Review of The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

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

Check out this great 10 minute long documentary on…

SFFaudio Online Audio

Check out this great 10 minute long documentary on Science Fiction and SF fandom done by Joe Mahoney for broadcast on CBC Radio One‘s The Current. Authors interviewed include: John Scalzi, Cory Doctorow, John Clute, Robert J. Sawyer, and Margaret Atwood.

Listen to the Documentary here:

Joe Mahoney’s Documentary

Note: To hear the documentary, click and drag the time bar to about the fifteen minute mark.

Posted by Jesse Willis

The CBC has just made a series of samples avaiable…

SFFaudio Online Audio

The CBC has just made a series of samples avaiable that will be sure whet your appetite for the proposed CBC Radio One series FASTER THAN LIGHT! Spanning the years 1978-1998 these samples of previous Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror stories illustrate what is possible on radio. Enjoy!

Nightfall: “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” (1983)

One of the most disturbing radio series ever produced. The show ignited complaints from many listeners that it was too frightening, prompting some stations to drop the series from their programming.

99 half-hour episodes (1980 to 1983) – Listen to Real Audio clip

Vanishing Point: “The Man Who Dreamed in Djemma El Fna” (1991)

This series specialized in experimental dramas in the genres of sci-fi, supernatural, classics, pro-environment, and spiritual journeys. Its defining characteristic is extensive “on location” sound effects, with about half the performances done in a whisper. About half the shows are done in a familiar, straight-forward, manner and the other half are dreamy psychological journeys. The series incorporated several ‘sub-series’ over the course of its long run.

205 half-hour episodes (1984 to 1991) – Listen to Real Audio clip

Alice in Cyberspace: episode 1 – “Down the Data Stream”

Twelve-year old Alice and her adventures beyond the computer monitor as she meets the White Rabbit, the Music Master, and her PET (Personal Electronics Telecommunicator). Late one night, the White Rabbit shows up on Alice’s computer as a screen saver. Next thing Alice knows, she’s tumbling down the data stream. Alice’s knowledge of history, geography, math, science, the arts and good old-fashioned common sense are put to the test. For children ages 8 and up.

Fifteen 11-minute episodes – Listen to Real Audio clip

The Skid, episode 6

John Raven, former God of Chariot Drivers and erstwhile lesser deity, is back for one last kick at the terrestrial can. In this six-part series from writer Thomas Lackey, Raven is dispatched from Heaven by his reluctant colleague The Controller to avert a Millennial disaster. It seems that downsizing fever has hit the Celestial Spheres, and since soul revenue from Earth is way down, the powers Up the Mountain are considering terminating the whole terrestrial operation as unprofitable. Raven and the Controller, fearing for their own jobs, hit upon a scheme to avert catastrophe by performing a few modest miracles for select individuals. True to form, Raven botches the job and the fun begins.

6 half-hour episodes (1998) – Listen to Real Audio clip

Johnny Chase, Secret Agent of Space: episode 2

This over-the-top sci-fi series features misfit secret agent, Johnny Chase, who confronts the various threats to our expansion through the spaceways, and is set in a future in which mankind has expanded it’s empire to 200 light years across. The first season consisted of stand-alone anthology stories. The second season was a 26-part serial that was one long 26-part story, during which the Earth’s sun gets destroyed and the remnants of humanity, aboard a rag-tag assortment of spaceships, search for a new home. The series is part spoof, part serious space opera, with rocket ships, ray guns, clones, and space battles, and sprinklings of sorcery, mysticism, and even Dracula.

Approximately 79 half-hour episodes (1978 to 1979, 1981) – Listen to Real Audio clip

The Arabian Nights: Part 1

Terrible djinnis and subtle sorcerers, wretched fisherman and haughty emperors whirl through this fantastical dramatization of the famous, magical tales of the Arabian Nights. Stories spirl into other stories in a rich weave: parables rub alongside bawdy jokes, fantasies merge into hair-raising adventures, and plots of intricate revenge meet melodies of unlikely love. The transformations are created by an astonishing collection of actors.

8 half-hour episodes (1993) – Listen to Real Audio clip

Posted by Jesse Willis

CBC Radio One’s pop culture media show Definitely …

SFFaudio Online Audio

CBC Radio One‘s pop culture media show Definitely Not the Opera has just done a delightful and lighthearted interview with Robert J. Sawyer. Here’s the link: DNTO Oct 18th 2003.

And

CBC Radio One‘s science program Quirks & Quarks has also archived a panel discussion of interest, it was first broadcast March 9, 2002 and is called First Contact: What If E.T. Calls US?

Here are the links:

| Listen to MP3 of Part 1 | Listen to MP3 of Part 2 |

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Alien Voices: The Invisible Man

Science Fiction Audio Drama - Alien Voices The Invisible ManAlien Voices: The Invisible Man
By H.G. Wells; Performed by John de Lancie, Leonard Nimoy and a full cast
2 Cassettes or 2 CDs – Approx. 114 minutes [UNABRIDGED DRAMATIZATION]
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Published: 1998
ISBN: 067158104X (Cassette); 0671581058 (CD)
Themes: / Science Fiction / Invisibility / Fantasy / Star Trek / Classic / Philosophy /

One of Science Fiction’s seminal works is The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. It’s premise is intriguing. What would it be like to be hidden from view? At first, there would be the advantage of watching others without being noticed. But, what would you do when the novelty wore off and the invisibility didn’t? Would you become a prisoner of your own freedom? Or perhaps a madman bent on enslaving others?The novel was written in 1897 when the world believed that science could cure all ills, but as we will glean from the story of The Invisible Man, the achievements of the human mind are worthless without a human soul to guide them. Come with us now, as Alien Voices explores the tragic life of a young scientist who seemed to be on the threshold of a brilliant future and something quite unexpected happens.

This loose adaptation of H.G. WellsThe Invisible Man is quite…fascinating. It has been adapted in the style of an old time radio drama, the majority of the plot is there, but it has been compressed and massaged to fit the actors and sensibilities of the Alien Voices team. Alien Voices formed in 1996 to create multi-media works of science fiction and fantasy, drawing upon the copyright expired classics and the languishing resources of the Star Trek alumni. Its three founding members are actor/director Leonard Nimoy, actor/director/writer John de Lancie, and writer/producer Nat Segaloff. de Lancie and Nimoy headline the dramas, in this case playing the title character and his university professor respectively. The rest of the cast is rounded out by: Susan Bay, Richard Doyle, Robert Ellenstein, Jerry Hardin, Marnie Mosiman, Kate Mulgrew, Ethan Phillips, Dwight Schultz and Nana Visitor.

This production is very good, the sound effects, voice talent and music are all very well done. The script is quite different from the original novel, but those modifications are very well done. The packaging is merely adequate, a traditional cd jewel case, a cardboard box and some quickie photoshop art. But most conspicuous by its absence is a cast and character list. The cast is named at the end of the program, but we are never told which actor is playing which character. It is easy to tell Ethan Phillips and Nana Visitor, but its hard to identify many of the others. Of the other actors the only one who sounded at all familiar was one who sounded like Mark Twain. A little investigation, and I determined that it was likely Jerry Hardin who played Twain in Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s two part episode Time’s Arrow!

The story itself has been modified and compressed, most of the original Wells’ version of The Invisible Man remains in this production. H.G. Wells is best remembered for The War Of The Worlds, which itself was adapted very early on by Mercury Theater and Orson Welles. That adaptation and a later film version had a  lasting impact upon popular culture, making the idea of “alien invasion” almost synonymous science fiction, at least to the majority who don’t read it. But science fiction isn’t always about the future, or about space travel, or aliens invading the Earth. Sometimes it is subtler, and in the case of The Invisible Man, it proves itself deeply rooted in philosophy.

Those who examine science fiction closely will see a profound connection between science and philosophy. In the case of The Invisible Man, Wells started to explore what would be necessary for invisibility to work, (for it to be rooted in science and not merely magic), AND to explore the consequences of invisibility actually working. But Wells himself was drawing upon resources of an even earlier time. In the philosopher Plato’s famous book The Republic (itself a work of proto-science fiction), we are introduced to Gyges, a shepherd who finds a magic ring which can turn him invisible. Gyges soon discovers that he can act unjustly without anyone knowing. For Plato this was a story to make us think about what being just and injust really is. For Wells and Alien Voices it is more about telling a good story. But a little philosophy does manage to sneak into the plot; For the Invisible Man, invisibility is power, and possessing that power he can do a great many things, like get revenge. But revenge is hindered by a few stumbling blocks, first he has to go out naked, his clothing isn’t invisible so he can’t wear it. He can’t eat or smoke or walk in dusty areas, all of those things make him visible. Also he can’t carry anything, so if he steals money (he can’t earn it), it appears to float about of its own accord, making people chase after him! It is almost as bad as king Midas’s dilemma, like Midas, The Invisible Man got his wish but it isn’t quite working out for him. Dust and moisture make his body visible in a ghostly way. His footprints appear in the dirt and snow. Oh yes and the small matter that the accumulated effect of these things has driven him to the edge of madness.

I liked the story, but I was constantly reminded of one glaring problem not mentioned in production. Wouldn’t an invisible man also be blind? If his corneas are absolutely transparent and his retinas are absolutely transparent, how would light be turned into mental images? The answer…. they wouldn’t be! An invisible man would be blind! For us to see the world a fraction of the light that hits our retina must be absorbed into our rods and cones, our corneas must focus the light. This issue made the whole story so implausible, in my mind it made me question whether this was science fiction at all! Thankfully I got over it. And have come to realize that even if it is flawed by this oversight, at least it demonstrates that philosophical fiction like all good science fiction is able to make us think out problems that don’t seem obvious at first. Who’d have thought invisibility would require blindness? Not me, at least not before listening to Alien Voices: The Invisible Man.

Airing on BBC7’s wonderful program The 7th Dim…

SFFaudio Online Audio

Airing on BBC7‘s wonderful program The 7th Dimension:

The Fall Of The House Of Usher

[Episode 1 of 2, rptd at midnight]

By Edgar Allan Poe; Read by Sean Barratt

STREAMING AUDIO – Approx. 30 Minutes – Stereo – [UNABRIDGED]

Airs: Thu 25 Sep, 18:00 – 18:30 GMT, (Repeats Friday, 26 Sep, 00:00 – 00:30 GMT)

Poe’s chilling short story about a family’s descent into madness.

The Fall Of The House Of Usher

[Episode 2 of 2, rptd at midnight]

By Edgar Allan Poe; Read by Sean Barratt

STREAMING AUDIO – Approx. 30 Minutes – Stereo – [UNABRIDGED]

Airs: Fri 26 Sep, 18:00 – 18:30 GMT, (Repeats Sat 27 Sep 00:00 – 00:30GMT)

Poe’s chilling short story about a family’s descent into madness.

Posted by Jesse Willis