Review of Middle Woman by Orson Scott Card

SFFaudio Review

Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show Audio Bonus - Middle WomanMiddle Woman
By Orson Scott Card; Read by Mary Robinette Kowal
1 MP3 File – 9 Minutes 57 Seconds [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show
Published: March 2006
Themes: / Fantasy / Fable / Dragons / 3 Wishes /Immortality /

This is the second “Audio Bonus” from Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show online magazine, the plan appears to be to offer one bonus MP3 story per issue. Cool!

Orson Scott Card’s short fiction is connected to people in ways that other speculative fiction often isn’t. Realistic character psychology always takes the lead over scenarios, but his scenarios always test his characters’ psychologies – it makes for a special completeness rarely found in Speculative Fiction. Combine this with a refinement of prose, where every word is perfectly placed, and you get a little piece of magic in every OSC story. In this case, “Middle Woman” is a fable style fiction, another variation of that old saw “the three wishes”. Originally published under OSC’s pseudonym “Byron Walley”, it takes the idea of moderation, something almost always absent from fables, and runs with it. It reminded me of a kinder, gentler version of Robert Bloch’s classic That Hellbound Train. Interestingly, it also offers a more restive solution to W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw. The setting is Eastern, and given the “middle” of the title I suspect it is working in the ‘middle kingdom’ style of storytelling. Whether I’m right about that or not you’ll have to check it out yourself to decide.

Quite short, only 9 minutes, this is ably read by Mary Robinette Kowal who manipulates her voice in all the right ways to lend classic fairy tale reading to this modern fable. In addition to being a terrific narrator, Kowal is a professional puppeteer who also moonlights as speculative fiction author. “Middle Woman” is the Audio Bonus found in Issue Two of the online magazine Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.

DISCLAIMER: Mary Robinette Kowal, when not reading stories aloud is an SFFaudio reviewer.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

SFFaudio Review

Science Fiction Audiobook - Altered Carbon by Richard K. MorganAltered Carbon
By Richard K. Morgan; Read by Todd McLaren
14 CDs or 2 MP3-CDs – 14 Hours 54 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Tantor Media
Published: 2005
ISBN: 1400101379 (Retail CDs), 1400131375 (Library CDs), 1400151376 MP3-CDs
Themes: / Science Fiction / Mystery / Cyberpunk / Immortality / Artificial Intelligence / Galactic Civilization / Conciousness Uploading / Hardboiled Fiction / Noir Fiction /

“Fuelled by every crime noir novel I’d ever read, plus swabs of French and Japanese cinema, the work of William Gibson and M. John Harrison, early Poul Anderson and Bob Shaw, and last but not least the colossal impact of Bladerunner, this was my take on future noir. Fast forward to middle of the new millenium, and down where it counts, nothing has changed, because neither have we. Enter Takeshi Kovacs.”
–Richard K. Morgan

Altered Carbon is a stunning debut novel. A near classic, it boils over with solid SF ideas all encased in violent and vivid prose as told in a hardboiled first person narration. Set a few hundred years in the future, humanity has started colonizing the galaxy under the supervision of the United Nations. From one such world comes Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-U.N. Envoy (interplanetary special forces) who’s been brought to Earth in order to work as a private detective for a murdered “Meth”. Meths are the ultra rich, able to afford new cloned bodies so that they can live forever. This is achieved by means of the “cortical stack” technology, a backup harddrive for one’s mind, implanted in the skull shortly after birth. Most people can’t afford to be “re-sleeved” after they die, and so languish in storage for centuries. Convicted criminals have their bodies sold out from under them.

Interplanetary travel is done by way of “needlecast”, a form of faster than light transmission of data. No bodies are transported – visitors from distant planets are re-sleeved in a local body. With these technologies many of society’s values have changed. “Real death” is rare, “organic damage” is far more common. And even real death, the destruction of a cortical stack, isn’t necessarily the end since the ultra rich keep backups. Needlecast transmission of stack’s data on a regular basis makes one virtually immortal. Like working with any fallible system though you just have to remember to backup, and frequently.

Laurens Bancroft, a centuries old tycoon brought Kovacs to Earth in order to investigate his apparent suicide, something the Meth thinks was really a murder – though he can’t say for sure as he was backed up 48 hours before his death. The investigation leads Kovacs into a tangled web of politics, prostitution and power games with stakes as high as an immortal lifespan can offer. Thrown into the mix is a dirty cop, his driven parter, an artifically intelligent hotel, and a whole lot of bloodshed.

Though at first blush this appears to be a straight out neo-cyberpunk novel, it has more depth. The mystery and hardboiled elements are a direct homage to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep with Kovacs in the Philip Marlowe role. Like The Big Sleep, Altered Carbon is complicated and hard to follow, with many characters double and triple-crossing each other. SF elements, like the conciousness uploading, are not particularily new, but Morgan’s take is, and it is well integrated into the plot. One scene which has Kovacs “cross-sleeved” into a female body for investigative purposes illustrates just how wild the concept of this kind of mind swapping can be.

There are several lengthy sex scenes and even more combat scenes. I liked the way they were handled (some of the descriptions were positively Gibsonian) but I grew fatigued at their numerousness and frequency. Another problem was the over-use of “neuro chem” as a cure all for crisis situations. UN Envoy training allows envoys to battle harder and smarter than anyone without such training, so whenever things get rough for Takeshi, and they get rough frequently, he falls back on his “neuro chem.” The problem there is it ends up working like an inexaustible turbo boost – he’s too powerful, too skilled for sustained anxiety on the part of the reader. Like Neo in the second and third Matrix movies, we stop caring. On the other hand, the plot twists delightfully defy expectation and are cleverly rendered. The way the story is told is reminiscent of the best kinds of noir fiction. It is as solid a modern science fiction novel that reads better than any first novel has any right to be.

Tantor sent us the Library bound CD edition, which came in a clamshell stlye plastic case. Durable and easily accessed. Sound quality is near flawless with high recording levels. Narrator Todd McLaren is Takeshi Kovacs, and his reading is cool and smooth like the confident interstellar hard-case he’s portraying. There are at least a half dozen female roles he’s equally adroit with, some of which required breathy libidinousness, some irate rage. I look forward to an encore performances in the sequel, Broken Angels.

Incidentally, Tantor Media snapped up all four of the Richard K. Morgan novels released so far, you can check them out HERE along with more than a dozen other Science Fiction and Fantasy titles available so far. Tantor is becoming a solid source for SF&F audio goodness.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of The Pocket and the Pendant by Mark Jeffrey

Fantasy Audiobooks - The Pocket and the Pendant by Mark JeffreyThe Pocket And The Pendant
By Mark Jeffrey; Read by Mark Jeffrey
13 MP3 Files – 10 Hours 25 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: markjeffrey.typepad.com / Podiobooks.com
Published: 2005
Themes: / Science Fiction / Young Adult / Physcics / Immortality / Time Travel / Aliens / Time / Ancient Astronauts /

“On April 8th at exactly 3:38 in the afternoon the world STOPPED.”

It is one of the fundamental constants of the universe – every second thrift store one enters will contain a lonely shelf somewhere in the back with a battered paperback copy of Chariots Of The Gods? by Eric von Däniken on it. That is a terrible, terrible book. I encourage you – only partially in jest – to burn down any store that has one. Chariots Of The Gods is a massive failure in every way but one, it’ll help me tell you about a certain 1970s pop culture concept – the “ancient astronauts” theory. This is a speculative/delusional hypothesis that posits that extraterrestrial aliens are responsible for the ancient civilizations of Earth. Basically it argues that ancient people with their distinctive lack of heavy diesel powered machinery, could not possibly have constructed things like the Pyramid of The Sun at Teotihuacán and so the relics of archeological wonders throughout the world must have been constructed by aliens with a ‘higher’ technology. It is of course a ridiculous notion, wholly unsubstantiated by any evidence that wasn’t manufactured by fraudsters. That said, it can occasionally makes for a cool basis for fiction.

Mark Jeffrey’s The Pocket And The Pendant uses the concept of ancient astronauts to very good effect. This is the story of Max Quick a very odd little boy and his companions, other children who’ve found themselves trapped living in a frozen instant of time. Has this time “pocket” has been caused by the strange aircraft in the skies above the USA? What about the almost magical books that everyone who isn’t frozen seem to be after? Only the aptly named “Mr. E.” knows the answer. Weaving together a carefully researched history with an intriguing and well executed scenario Mark Jeffrey has put together an engaging and satisfying adventure that while aimed at a younger audience never talks down to it. Basically Jeffrey does for science fiction what Harry Potter does for fantasy – I’d say he does it better by layering in facts and mythology from many sources. He takes the whacked out theories of Zecharia Sitchin and asks “what if they were true?”, mixes it up with action like The Matrix, the premise of the Doctor Who “Key To Time” arc and with a couple dutiful nod to the 1959 and 1985 The Twilight Zones.

Jeffrey is very inventive with solving the problems he’s created. But there was one thing that bothered me about the story, if Max and his companions are trapped in time how can they see? Let me explain, this is basically the same nitpick I had with H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, without light hitting a retina you can’t see. If time is stopped then the light has stopped (in The Invisible Man the title character’s retinas are transparent!). I’m nitpicky.

Jeffrey reads the novel himself, doing accents, adults children boys girls and aliens. The sound quality is very good and well leveled, but there is one caveat, a constant musical score underlies the reading (almost always keyed to characters and events in the tale). In this case it is fairly benign, and certainly allows an atmosphere of emotion to build in the story – but not having heard the tale without music I’m not sure if it wouldn’t have been better just as a clean reading.

SFFaudio COMMENT: This is the second “Podiobook” we’ve reviewed on SFFaudio, and the quality is WAY, WAY UP THERE, not just in terms of podcast novels, but in terms of novels on audio. Combine this fact with the price, which is just a request for a donation if you enjoyed the experience, and you’re literally crazy by not listening to them. The worst that can happen is you listen, enjoy the heck out of it and then feel guilty for a few years because you were to cheap to throw a few $$$ towards the producers. Go ahead now, give yourself a gift, subscribe to Morevi: The Chronicles Of Rafe And Askana and The Pocket And the Pendant you’ll marvel at your own generosity.

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 Fruitcake Theory By James Patrick Kelly

Fruitcake Theory by James Patrick KellyFruitcake Theory
By James Patrick Kelly; Read by James Patrick Kelly
FREE MP3 DOWNLOAD (link to jimkelly.net) – 30 Minutes (14.33 MB) [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: www.jimkelly.net
Published: March 2004
Themes: / Science Fiction / Aliens / First Contact / Christmas / Immortality /

“This one hears much of the information of fruitcake.”

Maggie is a tour guide. Her job is to escort an alien that looks like a rooster, and acts as dumb as one, during the yuletide season. The rooster is just one of two kinds of aliens from a bifurcated species visiting Earth. This is a story that posits some very interesting aliens, something Kelly is good at, but the heart of the story is the Christmas theme. It’s a bit silly, but I liked it that way. Told in the first person, Kelly does a great muppetish voice for the alien rooster that creates some great mental images to go along with the description. The reading concludes with a very appropriate Christmas music. It was great!

First published in the December 1998 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, “Fruitcake Theory” and this great recording of it will certainly get you in the mood for Christmas. As with the all the other audio stories of Jim Patrick Kelly’s we’ve reviewed, “Fruitcake Theory” is available for download on Kelly’s website for FREE – you’d have to be as nutty as a fruitcake not to try a deal like that! Kelly only asks that if you enjoyed hearing the tale you consider making a donation to his PayPal account. Donate as little or as much as you like, but seeing as the Christmas spirit is fast approaching be generous.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of 84.2 Minutes with Algis Budrys

84.2 Minutes with Algis Budrys84.2 Minutes Of Algis Budrys
By Algis Budrys, Read by Algis Budrys
1 Cassette – 84.2 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Unifont Company
Published: 1995
ISBN: 1886211019
Themes: Science Fiction / Interstellar Travel / War / Immortality / Post Apocalypse / Fairy Tales / Alternate History / Parallel Worlds /

The four stories in this rare collection are densely packed with terrific science fiction ideas and all four share a haunted bittersweet quality. Algis Budrys lets the power of his text completely rule over his performance. Budrys barely distinguishes between the characters; he reads it in an almost conspiratorial style saying, “If you don’t like them, there’s very little more I can say. But I secretly think you will like them, in which case there’s nothing much more I need to say”. His philosophy has extended into the production as well, this is a very utilitarian audiobook, pages can be heard turning in the background while he reads, the cover art is completely non-existent and the title is hardly evocative of much at all, but despite it all 84.2 Minutes Of Algis Budrys is a worthy addition to any science fiction audio fan’s library. The only hard part may be getting a hold of one!

Stories Included:

“The Distant Sound Of Engines”
Severely maimed in an automotive accident, a patient recovering in hospital listens as his roommate, a dying man spouts formulas for faster than light travel, the alloy specifications for ultra strong spacecraft hulls and everything else necessary to make humans an interstellar species. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction’s March 1959 issue.

“Explosions!”
On a distant water-world that was long ago colonized by humans, a pirate king comes up with a plan to unify the many islands of his planet, and do it by force. “Explosions!” was written under the pseudonym William Scarff and first appeared in Tomorrow Speculative Fiction’s April 1993 issue.

“The Price”
The Earth’s civilizations have been destroyed, fewer than 100 people survive, mankind’s last hope is an enigmatic hunchback who’s been imprisoned for more than 150 years. He’d been chained in various dungeons or enslaved in forced labour camps, but when Europe was annihilated in a global war, and every person there was destroyed, he alone walked out. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction’s February 1960 issue

“Never Meet Again”
England surrendered in 1940, by 1941 German U-boats ruled the Atlantic, by 1942 the Russian’s had surrendered at Stalingrad. Now fifteen years later a respected researcher in the Greater German Reich has finished his life’s work, a machine that can access alternate worlds. “Never Meet Again” was first published in the 1958 anthology The Unexpected Dimension.

Posted by Jesse Willis