Review of The Reapers Are The Angels by Alden Bell

SFFaudio Review

BLACKSTONE AUDIO - The Reapers Are The Angels by Alden BellSFFaudio EssentialThe Reapers Are The Angels
By Alden Bell; Read by Tai Sammons
6 CDs – Approx. 6.8 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: August 2010
ISBN: 9781441765994
Themes: / Fantasy / Horror / Zombies / Post-Apocalypse / The South /

God is a slick god. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe.

Like those fish all disco-lit in the shallows. That was something, a marvel with no compare that she’s been witness to. It was deep night when she saw it, but the moon was so bright it cast hard shadows everywhere on the island. So bright it was almost brighter than daytime because she could see things clearer, as if the sun were criminal to the truth, as if her eyes were eyes of night. She left the lighthouse and went down to the beach to look at the moon pure and straight, and she stood in the shallows and let her feet sink into the sand as the patter- waves tickled her ankles. And that’s when she saw it, a school of tiny fish, all darting around like marbles in a chalk circle, and they were lit up electric, mostly silver but some gold and pink too. They came and danced around her ankles, and she could feel their little electric fish bodies, and it was like she was standing under the moon and in the moon at the same time. And that was something she hadn’t seen before. A decade and a half, thereabouts, roaming the planet earth, and she’s never seen that before.

And you could say the world has gone to black damnation, and you could say the children of Cain are holding sway over the good and the righteous—but here’s what Temple knows: She knows that whatever hell the world went to, and whatever evil she’s perpetrated her own self, and whatever series of cursed misfortunes brought her down here to this island to be harbored away from the order of mankind, well, all those things are what put her there that night to stand amid the Daylight Moon and the Miracle of the Fish—which she wouldn’t of got to see otherwise.

See, God is a slick god. He makes it so you don’t miss out on nothing you’re supposed to witness firsthand.

I actually asked to review this book because I’d seen it described as a “twist on the southern gothic: like Flannery O’Connor with zombies.” As someone who has just begun to appreciate Flannery O’Connor’s writing this hit me like a challenge. However, as I listened to the first chapter, I was struck by the unexpected beauty of the writing and themes that many people wouldn’t attempt, especially in a zombie book. This unexpected beginning was merely the first of the many surprises that Alden Bell had for me in The Reapers Are The Angels.

Temple is a fifteen year old girl who was born ten years after the zombie apocalypse happened. No attempt is made to understand or solve the zombie problem. No government has been formed from the survivors. It is a world with pockets of survivors who set up such systems as seem good to them individually. Chaos rules. Temple has never known a world where zombies were not part of the landscape and this gives us a unique perspective into the apocalyptic novel. It is the world of the survivors where the zombies are a danger but not a shock.

Temple is a fearless drifter, moving from place to place to see wonders or carry out such tasks as she feels she has been given to perform. One such task is when she comes across a severely retarded man in a poignant scene where he is running from zombies with his dead grandmother in his arms. She takes on the task of getting the man, who she calls “Dummy” until she learns his name (Maury), to a safe place where he will be looked after. A wealth of information is conveyed in that name, “Dummy.” This is a world where politically correct doesn’t matter, where truth can sound hard but be kind. Temple is matter-of-fact because that is the only coin that counts in a world where zombies roam wild.

Early in Temple’s travels she encounters the man who becomes her nemesis. Interestingly enough, they understand each other better than any other people on earth, although they are at odds. Both are “God-haunted,” both recognize the truth and resolve it takes to “stay right.” He wants to kill Temple and she understands why, but nevertheless is not going to let him succeed. She is also afraid of something evil within herself which keeps her on the move. In the process of evading her relentless pursuer and caring for her protoge, Temple roams across the South, encountering a wide variety of wanderers and societies. Some are clinging to hopes of returning to normalcy, some accept the new way of the world but refuse to understand it for what it is. Many people encountered are kind and a surprising number of them are also traveling despite the uncertain times. All are shown through Temple’s honest gaze which even can understand and accept the zombies as long as she isn’t being attacked.

This doesn’t mean that Temple is only pragmatic, however. She is weighed down with grief from past actions, which we gradually discover in the course of the novel. She feels joy and wonderment at events such as the fish in the excerpt above and her overriding desire is to see Niagara Falls some day. As she chatters to the largely speechless Maury we see the natural personality of a 15-year-old girl emerge every so often.

I have never read a book with this perspective. I love a good apocalypse story, watching the survivors get over the shock or succumb depending on their natures, watching the alternative governments set up, watching the various ways that everyone attempts to restore the most important aspects of the status quo. This book has no such moments. The world already has “gone to black damnation” but even so there are moments of beauty, meditation on what is right, suspense over what Temple will find in each town, whether she can get Maury to safety, how she will finally elude the determined killer on her trail, and what the evil is that she feels is deep within her. I rarely have listened to a book with such intensity or found myself surprised as often by the lyrical, fluid writing.

Tai Sammons narrates this book with restrained clarity. She has the ability to seamlessly shift into accents from upper class to hardscrabble Southerner while taking on the characters so that the listener tends to forget that there is just one person reading. She does this without altering her voice much either which is a rare skill and one that enhanced the book greatly. In fact, after I found out that the print version does not have quotation marks used for dialogue, I realized that in listening to Sammons’ narration I was enjoying this book in probably the best format for easy understanding. (This experience made me reconsider reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy who is known for both excellent stories and also for the difficulty of reading his prose. I will be seeking out the audio version.)

As with the best science fiction or fantasy, ultimately this story is about much larger issues than hordes of wandering zombies, who have the least presence of any monsters I’ve ever read about. There is blood aplenty, make no mistake, but zombies are far less dangerous that what lies within Temple and her pursuer. The book is not perfect. Some of the plot details are immediately obvious, although they take Temple a long time to figure out, which can be a bit frustrating to the reader. However, overall the book packs its equal share of surprises in plot which more than compensate for the failures.

The Reapers Are The Angels looks at the pursuit of beauty, the pursuit of God, the flight from inner demons, and the fact that none of us can ever see the whole truth at any time. We are too small and truth is woven too large. It isn’t Flannery O’Connor but it doesn’t need to be to accomplish the same thing that O’Connor always wrote about. The Reapers Are The Angels is a book about being human with all the questions and struggles that humans have had throughout time. Highest recommendation.

Posted by Julie D.

Commentary: SFSignal Mind Meld on the best of 2009

SFFaudio Commentary

SFSignal.comJohn DeNardo of recently asked me if I was “interested in participating in another Mind Meld.” I told him he should go back and audit a few more classes at the Vulcan Science Academy as he was obviously not mind melding with me well enough to know my answer would be: “Of course I would John!”

Here was the topic:

Q: What were the best genre-related books, movies and/or shows you consumed in 2009?

Here was my answer:

I expect to hear a few more audiobooks and audio dramas before the year is out, but at 11 months in I can already say 2009 has been a very good year for audio fans. Here are six genre audiobooks and audio dramas that I gave the SFFaudio Essential designation.

Audio Dramas:BBC Audio - The Adventures Of Sexton Blake

The Adventures Of Sexton Blake – A rival of Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake is an unbelievably clever audio drama series. It is also very, very funny!

Blake’s 7 – The Early Years (Volumes 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, and 1.4) – this superior prequel series mines the back-stories of the titular characters. B7 The Early Years is intelligent social Science Fiction.

The Red Panda Adventures, Season 4 – A free podcast audio drama series about 1930s Toronto superheroes. It features top notch acting, fresh scripts and more heart than all the X-Men put together.

Audiobooks:Audible Frontiers - Starship: Rebel, Book 4 by Mike Resick

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper – A planetary romance about little aliens with a culture and language that borders on sapience. This Audio Realms edition features an able narration by Brian Holsopple.

Starship: Rebel by Mike Resnick – The penultimate chapter in Resnick’s galaxy spanning space opera. Narrator Jonathan Davis makes this audiobook version the ultimate way to enjoy this great series.

Way Station by Clifford D. Simak – A bucolic rumination on immortality, conflict, and human nature. Eric Michael Summerer’s clear narration makes Simak’s anachronistic grammar come alive.

You can read it |HERE| along with a bunch of other folk’s own lists, including Mike Resnick’s!

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Way Station by Clifford D. Simak

SFFaudio Review

Audible Frontiers - Way Station by Clifford D. SimakSFFaudio EssentialWay Station
By Clifford D. Simak; Read by Eric Michael Summerer
Audible Download – Approx. 7 Hours 5 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Audible Frontiers
Published: 2009
Themes: / Science Fiction / Aliens / Galactic Civilization / Immortality /

In this Hugo Award-winning classic, Enoch Wallace is an ageless hermit, striding across his untended farm as he has done for over a century, still carrying the gun with which he had served in the Civil War. But what his neighbors must never know is that, inside his unchanging house, he meets with a host of unimaginable friends from the farthest stars.

This story spans more than a century, but most of the ‘action’ takes place in the middle of the 20th century, over a couple of months. See, a friendly alien recruited Enoch Wallace to become something of a galactic station master shortly after the American Civil War. Now, with his neighbors generally accepting his mysterious eternal youth, Enoch has a curious and unseen visitor watching him from the woods. Enoch is lonely, with his only friends being a completely deaf and mute young woman and his kindly mailman. Will the visitor in the trees learn the truth? Will Enoch help guide the Earth to its ultimate destiny? Read on!

I find myself arguing with a lot of my fiction writing friends about what makes a good story. They typically talk about ‘the rules’ or ‘the formula’ that makes a story work. I typically talk about clarity, consistency (story logic) and originality of a story. We usually agree about style.

A couple years back a friend of mine (a filmmaker and used bookstore owner) was telling me about one of the scripts he was working on. He said something to the effect of “every story must have conflict.” That’s probably not a new concept, not original to him, but it was new to me – at least in those words. Now I love such sweeping declarations – they give my dialectical brain something to hack away at. It seems a fairly straightforward a concept – and on the face of it seems likely – but, that always gets me thinking: If it sounds so obvious it is probably at least partially false. So I thought about it for maybe thirty seconds and then pointed out that ‘pornographic films need not have conflict – but they can still have a story.’ Illustrating I said “Pizza delivery guy comes to the door – half naked woman answers – sex follows.” It has a beginning, a middle and a money shot. My friend and I both laughed. But, I’ve been thinking about this meme ever since. Now, with Way Station I think I have a more serious defeater to my friend’s all encompassing rule about storytelling. There is very little conflict in Way Station. That is actually a pretty common thing for author Clifford D. Simak. His stories are highly pastoral, full of backstories being revealed, mysterious farmers and friendly aliens. Conflict may be mentioned, as having happened long ago (or in some distant future) – but shots are rarely fired in anger. I’m thinking back on all of the Simak I’ve read, and in it all I can’t recall much conflict at all. And yet, I love his stories.

Eric Michael Summerer does a terrific job narrating this pastoral masterpiece. He portrays Simak’s characters with all the honesty, decency, and humanity that Clifford D. Simak put into them. Audible Frontiers has very kindly added an excellent and informative introduction written and read by another of Science Fiction’s most humane authors, Mike Resnick! Audible Frontiers has been adding so many new titles it is hard to keep up. This one will slow things down for you and even make life a little simpler. Thanks Simak!

Posted by Jesse 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 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

SFFaudio Review

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt VonnegutSFFaudio EssentialSlaughterhouse-Five
By Kurt Vonnegut; Read by Ethan Hawke
5 CDs – 6 hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: 2009
ISBN: 9781433269691
Themes: / Science Fiction (or maybe not) / World War II / Time Travel / War / Aliens / Mind /

And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.

So she was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes.

—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

During World War II, author Kurt Vonnegut was taken prisoner by the Germans and held captive in the city of Dresden, which was later reduced to flaming rubble during a harrowing fire-bombing by American forces. According to Vonnegut, the city was a gorgeous center of art, architecture, and fine civilian life; its value as a military target was negligible. “What I’ve said about the firebombing of Dresden is that not one person got out of a concentration camp a microsecond earlier, not one German deserted his defensive position a microsecond earlier,” Vonnegut said.

Somewhere between 25,000 and 120,000 civilians (the upper figure is an early estimate, which has since been revised downward to 25,000-40,000) were killed in the inferno of incendiary and high explosive bombs. As such, Dresden remains a controversial, dark chapter of America’s involvement in the war.

Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s look back on this dreadful event. It’s not a traditional biography, but a modified account of his own experiences as seen through the eyes of Billy Pilgrim, a tall, awkward, disconnected dreamer who is drafted into the army and thrust into combat. Pilgrim is a pathetic soul with the appearance of a “filthy flamingo,” involved in tragic events beyond his control.

Captured during the Battle of the Bulge, Pilgrim and 100 other soldiers are shipped to Dresden to serve as prison-labor. At night they sleep in a storage-cave beneath a slaughterhouse amidst the butchered carcasses of animals, and it’s this arrangement that allows them to survive the attack. After the firebombing, they emerge the next morning to find the once-beautiful Dresden so utterly destroyed that it resembles the surface of the moon.

A part of me feels guilty for reviewing Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five on a science fiction/fantasy Web site. The connections of this classic anti-war novel to the science fiction genre are tenuous, but it attains this designation (in some circles) due to the presence of the Tralfamadorians, a race of aliens that capture Pilgrim and bring him back to their planet for examination. During his months on Tralfamadore, Pilgrim is placed in a sort of zoo, his body and mind laid bare to the curious aliens.

The Tralfamadorians may be simply the imagination of an unwell, traumatized mind. Pilgrim is emotionally unbalanced, suffers a head injury after the war, and reads voraciously of the novels of science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, one of whose novels concerns an alien abduction that sounds suspiciously like Pilgrim’s own experiences on Trafalmadore. But the Tralfamadorians—real or not—allow Vonnegut to explore the concept of time and our place in it, which is the larger theme of the novel. The Tralfamadorians can see in four dimensions and have no concept of time; life just is, and human existence is a series of events and happenings with no beginnings and ends. Events simply occur; wars are fought, we are powerless to stop them and it’s ridiculous to think we can. Free will is a farce.

Pilgrim’s time among the Tralfamadorians allows him to experience his life in this fourth dimension, moving his mind back and forth to the past and future, seemingly at will. He is able to see his own death, and relive events from his childhood, his marriage, and his career as an optometrist. But Pilgrim’s wandering, time-traveling mind returns again and again to the terrible events of Dresden, an experience so powerful that his mind is unable to make sense of it. It just is, and all he can do with the rest of life is to try and look upon the good times in his life, the moments of joy, and not linger too long over the blackened, shrunken bodies, or a fellow American and friend executed for salvaging a teapot from the ruins.

Actor Ethan Hawke (of Dead Poets Society and Hamlet fame) serves as the narrator and does a nice job reading with an understated, dispassionate voice that perfectly fits the tone of the novel. This Blackstone Audio production also includes an unexpected and enlightening 10-minute interview with Vonnegut on the final disc. Here Vonnegut reveals that Pilgrim’s character was based on a real person, Edward Crone, an American who died in Dresden. “He just didn’t understand the war at all, what was going on, and of course there was nothing to understand—he was right,” Vonnegut says.

Posted by Brian Murphy