Review of Ascent by Jed Mercurio

SFFaudio Review

Science Fiction Audiobook - Ascent by Jed MercurioAscent
By Jed Mercurio; Read by Todd McLaren
6 CDs – 7.5 7.5 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Tantor Audio
Published: 2007
ISBN: 9781400103683
Themes: / Science Fiction / Alternate History / War / Cold War / The Moon /

The sun swings behind the world. Night engulfs him. The dull metal craft plunges through space, its portholes pale beacons containing the silhouette of a man, and the only other lights are the stars themselves.

This alternate history novel is a faithful depiction of the Soviet Union’s race against the United States to put a man on the Moon. The sad reality is that it never happened this way, but that doesn’t nullify a tremendously magnetic story of how it very well could have done. The viewpoint character is Yefgeni Yeremin an orphan of WWII, a fighter pilot and a Korean air-war ace. His story is as compelling a depiction of a quasi-Nitzchean overman as I’ve seen in fiction. Yeremnin is a more human, more plausible kind of Ayn Randian character – but he’s also hard to empathize with. He’s a man who can’t quite break free of his upbringing, his colleagues, his country, but who despite this achieves what must be viewed as the ultimate in overcoming. The Ascent of the title is not just that of a man from the surface of the Earth, but of mankind from Earth and that which came before. Just as birth is the obvious, but arbitrary line in the moral sand of personhood, so too is the actual landing of a human being on the surface of the moon.

Ascent starts with a shock, builds brilliantly during the Korean War scenes and then plateaus. Mercurio tells a powerful story – the first half of the audiobook absolutely riveted the headphones to my head. That which follows is engaging, but not as impactful. Perhaps the tale could have been told in another manner. Perhaps part of the problem is in the novel form itself. I wonder if it might not have been better, shorter – as a novella say. Yeremnin too is hard to take at this length – he is a hard man, from a hard world, with little in him other than will. The technical jargon that predominates his space voyage, while I’m certain accurate, is burdensome, and the problems that face the protagonist are less thrilling than those in the first half of the book. The end, when it comes, simply…. is. It isn’t wrong for the book, but it isn’t right either. It may be that this kind of tale, with this kind of character, is not actually tellable another way. Todd McLaren helps, he does Russian accented English but doesn’t overplay it – this is a matter of fact delivery. I hope Mercurio can find another topic within Science Fiction with as much passion as that which he put into Ascent, this was a tremendously compelling listen.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of The Rolling Stones by Robert A. Heinlein

Science Fiction Audiobooks - The Rolling Stones by Robert A. HeinleinThe Rolling Stones
By Robert A. Heinlein; Performed By A Full Cast
8 CDs – 7 Hours 9 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Full Cast Audio
Published: 2005
ISBN: 1932076808
Themes: / Science Fiction / Young Adult / Space Travel / Newtonian Physics / The Moon / Mars / The Asteroid Belt /

When the Stone twins made up their minds to leave Luna City in a secondhand spaceship, they hadn’t planned on having their whole family accompany them. But the Stones are not your ordinary Lunar family – no way! – and their voyage through the solar system sure proves it.

Not long ago FULL CAST AUDIO contacted us, and gave us a heads-up – a new Robert A. Heinlein novel was coming. I was blown away by their first Heinlein adaptation so I tried to keep my expectations reasonable. “Lightning can’t strike twice”, I told myself. “Just be happy that it is being released. That’s what you asked for and that’s what you got. Don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t live up to your expectations.” I needn’t have worried. The Rolling Stones is as good as the superb full cast reading of Have Space Suit, Will Travel – maybe even a little better!

It is a Heinlein juvenile, written and first published in 1952, full of Heinleinian economics, politics, and family values, which all combine with a travelogue of interplanetary adventure. Dialogue moves the surprisingly light plot along, and the narrator provides the cultural and technological backdrop.

The Stone family is made up of father Roger, mother Edith, grandmother Hazel, the eldest child Meade, the youngest Buster, and the middle identical twins Castor and Pollux. The twins are natural born inventors and entrepreneurs, so when they go looking through the used spaceship yards on Luna they’ve got a scheme in mind. When Roger finds out about their plans he manages to turn the whole thing into a family venture. And off they go into the solar system.

If you like Heinlein you’ll love this novel but it’s a little different from most juvies in that it is more a series of smaller adventures. What I like best about the book is that it ably envisions a wonderful future of interplanetary travel in a completely scientifically accurate way. The economic model that would allow a family to buy a spaceship, fuel it and use it as their personal yacht may be unrealistic, but that won’t dampen your enthusiasm. It didn’t mine.

Most of the actors are new but Bill Molesky is back playing another father and Cynthia Bishop plays another mother figure. Peter Moller plays another small role, and FULL CAST AUDIO founder Bruce Coville makes another cameo too. Another plus – Daniel Bostick again directs. If I had my druthers, Daniel Bostick will direct all the future FULL CAST AUDIO Heinlein releases too (on the principle you don’t mess with success). The new actors are all perfect in their roles. There isn’t a false performance in the bunch.

A potential stumbling block was avoided. This is a third person perspective novel, as opposed to the first person of Have Space, Suit Will Travel, so they needed a narrator. Veteran voice over actor David Baker took the reins there and together with this full cast read another faithful adaptation of a Heinlein “juvenile” novel.

What’s really interesting though is that this is a straight reading with multiple readers, something I didn’t fully realize in Have Space Suit, Will Travel. There are no sound effects. There are just actors reading the text and a little accenting music at chapter openings. This was another excellent choice, a straight reading works well. You don’t need to paint in sound effects when the words evoke a mental image.

As is becoming the rule, the attention to detail found in the audio production extends to the fit and finish of the packaging. Jerry Russel’s original cover art is absolutely beautiful to behold. The CD case is the identical design to the Have Spacesuit, Will Travel case. A thick DVD style case, with the CDs stacked and secured by two plastic clamps. Perfect! Please FULL CAST AUDIO keep recording these Heinlein juvenile novels. I’d like to say I deserve it, but even if I don’t the novels sure do!

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of The Rock Rats by Ben Bova

Science Fiction Audiobook - The Rock Rats by Ben BovaThe Rock Rats
By Ben Bova; Read by Ira Claffey, Amanda Karr, and Cast
9 CDs – 10 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Audio Renaissance
Published: 2005
ISBN: 1593974922
Themes: / Science Fiction / Space Travel / Asteroids / The Moon / Environment /

The asteroid belt is a fascinating area because it does represent the gold mine of the 21st century. Gold, silver, iron, platinum, any material you want is out there, and out there in enormous tonnages. Hundreds of thousands of billions of tons of all the mineral and metal wealth you can imagine… …the struggle in The Asteroid Wars is over who is going to control this wealth.
–Ben Bova in the Introduction to The Rock Rats

This is the second volume of Bova’s Asteroid Wars, a series which in turn is part of the larger group of novels called The Grand Tour. The first book, The Precipice, detailed the initial trip out to the asteroid belt, but this novel stands on it’s own and can be easily read and understood without reading the first.

Two of the people that were on that first ship to the asteroid belt, Lars and Amanda Fuchs, have returned to the belt along with many others. These pioneer miners call themselves “Rock Rats”, and form a loose society reminiscent of America’s Old West. You can’t call the police from the frontier, so justice is handled vigilante-style, and the laws of Earth no longer apply.

The rich and greedy Martin Humphries is still part of the equation, and he’s able, from his comfortable office on the Moon, to direct some of his people to stake claims on asteroids. The fact that they had already been claimed didn’t matter much to him. And thus, the war over control of those resources begins.

Bova covers a lot of territory in this book. There are scenes from the frontier, including a realistic battle between two ships with make-shift weapons that work like weapons would in space. Then there are scenes from the board room back on the Moon, where discussions are takng place about how to profitably get material back to Earth and how the stuff is going to affect the global economy. At opposing sides are those who are cognizant about the environment and those who solely want cash and power.

Scott Brick and cast did a fine job with the book. The narrator switches as point of view switches in the text, and I’m fining that technique more agreeable each time I listen. All the narrators were strong storytellers, and I’m left anxious to hear the third book, which luckily is on my shelf.

Audio Renaissance has published several of Ben Bova’s Grand Tour books in unabridged format.

Posted by Scott D. Danielson

Review of The Green Hills of Earth and Gentlemen, Be Seated by Robert A. Heinlein

Science Fiction Audiobooks - The Green Hills of Earth by Robert A. HeinleinThe Green Hills of Earth and Gentlemen, Be Seated
By Robert A. Heinlein; Read by Leonard Nimoy
1 Cassette – 45 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Caedmon
Published: 1979
ISBN: None
Themes: / Science Fiction / Minstrel / Space Travel / The Moon /

This is one of my most treasured recordings. Until I found it on eBay a couple of years back, my only copy of it was a worn cassette that I taped from my local library’s copy when I was a kid. That cassette must have been played a hundred times. When Jesse noticed it on eBay one day, he let me know and I snatched it. I would have paid any price.

It’s likely that the recording’s worth is that its sounds evoke pleasant memories of my childhood. But it’s not only that. This is an excellent reading by an actor I admire (Leonard Nimoy) of the work of this legendary author. So it’s well worth finding yourself if you can get it.

The first story is “The Green Hills of Earth”, a story of a man named Riesling, who worked among the atomic piles on space freighters until an accident left him sightless. From then on, he became a minstrel, writing and performing the songs of the trade.

Second is “Gentlemen, Be Seated”, which is about a reporter who is allowed guided access to some of the tunnels being built on the Moon.
He’s escorted by a construction worker, who he’s lucky to have with him when things go awry.

To this day, these stories are still Robert A. Heinlein to me. These are from the early phase of his career, published in 1947 and 1948, respectively. Of Heinlein, I enjoy these stories and his others from the same period best of all his work.

What I haven’t got to look at all these years is the very nice Kelly Freas cover. Though it doesn’t really have anything specific to do with the stories (there isn’t a gun to be found in either of them) it’s still very nice.

Posted by Scott D. Danielson

Review of The Precipice by Ben Bova

Science Fiction Audiobooks - The Precipice by Ben BovaThe Precipice
By Ben Bova; Read by Scott Brick, Amanda Karr, and Cast
10 CD’s – 12 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Audio Renaissance
Published: 2005
ISBN: 1593974906
Themes: / Science Fiction / Asteroids / Environment / Nanotechnology / Space Travel / Moon / Corporations /

The Precipice is first book in Ben Bova’s Asteroid War series, which itself is part of the larger group of novels called The Grand Tour. All of the Grand Tour novels appear on audio, the earliest ones abridged, and the later ones unabridged. Of all the Bova novels I’ve heard on audio (Mars, Return to Mars, and Venus), this is the best, possibly because it’s the first unabridged one I’ve heard, more likely because the novel was fine, traditional science fiction peopled with complex characters. The plot was interesting, and the details more so. I really enjoyed this book.

The driving force of the novel is the adversarial relationship between Dan Randolph and Martin Humphries, who are both extremely successful corporate CEO’s. The world is in environmental disarray because the “Greenhouse Cliff” has been reached – the point at which environmental change becomes rapid and unstoppable. The reaction to this by Randolph is to find a way to help. Humphries’ reaction is to find profit opportunities. They both look toward the asteroid belt, whose mineral wealth Randolph sees as mankind’s savior, and Humphries sees as a giant dollar sign. They both struggle for the upper hand as they prepare mankind’s first trip to the asteroid belt.

The novel has another character well worth mentioning. Her name is Pancho Lane, and the first time we meet her in the novel, she is on a space station conning five fellow workers out of a month’s salary. She’s a smart-mouthed, independent, strong female astronaut that plays a huge role in the plot, and is one of those characters that you miss when a novel is done.

The cover of the audiobook lists the readers as “Scott Brick, Amanda Karr, and cast”. Brick and Karr are very strong readers, and have the largest parts in the book. Amanda Karr read the portions of the novel from Pancho Lane’s point of view, and gave the character just the right amount of attitude.

The other readers also performed well. I recall in an earlier post on this site, I mentioned that I wasn’t too fond of multiple-reader audiobooks, and that I preferred single narrators. I did mention Ender’s Game as an exception, which was produced by Stefan Rudnicki, as this one was. Since then, I’ve heard enough of these multiple-reader audiobooks (all produced by Rudnicki) to realize that if an audiobook is edited properly and you have capable performers all around, then the multiple-narrator technique employed here is preferable to single-narrator audiobooks for the simple fact that I immediately know whose POV the story is coming from at any time, which makes listening a more immersive experience. The voices drew me in faster as I picked up the book after putting it down between listens, as if the characters themselves were doing the reading.

Posted by Scott D. Danielson

Review of A Walk in the Sun By Geoffrey A. Landis

Science Fiction Audiobooks - A Walk in the Sun by Geoffrey LandisA Walk In The Sun
By Geoffrey A. Landis; Read by Amy Bruce
1 CD – 51 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Infinivox
Published: 2004
ISBN: 1884612318
Themes: / Science Fiction / Hard SF / The Moon / Survival /

A haunting piano melody cascades into the shimmering electronic signature music of Infinivox’s “Great Science Fiction Stories” series. IT IS EPIC… and deservedly so. This Hugo Award winning short story is a poignant and ingenious tale of a stranded Astronaut on the moon. Theoretically Trish Mulligan’s smashed spaceship’s contains everything she needs to survive; maps, food, water and her solar-powered spacesuit. She manages to broadcast a distress signal to Earth, but to survive until they arrive she’ll also need to outrun the sunset. If the sun sets, her suit’s automated life support system will stop working and she’ll die on the moon….. So, she’ll have to race the sun. On Earth it would be an interminable marathon pace but at least there she wouldn’t be alone. Though author Geoffrey Landis is only a part time science fiction writer, he works for NASA as his day job; you wouldn’t know it by this story. A Walk In The Sun reads like it was written by a Grandmaster! I really enjoyed this problem-solving story, I can see why it won the Hugo award!

This is a relatively unadorned production, but there are voice effects, echoing, static etc., but they don’t hurt the story at all. Sound quality on this CD release is 100% perfect – with a pair of headphones on you’ll be right there in the moment. Musical interludes are used now and again throughout the reading to effectively suggest the passage of time.

While narrator Amy Bruce is no vocal chameleon, her range is limited, the emotional investment she gives her reading delivers the goods. This Infinivox re-release (the original was published on cassette in 1998) is a threefold improvement on the same production. Packaging. This CD comes in an ingenious slimline case that securely sandwiches the disc – but allowing you to see it at the same time. The cover art for the audiobook is the disc itself! This saves space, stores easier and safer and costs less. What is not to love? Even better, in celebration of these new CD format, Infinivox has placed all their titles (cassette and CD both) on sale for 50% off. At that price I couldn’t resist, I bought one of each, even though I already owned most of them on cassette! Also of note is the attention to fixing problems – Infinivox staff have corrected an error in the packaging copy for these CD releases – the original cassette edition mistakenly stated A Walk In The Sun was a “Nebula Winner”, when it was in fact a “Hugo Winner”. Better sound quality, better packaging, lower price, an AWESOME story, what is not to love?

Posted by Jesse Willis