Review of Callahan’s Key by Spider Robinson

Callahan's Key by Spider RobinsonCallahan’s Key
By Spider Robinson; Read by Barrett Whitener
9 Cassettes – Approx 12.5 Hours
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: 2003
ISBN: 0786125519
Themes: / Science Fiction / Humor / Callahan’s Place / Florida / Nikola Tesla / Robert A. Heinlein / NASA /

The universe is in desperate peril. Due to a cluster of freakish phenomena, the United States’ own defense system has become a perfect doomsday machine, threatening the entire universe. And only one man can save everything-as-we-know-it from annihilation. Unfortunately, he’s not available. So the job falls instead to bar owner Jake Stonebender, his wife, Zoey, and superintelligent toddler, Erin. Not to mention two dozen busloads of ex-hippies and freaks, Robert Heinlein’s wandering cat, a whorehouse parrot, and misunderstood genius-inventor Nikola Tesla, who is in fact alive and well.

Set in 1989, though published and written in 2001, Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s Key is a mighty funny tale. But that is not a shocker. Nobody except Douglas Adams does science fiction humor better than Spider Robinson. But what was a shock is that novel makes any sense at all. With a cast of literally dozens of speaking characters, the only thing that keeps the lunatic asylum of a novel from going completely off the rails is the first person perspective. Well mostly that… well, actually that and some sober thoughts from former Vice President of the United States Dan Quayle. Each chapter begins with a real quote from Dan Quayle! But he’s not the focus of this tale, not at all. Instead, something is about to go wrong with a super secret death ray launched by Space Shuttle, which is under the supervision of Dan Quayle, though he isn’t actually mentioned in the book. Anyway, somebody has to stop this death ray before it goes off and destroys the universe. Thankfully, Jake Stonebender, our perspective protagonist has saved the world a number of times. It’s just par for the course when he’s asked to do it again by Nikola Tesla, who, thank you very much, is alive and well and has become a time traveler. Back in 1989 though, Jake, his bulletproof family, and his crew of whacked out hippies and mad scientist customers decide to move south to Florida’s Key West… to ah… get a better handle on the job. Needless to say they fit right in.

I had a lot of fun spending some time with these characters. If you’ve read a Callahan yarn in the past you’ll be pleased to hear that all the old gang present again. If you’re a new to Robinson’s long running comic novel series you may do better to start with The Callahan Chronicals (also from Blackstone Audio). In this one though, Robinson not only references Robert Heinlein – with an uncanny channeling of his writing style – he also re-introduces us to Pixel, Heinlein’s cat and the eponymous Cat Who Walked Through Walls! Along the way we get to visit the very real, (actually fictional), dockside home of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee and numerous other side adventures. By the time the actual plot gets steaming into full swing I had almost forgotten that novels are supposed to have them. But that is okay. Plot isn’t really all that important to this novel’s experience, so I was actually a little disappointed that they had to even discuss it. Barrett Whitener is just terrific at voicing Jake Stonebender and his crazy friends. It sounded like he was having a blast performing it too. Nearly every minute or so of the novel’s production a groaner pun or a ridiculous situation had me smiling or wincing – and sometimes painfully at the same time. So if you’re in the mood for an ultra-zany audiobook reach no farther than Callahan’s Key. And tell them Nikola Tesla sent you, because he might not really be dead.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Monstrous Regiment By Terry Pratchett

Monstrous Regiment by Terry PratchettMonstrous Regiment
By Terry Pratchett; read by Stephen Briggs
8 Cassettes – 12 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Harper Audio
Published: 2003
ISBN: 060569964
Themes: / Fantasy / Series / Humor / War / Soldiers / Feminist /

God is an extremely uneven writer, but when He’s good, nobody can touch Him.
– John William Gardner

Okay, so Terry Pratchett is not God. But he does share the Deity’s gift of inconsistent greatness. He is, at least, a genius of English prose, not content simply to write funny stories, but daring to tweak the nose of our language and showcase its penchant for both the sublime and the silly. If your ears have been trampled lately by elephantine sentences that flatten entire stories beneath them, then you should treat yourself to some Pratchett. His exquisitely chosen details and extended comic riffs will cleanse your literary palette like a chilled Riesling.
Monstrous Regiment, set in Pratchett’s private universe known as the Diskworld, is a harmless novel about war, sort of. Actually, it’s about soldiers, and about soldiers who don’t actually get much war on them, which is fortunate, because Pratchett’s humor is nowhere near dark enough to handle the strikingly unfunny hell of war. There are some touching moments, and some very funny details (like his adroit comparison of war and a large city), but they don’t add up to a great novel.

Don’t get me wrong, the story is cute enough. It concerns a girl named Polly Perks from the war-happy country of Borogravia who manages to sign herself up, against religious edict, in the armed services. Polly is a plucky and likeable heroine; her Sergeant Jackrum is irascible yet equally likeable; and her vampire, troll, Igor, and human fellow soldiers are a somewhat quirky, mysterious, yet unsurprisingly likeable bunch. Add to this a silly Lieutenant and a couple familiar characters like William DeWord and Sgt. Vimes, and you have the makings of a harmless jape that pokes fun at young men, military officers, greedy countries with pretensions to benevolence, ridiculous religious fundamentalism, and people who think with their socks. But this book is too lightweight to be much more than an amusing diversion. The Borogravians are let off too lightly for the savage devastation of their own country, the deaths that occur have little impact on anyone, and the theme of female empowerment seems diluted by excessive application. What’s more, the entire structure of the story seems slightly off-balance: The climax is anemic, and the denouement protracted.

On the audio side, however, this book is a joy. Stephen Briggs is billed on the cover as a disturbingly devoted Pratchett fan, which nearly frightened me off. But have no fear, the man can read well, too. His voice conjures the entire cast of Monty Python as well as some note-perfect monster stereotypes, and he nimbly handles Pratchett’s playful prose, both in the small turns of phrase that pepper the story throughout and in the occasional extended verbal set pieces. He gives these inspired moments the space they deserve, like old Aunt Audrey waving her arms to clear a room before performing her world-famous flying back flip off the china cabinet.

All in all, this is an amusing but sub-par work from a master of humorous fantasy. If you’ve never read Pratchett before, I recommend dropping a brick on your little toe for punishment, and then picking up The Colour of Magic, Guards! Guards!, or The Thief of Time. You can save this one for later, when you still want to laugh and think, but not so hard.

Posted by Kurt Dietz

Review of Tales From The Crypt

SFFaudio Review

Tales from the CryptTales From The Crypt
Performed by Tim Curry, Gina Gershon, Luke Perry, Oliver Platt, John Ritter, Campbell Scott and others
4 CDs – Aprox 3 hrs. [AUDIO DRAMA]
Publisher: Highbridge Audio
Published: 2002
ISBN: 1565116747
Themes: / Fantasy / Horror / Crime / Murder / Humor / Undead / Music / Zombies /

Produced by the now defunct Sci-Fi Channel’s Seeing Ear Theatre, these seven audio plays are based on EC comicbook stories from the 1950s, skillfully updated and masterfully produced its one of the best anthology audio drama series of the last 25 years! Unfortunately, only seven of the eight episodes actually produced are included. And that is the biggest disappointment with this collection. The actors are awesome, the sound effects and music fill the audio landscape without drowning out their performances – but all this would be nothing without good writing, and again we’ve lucked-out. All seven tales are a whole lot of fun. Each episode is bookended by the Cryptkeeper’s introduction and comments on the story. The Cryptkeeper is voiced by John Kassir, the same actor as in the television series. This undead host’s obsession with horror is only exceeded with his obsession with frightfully bad puns. It is really good stuff boys and ghouls!

Island of Death
A dot-com millionaire with a penchant for movie trivia crash lands on an isolated tropical island and becomes embroiled in a twisted cross between a reality television show and Odysseus’ encounter with the sea-nymph Kalypso. Luke Perry (Jeremiah) is teamed with Gina Gershon (Bound) for the least successful tale in this collection. Gershon and Perry are great, but the action is a might hard to follow.

A Little Stranger
They say politics makes for strange bedfellows, but did they really mean vampires and werewolves? Set in 1968, this is the sole episode without a major Hollywood star in the lead. Randy Maggiore and Lisa Nichole star, and make the horrific crossbreed of terror and comedy.

Tight Grip
Told from a truly bizarre perspective, this is a tale of a young concert violinist is boxed in by a terrible secret stars Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Original and really scary.

By the Fright of the Silvery Moon
A modern day sheriff in New Mexico faces deadly perils, irate environmentalists and angry ranchers. John Ritter (Three’s Company) stars as the sheriff.

Zombie!
The longest tale in the collection. An immigration lawyer who has stolen his client’s money retires to mysterious Haiti. What he finds there may just be enough to overcome a powerful zombie curse. Oliver Platt (Funny Bones) stars. An immersive and fascinating tale of horrific Caribbean curse that makes you crave the sweetmeats.

Carrion Death
A truly excellent “horrality” tale. A bookish schoolteacher – disgusted with his inept students – goes on a crime spree and lands himself in prison. When he escapes from custody into the desert the only thing that can stop him are the talking ants. Campbell Scott (The Spanish Prisoner) seems to revel in his character’s clear insanity.

Fare Tonight, Followed by Increasing Clottiness!
A vampire hunter takes cab ride to bloody peril during a citywide vampire outbreak. An ingenious pairing of a modern day Van Helsing and an East Indian taxi driver. Keith David (The Chronicles Of Riddick), is awesome in this one, and not just for his iconic maniacal laughter. Aasif Mandvi (Spider-Man 2) is also excellent, playing his meek humor close to the vest!

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of On Venus, Have We Got A Rabbi! by William Tenn

On Venus, Have We Got A Rabbi!
By William Tenn; read by William Tenn
56 minutes – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: WNYC Radio [“Spinning On Air” with host David Garland].
Published: Nov. 22nd 2002 [LISTEN TO THE ARCHIVED SHOW IN REALAUDIO at WNYC]
Themes: / Science Fiction / Satire / Humor / Jews / Religion / Venus /

“Milchik, the TV repairman, speaks for all Jews on Venus and in the Universe.”

William Tenn (aka Philip Klass), gets the royal treatment he so well deserves on David Garland’s WNYC radio show. Remarkably well prepared, Garland teases out some delightful and informative anecdotes and stories from Tenn, it makes for a riveting interview. Garland has also seen fit to gift us with a delectable reading of one of Tenn’s stories read by the author himself!

William Tenn’s stories always have the same effect on me, as the story progresses a smile grows wider and wider across my face. On Venus, We Have A Rabbi! is laugh out loud funny. Perhaps knowledge of Jewish history would be helpful, I don’t know, but I enjoyed the heck out of it. And thankfully unlike another WNYC reading, this novelette is free of music, Tenn’s hilarious reading of his own story is almost perfect. He stumbles only once over one word, but otherwise he reads his tale like a professional narrator.

I sure hope Garland keeps up the great programming. Radio like this makes me wish I lived in New York.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb

Bimbos of the Death Sun
By Sharyn McCrumb; read by Ruth Ann Phimister
4 Cassettes – 6 Hours /[UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Recorded Books
Published: 1999
ISBN: 0788768867
Themes: / Science Fiction Convention / Mystery / Humor / Fandom /

“A quaint airport hotel hosts an SF convention that is positively swarming with sword and sorcery aficionados, unfortunately the guest of honor is found with a bullet through his cold little heart. Its obvious who did it, its author, Sharyn McCrumb”*
-Commander Rick, Prisoners Of Gravity

Appin Dungannon, the guest of honor at RubiCon, a regional science fiction convention has been murdered. He had written a seemingly endless, and highly profitable, series of swords-and-sorcery novels about a Celtic warrior with a magic sword. He had spent every moment at this particular con, and many previous, making a general nuisance of himself and ridiculing his own fans and the costume contest entrants. So its no real wonder that he wound up dead. The only question is ‘who did it?’ With so many suspects how can the murder be solved? After all the police don’t know the terrain, they don’t understand Klingon! Thankfully, Jay Omega, an engineering professor at a local university and author of the lamentably titled “Bimbos of The Death Sun” is up to the task of separating the murderers from the mere nerds.

First published in 1988, the computer technology references, like everyone still using floppy diskettes (!), is the only thing that really dates this funny novel.

Billed as a murder mystery satire, Bimbos of the Death Sun does have those elements. But considering the murder takes place more than half way through the book and the requisite whodunit scenes aren’t the primary focus even after the late murder, I see it more as straight satire of the convention culture that fans of fantasy and science fiction have built for themselves. For those interested, in such a straight mystery with a comedic touch I highly recommend you check out Isaac Asimov’s much underrated Murder At The ABA. Bimbos though, does have a few of the murder mystery necessities – like the very Rex Stoutish ‘I suppose your wondering why I’ve gathered you all here’ scene, but even then it does take place over a game of Dungeons and Dragons. McCrumb, an Edgar award winner, apparently got a strong negative reaction to the novel from what she calls “the sort of person who has a degree in physics and works at McDonalds, but its okay because on weekends he’s a Viking warrior.”* I can kind of see why though, she’s pretty ruthless – exposing the extreme geekitude of many SF conventioneers, but given that she appears to be carrying an outsider’s perspective (McCrumb is mainly known as a mystery author) its surprising just how accurately she’s portrayed the atmosphere of a con. I think she’s a little too familiar with the convention mindset to be entirely in contempt of it. And remember that in 1988 being a nerd wasn’t quite the same thing as being a nerd now. One other minor worry is that for such a short novel, a mere 6 hours (224 pages), the many character perspectives would seem to hamper the mystery elements, and I suppose it would if I were to critique it as a murder mystery alone it would be a concern. A mystery fan alone may have felt cheated, as a fan of both mysteries, science fiction, and its satirization, I didn’t.

Bimbos comes on four cassettes and packaged in the “Collector’s Edition,” an affordably priced, lightweight packaging that’s durable enough for a private collection but not durable enough for a library. A clear plastic sheet protects the printed insert containing the original cover art, which depicts the in-novel described cover art of Jay Omega’s own novel. Such touches are much appreciated by collectors like myself and Recorded Books has always been the standard bearer for outstanding original cover art on audiobooks.

Bimbos is full of jokes and comedic commentaries of fannish behavior, there’s plenty of fun for narrator Ruth Ann Phimister to play with. Her performance, including a funny Scottish accent, was always most appropriate and always in tone with the mood of the text, a lighthearted performance of a lighthearted visit to a fictional SF convention. I truly look forward to her reading of the sequel, entitled Zombies Of The Gene Pool, which is also available from Recorded Books.

* Quotations taken from Prisoners Of Gravity episode on “S.F. Mysteries”.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Demo Mode by Tom Gerencer

Demo Mode
by Tom Gerencer; Read by Tom Gerencer
14 minutes, 31 seconds [UNABRIDGED]Publisher: Telltale Weekly
Published: April 2004
Themes: Science Fiction / Humor / Identity / Viruses /

In the future, knowledge will be grafted straight into our brains, no learning required! Just make sure they configure the innoculotron correctly, or you might wind up contracting Esperanto by mistake. First published in Science Fiction Age Magazine’s May 2000 issue, “Demo Mode” is a humourous short story about a schlub in the future who thinks a simple bit of viral-software will improve his personality. The plot is very similar to the NFB animated film “Personality Software.” Tom Gerencer’s reading is quick, perhaps too quick, but sound quality is great and his “rich and lilting yet somehow phoney sounding stereotypic Scottish accent” is absolutely spot on. Available online at www.telltaleweekly.com for only $.75 USD, “Demo Mode” is a good value and a good laugh!

Posted by Jesse Willis