Has this ever happened to you?

An armored figure gazes out the viewport as an induced wormhole blossoms open, disgorging a swarm of war-mecha towards his fortress habitat. Ten thousand coordinated targeting masers paint the slowly spinning hull. The figure smiles at his attackers, then transmits a signal. Suddenly, the strange-matter tentacles of an ancient AI construct thought lost for millennia emerge from the darkness. Within moments the entity begins burning through the swarm, its insane mathematical laughter shrieking across the radio spectrum. The armored figure trains the fortress weapons on the remaining war-mecha, and, just before he speaks, the SUV with a “COEXIST” bumper sticker that you’re about to pass swerves into your lane without signaling for no good reason.

I have an hour-plus one-way commute to work. These hefty slices of confinement and solitude have one benefit: they allow me time to catch up on podcasts (such as Nerdist and another one who’s name escapes me) and radio shows (Stephen Fry’s English Delight and The Infinite Monkey Cage are favorites) but the bulk of the time is taken up with audio books.

Last year I listened to over 500 hours of science fiction audio, far outstripping the number of meatspace books I read. I’ve become cognizant of two things: First, nothing breaks dramatic tension and rips you back into the real world like idiot drivers; second, much of my relationship with the story is shaped by the narrator of the audio book. Over the week or two it takes me to listen to a book I become accustomed to the style of the reader. They become a traveling companion, and a reader/listener dynamic inexorably asserts itself chapter by chapter. By the time we approach the story’s climax I find myself identifying shifts in tone or delivery as portents that things are about to happen.


When starting a new book, regardless of the author, I’m always please when I hear it is narrated by someone I’m familiar with. A lot of that dynamic gets established early. You know where you stand with a familiar voice. I recently “reread” Gather, Darkness by Fritz Leiber and was happy it was read by Stephan Rudnicki, who is a veteran of SF/F. Upon hearing Christopher Lane’s voice begin John Scalzi’s The God Engines I immediately felt the advent of a shadowy dread. The familiar voice of a seasoned narrator lays a dramatic groundwork from the onset.

I’ve become a big fan of John Lee. He’s done a lot of SF audio books, narrating all of Peter F Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga (Pandora’s Star, Judas Unchained, and The Void Trilogy) as well as the entire Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds. Listening to Lee perform these series adds a greater degree of continuity to them. And I use the word “perform’ deliberately. Lee gives excellent voice to the varied characters. He doesn’t do character voices as much as modulate his inflection. It is subtle, but enough to give Paula Myo the steely resolve of a moral absolutist, or infuse Gore Burnelli with an air of deserved arrogance. This is a tough feat to execute in a book series with so many characters. Add to that SF and fantasy’s penchant for alien language and technical jargon, and the challenges a narrator faces can get daunting.

There are a plenitude of standout examples: Cassandra Campbell’s reading of Beggars in Spain; Dan John Miller doing Hull Zero Three; Anna Field’s amazing work on books by Kate Wilhelm and Catherine Asaro; Too many to count by George Guidall, Jennifer Van Dyck, and Kevin Pariseau.

Pacing is vital. A good narrator knows when to speed up the delivery during action sequences, or draw out tension by slowing down. At times the audio book becomes a perfectly forged delivery system for storytelling. Once in a while, when the drama and the gravity are just right, the narrator becomes transparent, and it can feel like the action is being fed directly into the brain. Time and perception skew as I pass through a critical sequence in the book, and once it passes I become aware that I’ve traveled several miles without realizing it. There are also these weird meta-moments where a powerful line of dialog lands with the full weight of being uttered by a beloved character, a talented author, and an artful narrator simultaneously. It can be chilling.

These qualities come with a price. The best way I can describe it is that the narrator, in a sense, takes the story away from you. I recently finished listening to the new audio book of Reynolds’ The Prefect. I found myself alternating between the audio book while driving and the hardcover when sitting at home. More and more I heard John Lee’s voice telling the story as I read the text. Personal interpretation was diminished. In the hands of a lesser narrator this would bother me more, but in reality it is no more intrusive then my hearing Jeremy Brett’s voice when reading a Sherlock Holmes story.

This doesn’t imply a lack of parity between audio books and print. A good example is Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys. Listening to Lenny Henry’s spectacular narration is a wholly different experience than reading it. Not better or worse, just different. Similarly, John Polk’s rendition of Greg Egan’s Diaspora reins the mind-bending abstract-heavy concepts into a tight narrative equally enjoyable to the novel.

It is in this regard that the audio book narrator has parallels to the cover artist. When I reread a Conan novel, I see Frazetta paintings acting out the action. Many space operas trigger images of colossal Stephan Martinere starships plying the void. We become conditioned to take mental shortcuts translating printed characters into breathtaking visuals. Exposure to the honed skills of a good narrator gives the mind a good mechanism to process the words when reading them on the page. In this regard the narrator is the tool of the author.

Your mileage, quite literally, may vary. I am “fortunate” that I can listen to audio books for over two hours a day. The twenty minute commute to my previous job made sticking with a story much harder than it is now.

The impact of a well-crafted audio book became apparent to me the summer I listened to The Terror by Dan Simmons, narrated by Simon Vance. The three weeks in which I listened were oppressively hot, to the point where air quality warnings were issued daily. Inversely, every icebound crew member aboard the ill-fated Franklin expedition endured bitter cold, a fact Simmons never let the reader forget, and which Vance adroitly conveyed. Each day, by the time I arrived at work or home, I felt frozen and numb. Opening the car door into the blistering heat and humidity was a brutal transition between realities, causing me to pause and catch my breath. As much as I cherish the act of reading, I’ve never experienced the depth of immersion into the setting of a story so compelling that leaving it caused a physical reaction. An audio book, in the hands of a good narrator, can be that potent of a force.

Filed under: Books

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