Review of Songmaster by Orson Scott Card

SFFaudio Audiobook Review

Audiobook - Songmaster, by Orson Scott CardSongmaster
By Orson Scott Card; Read by Stefan Rudnicki
10 CDs, 9 Cassettes,or 1 MP3 disc – 12.5 hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: 2006
ISBN: 9780786178421 (CDs), 9780786180578 (MP3-CD), 9780786135097 (Cassettes)
Themes: / Science Fiction / Galactic Empire / Music / Education / Children / Despotism / Rebellion /

This early novel by Card is a precursor of many things to come from this great author. One of Orson’s favorite themes is that of a child with extraordinary talent coming of age. The child’s name is Ansset, and at very young age he is sent to the sequestered Songhouse. In the Songhouse, a powerful form of singing is taught that creates an abnormally strong emotional response in the listener. Ansset turns out to be exceptionally gifted singer and is groomed to be a Songbird.

The emperor, Mikal, who most believe to be the most horrible tyrant of the galaxy, wants to have a Songbird. Ansset is sent as a child to be Mikal’s Songbird. But there’s more to Ansset than what appears on the surface.

The writer’s credo “show, don’t tell” had to be abandoned in a sense. How does an author write about the impact of the music being sung without describing it? (telling). After all, the writer’s tools are words and not music. Card does show us the emotional impact that listeners have to the singing, so in that sense he is showing us. The great power of the songbird’s music could emotionally ravage a listener for good or ill. As a reader/listener, we need to believe this. So, how well does this novel succeed when it is about music, but is written in prose? In one word— beautifully. In the hands of less expressive author this could have been clumsy technique. This is a touching novel, in which you’ll care for Ansset.

The audiobook is narrated beautifully by Stefan Rudnicki. Mr. Rudnicki conveys an introspective and measured performance that suits the novel perfectly. There are parts of the text that he has to convey by singing. He does this in an understated manner that doesn’t undermine the emotional context of the scene. And the recording is up to the usually high standards that we expect of a Blackstone audiobook. If you’re fan of Ender’s Game or Card’s other works and you haven’t read or heard Songmaster—get it! If you’re not familiar with OSC’s works, this is a good place to start.

Review of Ender’s Game: Special 20th Anniversary Edition by Orson Scott Card

Science Fiction Audiobooks - Ender's Game by Orson Scott CardEnder’s Game: Special 20th Anniversary Edition
By Orson Scott Card; Read by Stefan Rudnicki, Harlan Ellison, Gabrielle de Cuir, David Birney and a FULL CAST
9 CDs – 10.5 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Audio Renaissance
Published: 2004
ISBN: 1593974744
Themes: / Science Fiction / War / Children / Military / Politics / Spaceships / Space Station / Aliens /

Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin isn’t just playing games at Battle School; he and the other children are being tested and trained in Earth’s attempt to find the military genius that the planet needs in its all-out war with an alien enemy. Ender Wiggin is six years old when his training begins. He will grow up fast. Ender’s two older siblings, Peter and Valentine, are every bit as unusual as he is, but in very different ways. Between the three of them lie the abilities to remake a world–if the world survives.

Many male children covet uniforms and the manly art of war – and on the surface that is what Ender’s Game appears to be about, a wish-fulfillment novel for the pre-teen set. But it isn’t only that. Science Fiction is an accumulative literature, perhaps more so than any other kind. Good creations stick in SF and accumulate and grow. Robots once invented, need not be reinvented. Faster than light travel, time travel or Asimov’s “three laws” are tools which once created need not be ignored as outside the scope of another SF novel, quite the contrary in fact. Simply ask yourself; in what other literature could a constructed story device like an “ansible” (invented by Ursula K. Le Guin in 1966 but used in Ender’s Game) be mentioned without renaming it? But it is not just the story props that SF shares, the concepts and themes of science fiction can never be fully appreciated in isolation. Every science fiction story is in dialogue with another.

Ender’s Game is especially engaged with two other superlative science fiction novels that preceded it, namely Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, and like those two masterpieces of science fiction Ender’s Game has something new and unique to say. Whereas Starship Troopers can be viewed as the relationship between a teenager’s individualism and his relationship to society (a neo-Hobbesian social contract concept typical of mid-career Heinlien), and The Forever War as a discussion of that same relationship but with a college aged young man and his more skeptical worldview (the post Vietnam influence) Ender’s Game engages neither an adult’s nor a teen’s relationship to his society its war. Instead Ender’s Game is that relationship from a child’s perspective. It is also, paradoxically, not a grunt’s view of a war, as was the case with both Heinlein’s and Haldeman’s novels, but rather is about how the supreme commander of an interstellar war is created.

Orson Scott Card has not ignored the disconnect between a child’s desire to play at war and the brutal cost of killing, and the burden of ultimate responsibility. We primarily follow Ender and his classmates as they train to command Earth’s military in a genocidal war against a hostile alien threat, but the parallel story of his two siblings back on Earth compels equally. Each character in this novel is in a chess match of emotional and philosophical conflict with one another and their society. There are a few better hard science fiction stories, and a few better soft science fiction stories, but there are fewer science fiction stories as well constructed and emotionally satisfying as this one.

The 20th anniversary of the novel’s re-publication brought about this audiobook. It is regrettable that the cover art of this edition is as generic as it is because the folks at Audio Renaissance have quite literally have brought greatness to the text. They’ve included an introduction and a postscript read by Card himself, both of which place the novel and the audiobook in its context as well as enlightening us to the author’s method of its construction. Multiple readers lead by Stefan Rudnicki work perfectly to vocally illustrate each chapter, character and scene. Stefan Rudnicki, Harlan Ellison, Gabrielle De Cuir, David Birney and the rest of the readers have given us an audiobook perfectly rendered. In what is the pattern for the Enderverse novels adapted for Audio Renaissance readers trade off at the ends of chapters, and when two unplaced voices are unattributed – except by what they actually say – two actors engage in conversation. Multi voiced readings have never been better.

And so it is with great pleasure that we enter this Special 20th Anniversary edition of Ender’s Game as the first into the ranks of the SFFaudio Essential audiobooks.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of A Coyote in the House By Elmore Leonard

A Coyote's in the House by Elmore LeonardA Coyote In The House
By Elmore Leonard; Read by Neil Patrick Harris
3 CDs – 3 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Harper Children’s Audio
Published: 2004
ISBN: 0060728825
Themes: / Fantasy / Anthropomorphic Fiction / Movies / Crime /

This dog was cool for a homeboy, an older male who had peed all over this big yard, marking it to let everybody know this was his turf and nobody else’s. Keep it, homes. Live here and get food handed to you. Believe you’re somebody in your pitiful kept world, no better than a slave.”

Buddy’s the aging movie star, Antwan’s the streetwise hipster and Miss Betty is the showgirl. Buddy also happens to be a German Shepherd, Antwan is a wild and wily Coyote and Miss Betty is a bouffant Poodle. A Coyote In The House is a kid’s book in the tradition of Jack London’s The Call of The Wild. In essence this it is the same story, simply with a sub-urban as opposed to an arctic setting – that and Elmore Leonard’s patented prose. It’s not just Leonard’s dialogue that’s distinctive; it’s his story structure, characters, and cadence that all scream Elmore Leonard. And that’s very disconcerting. Leonard hasn’t written anything but adult crime novels and westerns so to hear this audiobook was truly odd. I think kids and adults who listen with together will both be pleased. It’s a fun story but it’s a strange experience for fans of Elmore Leonard’s other novels.

I couldn’t get over how Leonard completely ignores the impossibility of the situation he’s created. I know it’s a kid’s story, and kids won’t likely see it the way I do, but this story is utterly impossible. It basically ignores everything we do know about animal intelligence and replaces it with hipster lingo and human motivations and then marches on, oblivious to all the impossibilities those things entail. As an example, Buddy, the aging German Shepherd movie star, watches his old movies all day long – every animal in A Coyote In The House is intimately familiar with movies and movie stars – this despite the story logic that these canines, felines and avians can’t understand most of what humans say (and vice versa). Further, the animals can’t manipulate objects with their paws like in a Disney movie say, and yet somehow Buddy is able to – off screen – grab a VHS tape of one of his movies put it in the VCR and watch it, rewind it and put it back before his owners get home and see him. “Oh come on,” you say. “It’s a kids story, it doesn’t have to make sense.” Maybe. It didn’t ruin the experience for me but it didn’t let me fully enjoy it either. I just think that it’d have been a far better story to tackle, realistically, the animal’s perspective head on.

One other curious thing of note. The use of the word “bitch.” In any other Leonard novel it wouldn’t be a novelty – here it refers doubly as a slang term (for adult listeners) and as a female canine for children. Some adults may have a problem letting their kids hear such words, when the usage is not clear cut but I think that’d be the wrong attitude to take – the word is legitimately used here and I’d be far more concerned about kids thinking that animals are just like people – when they aren’t – than learning a “bad” word. Performed by Neil Patrick Harris, A Coyote In The House has a goodly number characters with distinctive voices. Harris is quite impressive as a reader! His audiography seems to consist mostly of children’s novels, perhaps a legacy from his child stardom. In any case he’d be a good reader of adult novels too.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Science Fiction Audiobooks - Ender's Game by Orson Scott CardEnder’s Game
By Orson Scott Card; Read by Stefan Rudnicki, Gabrielle De Cuir, David Birney and others
10 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Fantastic Audio
Published: 2002
ISBN: 1574535145 (Cassette) – 1574535366 (Audio CD)
Themes: Science Fiction / Military / Space / Youth / Politics / Alien races /

In the not too distant past, the Earth survived a war with the Buggers, an insect-like alien race. One military man, Mazer Rackham, was able to make the difference in the war for humanity, but it is widely feared that the Buggers will be back. To prepare, the government has taken to monitoring the Earth for the next military genius. Everyone who is considered a candidate is taken from their families at a young age and placed into an orbital Battle School. Ender Wiggin, at 6 years old, is considered to be the best candidate – Ender’s Game is his story.

Ender’s brother (Peter) and sister (Valentine) also play a large role. They are both older than Ender, and both extremely intelligent. They also were both passed over for Battle School, one for being too dangerous and one for being too compassionate. They have their own way of influencing the events of the world, even though they are no longer considered for the military.

The Battle School is centered on a game in which teams (armies) of kids fight each other in a zero-g environment. They carry guns that shoot low power lasers and wear suits that react to those lasers by freezing wherever they are hit. By playing the game, the students are training in three dimensional combat, and the competition aboard the Battle Station is fierce.

Ender not only deals with the other students in this competition, but also the teachers of the School as they place him in more and more difficult circumstances. The story has much to say about means and ends, both personal and political.

Even though I had read it three times over the past 14 years, I was glued to this audio version as if I didn’t know what was going to happen. The audio is a treat. Stefan Rudnicki performs the main narrator duties, while a number of others perform the conversations amongst the adults, which occur at the beginning of each chapter. Orson Scott Card also recorded a postscript in which he discusses the origins of Ender’s Game as a novel. First-rate.

Review of The Giver by Lois Lowry

Science Fiction Audiobooks - The Giver by Lois LowryThe Giver
by Lois Lowry; Read by Ron Rifkin
4 Cassettes – Approx. 6 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Bantam Doubleday Dell
Published: April 1995
ISBN: 055347359X
Themes: / Science Fiction / Children / Dystopia / Utopia /

In the future, society has eliminated pain and there is peace on earth, at least as far as we can tell. For Jonas, his twelfth birthday marks new responsibilities and new challenges. He hopes to be assigned to training as a “Nurturer,” like his father, with duties of caring for newborn babies until they are assigned to mothers and fathers. His mother works in the “Department of Justice”; but he doubts that will be chosen to be his life’s work. He has little natural aptitude for either function. But he is unexpectedly assigned to the position of “Receiver,” an important job with the unique function of learning and holding the community’s memories. The present position is held by a community elder, who is called “The Giver”. Together they must make the transition easy for the community because strong memories of hate, anger, and love aren’t acceptable except for guiding political decisions.

This is a well written children’s novel that adults can enjoy. But it is a children’s novel and one way to tell is by the controversy surrounding it was so strong. Though it is set in a science fiction setting, it is more of a parable than most modern children’s science fiction. The story of a young boy confronting a hidden truth about his society isn’t entirely original (though it does predate Harry Potter by a few years). It is also of course a story of a utopia/dystopia and the transformation of society that happened to make it. Again something not unfamiliar, but what is original though is the method used to transform the society. Think of it as a children’s version of Brave New World, This Perfect Day or G-rated Equilibrium and you’ll get the idea.

Ron Rifkin’s narration is effective, and it is an enjoyable novel to listen to. The controversy surrounding “The Giver” is entirely a product of it being deemed a children’s book, and having a child rebelling against his parents and society. It won’t turn your pre-teen into Che Guevera.

Review of Time Bride by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann

SFFaudio Review

Time Bride
by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann; Read by Barbara Rosenblat
One cassette – 67 minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Durkin Hayes Publishing Ltd.
Date Published: October 1992 – Out of Print
ISBN: 0886466202
Themes: / Science Fiction / Time Travel / Children /

The man who wasn’t there first spoke to Marcie when she was eight years old. Sitting in a mud puddle outside her house a disembodied voice spoke to Marcie. It said “My name is Arnold Waxman and someday I’m going to marry you”. The voice knew all about Marcie, and was constantly trying to control her behavior, it would scold her for being naughty and tell her what she should think and do. “With my guidance,” It said. “You’ll grow up to be a perfect young lady, the perfect bride.” Marcie didn’t like the voice and she was determined that she would not marry Arnold Waxman when she grew up. She will get her revenge… in time.

Gardner Dozois a Nebula Award winning author, as well as a Hugo Award winning editor has teamed up with Jack Dann himself an honoured editor to construct this neat little SF fable. Originally published in “Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine” December 1983 issue, Time Bride is read by Barbara Rosenblat who has been named a “Golden Voice” by Audiofile magazine and as such she’d been recognized as one of the audiobooks industry’s top narrators. While this tale won’t blow your mind with its originality it will surely entertain you. Barbara Rosenblat reads Dann and Dozois’ dialogue with obvious relish and the dénouement when it comes is very well done indeed. Unfortunately due to Durkin Hayes being out of business you may have great difficulty finding a copy of this audiobook. A search of eBay may turn up a copy.