The SFFaudio Podcast #127 – READALONG: Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

September 26, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Podcasts 

Podcast

The SFFaudio PodcastThe SFFaudio Podcast #127 – Jesse, Scott, Tamahome, and Prof. Eric S. Rabkin discuss Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End (no apostrophe).

Talked about on today’s show:
“Welcome to our belief circle”, pronouncing “Vinge”, why Eric picked the book, how to appreciate it, Jesse: “I’m not super impressed”, the Neuromancer connection, Robert Gu (the grouchy poet), The Rabbit, mind control, “affiliances”, this book is happy, “it’s a noir book (Neuromancer)”, the nature of Rabbit, the book is told in free indirect style (vs 3rd person limited vs 3rd person omniscient) (I guess “3rd person limited omniscient” is a contradiction), Sherlock Holmes, POV of Rabbit, a missing MacGuffin, we spoil both Neuromancer and Rainbows End, the book’s other inspirations, Alice In Wonderland, projected realities (belief circles), Vinge: “a very mellow extrapolation”, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (huh?), Mike the computer, the Jewish doxie of shim sung, Jesse: “I’m liking it more”, the original novella Fast Times At Fairmont High, Bob And Carol And Ted And Alice (sexy!), The Bear Came Over The Mountain by Alice Munro, nursing homes, “a proto-typical mainstream story”, no one likes Robert Gu, Rollback by Robert Sawyer, Vinge’s writing strengths, “big steaming mounds of infodump”, Faulkner’s Light In August, Away From Her (film of Munro story), let’s hear it for Canada, Dune, “The Doomsday Machine” (Star Trek), Saberhagen’s Berserkers, “destruction of the past for the future”, libraryoem = human genome, “tempest in a teapot”, the Geisel Library is named after Dr. Seuss, biological vs technical, “visceral”, The Space Merchants, Terry Pratchett, “DRM’d to the bone”, is it a dystopia?, reach out and touch someone, the word “apostrophe” in poetry, “that’s an extra cuteness”, the absent transitive like “do you ride?”, How do you write good science fiction?, Robert A. Heinlein, Virtual Light, Google Goggles app, Layers app, A Christmas Carol, The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain, “the snake of knowledge”, Eric takes notes when he reads, taking notes in an audio book (the Audible app can, Eric), ebook vs paper book, search skills, letmegooglethatforyou.com, Eric’s computer has all the answers, The Diamond Age, politics, Winston Blount, Miri, growth, Xiu Xiang, “Rainbows End is a pot of gold”, a heavenly minefield, rebirth, The City And The Stars by Arthur C. Clarke.

doomsday machine

Posted by Tamahome

Review of Venus by Ben Bova

July 16, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Science fiction Audiobook - Venus by Ben BovaVenus (The Grand Tour Series)
By Ben Bova; Read by Stefan Rudnicki
10 CDs – Approx. 11.7 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: February 2011
ISBN: 9781441775726
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

Review of Singularity by Bill DeSmedt

November 19, 2006 by · 11 Comments
Filed under: Reviews, SFFaudio essential 

Podibook Review

Podcast - The SingularitySingularity
By Bill DeSmedt; Read by Bill DeSmedt
47 MP3 Files – 20 Hours 24 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Podiobooks.com
Published: 2006
Themes: / Science Fiction / Hard SF / Tunguska Event / Black Holes / Time Travel / Near Future/ Cloak & Dagger / Quantum Physics / Soviet Union /

June 30th, 1908 – In the remote Tunguska region of Siberia, the most violent cosmic collision in recorded history flattened ancient forests over an area half the size of Rhode Island. Yet after a hundred years of international scientific research the cause of this impact remains a mystery.

Several people told me Singularity was worth listening to. But of course I figured they we’re probably wrong, I’m not easy to please. But because it was FREE I told myself to give it a chance. I have to say I was astounded! After a longish introduction, more of a history lesson, the real story takes off. And boy, does it! Like a Nelson DeMille novel with Saturn V booster strapped to it! This is incisive Hard SF set in a near future with plenty of action, some very cool ideas and even a bit of romance. The plot orbits around the mystery of the 1908 Tunguska Event. The action intertwines cloak and dagger with quantum physics in a tidal dance. I’m no physics major, but the scientific explanations were clear and compelling. You know a story’s good when you end up looking up some of the ideas. The tale is fleshed out through a large cast of central characters: Jonathan Knox, a consultant to elite government agencies, is the engaging lead protagonist. Knox has a knack with finding patterns in giant fields of data – a trait attributable to a voyage his mind went on once. Marianna Bonaventure, his soon to be lover, is a federal government agent on the trail of a missing materials scientist. Physicist Jack Adler is on the same trail as Knox and Marianna, but he doesn’t know it yet. Together, and apart they are in a race that may have been predetermined as unwinnable before it started, only the laws of causality know. Opposing them is a set of rationally motivated villains – with the weight of an multi-billion dollar corporate empire behind them. Leading them is, Arkady Grigoriyevich, who spends most of his time aboard a converted mega-yacht, that is now a floating laboratory. DeSmedt packs about a dozen terrific SF ideas into his tale. Also included in the podcast feed is an informative question and answer bonus MP3 file with the author himself. I am eagerly awaiting the follow-up novel, cleverly titled, Duality.

I tend to enjoy audiobooks narrated by authors, as they know exactly when and where to pause, what words to accentuate and how to pronounce the character names. But DeSmedt was not a perfect narrator, in fact at the start he sounded nervous. I was worried, but gradually as the chapters flowed the anxiety faded, and by the end I he was reading like a professional. Maybe his female voices need a bit more practice, but I swear, all those Russian accents were perfect.

I downloaded Singularity from Podiobooks.com for free, but when I did I could only get the first half of the novel. It was being released piecemeal, chapter by chapter, as podcasts. I have heard many people enjoy this delivery style; and it probably works for serial adventures or short story collections but I don’t like it for novels. I quickly listened to the first 20 chapters of the book in quick succession only to then have to wait for a whole month to finish it. Next time I visit podiobooks.com I’ll be making sure the serialization is completed before starting another novel. Another issue, selecting the next podcast once a chapter was finished was a real bitch. I drive a standard transmission automobile and my iPod is stuck into a faraway cigarette lighter. Every time a chapter of Singularity ended I would be made to reach over to rip my iPod out of the transmitter/charger and then hold on to it and the steering wheel while trying to navigate the menu to figure out which chapter was next. The podcasts delivery system would have been far better if I could have started and the ended the story in the same file, in other words what I needed was one big podcast, the novel in one file.

Review of Orbit by John J. Nance

July 27, 2006 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

Science Fiction Audiobook Review

Science Fiction Audiobook - Orbit by John J. NanceOrbit
By John J. Nance, read by the author
1 MP3-CD, Approx. 9 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Published: 2005
ISBN: 1593356919
Themes: / Science Fiction / Near Future / Space Flight

Poor Kip Dawson, not only is he saddled with a shrewish wife who doesn’t support his aspirations, an estranged son who doesn’t understand him, and a humdrum job he doesn’t enjoy, but when he finally realizes his one true dream of flying into space on a private space-tourism ship as the winner of an international contest, he finds himself stranded there with a dead pilot and no way to start the engines or contact the earth. Even worse, he seems completely unaware that he is nothing but a static clip-art character dragged and dropped into a dull exercise in word processing.

The story has the potential to accomplish so much: Thrilling adventures as those on the ground seek to help our man in space by shooting down a large piece of space debris headed his way and scrambling not one but four spacecraft to reach him before his air scrubbers give out; gripping human drama as he spins out his entire sexual history, his shallow self-reflections, and his talk-show psychologist advice to the world in a blog he doesn’t know is being sent live to the ground; and even a hint of heart-warming romance with the head of PR for the private space tourism company. Alas, John Nance’s handling of this potential reads like a To Do list scrawled in the margins of an outline. The tale is boosted by a few interesting complications and the feeling that it could technically all happen tomorrow, but it is brought crashing back to the launch pad by an infantile understanding of the politics of the space program, an even more infantile understanding of men and their desires and fears, and a supremely infantile understanding of women and love.

I’ll give the audio version this: At least it’s brief. This is due to Nance’s remarkable ability to produce syllables rapidly. But there is a distracting microphone lisp throughout, and a remarkable sameness to the delivery of the dialog, the exposition, the inner thoughts of the characters, and the chapter numbers. Nance shows he’s a good sport with his hilarious rendition of father and son Australian accents, but other than that, there isn’t much you hear that you won’t soon gladly forget.

This book aims high, and for that I can forgive a lot. But it is betrayed by haste and inattention. The moments that should be the most involving and emotionally satisfying instead read like the author would rather be somewhere else, doing something else. And that’s how you’ll feel too, should you be unfortunate enough to listen. Take my advice: Don’t.

Posted by Kurt Dietz

Review of To Say Nothing Of The Dog by Connie Willis

April 26, 2005 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

Science Fiction Audiobooks - To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie WillisTo Say Nothing Of The Dog – Or How We Found The Bishop’s Birdstump At Last
By Connie Willis; Read by Steven Crossley
15 cassettes – 21.25 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Recorded Books
Published: 2000
ISBN 0788755498
Themes: Science Fiction / Time-travel / Comedy / Romance / Mystery / 19th Century /England / Near Future /

The story involves Coventry Cathedral (old, new and burned down), pen wipers, a breach in the space-time continuum, boating on the Thames, evolution, and bulldogs.
– Connie Willis in a Science Fiction Weekly Interview

For such a stunningly popular Science Fiction author Connie Willis has some very unusual obsessions: Churches, England, a neurotic lead character and cats. But then again if you take away the churches and the England all you’ve got left is Robert A. Heinlein, so don’t complain. Now before I get all reviewing let me first say that the Science Fiction elements in this novel are truly paper thin. The closest we come to real SF meat is the many characters thinking about time travel paradoxes and how to prevent them. The plot resolution, without giving anything away, centers around the reason time travel works the way it does in these Connie Willis time travel books and that revelation felt not just un-science fictiony but also down-right un-scientific. But on the other hand it has a neatly tied up happy ending, and we all need a nice happy ending now and then.

This is the third time travel story set in a near future where an Oxford history don named Dunworthy sends his undergraduates back in time to visit historical English churches. But unlike Fire Watch and Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog is also a romantic comedy and a mystery. Instead of sending his students to WWII London (as in Fire Watch), or Middle Ages England (as in Doomsday Book), Dunworthy sends them to 19th century Oxford for a little R&R, and while they are there would they “mind finding the bishop’s birdstump?” – whatever that is. Now don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoyed this novel, quite a lot in fact! It’s just that Willis is such a very strange writer…. her characters, for example, they think a lot, no strike that. They think way too much. They are always overthinking every possibility of what could go wrong and then thinking it again just for luck, which is truly infuriating. Thankfully, this characteristic is slightly less apparent in this novel than it was in Doomsday Book and this book benefits from that slight reduction. No doubt this was due in part to the first person perspective. Keep writing first person Connie!

The mystery element is also rather weak. Are we really supposed to care what happened to the bishop’s birdstump? We don’t even find out what the damn thing is until about two thirds of the way through the book! What really saves this novel from becoming utterly unlistenable is the author’s attention to light humor and the characters. These are nice people, and the situations they are in are for the most part quite cute. The romantic angle is also sweet, and the text is rife with evidence that Willis really researches the heck out of the settings she writes about. I don’t recall ever laughing out loud, though many sections were quite amusing, or ever being so caught up in the romance that I couldn’t stop listening if I needed to, though I did like the way that all played out – it snuck up on me. What I liked most about To Say Nothing Of The Dog – Or How We Found The Bishop’s Birdstump At Last was the literary references included. There are characters who act like they’re in a P.G. Wodehouse Jeeves and Wooster story, the mystery element is obviously quite Dorothy L. Sayers inspired and Willis even named the novel after the biggest influence, Jerome K. Jerome’s Victorian comic novel Three Men In A Boat – To Say Nothing Of The Dog! Narrator Steven Crossley has the prototypical English accent you associate with Masterpiece Theater and costume drama. He’s called upon to stretch only a little with this one, playing mostly upper and middle class English gentlefolk from the 21st and 19th centuries. Nicely done too. Recorded Books has chosen some neat art for the cover, depicting an hourglass and a bulldog. As usual the packaging is absolutely top notch, you won’t find a more durable or attractive case for an audiobook from another publisher.

So with such a mixed review can I recommend this book? Absolutely I can, for of all Connie Willis’ weirdness, she is as gosh darned friendly and smart as you and me, just maybe a little smarter and definitely a little weirder, and I would never ever hesitate to recommend a novel that can trace its origins back to one line in Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel. To Say Nothing Of The Dog – Or How We Found The Bishop’s Birdstump At Last is recommended as a tonic for the weary traveler, or just as a lighthearted vacation from Hard SF.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

November 12, 2003 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Science Fiction Audiobook - Doomsday Book by Connie WillisDoomsday Book
By Connie Willis; Read by Jenny Sterlin
18 cassettes – 26.5 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Recorded Books
Published: 2000
ISBN: 0788744151
Themes: / Science Fiction / Time-travel / England / Middle Ages / 14th Century / Near Future / Religion /

For Oxford student Kivrin, traveling back to the 14th century is more than the culmination of her studies—it’s the chance for a wonderful adventure. For Dunworthy, her mentor, it is cause for intense worry about the thousands of things that could go wrong. When an accident leaves Kivrin trapped in one of the deadliest eras in human history, the two find themselves in equally gripping—and oddly connected—struggles to survive.

Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book is a believable time-travel story, which is ridiculous. Time-travel isn’t possible except as fiction, but the time travel in this story immerses the listener enough so that you don’t mind how you got there. Though soft science fiction, this novel relies on solid storytelling without inconsistencies, it also avoids violence and gadgets in favor of verisimilitude and thorough research. The novel follows two threads, one extremely compelling the other far less so. The first and more interesting thread follows our heroine, Kivrin, a historian sent back into the 14th century to get a first hand account of life in a village close to “Oxenford”. What she discovers there is extremely interesting. Willis dispels the ‘back in the good old days’ mentality with a gritty look at a deeply religious society and thoroughly stratified society with freezing peasants. The characterization here is superb; I actually cared what happened to these fictional medieval characters!

The shorter, secondary thread follows the characters in our near future. Unfortunately this part of the story, like the Harry Potter novels, describes a world where most adults are ignorant and need a youngster to save the day. Also here, apparently, time-travel is no big deal. It generally goes on unsupervised in the universities and without government supervision. It seems any time travel that would cause a paradox cannot occur, thus carefully avoiding the bread and butter of typical time-travel adventures. This is not a story so much about the process, the physics or paradoxes inherent in time-travel as much as it is about something else entirely: Disease and the devastating effects it has when it’s rampant and 90% lethal. Sterile modern hospitals are contrasted with the complete ignorance of infections to good effect, demonstrating just how lucky we are! It’s striking to hear how death was an everyday commonplace occurrence, unlike today when a single death is considered a tragedy. Here’s to tragedy.

The narration, by Jenny Sterlin, was very effective; she made the thoughts and words of Kivrin just like being there. Jenny effectively makes good use of the numerous British expressions in the dialogue. The title is a play on the historical ‘Domesday Book,’ which was an attempt to survey England’s land, people and wealth in the Middle Ages. Without spoiling the plot, I’ll tell you this much, it is an apt title.

Without time-travel this would not be a Science Fiction story, but rather a historical piece. Even though there are no spaceships, robots or groundbreaking or new scientific ideas I would recommend this audiobook for its suspense, mystery, and realism. That said, I still wouldn’t classify this Hugo and Nebula award winner in the same class Neuromancer or Dune, but then that’s a hell of a lot to live up to.

The cover art captures the subject matter perfectly, the compact cassette box is of high quality, but the tapes themselves had a continuous hiss. The introduction should have been an afterword since it didn’t have any impact until I re-listened to it after the novel finished. In the introduction Brother John Clinn, an actual historical figure, invites someone to continue his chronicles before his death in his manuscript. The fictional historian Kivrin, in a sense, fulfills his wishes.

Posted by Jesse Willis

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