Speculative Fiction Podcasts That Will Make You Wish Your Commute Was Longer

Yesterday I bought the latest issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I was at a bookstore I had never been to before, but I knew where to look for it. It’s usually stacked next to Writer’s Digest, Poets & Writers and the like. Finding my short story magazines so reliably next to the writing magazines I again wondered, “Are writers the only people reading short stories anymore?” Do people buy Analog Science Fiction and Fact only to see what kind of stories the magazine is buying these days? I sure hope not. These stories are discovered by gifted editors sifting through hundreds, even thousands, of stories a month to find the most gripping and original material to share with their readers. Sure we’re all busy, but if entertainment and imagination are things we want in our lives, any month of Clarkesworld is going to treat you to stories as provoking as any random episode of Black Mirror. So how do we insert the wonder of short stories into the crowd of things there’s no time for as easily as our favorite Netflix shows somehow always get watched?

Luckily, technology, which has given us so many distractions, is also enabling some of the best distractions to work their way back into our lives. When I’m not in a place to read short stories to myself, through the magic of podcasts, I can have the short stories from current issues of two great speculative fiction outlets read to me by talented performers. If I’m driving or mowing the lawn or, these days, shoveling the walk, there is a good chance Kate Baker of the Clarkesworld podcast or Anaea Lay of the Strange Horizons podcast are in my ears telling me a story.

Podcasts are a godsend, or possibly alien technology. If you’ve been hesitant to jump into podcasts but love speculative fiction, let Clarkesworld and Strange Horizons be your gateway drugs.

The Clarkesworld fiction podcast was telling listeners stories for a little while before Kate Baker took over as full-time host and narrator in late 2009. She launched the podcast in its current format with a reading of “Spar” by Kij Johnson, a controversial but certainly incredible story that went on to win Nebula Award for short story that year. An auspicious beginning. “Spar” was my introduction to Ms. Baker and the Clarkesworld podcast, but as surprising as that story is, it may not even be in the top ten of my favorite stories I’ve experienced through Kate Baker’s lips. The editors at Clarkesworld are tireless in compiling short fiction you’ll be happy to find in your brain, both original work and reprints.

The “world” in Clarkesworld is not there by mistake. Clarkesworld stories tend to be dense in world building, but the world is always subservient to the story. Still, you won’t find many stories in Clarkesworld where the world described is very much like our own. The story with the nearest to a modern setting I can recall would be “Pernicious Romance” by Robert Reed, which is also one of my favorites. But the everyday world is a rare world in Clarkesworld. This publication aims to transport.

Strange Horizons has been an internet staple since the year 2000 and publishes on a weekly basis. It publishes only original fiction and has piled up its own share of speculative awards and nominations. The podcast launched at the beginning of 2013 and Anaea Lay has been there from the very start. Her first reading for the podcast was the short “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar which was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 2014. These shows were born with pedigrees. It’s difficult not to recognize a similarity in feel and format to the Clarkesworld podcast, but that’s no reason to complain. It’s a good model.

The stories at Strange Horizons are more variable in tone and approach than your average Clarkesworld story, even as diverse as the Clarkesworld stories can be. They also tend to be a bit shorter. Strange Horizons mixes things up by including a poetry podcast every month. I was weary of the poetry episodes at first, given how difficult a successful poem is to pull off, but I’ve been surprised and carried away by at least one poem in each of these brief podcasts. Some poems benefit from shedding their shape on the page and becoming simply words and refrains unconstrained.

The risk I sometimes consider in receiving these amazing stories so often through the voices of Kate Baker and Anaea Lay is the imprint their readings stamp into the experience. After all, every performance is an interpretation, and do I want that layer of interpretation between me and the author? Even an author reading their own work can put a spin on the words through intonation I would prefer the piece was divorced from. Perhaps my approach to these stories would have been different had I read them myself, but the professional, soothing voices of these two narrators are never overindulgent and leave me with plenty of room to live the stories in my own way. And without these podcasts, in my limited reading time, there are so many of these stories I would never have gotten around to at all.

The world is richer for these podcasts. And so are you. The podcasts are available at no charge. You can listen to them via iTunes, another podcast app, or on the magazine websites without ever being forced to pay a penny. Of course, stories don’t write, edit, and podcast themselves. Both Clarkesworld and Strange Horizons pay good rates to their authors, which while respectable, creates a great deal of work for their staffs as they sort through all the submissions to find the best work to share with all of us. So if you find yourself enjoying these podcasts, you can support their providers by subscribing to or donating to Clarkesworld or by buying books from or donating to Strange Horizons.

These awesome podcasts probably won’t return short stories to their pulp magazine heyday, but they can help us wedge great storytelling into our tight hours with less effort than ever before. Maybe more people will take advantage of them. These short stories should not just be for writers. They are too good. Writers are cool and all, but everyone deserves to be carried away like this.

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