Review of The Chief Designer by Andy Duncan

SFFaudio Audiobook Review

Audiobook - The Chief Designer by Andy DuncanThe Chief Designer
By Andy Duncan; Read by Jared Doreck
2 CDs – 132 minutes – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Infinivox
Published: 2006
ISBN: 1884612547
Themes: / Science Fiction / Alternate History / Space Flight / History / Ghosts / Heroic Journey /

“Tsiolkovsky,” he said. “Your memory is excellent, Comrade Korolev.” The man who had held the open book before Korolev’s face reversed it and examined it himself. He wore a full-dress officer’s uniform, and two soldiers flanked him. “Exploration of Cosmic Space with Reactive Devices, by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Published 1903.

Though you’d be hard-pressed to spot the fantastic elements this tale is a inspirational and deeply moving for any true Science Fiction fan. I’m not a spiritual person, I think that spirit is bunk and people who believe in spirit are all marks. But in a very deeply emotional sense I can almost understand the need for something like the spiritual when I look up into the deep night. There is nothing more powerful than seeing the immensity of existence and then comparing our thus far pitiful explorations to them. Those persons with the will to embrace the larger goals of space travel, by passing by the little miasma of our insignificant apish little goals, to get a shiny new car, a cell phone or an expensive suit are those worthy of worship. One such man was Sergei Korolev, the “Chief designer” of the secret Soviet space program. This story follows his management of the men who would create the universe’s only known spacefaring species from 1957’s Sputnik forward into what we can only hope would be a bright future. The story spans from World War II, when Korolev was released from a prison camp to design rockets, to 1997 and the Mir space station.

Andy Duncan is not someone I’d read anything of prior, but his work here is remarkable. If this wasn’t supposed to be Alternate History, and it is very subtle if it is even that, I’d have said the story of Koralev’s life history was massaged to provide a more ballistic plot. Though Koralev was sent to the Gulag, as depicted in the opening sentences of this novella, the reason for his departure from it didn’t happen, in real life, for the reasons stated in the story.

Michael Swanwick called The Chief Designer, “A portrayal … of the single most positive enterprise of the twentieth century”, and he is right, but too limiting, Koralev’s genius, along with men like Wernher von Braun was to expand the meaning of humanity from mere animal to demi-god. Before these men, their vision and action, we were just animals with tools and language, afterwards we became creatures capable of refining the metal of the crust of the planet upon which we were born, shaping it into cylinders filled with explosives and sending our representatives to other worlds. The Chief Designer is a portrayal of the single most important enterprise in human history! Koralev is in a very real sense our real life Titan, our very real and historical Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humanity.

The Chief Designer is winner of the 2002 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the Southeastern Science Fiction Achievement Award, a 2003 Nebula Award finalist and a 2002 Hugo Award finalist. Today we can add SFFaudio Essential to its many achievements.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Orbit by John J. Nance

Science Fiction Audiobook Review

Science Fiction Audiobook - Orbit by John J. NanceOrbit
By John J. Nance, read by the author
1 MP3-CD, Approx. 9 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Published: 2005
ISBN: 1593356919
Themes: / Science Fiction / Near Future / Space Flight

Poor Kip Dawson, not only is he saddled with a shrewish wife who doesn’t support his aspirations, an estranged son who doesn’t understand him, and a humdrum job he doesn’t enjoy, but when he finally realizes his one true dream of flying into space on a private space-tourism ship as the winner of an international contest, he finds himself stranded there with a dead pilot and no way to start the engines or contact the earth. Even worse, he seems completely unaware that he is nothing but a static clip-art character dragged and dropped into a dull exercise in word processing.

The story has the potential to accomplish so much: Thrilling adventures as those on the ground seek to help our man in space by shooting down a large piece of space debris headed his way and scrambling not one but four spacecraft to reach him before his air scrubbers give out; gripping human drama as he spins out his entire sexual history, his shallow self-reflections, and his talk-show psychologist advice to the world in a blog he doesn’t know is being sent live to the ground; and even a hint of heart-warming romance with the head of PR for the private space tourism company. Alas, John Nance’s handling of this potential reads like a To Do list scrawled in the margins of an outline. The tale is boosted by a few interesting complications and the feeling that it could technically all happen tomorrow, but it is brought crashing back to the launch pad by an infantile understanding of the politics of the space program, an even more infantile understanding of men and their desires and fears, and a supremely infantile understanding of women and love.

I’ll give the audio version this: At least it’s brief. This is due to Nance’s remarkable ability to produce syllables rapidly. But there is a distracting microphone lisp throughout, and a remarkable sameness to the delivery of the dialog, the exposition, the inner thoughts of the characters, and the chapter numbers. Nance shows he’s a good sport with his hilarious rendition of father and son Australian accents, but other than that, there isn’t much you hear that you won’t soon gladly forget.

This book aims high, and for that I can forgive a lot. But it is betrayed by haste and inattention. The moments that should be the most involving and emotionally satisfying instead read like the author would rather be somewhere else, doing something else. And that’s how you’ll feel too, should you be unfortunate enough to listen. Take my advice: Don’t.

Posted by Kurt Dietz

Review of Voyage by Stephen Baxter

Science Fiction Audio Drama - Voyage by Stephen BaxterVoyage
By Stephen Baxter; Directed/Produced by Dirk Maggs, Performed by a Full Cast
2 Cassettes – 2 hours [AUDIO DRAMA]
Publisher: BBC Audiobooks
Published: May 1999
ISBN: 0563552417
THEMES: / Science Fiction / Alternate History / Space Program / Mars / Moon / Politics /

Voyage is a work of alternate history, in which the seed is President John F. Kennedy’s survival of the attempted assassination in Dallas in 1963. The impact of this historical change on the United States Space Program is the focus of the story.

In one of the many striking scenes in this audio drama, a wheelchair bound Kennedy joins president Nixon in the Oval Office in sending a message of congratulations to Neil Armstrong and crew during the first moon landing. But Kennedy takes it a little farther than a simple greeting – he challenges humanity to go farther. He challenges NASA to send people to Mars. Nixon at first is appalled, then goes along with the program after an aide tells him the voters love the idea.

The story is about the struggle from that point on to send people to Mars, building up to and including the story of Project Ares, which lifts off in 1986 with a three-person crew headed for Mars.

Dirk Maggs directed the production which was absolutely first-rate. I put on a pair of headphones and was instantly taken away to this alternate history. I enjoyed every minute of it. I’d even go so far as to say that it solidified the power of audio drama to my ears – I couldn’t help but to think of the many excellent works of science fiction that could – and SHOULD – be done in this medium.

I also agree with the message of the story. It’s a unconscionable that humanity reached the moon 35 years ago and has gone nowhere since. Let’s get on with our own history!

Posted by Scott D. Danielson