Review of Death Match By Lincoln Child

SFF Audio Review

Death Match by Lincoln ChildDeath Match
By Lincoln Child; Read by Barrett Whitener
10 Cassettes – Approx 15 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: 2004
ISBN: 0786128119
Themes: / Science Fiction / Technothriller / Mystery / Computers / Artificial Intelligence / Love /

What was it, exactly, she found so intimidating about the Thorpes? The fact they didn’t seem to need her friendship? They were well educated, but Maureen had her own cum laude degree in English. They had lots of money, but so did half the neighborhood. Maybe it was how perfect they seemed together, how ideally suited to each other. It was almost uncanny. That one time they’d come over, Maureen had noticed how they unconsciously held hands; how they frequently completed each other’s sentences; how they’d shared countless glances that, though brief, seemed pregnant with meaning. “Disgustingly happy” was how Maureen’s husband termed them, but Maureen didn’t think it disgusting at all. In fact, she’d found herself feeling envious.

From the title you might guess that Death Match is a novel set in the world of first person shooter computer games, and while that isn’t a bad idea in itself, this one has a premise even more unusual. Frankly, I’m amazed that no one else came up with this tale before now. It is so fundamental a science fiction idea – and so obviously possible in the near future, if not now – that it should have been explored in science fiction long before this. The premise goes something like… “What if you could use advanced computer technology and deep psychological testing to create a computer avatar of your own psyche – and then, using high speed data matching, run millions of pair bonding scenarios with other people’s avatars?” The purpose is to find the perfect match for a REAL life together. Once the two avatars are matched, each person associated with that avatar is given each other’s real life phone number and the knowledge that they are already perfectly matched! But this core idea isn’t on center stage, instead this is a mystery novel that reads like a technothriller in the tradition of Michael Crichton’s recent novels.

Christopher Lash, an ex-FBI forensic psychologist is hired by Eden Incorporated, the worlds premier couple matching service, to solve a mysterious double suicide of one of the company’s customers, the first “supercouple” created by avatar matching. To do the job properly Lash is familiarized with Eden’s patented software, going through the process of avatar creation himself, and then begins his “psychological autopsy” of the couple, which involves investigating what could have caused the world’s happiest couple to kill themselves. Just as his investigation gets into full swing – another couple dies! This can only mean that either something is wrong with Eden’s process or someone is murdering the world’s happiest people!

A few years ago I realized that eventually computer technology will solve a big pile of interesting problems. For instance, isn’t it a shame that Sean Connery couldn’t have done all of the James Bond films? Well, with computer technology it will be possible…. current celebrities and dead ones too will someday be reanimated, and recast in new movies. Imagine Humphrey Bogart paired with Harrison Ford for The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre: The Next Generation(hey it might be good). We’re practically ready to do it with their physical images now, the big hurdle is voice mimicry – computer software is still very primitive when it comes to recreating someone’s voice. But mark my words it’ll happen… But I’d never thought of Lincoln Child’s use for computer technology, though it’s an obvious one, and certainly one that is starting to be developed. Websites like www.hotornot.com are using both physical images and keywords to match couples. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that the traditional matchmakers of old – and willy-nilly dating (like we have now) are going to be subsumed by computer matches that will find the best possible spouse given our personalities?

The idea of finding that special someone you were always destined to marry is alluring. Myself, Normally I’m someone who believes that the idea of finding your “one and only” is pure fantasy. Just given the sheer numbers of people we’ll never meet during our lifetimes it clearly can’t be that there is only one special someone in the world for everyone. But on the other hand Lincoln Child’s idea here might make that dream a reality. Because, not only does it allow you to select from every person alive, it also runs a lifetime’s worth of lives with each and every possible match in order to find the best match among all good matches. It truly would be heaven, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately we are not given the metaphysical run down on the consequences to this proposition, Lincoln Child’s novel isn’t deep, instead it is merely summer beach reading and ultimately unthoughtful. Myself I’d have much preferred a few fewer plot turns, I figured out whodunit quite early. An idea this good really deserves a truckload of metaphysical explorations: Whatever happened to the idea that marriage is about making an imperfect fit, fit anyway? Now that you mention it what makes people attracted to each other? What is love anyway? And hey, if we can brain map an avatar and run complete life scenarios using artificial intelligence in a computer do we have the right to delete that avatar? If computer programs can run our lives better than we can, what do we do with our time? Yikes! That last one has some truly scary implications.

Now perhaps I’m being to hard on this novel, its has some reasonably interesting discussions about artificial intelligence in it, it all makes sense, there are no leaps of logic and the characters, while a little flat, aren’t altogether unlikable. Child has obviously done some research and the including of such nuggets of detail are good, but I guess I just needed more fire and more thinking. The narrator, Barrett Whitener, does a nice job with the voices, but the essentially humorless nature of the novel doesn’t play to his strengths. Blackstone has used a slight variation on the original hardcover’s cover art, and as plain as it seems, that’s it there pictured above, it is an improvement over the bland layout used in the paper version. This is only Lincoln Child’s second novel written without his writing partner Douglas Preston. Together they wrote the novel The Relic, which was adapted into a decent horror movie of the same name. I can easily see Death Match being made into a TV movie, but honestly I don’t think it’d be one I’d set the VCR to record. Hopefully Child’s third solo novel will concentrate its focus on the science fiction elements rather than the technothriller/mainstream that he went for with this one.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Mind Slash Matter by Edward Wellen

Mind Slash Matter
By Edward Wellen; Read by René Auberjonois
2 cassettes – 3 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Durkin Hayes Inc. [Audio Exclusive]
Published: 1995
ISBN: 0886463890
Themes: / Science Fiction / Mystery / Computers / Artificial Intelligence / Hollywood / Disability /

[His mother] should have died then, at that moment, but she lasted five terrible downhill years longer. Doctors were small help, they couldn’t cure or even treat Alzheimer’s. But they could tell him it seemed to run in families. So during those years, in between looking after her and meeting his deadlines, he put his mind to the matter of insuring that he would not end up mindless and helpless. That he would end up in the middle of a slasher case was farthest from his mind

Depending how you look at it, there are either one or two people named Rush Lightbody. The first Rush was an award winning screenwriter, who is respected in Hollywood. The second Rush is in physically the same body, but this Rush has a terrible secret. He suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive and irreversible brain disorder with no known cure. The effects upon him include extreme memory loss, disorientation, and impaired judgment. But he is able to cope because he anticipated it. Rush saw his own mother disabled by this horrendous disease and knowing that it can run in families he wrote a complex computer program to manage his daily activities for him. It can respond to questions and give instructions to the housekeeper. But most importantly it can help Rush with his daily routine; the program does everything from reminding him who he is and what he’s accomplished to telling him where the bathroom is. It can even answer the phone in Rush’s voice! The program provides constant reminders, telling Rush, “P.J. Katz called Rush, he’s your agent.”

P.J. Katz, like everyone else Rush knew has been fooled into thinking Rush is normal, so he’s isn’t reluctant to call with a new writing assignment – the biography of an aging film star. The biography of Iris Cameron will require Rush to physically visit her and his agent and thus to venture outside the bounds of his home and routine. So the computer program gives Rush a pager with a digital display readout and calls a cab. Disoriented and out of sorts Rush somehow manages not to screw up either the meeting with his agent or Iris Cameron, but when he returns home, Rush’s computer has recorded a death threat from an anonymous caller – if Rush doesn’t stop writing the biography of Iris Cameron, he’s a “dead man.” This threat eventually leads to something the first Rush Lightbody, the young man who wrote the computer program, could never have expected – Rush becoming the prime suspect in serial killer murder investigation! Its now up to a dementia suffering screenwriter and a few lines of code in a PC to both keep Rush alive and discover the real killer.

The plot as detailed above may remind you of a combination of Christopher Nolan’s independent film Memento (2000), and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950). But while Mind Slash Matter is certainly inspired by the latter, it precedes the former by a good five years. And as a big fan of both those films I am pleased to announce the resemblance in plots is also duplicated in the quality. Mind Slash Matter is one of the most riveting audiobooks I’ve ever heard! Upon finishing it I immediately attempted to track down more audiobooks by Edward Wellen, but unfortunately he wrote only two novels, and only one other story has been recorded as an audiobook – a short story I highly recommend you track down called “Mouthpiece”. But back to Mind Slash Matter, this is suspenseful, unpredictable, thought provoking and even funny novel with a mentally disabled detective solving a murder mystery. And frankly this story amazes me. Wellen has done the impossible. He’s written something completely and undeniably original. Wellen’s portrayal of what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s disease is insightful and frightening, and his ideas as presented are almost a meditation on the boundaries of the human mind, a recurrent theme in Wellen’s fiction. The sum is a very powerful tale – and an unforgettable audio experience.

René Auberjonois, the reader, will have a familiar voice to many listeners since he played Odo on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. His performance here is excellent, using different voices for each character and particularly able to inject emotion into Rush’s thoughts – fear, anger, frustration, and confusion. For a straight reading – no music, no voice effects – this is perfect. Cover art is a little hard to decipher but is adequate. To top it all off, Mind Slash Matter was, until recently, only available only as an audiobook. Such an amazing story and straight to audio!

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Live in Concert by Douglas Adams

Science Fiction Audio - Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Live in ConcertHitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Live in Concert
By Douglas Adams; Performed live by Douglas Adams
2 cassettes – 2 hours – LIVE PERFORMANCE, UNABRIDGED EXCERPTS
Publisher: Dove Audio
Published: 1996
ISBN: 0787108960
Themes: / Science Fiction / Humor / Time Travel / Robots / Artificial Intelligence / Alien Invasion /

In 1995, at the Alameida Theatre in London, Douglas Adams gave a live performance, reading several sections from the first three novels of the inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s Trilogy. The performance was recorded, and the result is one of the most oft-played in my collection. His reading is absolutely hilarious. His energy is high throughout the performance, and his comic timing impeccable.

Amongst the episode segments Adams reads are “Marvin and the Frogstar Battle Robot”, “Arthur and the Irrational Sofa”, and “Agrajag and the Cathedral of Hate.”

Hitchhiker’s Guide remains the best science fiction comedy out there. How to describe it? Well, this fellow named Arthur Dent wakes up one day to discover that someone is trying to knock down his home to make room for a bypass. While dealing with that, he discovers that his good friend Ford Prefect is not actually from Earth, but from somewhere in the vicinity of Betelguese. Further, the Earth itself is about to be destroyed by the Vogon Destructor Fleet to make room for an interstellar bypass. They get off-planet and the adventures commence aboard the Heart of Gold, which is run by an Infinite Improbability Drive, which… well, you just have to experience it.

Unabridged audio versions exist of all the Hitchhiker’s novels, but my favorite ways to enjoy this story is the original BBC Radio dramas and this live performance. A person who enjoys Hitchhiker’s already should very much enjoy this, and it would also offer a good introduction to someone who is unfamiliar with the story.

Posted by Scott D. Danielson

Review of The Minority Report and Other Stories By Philip K. Dick

Science Fiction Audiobooks - The Minority Report by Philip K. DickThe Minority Report and Other Stories
By Philip K. Dick; Read by Keir Dullea
4 Cassettes – 6 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Harper Audio
Published: 2001
ISBN: 0694523348
Themes: Science Fiction / Future Knowledge / Time Travel / Paranoia / Robots / Artificial Intelligence / Alien Invasion /

This collection of five Philip K. Dick tales includes stories that will make you laugh, cringe in fear, and most of all… think. Stories included:

The Minority Report
The creator and head of Pre-crime, John Anderton, runs a special branch of the police that uses precognition to lock-up those who plan to commit felonies. When he suddenly finds that his own name is on the list of future-murderers to be rounded up he thinks it’s a conspiracy to dismantle the system. After all, why would he, a respected crime fighter, kill a man he’s never met? His only chance is to escape, find out who this man he’s supposed to kill is. First published in the pulp magazine “Fantastic Universe” in January 1956, “The Minority Report” is an intriguing look at the philosophical consequences of thinking about the future and free will. If we can see into the future then the future is like a book in which we are all characters, and which we have no ability to chose to do anything. But if we can find out what a person’s future behavior is – and can prevent it – how reliable was the view of that future? Aren’t the two mutually exclusive? Isn’t future knowledge an irresolvable paradox? Like nearly every Dick tale, this one is extremely engaging. Unlike the movie adaptation, our hero isn’t a dashing Tom Cruise type, instead as the first line of the story illustrates: “The first thought Anderton had when he saw the young man was ‘I’m getting bald. Bald and fat and old.” Anderton is a protagonist lacking self-confidence. That weakness and the mounting paranoia enhance the tale all the more.

We Can Remember It For You Wholesale
Quail is just a working schlub, too poor to afford a trip to Mars, a place he’s always dreamed about going. His frustration leads him to buy a memory implant, one that will give him an ersatz visit to the red planet, and it’s said to be one so real that if he can find proof that he didn’t actually go, he can get his money back! But when something goes wrong during the procedure Quail starts to remember the truth – he’s actually been to Mars already! “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” was the basis of the feature film Total Recall, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and for the first three-quarters of the story, the plots are very similar. But fear not! As is becoming the rule in Hollywood, the ending is different. And I happen to think Dick’s version is even better. Originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine’s April 1966 issue, this one is one you definitely won’t forget.

Paycheck
Recently adapted into an action film directed by John Woo and starring Ben Affleck, “Paycheck” is the tale of an engineer who works under a strange contract. As a condition of his employment he must have his memories of his work wiped. After doing the job, two years have passed, and of course he has no memory of the previous two years – in lieu of wages he’s apparently traded in a large cash payment for a bag of seemingly worthless and unrelated objects. When the security police of the totalitarian state he lives in arrests him and demands to know what he’s been working on for the past two years he suddenly discovers that the “worthless objects” are helping him escape! Can this collection of junk actually unlock the secret of his recent past – and insure that he has a future? First published in “Imagination” Magazine’s June 1953 issue, “Paycheck” is as slippery and mysterious as it is slick written and inevitable – Dick is the ultimate idea man.

Second Variety
Under a flag of truce, the UN officer receives an offer of parlay from a lone Russian Soldier. He’s to travel alone to a rendezvous behind enemy lines to discuss a matter of ‘mutual interest’. “Second Variety” is the basis of the obscure SF film Screamers, starring Peter Weller. This novella originally appeared in Space Science Fiction magazine’s May 1953 issue and offers a glimpse at horrifically scarred future Earth where a nuclear winter and two opposing armies are confronted by an even more dangerous weapon than ICBMs. Well written and thoughtful, another masterpiece of paranoia and philosophy. Dick can do no wrong!

The Eyes Have It
This short storylet is a rare humour piece that posits the dire consequences literalism and paranoia. Whimsical and truly laugh-out-loud funny it was first published in “Science Fiction Stories 1” in 1953.

Keir Dullea, the reader of all these stories is probably best known as astronaut Dave Bowman in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In recent years Dullea has gained a name for himself as an audiobook narrator, and this collection can only add to that fame. Dullea does accents, and voice changes, but never gets in the way of the wonderful ideas. Well done.

Harper Audio did an excellent job with this collection. Recording quality is top notch and they’ve even accented the reading with little musical cues to let you know when a story has ended or the tape is ready to be flipped. Other than the uninteresting cover art and the flimsy packaging, which is unfortunately, all too standard these days, my only complaint was that they didn’t do more of Philip K. Dick’s stories. I wan’t more! More!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of I, Robot By Isaac Asimov

Science Fiction Audiobooks - I, Robot by Isaac AsimovI, Robot
By Isaac Asimov; Read by Scott Brick
7 CDs – Approx. 8 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Published: 2004
ISBN: 0739312707
Themes: / Science Fiction / Robots / Mystery /

The debate rages on. Most don’t know how much the film I, Robot (to be released in July) resembles Isaac Asimov’s original work. A badge-toting Will Smith gracing the cover of this audiobook suggests that the resemblence will be tenuous at best… many say that it doesn’t matter. Whatever your opinion, the result for audiobook listeners is an excellent unabridged version of some classic SF.

I, Robot is a collection of 9 short stories, connected by an ongoing discussion between a reporter and 75 year-old Susan Calvin, robo-psychologist. She is talking to the reporter about the history of robots, or the history of U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men, Inc, the company which produces the world’s robots, and for which she works. The stories she relates to the reporter are:

“Robbie”
A small girl enjoys the family robot – a bit too much, according to her mother, who arranges its disappearance.

“Runaround”
On a manned expedition to Mercury, a robot named Speedy doesn’t return from an important mission. Unfortunately, Speedy’s mission is vital to the survival of the human crew.

“Reason”
A robot believes the unbelievable – is it possible?

“Catch That Rabbit”
A robot used for asteroid mining goes wrong, and U.S. Robots representative Gregory Powell is sent to make it right.

“Liar!”
Could be subtitled: The Mystery of the Mind-reading Robot.

“Little Lost Robot”
Susan Calvin is called in to solve a problem with a collection of robots – which one is lying and why?

“Escape!”
A supercomputer called “The Brain” is asked a question, and it answers.

“Evidence”
A prominent politician is accused of being a robot.

“The Evitable Conflict”
The Machines take an even greater role in the affairs of humanity.

The behavior of all of Asimov’s robots are governed by his famous Three Laws of Robotics (see them below), and the stories themselves are all about the effects of robots on humanity on both the personal and societal levels. These stories are excellent, intelligent, classic science fiction – some of the finest work by one of the finest science fiction writers ever – Isaac Asimov.

Scott Brick, a narrator I always look forward to hearing, performs. He is engaging throughout and reads as if he truly enjoyed doing it. He’s one of the best.

And here, as promised, are the Three Laws:
The Three Laws of Robotics
1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2) A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

NOTE: For more unabridged Asimov, check out Books on Tape, where Scott Brick has narrated more of his titles. Asimov’s robot novels, the first two of which are The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun have not been produced as audiobooks, as far as I know. A glaring omission! The BBC has produced an audio drama of The Caves of Steel, however.

Posted by Scott D. Danielson