Review of Maps In A Mirror: The Short Fiction Of Orson Scott Card

SFFaudio Review

Maps In A Mirror: The Short Fiction Of Orson Scott CardMaps In A Mirror: The Short Fiction Of Orson Scott Card
By Orson Scott Card; Read by Various
4 Cassettes – Approx. 6 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Dove Audio
Published: 1999
ISBN: 0787121770
Themes: / Science Fiction / Fantasy / Crime / Elephants / Music / Art Theory / Utopia / Dystopia / War / Death /

Four cassettes, six hours, eight stories of Orson Scott Card’s polished prose. Included in this collection are some truly crackerjack stories and a couple that aren’t so hot:

The Elephants Of Posnan appeared in English for the first time in this collection. Originally published in Poland for a Polish Science Fiction magazine it is the tale of a human global die-off caused by an infertility crisis. This is something we’ve seen before in Science Fiction to be sure, but the addition of an elephantine theme and a Polish setting makes this one totally unpredictable. Card reads this himself and gives it an interesting introduction too.

Unaccompanied Sonata is perhaps the most fantastic story here. Set in a bizzare dystopia in which the purity of music can only be assured by the ignorance of its makers. This is a world that could have been inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s theory of art – a world in which imitation ensures art to be a failure. I have no idea if OSC had that in mind when he wrote it but it certainly fits. Read with passion by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.

Freeway Games is the least SFFaudio related story in this set. It was first published in Novemeber 1979 in the Gallery magazine which at the time was competing with Playboy for quality short fiction. The original published title was “Hard Driver.” This is basically the story of perverted serial killer who while keeping his hands clean is actually as guilty as sin. It ranks in well alongside Lawrence Block’s late 1970s early 1980s slick magazine tales of demented psychos. Read to perfection by the incomparable Robert Forster.

Lost Boys is interesting in that the main character is someone named Orson Scott Card. My research indicates it is “semi-autobiographical” story, hopefully the fantastic elements are the “semi” part! Stefan Rudnicki, the producer of this audiobook read this tale with a heartfelt flush of sadness. This short story was later expanded into a full length novel which went on to great acclaim.

Quietus, was virtually opaque to me. The plot was something to do with our need to reconcile with death. I am given to understand it incorporates several Mormon themes. The style is surrealistic but even knowing this I couldn’t easily follow it let alone understand its thesis. First published in Omni’s August 1979 issue.

The Best Day was written under the pseudonym Dinah Kirkham. Card’s rumination of the elusive search for happiness. This story fled my brain as soon as it was finished. Read by William Windom.

Fat Farm is perhaps my favorite OSC short story. It isn’t the characters, I hate them. Instead it is the riveting plot that is the star here – this story deals with the philosophy of personal identity in the context of two science fictional technologies: 1. Cloning. 2. Memory uploading. If you can replace your imperfect body with a perfect one and keep on living what would give you pause? OSC’s Fat Farm will do the job. It also compares nicely to Robert J. Sawyer’s Shed Skin. Roddy McDowell’s reading is grumbly, growling and totalitarian. You’ll beleive he is all the characters in this one.

Ender’s Game. The original short story from 1977 shows the sparkling promise that would lead to the unquestionably great novel of the same name. This tale isn’t just an shorter version of the novel, there are a number of differences between the two texts. Reader Michael Gross does a fine job with it.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

Science Fiction Audiobook Review

Science Fiction Audiobook – Pattern Recognition by William GibsonPattern Recognition
By William Gibson; Read by Shelley Frasier
9 CDs – 10.5 hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Tantor Media
Published: 2004
ISBN: 140010095X
Themes: / Science Fiction / Internet / 9-11 / Crime /

“Cool Hunter.” How about that for a dream job? Companies pay you (and ply you with the latest technological goodies) to identify trends and fashions that spring up at street level so that they can commodify them and turn a buck. As far as I know, William Gibson (the man responsible for the term “cyberspace”) didn’t coin “cool hunting,” but he makes good use of the idea in “Pattern Recognition.” Cayce Pollard is Gibson’s heroine and the consummate cool hunter. Cayce can spend an afternoon walking through the teenagers clogging the streets of London when school lets out and identify at least three of tomorrow’s money-making fashion trends. She can look at two potential logos for a company and immediately know which of them will connect better with the targeted demographic. Like any other talent, though, being able to tell what works and what doesn’t has its downside. Cayce has an almost allergic reaction to most brand names; she’s got to have the labels removed from and the words filed off of the rivets on her black 501’s, her Casio G-Shock has got to be logo-free, and don’t even think about coming near her with a picture of the Michelin Man. Cayce is also deeply obsessed with a captivating film that has been mysteriously released, bit-by-bit, over the Internet, an obsession that opens the door for Gibson’s intricate plot.

Pattern Recognition was written soon after 9-11 (the events of which it references regularly), and is set in a very realistic 2002. The book probably doesn’t even technically qualify as science fiction, but Gibson keeps his ear so close to the tech-development ground that the story gives the impression of being futuristic. In fact, the book can be used as a sort of barometer to gauge your level of tech-geekiness. Are image-based search engines and vintage calculator fetishes old-hat to you? Congratulations, you’re ready to tackle Doctorow and Stross. Is the idea of a “render farm” unknown to you, and do you still double-take when you hear “google” used as a verb? Better stick to Card and Haldeman.

Having said that, this is probably the most accessible of all of Gibson’s books. His embrace of a post-cash economy era heroine and his tangential explorations of Internet forum social hierarchies and information-age Russian Mafia thugs will satisfy sci-fi vets (and provides solid evidence of Gibson’s place as a powerful influence on the new wave of cyber-post-punk writers), but the realness of Cayce’s femininity, the lack of one-dimensional characters, and, particularly, the overall attractive melancholy mood of the book make it one that you can safely recommend to your sci-fi avoidant spouse and friends.

I read the text version of Pattern Recognition soon after it came out, and was pleasantly surprised at how much enjoyment the audio book added to my experience. Shelley Frasier’s pleasantly dry narration, able handling of accents, and especially the sexy innocence she gives Cayce’s voice had me popping discs in one after another. I have a very pleasant memory of taking a break from a late-night Fawlty Towers marathon to get some Burger King, and staying in my garage five extra minutes just to finish listening to Shelley describe a British noodle bar called “Charlie Don’t Surf”.

The text version of the book includes a drawing of an object that is vital to the plot, and I was worried that the audio book might get awkward at that point, but truth be told, I didn’t even notice the absence of the drawing.

So, hats off to Gibson, Frasier, and the folks at Tantor Media for putting together an excellent reading of a great science fiction novel (that isn’t even really science fiction). As wonderful as Gibson’s more speculative work is, if Pattern Recognition is what it looks like when both of his feet touch ground, then I wouldn’t mind if he came down to earth more often.

Review of 7th Son Book One by J.C. Hutchins

SFFaudio Review

7th Son Book One7th Son Book One: Descent
By J.C. Hutchins; Read by J.C. Hutchins
Podcast Novel – Approx. 16 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: J.C. Hutchins; Podiobooks.com
Published: August 2006
Themes: / Science Fiction / Suspense / Crime / Cloning / Conspiracy /

The President of the United States is dead. He was murdered in the morning sunlight by a four-year-old boy.

How does that grab you? These are the first two sentences from the prologue of the podiobook 7th Son, and it just gets better from there. Next, we meet our 7 main characters: John, Michael, Jack, Father Thomas, Jonathan, Dr. Mike, and Kilroy 2.0, as each are taken abruptly away from their individual lives and brought to the 7th Son Facility. They quickly learn that their lives – and their memories – are not as individual as one would think. Each man is a clone, and each had been implanted with the same memories from childhood, using Memory Recording/Installation (MR/I) technology. Each clone has their own personality trait (for instance, one is a priest, another is a Marine, and another is a musician), and though they are clones, their physical appearances do differ slightly.

What they come to discover is they were brought together to help catch the person who assassinated the President. The 7th Son facilitators believe that John Alpha, the source in which all the other clones were created, is behind the assassination. Only they don’t know how, or why. That is where the clones come in. Working together, they discover John Alpha’s whereabouts, at the same time learning more and more about their pasts that never were. The clones also discover they share the same mother, who was taken away by John Alpha. The memories of their mother are the same implanted memories, and they all share them, even though the woman, Danya Sheridan, is quite real and was a memory specialist at the facility.

We find out soon enough this is a conspiracy that goes much deeper than assassinating a President. Experimenting with memory technology also has its downfalls, when in Chapter 8 we learn about NEPTH Charge Technology (Neuro Erasure-Pulsed Technology Hardware), a technology that sends such a shockwave through the brain that every one of your memories are erased. Eventually a way to control that misstep is found, but the implications should the technology fall into the wrong hands are evident.

The very next chapter is an example of this, and is by far my favorite chapter in the book. I remember it very clearly because I cringed for the entire process. For onlookers, I must have looked like I was having some sort of seizure. It is that good of a chapter.

Hutchins captures your attention from the very beginning, and with a smooth voice is able to depict each character in such a way you begin to recognize each clone’s voice as their own. His writing is smart, descriptive, and his ideas are original, with plot twists that will keep you guessing right up until a secret is revealed (and there are quite a few). You’re guaranteed to gasp and talk to your computer or mp3 player while listening. J.C. Hutchins gives Stephen King a run for his money. Now that I think about it, someone should let King know about this podcast novel, if he’s not subscribed all ready, that is.

There are two ways to receive this podcast novel. One is through Podiobooks.com, where you will get nothing other than the chapters of the story, as if you’re listening to an audiobook. The other way is subscribing to the podcast feed directly through Hutchins’ website, which is how I listened. Listening to the book this way is a bit different than just listening to it as a straight audiobook. The set up is a weekly show, with an introduction, a recap of the last chapter, the chapter itself, then closing with voicemails and podcast promotions. A lot of listeners to the podcast listen week-by-week, as you would wait for the next episode of a television show. Each chapter is compelling enough, with just enough cliffhanger to keep you checking your podcatcher for the next chapter to be released. Other listeners, such as myself, joined the “Beta Clone Army” (as the fan-based Myspace group is called) later in the book. I listened to nothing else for a week-and-a-half, then had to wait like everyone else when I caught up. It was frustrating, but in a good way.

Also included in the podcast-show version of the novel is a bonus show, filled with Q&A from listeners, plugs for other podcasts, and acknowledgements. I loved listening to this extra show. Hutchins talks about his inspiration for the 7th Son story, as well as giving in-depth analysis of each clone, and how he created the characters. The hard-core fans will find it very informative, and I personally love to hear where writers get their inspirations for stories.

There is a ton of fan-hype surrounding this podcast novel, and it’s easy to be swept up in it. Whether you listen as a “podiobook” or as the podcast show, 7th Son will captivate your imagination and hold it hostage right up to the end. The writing is strong and easily stands alone, which is why it has the fan base it does. Book two begins September 26th, so there is plenty of time to subscribe to this book and catch up.

Review of A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

SFFaudio Review

Science Fiction Audiobook - A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. DickA Scanner Darkly
By Philip K. Dick; Read by Paul Giamatti
8 CDs – Approx. 9.5 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Published: 2006
ISBN: 073932392X
Themes: / Science Fiction / Drugs / Consciousness / Identity / Paranoia / Law Enforcement /

“I myself? I am not a character in this novel, I am the novel.”
-Philip K. Dick A Scanner Darkly

Bob Arctor is the owner of a ramshackle Orange County, California bungalow that houses a small group of drug users. The police think Bob is a dealer in the dangerously addictive drug called Substance-D but Bob really isn’t. Or is he? Fred thinks so, Fred is a deep-cover police agent assigned to surveil Bob’s every move by means of holoscanners and upclose undercover investigation – but Fred’s job is made more difficult because it requires him to take Substance-D, the effects of which have been to gradually split his brain into two very distinct and mutually combative conciousnesses. Fred schizm is so bad that he now doesn’t realize that he is also Bob Arctor and that he has in fact been narcing on himself! Fred/Bob’s only hope is to convince his/their dealer, a druggie named Donna, to get him to the source of Substance-D. Yep it is another typical Dickian plot, the downtrodden protagonist/s finds him/themselves at odds with complicated plot, which while not specifically aimed against him, is something in which he/they have become inadvertently entangled. Unfortunately when survival is the object of the game, Dick’s poor characters don’t know that doubling-down only multiplies the jeopardy by a factor of two.

Dick was no stranger to paranoid drug fantasies. Back in 1972 with his fourth marriage in ruins, an unsolved burglary in his Marin County home and a serious amphetamine addiction Dick travelled to Vancouver, British Columbia to be Guest of Honor at V-Con. After delivering a landmark speech he attempted suicide. Desperate for help, Dick begged and gained entrance to an exclusive heroin addiction treatment center called X-Kalay. This despite the fact he wasn’t addicted to heroin. When he eventually retuned to California he started work on a new novel. A Scanner Darkly was the result. Now 33 years later Dick’s novel has been adapted for audio as a result of the new film version. The good news is, no matter what you think of the film you’ll dig the audiobook. Despite what mayu sound like a downer, you’ll dig this book, A Scanner Darkly has some of the funniest scenes in all of Science Fiction. One section about a suicide gone wrong showcases Dick’s absurdist intellect… “[Charles Freck] spent several days deciding on the artifacts [that would be found by the archaeologists who discovered his dead body]….He would be found lying on his back, on his bed, with a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (which would prove he had been a misunderstood superman rejected by the masses and so, in a sense, murdered by their scorn) and an unfinished letter to Exxon protesting the cancellation of his gas credit card.” Even better, the ending is masterful, giving up the same Science Fiction satisfaction as did his Hugo winning The Man In The High Castle.

Actor Paul Giamatti (who had a supporting role in the film version of PKD’s Paycheck) was the perfect choice to read A Scanner Darkly. Giamatti’s on-screen characters only hint at his range and it took this audiobook to showcase all that talent. This is an excellent performance, Giamatti has said that Steve Bucemi should have been cast in the Tom Cruise role of the Minority Report film but I’m thinking it should have been Giamatti. His sympathetic portrayal of these drugged-out hippies and drugged-up cops makes this Random House’s A Scanner Darkly the definitive reading of a Dick novel. Giamatti ably gives distinction to the cast of losers and even carries off the German sequences without a hitch. What blows me away about this production is that Giamatti had expresed interest* in being in the Linklater film version of the same name, Giamatti has stated in multiple interviews that he is a fan of PKD’s work. Giamatti has even been approached to play PKD in a film adaptation of Dick’s life! That’d be a hoot.

Two Seeing Ear Theater alumni, Brian Smith and John Colluci, produced and directed Giamatti’s performance. The audiobook also includes intro music and the complete coda; a list by Dick of many of his closest friends who died or were severely damaged by drug use. I heartily endorse this unabridged audiobook and we in our influenced wisdom have seen fit to grant it a hallowed place in the hall of SFFaudio Essentials. This is a book to be long remembered and a reading never to be forgotten.

*Entertainment Weekly (issue #884/885 Summer 2006 Double Issue – page 117)

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Callahan’s Con by Spider Robinson

Science Fiction Audiobooks - Callahan's Con by Spider RobinsonCallahan’s Con
By Spider Robinson; Read by Barrett Whitener
8 CDs – Approx. 10 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: 2004
ISBN: 0786183470
Themes: / Science Fiction / Humor / Crime / Time Travel / Immortality / Telepathy / Florida /

Jake Stonebender, our favorite intergalactic barkeep, rivets us to our stools with yet another wild and wooly yarn about the goings on of his Key West cantina. This time though, it isn’t the end of the world that is the trouble. Instead, it’s a mountainous mole-hill of a thug named Tony Donuts Jr. who wants to make his bones by fleecing Jake and his neighboring businesses for “protection money”. Jake could solve this problem with straight-on firepower, but that’d only bring down more government attention on him and his hippie clientele. And more heat is what he doesn’t need – because wouldn’t you know it – a dedicated bureaucrat from the Florida family services department has been sniffing around to find out why Jake’s only daughter has not been to school since she was born some thirteen years ago! So Jake and his extended family set about concocting a sting so devious it will make Florida Swampland real estate look good. The grift involves, among other things, time-travel, the Russian Mob, and the Fountain of Youth!

Full of brain-smearing puns and gawdawful song parodies Callahan’s Con is guaranteed to entertain anyone who enjoys Robinson’s Hugo award winning fiction. Myself, I come for the jokes and stay for references. In this case a nice homage to literature’s most unlucky master criminal: John Dortmunder. Callahan’s Con is proof that not only can Robinson like to write in the style of Heinlein – as he did in the previous installment, Callahan’s Key, – but also that he can write in the style of Mystery Writers Of America Grandmaster Donald E. Westlake! Interestingly this means that that Jake’s first person perspective is stretched-out to include multiple viewpoints – as is the Westlake’s Dortmunder novels. I’m not sure how Robinson did it, but he managed to convey other character’s perspectives in a way I can only describe as fictionalizing the fiction. I should also note that in a break with tradition Robinson hasn’t merely added to the seeming ever growing entourage surrounding Jake – for a major of character in the series dies. Though this could be troubling it is handled with grace and a few tears.

Reader Barrett Whitener, in this third Blackstone Audio Callahan audiobook does his familiar and fun vocal gymnastics routine – spouting off one liners in a dozen comic voices. Whitener, an Audie Award winner, is well matched with comic material – it really and truly is his forte. Blackstone Audio has been known to use a mix of art from the hardcover or paperback and their own original cover art. Their own art has been steadily improving and I’m pleased to say this is the nicest original cover so far!

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