Posts Tagged ‘Staff Pick 2013’


Cast of Wonders 114: Staff Pick 2013 – Now Cydonia

Show Notes

Now Cydonia ran as Episode 71 back in March of last year. One reason I’m personally so proud of our win is the story’s author, Rick Kennett. Although I’ve never met him, he’s from my home town of Melbourne, Australia and I love that a fellow countryman writes such kick-arse stuff. I narrated one of his ghost stories for Pseudopod, the immensely creepy The Dark and What It Said which is flat-out the best evocation of how spooky and lonely the Australian bush can be. Rick is a talented writer and I’m always happy to hear his stories when they appear in the pod-o-sphere.

Now Cydonia

by Rick Kennett

Cadet Cy De Gerch bounced forward into the desert darkness, raised her arms in a defensive posture and, as best as a fourteen year could, barked, “Halt! Who goes there!”

There was no one there. There never was.

Cy jumped back, a slow leap in the low gravity, to her original position on the perimeter, her vacsuit moving easy like a second skin, to watch and wait and break the boredom as best she could until relieved. Out there was the desert she had trekked the past two years with her section of Martian Star Corps cadets. Out there was the countryside of Mars – cold and red and a billion years dead, littered with rocks, pocked with craters, filled with myths and ghost stories, most of which Cy didn’t really believe. Sergeant Kreeng – Old Get-It-Right – had known what he was doing when he’d set them perimeter guard duty consisting mostly of doing nothing. It was, she knew, a discipline of the mind.

(Continue Reading…)

Episode 113: Staff Pick 2013 – The Malthus Alternative by Jamie Mason

The Malthus Alternative

by Jamie Mason


“The gantry or the gallows.” Father chuckles. “When I think of all the money wasted on this –” (he gestures through the tinted windows of the limousine at the ruined space-port beyond) “– garbage it makes me sick – sick, I tell you! Colonize space? Mankind would have done better creating space on our own world, not blasting off in search of others!”

I hold my tongue – a necessary job skill when working for Father. My childhood dreams of a career in theater or publishing have given way to the reality of a senior management position with Global Confinement Solutions, Father’s flagship concern. GCS is a place where arguing with Father is accounted (like live theater or literature or space travel) a complete waste of time. And the team at GCS should know. Because time is our business.

“The collapse of the space industry resulted in a real-estate windfall.” I use the neutral tone appropriate to business meetings (– any time spent with Father is a business meeting). “The Cuernavaca site is perfect for the ICE project. The old rocket storage facility, for example, provides several thousand square meters ideal for –”

“I’ve read the specs.” Father flaps a hand. Gazing out the window at the fence-line, his voice softens in uncharacteristic wonder. “Just look at them out there …”

I glance past the ranks of armed soldiers toward the view beyond. “Human misery.” It is difficult to maintain the neutral tone. But I manage.

“God may have condemned space travel, but He sure sanctified the profit motive! The Congruence says so. And here’s another chance to make a buck.” Father taps the glass separating us from the driver. The limo plunges skyward on a rising hum. I glance down at the facility once dedicated to exploring new worlds and experience a twinge of wistfulness.

“Just imagine if the New Frontier had worked! Other worlds for people to colonize instead of crowding every square inch of the planet. Space travel –”

“Is a pipedream – a dream, I tell you! No, Michael. What we need now is not a new frontier, but a new distraction. The constant pushing outward of human consciousness is what’s gotten us into this mess. We need a return of Mankind’s attention to more mundane affairs.” His voice drops to a purr. “Garibaldi’s breakthrough will change everything.”

Father gazes down at the starving multitudes crowding the fence-line and chuckles.

“The gantry or the gallows,” he whispers. “Make room! Make room …”


I first read about Thomas Malthus in my early teens – a year or two before joining the Congruence. I remember discussing him on the bus-ride home with Jeremy the day that I first met you.

“Who said, ‘The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man’?” Jeremy’s tone is crisp, confident. He is in the Cadet Corps, destined for a position as an officer with the Crusaders in one of their endless wars abroad.

“Malthus.” I gaze out the window, preoccupied. I have butterflies in my stomach – but not because of the Eighteenth Century economist we’re studying in History of Pre-Congruence America.

“What’s up, boyo?” Jeremy’s tone softens. “You haven’t been yourself today.”

“I – ah – have an appointment this afternoon …”

“Doctor?” For all his tough-guy swagger, Jeremy cannot stop a worried frown from creasing his features. We have been friends for a long time.

“No. Something important.”


You were never meant to enter my life for real. You were only meant to be a dream. But something happened. Some mechanism in my life, in the machinery of this room that punishes the guilty. We are only ever meant to inhabit our memories –to relive the past continually as opposed to moving ahead in linear time as others do. That is our punishment for various crimes, we who are condemned to the ICE Project. Enslavement to the Machine substitutes for hard time, delivering the sum total of an incarceration experience in virtual style. A metal cap to keep us walking around inside our own heads forever: chairs are cheaper than cells.

My crime was treason. The son of a wealthy family, I was expected to choose convenience over love. I accepted this. In much the same way that a carnivore accepts an endless diet of meat, I saw my days marching forward into a future as ordered as the rows of figures on an accountant’s spreadsheet.

The only escape I ever had from this – from the inevitability of my fate – came in the dojo …

“If you must,” sighs Mother. I am reliving the day she overcomes her distaste at the notion of my doing martial arts, of rolling and grappling across the mats with the sons and daughters of cops and miners and factory workers. She signs the check and leaves me to my own devices – a precious pair of hours in which to grab my gym bag and uniform and escape to a place beyond her ordered world of servants and manners and money.

That was where I first saw you. Where I see you every day …

You are calm. Your clay-colored skin is dark against the white of your gi (for we only wore white in those days). Bare feet spread shoulder width apart, you gaze at me skeptically, unafraid – a strange girl, so different from any I have known before. I am a newcomer to the dojo – you, an experienced student already wearing a colored belt. Your eyes glint with amusement as you watch me fumble through my clumsy break-falls and first few techniques. And I am struck by attraction – not to your body, but to the calm engine of your will that idles and purrs and vibrates so smoothly behind your calm, clay-colored eyes …

A pause. The Machine thrums and clicks. And I am thrown ahead, to another moment in my life.


‘Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio.’ ” Mr. Heward glares down his nose at me. He adores his other pupils but treats me with a chilly disdain. I have done something to earn his eternal dislike and am learning that no amount of joking or striving or deference will ever change this fact.

“Who said that, Michael?”

I glance over at Jeremy. He seems amused at my confusion. Our relationship has changed ever since he, along with most of the other boys in class, joined the hockey team that Heward coaches. I cannot skate. Suddenly, I am alone on the outside.

“Malthus,” I say quietly.

There is a lengthy pause as Heward parses my tone for insolence. Finding none he nods and begins reading the next question in the exam we wrote last week – the one he handed back to us moments ago. A large red C-minus dominates the cover sheet of my copy.

I glance at Jeremy again.

You are a loser, boyo,” he whispers. And grins.


“Art!” Father shouts. “Your job is to make money, not art. Art is a prole’s game. Your place is at the top – the top, I tell you – of the pinnacle of the pyramid, helping to organize the work of the lower orders. You must take your place. It has been prepared for you and no one else can fill it!”

So I was told. And raised. I struggled through the cruel initiations of the upper class – the ritual humiliations of the playing field, the endless semesters of mathematics and science. The labor was grueling (especially for me who, in retrospect, no doubt suffered from some sort of learning disability). But I put my head down. Shouldered through. And what sustained me was …

“Michael,” sensei calls. I stand. Walk to the mats.


You rise from the line of students to stand across from me. Your eyes sparkle and flash with confidence in your skill. For we have been training together almost a year now and under your supervision I have grown from a clumsy novice to a competent amateur. But my technique still lacks the grace, the fluid fire of your own. As we bow and advance to fight, I sense the certainty, the determination in your movements. I have longed to express my admiration for your capabilities but my first attempt to share this with you in words was met by your mocking gaze, by silence. So now we close and speak in the only language left to us …

It’s not your fault that you are the way you are, any more than it’s my fault I fell in love with you. Trapped here in this room that makes people experience their lives over and over again, powerless to change their mistakes, I have searched for a thread of meaning to make sense of this chaos and pain. That thread is you.

The heart beats. The breath rises and falls. Memories compile. And a life is born.


“Before the Congruence, all was darkness.” The padre glares down at us from the pulpit, causing a ripple of obedience through the crowd of fourteen- and fifteen year-old boys that might have been called ‘miraculous’ had not use of such terms been carefully regulated.

“Before President O’Dell was elected, only Unbelievers occupied the highest levels of power. They believed in secularism, not Congruence. They celebrated separateness, not Union. They worshipped Man … not God.”

I swallow and gaze down at the black lily I hold. All of us boys who are to be Fellowshipped that day hold them. The dark lily is symbolic of the Black Chalice – the Death Pact that binds Converts to the Congruence. Somewhere in the shadows of the Chapel behind me, Father looks on, beaming proudly from amongst a congregation of identical Chosen wearing their double-breasted suits.

“Men in those days celebrated all the dark demons of liberal fascism!” The padre hoists a hand high. “Drugs! Witchcraft! Pedophilia! Abortion!” On the last word, his hand curls into a tight fist. “Murder of the unborn. Canonized in law and celebrated as a sacrament by women who chose to bear children outside the institution of marriage! Women who sired litters of Unbelievers with multiple men, then turned to other women to satisfy their perverted lusts! It was like unto the days of Sodom, the days of Noe!”

Like unto the days of Malthus, I think. I imagine the primitive economist taking refuge in a garden shed from his various wives and litters of children to scribble his theories. I consider sharing this observation with Jeremy, but he is elsewhere now – standing with his hockey friends, his military friends. I am alone on the outside. Again.

The padre pauses meaningfully before continuing.

“And then there came the Dark Times as foretold in Revelations. The war against the Antichrist! I was a young man when Israeli jets swept over the border to bomb Tehran, igniting the Apocalypse War. I recall the disruption of the global food distribution network, the Great Hunger! The War seemed interminable before the first Saints arose to lead the fighting men of North America into the deserts. Over a million of them and a quarter-million tanks confronted the enemy at the Battle of Megiddo. They say at the height of the fighting a thousand died every half–hour. The cost was enormous! But soon after, our Crusaders rode into Jerusalem victorious. It was there among the ruins of the Dome of the Rock that Joshua received the sacrament of the Lily from the Dark Angel.”

“Blessed be the Dark Angel,” we intone obediently (– although I, from Middle-School habit, say ‘angle’ instead of ‘angel,’ prompting a hissed “quiet,boyo!” from Jeremy)

“President O’Dell was wounded in that war. He rose miraculously from his hospital bed to speak in tongues and found the group that would eventually control the government and, finally, the White House. Canada and Mexico were annexed and the Congruence was born – a fellowship into which you fortunate young men will now be joined.

“In preparation for the Final War.”

An excited whisper passes among the cadets. This was unexpected!

The padre is beaming. “Again the trumpet sounds. The brave sons of North America go forth, this time not to aid an ally but to wage war against the final abomination and render the world safe for human procreation. For I have been told by angels this morning and it shall be announced by the President himself on liNk tonight that the war to eliminate birth control from the planet has begun.”


I experienced your life only in the brief glimpses I caught of you in the dojo. For as I endured the kiln of patrician life, I continued to escape to the world we shared. We never spoke. I knew nothing about you. Once, standing in the rain after class waiting for my lift, I saw a battered vehicle pull up to the curb driven by a woman who resembled you. You slipped into the passenger seat, your gi folded and tucked under your arm, and I caught the woman’s voice rising in anger at you the instant before the door closed. You sat stone-faced as the car plunged into traffic. Another time a motorcycle came, driven by an older male who also bore a slight resemblance to you. Smiling, you climbed onboard and wrapped your arms around his waist. The two of you sped away as I watched. For an instant, I was jealous until deciding the young man was probably your older brother.

You become tired and drawn the further you progressed into womanhood. It never occurred to me to question the effect the Congruence’s new laws governing women might be having upon you. One by one the other girls stopped coming to the dojo but you endured. Grew tougher. Quieter. Better. In the line-up before and after class to bow in, you were always one space ahead of me – my sempai, senior student. As I said, we never spoke. A nod upon meeting. A glance between us during practice. The occasional fierce encounter – from which I drew lessons of will that sustained me in my other life. We belt tested once per year. Occasionally, I caught up with but never passed you. You were that good.


“Boyo, I’m a soldier. I fight the wars the politicians tell me to fight. I don’t ask questions.”

“But eliminating birth control will only make things worse! A child could tell you that …”

Jeremy tips his beer bottle to his lips, grinning. Our friendship has been newly resurrected since his return from boot camp. He still wears his military fatigues. “Malthus said population grows at a geometric ratio while food –”

“Grows in a linear fashion, I know. That’s the problem!”

“And war is the solution.” Jeremy spreads his hands to indicate the crowd of upper middle class kids swarming the house around us. It is Labor Day Weekend. This impromptu party at the home of a classmate whose parents are out of town has been hastily organized. “Our friends here are in competition for food resources with kids from different countries. We have to eliminate that competition and secure our way of life.”

“Maybe that’s what you should question!”

“Nut!” He scrubs my hair affectionately. “That’s your job. You’re the writer, boyo. Me? I’ll just drink my beer. And, if you’ll excuse me, cherchez les femmes.”

He slips down from the balcony rail and heads indoors, leaving me alone to brood.

Our friends here … Are these really my friends, these spoiled patrician children of the upper class? My experiences at the dojo have given me a different perspective. The kids I train with are from the lower classes. I see them growing thinner, scrawnier with lack of food. The war isn’t just against outsiders – it’s against our own people. Yet among the assembled guests, I alone am in a position to know this. As the party grows quieter and the lights dim and kids pair off for make-out sessions in the shadows, I fear for the future of our society. Finding my jacket, I move dejectedly through the darkened living room toward the door.

And that’s when I spot you.

Standing quietly in the shadows, you observe the entwined couples with a vaguely amused expression. How you ended up at a rich kids’ party is beyond me. But your recognition of me when you turn is instantaneous. Your eyes narrow but your smile widens slightly. As in the dojo, we exchange a wordless nod.

Gently, you move forward and take my wrist. Out of habit I resist your touch but you turn and speak to me with your eyes, inviting me to follow. For a moment I wonder if you intend to kiss me. We move through the shadowed house, past the writhing couples, headed for the stairs. Take them down to the basement and outside to the small backyard where we are alone.

At the edge of the lawn you kick off your sneakers, move out to the middle of the grass and wait, hands on your hips.

I shake my head and follow suit. A moment later, we stand two meters apart from each other, barefoot.

I chuckle.

You shrug and smile.

We bow to one another.

A moment later you are grasping me with your rough-nailed hands, levering me into position for a throw. I resist and we are off again, locked in combat. The closest either of us will ever come to love.


I moved from adolescence into young manhood, shaped by the forces of the other world I inhabited – the world my parents controlled. It was a place of winnowing. Stripped from me gradually were all notions of humanity and fairness. I was taught to adapt. Rather than be alarmed by the growing crowds of homeless in the streets, Father traded our Excalibur Presidential for a hovercar – a Lincoln limofoil. Now instead of riding through packed streets preceded by an armed escort, we floated high above the growing ranks of homeless until they became mathematical abstractions. The ordered rows of figures in the accountant’s ledger reinforced a world where some ruled and others served. This was ordained (apparently) by God, maintained by force and ensured by the existence of for-profit prisons like the ones owned and operated by Global Confinement Solutions.   

My life ended senior year of high school. My destiny lay in university – far away from childhood, the clumsy first steps of adulthood, the foundry of will that was the dojo. And you.

Another memory …

I move across the mats to where you stand alone.

“Glenda.” It is the first time in a half decade I have spoken to you. “I’m leaving. Going to the mainland. To university.”

You gaze back at me. Watchful. But now, as in our matches, attentive for my next move. Ready to counter it.

“I wanted to thank you. You’ve taught me so much, you see. I want to tell you … I want you to know how much you’ve helped me. And I want to … be friends. And stay in touch.”

“I’m flattered,” you say coolly. “But I’m not interested that way.”

“No, Glenda … You don’t understand. I don’t want –”

Sensei calls out “seiza!” and you sprint for your place in line, leaving me alone.

I never got to tell you how your courage and determination inspired me. How having you as a mentor and opponent improved me. How the mocking light from your clay-colored eyes annoyed and shamed and moved me to be something better. You were the best friend I ever had. And I didn’t even know you.

The next day I pack up and move to the mainland.


During my undergraduate program at the new Polytechnic in Surrey, I learned about convenience and control. The curriculum was heavy on Congruence teachings. I learned how science and the ordered columns of statistics had subjected humanity to its present mess. As the ranks of Crusaders filled with young men eager to fight the war on birth control (dubbed “the War for Life”), I watched and wondered how the government expected a sharp rise in the human population to improve an already crowded situation. The public rationales were always grounded in scripture and revelation. Over and against this was the data-driven business curriculum my father insisted upon as a necessary precursor to a position with his company.

“Overpopulation. Overconsumption. Over-education.” Father smiles at me. I am remembering a discussion from Christmas break during my Freshman year. “An entire civilization grasping for the golden ring only a few were ever meant to have. Why? Because their eyes have been opened – opened, I say – by progress – by the absence of those things that always kept the lower orders in check. Poverty. Disease. Ignorance.”

My sophomore year coincided with a tipping point in the War for Life.

“Make room! Make room!” Father laughs, gazing down from the great window of the fortified penthouse tower in which we now live. “Barely enough space down there to breathe, let alone live anymore.”

“Father, you always spoke of our place at the top, of our responsibility to help organize the work of those lower down …”

“What about it?”

“How are we going to help them?” I gesture toward the multitudes crowding the streets below.

Father is silent for a time.

“We’ll think of something.”

And he did.

It is during my junior year at university. Father comes over to the mainland on business and stops by for lunch. Uncharacteristically chummy, he asks to spend the afternoon with me. I tell him I have a commitment to attend a lecture by a guest speaker, Dr. Antonio Garibaldi of the University of Turin. Father says it had been a while since he’s attended a lecture and so accompanies me across the quad to the auditorium at the edge of campus. An angry crowd of hunger-crazed homeless roils beyond the chain-link fence ringing campus. Sunlight glints off the helmets of the snipers guarding the roof as we step inside.

“At the University of Turin,” Garibaldi begins, “we are beneficiaries of a government grant to explore the field of psycho-cybernetics. This fascinating discipline is still in its infancy. Yet already we are making enormous strides in the human/computer interface. Consider …” Onscreen a slide appears of a man connected to a machine by a metal cap. “Already we have been able to stimulate thought and memory centers of the brain via precision impulses from a computer. In this subject for example, we were able to induce a memory loop which caused him to re-live his sixth birthday party in almost perfect detail.”

Father stops texting his secretary and looks up.

“The precision of recall utilizing this technology is formidable.” Garibaldi summons an image of a graph with arced data points rendered in contrasting colors. “In controlled experiments, we were able to compare accuracy between individuals recalling events from memory versus those hooked to the machine. As you can see, the contrast is significant. When their experience is enhanced by mood-altering drugs it is almost as if those who undergo the treatment actually re-live events. The applications of such technology in terms of repairing damaged or incomplete memories, or for helping the police in questioning witnesses is …”

Father is texting again. I glance over and read:



My final day as an employee of Global Confinement comes three years later. It is raining.

“Thomas Malthus was an Eighteenth Century economist who observed that the Earth’s capacity to furnish resources for a geometrically expanding population is limited.” Father addresses the Executive Committee of GCS from the head of the boardroom table. “With victory in sight in the Congruence’s War for Life, we confront the reality of an overburdened biosphere. The Earth was only ever meant to sustain a fraction of its current load. As the global population tops 12 billion, we face a legacy of perpetual starvation. The question becomes how to judiciously apportion diminishing resources to a geometrically-expanding human family. The answer … is ICE.

“Indefinite Confinement Experiment represents a union between our for-profit prison network and Dr. Garibaldi’s psycho-cybernetic technology. I have just returned from a meeting with President-for-Life O’Dell in Washington and he has authorized us to begin deployment of this solution among the general population. The starving masses you see in the streets will be moved to facilities where they can be held in stasis, connected to infinite memory loops that will hold them in a humane variant of suspended animation in which they can relive actual memories while consuming nutrient resources at a drastically-reduced rate. This will buy us time to consider the next step in dealing with the population problem …”

“You mean put them all in prison?” This from a senior board member.

“Warehouse the lot.” Father waves a hand.

“At least the golf courses will be freed up!”

A tide of laughter sweeps the table.

“Consuming nutrients at a vastly reduced rate?” asks another.

“Via intravenous means. Confined to chairs and drugged, they’ll take up less space Best thing for them, I tell you. Michael? Where are you –?”


Father waves me out the door.

Heedless of my safety, ashamed, I stalk the tight-packed streets – past trashcan fires and shattered doorways in which sleep the remnants of poor and middle-class families not fortunate enough to rank among the super-rich. Cast out from housing meant to keep them warm and safe, they form the great sprawling underclass of urban poor that jams the crumbling remains of once-great cities.

… and turning a corner … I see …

The dojo.

It is there. Still there. A miracle of memory and tradition, it stands. In a world where every square inch of space is fought over, where every notion of private property has been abandoned to the necessities of overpopulation, by what act of will it survives inviolate, door still intact, windows un-smashed. I cannot fathom. And lit within, a small circle of students clad in traditional uniforms sits listening as their sensei speaks to them gently. Explaining some fine point of wisdom earned by hard experience and will. The black belt around her slender waist, the weight of tradition borne gracefully on slender shoulders. And, when she turns, the mocking light in her clay-colored eyes mellowed, with age, to gentle humor …

Across the distance of years we gaze at one another. You smile at me ever so slightly. Incline your head in just the shallowest bow. Reminding me. Of the hard-won lessons we taught each another in a former time – of respect earned, of learning one’s place, of fighting with honor to bring the best inside one’s self alive.

All this in a glance. Then you turn back to your students.

Broken inside, I return home.


It is a simple matter to learn the Plan. And even simpler to expose it.

The purchase of the sprawling warehouse space, the mass production of Machines, the plot to quietly return military units home from overseas to accomplish the mass round-ups and incarcerations – all these are connected by a data trail that it is child’s play for an educated mind on the inside track to uncover. I spend a week hacking mainframes, downloading video and text files, reconstructing the moves made by GCS to enslave us all. I gather and synthesize it into one single, great message and, at midnight – when the censor-bots are asleep – spawn it across a billion networks with a keystroke. The Revolution has begun.

They come for me at dawn.


One final memory.

We are fifteen. Kneeling across from one another, we await sensei’s order. At his barked command, we surge forward and collide in a tangle of arms and legs, hands scrambling for purchase as we wrestle for advantage. Relying on my boy’s strength, I get on top. But it only lasts for a second. Using your girl’s agility and superior skill, you flip me off, lever me down, apply a choke. Frightened, I feel my will begin to fade. That’s when our eyes meet and you speak the only words to me you ever volunteered of your own free will.

“Keep fighting,” you whisper.


I will.

Episode 112: Staff Pick 2013 – Kulturkampf

Show Notes

Barry’s staff pick is the story of war by music, “Kulturkampf”. I had tremendous fun working with Anatoly on picking the appropriate music for this story. It’s a very clever and entertaining steam-punkish tale of battling classical composers. And thanks also to Anatoly for suggesting his friend Hans Fenstermacher as narrator. Hans’ German pronunciation is prefect… unlike mine.


by Anatoly Belilovsky

September 1, 1870

Most respected Feldmarschall von Moltke,

I wish to thank you for giving me the opportunity to put my theories to the test in the taking of Sedan. They were, of course, entirely correct, and our clear tactical victory I am happy to be reporting. (Continue Reading…)

Episode 111: Staff Pick 2013 – The Giant Who Dreamed of Summer by Jess Hyslop

Show Notes

As our longtime listeners know, Cast of Wonders takes the month of January off each year, so we can recharge our batteries, and get out in front of the next year’s production schedule. And this year is no exception. However this January instead of leaving you with an empty playlist, Cast of Wonders is proud to present our Staff Picks!

Graeme, Barry and I (Marguerite) have selected our personal favorite story from 2013, and even further back in one case. Each of us will introduce the story, and talk a bit about we found so memorable about that particular tale.

But “Ahhh!”, I hear you say, “January has four weeks, and there’s only three of you! What are you going to do the last week of the month?” Well I’m glad you asked, because we’ll re-play our Small Cast, Short Form Parsec award winner, “Now Cydonia” by Rick Kennet, to transition you into a new year of what we hope to be even more award winnings stories, week after week.

And since I’m here, I guess that means I get to go first!

Barry and Graeme invited me to become the Editor of Cast of Wonders right before Christmas in 2012. I had just moved to the UK a few months prior, and the shorter days and significantly colder weather was starting to affect my mood. In January, while juggling a crushing course load in law school and frantically reading slush to be ready for the February episodes, I read the first submission that made me cry.

Jess Hyslop’s wonderful first-person narrative of a frost giant yearning for the touch of summer cut straight through my winter blues and reminded me of how good, how life affirming that first truly hot day of summer feels. Not just spring and rolling forward the clocks, but summer and that prickly, sizzling sensation on the tops of your shoulders when you wear a tanktop outside for the first time each year. Maybe, if you’re lucky, on the way to spend a day on the beach.

“The Giant Who Dreamed of Summer” is also the first story where the choice of narrator wasn’t really a choice so much as a lightning bolt of inspiration. I’ve been a fan of MK Hobson as a guest host and reader on Podcastle for years. I backed “The Warlock’s Curse”, the sequel to her smash hit debut novel “The Native Star”, on Kickstarter. The giant’s sense of humor, the gentle way it scolds as well as instructs the child, and the sensation of wisdom immediately brought MK’s warm and rich-yet-worn-around the edges voice to mind. I was thrilled when she accepted my request. Thanks MK!

The Giant Who Dreamed of Summer

by Jess Hyslop

What’s this–another visitor? How tiresome. I thought I had seen the last of you when the guards departed. I thought I had finally been left to meet my end in peace.

Wishful thinking. I thought I was beyond that, too.

Well, you must excuse me if I do not get up. These chains, you see…

What is such a tiny thing as you doing here all alone, anyway? Do your parents know that you are up here? I doubt that they’d approve. The hillside is steep and treacherous, and there are all sorts of dangers for a little flake like you. How your mother will scold if you tear your skirts! How your father will tut if you scrape your dainty ankle! How they will weep if you tumble from a bluff! And, my, how they will curse and stamp and rage if you end up in the belly of a starving frost giant.

I jest, child. Despite what you have been told, we giants do not eat people. It is only in your stories that such loathsome things occur.

Nevertheless, you should run along. Your parents are doubtless sick with worry, and I do not want to be blamed for your disappearance. Your King has made me miserable enough already. The last thing I need is to suffer more of his so-called justice.

What have I done? By the blizzards, girl! You must be the only person in the nation who does not know–or think they know–my transgression. It was trumpeted from the rooftops, shouted through the streets, declaimed across the land! The nation wept, child, if the criers are to be believed!

You really do not know?    

I could tell you, if you wish. It would be gratifying, after all, to tell someone what really happened. You want to hear the tale? Very well then. But first, you must promise me this: if you are found here, you’ll make it absolutely clear that I did not keep you against your will.

Agreed? Good.

Now listen closely–for this is the truth of it.


My crime is only this: I dreamed of summer.

Now, I know what you are thinking–that surely that is not my sole offence. I am a frost giant, after all–I must be guilty of hundreds of misdemeanours. Do not protest; I know what you humans think of us. To you, were are merely the beings who come with the winter, who arrive when the harvests are over and the mornings have begun to sparkle, who revel in the whiplash snap of cold and the bitter depths of long, dark nights. You dread the day you spy us looming over the horizon, loping across your lands with slivers of ice showering from our skin. We are the heralds of your hardship: the heavy crunch of our footsteps fills your hearts with fear. You call us lumbering, bestial, grotesque. You think us destructive and cruel. You blame us for your barren, icebound fields, for your clenching stomachs, for the blue tinge at the tips of your fingers. You look upon us, with our hailstone eyeballs and torsos dressed with rime, at the hoarfrost prickling our chins, and you shiver.

But the winter is not our doing. We are its slaves as much as you are–more so, in fact. For we frost giants cannot escape that frigid season: we must remain always in its clutches, or else we perish. Our lives are an endless migration, following the winter as it sweeps across the land. Where the snows fall, we must follow; where the ice melts, we must flee. We are forever running for our lives.

Have you ever felt your own lashes start to thaw and trickle down into your eyes?

I thought not.

My eyelashes were the first of me to go. Now my toenails, too, have vanished–these wet smears are all that are left. I have only managed to preserve my fingernails this long by keeping my hands tucked into my armpits.

I hope you realise how lucky you are. For although you must endure the winter once a year, you also see it pass. You can stay here when the ice-clouds disperse, when the wind’s bite becomes a caress, when the animals emerge from their nests and the icicles drip, drip, drip themselves away. You are here, too, before the winter comes, when the grain is cut from the fields and the leaves drift golden from the trees. But your greatest fortune of all is that you are here during that marvellous, mystical time, that season no frost giant has ever experienced, nor ever will… You are here for the summer.

I envy you so very much.

Oh, I am not saying that a frost giant’s life is always terrible. Winter possesses a harsh beauty of its own, and it is not as monotonous as you might think. Let me tell you, girl, the winter in your country is a mere chill compared to others I have seen. I have frolicked in the wastes of Terrmaril, far to the north of here, where the winters are long and black and starless, and the people burrow beneath the ground for warmth. I have witnessed the chaotic majesty of Elh-San, the great snowstorm that crashes across the Annilh continent every seventh winter, powerful enough to devastate a city in a day. And I have heard the howling of the wolves during the beast-winters of Rakkash, where the cold is so intense that it drives the animals mad. They stream out of the forests, heaving hordes of fur and claws that streak across the plains, chasing down sleds and devouring anyone in their path.

All these winters I have known, all these joys and perils I have faced… and yet I have never seen a summer. Of the autumn I have often caught a whiff, scenting the musty aroma of hay and apples when my tribe moves on a little too quickly. Springtime, too, I know something of; it is not unusual for us to glimpse the occasional snowdrop if we linger too long in one place. But summer… summer remains but a dream to me.

Do not climb into my lap, you pesky thing! Can’t you read the sign? I am a notorious criminal, unpredictable, possibly violent, and on no account am I to be fed nor touched.

I will also make a very cold seat.

Oh, have it your way then. Only watch where you put your feet. My left thigh has started to melt, and it wouldn’t do for you to slip.

Right, now, settle down.

Do you know how frost giants came into this world? But no–I don’t suppose you are taught such things. Let me explain; it will help you understand.

It was Winter who made us. Many aeons ago–when the peaks of the mountains were young and sheer, and the land lay unfurrowed for leagues on end–we were but ordinary giants, fleshly creatures like yourself (only rather larger), with speckled skins and coarse black hair and eyes of coloured jelly. We ate antelope and ox and boar as all giants did. We slept at the feet of hills and coupled beneath the boughs of towering cedars, our backs dappled with leaf-shade. We forded frothing rivers in the spring, ran through the summer fields, gorged on pears in the autumn, and huddled together through the winter. We were free to do as we pleased, and to wander where we willed.

What luxury my ancestors enjoyed! But such things cannot last.

Winter came to us. He swept in amongst the giants with his shrill laughing voice and his white-blasted hair, and he changed our race forever. Why, I do not know. Winter is a fickle being. Who can tell why he acts as he does–why one winter may be mild and moist and grey, and the next sharp and deadly as a headsman’s axe? Whatever his motivation, it is beyond a mortal’s power to resist. My ancestors certainly could not. They were helpless as Winter transformed them, freezing the blood in their veins and sucking the ruddiness from their skin, leaving them hard and brittle and blue. When the giants were altered to his satisfaction, Winter let out a giggle of glee. Then he whirled and ran, prancing away on the winds. My ancestors had no choice but to pursue him, stumbling and awkward in their strange new bodies. From that moment on, we frost giants were doomed to follow Winter, trailing him wherever he goes. His disciples. His slaves.

But although my chill anatomy shackles me to Winter, my heart has always yearned for Summer. In my imaginings, she is the most beautiful thing one could ever lay eyes upon, warm and kind where Winter is feckless and cold. I picture her dressed in dahlia petals, trailing a skirt of bluebells and daisies. Her skin is dark–like yours, child–and she smiles as around her she weaves long, balmy dusks and lush, green marvels.

Perhaps I am foolish. My family certainly thought so. They chided me for my peculiar desire. A frost giant, longing for Summer? It was bizarre, unseemly; it was needlessly reckless. My mother was especially vehement on the subject. Did I want to thaw, was that it? Did I want to end my days as a sad little puddle?

Here’s a lesson for you, child: sometimes parents really do know best.

I should have listened to my mother… but I did not. I persevered with my ambition. I knew, of course, that I would never have the opportunity to see Summer herself (how I grieved for that sad fact!), but at least I could try to catch a glimpse of her realm.

First, I sought out paintings depicting that fabulous season, and I gazed at them for hours. Those hot colours! Those golden tints! And, by the blizzards, those greens! My eyes drank it all in–and yet I was not sated.

I turned to music next. I visited the greatest musicians of each land and begged them to play me their summertime harmonies. Some curtly refused; some would not even open their doors to my knocking (though I was ever so gentle); some screeched and fled. But some indulged me, though they looked at me askance as they did so. I do not blame them. I must have seemed mad, squatting awkwardly outside their windows, held rapt by the melodies that floated out of the casements.

I heard some beautiful music. A flautist played me a sweet, rising tune embellished with trills, composed to imitate the playful nature of a summer’s breeze. A trumpeter surprised me with a series of sudden blaring bursts, which he claimed represented the waves of summer heat that rolled across the western deserts. A harpist enchanted me with a gentle cascade of chiming notes, notes that echoed the glinting of sunlight off rippling leaves. They were masterworks, all. But still they were not enough to appease me.

Then I heard about the garden.

There was a woman, it was said, in the country of Hafan, who was the most talented gardener of the age. Her name was Yalina, and people flocked from far and wide to look upon her handiwork. She cultivated hanging gardens and pleasure gardens and terrace gardens, gardens formal and gardens wild, gardens of flowers, of rocks, of tea, and of herbs. But her chief achievement, and the most famous of all her creations, was her summer garden. Encased in a house of glass, its plants bloomed all year round, preserved in an oasis of heat. The garden was the pride of Hafan, unrivalled anywhere else in the world. And, most importantly for me, it was said to capture the very essence of summer.

I had to see it. Do you understand, child? I had to see it. It was not a choice. When I heard about Yalina’s summer garden, I was drawn there as surely as hail to the ground.

My tribe agreed to winter in Hafan. They thought that visiting the garden would rid me of my restlessness and soothe my strange longings. When we arrived in the country, I could not wait. I left my tribe and ran to Yalina’s gardens (though I took care not to trample any hedgerows; see, we frost giants are anything but inconsiderate!).

People scattered in all directions as I approached my goal–some even screamed–but I was too excited by what I saw to be insulted by their rudeness. It was just as beautiful as I had imagined. The glass building stood as tall as I, illuminated inside by hundreds of blazing lanterns. It shone like a beacon–oh, the promise of that place! Just looking at it made you anticipate the warmth that dwelt within.

I can hardly express how badly I wanted to see inside it–how I ached to see the plants it housed, to smell the rich loam, to feel its heat–if only for a moment (for I was not so senseless as to forget my meltable body).

I ventured closer and peered through the panels. But, alas, the glass was entirely steamed over, and all I could see was a white fog as impenetrable as any winter mist.

You must understand: all I wanted was a glimpse, a breath upon my face.

I went to the front of the glasshouse and knelt before the entrance, careful not to knock the fragile structure. The door of the place was very small (you humans really are absurdly tiny) but I found that if I leaned over and placed my cheek against the ground I might see through it, when it was open.

I was careful, I swear I was careful. But why should you believe me? Nobody believed me then, and no one believes me now. I am a frost giant–a blundering, destructive beast–and I must have done it on purpose.

I held my breath as I edged my finger towards the door, hooking the tiny brass handle with a sliver of my fingernail. Then, slowly–ever so slowly–I pushed it down.

Oh, to turn back time!

As I drew the door open–as I felt, for one magical instant, a whisper of heat tickle my eyeball–the glasshouse shivered. It trembled all over like a newborn foal abandoned in the snows. It shivered, it trembled… and then it shattered.

Such a delicate thing.

I will never forget the sound it made. A great, sharp crack like all of your dreams splintering at once, then a monstrous crash like a wave beating itself to oblivion upon a rocky shore. I leapt away from the building, but it was too late. The beautiful glass structure collapsed before my eyes, and the shards fell around me like splinters of ice. In that moment, a rush of sensation flitted past me, a surge of heat and nectar and marigold–the whoosh of the summer escaping. And then it was gone, and in its wake there was only me: a wretched, heartbroken frost giant, kneeling in the remains of Yalina’s summer garden, howling my misery to the cold winter skies.

That was when the guards arrived.

Ah, tears. It is a new sensation for me, weeping. I never cried before my capture; my tears froze before they could fall. What a gift your King has given me, eh? The ability to weep before I die.

The rest of the tale is self-evident. I was surrounded, trussed up, prodded with spears. The guards hurled obscenities at me as I was led away. I was too stunned to resist. Somewhere, I could hear a woman weeping. Perhaps it was Yalina. I wish I could apologise to her, but she has never come to visit me.

I was dragged to the court and put on trial before your King. It was a horrible ordeal. He and all the spectators looked at me with utter hatred, as though I were some kind of murderer. I suppose I am, in their eyes–for everyone loved Yalina’s summer garden, and I destroyed it. I tried to explain, though I knew before I began that it would make no difference.

“I did not mean to ruin the garden,” I said. “I only wanted to see the summer.”

To which the King, who must have thought himself very clever, replied: “And so you shall.”

And you think us cruel.

So here I am, shackled in iron, held fast to the rocks of this hillside. At first, it was not so bad. My tribe stayed with me while the winter lasted. They comforted me in my plight, smuggling me handfuls of food and chasing away any humans who ventured near. My mother even petitioned the King for mercy on my behalf, but his heart must be colder than any frost giant’s, for he refused to grant me reprieve.

Now the winter has passed, and spring has taken its place. My tribe could not stay, and bade me tearless but solemn farewells before pursuing their course southwards with the snows. Your people started arriving, then, puffing their way up the hillside to gawk at the captive giant. Some worked up the courage to taunt me, calling me hideous names and even throwing stones. Stones are hurtful at the best of times, but in my softened state they are downright dangerous. Look closely–see, I am pitted with holes! My poor nose has suffered most; I lost a large chunk of it to a particularly well-aimed missile.

Don’t be silly, child–of course the guards didn’t stop them. I am condemned to death. What do a few stones matter?

Even the guards have gone now. The people grew bored with their mockery, and after a few weeks no one bothered to climb up here anymore. The guards were recalled soon after. They trust the chains to hold me here, until the end.

We frost giants take a long time to melt. It will be well into spring before I have thawed completely, though I expect my toes will not last the month. I shall try to protect my fingers for as long as possible, but inevitably they too will soon dissolve. My sense of smell is already wavering as my nose drips away from my face. In another fortnight, it will be gone. A week after that, and my hearing will start to fade. My eyes will probably last longer, but I will be blind before the finish.

By the time summer arrives, I shall be dead. I shall have dribbled away down the cracks in the rock and soaked into the earth. My dream will kill me, just as my mother feared it would.

Sadly, child, it is true. There is no use denying it. I will never know the summer, as I yearn to. I will never even know another winter.

What do you mean, you meddlesome mite? I tell you, it cannot be otherwise. These chains are forged thick and strong, bolted fast into the rock. Even the strength of my entire tribe combined could not prise them from their moorings. I cannot escape my doom.

What do you think you are doing? Take your hands off my face! Didn’t I tell you that I am delicate? You will only hasten my demise.

Are you listening to me? I said no–don’t pinch, girl! Ouch! Ouch!

But what is this? Child, you… you have remade me! Here I have a marvellous new nose, all over wood, and with no holes in it at all! And here, a handsome new chest of vines! My limbs are supple branches, my knees curling tree-knots–how agile I feel! I even have toenails again, little chips of bark, much sturdier than ice-flakes. And my hair–a veritable cascade of leaves! How they will shimmer and rustle in the sunlight!

And the chains too! Melted away, like snows at the passing of winter.

How did you do this, girl? What power lies in those tiny hands? How, by the four immortal Seasons, could you–



My Lady Summer, it is you. At last. At last.

Please forgive me, Lady. If I had known it was you, I would never rambled on in such a vein, never called you by such names! Please do not be offended, but I thought that you would be, well, older. That is no excuse, I know; I should have recognised you despite your child’s guise. Who else would boast that springing hair, those heat-bronzed cheeks, and such twinkling gold-green eyes? My mother was right: to have spent so long revering you, going to every length to behold a hint of your splendour, and yet not to recognise you when you arrived before my eyes… I truly am a foolish giant.

But surely you did not journey all this way, ahead of your season, just for me? Forgive me, but from what I have heard of your brother Winter, I was under the impression that we mortals were beneath your notice. I, certainly, am unworthy of your compassion. I am your humble devotee, but I never imagined you would pay me any mind. Who would have thought that after a lifetime following Winter, Summer would be so good as to follow me? I am overwhelmed by your kindness, my Lady. That you would do such a thing for a silly, heedless giant–and a frost giant at that!

But you are right: I am a frost giant no longer, thanks to you.

How can I possibly repay you for such a gift? Not only have you have saved my life, but you have granted my dearest wish. Oh, it has been a long time since I have smiled so.

Won’t the King be surprised! I shall have to pay him a visit, if only to see the look on his face when I arrive at the palace gates, all shine and sap and laughter.

But not yet, not yet. I believe I will stay here awhile, basking in the warmth as I was never able to do before. For what was to be my site of execution has become the site of my reincarnation–the site of my fulfilment. It seems only right that it should be here that I experience the fullness of the season I have waited so long to see.

Would you do me the honour, my Lady, of keeping me company? Please, sit here upon my shoulder, where the moss will make a most comfortable seat. Stay with me, Lady, and together we will await the dawning of your season. Together, we will welcome the summer–and let the winter fade behind us, like a dream.