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REVIEW: Mini-Masterpieces of Science Fiction edited by Allan Kaster

REVIEW SUMMARY: A short fiction reader experiences his first audio anthology.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 9 audio versions of short stories.

PROS: All the stories are good; 4 of them are superb.
CONS: Narration sometimes took me out of the story.
BOTTOM LINE: An enjoyable experience…and the audio format meant squeezing in some fiction when I was otherwise unable to.

Mini-Masterpieces of SF, edited by Allan Kaster, is an audio collection of short science fiction that occupies 228 minutes on 3 audio CDs. This was my first experience with audiobooks, and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but overall I was very pleased.

First, a word about the content which is, after all, what it’s all about. The stories chosen were quite good. I had already read many of them before (and liked them). If these stories were in another written anthology or collection, I would have skipped them entirely, but seeing as how I was looking for the audiobook experience, I gave these stories another go. There’s not one bad story to be found here, though some fared better than others. Out of nine stories, four of them were outstanding. That’s a pretty high hit rate, almost as if the editor’s tastes are keenly in tune with my own; a rarity in any kind of publishing.

About the readings themselves: Both narrators (Vanessa Hart and Tom Dheere) did wonderful jobs overall reading the stories. All deliveries were clear and easy to understand. However, there were some inconsistencies. Each reading seemed to alternate between a normal reading of the material and a dramatization of it. In some stories, a natural reading voice was used for dialogue, and sometimes accents and inflections were used. Speed of delivery within single stories seemed to vary as well. Understandably, there is a limited amount of time that can be devoted to each story, but the pacing could have been more even. Occurring less often, some elements of the readings were somewhat over-dramatized with long pauses that somehow felt too dramatic. But again, I’m new to the form, and overall this was an enjoyable experience.

About the format itself: As life seems to get more and more busy, it was nice to be able to listed to some fiction on the way to/from work. The stories happened to fit nicely between one round trip, allowing for a new story each day. Although I didn’t really have the need to, there is also a certain convenience in having the ability to move them to an MP3 player and take with you. I’m not saying I’m a convert, by any means, but I did like the experience of listening of listening to short science fiction.

Individual story reviews follow:

[The following story was originally reviewed in The Year’s Best Science Fiction #24 edited by Gardner Dozois]

In “Far as You Can Go” by Greg van Eekhout, a man and his robot leave their impoverished town in search of the sea. What’s interesting about this story is that the vague explanations of the world matter little to the importance of the journey. What happened that Ex-Town seems almost post-apocalyptic; where scrounging for food is done through judicious bartering; where street savvy is needed to survive; where there are dangers like spiked drones, road witches and the un-described “dust girls”? How is it that a seemingly modern city exists not too far from Ex-Town? Although these answers sound like they could easily offer more world-building sensawunda, they ultimately do not matter. The uneducated narrator thinks he is independent, but it is the robot named Beeman who pushed him to journey forth, away from the decaying city and his almost-indigent mother. And it is his friendship and their journey that matters most. Great stuff.

[The following story was originally reviewed in Fast Forward 1 edited by Lou Anders.]

In Elizabeth Bear’s “The Something-Dreaming Game,” a ten-year-old girl with a quantum chip in her brain communicates with an alien when she auto-asphyxiates. As a parent, the situation described in this story was both powerful and gut-wrenching. As a science fiction fan, the once-simple idea of being the only hope for any alien race is made more urgent by the circumstances surrounding the communication. Well done.

Carol Emshwiller’s “Grandma” is about a girl’s relationship with her superhero grandmother. The grandmother is aging now, having lived longer than most people, and was quite a hero in her day. It may seem like a shaky topic for a serious story, but Emshwiller pulls it off beautifully with a story that is both touching and bittersweet.

[The following story was originally reviewed in The Year’s Best Science Fiction #20 edited by Gardner Dozois.]

In “Lambing Season” by Molly Gloss, a woman shepherd investigates a mysterious light that falls from the nighttime sky. She soon develops an unspoken understanding with a dog-like alien. The one was slow-moving, but interesting nonetheless.

[The following story was originally reviewed in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction edited by George Mann.]

In “Last Contact” by Stephen Baxter, an astrophysicist and her mother wait for the end of the world. Pensive, creepy, frightening and sad are all words could be use to describe this well-written story. Caitlin is the astrophysicist who blames herself for the impending “Rip” that threatens the Earth, even though she was just the one to discover it. Maureen is her recently widowed mother who is partially coping by pretending life will go on, even though she’s fully aware that this is the end. Knowing exactly when it is going to happen and being completely helpless about it throws a beautifully gloomy shadow over the story. Seeing society’s behavior, which ranges from sheer panic to quiescence, is downright creepy. Well done.

Joe Haldeman’s “None So Blind” is the story of super genius Cletus and his true love, Amy, a blind musical virtuoso. What starts out simply enough (boy meets girl and falls in love) eventually turns to obsession when Cletus discovers that the brain’s visual cortex processing can be subverted into more worthy results. His obsession soon leads to some rather bizarre undertakings and, eventually, to radical social change. This is an interesting premise and the author’s narration makes it sound more like a conversation than anything else, except during some brief periods of infodumping that are probably more than was required.

[The following story was originally reviewed as part of my 2007 Hugo Award Short Fiction Nominees reading project. Bonus: Listen for free!]

Bruce McAllister’s “Kin” takes place in an overpopulated future, where a 12-year-old boy named Kim wants an alien assassin to prevent the government-sanctioned abortion of his unborn sister by killing the pencil-pusher assigned to initiate it. An interesting premise in an interesting future. In the absence of suitable payment, the threat of the pending abortion forces Kim to learn alien customs in hopes of convincing the Antalou assassin to help him. Although overpopulation is an old sf trope (see Make Room! Make Room! By Harry Harrison, to whom this story is dedicated, or John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar), the idea of population control is still a workable theme that provides sufficient controversy and drama. This story deftly handles that controversy without preaching.

Paul J. McAuley’s Gene Warsoffers a series of glimpses in the life of Evan, an inquisitive genius whose desire to tinker with genetics leads to some corporate espionage. To be sure, genetic engineering is a juicy sf-nal topic, but what’s really cool about this story is how the author shows the lifespan of the technology and it’s implications on society; things like gene pirates, longevity, and posthumanism.

[The following story was originally reviewed in Year’s Best SF 11 edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer.]

In “Bright Red Star” by Bud Sparhawk, amidst a war with the ferocious, unseen aliens known as the Shardies, a group of soldiers must deal with a small group of people who refuse to leave their planet before the Shardies show up to harvest them. Nice, tightly-delivered and emotional military sf story that expertly shows the harshness of this bleak future. The story’s intro notes that Sparhawk wrote this in response to the tragic events of 9/11 and the parallels are easy to see; but that transparency gives it no less impact. Great stuff.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

2 Comments on REVIEW: Mini-Masterpieces of Science Fiction edited by Allan Kaster

  1. SF Fangirl // August 26, 2008 at 1:15 am //

    I starting to love audio stories.  My favorite source is EscapePod (which I found through SFSignal).  I download them to my mp3 player and listen while working out (as long as I am not working out too hard).  Somtimes I’m more excited about the story I get to listen to than the workout itself.  The stories provide immediate satisfaction.  The workout – not so much.


    I’ve never been able to make it through an entire novel on audio but I love listening to short fiction.

    Audio is definitely a different experience. I was never a fan of H.P. Lovecraft in print but I’ve enjoyed all the short stories I’ve listened to. What’s the difference between reading Lovecraft and listening to Lovecraft? I haven’t figured it out entirely yet but part of it the lack of dialogue. Lovecraft’s lack of dialogue bothers me in print but it may be an advantage on audio. That probably explains why I listen to so many nonfiction books on audio.

    Part of the problem I have with audio fiction is the reading of dialogue. Some narrators are too dry and monotone. Some act as if they are reading for a high school play. It’s rare to find a narrator who does it right.

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