Review of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

SFFaudio Review

Cover of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreMr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
By Robin Sloan; Read by Ari Fliakos
Audible Download – 7 Hours 41 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Published: 2012
Themes: / mystery / technology / cerebral / singularity / metafiction

Every once in a blue moon, a completely off-the-radar book comes zooming in out of left field and smacks you upside the head. I love books about books and bookstores and bibliophiles, so even reading the title was like swallowing a long, curved, gleaming fishhook. The tagline yanked the hook up into my soft palate and began reeling me in:

A gleeful and exhilarating tale of global conspiracy, complex code-breaking, high-tech data visualization, young love, rollicking adventure, and the secret to eternal life – mostly set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco bookstore.

The story is told from the perspective of down-on-the-heel design school graduate Clay Jannon, who lands a graveyard shift gig at the titular bookstore. Mr. Penumbra is an archetypically mysterious bookstore. Jannon soon discovers that the bookstore is merely a front for a lending library catering to a strange cult-like group of readers. Unable to contain his curiosity despite warnings from the proprietor, Clay investigates, aided in his quest by his artistic roommate, his Silicon Valley love interest, and a host of other quirky and likeable characters.

I know what you’re thinking: mysterious books, ancient cults, and a quest for eternal life–sounds like a Dan Brown novel. Not so! Where Brown’s prose is ponderous, even pompous, Sloan’s writing is equal parts wit and vigor. It often reads like early Neal Stephenson or, at its best, a timeless Neil Gaiman. Many superficial elements bear a resemblance to Brown’s work, but in the end this is a Brownian novel for true geeks. Brown’s wild, far-fetched car chases through Paris streets are replaced by equally far-fetched but far more satisfying night-time raids into a secret library with a DIY book scanner and an epic set piece data visualization scrum which takes place at Google headquarters. The novel explores areas as esoteric and diverse as typography, cloud computing, and archaeology. The real engine driving most modern mystery thrillers is action, but ideas fuel Mr. Penumbra.

Even readers like me who prefer fantasy to future tales will find something to like here, since the bibliographic mystery ultimately hinges on a trilogy of fictitious epic fantasy novels, The Dragon Song Chronicles. To say more would spoil the plot, but suffice it to say that even the most die-hard D&D player wouldn’t put down the book wholly disappointed. In one scene, the protagonist obtains a recording of the trilogy read by the author on cassette tape, and, in a nice touch that mirrors the novel’s preoccupation with metafiction, Macmillan Audio renders those particular passages in scfratchy, low-quality audio read by a narrator who stepped right out of the 1980s.

And speaking of narration, Ari Fliakos does a fine job with Mr. Penumbra. The novel is rife with obscure terminology drawing from a diverse wealth of linguistic sources, yet Fliakos makes few if any slips. His youthfully exuberent Clay and his tremulously throaty Mr. Penumbra fit the characters perfectly, as do the voices he selects for most of the other characters. A part of me wishes that Jonathan Davis had narrated this novel, since it then would have felt almost like a more upbeat Snow Crash. But that’s only wishful thinking on my part and not at all fair to Mr. Fliakos. A bad performance could have ruined this otherwise outstanding novel, but his performance does it justice.

The book isn’t perfect. The plot, while engaging, is fairly predictable and formulaic at times. I often found myself easily predicting the next twist. As so often happens in these novels, the romance didn’t quite come off as natural to me, although one could make a strong argument that Sloan intentionally made the love interest ambiguous. These are minor quibbles, however. If anything in this review strikes you as remotely interesting, you should read this book. You won’t regret it.

Posted by Seth

Review of Where’s My Jetpack? by Daniel H. Wilson

 SFFaudio Review

Science Fiction Audiobooks - Where's My Jetpack? by Daniel H. Wilson, PhDWhere’s My Jetpack?: A Guide To The Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived
By Daniel H. Wilson, PhD; Read by Stefan Rudnicki
1 MP3-CD – 3.5 hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Sample: Click here
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: 2007
ISBN: 078617160X
Themes: / Science Fiction / Non-fiction / Technology / Teleportation /

The future is now. And we are not impressed. The future was supposed to be a fully automated, atomic-powered, germ-free Utopia, a place where a grown man could wear a velvet spandex unitard and not be laughed at. Our beloved scientist may be building the future, but some key pieces are missing. Where are the ray guns, the flying cars, and the hoverboards that we expected? We can’t wait another minute for the future to arrive. The time has come to hold the Golden Age of science fiction accountable for its fantastic promises.

Finally, someone has come to take the Golden Age of science fiction to task for all that crap they told us would happen. Who is the hero that’s going to demand our cool stuff? None other than Daniel H. Wilson, PhD, that’s who. That’s right. The guy who saved us from all those robots in his previous book – How to Survive a Robot Uprising. (SFFaudio Review here – we’re on the ball with all this surviving stuff.)

Just like in How to Survive a Robot Uprising, Wilson takes real science facts and gives them to us in a way that will make you laugh out loud. For example, what about those jetpacks we were promised? (Wilson calls the jetpack the “Holy Grail of classic science fiction technology.”) In this book, we find out that Wendell Moore finished the Bell Rocket Belt in 1961. It was basically a rocket mounted to a backpack. He tested it himself. Yes, he strapped a rocket to his belt, and turned it on. We learn exactly how it worked, hydrogen peroxide fuel and all. It produced 300 lbs of thrust – just enough to get a grown man off the ground. The downside? It could only hold 30 seconds worth of fuel. Shockingly, none of the rocket pack pilots died. Wilson then laments the lack of serious innovation in the rocket pack industry since then. “If Wendell Moore could see the state of jetpacks today,” says Wilson, “he would be doing barrel rolls in his grave.”

Jetpacks are just the tip of the rocket. Orbital hotels, robot servants, space elevators, teleportation – it’s all in there.

Stefan Rudnicki delivers another quality narration. One of Wilson’s goals with both of his books was to take the material so seriously that absurdity shows through. Rudnicki understood this, and provided narration to match. Funny stuff.

To hear from the author himself about Where’s My Jetpack?, How to Survive a Robot Uprising, robotics in general, and future projects, check out his interview on the Talking Robots podcast, July 5, 2007 edition. Here’s the direct link to the MP3.

Review of The Fluted Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

SFFaudio Audiobook Review

Science Fiction Audiobook - Fluted Girl by Paolo BacigalupiThe Fluted Girl
By Paolo Bacigalupi ; Read by Shodra Marie
1 CD – 62 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Infinivox
Published: 2006
ISBN: 1884612369
Themes: / Science Fiction / Technology / Society / Politics /

The Fluted Girl huddled in the darkness clutching Steven’s final gift in her small pale hands. Madam Balarie would be looking for her. The servants would be sniffing through the castle like feral dogs.

Everything is possible in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Fluted Girl. All you ever wanted is here but it all has a price, and often the physical cost is just way to steep. Cell knitters, Revitia treatments and stolen body parts, halt, stop, and improve all manner of the human body. And the goal here… simply to improve one’s social standing in Bacigalupi’s decadent future world. Enter into this world of capitalistic dreams, twin girls. With a lifetime of treatments behind them they are now ready to take to the stage as human flutes in a performance that should delight everyone. That is, everyone except the twins.

From the moment Shondra Marie’s voice submerses you into this world you are dreading the final outcome. With Marie’s voice and Bacigalupi’s guidance you are unable to leave this story until the final outcome has been spoken. This is a tale that lingers…well after the hour is up and it is well advised to re-play this one, just to catch all the hints and tricks Bacigalupi uses to make this such a moving tale. Infinivox has unearthed an exceptional gem of a story here in The Fluted Girl and with their production they’ve polished it to a fine diamond. Well done. Listen to this story if only to see the opulent world that Paolo Bacigalupi’s has created but once you’re there… you’re in until the end… that I promise.

[Editor’s note: Infinivox is now offering an MP3 download for The Fluted Girl and 6 other recently released audiobooks – and they’re even DISCOUNTED!]

Review of Lobsters by Charles Stross

SFFaudio Audiobook Review

Infinivox Audiobook - Lobsters by Charles StrossLobsters
By Charles Stross; Read by Shodra Marie and Jared Doreck
1 CD – Approx. 70 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Infinivox
Published: 2005
ISBN: 1884612466
Themes: / Science Fiction / Technology / Love / Politics /

Manfred’s on the road again, making strangers rich. It’s a hot summer Tuesday and he’s standing in the plaza in front of the Centraal Station with his eyeballs powered up and the sunlight jangling off the canal, motor scooters and kamikaze cyclists whizzing past and tourists chattering on every side. The square smells of water and dirt and hot metal and the fart-laden exhaust fumes of cold catalytic converters; the bells of trams ding in the background and birds flock overhead.

Let’s just say it’s a crying shame and leave it until later to explain why.

Manfred Macx is a patent junkie, spending his days dreaming up ideas that will make him rich, very rich indeed; patents them and offers them up to whomever for free. In doing so has shunned the want for cash, preferring to live off the generosity from his benefactors. Enter into this story, uploaded lobsters wanting to defect, investigations from the IRS and a dominatrix ex- girlfriend who works for said IRS and you’ve got yourself a hip post-cyberpunk tale.

With Lobsters, Charles “Charlie” Stross has set his stopwatch to just 70 minutes. In that time he’s allowed to blast your senses with an array of images and visualizations and does so with perfect storytelling, skill and timing. Image after image explode onto your brain with the speed of a flashing strobe light. He throws away metaphors and similes as if he’d robbed the World Vocabulary bank. One after the other they hit you with delight and clarity until the end, and like all addictive tales, Lobsters leaves you a word junkie, aching for more.

There are two themes filtering through Stross’ Lobsters. On one hand you have Manfred, a high octane, finger on the pulse, grab it before its gone guy, focused on the moment, on the idea and on the deal. Live for the moment. Then you have Stross’ craftily ability to weave Manfred’s ex-girlfriend into the story, bringing her subtle but very practical approach to the future. Is Manfred up for this latest and most challenging proposal of his life? It’s a question we might all ask ourselves at one point through our lives.

The audio zips into your ears with ease. Both Jared Doreck and Shondra Marie deliver a fine production and tackle Stross’ rapid image bursts with gusto. The folks at Infinivox can hold their heads high with this production and at $7.99 it’s a pop!

Charlie Stross dips his toes in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Lovecraftian Horror and is part of the new generation of British Science Fictions writers that are taking the genre by the throat until it squeals. Living in Edinburgh his first short story The Boys appeared in the Science Fiction magazine, Interzone in 1987. Since then he has gone on to be nominated for a Hugo three times for recent novels.

So, is it a crying shame that he has still has not won a Hugo for one of his novels? No, it won’t be long, I promise you that. He has already won one for his novella, The Concrete Jungle.

No… it’s a crying shame that I have not yet heard more of his work.

Review of Empire of the East by Fred Saberhagen

Science Fiction Audiobooks - Empire of the East by Fred SaberhagenEmpire of the East
by Fred Saberhagen, read by Raymond Todd
15 CD’s – 18.5 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audiobooks
Published: 2005
ISBN: 0786178833
Themes: / Fantasy / Magic / Technology / Demons / Empires / Post-Apocalypse

Have you ever wondered what one modern piece of weaponry might have meant for a given side in a war in past centuries? In the world Fred Saberhagen creates in Empire of the East, it is the future rather than the past where such scenarios are explored. In this distant future magic is real, understood, and trusted, while technology from the “old world” (i.e., our time) exists in the form of mistrusted relics.

You can’t listen to this story long without comparing it to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and it compares favorably. It’s a compilation (I believe with some revision) of three earlier books written by Saberhagen. The sheer breadth of the three-part story is impressive, sweeping you through a vast world where an oppressive Eastern empire is resisted by free men of the West. The main character Rolf resembles Frodo (even beyond the near-anagramatic match of names) and another reminds the reader of Aragorn.

But Saberhagen is no poor man’s Tolkien. He manages the micro- and macro-details with great skill. There are no Tom Bombadils dancing around, hinting of early ideas left in but not fully integrated. No disrespect for Lord of the Rings intended, I’m just saying that Empire of the East merits praise in its own right.

Saberhagen’s characters were believable and easy to care about. Lord Chup is my favorite character. Is he a good bad guy? A bad good guy? And making up for in evilness what they lack in nuance, the main antagonists are gripping. Lord Ekuman is evil, but he is easily outdone in the second book by Som the Dead (yes, he is as attractive as he sounds). Then, in the third book you realize Som is simply middle management. His boss (his mother named him Ominor, perhaps expecting the worst) likes to relax to the sounds of impalement.

The breadth of the milieu is matched by lush detail. I couldn’t help thinking of what a movie version of this would be like. Saberhagen describes situations and interactions with such precision that images came to mind as easily as if I’d watched it on a screen. The story aside, it was just fun listening to Saberhagen’s writing. He captures subtleties in the action, giving you the feeling like you know exactly what it would have been like to be there. Here is a random example of his writing:

As a man dragged to the edge of a precipice will throw away all his treasures and his weapons, to grab with every finger for some saving hold, so did the demon emperor now abandon all the threads of Eastern wizardry.

If you read fantasy, you often just accept that there happens to be magic in the world, and Saberhagen does a very good job explaining the magic of his world. The magic isn’t just part of the scenery, though. In a pleasant surprise at the end, just how the world came to have magic is explained and tied into the climax. There isn’t much of a denouement, perhaps the greatest contrast between Empire of the East and Lord of the Rings.

Even if a story is great, however, it does not necessarily translate to greatness when presented in other mediums. In this case, the audio production is equal to the story. Blackstone Audiobooks did a perfect job producing the Raymond Todd narration for Empire of the East. While a reader that does not distract from a story is desirable, Todd’s voice talent goes beyond and enhances it.

Some readers have interesting voices, but they soon become distracting, like a new shirt you don, but are soon irritated by when it doesn’t quite fit and rubs irritatingly against your skin. Raymond Todd’s voice, in contrast, is like a comfortable sweater that gives familiar reassurance. He uses variations of some kind of Gaelic or Scandinavian accent with the men of the West and did a great job with it.

So thank Blackstone Audiobooks for bringing us such a brilliant novel in a very impressive production. I’ll be keeping my eye out for other stories read by Raymond Todd.

If you don’t want to carry around a case with 15 CDs, you can get two MP3 CDs for just under fifty bucks, or do a digital download from their site for only $9.95 (if it’s your first time). I think anyone who appreciates his work will be glad this part of his legacy is preserved in this quality production.

Posted by Mike