MIND MELD: What Are Your Favorite SF/F/H Audiobooks or Audio Stories of All Time?
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
This week, we turn our Mind Meld fingers towards audiobooks. We asked this week’s panelists the following:
Here’s what they said…
I think what first got me hooked on audiobooks was Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. I am frankly one who glazes over when there’s too much info dumping in a book, science porn, if you will, but when it’s read to me I get into it. Jennifer Wiltsie’s narration is superb, a gentlewoman’s voice for the gentle time of the diamond age, but manages to get across the more brutal issues of the book with finesse. I have her voice saying, “‘Once there was a little girl whose name was Cunt.’ ‘My name is Nell.’ ‘Once there was a little girl whose name was Nell…’” burned into my brain.
I think Jim Dale ruined the Harry Potter movies for me. His narration brought the books alive so much better than the movies did. I remember hearing him describe how Neville won the house cup at the end of Sorcerer’s Stone, and I teared up in the car. In the movie I felt no such emotion.
Narrators reading the opposite genders can kill a book for you if they try too hard. Alan Cumming executes characterization perfectly in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, catching the Glasgow-born Deryn’s lilting voice and even changing the cadence of his voice to reflect her pretending to be a boy. (A much more downplayed form of the Monty Python bit of men-playing-women-playing-men as seen in Life of Brian.)
It would be untrue to my roots to ignore podcasts, of course. Some of the best free fiction for your ears include full-casts like Christof Laputka’s The Leviathan Chronicles (epic adventure SF), Christiana Ellis’ Space Casey (a shorter humorous space serial), with superb production and voice acting. Then you have Matt Wallace’s dystopian Failed Cities Monologues, a story told in a series of dark monologues with eight narrators and excellent, subtle production. In the single-narrator camp comes JC Hutchins’ clone-filled 7th Son trilogy and Nathan Lowell’s space opera starting with Quarter Share.
My favorite audiobook is Virtual Light by William Gibson. Perhaps not so much because of Gibson’s story, which I enjoyed, but for the kick-ass narration by Frank Muller. As a person who partially makes my living from recording audiobooks, Muller is the best I’ve ever heard. With Virtual Light, he effortlessly slips in and out of characters, combining pacing, tone and accent to make each player easily identifiable and separate from the narrator. I consider it to be a masterpiece of audiobook narration.
I also really enjoyed Stephen King’s Desperation, narrated by Kathy Bates. Bates isn’t in Muller’s league when it comes to giving many characters unique voices, but her delivery is fantastic. It’s also a little surreal to hear Bates telling another King story, when she is closely associate with Misery.
Without question, this is the first audiobook I turn to when anyone’s looking for a recommendation. Not only is it a great, classic fantasy novel–enjoyable by readers of all ages–it’s perhaps the quintessential audiobook. Audiobooks read by the authors tend to be a mixed bag, but when they’re done right, they’re among some of the best, and Philip Pullman is the kind of narrator who you could probably have read anything and it would be fascinating. But the genius of this production is that while Pullman reads all the narration in the book, different actors read all the dialogue. And what really elevates the audiobook to that highest of levels is the perfect casting of Joanna Wyatt as Lyra (the protagonist) and Sean Barret as Iorek Byrnison — performances that had no small part in cementing Iorek and Lyra as two of my favorite characters of all time.
Another fantastic audiobook read by its author is Coraline, written and read by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is a delightful reader, and his work translates extremely well to audio, and this book, at least is intended for young readers, so it makes sense that it works well read aloud. But while Gaiman is always great as narrator, what really sets Coraline apart from his other audiobooks is the original music and other little auditory touches interspersed throughout the narrative of Coraline. That said, I can’t really recommend Gaiman’s own The Graveyard Book any less, which he also narrates. It doesn’t incorporate any music or anything else as I recall, but still it’s one of his best.
Frank Muller was one of the greatest narrators I’ve ever heard–perhaps THE greatest. He WAS Roland of Gilead, and it’s a tragedy all audiobook fans should mourn that he’s no longer with us, gone from this world far too young. (Another tragedy is that Muller was replaced for books 5-7 by George Guidall, who is perhaps the most overrated narrator I’ve ever encountered–he’s a multiple Audie Award-winner, but personally I find his narration bland and uninspired, and avoid it at all costs.) But Muller, Muller brought such a fierce intensity to his narration that I honestly can’t recommend reading The Dark Tower any other way; though I’m sure it’s as brilliant reading it in prose form, Muller really brought something extra to the table and his performance is not something to be missed.
I’d also want to point out a couple of recent audiobooks I’ve listened to that I really really loved that I reviewed for Audible.com. First, there’s Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler, read by Dion Graham. If you click through there, that will take you to my review of the book, which is one of my all-time favorites, and after listening to Dion Graham’s performance it became one of my favorite audios as well. Another I reviewed for Audible is Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard, read by Christopher Cazenove.
I’d also like to single out The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander [review], Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer [review], and the Wisconsin Public Radio radio play adaptation of A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. [review].
Many years ago, I acquired a recording of Harlan Ellison reading “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” Ever since then, Ellison has been my David Sedaris of sf-his voice is so distinctive that I can’t read any of his works without hearing his voice narrating them in my head. The really bad result of this is that every time I do something stupid, I hear him saying, “Why do you do these dumb things?!?” which is a poorly remembered version of the story’s actual line, which is, “…why do you tell me these dumb things?” It’s the closest I’ll probably ever come to having the flesh-and-blood man yell at me, which I gather is quite an experience.
Jim Dale’s narration of all seven Harry Potter books was the catalyst for what eventually became my full-on obsession with audiobooks. Over the course of the series, he provides distinct voices for dozens of characters, great deadpan for the comic moments, gravitas for the somber stuff, and just the right amount of drama for the action scenes. When I was in the full grip of Harry Potter mania, I confess to listening to Deathly Hallows four times in a row, which is what got me through some really boring Quark layout. Jim Dale is just, well, The Man. (In case you’re interested, Katherine Kellgren is The Woman of audiobooks. She is Queen of Accents. If you don’t have an audiobook narrated by her, go get one.)
More recently, I had the pleasure of reviewing the anthology Zombies vs. Unicorns. It’s a great collection of zombie and unicorn stories written by Garth Nix, Naomi Novik, and Meg Cabot, among others. (You do not want to miss Alaya Johnson’s zombie protagonist describe how brains taste like the best mac and cheese, although it’s probably unwise to be listening to that description during Yom Kippur, when one is supposed to be fasting-don’t ask.) Five professional narrators do a marvelous job of taking on the stories, but that’s not why you should choose the audio over the text version. That is due entirely to the two stars of the recording, anthology editors Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier, who use each introduction to the stories as an opportunity to continue their ridiculous argument about whether zombies are superior to unicorns. Sure, you could read their banter on the page, but it can’t be as funny as hearing them say it.
As one of the people behind SFFaudio, a website devoted to SFF in the audio format, this is about the hardest question you could possibly ask me. I can’t even begin to start ranking all the gloriously wonderful audio I’ve had the honor of listening to over the last 20 years (unless you count SFFaudio as exactly that). But, I can throw out some titles that are absolutely terrific!
Since I began listening in earnest around 1991 (and to make it manageable), I’ll limit myself to just one audiobook (or audio drama) per year (sorted by publication date). To make it even easier, I’ll list only commercial productions – we have plenty of love for podcasts and other amateur audio on SFFaudio.com. For starters check out our series called Five Free Favourites.
- 1991: The Best Fantasy Stories Of The Year 1989 (Dercum Audio – ISBN: 1556561431)
- 1992: The Wind From A Burning Woman by Greg Bear (Recorded Books) |READ OUR REVIEW|
- 1993: The Children Of Men by P.D. James |READ OUR REVIEW|
- 1994: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (Time Warner – ISBN: 9781570420528)
- 1995: Mind Slash Matter by Edward Wellen (Durkin Hayes) |READ OUR REVIEW|
- 1996: Friday by Robert A. Heinlein (Blackstone Audio – ISBN: 0786110546)
- 1997: Sci-Fi Private Eye ed. by Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg (Dercum Audio) |READ OUR REVIEW|
- 1998: Martian Time Slip by Philip K. Dick (Blackstone Audio) |READ OUR REVIEW|
- 1999: Ringworld by Larry Niven |READ OUR REVIEW|
- 2000: The Reel Stuff edited by Brian Thomsen and Martin H. Greenberg |READ OUR REVIEW|
- 2001: Minority Report And Other Stories by Philip K. Dick |READ OUR REVIEW|
- 2002: Two Plays For Voices by Neil Gaiman (Seeing Ear Theatre / Harper Audio) |READ OUR REVIEW|
- 2003: The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer |READ OUR REVIEW|
- 2004: Ender’s Game (25th Anniversary Edition) by Orson Scott Card |READ OUR REVIEW|
- 2005: The Dark Worlds Of H.P. Lovecraft Volume 1 by H.P. Lovecraft (Audio Realms) |READ OUR REVIEW|
- 2006: The Chief Designer by Andy Duncan (Infinivox) |READ OUR REVIEW|
- 2007: Blake’s 7 – Audio Adventures (Trilogy Box Set) (B7 Media) |READ OUR REVIEW|
- 2008: The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman (Recorded Books) |READ OUR REVIEW|
- 2009: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (Audible Frontiers/ Brilliance Audio ) |SFFaudio Podcast #073|
- 2010: The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison |READ OUR REVIEW|
The Dresden Files — All of the books read by Buffy the Vampire Slayer veteran, James Marsters. For me, Marsters was Harry Dresden. I had read most of the books, but when I heard he was narrating, I listened to him read them all again because he embodied the characteristics of Butcher’s protagonist with such perfection. I’ve heard Jim Butcher read in person and while he captures Harry to a fault, they couldn’t have picked a better non-author narrator for the job.
The Sagan Diary — John Scalzi went to six of his female friends for the narration on this novelette. Jane Sagan was a reoccurring character in John’s Old Man’s War universe, and I was happy to say that each reader brought out different emotions that I originally felt in the story when I read it. I had heard Jane in my head through Scalzi’s evocative prose and these women ultimately brought her to life. Scalzi still offers it for free on his website and we all know how wonderful free can be.
The Graveyard Book – I am going to proclaim here and now that if I ever, for whatever reason, slip into a coma, I want Neil Gaiman audio books pumped in on headphones to stimulate brain waves. I could listen to that man read all day. In fact, I have this daydream where Neil is reading to me by candlelight… er, sorry, did I go off on a tangent there? I once heard him perform Peter and the Wolf in NYC and I was as captivated then as I was when I listened to him perform The Graveyard Book. You can also listen to this whole book for free via a link on his website. An author usually knows their characters the best, and Gaiman reads emotionally and articulately. It was a perfect match to the voices we assign those characters in our heads, and will stick with me forever. A sexy, English accent doesn’t hurt either.
I started listening to audiobooks in the eighties. At this time, I was a biomedical sales rep with a huge sales territory. Listening to audiobooks was a way for me to get a little extra reading in while I was on the road. Back then about the only thing readily available on audio in the sff genre were Star Trek, Star Wars, and Ray Bradbury. It was all on cassette. No CDs quite yet. Then one day, I happened across Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny. It was abridged on two cassettes. It was narrated by Roger. It was produced by Sunset Productions out of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
I almost decided against buying the audiobook. This was a publishing house I was totally unfamiliar with. This was fantasy and I favor science fiction. Finally, as a rule of thumb, professional narrators read better than authors. Despite these reservations, I bought the audiobook because I liked Roger’s science fiction. Wow, I’m glad I did.
The entire Amber Chronicles from Sunset Productions are my favorite audiobooks to date, outside of Infinivox titles. Sunset did a wonderful job of editing and mastering the production. And Roger’s narration is superlative. I can’t imagine anyone else narrating this series. He made Amber come alive and feel real. Roger had the right voice, tone, and attitude to make the listening experience different from the reading experience. His use of nuance was down-right masterful. It added grit to the story.
I highly recommend this audiobook series. I’m not sure how difficult this series is to get ahold of these days, but if you can, you’ll be glad you did.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Audio Collection on cassette wasn’t any more attractive, I’m sure, than the other two options then available at the library. So let’s call it luck. All I cared about was setting a tape player next to the TV, combining two favorite pastimes, and fulfilling my then one and only life goal: reading while playing the Atari 2600. I was a slow, but voracious reader even then, always with a book in hand but always taking too long to move to the next one.
So began my first experiment with multitasking. Consuming fiction this way instead of on the page is an acquired skill. I’d frequently lose my place in the text as my avatar progressed onscreen, unaware. It didn’t help that one of the audio tapes got twisted up in the middle of a paragraph or that suddenly I’d snap back to attention whenever the author started singing and I’d no way of knowing whether he was still reading the same story as he was when last my focus failed.
And there was one tape I just kept flipping over. Over and over. The label was worn. The “selections from” one or more novels kept jumping around in nonlinear unreliable narratorliness so I was never sure whether I’d just finished Side One or Side Two.
I listened on a continuous loop until I was sure I’d processed every sentence at least once, figuring I could someday excavate my memories of this incomplete source material and reassemble them into a coherent narrative, as though even a paleontologist could accurately model a skeleton based solely on a femur. This wasn’t my first library fine, I’m sure, but its size and shame make it the earliest one I remember.
I don’t know whether it was the sheer amount of time spent saving the world with Vonnegut as my copilot or the fact that it was another half decade before I’d get any closure by reading the full text of Slaughterhouse Five as a teen. But that lackadaisical voice rattling around in my head for so long tuned me so specifically to his writing style that, years later, I could read a Vonnegut novel in one sitting where even juvenile fiction would take me weeks. I attribute to him my ability to find humor in gloom and wonder in skepticism, and to over-think every multiple choice answer due to serious flaws in the question, which my teachers always appreciated having their lessons interrupted to hear about.
This became my reentry into all fiction, not just speculative, when I was about done with one-trick horror novels and multi-author fantasy series embossed with corporate logos I was too young to dismiss or appreciate. In crappy mono I still hear Vonnegut’s voice instead of James Earl Jones’s when I imagine the voice of God, and no British accent could ever speak to me with as much authority as his did.
Now the internet consensus seems to be that this audiobook first appeared years after we retired the Atari and I’d long since devoured half the Vonnegut catalog in print. I’d be interested to know whether some of these recordings weren’t released earlier, under a different title or publisher or directly to libraries or schools, or if my memory really is as unreliable as so it goes. These days Vonnegut is dead and I carry his voice on MP3. When a file ends, it’s abrupt, without hope of new information on the other side. I listen while doing the dishes, an activity somehow less and more industrious than saving the world.
A tough question, of course! Great audiobooks are excellent stories read by skilled narrators who turn in outstanding performances. I could go on and on, but I settled for three novels and three short works. For more, take a look at SFFaudio, where Jesse Willis and I have been talking about science fiction and fantasy audiobooks for several years.
- The Prestige by Christopher Priest, read by Simon Vancen Blackstone Audio
This novel left a huge impression on me because Christopher Priest is so subtle in revealing clues about what is really going on with the characters that the audiobook demanded my full attention for the whole 12 hours. Simon Vance rewards Priest’s subtlety with a nuanced performance in which he reads the first person journal entries as the characters would intend, without special influence on the odd bits. More than once I backed the audio up to be certain that what Vance said was what I thought he said. Prestigiditators, Nikola Tesla, revenge 19th century style… this is a great novel. And I insist that it’s science fiction, even though it won the World Fantasy Award. |SFFaudio Review|
- Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, read by Stefan Rudnicki and others, Macmillan Audio
Another example of a great novel well read is Ender’s Game. This is a book I read every few years. When this audio version was released, I immediately listened, and was pleased that the audiobook met my expectations. Stefan Rudnicki is the main narrator, reading everything in the story that is presented from Ender’s point of view. His performance is so engaging that I now re-listen instead of re-read. In addition, the chapter openings in the novel are pieces of conversation which are performed by multiple voices to great effect. |SFFaudio Review||
- The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell, read by Tai Simmons, Blackstone Audio
This pick is very recent, and I’ll pick a recent one in the short works, too. The Reapers Are the Angels is the best novel I’ve read (or heard) for a long while. It’s a well-written zombie novel with an irresistible protagonist (Temple, a teenage girl born after the zombie apocalypse) that has a depth that both surprised and delighted me. Tai Simmons breathes a life into Temple that personalizes the story even further. |SFFaudio Review| A Good Story is Hard to Find Podcast, Ep #1|
- The Hedge Knight, contained in: Legends: Stories by the Masters of Fantasy, Volume 4 by George R.R. Martin, read by Frank Muller, Harper Audio
What can I say about the late Frank Muller that hasn’t been said? He was a superior narrator, my favorite for a long time, and this is my favorite recording of his. I still miss him. George R.R. Martin is no amateur either, and the meeting of these two is perfection. The Hedge Knight is a story that takes place in the Song of Ice and Fire universe, about a generation before A Game of Thrones. It introduces Dunc, a young squire that has more knight in him than most knights. Superb. |SFFaudio Review||
- The Voice from the Edge Vol. 1: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison, read by Harlan Ellison, Audio Literature
Harlan Ellison is one of a handful of authors who narrate so well that they could be narrating stories written by other authors. Neil Gaiman is another that leaps to mind. I don’t know of any Gaiman-narrated stories that aren’t written by Gaiman, but Harlan Ellison actually won an award for his narration of a Ben Bova novel called City of Darkness. After hearing this collection for the first time, I’m convinced that audio is the finest way to experience Ellison’s writing. This is a perfect place to check it out, because many of his great stories are here, including “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”, “‘Repent, Harlequin,’ Said the Ticktockman”, “Paladin of the Lost Hour”, and “A Boy and His Dog”. |SFFaudio Review||
- Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast by Eugie Foster, read by Lawrence Santoro, Escape Pod, Ep. 214
And here’s the most recent great audio short story I’ve heard. First, Eugie Foster gives us a passionate story of a society of people who choose literal masks to wear each day, then Lawrence Santoro gives us an insistent narrative performance that won’t let go. An example of a superior match of narrator to material. I was very pleased to see that “Sinner, Baker…” won the 2010 Nebula Award for Best Novelette, and wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this wonderful piece of audio helped the cause. |SFFaudio Review||
And that’s it! Next week, I’d probably come up with a different list. My wife, by the way, insists that I mention her current favorite audiobook: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls, read by Kate Reading (Blackstone Audio). |SFFaudio Review|
I’m a huge fan of audiobooks. In fact, as far back as the late ’70s I can remember borrowing spoken word LPs, (otherwise known as records, for those of you who have never spun at 33 1/3 rpm) from the library and recording them onto tape so I could listen to them on long drives across the country. I wore out several Walkmen listening to books while I jogged and gardened and have been a subscriber to Audible.com for some ten years now. So I have a lot of audio to choose from.
Maybe it is because these are two of the longest audiobooks I’ve ever listened to, but I was quite bereft at the end of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell read by Simon Prebble (32 hours) and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (20 hours) which was read by six different narrators. The Clarke was magical in every sense of the word and the Mitchell was a tour de force tour of several of my favorite genres.
Speaking of multiple narrators, I never read Robert Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel as a kid and when I heard that Bruce Coville had started a company called Full Cast Audio and had recorded a version of it, I decided to give it a listen. Wow. Full Cast Audio is the real deal and although I’ve listened to bunches of them since, I still remember the first as the best.
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fford proved a terrible trial to me, I remember trying to listen to it while jogging and having to pull up short several times. Have you ever tried to laugh and run at the same time? May you can, but I can’t do it. Alas, I don’t think the sequels match the verve of the first book, but this one is comic gold.
I am a huge fan of Elliot Gould’s reading of Raymond Chandler’s complete works. Let me just pick his recording of Farewell My Lovely, because that’s my favorite Chandler. What’s that you say? Not a science fiction audiobook. Pish tush! If there had been no Chandler, there would be no William Gibson. Or Richard K. Morgan, for that matter.
Another book of related interest to genre-nauts is Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. This book was written with crystal clarity and is narrated by some Brit who seems to be slightly bemused by how simple complexity can be. How are you going to appreciate hard sf if your science isn’t solid and up to date?
Last, although this isn’t a source of audiobooks exactly, I must confess that my taste in audio trends to short stories, and so I commend Escape Pod to your attention. You’ll find several hundred science fiction stories there, written by some of our very best writers (okay, okay – there’s one by me) and read by some of our most talented podcasters. And they’re all free.
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