2015 Armchair Audies: Science Fiction

I’m honored to be a guest judge this year for the The Armchair Audies, the audiobook blogosphere’s annual “challenge” in conversation with the Audio Publishers Association Audies which will be awarded at the sold-out APA Audies Gala on May 28. This year I signed up for the Science Fiction category, if for no other reason than that I’d already listened to 3 of the 5 nominees, a 4th was very, very high on my wishlist, and the 5th came highly-recommended as well. (It didn’t hurt that The Guilded Earlobe was also involved.) In the end, all 5 were mentioned in some way in my picks for the year’s best of 2015, though while none were in my own personal top 5, all were absolutely well deserving of their Audie nominations and outstanding, both from a science fiction and audiobook standpoint.

So. How to judge 5 audiobooks, which while all under the purvey of “science fiction” are nonetheless in many ways very much apples and oranges? (And pears and likely a vegetable or two.) We’ve got a book that’s, essentially, a series of first person log entries; a multi-POV near future episodic epic narrated by a full cast; a tightly-plotted story of time travel (of a sort); a gender-bending near-future federal investigation; and an already-lauded British sf novel getting a fantastic new audiobook edition. I decided to apply a numeric ranking to each audiobook, weighted toward my personal preferences, and let the chips fall where they may. Personally, that means more a few more points for a well-written story than it does for pitch-perfect narration, and more consideration for a moving performance than for a flawless production.

But enough talk! In order of appearance on the nomination list, on to the reviews and ratings!

The Beam: Season 1 | [Sean Platt, Johnny B. Truant]

The Beam: Season 1 by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant, narrated by Johnny Heller, Tara Sands, Ralph Lister, Ray Chase, R. C. Bray, Jeffrey Kafer, Chris Patton, Eric Martin, Brian Holsopple, Rachel Fulginiti, Stephen Bowlby, and Emily Woo Zeller for Podium Publishing is an outstanding multi-narrator production combining elements of dystopian and post-apocalyptic sf, mystery, and thriller ideas.

Platt and Truant chart a plausible, frightening near future that while not strictly either dystopian or post-apocalyptic, is not exactly a kind and gentle place, even within the more-or-less civilized borders of the “North American Union (NAU)”, outside of which, well, you largely don’t want to be. They present in a more or less admirably balanced fashion a semi-panarchic political system, in which citizens can self-select during periodic “shifts” to belong to “Enterprise” — capitalism without a safety net — or “Directorate” — fed, sheltered, and provided-for by the government with assigned jobs. The two systems are led by two brothers, Micah and Isaac Ryan, whose family fortunes are not easily countable. Cutting across everything is The Beam, a sort of pervasive “Internet on steiroids” developed by the late Noah West, programming genius. There are cops — both public and private — and entertainers, drug-dealers, biological upgrades, the unplugged “Organa” settlement, politics, immersive holography, slums, backstories both in and outside the NAU, on and on. As events and character counts grew and grew in scope across the 6 “episodes” contained in season one, I grew more and more impressed with the pacing, carefully placed breadcrumbs and reveals, and the level of authorial empathy on display to favorably portray multiple political points of view.

The performances are really quite fantastic as well, from the gritty tones for detective Dominic Long, the John Galt arrogance of Doc Stahl, the brother-versus-brother tension, the mysterious speechwriter, the aging singer, on and on. Well-cast and well-produced, it’s highly entertaining and winning fiction, presented with clear plot arcs across episodes and the season, successful on multiple levels. “Noah Fucking West” as an expletive is brilliant, reinforcing the worldbuilding as a system of shared experience that you cannot, as a listener, help but be pulled into.

SCORES
WRITING/PLOT: 
16/20
WRITING/PROSE: 15/25
NARRATION/MAIN: 12/15
NARRATION/CHARACTERS: 13/15
PRODUCTION: 9/10
— — — — —
TOTAL: 65/85

Dark Eden: A Novel | [Chris Beckett]

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett, narrated by Matthew Frow, Jayne Entwistle, Ione Butler, Robert Hook, Heather Wilds, Nicholas Guy Smith, Hannah Curtis, and Bruce Mann for Random House Audio is a fantastic new recording of Beckett’s absolutely stunning 2012 novel, first published in audio in 2013 by Audible UK read by Oliver Hembrough and Jessica Martin. This book first came onto my radar way, way back in 2012 when I asked Steven Erikson for a book recommendation and he highly recommended Dark Eden, which would go on to win the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award and accumulate rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. But it wasn’t until the 2014 US release that we got this fantastic, full cast narration, and yet! by then my interest had largely cooled — two years is a long time to wait to keep the flame of a book recommendation burning. But, thanks to the Audie nomination, The Armchair Audies, and a welcome review copy from Random House Audio, I finally got to see what the fuss was about. And, holy hell, it was pretty much worth the wait, for all that. (Luckily, there’s no such staggered release for the sequel; Mother of Eden was out concurrently in print and audio just last week in the US, with the full cast returning; UK readers and listeners only have another couple of weeks to wait, and once again their audio edition will feature Hembrough and Martin.)

John Redlantern is a youth who has grown up in a sort of “Peter Pan meets Mad Max” beyond the stars society of “532 degenerating descendants of two marooned space explorers” on the truly alien world of Eden. The “Family” (of course, they’re all related within a few generations) is threatening to outgrow the resources which their comfortable valley can provide, and John has ideas, dangerous ideas, that threaten to split the group apart and violate one of their sacred laws: to wait, together, for rescue from Earth. Tina Spiketree, among others, must choose whether to follow John, and if so, how far. Meanwhile, “Family” is breaking down along other lines, as some of the “Oldest” — revered second-generation survivors who have first-hand memory of their progenitors and their stories and artifacts — are unable to control rising aggression amidst resentment against genetic defects and in the face of impending shortages of food.

The biology and environment of Eden is, simply, one of the more imaginative in sf. A completely unique evolutionary chain, driven by the geologic realities of the planet. Huge, dark, cold mountains jut high overhead, and there is no “sun” to warm the surface; all heat (and therefore all life) comes from the boiling interior of the planet, emerging eventually as redlantern and other trees, which form the basis of a food chain including analogues for “bats” and “woolly bucks” and (higher up the food chain) “leopards”. The driving questions are: What, if anything, is waiting up on Snowy Dark? Is there another side, another valley? Is Earth ever coming back?

Again, as in The Beam, we have a full cast on hand to portray each point of view character. And, again, it’s pretty much awe-inspiringly well done. John’s breathless optimism and enthusiasm for his own ideas, his cousin Jerry’s hero worship, council leader Caroline Brooklyn’s stern warnings, passed down from Angela herself, and the enigmatic Jeff. And, at an even deeper level than in The Beam, the worldbuilding is reinforced with curses, invocations of the original explorers, like “Gela’s tits” (from which all life began) and “Harry’s dick” (ditto) and many more. It’s a place and culture that feels alive, a Lord of the Flies set on a distant, Robinson Crusoe shore of invention and make-do. I had quibbles here and there — of course one must in such far, far-reaching speculation — but Eden was real and alive and mysterious and dark and dangerous.

SCORES
WRITING/PLOT: 
16/20
WRITING/PROSE: 21/25
NARRATION/MAIN: 12/15
NARRATION/CHARACTERS: 12/15
PRODUCTION: 8/10
— — — — —
TOTAL: 69/85

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August | [Claire North]

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North, read by Peter Kenny for Hachette Audio is a book that to me stands in earnest conversation with Kate Atkinson’s lovely Life After Life, both from a setting (early 20th century Britain) and plot (multiple lived lives in that setting and time from the same person) and even directly using the phrase “life after life” more than once, though I’m getting well ahead of myself.

I hadn’t heard of Claire North, though what was for a few moments a quasi-secret pseudonym was fairly quickly revealed to be Carnegie Medal-nominated young adult author Catherine Webb, also a successful fantasy author under the pseudonym Kate Griffin. But I didn’t know any of that at the time I requested the audiobook, which Hachette Audio graciously provided, nor had I read either Webb’s or Griffin’s books even if I had. It was a complete shot in the dark and one that came up bulls-eye for me, ending up as one of my Hugo Award nominees and in my “runners up” list of best new audiobooks of the year.

Harry August is just overall brilliant from the story (Harry August is born in England in 1919-ish and lives and dies, then is reborn again with all his memories, again and again, meanwhile finding out through a network of such people that “the world is ending as it always must, but the end of the world is getting faster”) to Peter Kenny’s narration. We begin with: “I am writing this for you, my enemy, my friend. You know already, you must know, you have lost.” With this spoiler out of the way, setting a directional arrow of impetus which drives home through the book, we plunge into the titular first fifteen lives of Harry August. Unlike in Atkinson’s Life After Life, in which Ursula retains no direct knowledge of her previous lives — only an occasional sense of deja vu which affords her the chance to move past a mistake here and there — Harry retains all of his memories of his previous lives, from the successes and joys to the failures. He knows that his mother is going to die of cancer. He knows World War 2 is coming. He explores drugs, religions, love, and trust, and studies widely and broadly.

I don’t want to say too much, to give too much away. (To say, “In his 4th life, Harry…” is to deprive the listener of the discovery, even though we are only a few chapters in.) But structurally it is, I think, important to note that Harry eventually joins the “Chronos Club”, a wealthy international society of people like him — as this is more-or-less implied in the opening chapter, in which Harry learns that the world is ending sooner and sooner in his future. A significant amount of thought went into the Chronos Club, and it stands up fairly well to scrutiny, both logically and legally, as wealthy trusts run by people who know the future tend to do.

In the end, it’s a little plottier than my usual more literary sf fare, but doesn’t sacrifice much on the latter score to provide the former. Kenny is brilliant reading this, a pairing which worked so well that I eagerly followed North and Kenny onto this year’s Touch.

SCORES
WRITING/PLOT: 
17/20
WRITING/PROSE: 20/25
NARRATION/MAIN: 13/15
NARRATION/CHARACTERS: 12/15
PRODUCTION: 7/10
— — — — —
TOTAL: 69/85

Lock In (Narrated by Wil Wheaton) | [John Scalzi]

Lock In by John Scalzi, read by Wil Wheaton for Audible combines themes of handicap access, remote robotics, whodunnit technothriller, and gender identity in a cracking yarn. Released simultaneously in another complete narration by Amber Benson, it’s Wheaton’s reading that is mentioned by the Audies write-up and so I’ll focus there; but! the fact that the story can be completely and fully and believably and immersively told from either perspective is, of course, an essentially interesting part of the story Scalzi chose to tell this time around.

It’s a bit of a departure, really, as there are no spaceships. Old Man’s War and its sequels, obviously, have lots of spaceships; Redshirts, also narrated quite enjoyable by Wheaton, is almost entirely set on a spaceship. For Lock In, Scalzi sets his sights on the terrestrial near future, with some fascinating incremental technology advances given a development kick in the pants by the onset of “Haden’s Syndrome”, a disease infecting millions of people worldwide, leaving them “locked in” to a body yet fully conscious. Scalzi deftly draws out the political and economic ramifications here, both in a boom of research and development to create a world where “Hadens” can more fully participate — this is where the remote, brain-controlled robotics come in — as well as in the rising opposition, as years (and billions and billions of dollars) later some question the priority of making all this happen, in light of all the other challenges a government faces. (And, as Amber Benson’s narration along with Wheaton’s clearly demonstrates, Scalzi succeeds in creating an ambiguously- (or simply un-) gendered point of view, done with a deft enough hand to never encumber the story.) Into this, enter rookie FBI agent Chris Shane, him/herself a a Haden, investigating a Haden-related murder in DC. Scalzi doesn’t fully “get” the police procedural — for a better enmeshing of sf and detective work, see Ben Winter’s The Last Policeman — and Shane all too often is simply able to use his/her family wealth to buy him/herself out of difficulties. (On the one hand, this could be seen as Scalzi pulling a ninja-esque show-not-tell about the privilege of wealth; but on the other hand, it wasn’t really presented as such, and I had to roll my eyes at the “deus ex money” plot turns.) But the implications of the tech, the political and economic powers that come to bear, and the second-generation schemes and malicious uses of technology created to help people are explored nicely.

I know Wheaton can be hit-or-miss for people. Some love his audio work, others don’t. I love it. He doesn’t fancy-pants around, drawing things out with slow, deliberate pacing, or over-the-top characterization. He’s quick, he’s clear, he’s punchy where he needs to be, and differentiates characters more than ably. (So, yeah, I’ve heard him on: Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, Scalzi’s Redshirts and Fuzzy Nation and Agent to the Stars, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, Randall Munroe’s What If?, Cory Doctorow’s Homeland, Tobias Buckell’s METAtropolis stories, and keep coming back for more — you think I’m going to miss Wheaton reading Cline’s Armada this July? I think it’s safe to say which side I come down on.)

SCORES
WRITING/PLOT: 
14/20
WRITING/PROSE: 18/25
NARRATION/MAIN: 12/15
NARRATION/CHARACTERS: 11/15
PRODUCTION: 7/10
— — — — —
TOTAL: 62/85

The Martian | [Andy Weir]

Andy Weir’s The Martian was first self-published in late 2012 to tens of thousands of very happy readers, and R.C. Bray’s narration for Podium Publishing in 2013 was so good that it made many year’s best lists last year. Still, Podium went so far as to have Bray record a new narration to accompany the updated text in the February 2014 hardcover release by Crown and, again, it’s simply fantastic, a near one-of-a-kind book that spawns many, many requests for “similar” books and audiobooks, not to mention taking home this year’s Goodreads Science Fiction award and (quite recently) being named a finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. I mean, the pitch alone: “Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.” At turns funny (“I’m fucked!”) and dry — and I don’t just mean the Martian dust, I mean the calculations of air and calories and distances and on and on, as much as I personally enjoyed them — the book takes the form (primarily) of a series of Watney’s log entries as he attempts to survive, with interstitial scenes set on Earth as they realize they have left a man behind. Bray is Watney on such a deep level that seeing Matt Damon portray him in the upcoming film edition will be weird; he’s got a high bar to meet.

While there is a bit of a reliance a bit on the cycle of “bad shit happens, Watney thinks he’s gonna die, Watney comes up with a way to live, Watney tells us that, hey, I lived!” but as winning formulas go, there you have it. It’s a bestseller, soon to be a blockbuster, and if you can dig on the idea of calculating the amount of nitrogen and hydrogen that will come out of controlled burning a small amount of hydrazine rocket fuel, and how much oxygen that might use up and how much water vapor that will produce and how that might impact partial atmospheric pressure, and… This is your book. It was one of my favorites of the year, too.

SCORES
WRITING/PLOT: 
17/20
WRITING/PROSE: 17/25
NARRATION/MAIN: 13/15
NARRATION/CHARACTERS: 11/15
PRODUCTION: 8/10
— — — — —
TOTAL: 66/85

THE VERDICT

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

I don’t know how you pick between these 5, really. But in the end, I made some fairly arbitrary numbers come close to doing it for me. But I still couldn’t pick between Dark Eden and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. So I’m going for a tie. Joint winners! Now, kiss your sisters, and let’s go home and listen to another audiobook, and we’ll see what the APA picks for the Audie this year. They really can’t go too far wrong.

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One Response to 2015 Armchair Audies: Science Fiction

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