I first heard Robert Reed’s outstanding novelette, Guest Of Honor, as an audiobook in the mid-1990s. It was narrated by Amy Bruce for Infinivox (get that version HERE).
It blew me away.
Guest Of Honor is undeniably GREAT SCIENCE FICTION, the kind of which only seems to show up once or twice a decade. If you haven’t already heard it, prepare yourself for some pure idea fiction.
There’s no official description for this astounding story so here’s mine:
When immortality is on the table accidents are naturally the uppermost fear on your mind. As an immortal you wouldn’t do anything nearly so dangerous as space travel, but all the same as an immortal you’d necessarily crave such new sensations so as to offset the boredom of an infinite future. And that’s where Pico comes in, she’s an adventurer gathering experiences for the immortals who sponsored her back on Earth. Her story, or stories, even if they are only vicarious, will be cherished by the many and she will be the guest of honor when she returns.
Clarkesworld Magazine #79 – Guest Of Honor
By Robert Reed; Read by Kate Baker
1 |MP3| – Approx. 1 Hour 21 Minuites [UNABRIDGED]
Podcast: April 22, 2013
First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 1993.
Podcast feed: http://feeds.feedburner.com/clarkesworldmagazine/podcast
iTunes 1-Click |SUBSCRIBE|
Posted by Jesse Willis
Venus (The Grand Tour Series)
By Ben Bova; Read by Stefan Rudnicki
10 CDs – Approx. 11.7 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: February 2011
Themes: / Science Fiction / Hard SF / Near future / Space travel / Planets /
The surface of Venus is the most hellish place in the solar system, its ground hot enough to melt aluminum, its air pressure high enough to crush spacecraft landers like tin cans, its atmosphere a choking mix of poisonous gases. This is where the frail young Van Humphries must go—or die trying. Years before, Van’s older brother perished in the first attempt to land a man on Venus. Van’s father has always hated him for being the one to survive. Now, his father is offering a ten-billion-dollar prize to the first person who lands on Venus and returns his oldest son’s remains. To everyone’s surprise, Van takes up the offer. But what Van Humphries will find on Venus will change everything—our understanding of Venus, of global warming on Earth, and his knowledge of who he is.
Venus by Ben Bova was first released on audio in abridged format in 2002. I reviewed in it 2004, and from what I wrote there I liked it just fine. This unabridged version (no surprise) was a different and better experience.
I am a fan of Ben Bova’s didactic Grand Tour novels. I like how I come away from each of these novels with a better understanding of how space travel works at our current level of knowledge. I also like how Bova uses what we know about the planets before he starts speculating.
In Venus, eccentric billionaire Martin Humphries summons his son, Van Humpries, to the moon. Prior to the story, Martin’s oldest son Alex had crashed on Venus and was presumed dead. Martin tells Van that he’s offering $10 billion to the person who can retrieve Alex’s remains and that he’s paying for it by cutting Van off financially. Van surprises his father by taking up the challenge himself. There is one other taker, so two teams vie for the prize. Two ships, separately designed and built to withstand the extreme conditions on Venus, race to snag human remains off the surface.
The plot is interesting and satisfying (though with a bit of clunky foreshadowing), but the star of the story is Venus. Bova’s characters reach Venus quickly, so the bulk of the novel is spent floating in their ships. It’s incredibly hot, and the atmosphere thick and roiling. Both ships were designed as dirigibles. Once the crafts reached the atmosphere, they floated like airships through the currents, sinking slowly toward the surface. Of course, it’s not that easy. There are plenty of surprises.
Stefan Rudnicki narrates, and yet again I enjoyed him. He’s one of the best narrators we have. I’m always pleased to hear him perform a good piece of science fiction.
Posted by Scott D. Danielson
The God Engines
By John Scalzi; Read by Christopher Lane
3 CDs – Approx. 3 Hours 15 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Published: December 2010
Themes: / Science Fiction / Fantasy / Religion / Galactic Civilization / Space Travel / War /
Captain Ean Tephe is a man of faith, whose allegiance to his lord and to his ship is uncontested. The Bishopry Militant knows this — and so, when it needs a ship and crew to undertake a secret, sacred mission to a hidden land, Tephe is the captain to whom the task is given. Tephe knows from the start that his mission will be a test of his skill as a leader of men and as a devout follower of his god. It’s what he doesn’t know that matters: to what ends his faith and his ship will ultimately be put — and that the tests he will face will come not only from his god and the Bishopry Militant, but from another, more malevolent source entirely… Author John Scalzi has ascended to the top ranks of modern science fiction with the best-selling, Hugo-nominated novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. Now he tries his hand at fantasy, with a dark and different novella that takes your expectations of what fantasy is and does, and sends them tumbling. Say your prayers… and behold The God Engines.
The God Engines is the strongest John Scalzi audiobook since Old Man’s War |READ OUR REVIEW|. It provokes thought, flies off in an unexpected direction and doesn’t overstay its welcome. The setting is in an unnamed galaxy, at an unknown time. But space travel, interstellar communication, and bodily healing aren’t technological developments. Instead, they are derived from a rigorous faith in actual, existing gods! These gods are so real, so embodied, that there is one in the center of each starship. It lies their enslaved, guarded and harnessed so as to achieve the ends to which they are put. Command over these powerful beings is achieved by a combination of torture and reward. Their masters are human beings, members of a religion with their own completely manifested god. Their purpose is to war with other religions, enslave new gods and bring more human beings to the worship of their own god. It is an unending holy war, in a fully realized universe, and it works.
I like to see the examination of an interesting idea, without an endless parade of pointless activity to dilute its core of goodness. We have that in this book. There’s something very neat about the running of what is essentially the starship Enterprise on faith. To hear that an officer is changing his prayers to adjust what’s showing up on the viewscreen – that’s something definitely worth seeing. Scalzi’s universe is run on prayer, faith, and relgious belief. It’s a kind of realization of what religions always claim, but shown to be actually functioning in a replicable manner. It’s theology as physics. The whole story feels like it comes from the same place J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 came from. Where Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End came from. There’s an indisputable space opera with Lovecraft vibe to it, but unlike so much space opera, the thinking just isn’t mushy and placative. In fact, there was nary a moment where I wasn’t completely engaged with this made up Fantasy/SF tale. The storytelling is expertly intertwined with a careful exposition of the universe’s rules. This works to fully enrich the ideation without coming off as merely a writer going through a checklist. I’d love to see Scalzi, or any other SF writer, write a dozen more books just like this – take a break from the series universe, and write some more idea based SF. Take a simple little premise or vignette, throw in a few characters and have them explore the concomitant interestingness of that idea. The God Engines does exactly that. It shows, very simply what SF storytelling is supposed to look like. This audiobook stands well, on its own, though I could easily imagine it as one half of an old Ace Double. This is very good work. Well done Mr. Scalzi.
Narrator Christopher Lane has about five major characters to play with. The captain is commanding and thoughtful. The second in command is calm and loyal. The ship’s high priest (who also acts as a kind of political commissar) is jealous but clever. The one female role, a rook (which is kind of a cross between a ship’s whore and a priestess), is wise and womanly. But it’s the unnamed god’s voice that is the real standout. Lane’s god is tortured, twisted and devious. It is a very precise performance, one that allows for the sympathy Scalzi was aiming at. The art for the cover comes from Vincent Chong‘s illustration of the Subterranean Press edition.
Posted by Jesse Willis
Deus Et Machina
By Edgar Allan Poe; Read by Christopher Aruffo
4 CDs – 4.5 Hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Acoustic Learning
By Edgar Allan Poe; Read by Christopher Aruffo
6 CDs – 7.5 Hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Acoustic Learning
Themes: / Horror / Science fiction / Travelogue / Angels / Space Travel / Hot Air Balloons / Alchemy /
We don’t know Poe. The mad success of his weird fiction, combined with the myth of his erratic lifestyle, supply more than 90% of what we think we know about Edgar Allan. But was he really erratic, obsessed and disturbed? And even if he was, is that the whole story?
The folks at poeaudio.com are attempting to tell something close to the whole story of Poe with a series called the Edgar Allan Poe Audiobook Collection. In multiple volumes, the greats of the Poe prose oeuvre—your Rue Morgues, your House of Ushers and your Masques of the Red Death—are read with histrionic flair by actor Christopher Aruffo. Here, however, we review volumes 9 (The Pioneers) and 10 (Deus et Machina) which contain lesser-known works.
These two volumes bring out into the fresh air some of the more musty trunks from the attics of Poe’s cobwebbed mind. They will be of thrilling interest to Poe fans and scholars with completest proclivities. For the rest of us, they are of mixed interest. I’ll let you know which tracks are worth a listen.
Vol. 9, The Pioneers gathers together writings about travel. Some pieces are journalistic descriptions of underappreciated natural scenery in the United States; these are of mild interest. “The Journal of Julius Rodman” purports to be the journal of an explorer who became the first white man to cross the Rocky Mountains; this hoax, written by Poe, is a rather dull read to anyone not fooled by its true origin. (And worse, it stands unfinished.)
“The Balloon-Hoax” does a better job of passing its truth-in-labeling test, and describes the crossing of the Atlantic by a famous aeronaut which never happened. (What’s with all these hoaxes? Orson Wells, eat your heart out.) Again, the lack of any suspense on the part of the present-day audience renders this story uncompelling. Better read the history of these two stories than the stories themselves.
The one really interesting work of volume 9 is “The Unparalleled Adventure of Hans Pfaal”, an novella about a balloon ride—no kidding—from the Earth to the Moon. What shocks me is Poe’s attempt here, before the genre had even been invented, to create a work of hard (yes, I mean it, hard) science fiction. He goes to some length to marshal scientific evidence for the possibility of at least some atmosphere in deep space, based on the existence of zodiacal light, the faint glow that Poe assumed was atmospheric haze, but is scattered by space dust in the ecliptic.
This, and other tech-y details, such as the description of the balloon flipping over when the moon’s gravity becomes predominant, reveals Poe’s endearingly quaint attempt at scientific rigor. He seems to understand that his scenario goes too far, however, because he ends with a plot device meant to give him deniability regarding the seriousness of the story. (It’s that hoax thing again!) “Hans Pfaal” is the one work of this volume I strongly recommend.
Vol. 10, Deus et Machina (that’s a pun in the title, not a typo) focuses on metaphysics and technological advances. This latter emphasis is a real eye-opener. It turns out Poe was a tech geek! I would have never guessed–it’s the one big revelation of the audiobook. If he were alive today, he’d be writing articles for Seed Magazine. Poe loves to report especially on the latest in printing techniques, and, oddly enough, street paving. These articles are short, and very revealing of Poe’s psyche. I recommend them.
His big hobby horse is the advantage of wooden streets, which he seems to prefer especially because they make the urban environment quieter. (Here, he is entirely consistent with our myth of him as the high-strung, hyper-sensitive genius.) Discussing the main objection to using wood as paving material—it rots—he takes seriously concerns about unhealthy “miasmas” rising from the decay, yet he reacts with eye-rolling prose to fears that mercury-based preservatives might have any health impact.
The two headliners of this volume, “The Facts in the case of M. Valdemar” and “Von Kempelen and His Discovery,” are diverting but not especially compelling. “Valdemar” is an exploration of mesmerism interacting with what I can only call the death process. It posits a state of suspended animation which was meant to creep us out, but falls flat. Dude: mesmerism is so over. “Von Kempelen” is less original, and no more plausible: a slight account of the discovery of the laboratory of a successful alchemist. Leave these stories to the serious Poe fans.
Least interesting of all are Poe’s metaphysical musings in the form of angelic dialogs. These are some of the most difficult audio narration I’ve ever heard. (Or tried to hear. Multiple listening left me asking myself: what the heck was that about? What did he just say?)
The one gem in this metaphysical manure pile is The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion. It’s is another angel dialog, but it explores a speculative concept that merges apocalypse (in the Biblical, as well as more modern, sense) with science fiction in a way that must have been very advanced in its time. The surprise ending really shocks, and gives a taste of that old Poe horror we know and love. This one has aged very gracefully and is highly recommended.
Posted by the Fredösphere
Talked about on today’s show:
Posted by Jesse Willis
Welcome to Reviewopolis! Three stories to go…
By James Gunn; Read by Julie Davis
Approx 2 Hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Podcaster: Forgotten Classics
Podcast: March 2009 (Episodes 111-113)
Themes: / Science Fiction / Aliens / Space Travel / Psychology /
The strength of the unit is the sum of the strengths of its members. The weakness of the unit can be a single small failing in a single man.
First, a few notes about the Forgotten Classics podcast: I really enjoy this podcast for a few reasons. Julie is an avid podcast listener, and if you are looking for podcast recommendations, look no further. She opens most episodes with something interesting from the Podosphere. These Podcast Highlights come from all over the map! For example, at the beginning of one the episodes containing this story (Episode 113), she highlights “Bob Dylan’s Themetime Radio Hour”. Would you have predicted Bob Dylan and James Gunn in the same podcast?
Another thing I like about Forgotten Classics is Julie’s commentary. She comments on the material she’s reading at the end of each podcast, providing a denouement that makes me think she’s just closed the book and knows everything I know up to this point in the story and nothing more.
Perhaps most important is the fact that Julie is a very good narrator. She reads clearly and with emotion. Stories are well-paced and enhanced by her pleasant voice.
The story at hand is “Breaking Point”, by James Gunn, which was first published in Space Science Fiction in March of 1953. A starship crew lands on an alien planet, crew a fairly well-oiled machine. The Captain recalls Leinster’s “First Contact”, when he mentions to the crew the importance of keeping the location of Earth secret “at all costs, until we’re sure we’re not going to turn up a potentially dangerous, possibly superior alien culture.” They quickly realize that they have done exactly that, when some external force, through unknown technology, won’t allow the hatch to be opened.
At this point, one of the crew members snaps. How could the hatch not open? There are many safeguards – this should not be happening! Cue the hysterial laughter. The aliens then start closing the crew in with a mysterious black (nothingness!) wall. Crew members flip out, one by one, as they try to figure out what’s happening before the walls close in completely. Are the aliens moving to close them all in, or are the alien moves specifically designed to unnerve specific crew members one at a time?
Julie said exactly what I was thinking when she mentioned that this story would be a comfortable fit on The Twilight Zone. Very weird stuff. It also reminded me of Stephen King’s The Langoliers, with the real world being blacked out in sections while people flee. Here, though, there’s nowhere to flee.
At the heart of the story is a conversation between the Captain and the medical officer about teams and how they are put together. Paresi, the medical officer tells the Captain:
Look, this is supposed to be restricted information, but the Exploration Service doesn’t rely on individual aptitude tests alone to make up a crew. There’s another factor—call it an inaptitude factor. In its simplest terms, it comes to this: that a crew can’t work together only if each member is the most efficient at his job. He has to need the others, each one of the others. And the word need predicates lack. In other words, none of us is a balanced individual. And the imbalances are chosen to match and blend, so that we will react as a balanced unit.
This while their living space continues to shrink. Is the medical officer saying that there is no such thing as a balanced individual, or that unbalanced people were purposefully selected and fitted together to make “a crew”? Either way, interesting. Thanks, Julie, for the story!
Posted by Scott D. Danielson