Review of A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

Fantasy Audiobooks - A Clash of Kings by George R.R. MartinA Clash of Kings
By George R.R. Martin; Read by Roy Dotrice
21 Cassettes – 37 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Published: 2004
ISBN: 073930870X
Themes: / Fantasy / Medieval setting / Power struggle / Dragons /

A Clash of Kings continues the saga started by George R.R. Martin in A Game of Thrones. There are six projected volumes in this series. The first three novels are currently in print, and all three of them are now available on unabridged audio from Random House Audio or Books on Tape. A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings are also available on Audible.com.

This volume is frankly more of the same kind of thing experienced in A Game of Thrones. (See the SFFAudio review of A Game of Thrones here). In this case, that’s a good thing. A Clash of Kings is a direct continuation of the first volume with the addition of several new characters. The stories of members House Stark and House Lannister were again the center of the plot – their struggle for power in the land of Westeros continues, while the supernatural threat from the North continues to gather, and Daenerys Targaryen, with her dragons, gains power. Tension runs high throughout the book, and resolution is left for future volumes.

George R.R. Martin has created a medieval world filled with interesting characters that I continue to care about. The plot is complex, and each time I felt a question was answered, a new mystery unfolded.

The myriad of characters created a challenge for narrator Roy Dotrice, but again he does a fabulous job. With captivating skill and range he charges on, unfolding the story chapter by chapter, character by character, event by event. The book is certainly a marathon for the listener, but by the end, after 37 hours, I was (and am) still eager to continue listening to this truly excellent fantasy series.

Review of The Twilight Zone No. 2 – Walking Distance by Rod Serling

Science Fiction Audiobooks - The Twilight Zone No 2The Twilight Zone No. 2 – Walking Distance
By Rod Serling; Read by Cliff Robertson
1 Cassette – 75 minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Harper Audio
Published: 1992 – (OUT OF PRINT)
ISBN: 1559946601
Themes: / Fantasy / Time-travel / Small Town / 1930’s / Depression Era / Human Condition /

The signpost up ahead. You’ve just crossed into… The Twilight Zone.

“Walking Distance” is the second in the series of stories based on actual episodes from the original The Twilight Zone television series. Martin Sloan is a 36-year-old businessman who longs for the carefree days of his youth. Martin wants to return to his hometown, but when his car breaks down, just walking distance from his destination, he decides to walk the rest of the way. Upon entering Homewood, Martin is taken aback by the sameness of the place, chocolate sodas still only cost a dime and people drive obsolete automobiles. Gradually, Martin begins to realize that the town has not changed at all in the twenty years since he’s left: In fact, his parents are still alive, and there’s a young boy running around who is the living image of 10-year-old Martin Sloan.

Cliff Robertson’s range isn’t all it could be, but he reads the story with enough vigor and emotion to instill a nostalgia for the 1930’s in me! “Walking Distance” doesn’t have many of the typical conceits of a science fiction time travel story, but its definitely a Twilight Zone story. And it has the requisite and almost comforting Twilight Zone Twist at the end. Presented just like an actual episode of the television series, there’s the haunting Twilight Zone music at the beginning and the end and an introduction just like Serling used to make. A good second installment in this six part series.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of The Twilight Zone No. 1 – The Mighty Casey by Rod Serling

Science Fiction Audiobooks - The Twilight Zone No 1The Twilight Zone No. 1 – The Mighty Casey
By Rod Serling; Read by Fritz Weaver
1 cassette – 75 minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Harper Audio
Published: 1992 – Out Of Print
ISBN: 1559946598
Themes: / Fantasy / Baseball / Robots / Humor /

Submitted for your approval…

Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone is revived for audio in the form of unabridged short stories by Rod Serling. All the stories in this series were previously adapted for the original Twilight Zone television series. This is the first in a series of six single cassette adaptations read by stars of the original series. In this case, Fritz Weaver spins the tale of “The Mighty Casey”, an almost mythical player for that near-mythical sport of baseball. The Brooklyn Dodgers were down in the dumps until tryouts turned up a talented left hander with a pitch like nobody’s business. Casey, the pitcher “with an exceptional left hand”, inspires the tired old players to new glory. They become the team to beat. Everything was swell until Casey gets beaned by a ball. A doctor is summoned and pronounces that Casey is alright, but then the doctor has trouble finding a pulse. It’s soon discovered that Casey is actually a robot and as such does not have a heart!

When thinking of baseball, most people probably associate the name Casey with the Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s 1888 poem “Casey At The Bat”. It’s clear to me that Rod Serling tapped into it for inspiration. “The Mighty Casey” is a very funny story. The dialogue is humorous and the situation is funny too, but it also has a lot of pathos. The story is entertaining but also has that most important of Twilight Zone elements, a twist with a satisfying ending. Fritz Weaver has great fun playing the characters, especially Mouth McGarry, the comic manager of the Dodgers, a character full of deep anxiety and deeper ignorance. This is pretty light material for The Twilight Zone, which often deals with the darker elements of the Human condition. Presented like an actual episode of the television series, there’s the haunting Twilight Zone music and an introduction just like Serling used to make. I actually listened to the tale twice, and I enjoyed it even more the second time around. Overall its a very good start to the series.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

Fantasy Audiobooks - A Game of Thrones by George R.R. MartinA Game of Thrones
By George R.R. Martin; Read by Roy Dotrice
19 Cassettes – 34 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Published: 2004
ISBN: 0739308688
Themes: / Fantasy / Medieval setting / Power struggle / Dragons /

A Game of Thrones is the first of six projected volumes of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series. It was published in 1997, where it joined a host of other fat fantasy series, including Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. With many fully realized characters and subplots that don’t fail to surprise, Martin’s series stands tall above the rest in the genre. This particular volume won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel (1997) and was nominated for the Best Novel Nebula Award.

I was very much looking forward to the audio version of this novel, and followed some of the discussion on George R.R. Martin’s website concerning it. He apparently rejected an offer to make a 9-hour abridged version of the book, which he felt would be more of a summary than a novel. He was right – this unabridged version is 34 hours long, and I for one am delighted that he waited.

A Game of Thrones is not fantasy in the style of Tolkien. In fact, it has much more in common with Herbert’s Dune than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The book is a chess game played by various Houses in a quest for power in a land called Westeros. The setting is medieval, with kings, knights, lords, and ladies. At the beginning of the novel, we’re introduced to House Stark, led by Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell. He and his family live in a castle in the northern country, and are reminded often that winter is coming… in more ways than one. Eddard’s wife is Catelyn, formerly of House Tully, and their children are Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran, and Rickon. Eddard also fathered a bastard named Jon Snow – his mother is a mystery to all but Eddard.

The struggle around which everything revolves is between House Stark and House Lannister. Cersei, the king’s wife, is of that house, as is Jaime, her twin brother, and Tyrion, a dwarf. Every one of the characters mentioned play important roles in the story, and because they are so realistically portrayed, they are not difficult to tell apart, nor are they hard to remember as they love, fight, promise, and betray.

What makes this novel fantasy? Magic plays a very small role in the story. The characters in this novel are all grey, unlike the black and white good/evil of typical fantasy characters. But there is a growing supernatural threat in the north, introduced in the Prologue. And there is also Danerys Targaryen, of the house that held the throne years before the events in this novel, who is coming of age… and Targaryens are known for their dragons.

George R.R. Martin’s writing style is very easy to follow, and translates beautifully to the spoken word. Roy Dotrice does an excellent job. In my opinion, his performance is on par with Jim Dale’s reading of the Harry Potter novels. Many, many characters present themselves here, just as in the Potter novels, yet Dotrice, like Dale, manages to keep them all separated and gives them all distinct mannerisms and voices that keep the story flowing. I caught a few mispronunciations in the book, all names where Dotrice gets caught up in the moment and calls Prince Joffrey “Jeffrey”, for example, or pronounces the name “Varys” two different ways. This did cause me pause, but it happened only a few times in the 34 hour performance.

This was one of my favorite novels before I listened to this audiobook. Martin has created a realistic world peopled with authentic characters that are not difficult to care about. The book runs me through a huge range of emotions as the complex plot runs its course. This audiobook enhanced the experience – listening to Dotrice’s performance was like reading it again for the first time.

Review of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Fantasy Audiobooks - Neverwhere by Neil GaimanNeverwhere
By Neil Gaiman; Read by Gary Bakewell
2 Cassettes; 2 hours [ABRIDGED]
Publisher: Highbridge Company
Published: 1997
ISBN: 1565112318
Themes: / Fantasy / London Underground / Magic / Urban Legend /

Neil Gaiman is certainly one of the most decorated storytellers at work today – his books seem to be on the final ballot for every conceivable award, and rightly so. His work is unique and fantastic (in both senses of the word).

Neverwhere follows part of the life of Richard Mayhew, a young businessman who lives in London. He lives a dreary life full of accounting books and deadlines, and is engaged to Jessica, who works in the art industry. His life is changed completely when he stops to help Door, a young woman he finds injured on the sidewalk. Unwittingly, he is introduced to a world he never knew existed – that of London Below. There, beneath the city, Door is not only Door, she is “Lady” Door. And an entire population lives down there, living lives unknown to those who live in London Above. Mayhew quickly finds himself hip deep in her problems as she runs from Croup and Vandemar (a pair of serial killers) and tries to solve the mystery of the murder of Door’s whole family. With them travels the Marquis of Carabas, a man willing to do much for a favor, and the famous Hunter, a female bodyguard. London Below is filled with interesting characters and more than a touch of magic.

Gary Bakewell (who plays Richard Mayhew in the BBC television series) does an excellent job with the narration. His voice drew me quickly into the wonderful strangeness. The sound effects and editing mimicked that of the television series. But, this was an abridgement. In this case, that means that the ending was rushed as events were crammed into that last quarter to make the 2-hour cut.

Having seen and enjoyed the BBC TV series, I can say that the parts that were missed along the way in this story are very worthwhile, and an unabridged version of Gaiman’s novel would be welcome. But this abridged audiobook captures the flavor of the story well. Even with the skipped events and rushed ending, the story makes sense, and it’s worth a listen.

Review of Alien Voices: The Invisible Man

Science Fiction Audio Drama - Alien Voices The Invisible ManAlien Voices: The Invisible Man
By H.G. Wells; Performed by John de Lancie, Leonard Nimoy and a full cast
2 Cassettes or 2 CDs – Approx. 114 minutes [UNABRIDGED DRAMATIZATION]
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Published: 1998
ISBN: 067158104X (Cassette); 0671581058 (CD)
Themes: / Science Fiction / Invisibility / Fantasy / Star Trek / Classic / Philosophy /

One of Science Fiction’s seminal works is The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. It’s premise is intriguing. What would it be like to be hidden from view? At first, there would be the advantage of watching others without being noticed. But, what would you do when the novelty wore off and the invisibility didn’t? Would you become a prisoner of your own freedom? Or perhaps a madman bent on enslaving others?The novel was written in 1897 when the world believed that science could cure all ills, but as we will glean from the story of The Invisible Man, the achievements of the human mind are worthless without a human soul to guide them. Come with us now, as Alien Voices explores the tragic life of a young scientist who seemed to be on the threshold of a brilliant future and something quite unexpected happens.

This loose adaptation of H.G. WellsThe Invisible Man is quite…fascinating. It has been adapted in the style of an old time radio drama, the majority of the plot is there, but it has been compressed and massaged to fit the actors and sensibilities of the Alien Voices team. Alien Voices formed in 1996 to create multi-media works of science fiction and fantasy, drawing upon the copyright expired classics and the languishing resources of the Star Trek alumni. Its three founding members are actor/director Leonard Nimoy, actor/director/writer John de Lancie, and writer/producer Nat Segaloff. de Lancie and Nimoy headline the dramas, in this case playing the title character and his university professor respectively. The rest of the cast is rounded out by: Susan Bay, Richard Doyle, Robert Ellenstein, Jerry Hardin, Marnie Mosiman, Kate Mulgrew, Ethan Phillips, Dwight Schultz and Nana Visitor.

This production is very good, the sound effects, voice talent and music are all very well done. The script is quite different from the original novel, but those modifications are very well done. The packaging is merely adequate, a traditional cd jewel case, a cardboard box and some quickie photoshop art. But most conspicuous by its absence is a cast and character list. The cast is named at the end of the program, but we are never told which actor is playing which character. It is easy to tell Ethan Phillips and Nana Visitor, but its hard to identify many of the others. Of the other actors the only one who sounded at all familiar was one who sounded like Mark Twain. A little investigation, and I determined that it was likely Jerry Hardin who played Twain in Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s two part episode Time’s Arrow!

The story itself has been modified and compressed, most of the original Wells’ version of The Invisible Man remains in this production. H.G. Wells is best remembered for The War Of The Worlds, which itself was adapted very early on by Mercury Theater and Orson Welles. That adaptation and a later film version had a  lasting impact upon popular culture, making the idea of “alien invasion” almost synonymous science fiction, at least to the majority who don’t read it. But science fiction isn’t always about the future, or about space travel, or aliens invading the Earth. Sometimes it is subtler, and in the case of The Invisible Man, it proves itself deeply rooted in philosophy.

Those who examine science fiction closely will see a profound connection between science and philosophy. In the case of The Invisible Man, Wells started to explore what would be necessary for invisibility to work, (for it to be rooted in science and not merely magic), AND to explore the consequences of invisibility actually working. But Wells himself was drawing upon resources of an even earlier time. In the philosopher Plato’s famous book The Republic (itself a work of proto-science fiction), we are introduced to Gyges, a shepherd who finds a magic ring which can turn him invisible. Gyges soon discovers that he can act unjustly without anyone knowing. For Plato this was a story to make us think about what being just and injust really is. For Wells and Alien Voices it is more about telling a good story. But a little philosophy does manage to sneak into the plot; For the Invisible Man, invisibility is power, and possessing that power he can do a great many things, like get revenge. But revenge is hindered by a few stumbling blocks, first he has to go out naked, his clothing isn’t invisible so he can’t wear it. He can’t eat or smoke or walk in dusty areas, all of those things make him visible. Also he can’t carry anything, so if he steals money (he can’t earn it), it appears to float about of its own accord, making people chase after him! It is almost as bad as king Midas’s dilemma, like Midas, The Invisible Man got his wish but it isn’t quite working out for him. Dust and moisture make his body visible in a ghostly way. His footprints appear in the dirt and snow. Oh yes and the small matter that the accumulated effect of these things has driven him to the edge of madness.

I liked the story, but I was constantly reminded of one glaring problem not mentioned in production. Wouldn’t an invisible man also be blind? If his corneas are absolutely transparent and his retinas are absolutely transparent, how would light be turned into mental images? The answer…. they wouldn’t be! An invisible man would be blind! For us to see the world a fraction of the light that hits our retina must be absorbed into our rods and cones, our corneas must focus the light. This issue made the whole story so implausible, in my mind it made me question whether this was science fiction at all! Thankfully I got over it. And have come to realize that even if it is flawed by this oversight, at least it demonstrates that philosophical fiction like all good science fiction is able to make us think out problems that don’t seem obvious at first. Who’d have thought invisibility would require blindness? Not me, at least not before listening to Alien Voices: The Invisible Man.