Tuesday, July 15, 2003
by Lois Lowry; Read by Ron Rifkin
4 Cassettes - Approx. 6 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Bantam Doubleday Dell
Published: April 1995
Themes: Science Fiction / Children / Dystopia / Utopia /
In the future, society has eliminated pain and there is peace on earth, at least as far as we can tell. For Jonas, his twelfth birthday marks new responsibilities and new challenges. He hopes to be assigned to training as a "Nurturer,'' like his father, with duties of caring for newborn babies until they are assigned to mothers and fathers. His mother works in the "Department of Justice''; but he doubts that will be chosen to be his life's work. He has little natural aptitude for either function. But he is unexpectedly assigned to the position of "Receiver,'' an important job with the unique function of learning and holding the community's memories. The present position is held by a community elder, who is called "The Giver". Together they must make the transition easy for the community because strong memories of hate, anger, and love aren't acceptable except for guiding political decisions.
This is a well written children's novel that adults can enjoy. But it is a children's novel and one way to tell is by the controversy surrounding it was so strong. Though it is set in a science fiction setting, it is more of a parable than most modern children's science fiction. The story of a young boy confronting a hidden truth about his society isn't entirely original (though it does predate Harry Potter by a few years). It is also of course a story of a utopia/dystopia and the transformation of society that happened to make it. Again something not unfamiliar, but what is original though is the method used to transform the society. Think of it as a children's version of Brave New World, This Perfect Day or G-rated Equilibrium and you'll get the idea.
Ron Rifkin's narration is effective, and it is an enjoyable novel to listen to. The controversy surrounding "The Giver" is entirely a product of it being deemed a children's book, and having a child rebelling against his parents and society. It won't turn your pre-teen into Che Guevera.
Monday, July 14, 2003
Eaters of The Dead
By Michael Crichton; Read by Victor Garber and Michael Crichton
2 cassettes - 3 hours [ABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audiobooks
Themes: / Fantasy / Historical Fiction / Alternate History / Vikings / Arabs / Mythology / Neanderthals / Epic /
In the year A.D. 922, Ibn Fadlan, a devout Muslim nobleman, left his home in Baghdad on a mission to the King of the Bulgars. During his journey, he met various groups of "barbarians" who he reported as having varying degrees of bad hygiene and alcoholism. It was a classic clash of cultures story that revealed more about both societies than any other type of narrative could. Whilst encamped in a Norseman trading village word came of a request for warriors to return to Scandinavia to battle an unnamed foe. Because the Norsemen were so superstitious, Fadlan was shanghaied as the “13th warrior”, a necessary foreigner, and forced to accompany the war party. Under the leadership of Buliwyf, Fadlan and eleven other Norsemen journeyed far to the North, to a land where the nights last only a few minutes, where sea monsters abound in the oceans and where shimmering lights in the sky are a nightly occurrence. Once there he and his companions must fight a battle against the Eaters Of The Dead.
If the premise is familiar it may be because you’ve seen the movie "The 13th Warrior," which is based upon this novel. Supposedly this is a true story taken from the journals of an Arab courtier named Ahmad Ibn Fadlan. In reality it is only partially based on those writings. Crichton wrote Eaters Of The Dead based on a bet. He argued that Beowulf, the oldest surviving epic in British literature, could be successfully turned into a satisfying adventure story. In the real life writings of Ibn Fadlan Crichton found a viewpoint chracater who'd be able to witness the adventure of Beowulf and his fight against Grendel first hand. Starting with actual journal entries from Ibn Fadlan, Eaters Of The Dead begins as non-fiction. About a third of the way into the reading, Crichton stops using Fadlan's journals, starts writing in the style of Fadlan, and begins telling his version of Beowulf. Sounds simple, but because Crichton doesn't tell us any of this in his introduction, it isnt.
Confusing things further, Victor Garber's reading of the story is interupted every so often by commentary by Michael Crichton! Crichton doing commentary on Crichton confuses things to a high degree, and yet somehow it works! This is a compelling story, likely because it draws so heavily from the deeply rooted mythology including snippets of ideas from everything from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to modern anthropological theories regarding the extinction of the Neanderthals.
Victor Garber does a good job reading, his only flaw is that his Arbaic accent sounds a bit to much like a Punjabi accent. Crichton too reads his commentaries well. As with many abridgments this one leaves the listener wanting more of the story, though thankfully it doesn’t suffer from the equally common failing of being incomprehensible.
As with all Michael Crichton novels, this turns into a Frankestienian morality tale in the vein of "there are some things men wernt meant to know". For the most part it works, but what bothers me most about Eaters Of The Dead is its fence sitting nature. Not strictly fiction nor strictly non-fiction, Crichton has chosen to deliberately blend the reality and the fantasy without any disclaimer of even the most generous “based on a true story” or even the weaker “inspired by true events”. Instead he deliberately tricks us into thinking this is a true story by interspersing his own commentaries about the translation! True stories are inherently more interesting than fiction, no doubt Crichton chose to capitalize on this by deliberately obscuring the fact that he basically made up the whole last 2/3rds of the book! Had there been a disclaimer about this at the beginning of the book I’d have been much happier with it. That said, the story is fun, an interesting ride, and certainly one of Crichton’s best novels, but it isn’t even in the same class as say Robert Silverberg’s terrific A Hero Of The Empire, which also deals with historical figures in ancient Arabia.. If you absolutely insist on reading Michael Crichton novels I’d recommend you actually NOT read his Science Fiction! Read his fantasy, read Eaters of The Dead and then if you want a non-SFF treat try Crichton’s admirable The Great Train Robbery (also based on a true story), which is far better than his constant rehashing of Frankensteinian plots about cloning, time travel, etc.
Thursday, July 10, 2003
Everything looks like it's working... if you are reading this, you are now at www.sffaudio.com. We just moved from sffaudio.blogspot.com. We're still using the Blogger.com engine, which gets nicer every day - find them here.
Still a couple of bugs to figure out... the Archives don't seem to be working. That's not a huge deal, since all of the Reviews and Articles we've done are cataloged here and here.
If you find any trouble, e-mail me here. On second thought, e-mail me anyway - I'd love to hear from you.
Another thing I just did was add my own blog to the site - I wanted a place to post other things, since occasionally I have something else to say. I'll link to it on the left there.
All my best, and thanks for visiting!
Tuesday, July 08, 2003
Queen of Angels
by Greg Bear; Read by George Guidall
14 Cassettes - 19.75 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Recorded Books
Date Published: 1991
Themes: Science Fiction / Nanotechnology / Artificial Intelligence / Near Future /
Emanuel Goldsmith, a famous poet, murdered eight people, then disappeared. Three people want to find him: an aspiring writer, an embittered scientist who wants to use him, and a policewoman who needs to put him in custody before the Selectors, a vigilante organization, get to him first.
What if human consciousness were just an algorithm resembling a computer program? In Queen Of Angels, Greg Bear shows us, and more. It is a future where someone changing his mind means "reprogramming" it to get rid of the mental flaws. A future in which nanotechnology enables people to radically change their physical appearance. A future where a criminal has his mind "debugged" instead serving a sentence in prison. And a future in which artificial intelligences strive to become self aware.
Queen of Angels is absolutely chock full of fresh and interesting Science Fiction ideas, but it can be quite confusing due to its six separate story threads. This clarity problem is compounded by a complete lack of explicit transitions. A listener attempting this audiobook must be prepared to pay very close attention. The story stagnates somewhat in the middle but it is ultimately worth the time because two of the narratives end in disturbing original ways.
Prejudice is a central theme in this novel. Nanotechnology and mental reporgramming technology has completely restructured society's class system into the unaltered and the altered human camps. And the consequences meted out by these technologies make for a world where only the perfect "therapied" job seekers get high paying jobs and promotions.
Having previously enjoyed Greg Bear's breathtaking novel Blood Music and his admirable short fiction collection entitled The Wind from a Burning Woman, I'd only recommend Queen of Angels to fans of those books who thought them easy reading.
Sunday, July 06, 2003
The Left Hand Of Darkness
By Ursula K. Le Guin ; Read by Ruth Stokesberry
8 Cassettes - Approx. 11.5 hours UNABRIDGED
Books On Tape
Themes: Science Fiction / Galactic Civilization / Sociology / Gender / Worldbuilding /
"...our entire pattern of socio-sexual interaction is non-existent here. The Gethenians do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imaginations to accept. There is no division of humanity into strong and weak. One is respected and judged only as a human being...it is an appalling experience for a Terran."
-Ong Tot Oppong's field notes of the planet Winter
Genly Ai, the lone emissary of a galactic federation of planets, has landed on the planet named Winter. His job is to make first contact and offer membership to the federation. But Winter is a strange world. Its people are adapted to the chilly planet, use some highly technological devices and yet have a feudal political structure. Slightly complicating matters is the people themselves - they are all bisexual hermaphrodites.
The Left Hand of Darkness is a recognized classic of Science Fiction; it won both the Nebula and the Hugo awards for best novel for 1970. At its center this novel is a thought experiment, built to planetary proportions. This subgenre of HARD SF includes many great novels like Frank Herbert’s Dune and Robert Silverberg’s A Time Of Changes. It also acts in some manner as does a dystopia or utopia novel, shining light on those things hidden, in this case by gender politics, of the time in which it was written. In the late 1960’s and 1970’s women were just becoming fuller participants in power and business. The Left Hand of Darkness taps into this burgeoning social movement. Asking the question "What would a world look like where there were no gender politics at all?". Le Guin’s answer is fascinating.
While at times slow and ponderous this is a great novel for its time. It is filled with almost endless detail of life on a fully thought out world. Of special note is a fully fleshed out and powerful series of reading of the mythology of Winter, it is superbly crafted stuff. I’m not a huge fan of Le Guin’s body of work but I did appreciate this audiobook. The central idea is very well thought out and the details show in her attention. At least in the abstract, the plot plays out much like a good Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. And there is good reason for this. Indeed, Star Trek: The Next Generation has dealt with both "first contact" situations in the episode aptly named "First Contact" and hermaphroditic aliens in the episode "The Outcast". The fact that both of those episodes are among the best ST:TNG ever did tells you something about the themes. The Left Hand Of Darkness is not a great page turner, or in this case a tape flipper of a novel. And it is not simply the subject matter that bogs it down. Barry Longyear’s Enemy Mine deals with gender neuter aliens in a thrill-ride fashion that is sadly absent here. Nor does the political intrigue present in The Left Hand of Darkness keep you sitting in the car after you’ve got where your going, waiting for the tape to finish, like it does with the similar Frank Herbert’s Dune. But despite these criticisms, make no mistake, this is
a classic of SF.
Books On Tape did a fabulous job putting together this production. The stunning original cover of the paperback is featured on the plastic clamshell case. The reading is by Ruth Stokesberry, who although unknown to me before this is good at her job. But funnily enough I was immediately thrown off by her voice reading the male narrator’s lines. Typically in audiobooks, male protagonists are read by male readers, who then go into falsetto to read female character’s lines, in this case it is the opposite. And while this is somewhat jarring, it doesn’t have a negative effect as much as it puts the listener into the same situation as the protagonist. In short, it works. The reading itself includes a lengthy and absolutely fascinating introduction written by Ursula K. Le Guin and an appendix explaining the different names and formulas used to determine the months, years, and days of the week. This is a great example of how to make an audiobook.
Thursday, July 03, 2003
Check out Jesse's new page on Seeing Ear Theater!
Tuesday, July 01, 2003
There's a very nice interview of hard science fiction author Hal Clement on-line at Hour 25.
Also, I'd like to urge everyone to check out Sci-Fi Overdrive, a nationally syndicated weekly science fiction talk show that covers everything from TV and movies to books and real science. Their past shows are available on-line.