Review of Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Science Fiction Audiobooks - Snow Crash by Neal StephensonSnow Crash
by Neal Stephenson; Read by Jonathan Davis
12 Cassettes, 18 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Time Warner Audio
Date Published: August 2001
ISBN: 158211137
Themes: / Science Fiction / Computers / Virtual Reality / Religion / Mythology / Cyberpunk /

Snow Crash is one of those rare novels; one of those that stand out, tall and unique, amongst all the novels I’ve read in my life. I know of nothing with which to compare it, but I can say that it ranks amongst my favourite novels. Neal Stephenson impressed me both with his fearless, irreverent tone and with the astonishing range of subjects touched by his characters.

Snow Crash reveals a picture of the not-too-distant future, where the only things the USA is good at are “music, movies, microcode (software), and high-speed pizza delivery.” It’s a world where people spend part of their lives in the Metaverse, a highly developed yet realistic virtual world where they use avatars of their own design to interact with each other. It’s a world divided into burbclaves, or city-states, each with its own identity, laws, and law-enforcement. In stark contrast to this future society, the main character finds himself entangled in a mystery that requires him to explore ancient Sumerian mythology and the roots of biblical religion.

All of this in an extremely fast-paced adventure story. Remarkable. This is an exciting, impressive novel.

For the audio version, Time-Warner selected a first rate reader in Jonathan Davis. I never tired of his effortless inflection changes as different characters spoke — very important in a quick moving story like this one. The production quality was excellent; I found the sounds used to mark breaks in the text to be particularly effective.

And with that, my current list of all-time favorites is complete! See the whole list here!

Review of Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold

Science Fiction Audiobooks - Falling Free by Lois McMaster BujoldFalling Free
By Lois McMaster Bujold; Read by Michael Hanson and Carol Cowan
7 Cassettes – 9 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: The Reader’s Chair
Published: 1996
ISBN: 0962401099
Themes: Science Fiction / Genetic Engineering / Slavery / Space Travel /

Wikipedia defines Space Opera as “a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes romantic adventure, faster-than-light travel and space battles where the main storyline is interstellar conflict.” A fair definition, I think. I also think that this definition of Space Opera is what most folks outside of science fiction fandom would accept as a definition of the whole genre of science fiction. The perception is both well-earned and difficult to fight since nearly every successful science fiction film and television series fits that definition of Space Opera. I’ve expressed several times how I wish that perception wasn’t true, because I enjoy only so much of this kind of SF. I like my science fiction to have meat on the bones, and there is plenty of that around in written SF. Enough, in fact, that the average Space Opera doesn’t even have to be on the menu.

Of course, there are the exceptions and Lois McMaster Bujold is one of them. She’s the author of the Vorkosigan series of novels – an extremely well-written series which proves that Space Opera can be done well. Falling Free is a Nebula-award winning novel in a series that has also picked three Hugos. The story, which takes place 200 years before the other books, involves a company that genetically engineers a new race of humans (Quaddies) that is uniquely adapted for work in zero-gravity. Enter Leo Graf, an engineer hired to teach zero-g welding techniques to this new race of slave labor. Think you know where this is heading? Bujold pulls it off brilliantly.

The audio version of this book is another exception. It’s performed by two narrators – Michael Hanson and Carol Cowan. They swap narrating duties with changes in the story’s point of view – a technique I first heard in this audiobook and that I find very effective. The two narrators also perform some conversations together during the story, somewhat like an audio drama. This is something I have found to be extremely INeffective in other audiobooks I’ve heard since this one, but here I enjoyed their interplay and didn’t experience the jarring effect that I’ve felt in other books that have attempted the same technique.

Review of The Giver by Lois Lowry

Science Fiction Audiobooks - The Giver by Lois LowryThe Giver
by Lois Lowry; Read by Ron Rifkin
4 Cassettes – Approx. 6 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Bantam Doubleday Dell
Published: April 1995
ISBN: 055347359X
Themes: / Science Fiction / Children / Dystopia / Utopia /

In the future, society has eliminated pain and there is peace on earth, at least as far as we can tell. For Jonas, his twelfth birthday marks new responsibilities and new challenges. He hopes to be assigned to training as a “Nurturer,” like his father, with duties of caring for newborn babies until they are assigned to mothers and fathers. His mother works in the “Department of Justice”; but he doubts that will be chosen to be his life’s work. He has little natural aptitude for either function. But he is unexpectedly assigned to the position of “Receiver,” an important job with the unique function of learning and holding the community’s memories. The present position is held by a community elder, who is called “The Giver”. Together they must make the transition easy for the community because strong memories of hate, anger, and love aren’t acceptable except for guiding political decisions.

This is a well written children’s novel that adults can enjoy. But it is a children’s novel and one way to tell is by the controversy surrounding it was so strong. Though it is set in a science fiction setting, it is more of a parable than most modern children’s science fiction. The story of a young boy confronting a hidden truth about his society isn’t entirely original (though it does predate Harry Potter by a few years). It is also of course a story of a utopia/dystopia and the transformation of society that happened to make it. Again something not unfamiliar, but what is original though is the method used to transform the society. Think of it as a children’s version of Brave New World, This Perfect Day or G-rated Equilibrium and you’ll get the idea.

Ron Rifkin’s narration is effective, and it is an enjoyable novel to listen to. The controversy surrounding “The Giver” is entirely a product of it being deemed a children’s book, and having a child rebelling against his parents and society. It won’t turn your pre-teen into Che Guevera.

Review of Queen of Angels by Greg Bear

Science Fiction Audiobooks - Queen of Angels by Greg BearQueen of Angels
by Greg Bear; Read by George Guidall
14 Cassettes – 19.75 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Recorded Books
Date Published: 1991
ISBN: 0788763482
Themes: / Science Fiction / Nanotechnology / Artificial Intelligence / Near Future /

Emanuel Goldsmith, a famous poet, murdered eight people, then disappeared. Three people want to find him: an aspiring writer, an embittered scientist who wants to use him, and a policewoman who needs to put him in custody before the Selectors, a vigilante organization, get to him first.

What if human consciousness were just an algorithm resembling a computer program? In Queen Of Angels, Greg Bear shows us, and more. It is a future where someone changing his mind means “reprogramming” it to get rid of the mental flaws. A future in which nanotechnology enables people to radically change their physical appearance. A future where a criminal has his mind “debugged” instead serving a sentence in prison. And a future in which artificial intelligences strive to become self aware.

Queen of Angels is absolutely chock full of fresh and interesting Science Fiction ideas, but it can be quite confusing due to its six separate story threads. This clarity problem is compounded by a complete lack of explicit transitions. A listener attempting this audiobook must be prepared to pay very close attention. The story stagnates somewhat in the middle but it is ultimately worth the time because two of the narratives end in disturbing original ways.

Prejudice is a central theme in this novel. Nanotechnology and mental reporgramming technology has completely restructured society’s class system into the unaltered and the altered human camps. And the consequences meted out by these technologies make for a world where only the perfect “therapied” job seekers get high paying jobs and promotions.

Having previously enjoyed Greg Bear’s breathtaking novel Blood Music and his admirable short fiction collection entitled The Wind from a Burning Woman, I’d only recommend Queen of Angels to fans of those books who thought them easy reading.

Review of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

SFFaudio Review

Science Fiction Audiobooks - The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le GuinThe Left Hand Of Darkness
By Ursula K. Le Guin ; Read by Ruth Stokesberry
8 Cassettes – Approx. 11.5 hours UNABRIDGED
Books On Tape
ISBN: 0736611290
Themes: / Science Fiction / Galactic Civilization / Sociology / Gender / Worldbuilding /

“…our entire pattern of socio-sexual interaction is non-existent here. The Gethenians do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imaginations to accept. There is no division of humanity into strong and weak. One is respected and judged only as a human being…it is an appalling experience for a Terran.”
-Ong Tot Oppong’s field notes of the planet Winter

Genly Ai, the lone emissary of a galactic federation of planets, has landed on the planet named Winter. His job is to make first contact and offer membership to the federation. But Winter is a strange world. Its people are adapted to the chilly planet, use some highly technological devices and yet have a feudal political structure. Slightly complicating matters is the people themselves – they are all bisexual hermaphrodites.

The Left Hand of Darkness is a recognized classic of Science Fiction; it won both the Nebula and the Hugo awards for best novel for 1970. At its center this novel is a thought experiment, built to planetary proportions. This subgenre of HARD SF includes many great novels like Frank Herbert’s Dune and Robert Silverberg’s A Time Of Changes. It also acts in some manner as does a dystopia or utopia novel, shining light on those things hidden, in this case by gender politics, of the time in which it was written. In the late 1960’s and 1970’s women were just becoming fuller participants in power and business. The Left Hand of Darkness taps into this burgeoning social movement. Asking the question “What would a world look like where there were no gender politics at all?”. Le Guin’s answer is fascinating.

While at times slow and ponderous this is a great novel for its time. It is filled with almost endless detail of life on a fully thought out world. Of special note is a fully fleshed out and powerful series of reading of the mythology of Winter, it is superbly crafted stuff. I’m not a huge fan of Le Guin’s body of work but I did appreciate this audiobook. The central idea is very well thought out and the details show in her attention. At least in the abstract, the plot plays out much like a good Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. And there is good reason for this. Indeed, Star Trek: The Next Generation has dealt with both “first contact” situations in the episode aptly named “First Contact” and hermaphroditic aliens in the episode “The Outcast”. The fact that both of those episodes are among the best ST:TNG ever did tells you something about the themes. The Left Hand Of Darkness is not a great page turner, or in this case a tape flipper of a novel. And it is not simply the subject matter that bogs it down. Barry Longyear’s Enemy Mine deals with gender neuter aliens in a thrill-ride fashion that is sadly absent here. Nor does the political intrigue present in The Left Hand of Darkness keep you sitting in the car after you’ve got where your going, waiting for the tape to finish, like it does with the similar Frank Herbert’s Dune. But despite these criticisms, make no mistake, this is
a classic of SF.

Books On Tape did a fabulous job putting together this production. The stunning original cover of the paperback is featured on the plastic clamshell case. The reading is by Ruth Stokesberry, who although unknown to me before this is good at her job. But funnily enough I was immediately thrown off by her voice reading the male narrator’s lines. Typically in audiobooks, male protagonists are read by male readers, who then go into falsetto to read female character’s lines, in this case it is the opposite. And while this is somewhat jarring, it doesn’t have a negative effect as much as it puts the listener into the same situation as the protagonist. In short, it works. The reading itself includes a lengthy and absolutely fascinating introduction written by Ursula K. Le Guin and an appendix explaining the different names and formulas used to determine the months, years, and days of the week. This is a great example of how to make an audiobook.

Review of Best of Science Fiction and Fantasy Volume 1

SFFaudio Review

Science Fiction Audiobooks - Best of Science Fiction and Fantasy Volume 1Best of Science Fiction and Fantasy Volume 1
By Isaac Asimov, Ben Bova, and Kristine K. Rusch; Read by Arte Johnson
Publisher: Dove Audio, 75 minutes [Unabridged]
Date Published: 1991
ISBN: 0787103543
Themes: Science Fiction / Computers / Circus Performers / Space Travel

Arte Johnson should perform more audio books. I guess I should check to see how many he’s done, but this is the first time I’ve heard him narrate, and I found him excellent. His talent lends much to all three of these stories.

The first is Isaac Asimov’s “Someday”, about two kids and an obsolete computer. Their discussions about what people used to do, like actually write things down, was hilarious.

Second is “The Man Who Hated Gravity” by Ben Bova, about a trapeze artist who falls and spends the rest of his life fighting gravity.

Last, Kristine K. Rusch tells a story of a very special little girl who visits a future hospital in “Story Child”.

Great stories. Dove Audio no longer exists, but their content is owned by Audio Literature, who has made these stories available on Audible.com. You can find it under the name Best of Science Fiction and Fantasy (Unabridged), which includes the other volumes in this series.