Review of The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

Science Fiction Audiobooks - The Andromeda Strain by Michael CrichtonThe Andromeda Strain
By Michael Crichton; Read by Chris Noth
2 Cassettes – 3 Hours [ABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Published: 1993
Themes: / Science Fiction / Mystery / Disease / Disaster / Scientist / Medical /

A top secret research satellite falls to Earth near a small town in Arizona. Hours later a recovery team discovers that something  has killed off the town’s entire population except for an old man and a new-born baby, statistically the most likely age groups to succumb to any normal disease. In anticipation of such an event a team of microbiologists assembles in a top-secret, underground laboratory in the Nevada desert. This laboratory was designed to handle an accidental introduction of virulent organisms into Earth’s atmosphere and ecological systems. The team begins to study the survivors and the “toxic” satellite and discovers several black/green patches of deadly bacteria that they have code-named: The Andromeda Strain.

First Published in 1969, The Andromeda Strain is one of Crichton’s best science fiction tales and a terrific scientific mystery story! As the microbiology team races against the clock, trying to figure out the toxic effect of the alien infection, the US government contemplates a nuclear cauterization of the infected crash site. But when The Andromeda Strain mutates it begins to eat through plastic lab suits and rubber gaskets protecting the scientists and the population from escaping toxins. Its a real thriller of a story, and was successfully turned into a great feature film directed by Crichton himself.

This fine novel is only available as an abridgement, and this is unfortunate. The missing portions actually improve the novel to a very large degree because the novel is written in the style of a non-fiction report of events. The original text includes, images, citations, timelines and references, their absence is a disservice to the remaining story. Chris Noth, most famous for his role on the NBC television series Law And Order, reads with a rich and compelling voice. But Noth does merely a satisfactory reading, he makes good attempts with the scientific jargon replete throughout the novel, but they are often mispronounced. Added to this is his lack of range for the voices. Given more audiobook experience Noth will probably become a good reader, in this audiobook however, his performance is merely satisfactory. All in all well worth a listen, but I sincerely hope an unabridged edition is released.

Review of Science Fiction: The Literature of the Technological Imagination by Eric S. Rabkin

Audio Lectures Review

Non-fiction - Science Fiction: The Literature of the Technological Imagination by Eric RabkinScience Fiction: The Literature of the Technological Imagination
By Eric S. Rabkin; Read by Eric S. Rabkin
8 cassettes – 4 hours (8 half-hour lectures) [LECTURES]
Publisher: The Teaching Company
Published: 1999
Themes: / Non-Fiction / Science Fiction / Pulp / Hard SF / Cyberpunk / Utopia / Dystopia /

This one is a little different than our usual fiction reviews. Science Fiction: The Literature of the Technological Imagination is a non-fiction series of lectures about the origins, history, and influence of science fiction. Think of it as Science Fiction 101 and you’ll get the idea. As a course it fulfills the promise of its title, breaking down the origins and the meanings within in science fiction literature. Professor Rabkin is a talented lecturer. Though obviously scripted, his naturalistic lectures are thoroughly engaging. The lectures explore the history of science fiction back to its origins in Plato’s Republic, then steadily marches all the way to William Gibson’s Neuromancer. These lectures offer genuinely interesting insight, I learned something interesting in each and every lecture! Rabkin discusses the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, examines the pulp phenomena of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and gives examples of what makes hard SF “hard”. He looks at the social, technological, and literary forces that influenced the genre’s authors, and in doing so tells an entertaining story – the story of science fiction! In short, it’s a fascinating listen. I just wish that Rabkin would offer Science Fiction 201 next semester! Each half hour lecture could have easily been expanded into 2 hours.

The lectures are titled:

Lecture 1: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Emergence of Science Fiction
Lecture 2: Jules Verne and the Popular Passion for Science
Lecture 3: H.G. Wells and Science Fiction Parables of Social Criticism
Lecture 4: Pulp Culture, World War II, and the Ascendancy of American Science Fiction
Lecture 5: And the Winner Is…Robert A. Heinlein
Lecture 6: Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. LeGuin, and the Expansion of Science Fiction
Lecture 7: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Modern Science Fiction Film
Lecture 8: New Wave, Cyberpunk, and Our Science Fiction World

BBC Radio is probably most famous in Science Ficti…

BBC Radio is probably most famous in Science Fiction and Fantasy circles for its production of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams. But SF&F audio fans outside the U.K. will be pleased to discover that the BBC is available online through streaming media! You’ll need a RealPlayer Plug-in or a Windows Media Player Plug-in to listen. BBC Radio 7 is your best station, it broadcasts 2 hours of science fiction and fantasy every day in two time slots entitled “The 7th Dimension“. Currently being broadcast are BBC produced programs like Earthsearch, Blake’s 7 and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.

Here’s that link:

Other BBC Radio stations do occasional Science Fiction and Fantasy broadcasts as well. Most notably among these infrequent broadcasts would be BBC 4. Here is a link:

Finally, those who remember Doctor Who from television will be excited to learn that the BBC has started to produce some Doctor Who Audio adventures.

Here are the links:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult/doctorwho/realtime/index.shtml

http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult/doctorwho/shada/

Another good source for fans of public radio around the world is here: http://www.publicradiofan.com/.

Posted by Jesse Willis

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.