, After the Golden Age, Wild Cards, Nuklear Age, Confessions of a D-List Supervillain, Jack Blank and much more. There’s also a ton of short stories, many of them with audio versions, out there as well and that’s what this article will cover.

To being these great stories to you I’ve assembled a crack team of five audio fiction podcast magazines: Escape Pod, PodCastle, The Drabblecast, Lightspeed and Clarkesworld. Alright, enough intro, everyone grab your tights and capes, because it’s story time…

Nemesis by Nathaniel Lee
Narrated by Mat Weller
An Escape Pod Original

This story follows high school student Quentin, whose best friend Adam is the superhero Atom Boy. He does he best to help out Adam and be supportive, but secretly he’s always been a little jealous of Adam’s powers. One day Quentin discovers a ring that transforms into a suit of power armor. This could be the chance he’s been waiting for, but what path will he choose?

I liked how this story showed the world of superheroes from a non-superhero perspective; in this case, from the best friend/sidekick’s point of view. I enjoyed Adam’s happy-go-lucky personality and how that contrasted with Quentin’s more down to Earth and conflicted view of things. I shouldn’t give the ending away, but I can say it’s very heartwarming. Nathaniel is one of my favorite writers from Escape Pod, and this story was no exception.

I thought that Mat did a great job with the narration. All in all a great story about superheroes from an average person’s point of view. Very much recommended.

Origin by Ari Goelman
Narrated by Veronica Giguere
Originally published in Strange Horizons

Being a expectant parent is always a stressful time, but especially so when you’re a superhero. This story follows Margret aka Ice and Fire, a superhero who has unexpectedly become pregnant, as she and her alien partner Carter do their best to prepare for the baby. Margret finds unexpected help in the form of one of her villains, Dr. Ambrosius Urbinski. However, Dr. U’s assistance might not be an innocent as it seems.

As someone with various potentially genetic issues this story really spoke to me and my fears of what might happen if I ever have kids. It was also interesting how this story examined the potential problems pregnant superhero might encounters; as well as the whole getting pregnant in the first place issue. I also liked how it knowingly winked at some of the more absurd elements, like how Carter, whose eyes like irises and pupils, can somehow still see even though logically he shouldn’t be able to.

As for the narration, I thought Veronica did an excellent job. It’s another great story I happily recommend.

Observer Effects by Tim Pratt
Narrated by A Kovacs
Originally Published in Diet Soup

This story follows a former supervillain who has joined a team of heroes. The team’s leader, Liberator, thinks he can bring world peace by creating machines to allow everyone on Earth to view any one they want any time they want. However, our protagonist isn’t so sure, and before long things go to hell in a hand basket. The protagonist soon finds herself wondering if maybe she should have stayed a villain.

This story is a really great example of capepunk. What is capepunk? Capepunk is a somewhat new punk that explore how superheroes might play out in the real world. It’s unofficially been around since works like Spider-Man and Watchmen, but it’s become something of a trend in prose superhero fiction in recent times.

Anyway, Tim Pratt is the undisputed king of the Escape Artists podcasts, and this was yet another great story of his. He always does a really good job writing strong female characters. Just generally Tim does a really great job. You probably suspect that I’m going to say I liked the narration…and you’d be right.

All in all a great capepunk story from a great writer. Very much recommended.

Astromonkeys by Tony Frazier
Narrated by Norm Sherman
Originally Published in Jim Baen’s Universe

This story follows a superhero named Digger bringing his friend Dave to a bar for Dave’s first beer. Digger also recounts how he and Dave first met. A tale that includes chili burgers, green space monkeys, superheroes and much more.

Okay, maybe that sounds a little crazy, but I promise this is a good story. Maybe it is a little crazy, but that’s half the fun. I enjoyed how Digger was something of a working class superhero. I also enjoyed the green space monkeys in this story; because how many other times am I going to be able to write a sentence like that? Norm’s the host of The Drabblecast, more on them momentarily, and obviously he did a top notch job.

A fun little story. Give it a try.

Origin Story by Tim Pratt
Narrated by Steve Eley
An Escape Pod Original

This story is told as a one-sided conversation between the narrator and another person. The narrator is the brother of the superhero The Aerialist, and at one time was a big supporter of his brother’s crime fighting. Now, however, he’s out for revenge against The Aerialist.

It’s easy to this story as a meta commentary on the history and movements of the comic book industry. The Aerialist’s adventures start out idealistic and lighthearted, much like comics’ Golden and Silver ages, before getting progressively darker and more cynical. I really enjoy these sort of one-sided conversation stories, and Steve did a great job with the narration. As a bonus, you get to hear the song Skullcrusher Mountain in its entirety after the story.

Another great capepunk story from Tim Pratt. Very much recommended.

Stranger vs. The Malevolent Malignancy by Jim C. Hines
A Full Cast Production
Originally Published in Unidentified Funny Objects 2

In this story we follow a superhero named Stranger as he comes to terms with his terminal cancer. Stranger recounts these events to his fellow hero Jarhead. Due to Stranger’s ability to communicate with inanimate objects, his own tumor often cuts in with snarky comments.

Okay, this is another story who’s summary doesn’t do it nearly enough justice. When I listened to this story I was very much reminded of All-Star Superman, both due to the theme of a superhero confronting his own mortality and Stranger being something of a Superman analog. It might seem like some pretty heavy stuff, and the story doesn’t shy away from those themes, but there’s still plenty of humor and lighthearted bits. Hey, it was published in Unidentified Funny Objects 2 after all. One of the things I liked was how Stranger stuck to his morals even we he could have taken the easy way out. True heroes do what’s right even when there’s little to no reward after all.

A full cast production always has an advantage over a single narrator, and that was certainly the case here. It’s a humorous and touching story that I couldn’t recommend more.

Super-Baby-Moms Group Saves The Day by Tina Connolly
A Full Cast Production
Originally Published in Unidentified Funny Objects 3

This story is told as a series of emails from an online group for moms, and a few dads, with superpowered kids. At first it’s just typical advice and apologizes, but then things start to get serious when the number of superpowered kids dramatically spikes at the local pre-school. The. The kids throw a collective temper tantrum and the moms have to intervene to save the day.

Again, the summary doesn’t make it sound like much, but I swear it’s a good story. I liked how this story was presented as a series of emails; it was a nice twist on the short story format. I also enjoyed how this story examined how unpowered parents might deal with their superpowered kids. It’s another one of those funny with a touch of heartwarming stories. As for the narration, the full cast, this one slightly different than the last time, has done it again.

It’s another story I happily recommend.

Doctor Diablo Goes Through the Motions by Saladin Ahmed
Narrated by Roberto Suarez
Originally Published in Strange Horizons

I first encountered this story at PodCastle, but it has an equally great version over at The Drabblecast. It follows a supervillain named Doctor Diablo as he goes through the motions of a supervillain meeting, and his internal monologue snarks all the way.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s better than it sounds. You might have heard of Saladin Ahmed via his debut novel Throne of the Crescent Moon, but he is also quite the short story writer. I liked how Doctor Diablo was a villain due to his circumstances rather than a desire for evil. We also get a bit of commentary on the prison system; no doubt influenced by Saladin’s youth in Detroit. I especially enjoyed the commentary about the somewhat racist origins of heroes such as Ironfists.

Roberto did a great job with the narration. Another story that’s very much recommended, no matter where you find it.

Captain Confederation by Jim Robb
Narrated by Rich Fish
Originally Published in AEscifi.ca

Captain Confederation is one of the top superheroes in Canada. He’s faced many enemies in the path, but now he’s about to take on his great foe yet: government bureaucracy! Various government agency have been putting increasingly stricter regulation on him, and Captain Confederation finds himself considering a move to America.

Superheroes are often thought of as a quintessentially American concept, and it was nice to get a non-American perspective on them. Okay, so maybe Canada isn’t that different, but still. You could easily see this story as an metaphor for all those Canadians who chose to move to America for various reasons. As a bonus you get to hear the song Magneto and Titanium Man in its entirety after the story is over.

Rich Fish (yes, his real name) did a spot on job with the narration. A Canadian take on superheroes that I happily recommend.

The Heroics of Interior Design by Elise R. Hopkins
Narrated by Veronica Giguere
Originally Published in The Colored Lens #1

This story follows a woman who’s superpower is…the ability to turn anything blue into yellow. She lives in a world filled with heroes possessing more impressive abilities. A protagonist must come to terms with who she is and find her place in this world.

This story is very much about finding your place in the world and coming to terms with who you are. Maybe the protagonist doesn’t have the most impressive powers, but she does her best to make her life meaningful in little ways. That doesn’t mean there isn’t doubts along the way, and by the end she’s done some boarder line illegal things. Still over all it was a pretty good story.

A story about finding meaning in mundane life. I recommend it.

A Matter of Size by Robert Jeschonek
Narrated by Norm Sherman
A Drabblecast Original

This story follows Manchild, a member of the Small Wonders superhero team. Someone has been kidnapping members of the team and using them to make snuff film porn. Everyone of them could be marked men, but Manchild, who has the power to turn into a seven year old, had personal interest in this case.

This story is something of a superhero noir, and it was nice to see the mixing of the styles. Though, word of advice, this story contain some potentially heavy subject matter so you might want to listen with the headphones on. The Drabblecast always does such a great job incorporating sound effects and music into their stories, and this one was no exception.

A hard boiled superhero noir that I very much recommend.

Tonight We Fly by Ian McDonald
Narrated by Paul Boehmer
Originally Published in Masked

This story follows an older former superhero named Chester Banres, formerly Captain Miracle. He longs for the days before he spent most of his time yelling at kids on his lawn. Fortunately, he receives a letter from an old villain of his, Dr. Nightshade, asking to meeting him in the park and fly one last time.

First of all, I have no relations to this Mr. McDonald. Anyway, Ian is from Northern Ireland, and that means more of than non-American perspective on superheroes. It was an interesting choice to make the protagonist an older superhero. It thought that Paul did a great job narrating, as he usually does.

Another non-American take on superheroes that I recommend.

Cassandra by Ken Liu
Narrated by Kate Baker

We’ll finish out with a story from one of my favorite writers. This story follows a reluctant supervillain with the ability to predict the future. She’s tried to get others to understand her, especially the local superhero Sup…er, I mean, Showboat. At the same times she wonder if she’s actually making a difference or if the future is set in stone.

Ken Liu is one of my absolute favorite writers, and it is always a joy to find a new story of his. So, he’s written a story featuring a superhero with blue tights, a red cape, has the letter S on his chest but the word Superman never appears anywhere in the story. Nice legal gymnastics there Ken. There’s been a few Ken Liu stories questioning if we truly have free will, and I liked that this one didn’t give any solid answers to that tricky question. Also, love the mythology reference in the title; never a bad time for a mythology reference. This story is another great example of the capepunk sub genre.

Now, Clarkesworld is one of those podcasts that only has one narrator, and so things are always a bit hit and miss. Fortunately, thought, Kate did a pretty good job narrating this story. It’s a Ken Liu story, so I kind of new this was going to be great, and it goes without saying that I give this a hearty recommendation.

Conclusion

Well, we’ve reached the end of the list. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I’m hoping for this to be one of many more Audio File columns here at Amazing Stories. That brings me to my next point. I’m organizing this column by theme, and I’ve already. Considered some themes for next time; among other things, Dystopias, Settling the Final Frontier, Robots and AIs, Religion in Speculative Fiction, or even specific authors like Ken Liu and Nathaniel Lee. However, as the readers I think all of you ought to have a say. If you have an suggestions for future themes I will happily take them into account.

Now, let’s get serious for a moment. Part of the reason I started The Audio File was not only to bring readers some great short stories, but also to help podcasts in their time of need.  When I started out it was The Escape Artists Podcasts who needed help, but thankfully that’s been resolved.  This time, however, it’s Tales to Terrify.  They’re a horror podcast made by the same people, The District of Wonders, who are behind other amazing podcasts such as StarShipSofa, Far-Fetched Fables, Protecting Project Pulp and Crime City Central.  Every little bit you can chip in makes a huge difference.  Do what you can, because what’s really scary is a world without great stories like the kind these podcasts bring.

And on that cheerful note, I’ll see you next time.

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