By Neal Stephenson; Read by Mary Robinette Kowal and Will Damron
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: 19 May 2015
[UNABRIDGED] – 31 hours 55 minutes
Themes: / science fiction / apocalypse / space station / humanity / disaster /
What would happen if the world were ending?
A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space.
But the complexities and unpredictability of human nature coupled with unforeseen challenges and dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remain….
Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown…to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.
Executive Summary: Another interesting book from Mr. Stephenson, that was somehow a bit too short for me despite its 32 hour duration. This one won’t be for everyone, but I’d put it on par with many of his previous books.
Audio book: This was my first time listening to a book narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal. She’s really excellent. So excellent, that I was pretty disappointed when it changed to Will Damron for Part 3. I’m not sure why they did this. Was Ms. Kowal too busy to finish recording? Was it intentional?
That isn’t to say Mr. Damron is a bad narrator. I just didn’t like him as much as Ms. Kowal, and the change in narration was jarring. If there was any place in the book it was appropriate to change, it was with Part 3, but I think it would have been better suited if they had just stuck with Ms. Kowal.
I’ve been a fan of Mr. Stephenson ever since picking up Snow Crash back in college. I haven’t read all of his books, but I’ve enjoyed all but one of those that I have.
I had no idea what this book was about when I volunteered to review it. Much like most of his work, it’s long. The start is a bit slow, and as usual it goes off on tangents and into way more detail than is necessary on things. In some of his books, I’ve enjoyed those tangents and the excess of detail. In others, less so. This one was somewhere in the middle for me.
This is the kind of thing that will turn many readers away early on. I was never bored myself, but I wasn’t really engaged in the book until nearly halfway. In a book this long, that will be too much of a commitment for many. However, I suspect if you enjoy the detail and tangents, you’ll be engaged much sooner.
This book is split into three parts. The first part is essentially a present day disaster story. The second is largely a space opera, and the third is a bit of a post apocalyptic tale.
Many authors might have focused on one aspect of this story. Instead of giving us bits of history that help shaped the world of part 3, we live many of the details in parts 1 and 2. For me personally, I would have liked part 1 to be shorter with more time spent on part 3. Part 2 was my favorite of the book, but that may be because I felt despite being a third of the book, part 3 ended too soon.
I have questions still. A lot of them. Is Mr. Stephenson planning a sequel that will contain some of these answers? I hope so.
This isn’t a case of a long book that abruptly ends though. For me the issue is that Mr. Stephenson did such a good job with the world building that I want more. I felt like there wasn’t enough. I would have happily sacrificed much of the present day (which I found slower anyways), for more time in the future story with the world he created.
Mr. Stephenson doesn’t spend all the time on world building either. He develops several interesting characters that are used to make most of the story character-driven. We have a largely female cast, and somewhat diverse background for most of them.
Overall, while this isn’t my favorite Neal Stephenson book, I really enjoyed it, and I hope we get another book set in the same world that he built in part 3.
Review by Rob Zak.
The Shield-Maiden (The Foreworld Saga: A Foreworld SideQuest #4)
By Michael Tinker Pearce and Linda Pearce; Narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: 4 January 2013
Themes: / Mongoliad / Vikings / fantasy / warriors /
Sigrid is a Shield-Maiden who yearns to break free of the restrictions of her father’s home and join the Sworn Men in an actual raiding expedition. When a small diplomatic party that includes members of the Shield-Brethren lands at her family’s holding on Göttland, the party’s second in command, Halldor, sees in Sigrid a vision of beauty and power that might challenge – and even destroy – many men.
And when bloody chaos ensues at a nearby Viking fishing village, Sigrid proves she has more than mere talent: she has Vor – the fate sight – an astonishing focus in fighting that sets her apart from nearly all who have ever lived and puts her in the rare company of the finest Shield-Brethren.
But as Sigrid and her family confront her otherworldly ability, will it prove to be a gift to be celebrated, or an affliction to be cured?
Note: This book is available individually (as I listened to it) or as a part of the book SideQuest Adventures No. 1, which includes The Lion in Chains, The Beast of Calatrava: A Foreworld Sidequest, and this story.
As with The Lion in Chains and The Beast of Calatrava: A Foreworld Sidequest, this story is a “sidequest” in the Foreworld Saga, basically a side story to the main-line books intended to give readers more information on certain characters. As with The Beast of Calatrava: A Foreworld Sidequest, this story seemed to be farther removed from the main crusades in The Mongoliad world, taking place in the north sort of near where the Shield Brethren have their main training facility, though one of the characters, Halldor, may have been a minor character in the main series (his name was familiar, at least).
This short story explores the mysterious “Vor,” the somewhat mystical “force” that overtakes many of the Shield Brethren when they fight. In this story, we see that this force, which is often mentioned in reference to the visions that some of them have (notably, Percival), can also afflict female warriors, and that it is also attributed to feats of amazing bravery and strength, that it is what enables the Shield Brethren to be victorious even against crazy odds. The main character in this story is a young woman, Sigrid, the daughter of the land owner where the story occurs. She has trained as a Shield Maiden, though still lives on her father’s lands, hasn’t been allowed (by her father) to join any of the local skirmishes, even though she’s taken a vow to be a Shield Maiden. Things change, however, when her people find themselves under attack by some Danes, where Sigrid’s ability in battle helps win the day–plays a key role in the victory, in fact. Suddenly, her family, her people, and Sigrid herself, must come to terms with what she is and what she can do. This story was refreshing in that it was primarily about a female warrior, though some of the reactions from the other characters were all too familiar.
Narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal, it was fitting to have a female voice narrate the story of the female warrior. Kowal’s narration was quite good, far superior to the narrator in Siege Perilous (the only other Mongoliad-world story I’ve listened to not narrated by Luke Daniels). That said, sometimes the pronunciation was odd, for places or things mentioned in this book and in others. For example, the island where the Shield Brethren do their initiation was pronounced by Kowal as “Tear’s Hammer” where Daniels pronounced it “Tear-shamar). This sometimes made it confusing to keep the entire world in my head as I listened, but did not detract from the overall story.
All in all, it was a nice diversion for a Saturday afternoon. Read more
By Seanan McGuire; Read by Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: 4 March 2014
[UNABRIDGED] – 13 hours
Themes: / metafiction / urban fantasy / fairy tales
I’m usually opposed to quoting the synopsis in my reviews–it’s just fluffing my word count! But I’m not even going to try to explain the premise of Indexing myself, so this time I’ll let the synopsis do all the heavy lifting.
“Never underestimate the power of a good story.”
Good advice…especially when a story can kill you.For most people, the story of their lives is just that: the accumulation of time, encounters, and actions into a cohesive whole. But for an unfortunate few, that day-to-day existence is affected—perhaps infected is a better word—by memetic incursion: where fairy tale narratives become reality, often with disastrous results.
That’s where the ATI Management Bureau steps in, an organization tasked with protecting the world from fairy tales, even while most of their agents are struggling to keep their own fantastic archetypes from taking over their lives. When you’re dealing with storybook narratives in the real world, it doesn’t matter if you’re Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or the Wicked Queen: no one gets a happily ever after.
Indexing is New York Times bestselling author Seanan McGuire’s new urban fantasy where everything you thought you knew about fairy tales gets turned on its head.
As the author of both the October Day series and, under the pseudonym Mira Grant, the Newsflesh trilogy, Seanan McGuire is no stranger to writing urban fantasy. But, as you may have deduced from the blurb, Indexing is not your run-of-the-mill hot vampire-on-werewolf ménage-a-trois urban fantasy. Instead, it’s populated with fairy tales. Here be Pied Pipers, Frog Princes, and Mother Gooses (Geese?) in spades. In the moribund desertscape of urban fantasy, Indexing is a cool refreshing garden grown wild with novelties. McGuire’s writing is dynamic enough to play fair with both the here-and-now realities of an urban setting and the timeless terrible beauty of fairy tales. Like quicksilver, the tone can glide from spunky 21st-century dialogue riddled with F-bombs to an ethereal transcendence full of snow and moonlight.
The presence of stories come to life in the world of Indexing places it squarely in the realm of metafiction. In fact, the book takes its title from the very real Aarne-Thompson Index, a comprehensive listing of folktale types compiled in the early twentieth century. In the land of metafiction, Indexing has some pretty affluent neighbors, such as Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler and Jorge Luis Borges’s The Library of Babel. Unfortunately in this regard the book fails to measure up, like that rundown house you drive by on your street and mutter about how you wish the neighbors would cut their grass. The premise itself is intriguing in exactly the way that speculative fiction is supposed to be, but the underlying worldview is overly pessimistic. In this story, Narrative itself is a character, or at least a vital force, trying to impose itself onto our order of reality. According to the world of Indexing, this is almost always a very bad thing, something that needs to be stopped. The novel’s closing chapters bring to light some extenuating circumstances that lend this structure a modicum of feasibility, but the reader still comes away with the sense that our world is better off without fairy tales made manifest stalking our streets.
As I write this, it occurs to me that this bothers me so much because it’s at odds with why I read speculative fiction in the first place. I firmly believe that these stories really do make our world better, in a very tangible way. I’m not saying we should unleash every fictional character on the streets of New York–there would probably be utter chaos. But there would be hope too. There would be Aragorn, for example, and Optimus Prime, and–you get the idea. The influx of story into our own world, “mimetic incursions” as they’re called in Indexing, needn’t always be the harbingers of misery and ruin. In fact, I think I took personal offense at the book’s denigration of stories. And then, of course, there’s the added irony that we’re actually reading, or listening to, a story. Just what sorts of mimetic incursions will Indexing spawn, I wonder. Ahh, the joys of peeling the layers of metafiction, kind of like an onion, but pointier and more slippery.
To be clear, my criticism of the novel’s metafiction is purely ideological. Leaving those aside, McGuire tells a damn good story. The pacing ratchets up the suspense like a mystery novel, and the writing, as I said, is sturdy as a house made of bricks. (See what I did there? Three Litle Pigs reference? Okay, never mind, on with the review.) And even if the book’s metafiction elements are problematic, its exploration of storytelling does succeed on a psychological levee. Narrative psychology and therapy have become buzz words in the last twenty years, and on both individual and cultural levels we do think of our lives, both individually and collectively, as stories. In that sense, the main characters of Indexing become archetypes for ways in which people deal with their stories, their past, their trauma, whichever psychobabble catch phrase you like. Some fight it, others embrace it, while still others have more of a story than they think they do. Like most good speculative fiction, Indexing succeeds because of its powerful characterization.
Mary Robinette Kowal, a weaver of fantastic tales in her own right, shines as Indexing‘s narrator. Her performance of Henrietta Marchen, a recovering Snow White through whose eyes we see most of the book’s events, is at once confident and vulnerable in perfect measure. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard a female narrator quite reach the baritone depths that Kowal does when she voices the burly Andy Robinson. The only blemish in the performance is her portrayal of Sloan Winters, whose incurably foul mouth is already grating enough without eery sentence curling up at the end like a skunk’s tale. Perhaps Kowal is simply trying to instill in us, the listeners, the same distaste that Sloan’s teammates feel towards this Wicked Sister. But that’s the only cloud in the sky. The glamour of Kowal’s voice captures the capricious fairy-tale heart of Indexing.
In spite of my significant ideological qualms with the book, I thoroughly enjoyed McGuire’s foray into the world of fairy tales. There’s no indication that a sequel is in the works, which is a shame. I’d gladly spend more time with this world’s colorful characters and fairy tales, morose and morbid though they may be. And I would dearly love to learn that Narrative isn’t so bad after all.
Posted by Seth Wilson
Talked about on today’s show: We help Jesse clear off his desk by discussing books in paper (dead trees and rags), “like e-books but thicker”; Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan, second in the Lady Trent series, gorgeously illustrated, Darwin meets dragons; why are illustrations dying out, even in e-books?; Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan features good illustrations; The Raven’s Shadow, third in Elspeth Cooper’s Wild Hunt series; how many print pages in an hour of audio?; more from L.E. Modesitt Jr’s Imager series; John C. Wright’s The Judge of Ages, with allusions to Cordwainer Smith; The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, smarter steampunk?; a tangent on translating page to screen; Tam likes more fantasy in his fantasy; a tangent on Game of Thrones; a tangent on Citizen Brick and the expiration of the LEGO patent; The Revolutions by Felix Gilman; science fiction was once planetary romance; The Prestige; Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year vol. 8 edited by Jonathan Strahan, now published by Solaris, featuring a lot of great stories; and we finally reach audiobooks!; The Scottish Fairy Book, Volume 1; the timeless quality of folktales; Classics Lesson of the Day: Ovid’s a boy, Sappho’s a girl; Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear; we try to puzzle out what a stele is; we praise Bear’s interview on Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy; Elizabeth Bear’s Hammered isn’t romance “because fifty-year-olds never have romance”; Without a Summer, third in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories series, expertly narrated by the author; Dreamwalker by C.S. Friedman doesn’t seem to be your run-of-the-mill urban fantasy (suburban fantasy?); Indexing by Seanan McGuire, urban fantasy with a postmodern twist; mimetic incursion and Jorge Luis Borges’s Averroes’s Search; Night Broken by Patricia Briggs, eighth in her Mercy Thompson series; a tangent on midriff tattoos and names for tattoos on other parts of the body; Jenny has created a new genre, Scientific Near Future Thrillers!; in the future, iPods will be merged into our eyebrows; science and technology don’t evolve quite how we expect; Neil Gaiman discusses the influence of Ballard and other classic SF writers on the Coode Street Podcast; Sleep Donation by Karen Russell; Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux; Boswell is Samuel Johnson’s biographer; Afterparty by Daryl Gregory is blowing up on Goodreads; pre- and post-apocalyptic fiction–no actual apocalypse this time; The End is Nigh, first in the Apocalypse Triptych edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey; the tech gremlins didn’t want us to discuss Dust, the third in Hugh Howey’s Silo series; Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor; The Forever Watch by David Ramirez, Jesse thinks the protagonist has too many jobs; “pause resister”, WTF?; Dark Eden by Chris Beckett, already reviewed here at SFFaudio; we struggle to define Pentecostal; religious opposition to the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass; Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s The Edge of Tomorrow (originally entitled All You Need Is Kill), Groundhog Day meets Fullmetal Jacket, film adaptation features Tom Cruise; Red Planet Blues by Robert J. Sawyer, a hardboiled detective story on Mars; Noggin by John Corey Whaley; Decoded by Mai Jia; Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones is a refresh of The Arabian Nights; Frank Herbert’s Direct Descent is about a library planet; novella is the best length for SF; Night Ride and Other Journeys by Charles Beaumont, a “writer’s writer” who wrote for The Twilight Zone; Christopher Moore’s The Serpent of Venice is an irreverent Shakespeare/Poe mashup.
Posted by Jesse Willis
The SFFaudio Podcast #245 – It’s our -The Best of 2013! episode. For it we invited SFFaudio fans, SFFaudio reviewers, and SFFaudio participants to share their listening highlights of 2013. We asked folks to tell us about their favourite audiobook or podcast episode.
If you don’t see your favourites listed below, feel free to add them as a comment. And remember, it needn’t be a podcast or audiobook from 2013, only one you heard in 2013.
And if you leave a comment in the first week (and a way to contact you) you’ll also be eligible for a a FREE PRIZE audiobook mailed to your home (anywhere in the whole universe*)!
- The Stand by Stephen King, Read by Grover Gardner (Random House Audio)
- The Magicians and The Magician King by Lev Grossman, Narrated by Mark Bramhall (Penguin Audio)
- Hard Magic by Larry Correira, read by Bronson Pinchot (Brilliance Audio)
- Boy and Going Solo by Roald Dahl; Read by Dan Stevens (Penguin Audio)
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, Read by Neil Gaiman (Harper Audio)
- The SFF Audio Podcast #222 – Jesse, Jenny, Paul Weimer and Bryan Alexander discuss Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.
- The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, Read by George Guidall (Harper Audio)
- Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal, Read by Mary Robinette Kowal (Macmillan)
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Read by Julia Whelan and Kirby Heyborne (Random House Audio)
- The SFFaudio Podcast #232 – Scott, Jesse, Jenny, and Tamahome talk about The Prestige by Christopher Priest
- The SFFaudio Podcast #233 – Scott, Luke Burrage, and Jenny talk about Oryx And Crake by Margaret Atwood
- Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, dramatized by Dirk Maggs, BBC Radio 4
- World War Z by Max Brooks, multiple readers (Random House Audio)
- The Prestige by Christopher Priest, Read by Simon Vance (Blackstone Audio)
Posted by Jenny Colvin
*Mirror universe inhabitants need not apply
Themes: / mad scientists / science / superheroes / villains /
Mad scientists have never had it so tough. In super-hero comics, graphic novels, films, TV series, video games, and even works of what may be fiction, they are besieged by those who stand against them, devoid of sympathy for their irrational, megalomaniacal impulses to rule, destroy, or otherwise dominate the world as we know it. Dr. Frankenstein was the first truly mad scientist of the modern era. And what did it get him? Destroyed by his own creation. And Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, a man ahead of his time as well as out of his head — what did he do to deserve persecution? Even Lex Luthor, by all accounts a genius, has been hindered not once, not twice, but so many times that it has taken hundreds of comic books, a few films, and no fewer than ten full seasons of a television series to keep him properly thwarted. It’s just not fair. So those of us who are so twisted and sick that we love mad scientists have created this guide. Some of the names have been changed to protect the guilty, but you’ll recognize them. It doesn’t matter, though. This guide is not for you. It’s for them: the underhanded, over-brained paranoiacs who so desperately need our help. What lies behind those unfocused, restless eyes and drooling, wicked grins? Why — and how — do they concoct their nefarious plots? Why are they so set on taking over the world? If you’ve ever asked yourself any of these questions, you’re in luck, because we are exposing their secrets, aiding and abetting their evil. It all awaits, within. Watch out, world!
I really enjoyed the first half of the stories in the collection but thought things got less interesting/slower in the second half. It may have been that some stories shared some similarities and the repetition got tiresome, but I don’t think so. I think it was actually that the second half of the stories had more of a serious tone to them that just didn’t go as well with me as the more humorous first half.
I really liked Chris Claremont’s introduction to the book. I thought it brought some interesting insights into why the bad guy is so important for the hero. I thought John Joseph Adams’ introductions to each story were helpful although a bit confusing in the audiobook format (it took a few stories before I understood what the heck was going on with the scientific categorization). I thought they helped me get into the story faster since I kind of knew what to expect and I do think I enjoyed the short stories more as a result. Some would say they spoil the stories but I didn’t think they revealed any more than the back of a novel would about its story.
There are 22 stories in this collection. Many are humorous and have interesting spins on the common tropes you’d expect from mad scientist or superhero stories. I generally liked all the stories but I’d say my favorites were Professor Incognito Apologizes, The Angel of Death Has a Business Plan, Captain Justice Saves the Day, and Rocks Fall.
I didn’t overly dislike any stories except for The Space Between by Diana Gabaldon. The story is by far the longest and I had trouble following the different character’s stories and understanding the point of the story. It appears that story is from a series by her so it may be that I didn’t like it because I haven’t read her other works.
I thought all three readers did a fantastic job with their voice acting in this collection. I would definitely listen to books performed by these readers again. I particularly liked Mary Robinette Kowal’s performances. She does a great job doing voices of people trying to be patient with the mad scientists – whether it be their therapist, assistant, or fellow evil genius.
Various sites have posted some of the stories online to read for free, compiled on the editor’s site, and those would be a good litmus test if this is the book for you. Professor Incognito Apologizes: an Itemized List by Austin Grossman is a great example of the more humorous offerings and The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss is a good example of the more serious stories.
Posted by Tom Schreck