Monday, 30 August 2010

Podcasting and SF's health

It's been a while since I thought particularly hard about science fiction.

Well, that opening line scared off about half of the people likely to have a read of this post. If you're still around, carry on reading, especially if you've not really read SF before. You might read about something you may want to give a try. If you're already an SF fan, you might have heard all this before, if I'm perfectly honest.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend introduced me to Escape Pod, a science fiction podcast. I didn't subscribe straight away, instead waiting a couple of days and then downloading the latest edition. It featured Eugene, by Jacob Sager Weinstein which wasn't the most engaging of stories, if I'm honest. It featured a talking dog - for want of a better phrase, as it was a little more anatomically complex - in the police force. But what got me hooked was the discussion of the piece by the editor, Mur Lafferty.

It struck me then that SF is in good hands these days. It wasn't so long ago that I thought SF was in decline. The writers of the SF Golden Age were passing. Arthur C. Clarke - perhaps the greatest of them all - died in 2008. Philip K. Dick has been dead for more than two decades. Brian W. Aldiss is still alive, but well into his twilight years. Isaac Asimov is no longer with us. There are a handful of good - occasionally nigh-on great - popular SF writers, but compared to what the genre was thirty years ago, it didn't seem to be in the rudest of health. In the US especially writers seemed more interested in writing escapist fantasy rather than intelligent SF.

In my defence, what's on the shelves at Waterstones in Huddersfield isn't necessarily the greatest selection. Intelligent SF readers in the region are at a premium, it would be fair to say, and when I was at college fantasy was all the rage amongst people who I sat around passing time with. And if it wasn't them, it was the literary snobs in English Literature who turned their nose up at anything if it hadn't won a Pulitzer. Hugos? Nebulas? Not for them.

That statement about the English Lit class is a little harsh to most of the class, really, but my point is that nobody read SF. Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Dick, etc, were all alien names, when I have the feeling that 30 years ago they were at least known and respected, if not widely read by 'literary' people.

I'm getting off-topic. The point is that I felt SF wasn't where it should be. Magazines had declined following the advent of easily-available internet on top of the decline of intelligent SF on the shelves of bookshops.

But I'm pleased to report that my fears are far from the truth. Yes, the SF magazine has declined over recent years. Until recently I didn't know where to pick up the biggest SF magazine in Britain, and if I wanted to get a copy of Interzone from the shops it would involve a trek to Leeds, a round trip of some 30-odd miles. However, we see short stories available on the internet, often for free. I downloaded a magazine in PDF form - The Literary Hatchet - the other day, and found it to be fairly high-quality. Perhaps the stories weren't to my taste, but there is good short fiction out there to be read.

Going back to Escape Pod, it's been brilliant to subscribe to it and have a new short story arrive in audio form for free once a week. Short fiction has been something I've neglected in the past, so having this available to me to listen to has been a godsend. I've been listening through the back episodes and subscribing to other podcasts as well - Pseudopod and Starship Sofa, the former of which is horror rather than SF - and what has struck me most isn't the high quality. It's been the passion of the people behind it, the labour of love that each and every story is.

I have a feeling that this sort of presentation is the future of SF. The passion of the people behind these podcasts - and the fact that they work in symbiosis with each other, rather than competing per se - leaves SF with a rosy future. Perhaps now we're seeing a lull, because some of these SF writers I've been listening to stories from are exceptionally talented people.

One thing is that the podcasts need donations to survive. As much as we all want to receive everything for free, people providing services do need to survive, and it's only right that writers and other contributors are paid for their work. I may not be able to donate right now (I'm a skint student, for heaven's sake), but once I'm financially stable, I'll probably be donating £5 or £10 a month. If each person who listens to it does something similar, maybe we'll see these podcasts improve and thrive even more than they are now.

So search for Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Starship Sofa and Cast Macabre (amongst others) on the iTunes Music Store, in the podcasts section. Subscribe. And enjoy. And many thanks to Matthew Dent for pointing them out to me in the first place.

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