Review of The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer

SFFaudio Review

The Terminal Experiment
by Robert J. Sawyer; Read by Paul Hecht
7 Cassettes – 9.25 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Recorded Books
Date Published: 2003
Themes: Science Fiction / Near Future / Artificial Intelligence / Canada / Mystery /

It started as an experiment in life after death. It ended in death. Dr. Peter Hobson has created a monster. Three of them, in fact. In order to test his theories of immortality and life after death, he has created three electronic simulations of his own personality. The first Hobson has all memory of physical existence edited out. It will simulate life after death. The second Hobson is without knowledge of aging or death. It will simulate immortality. The third Hobson is unmodified. A control. But now all three of them have escaped from Hobson’s computer into the worldwide electronic matrix. And one of them
is a killer . . .

— from the back cover of the paperback

Prior to this production, no Robert J. Sawyer audiobook had ever been produced, so it was with much anticipation that I discovered Recorded Books was set to release the winner of the Nebula and Aurora awards for Best SF Novel of 1995, The Terminal Experiment. And what a fantastic choice it was! It was originally serialized in Analog Science Fiction magazine’s Mid-December 1994 through March 1995 issues as Hobson’s Choice. Sawyer’s story is absolutely original, thoroughly engaging and certainly the best audiobook I’ve listened to this year.

Sawyer is a fantastic structural writer, a craftsman capable of laying out the ideas in just the right order. We get meaty philosophical thought experiments and thus pure HARD SF, and as a bonus, as with most of Sawyer’s novels, a baffling mystery that needs solving. Reader Paul Hecht does a good job narrating, characters come across well and you always know who is speaking. Aside from a very few pronunciation problems it is a perfect reading. I had previously read the paperback version of this novel so upon listening this time I was really able to sit back and enjoy the details much more. And there is a lot of detail to enjoy: in one chapter we get a humorous episode of computer hacking. The computers of Shopper’s Drug Mart (a Canadian drug store chain) are un-hackable, yet a “Food Food” fast food delivery service (a thinly veiled Pizza Pizza) and the Canadian federal government medical database computers are both hacked by a murderous Artificial Intelligence. Social commentary or simply a joke? Either way it’s a funny chapter in what is often a tense and deadly serious murder mystery. We also get a fascinating explication of why funny is funny, it’s all about making new mental connections.

One major/minor quibble I noticed the second time through though; Dr. Peter Hobson our protagonist in collaboration with another scientist, invents a machine capable of mapping all electrical activity in the brain. When a patient dies a the device tracks a mysterious “soulwave” leaving the brain we later learn that it heads off towards Alpha Centauri. All absolutely fascinating, and rather important to all the philosophical explorations and plot developments that follow. But I can’t help but wonder why such a “soulwave” must logically be proof of a soul. Yes it is evidence for a soul, but surely not proof. Hobson has this same doubt, but it eventually passes and he accepts the majority opinion that it does indeed constitute proof of the soul. I guess the problem here comes down to a “who wants to read six chapters on epistemology when it’s the idea that is important” question. And that is why I say it is a major/minor quibble. Ultimately I don’t like such a major conclusion like that just getting away unexamined. But on the other hand any science fiction story worth its salt is allowed one ‘gimme’, a conceit, be it faster than light travel, telekinesis or anything else impossible by what we know of science. Perhaps this is just a case where the conceit isn’t of the usual form, being more of an identification/epistemological problem than an “absolute impossibility” problem.

The packaging for this audiobook is interesting in itself. Recorded Books has decided to market in two formats. Both editions share original commisioned cover art that while visually interesting may be somewhat misleading (see picture above). The library binding, available for additional cost, is of the durable vinyl clamshell type, which makes for attractive and secure storage of tapes. “The Collectors Edition”, the one I got, is less expensive and is essentially just a cardboard box with a printed insert. That may sound rather disappointing, but it isn’t. Audiobook packaging typically comes in two varieties, SUPERB & EXPENSIVE (designed for durable extended usage, typically the type needed for public libraries) and CRAPPY & CHEAP (designed solely to get the product to market cheaply). This “Collector’s Edition” packaging is in-between the two; it is a step above the typical thin cardboard and millimeter-thick plastic of the CRAPPY & CHEAP designs, a compromise between durability, space efficiency and cost. The cardboard is thick, a clear plastic sheet protects the printed insert, and the customizable interior is held rigid by styrofoam inserts. I still prefer the library style bindings, standard with Blackstone Audiobooks and Books On Tape audiobooks but my wallet can’t always afford it.

Quibbles aside, it’s a great audiobook, and my sincere hope is that Recorded Books, Blackstone Audiobooks or Books On Tape see fit to produce another unabridged Robert J. Sawyer novel soon. If they don’t Scott and I might have to do it ourselves, they’re just that good.

Review of The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick

SFFaudio Review

The Man In The High Castle
By Philip K. Dick; Read by George Guidall
7 Cassettes – 9.75 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Recorded Books
Date Published: 1997
Themes: Science Fiction / Alternate History / World War II / Holocaust / Japan / Nazi Germany

World War II is over and to the victors go the spoils; Germany and Japan divide the world and the United States into East and West occupied zones. Alternate reality? Alternate history? Those are sheer fantasy, what if the Allies had won the war? Who would have been able to stop Stalin? Idle daydreaming, and Frank Frink can’t afford that, as one of the few surving Jews in North America and the world he’s got to concentrate to stay alive…

Set in an alternate history (and taking place in 1962 when Dick wrote the book), The Man in the High Castle is multiple viewpoint. There is: Mr. Tagomi, a collector of all things antique and American. Juliana Frink, seperated from her husband. She’s in Colorado on the border between the Nazis in the East and the Japanese in the West. Her husband Frank Frink, a shop owner and dealer in antiques, lives apart from his wife in occupied San Francisco serving the ruling Japanese. And all three of them have their fate intertwined with an officially banned underground novel entitled “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” which paints a picture of a world where the Allies won WWII.

The Man in the High Castle won the Science Fiction Hugo Award for best novel in 1962. It is one of the few great Philip K. Dick novels still unfilmed and so it will come as a great introduction to a new reader. Throughout the novel the I, Ching and its cryptic “wisdom” is used to push the plot along. This ingenious device is of further interest because Dick claimed that he himself used the I, Ching whenever it was used in the novel and let it take the novel wherever the results led it, in essence plotting the book as a result of the I, Ching’s advice. Superstar narrator George Guidall with his broad range and depth of voice is the perfect choice for this deeply complex novel. Oh and of course I can’t forget to mention the fantastic twist ending which will definitely… shall I say…change your persective? A profound SF experience that will blow your mind.

Review of Virtual Light by William Gibson

SFFaudio Review

Virtual Light
By William Gibson
Read by Frank Muller
6 Cassettes – Approx. 9 hours UNABRIDGED
List Price: USD $34.95
RECORDED BOOKS LLC.
ISBN: 0788782533

William Gibson’s novel, Virtual Light (1995), is a bit of a letdown. But this is primarily because Neuromancer (1984), is one of the best novels of the 20th century – so its no wonder lightning hasn’t struck twice. Though comparisons between Neuromancer and Virtual Light are inevitable, and reasonable, we should try to forget that William Gibson wrote such an incredible first novel – Neuromancer won the three most important science fiction awards (The Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick Award)… we should try to forget – it ain’t easy – but we should try because Virtual Light is a good SF.

That being said, Virtual Light is a whole different animal, more modest in scope, set closer to the present (in 2005) and more resembles a venture into Elmore Leonard territory than a cyberpunk adventure. It really is a crime novel with a science fiction McGuffin. The McGuffin being, a pair of sunglasses that not only make the wearer look cool, but also make him or her almost superhuman. Here’s the premise – Chevette Washington, a San Francisco bicycle courier has stole some high tech sunglasses. Berry Rydell, private security guard and ex-cop is sent to track her and the sunglasses down. As usual with Gibson novels, the atmosphere created by the prose is spectacular, we see, feel, touch, taste and smell the world Gibson describes and it’s visceral. The characters are compelling, motivated and have cool names like “Rydell” and “Warbaby”. The plot is almost labyrinthine despite the stated simplicity and there are many stops along the way, but we don’t mind too much, the journey is enjoyable, the people are cool and the ideas original.

And of course being an audiobook, the narrator plays an important role in determining the outcome. Thankfully, Virtual Light is read by Frank Muller, which is a good thing. Muller has a good range of voices and a huge vocabulary so there aren’t any pronunciation errors (something that can take a listener right out of the narrative). Virtual Light is an interesting listen, and the unabridged version is definitely superior. The Bantam Doubleday Dell Audio version read by Peter Weller, is well performed but hard to follow, being abridged to a mere 3 hours and two cassettes. But if you are going to listen to this audiobook and you haven’t heard Neuromancer (or read it yet) listen to this one first, it won’t be a let down that way, and it’ll likely whet you’re appetite for more William Gibson.

Review of Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

SFFaudio Review

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein; Read by Lloyd James
5 Cassettes – 7.5 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Blackstone Audiobooks
Date Published: 1999
List Price: USD $39.95 – IN PRINT
ISBN: 0786117451
Themes: Science Fiction / Sci-Fi / Fantasy / Mystery / Pulp / Politics / Mars / Spaceships / Acting / Theatre / Shakespeare

One minute, down and out actor Lorenzo Smythe was – as usual – in a bar, drinking away his troubles as he watched his career go down the tubes. Then a space pilot bought him a drink, and the next thing Smythe knew, he was shanghaied to Mars. Suddenly he found himself agreeing to the most difficult role of his career: impersonating an important politician who had been kidnapped. Peace with the Martians was at stake – failure to pull off the act could result in interplanetary war. And Smythe’s own life was on the line – for if he wasn’t assassinated, there was always the possibility that he might be trapped in his new role forever!

Some Heinlein readers believe that the philosophy in Starship Troopers was Heinlein’s personal philosophy. They’re wrong. Heinlein’s primary philosophy was to provoke thought by explicating political consequences of certain philosophies… and to be entertaining doing it. Double Star proves this emphatically, presenting a completely different political system than Starship Troopers. The plot is a well known one. As old as the fairy tale The Prince and The Pauper, The Prisoner of Zenda or The Man In The Iron Mask; As new as the Hollywood movie Dave (1994) starring Kevin Kline.

This unabridged audiobook has so much more: Interplanetary space travel, alien contact and political upheaval. But it also has a fully realized political system, political campaigns, theory of government, theory of acting, kidnapping, murder, dirty tricks and its a mystery! There really is no better science fiction writer than Robert A. Heinlein. There are other great books by other great writers but none is as great as the dean of science fiction RAH. The reason? Simply put, he tells damn fine stories and does so constantly. This novel is a great example of just that. With a wild premise and a somewhat divergent plot (from Heinlein’s various themes) it tells an implausible story plausibly with emotional impact. This book won a Hugo award for 1956 (Heinlein’s first) and deserved it. It’s a fun ride and highly enjoyable. Pop it in your cassette deck and enter a different world.

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