Review of The Year Of The Flood by Margaret Atwood

SFFaudio Review

RANDOM HOUSE AUDIO - The Year Of The Flood by Margaret AtwoodThe Year Of The Flood
By Margaret Atwood; Read by Bernadette Dunne, Katie MacNichol and Mark Bramhall
11 CDs – Approx. 14 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Published: September 22, 2009
ISBN: 9780739383971
Themes: / Science Fiction / Dystopia / Disaster / Environmentalism / Environmental Disaster / Ecology / Planetary Ecology / Religion / Genetic Engineering / Sex / Activism / Genetics /

The long-awaited new novel from Margaret Atwood. The Year of the Flood is a dystopic masterpiece and a testament to her visionary power. The times and species have been changing at a rapid rate, and the social compact is wearing as thin as environmental stability. Adam One, the kindly leader of the God’s Gardeners—a religion devoted to the melding of science and religion, as well as the preservation of all plant and animal life—has long predicted a natural disaster that will alter Earth as we know it. Now it has occurred, obliterating most human life. Two women have survived: Ren, a young trapeze dancer locked inside the high-end sex club Scales and Tails, and Toby, a God’s Gardener barricaded inside a luxurious spa where many of the treatments are edible. Have others survived? Ren’s bioartist friend Amanda? Zeb, her eco-fighter stepfather? Her onetime lover, Jimmy? Or the murderous Painballers, survivors of the mutual-elimination Painball prison? Not to mention the shadowy, corrupt policing force of the ruling powers . . .Meanwhile, gene-spliced life forms are proliferating: the lion/lamb blends, the Mo’hair sheep with human hair, the pigs with human brain tissue. As Adam One and his intrepid hemp-clad band make their way through this strange new world, Ren and Toby will have to decide on their next move. They can’t stay locked away . . .By turns dark, tender, violent, thoughtful, and uneasily hilarious, The Year Of The Flood is Atwood at her most brilliant and inventive.

Margaret Atwood’s book The Year Of The Flood spans several years, before, after and during the waterless flood which is a plague that affects only humans. There are three readers, Bernadette Dunne, Katie MacNichol and Mark Bramhall. Throughout the eleven discs (14 hours), I enjoyed listening to the women, and began to dread the onset of the male reader. He was certainly professional. Was it his character, Adam One, a religious cult leader of God’s Gardeners? Was it the inevitable sermon he would read in a church-appropriate voice? Or was it the hymns, written by Atwood and set to “original” music that would have me engaging in positive procrastination in order to avoid finishing this audiobook.

The loveliest parts of the book take place from the point of view of Ren, a child in God’s Garden. The religion is a logical outcome for a near future on Earth following environmental disasters not too difficult to imagine. Technologies we toy with today lead to some A Clockwork Orange style vocabulary. Words such as “garboil” (a kind of petroleum made from trash) lend a frighteningly vital immersion into this eco-nightmare. Other wonderful vocabulary delights come through the genetic alterations of food and creature such as soydines and bugs with little smiley faces engineered thereon so thoughts of squishing them would be repugnant. The Gardeners have a host of saints to celebrate, showing Atwood’s ability to relate some important environmentalists and peaceniks to her tale including Saint Rachel Carson, Saint David Suzuki and Saint Mahatma Gandhi.

The main female characters, Ren and Toby, both fully developed, are compelling. Throughout the story, one is interested in them as human beings, in their suffering, in their losses, in their desires. Despite the time shifts, the readers manage to keep the characters believable; one is lost in the story (as one should be!) until the final disc. Maybe Atwood can’t write optimistic endings. With all the violence, sadistic sex and death in the world of the Gardeners who are staunch vegetarians who don’t even kill the insects that invade their gardens; with spray guns, layabout body parts and a world of human-pig hybrids conducting funerals, the last disc felt wrong. Ren’s character becomes childish. Toby becomes a murderous cold-blooded killer and then suddenly has another personality shift. The only character to remain true is the one-dimensional ADAM ONE. I was strung along on the brilliant imagination, left flat on story line, and confused in the end by the characters I thought I liked.

Am I waiting for that third expected book in a TRILOGY featuring some of these characters? My interest in Atwood’s “exfernal” world is now lukewarm.

Posted by Elaine Willis

Review of Dune by Frank Herbert (Macmillan Audio)

SFFaudio Review

Science Fiction Audiobook - Dune by Frank HerbertSFFaudio EssentialDune
By Frank Herbert, Performed by Simon Vance
18 CDs – 22 hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Published: 2007
ISBN: 9781427201430
Themes: / Science Fiction / Politics / Space travel / Culture / Ecology /

Dune. Arrakis. Desert Planet.

I first read Dune when I was in college (late 1980’s), after a few false starts. I desperately wanted to read it, so I made it the only thing I took with me on a 30 hour bus ride from Tucson, Arizona to Idaho Falls, Idaho. It was a long trip. I smelled like cigarettes. But I got that book read, and loved it.

Years later, I reviewed an unabridged recording of Dune for SFFaudio that was read by George Guidall. Loved that one, too. Revisiting the book was a treat and Guidall is the Yoda of audiobook narration, so win-win.

Now, years after that, I’ve heard yet another unabridged version of Dune, this time a multi-voice presentation from Macmillan Audio. And again, I loved it. Frank Herbert’s novel remains one of the finest examples of world-building the genre has to offer. The political intrigue is delicious, the implied history deep and satisfying, and the characters smart.

Simon Vance is the main narrator. Each character’s dialogue is performed by actors, and skilled actors at that. I can’t find a list of the entire cast, but it includes Scott Brick, Katherine Kellgren, Orlagh Cassidy, and Euan Morton. I enjoyed it thoroughly. The actors were allowed to perform, and most of the time the attributives were dropped. Vance’s narration bridges the conversations, and the book is immersive and engaging.

I’m not certain why, but there are long passages that Simon Vance narrates himself. Vance is right up there with Guidall, so it’s an excellent reading. I’m just not certain why the audiobook wasn’t done with a full cast all they way through. I point this out as a curiosity rather than a flaw.

A few short years ago, if a person had asked me if I prefer a single narrator to a full cast recording, there wouldn’t have been any hesitation. Single narrator, definitely. But now, I’d have a difficult time choosing between a full cast narration and a single narrator, assuming the single narrator is good, the actors in the full cast narration are good, and – this is very important – the attributives in the full cast narration are dropped so I don’t have to hear the maddening “he said angrily” after an actor has made it quite clear that a character is angry. The problem is that most full cast narrations lean too far toward audio drama, adding too much sound and music. I love audio drama, but audio drama and audiobooks are very different experiences. Most productions that aim somewhere between the two fail in my opinion. Because of this leaning, there aren’t many full cast narrations I’ve enjoyed, but this production from Macmillan Audio and anything from Full Cast Audio are top-notch.

Despite my enjoyment of Dune, I have never read past it. I can’t explain why. I’ve owned a copies of Dune Messiah and Children of Dune for years, but have never read them. Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson published a book called The Road to Dune (SFFaudio Review), which presented the history of the creation of the Dune books. In there it said that Frank Herbert intended Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune to be one story. It’s long past time I try more of these novels. Lucky for me, all six of Frank Herbert’s original books have been completed and released by Macmillan Audio, all as full cast productions.

 
On to Dune Messiah!

Posted by Scott D. Danielson

Review of Timescape By Gregory Benford

Science Fiction Audiobook - Timescape by Gregory BenfordTimescape
By Gregory Benford; Read by Simon Prebble and Peter Bradbury
11 Cassettes – 15.75 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Recorded Books LLC
Published: 2001
ISBN: 0788763180
Themes: / Science Fiction / Hard SF / Time Travel / Alternate History / Quantum Physics / Science / Ecology / Philosophy / Astronomy / Britain / USA /

Winner of both the Nebula Award and the John W. Campbell Awards for best science fiction novel, Timescape is an enduring classic that examines the ways that science interacts with everyday life to create the many strange worlds in which we live. In a future wracked by environmental catastrophe and social instability, physicist John Renfrew devises a longshot plan to use tachyons–strange, time-traveling particles–to send a warning to the past. In 1962, Gordon Bernstein, a California researcher, gets Renfrew’s message as a strange pattern of interference in an experiment he’s conducting. As the two men struggle to overcome both the limitations of scientific knowledge and the politics of scientific research, a larger question looms: can a new future arise from the paradox of a forewarned past? With multiple plot lines and diverse characters, Timescape offers something for all lovers of fascinating science and great fiction. Simon Prebble and Peter Bradbury combine for a narration that skillfully uncovers the mysteries beneath our understanding of the universe.

Timescape is a deep novel that explores characters, causal paradoxes, politics, history and physics over time all with equal skill. And despite the serious nature of the narrative there are even a few laughs in there! This isn’t just science fiction it is scientist fiction, that is it is fiction that shows how scientific experimentation in the modern university setting works. Benford, is himself a scientist and he doesnt dumb down the book for us amateurs. I was very surprised that I hadn’t heard how good this novel was previously. I count myself as a fairly knowledgeable fan of science fiction and yet somehow the certain fame of this novel slipped under my radar. I was pleased and surprised as Timescape approaches greatness in it’s chosen domain.

Appropriately Simon Prebble, with his English accent, reads the 1990s chapters of the novel, which are primarily set in England, while Peter Bradbury with his American accent reads the 1960s chapters, set mostly in California. This is the kind of book that was a natural for dual narration. Bradbury and Prebble are both excellent, pronouncing nearly every technical term correctly, in this hard science heavy novel that is no small feat! Recorded Books’ original cover art for this audiobook is even more evocative than the paperback and hardcover editions. Nice work RB! But it’s not all praise. First is an attribution mistake on the front cover of the audiobook, the copy reads “narrated by Simon Prebble and Peter Bradley” (it should read “Bradbury” not “Bradley”). There was also a problem plaguing my copy of Recorded Books cassette audiobooks – the sound level. It may have been only a problem with my copy, but in order to hear this audiobook I had to crank up the stereo to its maximum output level. Recorded Books does however offer to replace defective cassettes, and if the recording level were any lower I’d have to seriously consider taking them up on it. Likely this wouldnt be a factor at all with the CD version but there isn’t a CD version available at this time.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of State Of Fear By Michael Crichton

Science Fiction Audiobook - State of Fear by Michael CrichtonState Of Fear
By Michael Crichton; Read by George Wilson
Audible.com DOWNLOAD – 18 hours and 7 min [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Harper Audio
Published: 2004
Themes: / Science Fiction / Techno-thriller / Global Warming / Ecology / Tsunami / Ice-Age / Eco-Terrorism /

A review by Guest Reviewer Barry

In Paris, a physicist dies after performing a laboratory experiment for a beautiful visitor. In the jungles of Malaysia, a mysterious buyer purchases deadly cavitation technology, built to his specifications. In Vancouver, a small research submarine is leased for use in the waters off New Guinea. And in Tokyo, an intelligence agent tries to understand what it all means.

I listened to Crichton’s State of Fear mainly because of a nicely done
interview with Crichton by Beth Anderson, available for free on Audible.com.

I’ve always been a bit of a Crichton fan since his first book The Andromeda Strain. The last book I heard of his, Timeline, seemed kind of silly and cartoonish and I was eager to get it over with. But Beth’s interview with Crichton was interesting and I expected something a little more mature. Boy was I wrong.

This is in many, many ways a very childish and often boring book. The characters aren’t even fleshed out enough to call them thin. Thin implies some dimensionality. Their parts in the story, which is no story, are contrived to enable them to give speeches explaining Crichton’s views while fending off killers and eco-terrorists, poisoners, lawyers and interesting dialog.

Crichton is convinced that the ecology movement has been overtaken by greedy lawyers
and that we’re being sold a bill of goods about global warming. While I can’t help but agree that the scenario he paints would be scary if it were real I don’t see much sign of it being real in the world I live in.

He makes some very good points about studies by universities and foundations being as biased as those of industry. But he seems to think that we the people are all firmly convinced that global warming is a reality because of the PR campaigns of these money-seeking foundations and a press who is always willing to jump on any bandwagon that attracts an audience. And while both of those things are easy to believe, I don’t see any sign that everyone believes that global warming is a fact and I don’t think I’ve seen attempts by the media to convince me of that.

Yes there have been pro shows on TV and articles treating global warming as a fact but the majority of those I’ve seen treat it as an open question; as a possibility.

His major point seems to be that we have a lot of questions and not many answers and that we should be asking more questions and studying and learning more before we try to insist on answers. I agree with that and I agree that it often doesn’t happen that way in
life. But it often does happen that way.

The book has almost no story of interest; no characters of interest at all; very little suspense with the exception of a couple of very surprising and tense and exciting scenes; and very little to offer.

To add injury to insult, this is a very badly made audiobook. It’s read by George Wilson, who I’ve heard and liked in other books, and it’s done badly. He doesn’t give us any way to distinguish the characters in a dialog and it’s often not possible to figure out who is
saying what. If there had been a story this would have hindered it terribly.

He sometimes reads a line badly and then reads it over. I guess that’s the editor’s fault, not the narrator’s; but it makes for bad narration from the listener’s point of view.

And, just to make sure the insult and injury were painful, Audible put their section markers right before chapter headings, which consist of the date and time, so that when you lose your place and are trying to find it, if you don’t remember the exact date and time of the section you were in, traversing the sections makes them all sound the same. That made finding my place after drifting off to sleep; a serious problem in this book; very difficult.

Everyone who got their hands on this book seemed to screw it up a little more. I probably even downloaded it badly. For all you Crichton fans, I suggest hearing Airframe if you haven’t already. It’s one of his best.

For you who want to be up in arms about a problem and don’t care if it’s a real problem or not, listen to Rush Limbaugh or something. This book is just too boring.

Review of Dune By Frank Herbert

Science Fiction Audiobooks - Dune by Frank HerbertDune
By Frank Herbert; Read by George Guidall
16 Cassettes – 24 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Recorded Books
ISBN: 0788763334
Date Published: 1998
Themes: / Science Fiction / Politics / Space travel / Culture / Ecology /

George Guidall is a tremendous narrator. His nuanced performances continually make his audiobooks easy on the ear yet insistent – his performances demand attention. Matched with the Frank Herbert’s Dune… well, this is as good as it gets, folks. A detailed, meaningful, and entertaining piece of science fiction performed by a narrator with fine voice, excellent timing, and utmost attention to those very details… magnificent.

Dune is a masterpiece of world-building. In the novel, Frank
Herbert creates Arrakis, the desert planet that is also called Dune.
The natives of this planet are people called Fremen, a mysterious desert-dwelling people that the characters in this novel don’t fully understand, at least at the beginning. They are proud people, and though a family from the galactic empire rules them, they project an aura of power and resiliency. Arrakis is important to the galactic empire because it is the world where Spice is mined. Spice is of supreme importance in Herbert’s universe for a host of reasons I won’t list here.

The fully realized culture of Arrakis is merely backdrop at the beginning of the novel, which immediately takes up the story of Paul Atreides, son of Duke Atreides. The Atreides family takes over as the ruling family of Arrakis from a rival family called the Harkonnens. From the moment they arrive on Arrakis, the Fremen treat Paul in a special way, since Paul fits the description of someone for which the Fremen have been waiting a long time. The story follows Paul from his departure from his home planet to his arrival on Arrakis and his eventual survival in the desert, during which much about the fascinating culture of the Fremen is revealed.

Frank Herbert wrote a novel here that works on so many levels that it can be read several times. From one angle, you’ve got a novel about the effects of a Messiah on a culture. From another, you’ve got an ecological novel about survival in a desert and the ethical questions about whether to disturb that harsh but natural environment to make it more habitable for humans. Still another gives you a novel of brutal political intrigue as Harkonnen plots against Atreides (and vice versa) in the pursuit of the power that is ownership of the Spice. Each of these subplots is fully developed an intertwined with the others in this novel, which succeeds in every way in print and now succeeds again as an audiobook thanks to the wonderful performance of George Guidall.

Posted by Scott D. Danielson

Review of Ecotopia – An Audio Novel By Ernest Callenbach

Science Fiction Audiobooks - Ecotopia by Ernest CallenbachEcotopia – An Audio Novel
By Ernest Callenbach, Read by Ernest Callenbach and Edwin Newman
2 cassettes – 3 hours [UNABRIDGED AUDIO ADAPTATION]
Publisher: Audio Renaissance
Date Published: April 1990 – Out of Print
ISBN: 1559270527
Themes: Science Fiction / Utopias / Environmentalism / Ecology /

Dateline — the early 21st Century. The nation of Ecotopia — made up of what was once Washington, Oregon and Northern California — has been independent of the United States for 20 years. Now, for the first time since its secession, this mysterious society is allowing an outsider to enter its borders and report on its way of life.

William Weston is a journalist from the eastern United States, the first person to be granted permission to enter Ecotopia since its breakaway from the rest of the USA 20 years earlier. The news reports he transmits from Ecotopia describe the strange customs, practices and beliefs of the Ecotopians. Meanwhile, his personal journal doesn’t try to remain objective as he comes to terms with his personal response to this strange new society.

Ecotopia is less a novel than it is an extended essay on how we could live if we would just all become environmentalists. The basic premise is simply an environmentalist version of Sir Thomas More’s literary classic Utopia. While listening to the story I never once got lost in the tale. I was always aware that this was directly inspired by More’s famous work – heck, even the title jars the suspension of disbelief, its like naming the first moon colony “Moonbase Alpha” and then expecting us all to take it seriously. But Ecotopia isn’t exactly a modern retelling of More’s work. Unlike his utopia, Ecotopia is earnest, real earnest – and in a way only a true environmentalist or an evangelical vegetarian can be. But don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the story and liked a lot of the ideas in it. But the story is a complete daydream, with no chance of it ever happening, at least any sort of revolutionary way as Callenbach has it. I shouldn’t overstate the flaws. Ecotopia was written in 1975, and here nearly three decades later a significant portion of the population has adopted at least some of the mindset set out in the novel.

I must tell you I’m no true-believing granola-cruncher myself, but I concede that much of the novel has great power and is persuasive. Ecotopians enjoy 20-hour work weeks, have a stake in the product of their labor and live in a society that has abolished patriarchy. The greatest criticism that I can have against the story is that it’s completely unrealistic – it ain’t gonna happen, not like he’s written it. Now normally this wouldn’t be an issue at all. Many fantasy novels are set in worlds which are absolutely physically impossible, but nobody says “elves don’t exist so I can’t accept the story”, but in this case I think the criticism is apt. Ecotopia isn’t fantasy fiction, it’s utopian fiction – and the charge of implausibility is much much stickier when it comes to utopian stories especially when they’re earnest. Dystopian tales on the other hand, like George Orwell’s 1984 need not be plausible. They are vaccinations against future problems. By taking our modern moral and technological problems to an extreme in utopian/dystopia stories like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day we are immersed in a complex vision of the problems and benefits such a society would have. Utopian dystopias demonstrate how good ideas can be ruined by unforeseen consequences and how taking some of the bad with the good might not be such a bad thing. But straight earnest utopian literature has to be laid out in such a way as to explain how we get there from here. Author Ernest Callenbach doesn’t do that. He doesn’t even wave his hands or use a throwaway excuse, and that shortcoming is a huge hurdle. All his characters are true believers, no one rails against the obvious implausibility of it all, so it is we, the listener who must. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s utopian novel Pacific Edge (1988), for example, a similar ecological balanced society is pondered, but it manages to explain how the self same human nature that we have in a consumer mad society like ours can also become an ecological utopia and it does it in a much more plausible and immersive fashion.

Callenbach himself narrates Ecotopia with help from Edwin Newman, they take turns reading the first person account of William Weston’s journey through Ecotopia and the dispatched news reports respectively. Both do very competent work presenting the story and have pleasant reading voices. The original cover art is attractive, the packaging adequate. Overall, this is a good package but not exceptional. Worth a listen but by no means a classic.