Review of Ecotopia – An Audio Novel By Ernest Callenbach

Science Fiction Audiobooks - Ecotopia by Ernest CallenbachEcotopia – An Audio Novel
By Ernest Callenbach, Read by Ernest Callenbach and Edwin Newman
2 cassettes – 3 hours [UNABRIDGED AUDIO ADAPTATION]
Publisher: Audio Renaissance
Date Published: April 1990 – Out of Print
ISBN: 1559270527
Themes: Science Fiction / Utopias / Environmentalism / Ecology /

Dateline — the early 21st Century. The nation of Ecotopia — made up of what was once Washington, Oregon and Northern California — has been independent of the United States for 20 years. Now, for the first time since its secession, this mysterious society is allowing an outsider to enter its borders and report on its way of life.

William Weston is a journalist from the eastern United States, the first person to be granted permission to enter Ecotopia since its breakaway from the rest of the USA 20 years earlier. The news reports he transmits from Ecotopia describe the strange customs, practices and beliefs of the Ecotopians. Meanwhile, his personal journal doesn’t try to remain objective as he comes to terms with his personal response to this strange new society.

Ecotopia is less a novel than it is an extended essay on how we could live if we would just all become environmentalists. The basic premise is simply an environmentalist version of Sir Thomas More’s literary classic Utopia. While listening to the story I never once got lost in the tale. I was always aware that this was directly inspired by More’s famous work – heck, even the title jars the suspension of disbelief, its like naming the first moon colony “Moonbase Alpha” and then expecting us all to take it seriously. But Ecotopia isn’t exactly a modern retelling of More’s work. Unlike his utopia, Ecotopia is earnest, real earnest – and in a way only a true environmentalist or an evangelical vegetarian can be. But don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the story and liked a lot of the ideas in it. But the story is a complete daydream, with no chance of it ever happening, at least any sort of revolutionary way as Callenbach has it. I shouldn’t overstate the flaws. Ecotopia was written in 1975, and here nearly three decades later a significant portion of the population has adopted at least some of the mindset set out in the novel.

I must tell you I’m no true-believing granola-cruncher myself, but I concede that much of the novel has great power and is persuasive. Ecotopians enjoy 20-hour work weeks, have a stake in the product of their labor and live in a society that has abolished patriarchy. The greatest criticism that I can have against the story is that it’s completely unrealistic – it ain’t gonna happen, not like he’s written it. Now normally this wouldn’t be an issue at all. Many fantasy novels are set in worlds which are absolutely physically impossible, but nobody says “elves don’t exist so I can’t accept the story”, but in this case I think the criticism is apt. Ecotopia isn’t fantasy fiction, it’s utopian fiction – and the charge of implausibility is much much stickier when it comes to utopian stories especially when they’re earnest. Dystopian tales on the other hand, like George Orwell’s 1984 need not be plausible. They are vaccinations against future problems. By taking our modern moral and technological problems to an extreme in utopian/dystopia stories like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day we are immersed in a complex vision of the problems and benefits such a society would have. Utopian dystopias demonstrate how good ideas can be ruined by unforeseen consequences and how taking some of the bad with the good might not be such a bad thing. But straight earnest utopian literature has to be laid out in such a way as to explain how we get there from here. Author Ernest Callenbach doesn’t do that. He doesn’t even wave his hands or use a throwaway excuse, and that shortcoming is a huge hurdle. All his characters are true believers, no one rails against the obvious implausibility of it all, so it is we, the listener who must. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s utopian novel Pacific Edge (1988), for example, a similar ecological balanced society is pondered, but it manages to explain how the self same human nature that we have in a consumer mad society like ours can also become an ecological utopia and it does it in a much more plausible and immersive fashion.

Callenbach himself narrates Ecotopia with help from Edwin Newman, they take turns reading the first person account of William Weston’s journey through Ecotopia and the dispatched news reports respectively. Both do very competent work presenting the story and have pleasant reading voices. The original cover art is attractive, the packaging adequate. Overall, this is a good package but not exceptional. Worth a listen but by no means a classic.

Review of Sci-Fi Private Eye edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg

Science Fiction Audiobooks - Sci-Fi Private Eye edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. GreenbergSci-Fi Private Eye
Edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg; Read by Bill Fantini and Nelson Runger
4 cassettes – 6 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Dercum Audio
Published: August 1997
ISBN: 155656273X
Themes: / Science Fiction / Mystery / Utopia / Dystpoia / Sherlock Holmes / Mars / Berzerker / Time Travel / Artificial Intelligence / Covert Warfare /

Decades ago, SF grandmaster Isaac Asimov noted the similarity between detective “whodunit” stories and science fiction “puzzle” stories. Avoiding some of the obvious pitfalls, he began to write stories that contain elements of both of these popular genres. Later as an anthologist, Asimov teamed up with Martin H. Greenberg to collect the best of this subgenre. Sci-Fi Private Eye was the happy result. Though obviously not recorded under perfect conditions, you can literally hear the pages turning, I was flabbergasted by the love and care that went into the recording of this audiobook. It starts off with a haunting original musical score, then, instead of simply reading the first story, as is typical with nearly every audiobook, it introduces the anthology with a brief but well composed essay on the subject of mystery science fiction! The packaging is not as good, while in a sturdy enough case, the original cover art falls into a category I call “computer designed abstract boring”. Even worse, they spelled Asimov’s name wrong. The cassettes themselves also lack important details (what story starts where and ends where). The stories though are so good that I’ve got to summarize and review them individually:

Stories Included:
Introduction written and read by Isaac Asimov
“Getting Across” by Robert Silverberg
“The Martian Crown Jewels” by Poul Anderson
“Of The Metal Murderer” by Fred Saberhagen
“Mouthpiece” by Edward Wellen
“War Game” by Philip K. Dick

Robert Silverberg’s “Getting Across” is a terrific SF short story told in the first person. It was originally published in the anthology entitled Future City (1973). A future society is in danger. To house the engorged human race, the Earth is entirely covered by one large metropolis. But it isn’t one big city so much as it is a million city-states abutting one another. Each district has its own government, its own customs and industries, and it’s own way of life. Contact between districts is restricted and often dangerous to those who attempt it. All districts rely on a master computer program for the smooth operation of these automated communities. So when Ganfield’s master computer program is stolen, things start to deteriorate quickly. Garbage starts piling up uncollected, food stops being delivered, the climate control system stops working, and the deactivated robotic police force cannot prevent the cannibalism that is only weeks away. The man whose “month-wife” stole the program is sent to find her and bring it back. His task is nearly impossible because even if he can get out of his district getting across will only be the first hurdle. Typical of Silverberg’s great work in the 1970s.

Poul Anderson’s “The Martian Crown Jewels” was first published in A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, Vol. 1 (1959). The Martian Crown Jewels have been stolen! The theft threatens to destroy diplomatic relations between Mars and Earth. Inspector Gregg, of the Earth police force stationed on Mars, is stumped. Who can solve the baffling locked spaceship mystery and avert a galactic catastrophe of cataclysmic proportions? None other than Mars’ greatest consulting detective, Syaloch, a seven-foot feathered Martian who lives at 221B “Street of Those who Prepare Nourishment in Ovens.” Most entertaining.

Edward Wellen’s “Mouthpiece” first saw print in the pages of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine’s February 1974’s issue. Most of the stories I’ve read by Edward Wellen tend to be focused on the workings of the human mind, and this one is no exception. This one fictionalizes a fascinating historical curiosity regarding the final hours of “Dutch” Schultz and takes it just that bit farther – into artificial intelligence – leaving us pondering the nature of personality, memory and thought. It’s also a great little mystery to boot!

Fred Saberhagen’s “The Adventure Of The Metal Murderer” was first published in Omni Magazine’s January 1980 issue, and is another in Saberhagen’s long running series of Berzerker short stories. It’s a time travel story that starts in the distant future and then goes back to 19th century London, England. A clever tale that will remind you of Michael Moorcock’s “Behold The Man”.

Philip K. Dick’s “War Game” was first published in Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine’s December 1959 issue. Earth’s traditional enemy, Ganymede, is at it again. They are trying to subvert and soften up the good people of Earth by selling potentially dangerous toys and games as a prelude to invasion. One toy appears to assemble itself over time into a nuclear weapon, another convinces the user that the virtual reality he or she is in is actual reality, and a third is a harmless variation on the board game Monopoly. But the market demand for the inventive Ganymedian games is pressuring the Earth customs to clear the toys for stocking in time for Christmas. If they follow the rules only one will get through to the store shelves. Typically Dickian and thus very entertaining.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Science Fiction: The Literature of the Technological Imagination by Eric S. Rabkin

Audio Lectures Review

Non-fiction - Science Fiction: The Literature of the Technological Imagination by Eric RabkinScience Fiction: The Literature of the Technological Imagination
By Eric S. Rabkin; Read by Eric S. Rabkin
8 cassettes – 4 hours (8 half-hour lectures) [LECTURES]
Publisher: The Teaching Company
Published: 1999
Themes: / Non-Fiction / Science Fiction / Pulp / Hard SF / Cyberpunk / Utopia / Dystopia /

This one is a little different than our usual fiction reviews. Science Fiction: The Literature of the Technological Imagination is a non-fiction series of lectures about the origins, history, and influence of science fiction. Think of it as Science Fiction 101 and you’ll get the idea. As a course it fulfills the promise of its title, breaking down the origins and the meanings within in science fiction literature. Professor Rabkin is a talented lecturer. Though obviously scripted, his naturalistic lectures are thoroughly engaging. The lectures explore the history of science fiction back to its origins in Plato’s Republic, then steadily marches all the way to William Gibson’s Neuromancer. These lectures offer genuinely interesting insight, I learned something interesting in each and every lecture! Rabkin discusses the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, examines the pulp phenomena of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and gives examples of what makes hard SF “hard”. He looks at the social, technological, and literary forces that influenced the genre’s authors, and in doing so tells an entertaining story – the story of science fiction! In short, it’s a fascinating listen. I just wish that Rabkin would offer Science Fiction 201 next semester! Each half hour lecture could have easily been expanded into 2 hours.

The lectures are titled:

Lecture 1: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Emergence of Science Fiction
Lecture 2: Jules Verne and the Popular Passion for Science
Lecture 3: H.G. Wells and Science Fiction Parables of Social Criticism
Lecture 4: Pulp Culture, World War II, and the Ascendancy of American Science Fiction
Lecture 5: And the Winner Is…Robert A. Heinlein
Lecture 6: Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. LeGuin, and the Expansion of Science Fiction
Lecture 7: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Modern Science Fiction Film
Lecture 8: New Wave, Cyberpunk, and Our Science Fiction World

Review of The Wind from a Burning Woman by Greg Bear

Science Fiction Audiobooks - The Wind from a Burning Woman by Greg BearThe Wind from a Burning Woman
By Greg Bear; Read by George Guidall and Christina Moore
7 Cassettes – 10 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Recorded Books
Published: 1992
ISBN: 1556907672
Themes: / Science Fiction / Fantasy / Terrorism / Asteroids / Metaphysics / Religion / Utopia / Dystopia / Future City / Cloning / Aliens

This superior anthology collects several early Greg Bear stories. The narrators, George Guidall and Christina Moore, guide us skillfully through Bear’s dense prose and do so with obvious relish. This collection features only top-notch stories — any single tale alone would be sufficient evidence that Bear is a future Grandmaster of science fiction and fantasy. Bear’s later novels occasionally suffer from a density that makes reading difficult. Very little of this is evident in this collection. The stories are generally clear in the telling, and where they are not, the confusion is brief. The wholly original and infinitely interesting ideas contained within each story make worthwhile any brief confusion of style.

The Wind from a Burning Woman, the title story, was later to serve as a prequel to Bear’s novel Eon, and describes the possible consequences of the ultimate act of terrorism.

The White Horse Child is an great allegory about a curious young boy who will grow up to become a writer. Written in a style that owes a debt to Clifford D. Simak, this pastoral fantasy story is an instant classic. Petra is a very unusual fantasy tale, its religious theme tackles the hard boiled consequences of taking certain biblical prophecies events as actual future events. So brilliantly does it achieve originality it reminds us why Greg Bear is so exceedingly interesting to read.

Scattershot is my personal favorite in this collection. Its sheer inventiveness and exploration of the consequences of metaphysical physics makes it a fascinating listen.

Mandala is an almost satiric examination of the far end of the curve of utopian ideals. It could almost be thought of as Greg Bear’s take on Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars.

Hardfought is a Hugo-winning novella that follows the viewpoints of both the aliens and the humans in their interstellar war. It could be considered Greg Bear’s take on Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. In order to fight their battle, humans have adapted in strange ways. It’s an absolutely fascinating read.

Stories included:
The Wind from a Burning Woman
The entire crew of Psyche, an asteroid turned into a spaceship, is murdered. Giani, the granddaughter of the project’s administrator commandeers the spaceship in an attempt to uncover the truth.

The White Horse Child
An odd allegory about a boy becoming a writer. God fearing, book burning, censoring Auntie Dancer tries to stop a child from becoming a storyteller.

Petra
“God is Dead”, when stone comes alive after reality rearranges itself. Petra is a half-caste, a lowly figure in the world of the cathedral. His father was a living statue, his mother a human nun.

Scattershot
Francis Geneva finds herself allied with a robotic Russian teddy bear after her starship has an accident. She and her new companion are forced to explores the consequences of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. In a reality where every possibility exists coping can be quite stressful. Sometimes the aliens are from Earth.

Mandala
In order to become perfect the sentient cities of Earth cast off their final flaw, the problem causing people. Mandala explores a future where mankind has reverted to a stone age existence after losing access to their technology.

Hardfought
Insular aliens known as the Sylexy are at war with humanity, in an attempt to understand their strange enemy they capture and clone a human soldier.

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.