The Audio File: Settling the Final Frontier

Space: the final frontier. Those are the immortal words which began the original Star Trek, a show that was famously pitched as a wagon train to the stars. The concept of the frontier has played a big role in science fiction for many years. After all, are tales of rugged mean taming the Wild West really so different from stories of settlements being established on other worlds? To be sure, the outward trappings are different. On the whole, however, I think that science fiction stories of space colonization have more in common with Westerns than at first glance. Let’s just hold that thought for a moment, shall we?

Alright, that’s all well and good, but what’s it got to do with The Audio File? Well, as you may have guessed, our theme for this post is space colonization. There’s not much more to add to the pre-show spiel, so let’s get on to the Podcast Role-Call. The stories featured today are brought to us thanks to the good and hardworking people of Escape Pod, Cast of Wonders, The Drabblecast, Lightspeed Magazine and Clarkesworld Magazine.

I have a very big announcement to make regarding the future of The Audio File, but that’s for after we’ve talked about the stories. For now, saddle up because it’s story time…

Escape Pod

The Shoulders of Giants” by Robert J. Sawyer
Narrated by Serah Eley
Originally Published in Star Colonies and collected in Iterations and Other Stories

This story follows a group of intrepid pioneers who have set out to colonize the planet Soror in the Tau Ceti system. Two small scale nuclear wars have occurred on Earth, so it was decided that having at least a few humans in space would be for the best. The crew has just awakened from cryosleep, but it turns out someone has already made it to Soror: their fellow humans! How will the would-be colonists react to this discovery?

Okay, the description isn’t much, but I promise that it is well worth your time. This story is a good example of the lightspeed leapfrog trope. It is certainly a concern when you send out generation and sleeper ships. After all, the technology of the ship stays the same, but technology on Earth continues to advance. That is, assuming some calamity doesn’t befall Earth. Still though, somebody’s got to get the ball rolling so that those future advancements can be made.

That, more than anything else, is the central theme of this story. The pioneers may have failed in their initial mission, but because they dared to try it made the actual colonization of Soror possible. The title of this story is a reference to that famous Stephen Hawking quote: “If I see further it is because I am standing on the shoulders of giants.” I won’t give the ending away, but I will say that space is a very big place. There’s always somewhere new to discover and/or colonize.

Now for a brief note on narration. Back when this episode premiered Serah Eley was still known as Steve Eley. Overall, I’d say that Mrs. Eley did a good job with the narration and bringing the story to life. Though whenever humans from Soror spoke it was a little unintentionally funny because they kind of sounded like Hermes from Futurama.

“The Shoulders of Giants” is a story that really captures the pioneering spirit of humanity. It is more than worth your time, so give it a listen.

Three-Quarters Martian” by C.J. Hodges
Narrated by Mur Lafferty 
Originally Published in On the Premises

This story follows a group of astronauts who are setting up a colony on Mars. Unfortunately, a planet-wide civil war has broken out on Earth. It’s been quite a while since they last received a resupply package from Earth. The astronauts are scraping the bottom of the barrel and are faced with a difficult question: do they want to die on Mars or Earth?

Again, the description doesn’t do much, but I promise you this story is worth your time. I kind of get the feeling that this story is how The Martian would have turned out if Andy Weir had been feeling extremely cynical. One of the things that caught my attention was just how blasé the astronauts were every time a new disaster or setback occurred. Then again, considering just how many things had gone wrong, maybe it just didn’t faze them anymore. The central theme of this story seems to be that perhaps we ought to get our own house in order before we go setting other worlds.

In terms of narration, I think that Mur did a good job. The way she gave the characters a detached cadence to their speech really fit the story.

“Three-Quarters Martian” is a cautionary tale about the perils of settling the frontier. It’s also a story I happily recommend.

Red Dust and Dancing Horses” by Beth Cato
Narrated by Marguerite Kenner
An Escape Pod Original

This story is set on a partially terraformed Mars and follows a girl named Nara. She’s obsessed with old Westerns, especially with regards to horses like Trigger and Silver. Unfortunately, there are no horses on Mars. As luck would have it, however, her class has been assigned to write reports on items from Earth. The Corcoran Museum, founded by one of the benefactors of the colony, has just opened its doors. It contains many items from the Old West, including the skin of Trigger himself. Could this be the opportunity that Nara has been waiting for?

When I listened to this story I was reminded of a historical reenactment of the Pilgrims I’d once seen. I remember one of the women talking about all of the little things she missed about England, such as the sound of church bells ringing, and how her children were growing up not knowing of those things. I wonder what it will be like when we set up colonies on other worlds. What seemingly insignificant things will our descendants lack personal knowledge of?

Now, for those of you wondering why Nara couldn’t just take a vacation to Earth, it is mentioned she flunked a physiological readiness test. Though personally, I would have thought that the bigger problem would be that Earth has three times the gravity that Mars does. There’s some nice foreshadowing towards the beginning of the story about Nara’s dad building robots and weevils thriving on Mars.

It is always a pleasure to hear Marguerite Kenner narrating a story. “Red Dust and Dancing Horses” is a fun little story that you won’t want to miss out on.

Contamination” by Jay Werkheiser
Narrated by Dave Thompson 
Originally Published in Analog

This story takes place in orbit above the planet Nouvelle Terre in the Alpha Centauri system. It follows a young man named Ari. He’s studied Nouvelle Terre his whole life and longs to see it from the surface. Unfortunately, that would go against the wishes of the orbital colony leaders, who want to protect the planet’s native life forms from contamination. One day a shuttle arrives from Earth with the intention of setting up a colony on the surface of Nouvelle Terre. Worse, Ari’s ship is on a crash course with the shuttle. Can a solution be found in time?

One of the interesting aspects of this story, for me, was how the orbital colonies were founded. They were established by two women sent from Earth with a supply of frozen embryos. Believe it or not, that is actually a plan that has been proposed for interstellar colonization. Personally, I’m highly skeptical about how well it would work out in the real world. There are way too many things that could go wrong. Anyway, let’s get back to the review.

Inadvertently causing the extinction of alien life forms is a concern about space exploration we’ve had for quite some time. Humanity has certainly done quite a number on life forms here on Earth, just ask the dodo or the moa. At the same time, we might have to put these concerns aside if a calamity befalls Earth and we’re forced to find a new home among the stars. So I do appreciate that this story did show both sides of the debate.

Realistically, would contamination be a concern? Well, I’m not entirely sure. Remember, alien life is going to be subject to a different evolutionary history, and the lock and key mechanism of Earth microbes might not work. On the other hand, maybe life evolves along similar lines regardless of planets. Until we find multicellular life to compare to that of our own planet, we can only speculate.

Dave Thompson is another of those narrators I always enjoy hearing from. “Contamination” is a story that weighs the ethics of space colonization, and I one that I happily recommend.

The 43 Antarean Dynasties” by Mike Resnick 
Narrated by Steven Burley and Gregg Taylor
Originally Published in Asimov’s 
1998 Hugo Award and 2002 Ignotus Award Winner

This story takes place on the planet Antares and follows an Antarean named Hermes. He works as a tour guide at the ruins of his people’s once might civilization. The story is split between a glimpse at Antarean history following contact with humans, and a tour that Hermes is conducting.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s better than the description makes it sound. As a lover of history, I enjoyed the way the segments on Antarean history were presented. It’s easy to read this story as a metaphor for the history of nations who have been subject to colonialism. The scenes with the American tourists were depressingly realistic. Resnick has stated that this story was inspired by a trip he and his wife took to Egypt. When I listened to this story I was very much reminded of the poem Ozymandias.

Now, some might question why this story wasn’t just set on Earth and about mundane humans instead of aliens. To that I would say, obviously, it wouldn’t have been on Escape Pod and I wouldn’t be reviewing it. More importantly, it takes the themes of those sort of stories and presents them to people who might not otherwise read stories about tour guides in impoverished nations.

In terms of narration, I thought that both narrators did an excellent job. Also, for those who don’t know, the Ignotus Awards are Spain’s equivalent of the Hugo Awards.

“The 43 Antarean Dynasties” is a science fiction take on tales of colonialism and its consequences. Do I really need to say that I recommend this on?

Lightspeed Magazine

Alive, Alive Oh” by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley
Narrated by Sile Bermingham 
2013 Nebula Award Nominee

This story takes place on the planet G851.5.32. Our protagonist is a woman who was part of a team who were tasked with terraforming the planet for ten years, after which time they could return to Earth. She and her husband thought it would be fun if their daughter was born on the planet. Unfortunately, a virus from the planet wreaked havoc on Earth, so G851.5.32 has been quarantined indefinitely. Is such an acidic planet really the best place to raise a child?

This is another of those stories about all those things space colonists might miss. Some of the most memorable scenes are the small moments. For example, the protagonist’s daughter Megan expresses surprise that the meals on Earth aren’t all pre-cooked, or that people can dig in the dirt without thick protective clothing. There’s also a constant theme of Megan’s need to rebel and find her own way despite the strict rules of colony life. Now, I’ve already gone over why it’s highly unlikely that a virus from the planet could affect humans on Earth. I’d also add that we never observe any native life more advanced than shellfish, so it doesn’t appear there would be any host organism for the virus to survive in.

Speaking of those shellfish, there’s one point where a character eats them and dies. I thought that meant they were parasites, but then I thought about how acidic the planet is repeatedly described as. Presumably, human stomach acid wouldn’t even put a scratch in creatures evolved for such a caustic world. In terms of narration, I thought that Sile did a pitch-perfect job.

“Alive, Alive Oh” is a story of youth and rebellion on an exosolar planet. I recommend it.

Velvet Fields” by Anne McCaffrey 
Narrated by Paul Boehmer 
Originally Published in Worlds of If and collected in The Girl Who Heard Dragons

This story takes place on the planet Zobranoirundisi. It is a lush and vibrant world where the living is easy and colonists don’t have a single care. That is, until scientists make a shocking discovery about the velvet fields the colonists use to graze their cattle.

Okay, there’s no way to talk about this story without spoiling the ending so I’ll give it to you straight. Those velvet fields weren’t just velvet fields. Turns out they’re the first stage in the development of the local sentient plant aliens, who are now maimed. To make amends for this the colonists maim themselves in turn.

Personally, I found this solution to be extremely draconian and rather nonsensical. Most, if not all, of the colonists had no idea that the velvet fields were sentient beings. You could make a case that maybe the scientists suspected that something was up, and chose not to act on it, but the colonists? The colonists, especially the children, were innocent bystanders just trying to go about their lives. It makes zero sense to punish them. Maybe McCaffrey was trying to show the future humanity has different morals, but I don’t buy it.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy this story, I really did. It’s just that perhaps it could have been written slightly better so that the morals weren’t so clunky. Now, in terms of narration I thought that Paul did an excellent job, as always.

“Velvet Fields” has morals that are a bit off kilter, but it’s still worth your time.

Breakaway, Backdown” by James Patrick Kelly 
Narrated by Gabrielle DeCuir
Originally Published in Asimov’s

This story follows a woman named Cleo as she tries to get the heel of her shoe repaired. She regales the clerk, Jane, with tales of her time as a temporary worker on the space station Victor Foxtrot.

I`m pretty sure you know the drill for descriptions like this by now. I liked how this story focused on the less than glamorous side of space colonization. There’s a lot of work to be done on the space station. Not just the work Cleo was there to do, but also the constant exercise needed to prevent bone and muscle loss. We also get some fairly detailed descriptions about what happens to the human body when you spend too much time in zero-g. It is mentioned that centrifuge wheels are only available on the stations used by tourists due to being too expensive. I can sort of buy that, but you’d think that their benefits would potentially offset the cost of production.

There seems to be a theme that, even though the stations represent freedom and breaking free, maybe the grass isn’t so green on the other side. The writing style was really enjoyable. Technically, Cleo and Jane are having a conversation, but we never hear Jane speak. We only hear Cleo’s responses, and I did enjoy her catty dialogue. Speaking of dialogue, I thought that Gabrielle did a pitch perfect job with the narration.

“Breakaway, Backdown” is a story that examines the less than idealistic side of space colonization. I very much recommend it.

Cast of Wonders

The Middle Rages” by Joseph L. Kellogg
Narrated by John Cmar
A Cast of Wonders Original

This story is set aboard a generation ship and follows three teenagers named Bendrick, Jillian and Cale. They have formed their own rock band and are going through a bit of an existential crisis. They are fully aware that their entire lives will be spent aboard the ship, but what will their legacy be? The ship is about to fly close to a star for a gravitational boost, and there is a big gala to mark the occasion. Perhaps the occasion also calls for a little old fashioned rock and roll.

When it comes to generation ships, it sucks to be stuck in the middle. Everyone will remember the crew who launched the ship and the crew who landed the ship, but the ones in the middle? Yeah, usually not so much. The middle crew also have the psychological dilemma of knowing that they’re going to be spending their entire lives in a tin can. How do you cope with that sort of knowledge? That, of course, is the heart of this story. It certainly makes for some heavy themes, but overall the story is actually fairly lighthearted.

In terms of narration, I thought that John did an excellent job bringing the story to life. “The Middle Rages” is a story about finding meaning in life on a generation ship. I recommend it.

Amicae Aeternum” by Ellen Klages
Narrated by Rikki LaCoste, Isis LaCoste and Fiona Van Verth
A Cast of Wonders Original

This story follows two young girls named Corry and Anna. Corry and her family have been selected to be part of the crew of a generation ship that will be launching soon. She and Anna are spending one of their last days together experiencing as many Earth things as possible.

Yes, the description sucks, but the story is worthy of your time. This story, where do I even begin? There is tragedy in that Corry is so young, has so much to experience, but is being denied the wonders of Earth because of a choice that her parents made. Yet despite that, even though the time she has to spend with Anna is short, there is beauty and there is love in all the small moments they share together. This story is almost like a more extreme version of having a friend who moves far away from you. I remember the day I listened to this story. I had some other stories to listen to, but then I listened to this story. It was so beautiful, so touching, so perfect that I didn’t think anything else could top it.

All three narrators did an excellent job, and I especially liked the little song that Isis and Fiona sang. I think that we can expect great narration from both of them in the future. Oh yes, great narrations indeed.

“Amicae Aeternum” is a touchingly beautiful story that you won’t want to miss. Very much recommended.

Clarkesworld Magazine

Across the Terminator” by David Tallerman
Narrated by Kate Baker

This story is set at an American research base on the Moon. A severely underfunded research base. The scientists at the base have stumbled across what appears to be lunar planet life, but they’re severely strained for resources. As a result, they do the unthinkable: ask the nearby Chinese research base for help. Hank, one of the Americans, soon finds himself pseudopod falling in love with a Chinese scientist named Liang Lei. Unfortunately, tensions between Washington and Beijing are beginning to flare up. Will all their hard work be for naught?

This story was almost depressingly realistic. It’s seems that a new Space Race occurred between America and China, but that once they’d planted their flags and left footprints, they more or less stopped caring about lunar exploration. Sad thing is, that’s a pretty accurate description of the original Space Race. NASA received the budget for the Apollo mission not so much out of a sense of scientific exploration, but more because the military wanted to know if they could put some nukes up there. Well, that and it wouldn’t do to have a Soviet flag flying on the Moon.

There are so many amazing things that we could discover, and yet it could all be snatched away with little more than the stroke of a politician’s pen. Yet perhaps there is a glimmer of hope after all. The two teams of scientists seemed to get along fairly well together. Perhaps this story isn’t the end, but merely a dream deferred. Though there’s also the question of how long that dream will be deferred. Then there’s the tragedy of how Hank and Liang Lei’s relationship was sacrificed as a result of the political maneuverings. All of it really makes you ask, what could have been? Not just for this story, but for our own history.

What can I say? “Across the Terminator” is tragic, touching and sure to make you think for days to come. Do I even need to say that I recommend this one?

The Urashima Effect” by E. Lily Yu
Narrated by Kate Baker
2014 Theodore Sturgeon Award Finalist

This story follows an astronaut named Leo Aoki who is en-route to the planet Ryugu-jo on a relativistic spaceship. He is tasked with setting up a colony, and will be joined by his wife Esther a few years later. While Leo journeys towards Ryugu-jo he watches video recordings Esther has made for him about Japanese culture and folklore. The first tells the story of Urashima Taro, but it seems that Esther is hinting at something. What could it be?

This story was the first time I ever heard the story of Urashima Taro. It was great to learn more about Japanese folklore. So good was it, in fact, that it inspired me to create my own retelling of Urashima Taro: “Irwin Tarheel and the Fair Folk“. Now it’s pretty much impossible to discuss this story without spoiling the twist, so I’m going to have to do it here. Skip now if you don’t like spoilers.

Okay, people who don’t like spoilers gone? Good, let’s talk about the twist. It turns out that a cyber-attack has been launched on the United States, and is believed to have originated in Japan. Prejudice against Japanese-Americans reaches new heights, and there’s talk of bringing back the internment camps. Esther’s mission has been canceled, but Leo can use the ship’s escape pod, but Esther will be an old woman by the time he gets to Earth. He can, of course, continue the mission and hope that things get worked out.

We never do find out what Leo chooses. Normally, I’m not a big fan of stories with ambiguous endings, but it works out here. Personally, I think he kept going to Ryugu-jo. It is mentioned that the mission was his dream for many years. The story’s dilemma almost brings to mind a non-lethal version of “The Cold Equations”, but I like to think that Esther’s mission eventually gets back on the books. Call me a wide-eyed idealist, but I like happy endings. I do find it odd that it only took one cyber-attack, of questionable origin, to strain relations between America and Japan. That having been said, I can understand that it served a purpose within the story.

This story packs some really strong emotions, and Kate’s narration manages to capture them all. “The Urashima Effect” is a beautifully elegant story with quite an emotional punch. It goes without saying that I recommend it.

The Drabblecast

The Four Generations of Chang E” by Zen Cho
Narrated by Amy H. Sturgis, Ibba Armancas, Veronica Giguere and Serah Eley 
A Drabblecast Original

This story is set on the Moon and follows four generations of women all named Chang E. Some sort of catastrophe has occurred on Earth and there has been mass immigration to the Moon. In addition to hard times, the Earthlings face discrimination from the people of the Moon. The story follows the four Chang Es as they find their place in Lunar society and forge their own identities.

You know the drill for descriptions like this, so let’s go ahead and discuss the story itself. In many ways you can see this as a science fiction take on a generational saga/immigrant story. Particularly, that of Chinese immigrants moving to America. That is fitting, given that the moon goddess in Chinese Mythology is named Chang’e. I also liked how there were intelligent rabbits on the Moon; a reference to the story of the rabbit in the Moon. There is a theme of the Chang Es wanting to fit in with the people of the Moon, but also wanting to preserve their heritage. Yet paradoxically, the more they fit in with Lunar society, the less they relate to their Terran heritage. Like I said, it is very much an immigrant’s tale.

All four of the narrators did an excellent job with this story. I’m giving this one a recommendation.

Conclusion

Well we’ve reached our destination and made it to the end of the list once again. Now, if you’ll recall I said I had a big announcement to make so here it is: I’m quitting Amazing Stories.

Look, I know I just got back from a leave of absence. What can I say? It’s been a good run, I’ve shared a lot of great stories with you guys, but I feel that the time has come for me to move on. I need to focus on my fiction writing and making a name for myself, and I just don’t feel that I can do that if I’m hanging around this place. To tell you the truth, Amazing Stories has been feeling a little stuffy, and I could use a change of scenery.

Don’t think this is spur of the moment, I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time now. Don’t worry, I’m not going to  disappear unannounced. This is just a heads up to let you know what the plan is. I’m going to publish one or two more book/comic reviews, then I’ll publish one last edition of The Audio File and take my bow. Speaking of which, what will become of The Audio File? Where will you get your fix of audio fiction reviews?

Have no fear, I’ve got you covered. I’m bringing The Audio File to my personal blog Knowledge, Adventure and Wonder. Though I think I’ll be renaming the column The Audiophile. I’ve already posted a bunch of my book and comic reviews, and there are plenty of reviews exclusive to my blog. Come on over, you’ll be glad you did. Did I mention I’m writing stories and posting them on the blog as well? Oh, yes I am doing that, and I’ve got some poems as well.

So there you have it, prepare yourselves for my departure and then let’s go have a party over at my blog. All good things must come to an end, but as one song ends another is just beginning. And on that note, I will see you guys next time.

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