Review of Ringworld’s Children by Larry Niven

SFFaudio Review

Ringworld's Children by Larry NivenRingworld’s Children
By Larry Niven; Read by Barrett Whitener
8 CDs – Approx. 9.5 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: 2004
ISBN: 0786185384
Themes: / Science Fiction / Hard SF / Physics / Genetics / Aliens / Nanotechnology / Evolution /

The Ringworld is a landmark engineering achievement, a flat band three million times the surface of the Earth, encircling a distant star. Home to trillions of inhabitants, not all of whom are human, and host to amazing technological wonders, the Ringworld is unique in all of the universe.

The blurb above is a bit of a lie, no longer is Ringworld unique. There is Rama, Arthur C. Clarke’s giant tube shaped alien habitat, Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville, a huge Dyson’s Sphere built by mysterious aliens and the hungry alien construct called Gaea of John Varley’s Titan. Indeed, there have also been three other books in the Ringworld series – admittedly all of them are set on the same Ringworld. But the first Ringworld novel, published in 1970, was the first of this new kind of SF novel; the novel of the big big thoughts, or as David Gerrold calls it, “the enormous big thing”. An idea, a ‘what if’ so massive and so imaginative, so rife with unforeseen consequences that the characters must investigate it just as we do. Kind of like science fiction for science fiction characters! Ringworld was such a big idea in fact, that the three sequel novels were published in an effort to examine the impossible gigantitude of the consequences of its existence. In this the fourth, and perhaps final installment of the Ringworld series, we see more of the problems of existence of such a structure fixed, visit with old characters (Louis Wu, Acolyte, The Hindmost and Tunesmith being major players) and meet some new ones too. There are some genuine surprises here, and some edge of your seat excitement, but as with the previous two sequels the biggest surprise is still the same one from the first novel – and that of course is, just how massively huge the Ringworld is! Its size still staggers the imagination… a narrow ring, only 0.997×106 miles wide, with two perimeter walls climbing 1000 miles high, to hold in the air, the ring itself is 93 million miles in radius, a single spinning world shaped like a ribbon around a star – with a habitable area of over 3 million Earths. What couldn’t happen in a place that big?

Author Larry Niven cemented himself as the standard barer of Hard Science Fiction, with the publication of Ringworld. If he had done nothing else, he’d still be thought of as a prodigious figure in the field. But he’s not rested upon his laurels; he’s expanded, refined and continued the Ringworld adventure. In a way, that was a mistake. You can’t top an idea this big by telling more adventures about the same world. On the other hand, I personally wouldn’t have had it any other way. I enjoyed nearly every minute of the nine and a half hours of listening in Ringworld’s Children. In fact, I would have been happy with another nine hours! There were a few parts that were dry, sure, but they didn’t last very long and they moved the plot along. I do wish Niven had spent some more time exploring the inhabitants of his creation; we meet only a few new hominid species, and unlike in previous installments, we don’t get a full sense of their ecological niches. But given that much of the action takes place in space around the Ringworld perhaps it couldn’t be helped. Much of this action is necessary though as many threads from the previous two sequels needed tying up, especially if this is indeed the final chapter in the Ringworld series.

Barrett Whitener, who seems to be recording nearly every Blackstone science fiction title coming out these days, was actually not a great choice as reader for Ringworld’s Children. It’s not that his reading is poor – it wasn’t. In fact, I like the way Whitener read it, I just think that his tone was all wrong for this particular novel. His various alien voices didn’t sound at all alien. Mark Sherman, who did such a terrific job with the alien voices in Larry Niven’s Protector (also recorded for Blackstone Audio) would have been a much better choice to give voice to Ringworld’s Children and its many alien characters. That said, I still enjoyed the heck out of the audiobook, and I can’t fault Whitener’s performance in the least. When the numbers and the physics are coming fast and furious it’s nice to be given the words by a good reader who can handle the text. Ringworld’s Children, all in all, is truly a worthy addition to the Ringworld novels. Long live Larry Niven!

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Volitar: Murder, Mystery, Mayhem Music

Volitar: Murder, Mystery, Mayhem
Music by Andrew Engstrom; Dramatic scenes performed by a full cast
1 Music CD with dramatized connecting scenes – 47 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: www.volitar.com
Published: 2002
UPC: 803680208120
Themes: / Music / Science Fiction / Experimental / Mystery / Suspended Animation / Aliens /

“Well according to the Navi-computer we’re right on target Mr. Braiden. We should be landing on Volitar in oh…. a quick year and a half.”

The year is 2117. Mining moon owner Trevor Braiden, along with planetary geologist Dr. Desiree Lear, return to Volitar in search of a new mining site. Just hours after their arrival a bomb blast rips through the mining compound leaving Trevor bewildered from the loss of his best friend. Someone is trying to him, but why?

Tracks included:
1. Blast-off
2. Deep Freeze
3. Soul Searching
4. Landing
5. Gateway Theatre
6. Faces
7. The Secret
8. Just One Look
9. Machine Shop
10. Nightmare
11. Laser Research
12. The Fire of Section 17
13. Dead
14. Mourning
15. Desiree For Dessert
16. Free

Volitar’s creator, Andrew Engstrom, wrote this concept album as a hybrid between science fiction audio drama and straight rock music CD. He personally wrote and played multiple instruments in all of the songs, sang in others, co-wrote the dramatic storyline and even performed the lead character’s role. I’m of two minds on this one, I liked the idea, though I admit to not being a devotee of the concept album, but I didn’t come away from it thoroughly convinced. The dramatic elements are probably most to blame here. Unfortunately Engstrom came up with a milieu and some characters but the story isn’t quite finished. What little of it I could follow didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, and each of the eight dramatic scenes that it is composed of seemed to be written only as introduction to the following song. One example of this is where our characters go into a seedy bar, where an alien rock group is just taking the stage. Before the band starts to play one of the characters asks another to dance. – Cue the music track. – After that song finishes, they tell each other how much they enjoyed the dance they just had and ask to dance again…

While I really and truly appreciated the enthusiasm and the follow through in production of the CD and fit and finish of the packaging, the content itself left me bewildered. The voice acting was only fair and for some scenes the actors sounded like they were simply reading their lines straight off the page. And though the album was recorded between 1998 and 2002, the music felt very 1985, with lots of heavy metal riffs and indecipherable or inaudible lyrics. Not my favorite. But then my tastes in music may not be yours; several other reviewers have noted how much they enjoyed the music. Musically it may work well for you. As far as the fiction goes … I like to be able to follow the story. And I couldn’t here. BUT, taking it in as a serious attempt at SF, that should be followable may have been a mistake on my part.

Becky Jo Engstrom, who plays one of the characters, noted in an exclusive audio interview available with the bonus eBook CD “The Making of Volitar,” that they planned the CD as an homage to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and the ‘B-movie’ influences of their youth. So, if before you insert the CD and hit play, you tell yourself, ‘this is light entertainment, just music with dramatic scenes’ and not ‘dramatic scenes with music’, you may have a heck of a lot of fun with it! As an aside, special mention should go to artist, Bud Curtis (http://www.alaskagrafix.com/), who’s responsible for the CD’s digital imagery in the fold out packaging; he’s done a terrific job! I found the bonus eBook quite interesting too, well presented and chock full of production details. Andrew Engstrom and his team seem like really cool people and I look forward to their follow up album tentatively titled “Volitar: War In Ganthros.”

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Martian Time-Slip By Philip K. Dick

Science Fiction Audiobooks - Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. DickMartian Time-Slip
By Philip K. Dick; Read by Tom Parker
6 Cassettes – 9 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
ISBN: 0786113529
Date Published: 1998
Themes: / Science Fiction / Mars / Politics / Time-travel / Mental Illness / Aliens / Philosophy /

On the arid colony of Mars the only thing more precious than water may be a ten-year-old schizophrenic boy named Manfred Steiner. For although the UN has slated “anomalous” children for deportation and destruction, other people–especially Supreme Goodmember Arnie Kott of the Water Workers’ Union -suspect that Manfred’s disorder may be a window into the future.

While the Mars of our reality is a fascinating planet in its own right, the Mars of fiction is far more accessible, and nearly as alien! Ray Bradbury’s Mars was a walk through the pastoral and allegorical mind of Bradbury’s youth. Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars, a fantasyland where many buckles were swashed and princesses were saved. But Philip K. Dick’s Mars is the strangest of them all, a place where everyday reality is malleable and where political corruption continues as it does on Earth. Martian Time-Slip, as read exceedingly well by Tom Parker, is a poignant and utterly fascinating journey both across the newly colonized Martian landscape and through the lives of its varied central characters. A journey not to be missed, I have no doubt that eventually the real colonists on the real Mars will be reading Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip – and a few of them may even be listening to Parker’s excellent performance of this amazing novel.

More and more it seems you can count on Blackstone Audio to pick a great book, match it with an appropriate narrator and follow through with high production values. Martian Time-Slip just adds to this reputation. It comes in a library style clamshell binding with a cool cover featuring the original art from the paperback release. And to top it all off this superb production includes every single word in the book, including the teaser back cover. There is little else to say except: Martian Time-Slip, highly recommended!

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of To Your Scattered Bodies Go By Philip Jose Farmer

Science Fiction Audiobooks - To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose FarmerTo Your Scattered Bodies Go
By Philip Jose Farmer; Read by Paul Hecht
6 Cassettes – 7.75 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Recorded Books Inc.
Published: 2000
ISBN: 0788763261
Themes: / Science Fiction / Resurrection / Society / Aliens /

Paul Hecht reads this Hugo Award-winning novel by Philip Jose Farmer. The novel begins with the resurrection of millions of people from throughout human history. They awaken in a great river, swim to the surface, and emerge onto the shore.

The story’s main character is Sir Richard Burton, an adventurer who lived from 1821 to 1890. He immediately finds himself leader of a small group of people which includes a prehistoric man, a Victorian woman, and an alien. This afterlife is no heaven, though, as people barely get over the fact that they are alive again before they start fighting each other for the usual reasons humans do.

Burton’s attention turns to the river itself, and he decides to build a boat and find its source, hoping then to find the answers to his questions – Who resurrected them? And why? The answer to this question changes throughout the book as more is revealed and the characters figure things out.

Another significant character is Nazi Hermann Goering who picks up from where he left off on Earth, enslaving Jews and engaging in battle wherever he can find it. The exchanges between Goering and Burton are the highlight of the book. That humankind can be resurrected without changing is a dismal thought, and I think the main theme of this novel. But mankind’s adventurous spirit is also represented as honorable in Burton’s character.

Paul Hecht is a good reader who does well with this material. He was a bit dry at times, but was very listenable and successfully held my attention.

Posted by Scott D. Danielson

Review of Star Trek: Vulcan’s Soul by Josepha Sherman and Susan Shwartz

Star Trek Audiobooks - Star Trek Vulcan's SoulStar Trek: Vulcan’s Soul Book I: Exodus
By Josepha Sherman and Susan Shwartz; Read by Boyd Gaines
3 Cassettes or 4 CD’s, 4 hours [ABRIDGED]
ISBN: 0743529995 (Cassette), 0743530004 (CD)
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Audio
Published: 2004
Themes: / Star Trek / Vulcans / Aliens /

A disheartening thing about being a fan of Star Trek is that one of its most beloved characters, Spock, has been left with an unfinished story. The last time we saw him on the screen was during the two-part Star Trek: The Next Generation episode entitled Unification. That the ratings for that episode are among the best Star Trek has ever gotten demonstrates the fan’s desire to see more of Spock. Alas, the business world encroaches, and for whatever reason, Spock was left on Romulus, his fate uncertain.

Enter Josepha Sherman and Susan Shwartz. Their previous two Star Trek novels, Vulcan’s Forge and Vulcan’s Heart (both available on audio) were excellent science fiction, focusing on Spock in particular and Vulcan culture in general. Vulcan’s Soul Book 1: Exodus continues that story in the same manner, focusing both on the character of Spock and the Vulcan world during the time of Surak, the great Vulcan philosopher who championed logic over emotion, and to whom we were first introduced during the Original Series.

The story takes place one year after the Dominion War. A hostile and powerful race called the Watarii, claiming to have an ancient score to settle with the Romulans, invade Romulan space. Spock and his wife, Captain Saavik, swoop in to help, enlisting the assistance of old friends Admiral Uhura and Admiral Chekov. They work to unravel the mystery of the Watarii while doing their best to assist in defending against them. Frequent flashbacks tell the interwoven story of Surak’s effect on the planet Vulcan.

The story is fast paced and extremely well-read by Boyd Gaines. The sound effects and music typical of previous Star Trek audiobooks is also present, effectively used to establish setting and tone.

My only quibble with this one is that I hadn’t heard from Uhura and Chekov in so long that I had to seriously question whether or not they would be alive one year after the Dominion War. The answer is: apparently so. They’d be over 150 years old, but possibly still kicking. Uhura is mentioned in a previous novel (Catalyst of Sorrows) as being the “centenarian head of Starfleet Intelligence.” I’m certainly finding this kind of thing old. I assume Sherman and Shwartz have a valid reason for using these two particular characters, but I’m currently not sure why they would bring yet another couple of TOS characters into the TNG/DS9/VOY era rather than using some contemporary characters from other series. Perhaps the Enterprise-A encountered some kind of strange nebula which had a hypnotic effect that prevents these folks from retiring… Another story, perhaps.

Other than that annoyance, this was a very good Star Trek novel with lots of Vulcan mythos, lots of eyebrow-raising conundrum, and a fantastic battle scene.

Find more on Star Trek audiobooks here!

(I’d like to acknowledge the kind assistance of Scott Armstrong, who did some research for me for this review. Any mistakes, of course, are my own.)

Posted by Scott D. Danielson

Review of The Reel Stuff edited by Brian Thomsen and Martin H. Greenberg

The Reel Stuff
Edited by Brian Thomsen and Martin H. Greenberg
Read by Various
6 Cassettes – 9 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
ISBN: 0886465745
Publisher: dhAudio
Published: 2000 [OUT OF PRINT]
Themes: / Science Fiction / Horror / Computers / Memory / Aliens / Urban Legend / Space Travel / Time Travel /

The Reel Stuff is a collection of stories that have been adapted into films. They are all great stories, and this collection has the added attraction of comparing these stories to the films. dhAudio really did a fabulous job with this one. The stories:

Johnny Mnemonic by William Gibson, read by Christopher Graybill
FILM: Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Johnny Mnemonic was published in 1981, a few years before Gibson’s Hugo and Nebula-award winning Neuromancer hit the scene, illuminating the whole Cyberpunk sub-genre. This story is a clear view of that sub-genre as it has all the elements; human/computer interfaces, plenty of violence, and quick-witted characters. In this story, the title character holds a piece of data in his brain that is wanted by some powerful folks who are willing to do plenty to get it. Christopher Graybill does a great job with it.

Amanda and the Alien by Robert Silverberg, read by Colleen Delany
FILM: Amanda and the Alien (1995 – TV)
This tale, by the great Robert Silverberg, is humourous and sexy. The main character is a ditzy teenage girl named Amanda who takes an alien who can morph into anyone it eats under her wing. Definitely a B-movie kind of story, but purposefully so. Colleen Delany performs well, capturing the Amanda character perfectly.

Mimic by Donald A. Wollheim, read by Terence Aselford
FILM: Mimic (1997)
Mimic is a very short tale that reads almost like a documentary about the peculiar ways in which animals hide from other animals. This is then extrapolated in a very spooky way to humans. Terence Aselford didn’t have a heck of a lot to work with here, but he kept it interesting.

The Forbidden by Clive Barker, read by Vanessa Maroney
FILM: Candyman (1992)
Clive Barker drums up some modern mythology here as a female professor explores urban legend among the lower class in London. The story is effective and chilling in the hands of Vanessa Maroney, who navigates Barker’s weirdness as if it were really happening.

We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick, read by Terence Aselford
FILM: Total Recall (1990)
Terence Aselford gets another chance in this collection, reading this reality-bender by Philip K. Dick. The main character wants to go to Mars in the worst way, but can’t afford it. The solution? Take a virtual vacation! Have memories implanted so you can “have gone” to Mars. But here, things get complicated when the implantee’s supressed memories surface during the procedure. Dick again manages to leave me wondering what the heck is really real – where exactly is the immovable bedrock? Nothing is sacred in Philip K. Dick’s hands.

Nightflyers by George R.R. Martin, read by Christopher Graybill
FILM: Nightflyers (1987)
Martin here spins a science fiction horror story. Think Psycho meets Lost in Space and maybe you’ll have a feel… a group of people ride on a ship that is controlled by a mystery man who never leaves the cockpit. Christopher Graybill again is impressive in his reading.

Air Raid John Varley, read by Nannette Savard
FILM: Millenium (1989)
Nannette Savard reads a very strange, very affecting story about Earth’s future. In it, humans have evolved just a bit, but the Earth’s biosphere has been destroyed, its people diseased. Varley’s descriptions are vivid and graphic – these people are in a bad way. To keep the species going, they go back in time to retrieve healthy airline passengers, mid-flight, since history shows they are on the verge of fiery death. These passengers become humanity’s hope. Varley is a very affecting writer, and through the main character we experience much. Savard does a great job conveying this to the listener.

Sandkings by George R.R. Martin, read by Richard Rohan
FILM: The Outer Limits: Sandkings (1995)
Simon Kress wants a pet, but something interesting… something out of the ordinary. He finds what he’s looking for when he purchases a group or creatures called sandkings which live in a large terrarium with plenty of sand lining the bottom. They build castles and fight battles. They even worship. And they are endlessly fascinating. Well, they were. Perhaps a little prodding from Kress will end the monotony… This one is my favorite of this excellent collection. Sandkings is original and fascinating, both as a character study of a man with too much comfort and as an exploration of an alien animal species.

Posted by Scott D. Danielson