Audiobooks are in the midst of a boom. Last June, the Audio Publishers Association reported that the field grew a whopping 34 percent between 2015 and 2016, and by all accounts, that growth is continuing. Readers are increasingly listening to fiction, and some of the most successful science fiction magazines have begun recording audio adaptations of their stories. One of the best out there is the Clarkesworld Magazine Podcast, narrated by Kate Baker.
Founded in 2006 by Neil Clarke, Clarkesworld Magazine publishes a wide range of sci-fi, fantasy, and related nonfiction from authors such as N.K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, Rich Larson, Ian McDonald, and others. (Disclaimer: Clarkesworld published a pair of nonfiction pieces that I wrote). Since then, it has earned nominations and wins for the genre’s highest honors, including the Hugo and Nebula Awards.
Recent episodes of the podcast have covered a wide range of stories. In “Not Now,” by Chelsea Muzar, a Japanese girl contends with hostility from her neighborhood and classmates after the arm of a giant robot fall onto her house from space, while in Eleanna Castroianni’s “Without Exile,” a case worker named Nell helps process refugees from a war-torn world. In Allen M. Steele’s “Martian Blood,” a Martian colonist leads an Egyptian-American astrobiology professor on a tour as he works to prove that life on Earth originated on Mars.
As we’ve seen with other short fiction podcasts, short stories and novelettes lend themselves well to the podcast medium. Each episode runs anywhere from 40 minutes to almost two hours, just enough time for a commute or a walk. Because Clarkesworld uses a single narrator — Kate Baker, the magazine’s podcast and nonfiction editor — and makes all of its fiction available as a podcast, it stands out as a long-running series of the field’s best short stories.
Baker told The Verge after Clarke and co-editor Sean Wallace founded the magazine in 2006, they decided to branch into audio within a couple of years. “It was just another way of getting these stories out to the public.” One of the first regular narrators for the podcast was Mary Robinette Kowal, an award-winning author who served as the vice president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), but when she had a work conflict in 2009, Baker came onboard to fill in, and later became the full-time narrator for the series.
In the years since she became the full-time narrator for the podcast, Baker has become the de facto voice for the podcast, an experience that she says is “surreal.” “I view it as a huge responsibility and an honor,” she says. “because I get to go and be in someone’s ear, and I think that’s an intimate power, and I don’t ever want to abuse that.”
Baker doesn’t read or rehearse the story before recording, and while she notes this approach has burned her a couple of times, the “biggest draw to this whole job is the fact that I’m experiencing the story along with the listener for the first time, and I can experience those emotions with the listener. If you’re hearing my voice crack or if I sound stuffy because I had to walk away because I started crying, that’s all pretty genuine.”
That’s something that shines through: a recent episode featured Rich Larson’s heartbreaking short story “Carouseling”, and you can hear her voice break after she finishes reading the story. This emoting, along with Baker’s long-standing narration for the podcast, provides a familiar and consistent warmth that subtly enhances each story that the magazine produces. The result is not only a catalog of powerful short fiction, but one that’s also presented in a voice that makes them even better.